First Drafts With… David Mark

Good evening everyone.

I’m delighted to welcome crime writer (and fellow Northerner) David Mark to the blog. David lives in the North East and is the author of the DS Aector McAvoy series.

He was kind enough to join me for a quick chat about how he tackles that all important first draft process.
Over to you, David…
1) When you begin the next book, how do you go about it? 

 

I’ve usually been thinking about it for an age before I get down to the writing, but nothing feels real until I’ve put 25 to 30 chapter headings on a page, and written a line or two under each them outlining what needs to happen within that chapter to move the story to the next key point. It can be something as simple as ‘McAvoy finds the body’ or ‘tension between two antagonists suggests shared history’, or somesuch. It’s all about pacing more than anything else. You wouldn’t write a concerto that was just wonderful openings. You have to get the rhythm right. 



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

 

I try to. I used to be much more rigid how I worked, being at my desk for 9am and carrying on until 2pm, then researching for the rest of the working day until I began afresh the next. Now I have a two-year-old who wants to play horsies, so things are a bit more erratic. 

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

 

I’m a big fan of passive research, in that knowledge comes to me by accident and suggests the merest hint of a story, and then I’ll start to look into that subject in more depth until I feel able to write. When I wrote my historical novel, The Zealot’s Bones, which is set in 1851, I had to go slightly mad trying to get my mind into the right shape to make the narrative voice sound authentic, and to be able to write about what a character might smell like, feel like, what tastes might be on their tongue, whether they’d notice the fur on their teeth or remark upon a rat in the gutter, etc. It was a bit of a killer really. 

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

 

I have stories lined up like bullets, waiting to be slotted into the chamber. An author who is much wittier than me once said that writing the next book is the reward for finishing this one, and that is very true. 

5) How does the draft form on the screen? 

 

In pretty much the same order that you read it a year down the line. I’m not one for pinging about and writing the middle before the beginning. I might make structural changes when I’m done, but usually it’s pretty close to how I plan it. I want writers at their start of their journeys to try and remember that just because you’ve had a new idea, it doesn’t make it a better idea. Have the courage of your convictions. And if you’re faffing about with coloured post-it notes and bits of string and character cards, there’s a very good chance you’re playing a game rather than writing a book. Write the sodding book. 

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

 

Very simply, on my trusty old PC, in my office at home in rural Northumberland, occasionally stopping to look out of the window and shout at ramblers who think they can put their rubbish in my recycling bin. Countryside living is so good for one’s tranquillity ….

 

Thank you for joining me on the blog David. Your first draft process sounds great! I can’t wait to read your latest book!!

Bio:

David Mark is the author of the internationally-acclaimed McAvoy series, which began with Sunday Times bestseller DARK WINTER. His new thriller, BLOOD MONEY, is available exclusively through Kindle. Gangster-noir epic BORROWED TIME will be released in March, published by Severn House. For more information, visit his website at http://www.davidmarkwriter.co.uk

First Drafts With… Ella Allbright

Hi everyone! This evening I am delighted to welcome author Ella Allbright to the blog.

Ella writes commercial women’s fiction and is signed to The Blair Partnership. Her first novel as a women’s fiction writer is out in August. Her bio is below, followed by her answers to my questions on how she tackles the first draft process. Enjoy!

Bio:

A self-confessed reading addict, Ella Allbright writes commercial women’s fiction set in her beautiful home county of Dorset. Her first novel in this genre, The Charm Bracelet will be published in August 2020 by One More Chapter, an imprint of HarperCollins, and she’s currently hard at work on her next book. Ella is represented by agent Hattie Grünewald at The Blair Partnership, who represent J.K. Rowling.

Ella also writes as Nikki Moore, the author of the popular#LoveLondon romance series. When not writing or reading, she can usually be found working in her HR day job, walking the family’s cute beagle puppy or watching a Netflix series!

