Ep 237 Jane Harper’s tips on how to write a bestseller. And meet Megan Goldin, author of ‘The Escape Room’

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In Episode 237 of So you want to be a writer: Discover murder mystery author Jane Harper’s tips on how to write a bestseller. The Davitt Award long list has been announced. Learn about the new mystery writing prize from Brio. We are announcing our new online course in Content Writing and you’ll meet Megan Goldin, author of The Escape Room.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

Shoutout

BlackKnight123 from Australia:

I have been listening to Al and Val since the very first episode so I’m a veteran of the podcast. I realise when people ask questions on forums and at writers’ meetings that I’ve already heard the answers to these questions as discussed by Al and Val! It’s packed to the brim with all the latest news in the book world and lots of tips on all things writing. I recommend it to all my friends who are writing. 

Links Mentioned

Murder mystery author Jane Harper has six tips for writing a bestselling novel

Davitt Awards 2018 longlists announced

Brio announces new unpublished manuscript prize for mystery writing

The Carter Brown Mystery Writing Awards

Writer in Residence

Megan Goldin

Megan Goldin has worked as a foreign correspondent for the ABC and Reuters in Asia and the Middle East where she covered war zones and wrote about war, peace and international terrorism.

After she had her third child, she returned to her hometown of Melbourne to raise her three sons and write fiction, often while waiting for her children at their sports training sessions. The Escape Room is Megan Goldin’s second novel.

Follow Megan on Twitter

Follow Penguin on Twitter

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Competition

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Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@valeriekhoo

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Interview Transcript

Valerie

All right, so, Megan, congratulations on your latest book, The Escape Room. So for readers who haven’t the book yet, can you tell us what it’s about?

Megan

Thank you. The Escape Room is a corporate noir thriller. And it starts off in an elevator where a group of colleagues get stuck. And, without getting into too many details, because I don’t want to have any plot spoilers, during the time that they’re stuck a whole lot of secrets, they discover a whole lot of secrets about each other. And that kind of unravels a lot of acrimony between them, and the plot develops through that.

Valerie

I love it. Now, how did this idea come into your head? Were you stuck in a small space with some people at some point? Did this hit you like a bolt of lightning? Or did you kind of think, oh, I need these people to be stuck with each other. Where can I put them?

Megan

Well, I was mulling the idea for a little while and it just wouldn’t go away. Because it was a bit bizarre, to be honest. And when I told my publisher about it, I think she was kind of… There was this pregnant pause as if she was thinking, have you gone nuts or something.

So the idea came from a few things. I think it was a convergence of things. One of them was that I was stuck in an elevator, as it happens, with my son. Only for a couple of minutes. But it was pitch black and anyone who has been stuck in an elevator knows that your heart starts thumping. It’s actually a terrifying experience. And you start panicking and then you start thinking, well, what happens if nobody… If I can’t get out? What do I do?

And so I’d kind of been through that experience. So I had that.

And I was very interested in a lot of themes to do with the way that colleagues work together. Colleagues work as collaborators, but they’re also very much rivals in companies. And I thought it would be just really interesting putting colleagues in a stuck elevator and seeing what happens to them psychologically.

And I’d done a fair bit of research about the psychology of elevators, which in and of itself is fascinating. About where people stand in elevators, and where they look. It’s just a fascinating area. I’ve always been interested in that for some bizarre reason.

So somehow that was kind of my starting point and then this plot emerged I think mostly while I was writing it, really.

Valerie

So, hang on, you’ve done a lot of research on the psychology of elevators? Was this even before this book was a seed in your brain? You just happen to be fascinated with elevators?

Megan

Yeah. I think like a lot of writers I’m a people watcher. And if you ever go in an elevator, it’s fascinating. The way people stand and where they look. They’ll often look at their feet, or they’ll look at the dial up above the doors to see what floor they’re coming on. And how they stand.

There was actually a study that was done, I think in the 70s, where they had a guy, just a random stranger, who walked into an elevator, and the people standing there stood facing the back of the elevator. And then they filmed – what does he do? What does he do once he walks into the elevator? Does he turn and face the doors? Or does he copy everyone else? It’s really interesting.

So yeah, I know it sounds strange. But anyway, I’ve long been interested in just how people react around each other. Just in terms of, I guess, as a people watcher, as somebody who’s always noticed the psychology of the way people behave towards each other when they are in close proximity.

