Hi everyone, and this morning on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Glasgow based crime writer Russel D McLean.
Russel is the author of five novels and has been published, over the years, in a vast number of magazines and anthologies. I was delighted when he agreed to join me to discuss his writing journey into how he got published and more recently, what he has been up to during lockdown.
Over to you, Russel…
1) As a child, did you have a favourite author? Was there a turning point with a book that made you go ‘Wow!’?
I don’t know that I had just one favourite author — I was an absolutely voracious reader. I would read almost anything and everything. A few stand outs though, from various ages, include a long fascination with the Alfred Hitchcock and Three Investigators books (Although not so much the later ones where they were mentored by a fictional film director… and I also far preferred them to the Hardy Boys, who I found pretty dull), an absolute love of Roald Dahl’s books, a slight addiction to the Target Doctor Who novelisations, Anthony Horowitz’s Diamond Brothers books (which later fed into my love of crime fiction)… and the one book I always recommended when I became a bookseller in later life, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. That one had the most lasting effect on me, I think, in the way it really created this world that was both logical and insane, and embraced imagination in a way that felt absolutely celebratory.
Wait… you asked for one, didn’t you…?
2) Did you enjoy English at school?
Yes, I guess I did. Mostly the creative writing side, though. I think it helped that I already read massively outside of the classes, of course.
I wasn’t so keen when I did a couple of years of undergrad English at uni; that more advanced English is more akin to criticism than it is to considering what it is to be a writer, and how to create a story. I read less when I was going English at uni than at any other time of my life. If you’re going to be a writer. you’re better taking something that perhaps speaks to the experience of people more than text — the practical art and skill of writing a novel is very different to the analysis of the novel (although knowing how people do that can be useful).
3) What is your writing process like, from idea generation right through to typing the end?
Varied is the best way to put it. Lots of people claim to be plotters or pantsers, but I’ve kind of done it differently from book to book. More recently, I’ve become much more of a plotter, not only because the books have become more complex, and also because I found new methods that worked for my brain and opened up my ideas of what plotting or planning a novel could be.
Back at the beginning, I kind of “winged” my first book, The Good Son, plotted out The Lost Sister, did a half and half process for Father Confessor (Now available in a revised version, because that half and half process didn’t work as well as it could have at the time, and it was the only book I wanted to have a mild redo of when the rights came back to me).
But most books start with an idea or a feeling or a scene for me. The Good Son didn’t fall into place until I could picture the opening sequence with McNee ready to kill a man and feel that anger in him. Ed’s Dead started with with me watching an old noir movie where two men are disposing of a woman’s body, and I kind of wanted to gender flip the idea a little– it became something else entirely, but that’s where it started.
Once I have that key scene or idea, the rest of the story slowly forms around it. These days, I use post it notes, three/four/five act structures and so forth to help me through the initial process.
I tend to write a fast first draft, and then its about going back and making sure the story is experienced rather than told– something that crystalised to me after reading Robert Olen Butler’s book From Where You Dream is that the most effective stories are told through sequences of sensations, emotions, action, rather than summary. The less filters between the experiences of the characters and the mind of the reader the better.
4) Can you briefly describe the editing process before submitting to agents?
For me, it’s about really looking hard at the manuscript with my reader hat on and honestly reporting back to myself: does this stand up to other published books? That’s the thing you need to get really good at doing, I think. Part of my day job has involved me reading slush piles or teaching writing etc, and the one thing that trips people up is that they can’t read their book with any kind of distance. They don’t see how it translates to a reader who doesn’t have access to your thoughts. It’s perhaps the hard thing about writing fiction — you need to convince someone you’ll never meet that this world and these people you have created are real. And you can’t be slapdash about that, and you can’t make assumptions that the reader will just “know what you mean”. You need to be exact and you need to be harsh. Because readers will always be even harsher.
I see a lot of people out there saying how no one can “teach” you how to write, and all writing advice should be ignored etc. I think this is both right and wrong at the same time. I do think that some people have an instinctive understanding of how storytelling works and how to manipulate language, but I also think that if you close yourself off to trying out new ideas, techniques and so forth, you limit your writing. So I read a lot of writing guides and I take what works for me, and discard what doesn’t. That’s what you need to do — find the things that work for you in order to help you write the best story possible. It might take trial and error, but it will be worth it. And even when you know what works for you, keep looking, keep learning and keep loving the process.
5) Once you got your agent, what was the editing process like before pitching to publishers?
I love my agent because he’s tough when he reads. There are three manuscripts down the years he told me just to stop right there, and he was right. One of them eventually matured into AND WHEN I DIE (one of my most sorely under-read books for reasons I’ve never understood, but one I’m pretty proud of). Others have become parts of other stories. But when we have a manuscript we both agree works, he’s really good at helping me get into the nitty gritty of it with a mix of line level and story questions that help me crystalise and hopefully anticipate (as much as you can) reactions before it goes out.
My first agent had an in house editor. But they also wanted me to write a different kind of book than I felt comfortable doing, which was why we eventually parted ways, but I loved that idea of an in house editor.