You can connect with Ella/Nikki on:

         @NikkiMoore_Auth

         

         facebook.com/EllaAllbrightWrites

    

         nikkimooreauthor.wordpress.com

 

She also vlogs about how to get published as ‘Author By The Sea’ on her YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCQNV3lWENgnIRG4NWejSjmQ

Over to you, Ella…

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

When I first started writing seriously in about 2010, I was a complete ‘pantser.’ I’d have a hazy idea of perhaps the beginning and end of a story, with no real idea how I was going to get from one to the other, but I’d sit down and start writing into the wind. I used to write myself into a lot of corners! Or else, run out of story about 40,000 – 50,000 words in, which is nowhere near a full length novel. It used to take a lot of effort and energy to untangle what I’d done and put it right.

Nowadays, I spend a lot of time thinking about the themes, setting and main characters of a book before I get anything down on the page. I’m a complete plannerand usually have a storyboard set up on a long strip of poster paper hung on the office wall. On that, I use post-it notes to set out the plot in chapters or scenes, as well as to make notes about main characters, songs for the playlist, ideas etc. I do a lot of thinking about my story when I’m out walking the dog, doing housework, or driving the car. Pieces of dialogue or an insight about a character will pop into my head, and (I’ll pull over where necessary) to use the voice memo app on my iPhone andmake a quick note before I forget it!

 

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

I’ve followed the same process for the current work in progress (my second novel as Ella Allbright) as I did for the first Ella Allbright book, The Charm Bracelet, which is coming out in August. I’ve found it really effective. AsI’ve already done my thinking, I really get the most out of my writing time because it’s a free flow of typing and I don’t have to pause very often to think anything through. Right now, I can’t imagine changing that process, but never say never!

 

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

Around three-quarters of my research is done before I start the book. That can be a mixture of research around themes, places, occupations, music, films, history etc. The rest of the research will be done as I go along. It’s important not to get so sucked into research that it takes you ages to actually start writing the book. It’s also really important not to use all of the research you gather (unless you’re writing non-fiction). Research should be sprinkled in like gold dust in order to make the book authentic, and believable. Readers don’t want great big chunks of facts or description, they want the story.

 

I’m in the very fortunate position of having an unpaid research assistant in the form of my dad, who’s retired. I email him lists of research questions, usually a few days apart. Usually, within a week, he’s emailed me back a Word document with the questions listed and answered. It’s amazing how much one piece of research can spark an idea for a bit of dialogue or some tension between characters. For example, in my current work in progress, the two main characters Will and Izzy are biking up the length of Italy, and there are some great conversations between them that have grown out of research about motorbikes, and riding. 

 

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

Almost straight away! The storys had so much time percolating in my brain by the time I create my storyboard, that as soon as it’s up I’m raring to get going. I’m very lucky that I write very quickly and the scenes tend to come out more or less fully formed. I need to get the story down while it’s fresh in my head. One of my biggest frustrations is getting interrupted when I’m in full flow; I tend to shut the office door and tell my family I’m being anti-social and only to disturb me if dinner is on the table or the house is on fire…

 

5) How does the draft form on the screen? 

I am a ‘dirty drafter’ in that I write a whole first draft from start to finish without stopping along the way to go over anything or edit. It doesn’t matter if there are typos or spelling mistakes, or bits that are highlighted yellow to go back and fill in later, so long as I get the whole story down. If anyone looked at one of my first drafts, they’d probably be horrified at the state of it. But that first draft is for me, no-one else. I need to be able to write freely and worry about perfecting it later. 

 

I’m lucky enough to love editing as much as I love the initial creativity of writing, so once the first draft is finished, I’ll put it away for a few weeks before going back to it and starting a whole rewrite, which I find really exciting. In that round, I sort out any structure, plotting or characters issues, and fill any gaps, correct spellings etc. Then I will probably re-draft – doing finer edits – about two or three times before sending it to my agent and editor.

