Thursday 13 June 2024

The Wrong Child and the Writer's Room

Writing is a lonely business. Despite feverish bouts of activity during literary festivals and inspiring one-to-one chats with readers at bookshop events, novel writing is essentially a solitary pursuit, the writer spending endless hours alone wrestling with the rigours of plot, character, theme and pay-off. But what if it wasn’t? What if you could lighten the load and banish the loneliness by teaming up with another writer, sharing and exploring all the major decisions about your new story together? Why not draw on the experience, inspiration and narrative nous of a pair of writers, fulfilling the maxim that two heads are better than one?

That was the thinking behind a major new Writers Room style initiative dreamt up by myself and publisher Sam Eades at Orion Fiction, which will see five co-written novels released over the next eighteen months, the first of which – The Wrong Child  - has just launched on Kindle, Amazon and in Waterstones. The genesis of the project was simple. We would take the kernel of an idea I’d had, then find an inspirational, story-savvy crime writer to climb inside it, then watch it blossom into something new and surprising. It was risky for sure – what if we didn’t get on, what if the ideas didn’t “take” – but the results have been exhilarating. Three novels are already in the bag, two more are on the way, and The Wrong Child, co-written with the amazing Julia Crouch, is already getting rave reviews on Good Reads, Amazon and beyond.

So why did we decide to do embark on this co-writing experiment? Partly it was to vanquish a common writer’s fear that good ideas will simply wither and die if left untouched and ignored in our computer files. But it was also a chance for me to explore new and exciting genres. I’m principally known for the DI Helen Grace series and for high concept, serial killer thrillers in general. The Writers Room initiative allowed me to explore unfamiliar worlds, taking bold steps into domestic noir, suburban suspense, twisty procedurals and nail-biting abduction thrillers. There is truly something for everyone in this collection of compelling, innovative mysteries and I loved exploring new worlds, new characters and new approaches to story-telling.

Once we’d decided on our top five ideas, our first job was to identify our crack team of co-writers. Aided by Leodora Darlington at Orion, we set about our task in earnest, spending many happy hours reading the very best of modern crime fiction. Before long, we had our five authors. Julia Crouch, the queen of domestic noir, Steph Broadribb, ex-bounty hunter and international best-seller, Andy Maslen, the prolific, hugely popular creator of the Gabriel Wolfe series, Lisa Hall, the undisputed master of jaw-dropping psychological thrillers and Alex Khan, a nailed-on star of the future, whose DS Mumtaz Ali thrillers had me teetering on the edge of my seat.

So how would this collaboration work? Friends and colleagues were immediately curious. Who would shape the story? Who would create the characters? Would we write one chapter each, firing them back and forth to each other in a blizzard of bodies, betrayals and bloodshed? Drawing on my background in television, I took on the role of producer and show runner, locking myself in a room with my fellow collaborators for an extended bout of “story bashing”, to use the official TV term. Hunkered down in the basement of Carmelite House, Orion’s HQ on the Thames, we set off on a gruelling but exhilarating series of one-to-one ideas sessions, during which we defined, shaped and mapped out our new novel.

The approach was similar on each, starting with a session designed to define the unique selling point of our story – the killer concept – before moving on to bespoke sessions exploring character, setting, plot and pay-off. An exhaustive – and occasionally exhausting – process for sure, but the endless pacing and “What ifs?’ allowed us to dig deeper, to go further in our pursuit of original ideas and surprising narratives. The instant response in the room – be it a big thumbs up or a quizzical “maybe” – is incredibly useful when shaping a new story, allowing you to junk unpromising notions, running instead with those angles and insights that inspire both of you. Writing is often a question of confidence and in the Writers Room a shared idea that electrifies both writers is a sure sign of good things to come.

Of course, the real benefit of co-authorship was revealed when we moved on from the planning stage to the hard graft of crafting chapters of tightly coiled prose. Time and again I was thrilled by the originality, personality, wit and personal experience that my co-writers brought to the table, taking an initial idea and bringing it to life in ways I would never – could never – have thought of. I could cite endless examples of this, but here I’d like to highlight Julia Crouch’s writing in The Wrong Child. A sinister tale of child abduction and dark family secrets, it introduces us to Sarah, a mother of three who’s struggling to bond with her new baby, following a difficult birth. Julia, with her eye for detail and trademark mordant humour, was able to capture the physical, emotional and psychological rigours of childbirth with an honesty, piquancy and wicked wit that would have been way beyond me. Happily, and appropriately, The Wrong Child is dedicated to Julia’s first grandchild, Frank, who arrived safely during the writing of the novel.

There are many more such stories I could tell, but instead I will let the new novels speak for themselves. Don’t miss out on The Wrong Child and brace yourself for Steph Broadribb’s chilling thriller, The Reunion, which will be released on September 5th 2024. Please enjoy them responsibly though, as they are seriously addictive…

 The Wrong Child by M J Arlidge and Julia Crouch (Out Now) Orion Publishing.

When 3-month-old Max is abducted, his parents are plunged into their worst nightmare. Devastated mum Sarah only took her eyes off him for a second, but that doesn't stop her guilt. Even husband Jake can't hide his anger that their little boy went missing on her watch. By contrast there are smiles and celebration at a caravan park in Lincolnshire, as baby Blaze is introduced to the Star family. Jenna and Gary are delighted with the new addition to their family. He is their fourth child and a real object of delight to their eldest - fifteen-year-old Willow - who once again will raise the child. But trouble is brewing for the Star family. Willow is concerned by the desperate online appeals from Sarah and Jake, baby Max has neonatal diabetes and without regular treatment will die. As baby "Blaze" becomes seriously ill, Willow makes a shocking discovery. What is the truth about her family? And how far will they go to hide their deadly secret?



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