6) If you had to choose your favourite book of your own that you have written, which would it be and why?
Obvious, I’m most proud of THE GOOD SON because it was the first, but my absolute favourite is ED’S DEAD. Why? I adore Jen Carter as a character — she’s at once the most normal and the most messed up character I’ve ever written. That book also allowed me to get geeky, to dive into dark humour, and just kind of let go for a while.
7) Can you name one author that you admire, and why you like their style of writing?
Why do you keep limiting me to just one? But, hey, I’m a rulebreaker, so let me pick two!
If there is a writer who had an early and electric effect on me as a reader and writer, it would likely be Elmore Leonard. That ease of prose, that way he has of just letting the story unfold so comfortably, so that you can’t separate character and plot… oh, its perfection!
But I also wanted to pick a slightly newer name as well, as well as a UK based crime writer (because my bias is very much towards US crime writers!) and so someone newer who has impressed me greatly is Eva Dolan. When I started reading her Zigic and Ferriera books, I was really impressed with how she made the procedural feel dynamic and modern, dealing directly with issues that other crime writers had nodded towards but not dived into quite the way these books did. Not only that, but the books had real pace and the prose was spot on. If you haven’t read her, you really need to change that right now.
8) What are you currently reading? Have you found that your reading habits have changed throughout lockdown?
I’ve just finished SA Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, which is deserving of every word of praise it gets. Writing car chases in prose is usually a pretty dull affair, but Cosby’s tale of a reluctant getaway driver is more thrilling than most action movie car chases, and on top of that it’s a cracker of a story, too, with a superb protagonist and a genuine, empathetic understanding of what it means to be stuck in an impossible situation.
And since I finished that, I’ve just started Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest, Mexican Gothic. It’s been nominated for a Stoker award by the Horror Writer’s Association, and it looks fantastic. Horror is one of my secondary loves in fiction, particularly when done well. I’m just two chapters in, and I know this one’s going to be fantastic!
I’ve actually read more during lockdown, and that’s been deliberate. It’s easy, when you’re an editor, to get bogged down in the manuscripts you’re working on, but as Lockdown began I realised that was almost all I was reading. I missed reading for genuine thrills and pleasure, and so I resurrected my old #russelreads on Twitter, where I witter on about whatever I’ve just read, and set aside a certain amount of time each day to read books that called out to me from the TBR pile or whatever.
9) What are you currently watching on television? Have your television habits changed throughout lockdown?
We’ve just finished Call My Agent on Netflix, a brilliant French series about a group of film agents in Paris. It’s brilliantly funny, even if you know nothing about French cinema (although a few international actors crop up– Sigourney Weaver makes an incredible impression during a guest appearance in the final season). Up next? Well, we’ll see…We’re waiting for the next seasons of Lupin and Money Heist especially!
I think the main thing that’s changed through lockdown for us here is that we’re watching things faster, binging much more quickly, just because we aren’t getting out to the cinema or for a meal out. I’ve also taken to watching a lot of older films on Blu Ray from cult outfits like Arrow Video, Eureka Video and Powerhouse. Lots of seventies crime films that deserve rediscovery, and a surprising amount of horror films, like the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations by Roger Corman and Vincent Price…
10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you pick and why?
In real life, none of the above, really. I did go through a brief Queen phase when I was younger, and Freddie had such an incredible voice; love or loathe Queen, you cannot deny his talent and his ability to really get a crowd going. And pre Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, Rod again has this amazing voice. And you know… I know nothing about AC/DC at all…
My record collection is a lot of jazz and blues (Classic and newer artists), a smattering of seventies soul and funk (Gill Scott Heron, Curtis Mayfield), and the likes of Tom Waits etc (making me a very cliched crime writer, that last one!)
But… but… if I can pick only one of the above… Let’s go for Freddie since at least I’ll be able to sing along with him (Some of the right notes, not necessarily in the right order!)
Thank you for your time today Russel and for visiting the blog, it has been a pleasure to interview you. Good luck with your writing! 🙂
Bio: Russel D McLean is the author of five novels featuring Scottish private Eye, J McNee, and two further standalone novels, the latest of which is the darkly comic thriller, Ed’s Dead.
He has written short stories for a number of magazines and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Maxim Jakubowski’s Book of Extraordinary Amateur Sleuth and Private Eye Stories. Russel worked as a bookseller for over a decade, before branching out into freelance editorial work. These days, he splits his time between working on his own writing and work as a developmental editor for various publishers and organisations.
He lives in Glasgow with his wife, and their three cats. And, yes, he really did once live in a flat which came with its very own cursed mask on the wall…
Find out more at russeldmcleanbooks.com, or follow him on Twitter @russeldmclean.
Ed’s Dead is available NOW from Saraband Books (UK) and here’s a note from THE Martina Cole, author of the DCI Kate Burrows series and various novels on gangland crime. MC: A really authentic and remarkable read! I loved it! Wow – with a testimonial like THAT, I will definitely be ordering on Amazon!!
Thank you again Russel! 🙂