And an elevator is a very false kind of place to be. Because you’re pushing people in an enclosed space. It’s against all of our natural instincts to be stuck together in an enclosed place that we can’t get out of and that lifts us up hundreds of feet, potentially, above the ground. It’s actually a bizarre scenario.

Valerie

Okay. I love the term ‘corporate noir’. I think that that’s awesome. And I think that it’s interesting that you wanted to explore themes of colleagues who work together. Where did that interest come from?

Megan

You know what, it’s really an untapped area. My first book was a domestic noir thriller. And I really enjoyed writing it and I enjoyed the genre, but I wanted to do something else. And the corporate area is really untapped. There’s not very many books, let alone thrillers, that are set in a corporate setting.

Valerie

That’s right, they’re aren’t.

Megan

And it’s fascinating. Because, you know, for thousands of years people have been hunters and gatherers and farmers and so on. We’ve only really been working together in offices probably for the past hundred years or so. Maybe even less.

And just as we were in the wild, and were hunter gatherers, we’re competing for scarce resources. So we’re competing either professional for budgets, or personally for salary increases, bonuses. There’s one promotion that’s going to be available and there’s 20 people who are hoping to get it. And at the same time, you’re supposed to be collaborating together. And you kind of get along. And these days companies also try to get you energised around the corporate culture so that you’ll be loyal and you’ll behave according to the values.

So it’s a really fascinating place, the way that companies work and the way that people are in companies. So I just thought it had a lot of potential from a plot and also from a character perspective. And there were a lot of scenes that I wanted to explore which I hope I did in this book. It’s a thriller, but I like my books to be more layered than just the thriller plot.

Valerie

So you started your career off – because you’ve been a foreign correspondent for the ABC and Reuters – can you just give us a very quick potted history of your career thus far and what led you to this point now that you’ve written your second novel?

Megan

So very quickly, I’d always wanted to get into journalism. I kind of hopped on a plane when I was 22 or something and worked as an intern in the Middle East for the Associated Press, as an intern. And I just used to do all the jobs that nobody else wanted to do for a few months.

And then I got a job as a producer with the ABC in the Middle East bureau, and I did that for about four years. And I was a radio reporter there as well.

And then I moved to the Reuters news agency as a correspondent and covered a lot of Middle East peace and Middle East conflict type stories for many years.

Then I moved to Singapore. And between all of this had kids. So I have three sons. And eventually made my way back to Australia as a mother of three sons. And I really had this bug in me to write. So I decided that it was now or never, and I sat down and I wrote The Girl In Kellers Way. And then I wrote The Escape Room. I started in about March last year, or April last year. And finished the editing, everything, within about ten or eleven months. Which is quite quick for a book.

Valerie

Yes. Now you say that you had this bug in you to write. Was that bug always there? From childhood? Or was that something that came later in life?

Megan

I’d always wanted to write as a child. I think most people, I was a voracious reader, and I think most people who love reading books always kind of hanker to write as well. And I used to, I’d read books, and if I didn’t like the ending, in my own mind I’d kind of replot the ending. I guess today we call that fan fiction. So I’d always wanted to do that.

But you know, you get caught up… You start your career, and I had kids. In fact, every time I had a baby, when I was on maternity leave, I’d tell myself, okay, I’m going to write my book now. And you cannot possibly write a book when you’re on maternity leave. You’re utterly exhausted. So it never worked out.

So it got to a point where I thought, I really have to do this. It’s just something that I really feel like I need to do. I love writing, I love researching. So I decided I had… My youngest was three at the time, and I was for the first time in my career taking a bit of time off to be around my kids instead of rushing off to work all the time. And so I decided to use the time that I had to write.

Valerie

And so take us back to The Girl In Kellers Way, which was your debut novel – was that something that had been brewing in your head for a long time and then it came out? Or did you have other false starts, perhaps, before you hit this one?

Megan

Well, I wrote two other manuscripts that haven’t been published. Which I think I probably, I don’t know… They haven’t been published. So I hope they will be one day.

