First Drafts With… Jay Stringer

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Jay Stringer. Jay is the author of the Eoin Miller trilogy, a detective series set in the Black Country, England and the author of the Sam Ireland Glasgow set series.

I was delighted when he took some time to answer my questions on writing his all important first draft.

Over to you, Jay…

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

I’m interested more in character than plot, so there’s usually some trial and error and false starts. I need to find a character who interests me, who I want to hang out with and listen to. Someone with a fun contradiction at heart, and a voice that I’ll enjoy writing. I might start two or three books and abandon them ten thousand words in, on the way to finding the character I most want to work with.

When it comes to the first chapter, this is the part of the book I’ll spend the most time reworking. When I first started out, I liked writing opening lines that grabbed the reader and maybe shocked or challenged them. Now I prefer to write openings that ease the reader in through voice, like the story is being told to them by a friend on the next barstool. So I’ll spend a lot of time working on the opening, finding the right tone.

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

Each book is different. But I don’t know how until I start it, so at first I try and write each new book the same way I wrote the one before. The new book tells me what it needs as I figure out the first act. Each of my books ends up having a different act structure to the one before, a different pace and energy, but those are differences I find along the way, and I’ve learned to embrace them rather than forcing the book to stick to an existing template. It’s like doing stand-up comedy. You write the jokes and go into the gig with a plan, but each crowd and room feels different, and your performance of the joke evolves from gig to gig. You need to roll with that, let the story and characters lead you.

Really the only things I’ve learned to apply to every book are: Aim for clarity, not perfection. Always know what the characters want, and need, at each stage in the story. Good dialogue is about what the characters aren’t saying. Read all the work out loud, because good writing sounds good. That’s it, really. All the other rules change from book to book.

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

It varies, depending on the book. For my crime novels, my heart beats for Elmore Leonard, and the research is mostly just talking to people and listening to how they talk. Collecting voices and stories out on the street, at work, in bars. This has become trickier since I stopped drinking. I don’t write police procedurals, so I don’t need to worry about police procedure. I write about the kinds of people I live and work around, so I just keep my eyes and ears open, and they give me material.

My deeper research comes if I’m writing one of my Marah Chase books. That’s the action movie/Indiana Jones side of my brain, and I need to dig quite deep into history, archaeology, and mythology. As much as I can I’ll walk around the places I want to use, thinking of cool ways to ‘film’ an action sequence there. I spent two months before the last one reading up on the Fountain of Youth, and volcanoes, and earthquakes, and researching the locations I thought I needed, and how I was going to fit everything together. But, as ever, the minute I started writing the book all the research went out the window. I found different characters and locations on the page, and almost none of my initial research was used. I went into the final act of the book still not knowing how it was all going to tie together, and that was exciting. I have a long-gestating dream project of writing a Robin Hood novel, because there’s a version I want to see that hasn’t been done. And that’s probably the thing I’ve researched the most, on and off, for two years. I could probably earn a history degree with everything I’ve learned about the thirteenth century. And guess what? I just started work on the first chapter, and it ignores all of my research.

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

For my non-crime books, like Marah Chase, I’ll tend to take a few months to let ideas gather. My brain likes to throw a million different ideas at me on these books, and after researching I need to take some time to let everything settle, and to see which ideas feel the strongest and clearest. I’m doing that right now with a sci-fi idea, waiting until it’s ready and clear. Then I start my usual process, working and reworking the opening chapter until I find the right voice for that book.

For my crime novels I don’t wait around much at all. Those are based more on dialogue, so my ideas grow from getting a funny conversation in my head, the minute I get one of these I start writing. And that’s where the trial and error comes in, sometimes these small ideas take on bigger shape and I have a book to write, other times they fade away after a few thousand words and I move on to something else.

5) How does the draft form on the screen?

I don’t plot. I have nothing against it, I learned to do it and gave it a go, I have a whiteboard and I know how to layout the beats in all the right places. But I found that it didn’t really work for me. But writing completely without direction didn’t work either. So I have a hybrid approach, and my first draft is written by focusing on one act or movement at a time, nothing beyond that. Each movement has an opening, midpoint, and cliff hanger. These tend to be 60 or 80 pages. And within that, I focus on the characters, what do they want out of each scene? What do they need out of each scene? Why are the two different? Repeating that process four, five, or six times adds up to a book. It also helps avoid writer’s block, because I’m never lost in thinking about the overall book, I only ever need to think about what my character is doing in the moment, and then vaguely think about what they’re doing in the next 30 or 40 pages. I think the biggest compliment I’ve had since adopting this approach is that people think I must put a lot of work into plotting the books, when the truth is the exact opposite. I just keep an eye on the character’s motivations at all times, and the plot takes care of itself.

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

This is something that keeps changing. My Eoin Miller books were all written on laptops, and I would fit time in around the day-job, a few hours here and there. Most of the work was done on a sofa or at a desk we put in the kitchen of our old flat. When we moved into this house I finally had an office, and the two Sam Ireland books, as well as the first Marah Chase book, were written at a desk, during set office hours each day. Since then I’ve been back on a laptop, writing when the mood takes me. It feels like the next book wants to be written in the office again, and I’ll be going back to laying out set office hours during the week. Not least because I don’t have a television in the office, so there are less distractions than trying to write on the sofa.

Thank you for your time today Jay, it has been a pleasure to have you on the blog. All the best with your writing.

Bio: Jay Stringer was born in 1980, and he’s not dead yet.

His crime fiction has been nominated for both Anthony and Derringer awards, longlisted for Not The Booker, and shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize. His stand-up comedy has been laughed at by at least three people. He’s English by birth and Scottish by legend; born in the Black Country and claiming Glasgow as his hometown.

Jay is dyslexic, and came to the written word as a second language, via comic books, music, and comedy. Along the way he’s worked as a zoo keeper, a debt collector, a supermarket shelf stacker, and a bike courier. Alongside Russel D. McLean, Jay was the first to bring Noir at the Bar to the UK.

Jay won a gold medal in the Antwerp Olympics of 1920. He did not compete in the Helsinki Olympics of 1952, that was some other guy. 

Jay has led workshops on writing crime fiction for Scottish Book Trust, and mentored creative writing students for City, University of London. He is available for events talking about crime fiction, dyslexia, and Romani issues.

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