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Crime. Crime Writers. Crime Writing

How I Write by Lucy Clarke

This Interview posted by Sam Blake on 19 April 2014.

Last year I spoke to Lucy Clarke about her debut novel The Sea Sisters, a book that hit the ground running with multiple foreign rights sales as well as becoming a Richard & Judy Book Club Choice. You can read the interview here. It’s not exactly crime, but The Sea Sisters is full of suspense and there is a core mystery which kept me hooked and unable to put the book down.

With the publication of  her new book A Single Breath, asked Lucy to reveal more about her writing process, which is quite original and quite brilliant in its layered approach to developing story. She said, “Every author approaches writing a novel differently. Some love to plan every chapter before putting pen to paper, others like to let the story reveal itself page by page. For better or for worse, here’s how I like to do things . . .



Usually I begin with a simple premise – a hook, if you will – which I then thicken into the bones of a plot. I do this by splitting the story into three ‘acts’: the beginning, the middle and the end, and then plotting the key events that will take place within each of these acts. Even though there will be holes in the plot at this early stage, it’s important to me that I know roughly what will happen at the end of the novel before I begin writing. That’s not to say the actual ending ever looks anything like my planned one – but at least it helps give me direction as I write.

Character biographies

The next thing I do is create biographies for each of my main characters. These are usually three or four pages long, and consist of a loose timeline of the characters’ lives up until the point at which they step into my novel. I like to know the small, but important details of their lives, such as where they grew up, what their family situation was like, what key events have shaped them into becoming the person we meet in the novel.

Mood boards

Once I know what my story is going to be about, who is going to be in it, and I’ve done some initial research (usually by travelling to the place where the novel is set), I then need to transport the feeling of the place and the story into my writing room back home. I do this by creating mood boards; mine are filled with a selection of photos, maps, artwork, fabrics and images, which help me feel the atmosphere of the novel. My current mood board includes a little handwritten note that reads, ‘Write the type of book that I want to read.’ It’s a bit of a mantra for me – and helps me stay true to my writing voice!


The first draft

I ‘free write’ the first draft, which to me means writing it in one big gulp without looking back. This draft is always very short – perhaps only 30,000 words, and will usually take me less than a month to write. Although the quality of what I produce at this stage is truly terrible(!), it helps me develop the voice of my characters and gives me a taste as to whether the story structure will work.


After that I build upon this first draft – expanding and layering it. My second draft might be 40,000 words, my third draft 50,000 words, etc. I’ll often write seven or eight drafts before I have something I’d be happy to show my publisher (which is usually between 90,000-100,000 words). With each draft I tend to have a particular focus that I’ll scrawl across the top of the manuscript. It could be: pace and structure, or character voice, or vivid setting details. It helps remind which key element of the novel I want to focus on improving.


Once I have a full draft ready, I then send it out to a small group of friends before giving it to my editor. I try and find five or six people to read it at the same time, so that I can gather all of their feedback and then see if there are common threads in what readers are saying. Once I’ve received the feedback and made some adjustments – that’s when I send the revised draft onto my editor ready to hear her thoughts.


Annotate as you read

Something that I find very helpful – no matter what stage of writing a novel I’m at – is annotating whichever book I’m currently reading. I try and think analytically as to why a particular scene was so powerful (or, conversely, why a scene didn’t work). I’ll consider the structure of the novel, or the point of view the author has chosen to tell the story from. Once you begin deconstructing other novels – it helps you develop the tools to construct your own. If you nipped over to my house to borrow a book, you’d find every single one of them covered in my writing! (No Kindles for me!)

The senses

When I’m struggling to bring a descriptive piece to life, I draw a five point star in the margin of my manuscript and write around it the five senses: sight, sound, smell, touch, taste. Stale descriptions can often be due to relying too heavily on sight alone.

Writing to music

I love to write to music. I use Spotify, so I can adapt different playlists for different emotions that I’m trying to tap into. With my first novel, The Sea Sisters, the novel was told from the point of view of two sisters, so I picked an album that I felt reflected each of the sisters’ personalities. When I played each of these two albums, it helped me switch more fluidly between their voices.


I only have one rule when I’m writing: get outside every day – usually for a walk or a run, or if the weather is warm it could be a sea swim or paddleboard. It helps me return to my desk feeling refreshed, energized and ready to crack on with my word count. Scientists believe that exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain and thus more critical oxygen reaches the muscle, and I’d have to agree that I’m more alert and creative after exercising.

(c) Lucy Lucy Clarke is the author of A SINGLE BREATH, published by HarperCollins in March 2014. Her debut novel, THE SEA SISTERS, was a Richard & Judy Summer Book Club pick in 2013. To find out more about Lucy, please join her over at or on Twitter @lucyclarkebooks.