When I wrote The Girl In Kellers Way, I’d read a lot of stuff in the domestic noir genre, I knew it was a genre that when you pitch to agents and publishers I knew that there was an appetite for books in that genre. And it’s a genre that I love. So I just decided I was going to write one in that genre. And read quite widely for a bit. And then sat down and just started writing.

Valerie

And so the two that have not yet been published, are they thrillers as well?

Megan

Yes. So one is a…

Valerie

This is your thing? You like thrillers?

Megan

I like thrillers. But I think in the publishing industry, they like you to stick to one micro genre. And I seem to be hitting a whole bunch. Because one of them… Well, they’re both more espionage thrillers. Like John Le Carré type thrillers.

Valerie

Right. And if they do like you to stick to a micro genre, what did your publisher say when you said, “I don’t want to do domestic noir. I’m going to do corporate noir.” Which is quite a different setting.

Megan

She was great. She sort of said, you just have to follow your heart and your instincts.

And it was actually a big risk to write this book, The Escape Room, because it was slightly out of the genre of my previous book. Because the concept itself was quite original. And it was quite risky. But she said to me you have to trust your instincts. So I did.

Valerie

So tell me, because with thrillers, the plot and how everything unfolds is so important for thrillers, to keep the reader guessing, to keep the reader turning the page. I mean, of course, you want that in any book, to keep the reader turning the page. But with the thriller, they need to be kept guessing all the time. Are you the sort of person who plots the whole thing out? Or knows how it’s going to resolve, anyway. Or do you let it unfold as you write?

Megan

I do a combination of both. I have a sense of the story arc. I usually know where it’s going to start, roughly what’s going to happen in the middle, and where it’s going to end. And how we get from point A to point B to point C, I kind of let the characters tell me as I’m writing it.

Valerie

So when you did your first draft, you said it took ten or eleven months including the editing, I think. So if you take out the editing, and you’re just getting it to the draft that you’re submitting, how long did that take?

Megan

That took me about four or five months.

Valerie

Okay. And so can you tell us what kind of structure you had to your writing process during that time? Did you commit a certain number of hours a day when the kids were at school? What happened during school holidays? Did you have a goal of a certain number of words per week or something? How did you actually get the words out in some sort of structured or ordered or disciplined form?

Megan

It is a brutal business. It is. Because I set myself a rough word limit every day of about 1500 to 2000 words. And I pretty much make myself write until I’ve done it. And then the next day I usually revise what I’ve written. And then I write another 1500 to 2000 words. And I do it every single day, every weekend, constantly.

Valerie

So seven days?

Megan

I mean, this book was written basically seven days a week. I mean, it was written every single day for the ten or eleven months that it took me. And often, 15 hour days.

Valerie

Wow.

Megan

So often, the kids go to school, I’m writing, pick them up, doing stuff with them, whatever, driving them around, making dinner, etc. They go to bed. And then I’m writing again until one or two in the morning.

Valerie

Wow. So you were writing during school hours and then after they went to bed, is what you’re saying?

Megan

Yes. So once they go to bed and during school hours. And during school holidays, which I always kind of dread, I’m writing at night.

Valerie

Okay. So obviously I’m assuming you had some kind of deadline with your publisher then to have that level of commitment. Is that correct?

Megan

Well, I could… I mean, I think they would have been flexible if I’d said, look, I can’t or whatever.

Valerie

Sure.

Megan

But I’m a journalist by training. And so we set ourselves deadlines and I just take them, for me, it’s like in stone. I have to meet the deadline. And it’s one of those things, if you don’t then you just start procrastinating anyway. So I’m very disciplined about that part of it.

Valerie

But then, with the first book, presumably there wasn’t that kind of time frame or deadline? Or was there?

Megan

There was a self-imposed deadline. Because I don’t have the luxury of spending years writing a book. I just don’t. So it’s like, okay, I’m going to do this, I’m going to try and get a first draft done in about 90 – 120 days and that’s what I try and do. And in fact, I had a reminder on my Google calendar, which I think still comes up, or maybe I’ve cancelled that said, “write first draft in 90 days”. So every day I’d wake up and that would be my reminder on my phone just in case I took my eye off the ball.

Valerie

That’s committed! What other tools did you use to help keep yourself on track like that?

