Hi everyone, this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Paul Finch to the blog. Here, Paul discusses his writing experience and his current writing process.
Over to you, Paul…
1) As a child, did you have a favourite author? Was there a turning point with any particular book that made you go ‘Wow!’
I’ve always had a love of books. I don’t think there is any particular title. My earliest memories of reading as a child were the Armada Ghost Books, which I found wonderfully scary, and then, when I was slightly older, the Narnia books, the Tarzan books, the Conan books. If there’s any book that really blew me away, I think it was the first adult book I read, which was Lord of the Rings. I was in my first year at middle-school at the time, and I remember my English teacher being very impressed when she heard I’d read it. The Wow moment probably came at the battle of Helm’s Deep. After a lot of scene-setting and character development, which, at that tender age I’d struggled with a little, Tolkien suddenly hit us with this tremendous action sequence, which went on for page after page. I remember my hair standing on end, I found it so exciting. But probably the real Wow moment in my literary life came when I was very young. My father, who was the one who’d later encourage me to read all these books, used to tell me stories when I was too young to read them myself, and one of the earliest I can remember was Beowulf and Grendel. The image of the snowbound Viking hall, which this terrible monster visited every night to kill everyone he found there purely for the pleasure it gave him, and then one night, this lone warrior was waiting for him in the darkness, burned itself into my mind. Even as a real youngster the dramatic power of storytelling was unleashed on me in that moment.
2) Did you enjoy English at school?
I wasn’t the most attentive pupil when I was at school. I wasn’t one of the bad boys, but all I wanted to do was play rugby league and listen to rock music. However, if there were two subjects I did enjoy it was English and History. History was a more scholarly exercise, involving lots of learning by rota, but I still found it interesting. But English just seemed to come naturally to me. I never really understood at the time that I had a creative bent, but my English teachers seemed to recognise this and encouraged it. So, I owe a lot to Miss Durkin and Sister Bridget (wherever they are now), who were very receptive to whatever undeveloped ability I had in those early days.
3) You first started out as a scriptwriter for The Bill. How did you find your experience?
Writing for television in my experience, and bear in mind that I haven’t done it for quite a while now, is a very different discipline from novel writing. Okay, in both worlds you’reselling your personal expression, so you’ve got to be interesting, relevant and entertaining. There is no room in either for slack work. But when writing for TV, and certainly this was the case with The Bill, a twice and sometimes thrice-a-week drama, which never took a break, speed and deadline were really important. This created intensive pressure, which wasn’t enjoyable and wasn’t always conducive to doing great work. That said, The Bill was the best cop show in British history, in my view, and while I don’t have fond memories of some aspects of working on it, what I would say is that, when I first arrived there at the end of the 1980s, I was very raw indeed – I’d only got through the door because I was a serving police officer – and yet I then found myself being coached in what was one of the best script departments in British television. My first few script editors were remarkable in what they managed to draw out of me. Everything I was able to do in later years, when writing television or film drama, short stories or novels, I pretty much owe to that hectic period in my life.
4) What was your route to publication? How did you find your current agent?
Getting an agent is very important if you are serious about writing, but I’m not the best example of how to do it. Because I’d approached The Bill off my own bat, and they’d found a policeman wanting to write for the show intriguing enough to give me a whirl, I got through the door without an agent. And of course, once I was inside, I had no trouble getting one. That would not have happened in normal circumstances and probably wouldn’t happen at all nowadays as British network TV produces less original drama generally.
5) Do you have any plan formed when you come up with ideas? How does your idea generation work?
The main plan is to ensure that the idea is noted down somewhere. I always, even when on holiday, have a pad with me or a Dictaphone, in case an idea springs to mind. I get it down ASAP, and then, when I’m home, add it to one of my ideas files. I have three of these now, and they’re all as thick as telephone directories. Some entries are nothing more than a page with a single line of text on it, but at least the idea has been recorded. That way I don’t have to clutter my memory up with them, and yet, if my agent calls at some future time and says everyone’s now looking for such and such a thing, or an anthology editor asks me if I’ve got anything involving this or that, I can go back to my files and flick through.
If I say so myself, some ideas are so good that I feel they need to be written in full there and then, but that doesn’t happen much these days. I’m glad to say that I’m so thoroughly commissioned now that there is rarely time to write on spec. However, I do raid my ideas files before I sit down with my editors at Orion to discuss the next book. It’s always nice to be able to lay out 20 different thoughts. Almost invariably, at least one of them strikes gold.
How to generate ideas is a question often asked and yet very hard to answer honestly. I don’t think I’m speaking purely for myself if I say that I genuinely don’t know where the ideas come from. They can hit me at any time in any place, tripped off by who knows what. I think I’m just fortunate in that I’m receptive to this stuff. It helps of course, that since I turned full-time pro, I’m doing my dream job. I don’t really have working hours because I enjoy it so much. Hence, I’mpondering projects all the time. I even find it fun to have an ideas bash. I often do this with my wife, Cathy. Strangely, we’re particularly productive in this regard when we go out for dinner (at least that’s my excuse; it gets me a lot of dinners). Anyway, we bounce ideas around while we scoff, discussing what will work and what won’t. But the ideas themselves tend to germinate on their own. They literally just fly at me out of the blue.
