Writing A Lie Within A Lie took, all told, about 8 years to write. That might seem like a long time. Of course, I wasn’t actually writing every day of all those years – that’s enough time to generate a library – but it took a long time to gestate, is the point. Here’s a look ‘behind the words’ of The Singer, trying to give you some insight into the writing process.
The first version
When I originally conceived A Lie Within A Lie, the working title was The Babysitter (in fact that was the actual title forever, until I wrote the phrase ‘a lie within a lie’ in the book and thought it’d make a nice title). The idea loosely came from an old comic story and I detailed it in a blog post that I wrote in January, 2008.
At the time the core idea that excited me was a woman staying in someone’s house who’s not what they seem to be. In the comic, it’s a woman in disguise, but I don’t think I ever entertained that idea. My earliest notes – from July 2008 – talk about a man in disguise called Dominic.
At the time it was the story of the Lane family, and the main male protagonist was going to be called Evan. I expanded that to Ethan at some point, although not until after I’d started writing. (I think it was a little nod to Mission: Impossible‘s mask-wearing Ethan Hunt.) A few of the other key points of The Spy were established early, too; there would be a sister (originally called Amelia / Amy) and she would have cameras all over the house.
Unlike in the final book, Dominic’s relationship with Evan was established early with Evan clearly being gay, but nervous about coming out to his parents. In the original conception Dominic would meet Evan ‘by accident’ in a club, they’d go home together, and that would be it. Months later, when the Lane kids get a new ‘chaperone’, it turns out she’s actually Dominic in disguise, as he reveals to Evan. Later, he unmasks on camera to Amy, revealing… another woman. In broad strokes this is pretty much exactly how the book turned out, and this was established in 2008.
I started writing then, too. In the first draft I was thinking that Dominic was my protagonist, and the book would be from his point of view. As the reader, you would know from the beginning that Dominic was a con man, and that he wanted nothing more than money from Evan’s family. (You might not have known that his ‘chance’ meeting with Evan wasn’t chance at all. I never did decide.)
This is actually the opening, still preserved in my files:
“Do you come here often?”
He had to raise his voice to say it, and he enunciated every word, just to be sure the boy heard. It was a pick-up line cornier than a wheatfield in Iowa – but that was the idea. Get him off his guard. Get him laughing. It worked. He smiled at that – the first victory of the night – and handed the boy a beer, much to his surprise.
That first 1,000 or so words took a while though. Between July and August 2008 I struggled with the idea, trying to figure out how it needed to be written, what the tone should be and so on. At some point I abandoned what I have, and I believe in consultation with long-time confidante Val, I reworked some of the basic ideas. The book began to get a lot closer to what you’ve read at that point.
Reworking and really writing
Val was the one who suggested that the babysitter be a family relation – an aunt; he suggested that the kids be stepchildren, not directly related, and he suggested as I recall that the ‘Aunt’ be English. (Because it’s sexier, he reasoned. I agreed, but also realized if the aunt was English, that would make for some complex backstory. I settled for having her live in England, specifically London, where I’d spent ten years.)
All of that helped move the story forward, but I didn’t start to write in earnest until January 2009. I have no idea exactly why I decided to open the book in a nightclub, and to make Marla a singer, but I do remember that when that scene came together, it wrote very quickly.
I sprinted for a while. I wrote all the way through to the end of Ethan and Marla’s first night together, which I was very proud of, but maybe not for the reasons you’d expect. While I think that scene is extremely sexy, perhaps one of the sexiest I’ve ever written, I was proud because I really felt that I had the potential to actually fool readers into thinking ‘Marla’ was a real woman (possibly in disguise, but still biologically a female). Now, there was every possibility – even likelihood – that people would just assume it was a man in disguise. But I tried hard to make Marla’s reaction as believable as it could be, to write it as if she really was a woman. In reality I knew I was describing a great actor, but that didn’t matter. I was describing Dominic’s performance.
The best moment for me was the sudden reversal by Ethan. Up until the moment he talks about wanting to see Marla’s cock, there’s no suggestion he thinks of her as anything other than a very sexy woman. The fact that he wants more than that – and she can’t give it to him – was a great turning point, I felt.
I knew then, and obviously know today, that keeping that ‘secret’ was going to be nigh-on impossible. When I eventually published the book I knew I couldn’t keep the transgender elements quiet. However, I got some satisfaction from when I sent the book to early readers. A number of them said they were completely surprised by Marla’s ‘revelation’. So at least some people benefitted!
Writing the early part of The Singer took me through May of 2009. I can’t be sure why, but judging by document creation dates, I took a break and didn’t get back to the story until August of that year.
Crafting the con
I seem to recall about then – Chapter 7 in the final book – I was having trouble figuring out how exactly the next stage of Dominic’s plan could happen. It couldn’t be an obvious play, where Dominic suggests he comes to the US. In case you didn’t realize, Dominic doesn’t have everything planned when he first meets Ethan. It’s only after he discovers who Ethan’s father is that he wonders if there’s some potential here. Once he realizes how attracted Ethan is to Marla, and by extension Dominic, that’s when he decides to move forward with things. However, he also doesn’t want to make the obvious suggestion of infiltrating the Landers household. So he lets Ethan come to the conclusion himself, and then Dominic even resists the idea initially to make his acceptance more believable. This is an essential part of any con; making the person being conned believe they’re driving things, that they’re in control, rather than the con artist themselves.
It’s easier explained than written, however. After everything had exploded (erm, literally) after their first encounter, I needed to make it feel believable that Ethan would suggest Dominic come to the US. It took me quite a while to get satisfied with that, as the latter half of Chapter 9, where Gillian takes Ethan to lunch, wasn’t started until October 2009. For whatever reason I stalled again after that. I remember the book being ‘stuck’ at the point that ‘Roger’ leaves Ethan behind.
It wasn’t until May 2010 that I really started writing again in earnest. The idea of Dominic using another persona – Holiday – was what spurred me on. Holiday’s actions, believe it or not, echoed those of a girlfriend I once had, who for some reason (despite me being devoted to her) worried that I might cheat. To ‘test’ me, she approached me online via IM, trying to get me to agree to a date with this mystery woman. No masks were involved! I dug into my own personal experiences and emotions to try and detail how Ethan felt as reality seemed to warp around him when ‘Holiday’ was revealed.
With that written, I knew I was coming to the big moment; Ethan leaving the UK. It’s now approaching mid-2010 and I really have no idea how the plot is going to unfold when ‘Gillian’ arrived at the Landers house. I knew I needed a stepsister, and wrote the opening chapters of The Spy (then just a continuation, as I had no idea how long it would become) quite fast. Then, right before I wrote about Gillian’s arrival, I hit a wall again.
In part two: the struggle to figure out the book’s ending; the many alternatives plots I considered and discarded; and what got me to the finish line.
If you like this sort of post, going into inspirations and process, let me know in a comment or email.