First Drafts With… Sarah Linley

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Sarah Linley, to discuss how she tackles that all important first draft process.

Her debut novel, The Trip is a psychological thriller set in Thailand, Cambodia and the Yorkshire Dales. It was published by HarperCollins in February 2020.

Over to you, Sarah…

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

I usually have the idea ticking over in my head for months, sometimes even years, before I start writing. First, I test whether it has ‘legs’. Is there enough story to sustain a 300-page novel? Is this a subject I feel passionately enough about to devote my time to? Novels can take years to get to publication stage so you have to find a plot and a set of characters that you will still care about by the end of the process.

Once I have settled on my story, I then plot out scenes usingindex cards. Different characters and plot lines have different colours and I shuffle them about until they’re in some sort of order (which will change). Some of the index cards will be empty at this point. I try not to over-plan because then I lose some of my passion for the project. 

Then I start writing. 3,000 words per week for 30 weeks = a 90,000 first draft (I usually fall short of this and my first drafts often come in closer to 75,000 words). I break this down into four to six sessions a week and schedule them in at the start of the week. I’m pretty disciplined with my word count!

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

Yes, so far, but it is early days. My first book, THE TRIP, was very much led by the setting. My second novel, which is yet to be published, was an attempt at writing a book with a very tight time frame (it takes place over one weekend) and the one I am writing now is much more character-driven. However, the process of actually writing them has been the same.

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

I start off with very light research – asking the question is this possible? I start collecting news items of interest and following Twitter accounts etc. on the subject. I might do some online searches as I’m writing but that’s about it. 

When I have a first draft, I let it rest for four to six weeks and then I will do more indepth research. I will visit the places I am writing about, read books on various subjects and arrange some interviews with experts. This is always fun! I do this again after the second and third draft, the research becoming more focussed on each round. 

I usually find that after the third draft I am ready to let people look at it. I use beta readers and I might approach the experts I have already interviewed to read the whole thing. People are very generous with their time. I am usually doing research all the way through the process. I write contemporary fiction, but it is still surprising how much you need to research, particularly medical detail and police procedure. 

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

Sometimes the words just come to me and I get the itch to write so I have to sit down and get it down on paper. Other times it’s like squeezing blood from a stone. I don’t wait for inspiration; I have set times in my weekly calendar that I devote to writing and I switch the internet and my phone off so there are no distractions. And I don’t leave my desk until the words are written. I set quite low targets – maybe 500, 600 words so it doesn’t feel too daunting. 

5) How does the draft form on the screen?

Slowly! I use word and I have an excel spreadsheet where I record my word count and the percentage of the book that has been written. It gives me a feeling of satisfaction to watch the word count creep up and know I am getting closer tocompletion. The percentage helps me to keep track of pace and check that I am not going too fast or too slow. I don’t always write scenes in order. If I’m struggling with a scene, I will skip it and come back to it, so my first drafts are really messy.

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

Before lockdown, I liked to go to libraries and cafes to write. A library with a café is perfect! I particularly like Leeds Library because there is a beautiful café and an art gallery as well. But I’m not fussy, I will pretty much write anywhere! I wrote part of The Trip perched on cardboard boxes because I was moving houses at the time and I have been known to write in my car before or after work.

Since lockdown, I have been pretty much confined to my home study. I have pictures all over the walls of things that inspire me. I am desperate to go to a library again though!

Thank you so much for allowing me to interview you Sarah. It has been a pleasure to have you on the blog today.

Bio: SARAH LINLEY lives in West Yorkshire and works as a Communications Manager for a housing charity in Bradford.

She spent two years backpacking around South-East Asia with her husband. Their travels inspired her debut novel, The Trip. When she is not writing, she enjoys walking in the Dales with her dad and his dog. You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @linleysarah1

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