6) How many times, roughly, would you say, that you polish a draft before you send it off to your agent?
I’m very finickity. My wife, Cathy, would say that I’m too much of a perfectionist. I go over stuff repeatedly, trying to get everything right and even then, I never like it the moment it’s been published. But that’s my personal problem and something I have to overcome each time.
I suppose a straightforward answer would be that the process is as follows:
During the first draft, my priority is getting it down. Just getting a novel down in full, even if it’s not in refined format, is half the overall job. That means you’ve broken the back of the physical work. The second draft is the real writing: the refinement, the improvement, the cutting and tweaking. But you’ve done the heavy lifting by then, so it’s more pleasurable. I even find this part relaxing, so I often play mood music in the background. The third draft is the final read-through, and that’s where the ‘are you being too picky?’ thing comes in. You can waste hours tinkering. You can end up with paralysis by analysis. My advice on the third draft is dot every i and cross every t that needs it, and then get it out to whoever’s expecting it. Because there’ll be more drafts to come when they have their say.
7) Do you have any advice for writers looking to send their work to agents?
Well, there are lots of literary agencies out there. They all have an online presence now, and some of them – not all, but some – will take on unsolicited submissions. That makes it easier to approach them than it used to be. But it’s still difficult because there are lots of people jockeying for their attention, so you have to hit them with your very best stuff.
It might also help catch their attention if you’ve got some kind of track record in terms of publication. In that – and I’m sorry if this is something that some folk don’t want to hear – I’m not really talking about self-published material unless it’s done very well. Being published by someone else, i.e. having already persuaded another editor or publisher that your work is of sufficient interest for him/her to invest in, will be a good sign to an agent. Even if you’ve earned next to nothing from it, even if your sale was ‘4theluv’, it also shows that you have finished material, which means that you’re prepared to put the work in. No agent, in my experience, is going to be interested if you’ve got great ideas but no written work to show them. On the other hand, if you’ve produced work that someone has already liked enough to give a showcase to, that’s prettyimpressive. It also helps if you’re still bursting with ideas andcontinuing to write hard, as they won’t be especially interested in a one-hit wonder. They’re not just looking for people who are good, but people who are good and willing to work.
They’re also looking for people who are prepared to take criticism and to refine their product accordingly. As a writing professional, I’d be completely turned off by anyone who thinks they are the finished article. None of us is. Unless you strive constantly for improvement and are prepared to take professional advice on board, or at least to consider it, your career will inevitably regress – and that’s not someone anyone wants to work with.
8) What was the last book you read, and did you enjoy it?
I read widely, my taste ranging across the spectrum from crime and thriller fiction (perhaps obviously), to horror, sci-fi, fantasy, historical and literary fiction. I usually read about a book a week, though on holiday it can be a book a day. I’m an avid reader, and I devour the writers I like, usually then reviewing the work in detail on my blog (https://paulfinch-writer.blogspot.com/). The last book that made a big impact on me was probably The Reddening by Adam Nevill. It’s a violent folk-horror set in Devon, and it’s terrifying. It’s a normal-sized novel but was a two-day read for me because I couldn’t put it down. Adam’s work is terrific in that regard. He’s a real page-turner.
9) When you leave your desk on a Friday, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/on the weekend, what do you do to relax?
Weekends are a mixed bag for me. I often work them, at least during the daytime, especially at present because there’s not much else to do. I still like to have a weekend, though, if I can. I tend to finish on Friday late afternoon – say half-four or five – and walk my dogs up to the local, where I meet Cathy,and we have a few jars together and then bring a takeaway home. That to me is a perfect Friday evening, especially if there is something good to watch later on. Sometimes, if there are a few friends in the pub, it can go on all night, though hooking up with friends – everyone bringing a dish, everyone bringing a case of beer – is usually more a Saturday thing. That’s normally our summertime arrangement, though Heaven knows what’s going to happen this year. We also like going to the flicks and to the theatre. Cathy and I love to see other parts of the country as well. Britain’s full of dog-friendly hotels these days, so now that our kids are grown up, we get on the road a lot. We’ve got some favourite places, some real hideaways. You can’t beat that kind of weekend. At some point soon, I’m sure (hoping) it will all start again.
10) If you had to choose between Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury, who would it be and why?
It’s an interesting question. Both rocked hard in their early days and were supported back then by bands in the form of The Faces and Queen who weren’t just mesmerizingly talented but served as progenitor heavy rock bands, much the way Led Zeppelin, The Who and Deep Purple did, so how could I not like them both? It might be tempting to say that Freddie was so energised that he burned out and died young without fulfilling all his enormous potential, but that obviously isn’t true. He was still at the peak of his power when we lost him, and terribly, terribly unfortunate. Rod, of course, has shown arch professionalism and staying power all his career, maintaining his profile, continuing to diversify and always putting on a show. I think, looking back on it, Freddie did the sort of stuff I love in music – giving high-octane performances, producing proper, gritty hard rock – more often than Rod did, though both were capable of it and neither did it all the time. So, I’d probably opt for Freddie, I guess. Tough choice, though.
Thanks for letting me interview you, Paul. Finding out about your writing process has been fascinating.