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S J Watson. Serialising a new novel on Substack
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S J Watson Is Serialising A Novel on Substack

July 9, 2023
S J Watson
July 9, 2023

When you’ve published three novels through the traditional publishing route, and one of your books has sold more than seven million copies, how do you find inspiration and new ways to keep writing and challenge yourself, creatively? S J Watson has a fascinating and experimental answer.

His first novel, Before I Go to Sleep, was published in 2011 by Penguin Random House and heralded the new wave of psychological thrillers featuring memory loss. The book became a runaway bestseller – selling the aforementioned seven million copies – and was adapted into a film starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth. His second novel, Second Life, followed in 2015, and was described as ‘an edgy, disturbing read’ by Observer. A third novel, Final Cut, came out in 2020 and follows filmmaker Alex as she shoots her new documentary in the suspicious community of Blackwood Bay, where nothing exciting ever happens… or does it?

Ahead of his writing class with writers at The Novelry, S J Watson describes his experiment with a new writing method for his next project: serialising a novel on the email newsletter service Substack.

  • What’s it like to share first drafts of your chapters as you write them?
  • How does the story, and its genre, change and evolve as you publish?
  • What about receiving instant feedback from your followers to shape the story?
  • And does this process unlock any new areas of creativity?

Over to S J Watson…

No two novels are written the same way

For as long as I can remember, certainly for as long as I’ve wanted to be a novelist – which come to think of it, amounts to the same thing – I’ve been fascinated by how other writers do it. I suspect you are, too. It’s why you’re here reading this, after all.

But if I’ve learned one thing over the years, it’s that there is no single, fool-proof way to write a novel. There is no one-size-fits-all approach that will see you safely to the end of your draft. For every writer who sets an alarm for 5am in order to get to the desk clear-headed before the rest of the world wakes up, there’ll be another who can only work after 10pm, glass of whisky in hand. While some novelists first write everything in longhand, others go straight to the laptop and would no sooner crack open a Moleskine than they would compose their work hanging upside down from monkey bars. Some play music, some write in silence. Some plan in painstaking detail while others fly by the seat of their pants, and for every writer who spends two years on a first draft that is (almost) perfect, there’ll be one who bangs out ninety thousand words in a matter of weeks but then spends six months trying to get them to make sense.

Pretty obvious, right? But what I’ve come to realise only fairly recently is that the methods an individual writer has used at one stage in their writing career will not necessarily serve them as well for every book they write. What works for one project might be completely wrong for the next. I now know that writers don’t learn to write; they learn to write the book they are currently working on.

And while, luckily, there are some skills that are universal, and some methods and techniques we can take forward – I’m never going to be at my best at 5am, for example – every project we’re engaged in makes slightly different demands of us and therefore requires at least a partial reset. It’s for that reason that I haven’t stopped reading as many ‘How to write’ books as I can find. There’s always something else to learn, something new to try. It’s too easy to get stuck in a groove, and stagnation is the death of creativity.

What works for one project might be completely wrong for the next. I now know that writers don’t learn to write; they learn to write the book they are currently working on.

Doing the same thing over and over is boring, too. And it was with these two things in mind that I recently decided I need to try something different. I wasn’t sure what that would look like, until I recalled a favourite quote from David Bowie, who knew a thing or two about creativity. ‘Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in,’ he said. ‘Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.’

So I decided I’d do that. I’d take the way I think I write novels and, rather than just tinker at the edges, turn it upside down. I’d go out of my depth, and purposely seek something that made me feel uncomfortable. And so, a few weeks ago, I began a new project called The Experiment.

Serialising the first draft of a novel on Substack

What is The Experiment? I’ve decided to write a serialised novel, and I’m uploading it (for free) chapter-by-chapter to my Substack newsletter. I’m posting each new section within a few days of it being written, while the ink is still wet, and resisting the temptation to have a few chapters in the bag as a buffer against a dry patch.

What’s more, I started it a few weeks ago with no plan, and not only asked my readers and social media followers to suggest ideas for the story they’d like to see me write, but at the end of each post I ask them where they’d like the story to go next.

And, crucially, I’m doing my very best to not edit it, at all, before posting it. (I’ve found I can’t let typos go, but I’m trying to resist anything more than a very light edit before making it public.) So what you’re seeing is my work at the roughest stage possible.

This last thing has proven to be the scariest for me. I tell people time and time again that the first draft of a book must be written only for them, that it’s important to write freely, to allow yourself to make as many mistakes as is necessary, safe in the knowledge that no one will see them. It’s for this reason that I like to call the first draft of any project ‘draft zero’. While it may seem arbitrary or contrary to not label what is effectively the first draft as such, for me it makes sense. By calling it draft zero, I am effectively telling myself that it’s not important. This is the equivalent of a painter’s preliminary sketches or a sculptor throwing three blobs of clay down on to the table, ready for it to be fashioned into a reclining figure. It’s a stepping stone, a part of the process that, whilst it may be essential, no one will ever see.

