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Write Now with Scrivener, Episode no. 27: S J Watson, Thriller Novelist

S J Watson, author of the hugely popular Before I Go to Sleep, is starting a new project called The Experiment, where he shows readers his first drafts.

S J Watson, author of the hugely popular Before I Go to Sleep, is starting a new project called The Experiment. He will write a novel, showing readers his first drafts as he progresses, and inviting readers to suggest how the novel is to proceed.

Show notes:

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S J Watson’s first novel, Before I Go to Sleep sold more than six million copies, and was made into a major motion picture staring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. He has recently embarked on a new project, The Experiment, where he bares all. “Join me as I write the first draft of a novel, from scratch, in real time and with input from you, the reader.”

I started by asking how it felt to be struck by lightning, having such a huge success with his first novel. He said, “It was amazing. It was surreal. I completely understand that take, of it being like I won the lottery. It’s not winning the lottery; I put a lot of work into the book, but still, there’s an element of luck. Things have to line up. I knew I was onto something good, I knew I was writing better than I ever had before. And I think I knew that this was my best shot at being published. I was hopeful that I might be able to walk into a bookstore and see my book on a shelf. But the thought of it being in the charts at number one, on that shelf, were not even in my head. And certainly I never even considered that I might one day be sat opposite Nicole Kidman at a film premiere.”

Watson had been working as an audiologist, and his career changed overnight. “It was a very sudden and very complete change in my life, financially, certainly, and in terms of my day job, or suddenly my hobby, or vice versa, whichever way you want to think about it. And that was probably the most difficult thing to negotiate, because I had no experience of that. I was used to the writing being an escape from the stresses of work and from the stresses of life. And then, suddenly, that wasn’t the case anymore. It’s a wonderful thing. You know that cliché about if you do a job you love, you never really work another day in your life? I haven’t dreaded a Monday morning in over 10 years now, which is great. But it does mean I had to find inner resources to manage my own time. Suddenly, I had deadlines, and I had agents and editors, and it was no longer just a happy hobby that I escaped to regularly.”

Watson had been writing for a long time, and he decided that he needed to learn more about the skills of writing, so signed up for a course with the Faber Academy in London. In addition to teaching him about structure and deadlines, “I’d sort of found my tribe. This was the first time I was surrounded by people who felt as passionately about writing and about words and about stories that I did. I learned probably as much in the pub after the sessions as I did during the sessions themselves, because we just chatted work and we chatted characters and we became very close, very quickly, because we shared so much.”

With The Experiment, Watson is inviting everyone to participate in writing a novel, but he is also showing how the sausage is made, what the very first draft looks like. “There’s a David Bowie quote, which I’m paraphrasing, that says ‘in order to do good creative work, you need to be a little bit out of your depth.’ That’s the place to do something really interesting, when you’re a little bit scared. I learned to write a novel, but the next novel, there’s just as much fear that it’s not going to work or that it’s all going to fall apart in my hands. What I wanted to do with The Experiment is demonstrate that by sharing the process, by sharing the draft. I’m writing a draft zero. I call it draft zero, because I always say to people that this is the draft that you should write, knowing that no one’s ever going to see it.”

In showing the process, Watson is trying to help people understand that works like this don’t arise fully formed, that they require a lot of work. “The Experiment is my way of saying, look at my first draft, it’s rubbish. Hopefully not too bad, but I want to show that just because someone has had a global bestseller and sold however many properties and had a film made, it doesn’t mean that I just sit down and perfect prose flows effortlessly from my fingertips whilst I’m being fed grapes, unfortunately.”

Watson has been using Scrivener since he wrote his first novel, “which was unpublishable rubbish.” He said that, “when friends tell me they write straight into Word, I always look at them and think ‘why would you do that’? He appreciates the fact that ”literally everything to do with the novel is in one file. I haven’t got to think, ‘Okay, where did I save that?’ It’s all in one place, including all the drafts as well, so you don’t have to hunt around your hard drive finding that great idea that you had."

Watson is also interested in photography, because, “It’s quite important to have a creative outlet that isn’t your day job.” He likes street photography, which is “pounding the streets looking for interesting things and people to take photographs of. When I started, it felt just like a hobby, but what I did find is that it feeds into the writing. Then I spent a bit of time thinking about that, and I realized it’s because they’re both narrative. With writing, I’m using a story to create images. With photography, I’m using images to try to tell a story. They feed into each other in a way I wasn’t expecting, which I do find very helpful.”

Kirk McElhearn is a writer, podcaster, and photographer. He is the author of Take Control of Scrivener, and host of the podcast Write Now with Scrivener.

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