Why – as I was confessing – do I feel the need for a synopsis before I set out? The same reason that, before I set out for somewhere new in the car, I pore over an atlas rather than rely on Sat Nav or hunch. It goes right back to those early days when I thought I was trying to get published but was actually learning what it takes to be a writer.
You see, my first published book, Underground, was actually my second completed novel. Like many writers, I had a great unpublished first (not so great, in retrospect: I wouldn’t want it published now). That unseen first had been more carefully plotted than anything I’ve written since – and it must have showed: compared to Underground or any of my other books, it was stilted. While it meandered along between publishers picking up kind but firm rejection notices, I spent my next year writing Underground. This time I wrote entirely for my own pleasure – a better recipe, had I known it, for success. Patricia Highsmith once said, ‘The first person you should think of pleasing in writing a book is yourself. If you can amuse yourself for the length of time it takes to write a book, the publishers can and will come later.’ She’s optimistic but broadly right: the first publisher to see my Underground (Gollancz) bought it immediately.
I tried the same technique with my second, Daylight, (Gollancz again) – but this was a different kind of novel. Underground was a ‘what’s going on?’ novel, where you knew exactly what was in the first person narrator’s head, but you had to stay with him to find what he was doing, why, and whether he’d get away with it. The puzzle worked well; the reader didn’t know what the hero was up to – because initially, neither did the author! Only in the last quarter of the story did I realise what he was after and where he would have to go to find it. Only then did I find the book’s title. (He was from the terrorist underground, he’d been hiding underground in London, he travelled everywhere by underground and his quarry was buried underground.)
Daylight was a very different story, a scam in which much of the fun revolved around the frequently changing locations of a Raphael masterpiece and its near-worthless copy. Working without a route map sent me down alleys that led nowhere and landed me in plot situations that simply couldn’t work. When Gollancz wanted revisions the tangle got worse; at eleven o’clock one night when the revisions were finally complete, I had a call from my copy editor: “You remember when he’s standing at that bus-stop on Nevsky Prospekt? But if that was at ten o’clock, then he couldn’t have also been in the . . . “
Back to the drawing board. The frantic rewritings, the discarded chapters, the sheer waste of effort and lost scenes, all conspired to mean that ever since, I have been as I am now: a follower of Linus, clutching my comfort blanket.