But here I am, showing everyone. Crazy, right?

As someone who’s risk-averse, with perfectionist tendencies and massive imposter syndrome, it’s so far outside my comfort zone I might as well be writing my book naked in a Perspex box suspended from the end of Brighton Pier. (Don’t worry, I’ve no plans to do that). But being outside my comfort zone is exactly why I’m doing it. I’ve always envied writers who ‘feel the tingle of an idea and then plunge straight in’, but I think I’m someone who can’t do that. I believe I have to plan a novel in advance, or know the main beats of the story at the very least. Before I can start, I need to know where it ends, and how the characters change over the course of the book. But is any of that true?

There’s only one way to find out.

The Experiment contradicts everything I think I know about how I write novels. But that’s why I started it. I wanted to shake things up. I wanted to explore other ways of creating.

And – call me an exhibitionist – I wanted to do it in public. I’m always telling people that it’s important to allow yourself to write badly, that first drafts are always awful. I’m certainly no exception, and what better way is there to demonstrate just how bad first drafts can be other than by showing you mine?

It sounds like a recipe for disaster, and if I’m honest I was worried that’s exactly what it would turn out to be. I thought I might end up spending hours staring at my screen, too scared to make a start, too worried about what people would think, too frozen to access the creative part of my brain, and have to abort the project before it even got off the ground.

But that isn’t what happened at all. I’m actually loving writing The Experiment.

Perversely, perhaps, that’s because I’ve realised it really doesn’t matter. If I get a finished book out of this project then that’s great, but if not then no one is going to shout at me. I’m not under contract with this novel, I don’t have an editor for it and haven’t even told my agent I’m doing it (unless she’s reading this, in which case…) I’ve called it The Experiment, because it might fail, and that’s okay. Failure isn’t fatal, and if just one budding novelist out there sees The Experiment fail and thinks, ‘See? No one finds this easy, not even a bestselling novelist’ and is thus inspired to carry on, then that’s actually a success. So, in some ways it can’t fail. And, most importantly for me on a personal level, I’m writing for the sake of writing, rather than with an eye on publication, which is a really fun thing to do and the exact same way that Before I Go to Sleep was written. Creativity for its own sake.  

Serialising a novel on Substack can unlock new creativity

Something else is happening too. Whilst I wasn’t expecting it, I did wonder whether changing my writing habits might unlock new areas of creativity and give rise to a different type of story to the ones I usually write. And so far, it looks like that’s exactly what’s happening.

I’ve created a couple of characters quite unlike any I’ve written about so far, and the story that’s emerging seems to have dystopian elements and be set in a world subtly different from the one I know. I’m not sure what it is yet, but it seems like I might be writing something approaching sci-fi. (Not wholly surprising. I love sci-fi and did have ‘scientist’ in my job title for fifteen years, after all!) The point is, I’m not sure, but that’s what makes it fun. It’s exciting to find out.

Thinking about it, that’s probably the biggest thing I’ve learned so far from this nascent project. Writing can – and should – be exciting and fun. At least some of the time. It certainly should be. And it’s important to keep that spark alive, even (especially?) if you are fortunate enough to do it as a job. You need to find the joy in it, and keep that protected.

Bowie was right. Being a little bit out of your depth might be scary, but it’s a good place to be in if you want to do something exciting. So don’t be too set in your ways. You never know the fun you might have until you try.

So how about you? What can you try differently? Is there some belief you have about the way you write that you can try shaking up a little?

It might reap dividends, and even if not then at the very least you may learn that actually, yes, you were right, you do need to plan a book in great detail, or write at 4am in complete silence, or naked in a Perspex box dangling off the end of a pier.

I hope you’ll follow me as I grow The Experiment, and get involved along the way too. All the chapters are uploaded to my Substack for free, and those paying a small monthly fee can also access the ‘Behind the Scenes’ posts in which I discuss the challenges I’m facing and methods I’m using to overcome them. Come join me on this journey: https://sjwatson.substack.com/s/the-experiment

Members can enjoy a writing class with S J Watson in your Catch UP TV Area. We offer a full calendar of events for our members with 40 live writing classes a month when you join us on a writing course.

Someone writing in a notebook
S J Watson

S J Watson is the multi-million-selling author of three novels: Before I Go to Sleep, which was adapted into a film starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, Second Life and Final Cut. S J Watson is one of the kind sponsors of The Octopus Scheme scholarship program at The Novelry.

Members of The Novelry team