 

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

I used to write long hand, but nowadays I type my first draft straight into my iPad (it has a Bluetooth keyboard attached) using writing software called Scrivener. I really like the way you can set up a project file and store all your research in there, but mostly I like being able tomove scenes or characters around on the board, rather than copying and pasting as you’d have to in Word. It has backup to Dropbox, but I also email files to myself as an extra precaution. For the second draft onwards, I send the file to Word and work on it as one document, and when I’m doing the copy or line edits from my publisher  I’ll often work on a laptop rather than the iPad, as formatting is better on a laptop.

Thanks for visiting my blog Ella! Finding out all about your first draft process has been fascinating!

First Drafts With… Peter James

Hi everyone, joining me on the blog today I’m delighted to welcome Peter James. Peter is the author of the Roy Grace novels, set in Brighton. He was kind enough to answer a few general questions, as well as about his writing process from start to finish.

1.       When did you start writing?

I have been writing since I was seven years old – my original ambition was to be a scriptwriter. I find the world we live in very interesting and I enjoy observing human behaviour, and that’s really my approach. I’m constantly taking note of what’s happening around me as you never know where you might find inspiration for a character or piece of plot.

2.       How did you get your big break?

 

My first ‘break’ was at age seventeen, when I won a national short story competition run by the BBC and got to read my story out on air. It was hugely exciting! However, my first professional writing job came along a few years later whilst I was living in Toronto and working on a children’s television series called Polka Dot Door. I was a gopher – it was my job to basically run errands. One day we were due to film an episode, but the writer hadn’t turned in the script. The producer asked if I could write one there and then, and I said ‘okay!’

 

3.       How much research do you do for each novel?

My novels tend to be very research-driven. I first had the seed of an idea for Absolute Proof when I received a mysterious call from someone claiming to have proof of the existence of god – just like Ross does – thirty years ago. In the decades that followed I did a great deal of research, ranging from speaking to religious leaders about the consequences absolute proof would have for believers, to living as a monk for five days in the extraordinary monastic commune of Mount Athos. It’s been an extraordinary journey!

 

4.       Who inspires you?

 

When I was 14, I read Graeme Greene’s Brighton Rock, and it totally changed my life. It’s the book that made me realise I wanted to be a writer, and also the reason that my Roy Grace series is based in Brighton. Greene has a way of describing characters, in just a few sentences, which makes you feel you know them inside out, and his sense of “place” is almost palpable. Brighton Rock is for me an almost perfect novel. It has one of the most gripping opening lines ever written too – ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to kill him.’

 

5.       What advice would you give to new and aspiring writers?

Reading extensively and intelligently is the most important thing – read books that have done well in the genre you want to write in and analyse what you like about the author’s style. Once you’ve started writing, make time to write every single day. Find a comfortable number of words to do each day and stick to that number. I am comfortable with 1,000 words. For some it might be 500, 200 or even 2,000 – as long as you are consistent, the number doesn’t matter. 

And you must love your characters – or no one else will!

6.       What is your writing routine?

I find that the time I write best is from 6pm to 10pm at night, so at 6pm I sit down with a vodka martini I’ve mixed myself, put on some music, turn off the phones, ignore emails and get myself into the “zone”. I love this period of “me time” when I get to block out the rest of the world and quietly focus on my current project – and the martini is a treat I look forward to throughout the day! I follow this routine six days a week while I am working on a novel.

 

First Drafts With… Fanny Blake

Good afternoon everyone, and today I’m delighted to welcome Fanny Blake to the blog.

Fanny worked as a publisher for a number of years, her time spent editing both fiction and non fiction. She then began to work as both a journalist and a writer, and has written several bestsellers. Her latest novel, A Summer Reunion, published by Orion, is out now.

She was kind enough to quickly answer my questions on that all important first draft process.

Over to you, Fanny…

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

I start with a theme that can come from anywhere: a conversation; an event; something I’ve read or seen on TV. Then I begin to think about the central characters in the novel, how they relate to the theme and the various arcs their journeys will take. Gradually I begin to build up a more detailed picture of some of the things that will happen to them and how they’ll react. I work out how the book will open and how it will end. When I’ve got all that in my head, I begin. I don’t plot in detail or work out detailed character studies – I wish I did because I suspect it would make the whole process faster- but I like to retain some flexibility and spontaneity that keeps me intrigued as I write.