Megan

It’s just sheer bloody mindedness, I think. I’m very disciplined in that way. And it just has to be done. And frankly, once you get into it, you start enjoying it and you kind of want to know what’s going to happen, you get excited about one of the characters that’s slowly developing. So you really get pulled into it. It’s a very immersive experience. You kind of want to do it. Because I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, I kind of want to find out each day as well.

Valerie

You mentioned that you enjoy research. So what kind of research did you have to do for this book? Apart from the fact that you’d already done research on the psychology of elevators previously, did you have to do much other research for this book?

Megan

Well, I redid the research on the psychology of elevators, I have to say. And I researched a bunch of incidents in which people were stuck in elevators.

But I also did a lot of… The book is set in Wall Street and the characters are all investment bankers on Wall Street. I’ve never been an investment banker. I’ve never worked on Wall Street. So I did an awful lot of research just to understand the mindset, to understand what the issues are in terms of their personal lives. I went onto a lot of forums and blogs and read through Twitter feeds. Also, when I was doing the dialogue, just to get a sense of the dialogue.

Valerie

What kind of Twitter feeds and what kind of forums would you have gone on to do this research?

Megan

Oh, there are a lot of forums for people who either work on Wall Street, or MBA students who want to get jobs on Wall Street. And they all trade information about everything from how to talk to your boss, to what presents you should be giving them for Christmas, to what kind of ties you should be wearing. There’s endless amounts of information.

Valerie

I have to ask, what kind of ties should you be wearing?

Megan

Well, it depends, apparently, how experienced you are within the company. So the higher you get the brasher you’re allowed to be.

But one of the most interesting forums that I read was this discussion about how to make yourself not look tired in the mornings. So these people are working 16 or 18 hour days, and a bunch of them were worried about looking too tired when they came into work in the morning. So they were trading secrets about how to make their eyes look less puffy. So that was fun.

Valerie

Oh my god! All right. So what kind of research did you have to do for your first book, The Girl In Kellers Way?

Megan

The Girl In Kellers Way, I did a fair bit… One of the main themes in that book is on memory. And I did a lot of research on memory.

I hadn’t studied psychology at uni. So I went and I watched… You can watch psychology lectures from Yale and various other universities in the US online. So I watched Psychology 101 lectures in a whole bunch of topics. I read a lot of papers, research papers that were written on memory. I just really wanted to understand it. So that was probably the main research that I did for that one.

Valerie

And so do you research what you feel you need to know first and then embark on writing? Or do you research as you go when you discover, oh, I need to know that?

Megan

I do a bit of research at the beginning and then I research on the run.

So for example, one of the touchy issues that you write about when you’re writing about crime is guns. Because when people know their guns they really know their guns. So I wasn’t sure about… I’ve never used a gun before. So I watched a whole lot of YouTube videos on a particular type of gun that I referenced in my book and how it’s used. I mean, I watched that ad nauseum, because I didn’t want to make any mistakes.

So I’ll kind of break off my writing and go off and research a particular line of enquiry like that. Because I don’t want to make any mistakes. And I’ll do that as I’m writing.

Valerie

Thank god for YouTube, right?

Megan

Yes, sure.

Valerie

So on a practical level, did you research and store it in your brain? Or do you put it somewhere? Did you use anything in particular, like Word or Google Docs or Scrivener just to organise everything?

Megan

Most of it I just remember. Occasionally I’ll keep a list of a stuff that I might want to come back to. But I usually, inevitably, forget that I have it and I have to rely on my memory.

Valerie

And so what was the most difficult thing about this particular book, The Escape Room? About the process, the writing process?

Megan

This book, the story is quite complex. And the characters are very complex. And it’s a very character driven story.

I have essentially five characters in it. Pretty key characters. And they’re very complex nuanced people. And I really worked hard to try and bring those characters to life. And that was quite gruelling doing that in what I hope is a believable way.

The previous book had less characters and it was focused more on just two of them. Whereas this one is quite focused on five over all. So that was pretty tough.

Valerie

So when you’re developing these five characters and their specific personalities and quirks or characteristics, did you have any kind of… Again, was that in your head? Or did you have a dossier on them so that you didn’t mix things up and stuff like that?

Megan

No, I didn’t have a dossier. It just evolved. And as I was writing them I just kind of… I can’t explain it.

