25 March 2020

Tim Adler: ‘The great thing about being a novelist is that it’s a form of self-therapy’

Tim Adler, author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students

Tim Adler worked on his crime thriller Dead Already with us on our London-based novel-writing course. Dead Already is set to be published this June by the independent crime and horror publishing house Caffeine Nights.

We found out more about Tim’s time on the course and his approach to crime writing …

You were a student on our London novel-writing course in 2018 – how did your time on the course impact your approach to novel writing?

First, the excellence of the teachers, especially Chris Wakling, Simon Wroe and Erin Kelly, who has continued to be a great support. Simon in particular gave me a whole new way to think about a scene using each of my senses, which has been so helpful. Because I’d had three nonfiction books published already, I came to the course with a bit of, um, uppitiness and presumption. But the best thing about the six-month course was having your work critiqued each week by your fellow students. At first, we were all being very polite and damning with faint praise and by the end we were all much more forthright. That’s something we’ve continued with the hardcore left continuing to meet each month to give each other feedback.

The novel that you worked on during the course Dead Already is set to be published by Caffeine Nights. What was the first thing you did when you found out about this book deal?

Told my fellow Curtis Brown Creative students that I’d landed a book deal, of course. Actually, this was the second book deal which somebody in our group had landed. Penguin will publish my fellow student James Bailey’s romantic comedy The Flip Side in August.

Dead Already is a thriller set in Margate, about a man who starts receiving messages from his daughter, who was kidnapped and murdered years earlier. Can you tell us a bit more about the novel and the inspiration behind it?

The great thing about being a novelist is that it’s a form of self-therapy. With each book, the problem you’re trying to solve keeps changing. A good question to ask if you’re a thriller writer is, ‘What is my deepest fear?’ At the time I started Dead Already, my sons were teenagers and going through that rebellious phase, so the question I was asking was, ‘Is a parent always responsible for a child?’

Dead Already is about an old East End villain who wakes up in hospital and the first thing he sees is a get-well card from his daughter … the only problem is that his daughter died 28 years ago.

My protagonist Mickey is a man out of time. Living in the East End, I can see how much it’s changed since the bad old days of the Kray Twins. Mickey’s living in a world he really doesn’t understand anymore … and I thought that teaming him up with a young American and very woke therapist to search for his supposedly dead daughter was an interesting tension. And the old bank robber saddling up for One Last Job is a genre staple — except you can’t rob a bank by sticking gelignite in a safe today. The world has changed. 

What advice would you give to aspiring crime and thriller authors?

I was tempted to say something facetious, like ‘learn to type’ (actually, when I worked for the Daily Telegraph, I was amazed at how few of the journalists could actually touch type. Most of them still used hunt ‘n’ peck. I mean, if you’re a pianist, you’d learn the piano, right?).

My piece of advice would be to think hard about your pitch, which is what sells the book. The pitch for Dead Already is, ‘What if someone you accidentally killed came back to haunt you?’ The pitch has to have what I can only describe as ‘irony’. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a thriller or a comedy. So, ‘A man who’s terrified of water has to slay the biggest monster in the ocean’ (Jaws) or ‘Two theatrical impresarios have to put on the worst play in the world – only it turns into a massive Broadway hit’ (The Producers). And this pitch is like the tip of a spear that the rest of the javelin of the novel has to follow.

Do you have any writing routines or rituals?

Like most authors, I have a full-time job, so I have to write in the edges of my life. I get up early and try to do an hour in the morning before I go to work. I don’t get stage fright – all I need is a cup of coffee and I am writing within ten minutes of waking up.

Because I have a demanding job, I like to outline heavily, which can take months – I don’t have time to be a ‘discovery writer’. In any case, writing a synopsis is the easy part. It’s the line-by-line writing that’s agonising.

And because I am not under contract, I can take as long as I like writing each book, so I don’t set myself word counts. Sometimes dispiritingly I have only written twenty new words after an entire hour.

I write using an app called Scrivener, which is so much better than Word. And if I’m feeling stuck, I use what’s called the pomodoro technique and set a timer for twenty-five minutes during which time I can only stare at the blinking cursor – no email, no looking up something on Wikipedia in the name of *cough* research.

Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?

Another plus of Curtis Brown Creative is that once you’ve finished the basic course, you can carry on working with a mentor one-on-one. Crime novelist William Shaw, whose book A Book of Scars was named as one of the Times’ 100 best crime novels and thrillers since 1945, is mentoring me on my new project, a psychological thriller told from the point of view of two different women.

It’s kind of the classic French movie Les Diaboliques meets Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough.

“A woman is arrested for the murder of her abusive husband. Only his body has been found one hundred miles away from where she helped bury it.”

Although I am thrilled to be published by Caffeine Nights, one of the best independent crime imprints in Britain, it’s only a one-book deal. My dream is still to see a poster for one of my books on the tube, get on the Sunday Times bestseller list, and, of course, see one of my thrillers adapted for telly.

If you want to work on your novel with like-minded writers and publishing professionals, take a look at our three-month novel-writing courses, currently open for applications – study online with Suzannah Dunn (hurry, applications close Sunday 29 March) or in London with Charlotte Mendelson

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