When Paul Burston joined us at Words Away to discuss Writing Psychological Thrillers we found the Tea House Theatre Cafe surrounded by Extinction Rebellion protesters and almost as many police officers. The protesters had been moved on from Leister Square to establish a tent city outside the Teahouse Theatre complete with a kitchen and a bank of portaloos. The Pleasure Gardens were so transformed that my co-host, crime-writer Caroline Green, temporarily lost her bearings on route. Paul, like a true crime writer, said it had crossed his mind that the portaloos would make the perfect setting for a murder…I’m fairly sure he was joking.
Paul has a background in journalism and is the critically acclaimed author of six novels and editor of two short story collections. He’s also the curator and host of the successful LGBT+ Literary Salon Polari, at The South Bank, where he champions both debut and established fiction writers. His most recent novel, the psychological thriller The Closer I Get, was published last July.
We asked Paul to distinguish the difference between broader crime fiction and the psychological thriller. The latter, he said, tends to be about ordinary people in extraordinary situations and is usually told from the point of view of the victim/target of the crime rather than a detective or a procedural point of view. Paul writes stand alone stories about different characters. He’s interested in what’s going on in a person’s head, i.e. their interior life, rather than what happens to them physically. He rejects the idea, often promoted in publishing, that characters have to be “likeable”. Paul’s goal is to make his characters “relatable” while exploring the “what if” question? It’s ingrained in crime writers to look for the dark corners of human nature. People are complex and very few of us are entirely good or bad. Paul places his characters in particular circumstances and allows the story to develop as he writes. This leaves room to surprise himself as a writer and hopefully the reader too.
We were intrigued by Paul’s writing trajectory. He’d written four romantic comedies novels when in 2009 following the economic crash he, like so many others, was dropped by his publisher. This triggered a change of direction for his career resulting in the publication of two thrillers, The Black Path followed by The Closer I Get.
The Closer I Get tells the story of a male author stalked online by a woman and the subsequent aftermath following her conviction for harassment. It’s draws on Paul’s own life experience, while it was a deeply upsetting period, he emphasised that the novel was a fictional response, speculating on what might have happened had the harassment not stopped. He took care to fictionalise every detail which may have identified the real life stalker in any way. “There’s a point at which you have to let go of the source material because character is different to that person.” He also interviewed other men and women who’d been victims of stalking and found huge commonality in what everyone said. He used some of the more idiosyncratic experiences to make the story fresh and original.
Paul worked hard to find empathy with the unreliable narrator Evie (the stalker character) in order to make the character sympathetic to a degree. The structure of the novel evolved from there. Paul started with Evie’s voice which seem to take him where it wanted to go. By contrast the other significant character, Tom the author, was kept in the shadows and only seen through other people’s eyes. Tom’s character is revealed layer by layer as the narrative progresses until the reader sees the truth. This was a deliberate strategy - it leaves room for the reader to join the dots - even when it might prove to be misdirection. Paul says he takes great pleasure as a writer in giving the reader different versions of the truth - “if indeed everyone is telling the truth!”
Crime fiction relies heavily on tension and pace. Paul’s learnt to get the first draft down so as to not lose momentum. He makes notes as he goes along so that he doesn’t get bogged down. “Keep going and don’t look back - keeping the bigger picture in mind is more important at this stage.”
Paul belongs to a writing group and gets feedback as he goes along. Writing is rewriting! During subsequent drafts Paul thinks about what the reader’s expectations might be and tries to second guess them. “Start the scene late and leave early. Jump in without preamble and then leave where there’s an element of tension or a question at the end.” If you’ve written yourself into a corner always ask yourself if the scene concerned is A) moving the plot forward B) revealing anything about this character. If the answer is no then the scene goes. The ending needs to be surprising. The twist needs to be emotionally truthful to deliver that recognisable “ah!” moment.
While many of us can try to self-edit, once the book is nearly there, the role of an editor can’t be emphasised enough. It’s vital to trust your editor - it needs to be somebody who’s has empathy and understands what you’re doing. You may be able to see some of the glaring changes that need to be made but there’s always your “precious darlings” that are hard to let go of.
Paul mentioned Stephen King’s penchant for using place to represent more than just a physical location (e.g. Salem’s Lot). Paul borrowed this technique for his last two novels. Place can become a character in the book too - a tale of two towns as it were, revealing social tensions and conflicts. By removing a character from his/her familiar surroundings you can show the reader another side to that character’s personality.
It’s always interesting to hear about a writer’s routine. Paul stressed the importance of organising your time as a writer. Somehow, he said, having too much time at your disposal can mean you are less productive. Fit your writing into blocks of time. Discipline yourself to focus and make those hours matter. Try writing early in the morning. Perhaps stay with a friend to write or go away to a retreat. Make an effort to stay present in your emotional life too - you need interaction with people. Writing a novel, he said, feels like going up a hill before going down the other side. When you know where you’re coming from you start to speed up as you rush to the bottom. At the beginning you can’t see because the hill is in the way!
We talked about the changing and challenging nature of the publishing industry and how it’s not good idea to try and write for the market. Love your book first and foremost. Perhaps think about how your book might be positioned in the market but if you don’t write something you love people are going to see it. It’s an isolating job so make sure you seek out peer support and friends in the writing community. If you’re not sure where to start join us for one of our salons at Words Away or Paul’s Polari events!
With big thanks to Paul for sharing his process and writerly insight and to Caroline for her expertise. Big thanks also to our audience for their input and making it a great conversation.
On Monday 4th November I’m looking forward to talking Being Edited and Being Published: everything a writer needs to know with publisher Richard Beswick of Little, Brown/Abicus. Emma will be back to co-host too. If you’re in need of some inspiration we still have a couple of places available for Creating a Scene: a masterclass with Alice Jolly which includes a Q&A with Unbounder co-founder John Mitchinson (on Saturday 30th November at The London Bridge Hive).
Hope to see you soon!
Paul Burston, Polari Salon, Polari Book Prize, Caroline Green, Patricia Highsmith, Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, Nightmares, flashbacks and constant fear: how a stalker brought me to my wits’ end: Paul Burston for The Guardian, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, How David Bowie Used William S. Burroughs’ Cut-Up Method to Write His Unforgettable Lyrics by Colin Marshall, Extinction Rebellion Protest in London