Skip to main content

Author Joy Fielding said the plot is so important in genre fiction in particular, but as a writer you have to remember that what drives plot is character. If you haven’t created a believable character, nobody’s going to care about your plot.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

For more than 40 years now, Joy Fielding has been churning out blood-curdling bestsellers with staggering consistency. Her latest and 25th novel – Someone Is Watching – contains many of the Fielding signatures: a strong female heroine, an unknown evil-doer and a mystery that will keep you reading well past lights-out. Here, Canada's Queen of Suspense shares some of the secrets of her success, including why Goldilocks is nothing without those bears.

Anybody can start a book

For eight years I taught a summer course at the University of Toronto called How to Write a Bestseller. They actually approached me with the idea. My first reaction – and what I continued to say to all of the students that signed up – is that, truthfully, nobody knows how to write a bestseller. Instead of trying to figure out what people want to read, figure out what you want to write. And then write! Often the first question I would get asked in class was, "How do I get an agent?" I would say, "Oh, so you have finished your book?" and they would say that no – they hadn't even started it. Anybody can get an idea for a book, or start a book. Finish one and then worry about the next part.

100 pages is a terrible thing to waste

A very good friend of mine, Larry Mirkin, once gave me a great piece of advice, which was that if you're going to write Goldilocks and the Three Bears, bring on the three bears. If I have to wait 100 pages for something interesting to happen, you've lost me. I always say, make sure you're always moving your story forward and that you're always upping the ante. Plot is obviously so important in genre fiction in particular, but as a writer you have to remember that what drives plot is character. If you haven't created a believable character, nobody's going to care about your plot. Whereas you can create the most fantastical plot, but if you populate it with believable characters, readers will accept it.

You can't inform if you don't entertain

My goal is to present more serious messages in an entertaining fashion. For example, my book Now You See Her is, at its core, a story about a woman coming to terms with her grief and mental illness. Those are the themes I am exploring, but does that sound like something you're going to rush out to buy? Probably not. On the other hand, if I tell you that the story is about a woman who thinks she sees her dead daughter while she's on vacation in Ireland – that you're going to pick up.

Life is the best imagination

I think it was Jackie Collins who said that, as a writer, you have to be prepared to murder all your friends. It's true – nothing is sacred. If something interesting happens in my life or the life of one of my friends, the odds are I'm going to use it. Not to the extent that it will be obvious – I'll change certain details or combine a couple of stories. Often when I need to ground a character, I'll think about the little traits or the tics of the people I know. I love that I can use real life to make my characters more witty than I am able to be in the moment. I remember once my daughter and I were having a conversation about how when a woman stands up to a man, he will often tell her that she doesn't have a sense of humour. My daughter had experienced something like this and her response was, "No, I have no sense of your humour." I loved that line, so I used it for one of my characters.

Imperfect ideas are perfectly okay

I did about 12 books in 12 years up until this latest one, which was a slightly longer timeline because I changed publishers. I know it seems like a lot, but I always think, what else am I going to do? One can only shop so much. Several years ago when my publisher first suggested one book a year to me, I thought, oh my God, how am I going to do that? I thought I would eventually run out of ideas, but in fact the reverse is true. It's much easier to come up with an idea and to be creative when you're still in that mode – the juices are always flowing and one idea flows into the next.

Interact with The Globe