Hi folks, first up in the First Draft series I am delighted to welcome Tony Forder. Tony is the writer of the Jimmy Bliss novels, and joins me to chat about his writing process. Over to you, Tony.
I’m mostly a panster rather than a plotter, so it tends to vary. The only time I had a reasonably detailed plan in my head for the entire book was for the first, which was Degrees of Darkness. But then I’d had plenty of time to think about it before daring to write the first word. I found out during the course of writing it that plans can often become secondary to where your characters want to take you, and also that better ideas can occur during the writing process itself. Sometimes I need only an idea of where I want to start and the general direction in which I would like to steer, and then put trust in the writing process to gather momentum and shape and lead me to right conclusion. Flying by the seat of your pants can cause anxiety at times, but it also allows the storyline to develop in some surprise ways. It also differs depending on whether it’s a series book or something fresh. Obviously, in respect of a series each new book already has a cast of characters for you to lean on, but when creating new main characters I may spend a bit of time getting a feel for them before I start writing. When it comes to writing something entirely new, one of the major decisions is which POV to use. For my book Scream Blue Murder I went back and forth during the writing, having initially chosen to write in first person. Eventually I went with that gut instinct, but only at the fifth time of asking did I settle on it.
2) Do you follow the same process you did for the book before?
Since I’ve had my own room in which to write, my process hasn’t changed. I have a board in front of me, one side white for markers, the other side cork for pinning things to. Generally the cork is for printouts relating to a book I’m editing, and it will have character names and misc items on there. The whiteboard is for my work in progress, and again it’s for names as they arrive, plus pertinent notes I might need immediate access to whilst typing. I also have two pads: the first is a large lined pad which I use to note chapter specifics, such as which characters feature and a few details which will remind me what took place in that chapter. The other, smaller pad, is for what I call chapter ‘pickups’, so things I have to follow up on relating to scenes within each chapter. I also mostly write in chronological order, unless a minor scene occurs to me during a part of the day when I’m not at my desk, so I have a file I keep for each book called ‘Snippets’, some of which might only be a scrap of dialogue that I want to use.
3) What is your research process, if you have one?
If there is something significant that I need to know then I will research it prior to starting the book. However, there’s plenty that springs up during the writing that creates the need for more research. I approach this in two different ways: if it’s integral to the story and would prevent me from writing until I know the answer, then I will do enough research to enable me to write, leaving the rest for when I want to flesh out in the edit. If it’s a minor thing, such as a road name or a company name or something similar, then I usually put a [?] marker in so that I can search for it later.
As for the research itself, I use a combination of text books, online searches, GoogleMaps, and experts. I’ve communicated with the Met and NCA, the RAF, a taxidermist, an embalmer, plus I have a criminal lawyer friend who advises me on protocol and, happily, the main police station I use for my series. With online research you have to make sure it’s as current as it can be – I once described a police station after using GoogleMaps only to discover in other research that the place was no longer there, and that the map was out of date.
I find I omit about 90% of what I discover during research, because you never know what you might want to include so I’d rather know too much than too little. It can catch you out though. In the third book in my DI Bliss series, If Fear Wins, I was pretty much committed to a plotline relating to the RAF and their logistics unit at our local airbase in Wittering. I was in contact with media relations there, but it could be a slow process. I took a gamble that I was right about something, knowing that if I was wrong I would have to change about two-thirds of the book in order to find another critical aspect of the story, or possibly even scrap it entirely if I wanted it to remain authentic (it’s fiction, and so you must be able to invent things or stretch credulity if necessary at times, but it also has to be plausible). Luckily for me my instincts were right and I was happy that what I described as happening could have.
4) How quickly after thinking or planning do you sit down to write?
I don’t plan one thing at a time. As ideas occur to me I write down notes – yes, in yet another pad. Once a week I’ll open it up and read through them, adding something if it occurs or skipping past if not. In that way I can develop a page of ideas over time for a specific storyline, and at some point one of those pages will leap out at me and demand to be written. I have around 6-8 on-going ideas at one given moment. On the other hand, I was watching a news item on the TV one evening and a specific feature made me sit up as an idea came to me. I had my next book all planned out, but this fresh idea insisted I write it first. Which I did. So the answer to the question is, it varies, and wildly so.
5) How does the draft form on the screen?
This is one aspect which tends not to vary. I write the first third pretty quickly, because I approach it chronologically and therefore as I’m writing I’m thinking ahead several chapters. I don’t do a word count, I just write from about 8.30am to 4.30pm, with a lunch break and small rests from the computer (I don’t like an overall word count to dictate to me when a novel is a novel). I then write up my notes. The following day I scan back through what I wrote during the previous session just to get the creative juices flowing again and then I’m straight back into it. My middle third is usually slow progress, because this is where you transition from the build-up to the climax, and it’s every bit as important as the beginning and the end, I think, because you have to ensure you continue taking your reader with you and that there is as little lag as possible. Once I’m into the final third and I know where I’m headed, my fingers fly on the keyboard and spelling and grammar are forgotten as I try to keep up with what’s coming out of my head.
To me, this is what the first draft is for: getting the story out of your head and onto the screen, saved in files – I save my chapters individually until I’m finished, and keep them that way for the first structural edit. Only then do I piece them together and discover my total word count (my books tend towards the 100,000 average). The first draft is a statement of intent, and I see it as the skeletal form of a story, to which I will later add the muscle and flesh in order to form the whole book. I can easily add 20-30,000 words during my first couple of edits, before pruning back and cutting out perhaps 10,000 words as I tighten with that final deep edit. In Cold Winter Sun I cut around 15,000 words in order to quicken the pace, but it hurt because I had to remove some really nice character scenes which I loved. But it was the right thing to do in order to improve the pace and the flow.
6) Where do you write the majority of the draft?
These days, now that I write full-time and have my own office, I’d say 95% of it gets done there. The other 5% comes from ‘lightbulb’ moments I might have when not writing, at which point I pick up a pad and pen or my laptop and get the scene or section of dialogue written in whatever way I can. Sitting down at my desk five days a week for roughly 7 hours a day gives me a sense of purpose, however. Writing is now my work, so when I’m at my desk I’m at my place of work, and I switch my mind over to the job in hand, whether that’s writing, editing, or attending to any number of associated items such as catching up with mail and social media, to creating promotional graphics.
Thank you for visiting my blog, Tony. It’s been a pleasure.