First Drafts With… Joseph Knox

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Joseph Knox. Joseph is the author of Siren (one of my new favourite reads of this year) and I was delighted when he agreed to answer a few questions on that all important first draft process.

Over to you, Joseph…

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

Going into a book, I usually undertake as long a period as possible of just reading, watching films, and listening to as much music as I can get. I’ll read everything, from thrillers to pop science, watch everything, from melodramas to gross out comedies, and listen to everything from opera to ultra-aggressive rap.

I want to get as many new ideas into my head as possible, but also I want to try and spark things that might already be in my head. Scene ideas often come to me during emotional music, which is an embarrassing admission, but a true one. During this time, which might be weeks or months, I’ll make an insane amount of notes. These might be vague plot ideas ‘what if a guy was in the boot of the car?!’ or ideas for cool-sounding lines or dialogue. They might be descriptions or they might be scene or setting ideas. And although I’m reading, watching, listening, these ideas might come from anywhere. For example, when I was in Germany in 2017, I was told about an enormous new airport that was fully built but not yet operational. Apparently someone had to go around the entire complex every day flushing the toilets to stop them from going stagnant. I’d already made a note a few weeks before about wanting to use an old hotel as a setting, but now I connected that with the idea of a large abandoned building. The result? Smiling Man is set in a large abandoned hotel. 

Slowly but surely these notes reach a tipping point where they kind of just start spilling onto the page. From there I move really slowly, rewriting a first sentence or paragraph until I’m blue in the face, then I inch forwards bit by bit. Weirdly I don’t really look at the notes I made unless I paint myself into a corner and need an idea. It’s a great safety net to have because very often I’ll look at them and go ‘Oh yeah!’

One funny thing that’s been true about all my books: I always start with what I’m certain is the first scene, but it NEVER is. I always need to go back afterwards and add usually two or three scenes before it – but of course I find that out later…

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

It’s always different for me. My first book was written across eight years, in evenings, lunch hours and weekends, around a busy day job. The second was written mainly in a four-month sabbatical I took from work. That was thrilling because it was the first time I’d ever been able to write like a job, but I still had the security of my job in the back of my mind. For the third I quit my day job, and had a horrible time writing it.

The pressure that this was now my work really got to me in a weird way, and I ended it gutted and worn out. I then wrote a fourth book while travelling the world trying to recover. Ha, I was subsequently told that this book was so negative that it’s publication would end my writing career – so it remains in a drawer! It helped me recover, though. It got all my weird fear out onto the page harmlessly and cleared the decks for me to write my new book. That one started completely differently too, because I’d just had eye surgery to address a longstanding sight problem, so I began writing it as recorded voice notes until my eyes were strong enough for the screen.

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

Really, it’s just the note process I outlined above. Of course I have to look things up as I go – and I’ll often try to buy factual books dealing with the things I’m writing about (for example, in my first book the detective goes undercover, so I read books about that).

I can’t really effectively research before writing because I don’t have a plan. I usually have an idea for the opening, perhaps some scenes along the way and a sense of the ending, so I wouldn’t know what to look up ahead of time.

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

With my first book I was working on it for most of my twenties. With the second and third I had tight deadlines, so once I had my notes, I was straight into them. For my latest, I took a long break – hoping to refill the well so to speak. It worked because my latest book was surprisingly much more fun and easy to write. It’s a hard lesson for me to learn, but sometimes it’s helpful to walk away for a while.

5) How does the draft form on the screen?

I never write a First Draft per se. I know (and envy!) a lot of writers who write a first draft as fast as possible and then begin fixing it afterwards. That’s a great way to work because it’s much easier to fix something crap than it is to come up with something brand new. I just can’t do it. So I write a first sentence and rewrite it until I think it’s the best I can do, then the next, etc etc. Once the chapter’s finished I’ll rewrite that as well, just making it as smooth as possible. I’m much more interested in tone and atmosphere than plot – so that’s the feeling I’m trying to create. That’s the feeling that inspires me to keep going. I find that when I just plough on with ‘then this happens, then this happens’ I lose interest. My slow drafting process is a way of convincing myselfthat there’s something true there. If I do that, I can work on it endlessly. It means I rarely deliver a first draft in the conventional sense – my first draft might take six months rather than one – but usually what I end up with is close to the finished article. My editor now trusts me to work this way, knowing that he might not see early pages, but that when he gets it there will hopefully be less work for him to do.

It’s all about where you want the inevitable stress. If you can deliver that first draft, some of the pressure’s off and you’ve got something to fix/work with alongside your editor. For me, I would much rather be delivering something as close to finished as possible because I want them to see the work with fresh eyes rather than my jaded ones that have read a hundred different versions of the same story. The problem is, that means it’s all on your head – and you live alone with the fear that it might be rotten until they finally read it.

As ever with writing, there’s no right or wrong way. It will be nightmarish and joyous all the same.

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

I really like to have somewhere to go and write. Sirens was written in a million different coffee shops and lunch hours etc, but Smiling Man was written in the offices where I worked, after hours. Sleepwalker was written in a library and my new book was started in a hotel room I rented (so I could just focus on it all day every day for a couple of weeks to get it off the ground), I did write the majority of it at home during lockdown though. In all cases, I’ll work on it at home in the evenings/weekends as well. It’s just sometimes good to have a routine of leaving your home for a place of work, of sitting with other people to kind of guilt you into not lying around doing nothing.

As this interview shows, though, I’m still pretty much just winging it and making everything up as I go along. My fundamental writing advice is to remember that that’s what everyone is doing!

Thanks Ellie, and keep going with your own stuff! No problem Joseph, it was a pleasure to have you on the blog today – thank you for your time.

Bio: Joseph Knox was born and raised in and around Stoke and Manchester, where he worked in bars and bookshops before moving to London. He runs, writes and reads compulsively. His debut novel SIRENS was a bestseller, published by Transworld in the UK in spring 2017. It is the first in a series featuring Detective Aiden Waits. THE SMILING MAN, published in March 2018 also by Transworld is the second in the DC Aidan Waits series and is a Sunday Times Bestseller.

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