When I started writing, I read stuff that some writers had written about their writing process. And I think it was Stephen King who said that when he writes characters, it’s almost like you’re sitting around a campfire and these people sort of emerge from the dark and sit down with you around the campfire. And that’s how it is for me when I write characters. I don’t really know too much about them. Usually I know their name, a vague idea, just very vague idea of who they might be. And then as I’m writing them they kind of emerge on the paper.

Valerie

Have any of them surprised you?

Megan

Um… I guess through the process of writing them they have. I’m sure that if you asked me how a character was going to turn out at the beginning, it would be completely, they would probably turn out completely differently from what I would have expected. But I guess not too much because I’m writing them.

Valerie

Yeah. What was the most enjoyable part of the process? Apart from finishing, of course.

Megan

I love getting a first draft out and then I love just playing around with the words and sharpening things. I love that whole process of moulding the book and improving the dialogue.

For me, when I write, I almost think… I know some painters, they’ll do their outlines with charcoal and then they’ll start using the oils. That’s how it is for me with writing. The first draft is kind of the charcoal outlines of everything. And I love the part when I get to put in the colour and the texture.

Valerie

And so if you… Apart from going on forums, just back on the Wall Street thing, because you just mentioned colour and texture, did you go to Wall Street? Or did you… Just in terms of the place and the setting, how did you get that on to the page?

Megan

I mean, I’ve been there in the past. I read a bunch of books about Wall Street, as well. So that helped.

And then I did things like, in one of the chapters, I’m referencing they’re having lunch at a restaurant. It’s a real restaurant. I went online and I looked at their menu and I made sure that what they ordered was actually from the menu rather than just giving them… Making up a random name and giving them random food.

I mean, thank goodness for the internet, let me say. Writing a book like that from Australia, it’s not easy.

Valerie

And that kind of attention to detail is kind of typical of a journalist. So speaking of journalism, what’s happening now? Do you plan to return to journalism? Or part time? Or is this the thing now?

Megan

I love journalism and I would love to return to journalism and write books and raise three kids. I just don’t know if I can do it all. I’d love to do some part time journalism. But I have an idea for my next book.

Valerie

Have you started writing it?

Megan

I haven’t yet. It was a really long and exhausting process writing The Escape Room. I wrote it in a pretty short period of time. And in fact, after I did that first draft I did a pretty full on re-write in a very short space of time. So I’m taking a little bit of a break. And I’m planning on starting the next one in June.

Valerie

Which presumably is a thriller? Is this corporate noir as well?

Megan

It’s a thriller. It’s probably a slightly different genre again. I think maybe being a journalist, and in journalism I covered a lot of different things, I think I have a taste for variety in my work.

Valerie

Yes.

Megan

But it’s definitely a thriller.

Valerie

But how does it feel… Because with journalism, with deadlines, with news, you’re writing such short things in comparison. Whether they’re scripts or whether they’re articles. Was it hard to adjust to something that was a billion times longer?

Megan

It is. And I think you have to break it down into smaller pieces. Which is why you break it down into your daily word limit of 1500 to 2000 words a day. Because otherwise it’s just overwhelming thinking, okay, I’m going to be writing 90 to 100,000 words in the next x months. So that’s one of the ways that I did it.

But you know, I think that you get a lot of… Journalism is an amazing profession and you get a lot of skills from it that you can apply in many different types of work. And aside from the writing, and aside from the discipline in terms of just meeting deadlines and that kind of thing, there’s a lot of research skills that I got from journalism.

And one of probably the biggest skills is persistence. And you have to be persistent if you’re going to be writing a book. You just have to be. Because if you’re not, you’ll just never finish it.

Valerie

Certainly not finish it in 90 days. And finally, what are your top three writing tips? If you had to share your top three writing tips with listeners who want to be where you are one day and have their book published, what might they be?

Megan

The first would be just write. Write, write, write every day. Don’t get put off. Write your first chapter. Keep going. Don’t go and keep rewriting your first chapter. Just constantly have momentum and move forward is a key one.

A second is read. You cannot write if you’re not reading. So read as much as you can. And read widely.

And the third one is be persistent. Because you need persistence to write your book, but once you’ve written it you need persistence to get it published. It’s really tough as well. So you really have to be very persistent as a writer.

Valerie

Love it. Okay, and on that note, thank you so much for your time today, Megan.

Megan

Thank you so much for having me on the show.

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