First Drafts… With Paul Finch

Good afternoon folks, and next up in today’s First Draft series is crime writer Paul Finch.

A retired police officer, Paul first started out as a scriptwriter for The Bill, but later drew on his experiences and began to write novels.

Over to you, Paul…

1) When you begin the next book, how do you go about it? 

My usual process involves sending a bunch of different undeveloped ideas – just a paragraph in each case (outlining the basic concept really) – to my publishers to see if they have any preferences. If I have a preferred idea myself, I will highlight it. They then choose the one they’d like me to write. Only once has it happened that there was nothing there that grabbed them, but I have a directory-thick file of ideas, so I just dragged some more together – and we hit paydirt with that next batch. Once we’re settled on the idea, I go away and put together what I call a ‘chapter-by-chapter’, which is a detailed synopsis broken up into proposed chapters. None of this is set in stone yet – in other words, the finished book won’t follow this skeletal framework with 100% accuracy, but it will give my editor a reasonably close picture of the finished manuscript that I intend to drop on his/her desk. If they like the chapter-by-chapter, they give me the go-ahead to start writing.

2) Do you follow the same process you did for the book before? 

Pretty much, though its horses for courses. My previous process worked perfectly when I was with Avon Books at HarperCollins. Both my editor and I were comfortable with it, and we did the same thing with all 10 books that I wrote for them. I’m now starting a new 3-book contract with Orion, with an editor who’s completely new to me, so things may be different. I’ve yet to see what path we settle on here.  

3) What is your research process, if you have one?

That’s a very good question, because that actually does vary from book to book. I guess it all depends on the subject-matter. As an ex-police officer, I possibly don’t have to do as much research on police procedures etc as other writers. When I was writing THE BILL, I was the only writer who wasn’t required to go for a police ride-along to pick up the atmosphere, lingo etc. However, I left the job at the end of the 1980s, so my police and legal knowledge has dated somewhat. Thankfully, we have the internet these days, so research isn’t too difficult, plus I have lots of ex- and current police colleagues who I can bounce ideas off.

Oddly, it’s geographic research that takes more time. I try to set my novels in areas of the country I’m familiar with. For example, my first book from Orion is set in Essex, which, even though I live in Lancashire, I know well thanks to having relatives living there. But even so, there are often facts that need to befirmly established. So, research trips are sometimes necessary. It’s not too bad with my Lucy Clayburn books, as I consciously invented a fictional Manchester borough in which to set them, while with my Mark Heckenburg books, though they take place all over the country because he is part of the National Crime Group, I often fictionalise some of the towns (though that’s usually to avoid upsetting people as a lot of the towns in Heck end up getting levelled).

Ultimately, I try not to let research interfere with my first draft. The most important thing to me is getting it down – and if necessary, leaving small gaps that can be filled with research detail later on.

4) How quickly after thinking or planning do you sit down to write?

The most testing thing about writing for me is handling the pressure of fast-approaching deadlines. So, the only answer to this question is ‘as soon as possible’. That’s not always easy, of course. I suspect most writers will tell you that plotting and storylining are the most complex parts of writing a novel. They can also be very time-consuming, and that’s usually time during which you feel you are achieving absolutely nothing because Page One remains resolutely blank. But I always want the sturdy framework of the story set before I commence the proper writing, as that speeds things along for me. As such, it’s essential to get this part of the procedure right, even if it takes a couple of weeks (though any longer than that would be a real worry).  

5) How does the draft form on the screen? 

Messily. I’m not being flippant when I say that. Though I always write to a plan I’ve devised for myself, I often diverge from it depending on how tired I am, what my mood is and so forth. For example, a big action sequence is often a complex process that requires lots of re-reading and re-editing to get the pace right, avoid repetitive phrasing, etc. An armed robbery and resulting chase-sequence in HUNTED took me two whole weeks, even though it only came to two pages in the final book. You’ve got to be very fresh, alert and patient when working on scenes like that … so, sometimes I’ll leave it until another day, if you know what I mean. The same applies to passages that area largely descriptive. If you’re looking to produce something poetic, even if it’s only half apage long, quite often you won’t be in the right mindset for that. The result is that gaps appear all over the first draft when I’m initially working on it, which will need to be filled in on later days. 

6) Where do you write the majority of the draft?

When I’m walking my dogs out in the countryside. I’ve used a Dictaphone for years now and find it a comfortable, relaxing and time-saving way to write. First of all, it gets me away from the screen, secondly it enables me to exercise while I’m actually working (it’s no secret that I have the two fittest springer spaniels in Lancashire), and thirdly I find it gives me a succinct and yet more naturalistic style, particularly when it comes to dialogue. I should add that I don’t then use an app to type it all up. Much of my dictated draft would be incoherent to anyone other than myself – often it’s just a stream of consciousness, with lots of footnotes and other interludes inserted. So, I have to type it up myself, but that’s often a job for late in the day, when I’m maybe getting tired and don’t need to exercise the imagination quite as much. It’s a method that certainly works for me.  

Thank you so much for visiting my blog, Paul. Finding out how your first draft forms has been really fascinating!

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