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

Pretty much. I always vow I’ll be more organised next time, that I’ll plan the chapters in detail, write full character biographies, complete all the research. But every time I find I just can’t work like that. I think you have to find the way that works for you, whatever that is. There’s no right or wrong method.         

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

If a novel is set somewhere I’m not familiar with, I always go there. I believe that’s the only way to inject the real flavour of a place into your work. Those tiny details make all the difference. So for An Italian Summer, I stayed in Rome and Naples for a while, visiting various places I wanted to include and discovering new ones that found their way into the novel. The same went for Mallorca when I wrote A Summer Reunion. I talk to people who have the careers that I’d like my characters to have to find out what they involve on a day-to-day basis. Google is every writer’s friend, of course, and a lot of initial research can be done there before following up elsewhere.

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

A publisher’s deadline makes me focus! I write a novel a year, so don’t have the luxury of time on my side.  I start writing as soon as I’m ready.      

5) How does the draft form on the screen?    

I write from the beginning to the end, however tempted I am to write a particular scene that may happen later in the book.  I create a separate file for each chapter and don’t put them together in one document until the very end when I’m ready to send them to my editor. I try not to edit too much as I go along then, when I have a first draft I go through the whole thing in as much detail as I possibly can until I have the best version I can write. At about this point, I change the typeface which helps me read it in a different way. To get even more distance from it, I print it off and work on a manuscript before putting the changes back on screen. I also read the whole novel out loud. I find I pick up a lot of mistakes that way too. Then my editor reads it and comes back with track changes and editorial notes which I go through meticulously on screen to create another draft.

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

I write at home, sometimes on the computer in my office, but I prefer to keep that for admin. So I write mostly on my laptop, sitting on a sofa in the living room. I don’t have any particular rituals any more, but just sit down and get on with it in silence. I aim to write about 1000 words a day, sometimes I achieve more, sometimes less. I start at about 9am when the house is empty, and then just crack on until I run out of steam.

Fanny Blake’s latest novel A Summer Reunion (Orion) is out now.

Thank you for visiting the blog today, Fanny. Finding out about your first draft process has been fascinating.

First Drafts With… Robert Scragg

Good afternoon everyone, and I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Robert Scragg to the blog, for another addition to the first draft process.

You can connect with him on twitter @robert_scragg or via his website http://www.robertscragg.com.

Robert has had two novels published, What Falls Between The Cracks and Nothing Else Remains. His third novel, All That Is Buried, will be released next year. He is signed to The Blair Partnership. He was kind enough to chat about how he writes the all important first draft.

Over to you, Robert…

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

First thing I do is write an overview, that forms the basis of my synopsis. This usually ends up being three or four pages, quite factual – characters, key events, etc. – a walk through from start to finish. Next step is to write a mini-bio for each character (or any new ones if it’s part of my series), plus referring back to ones for returning characters – keeps my honest with the  detail so I don’t get pulled up for daft things like eye colour changing! 

The last step before starting chapter one is to make a chapter list. This is usually on a spreadsheet, with columns for time/date, location, whose POV it is, and one or two lines that tell me what needs to happen. This is quite high level though, e.g. Lead detective goes to arrest suspect. Gets provoked & things get physical. Caught on camera by young kid” That’s an actual chapter in Nothing Else Remains around eleven pages long in the final version, so as you can see it’s just very much a prompt to remind me what direction the story needs to head in. I don’t plan it more than that as this stage.

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

In a word, yes! It felt like it worked the first time round, so I’ve stuck with it. 


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

Once I start a draft, I like to plough on as quickly as I can, so do the research as I go as much as I can. If anything meatier needs doing, I’ll leave myself a note in the form of a comment on Word, and come back to it. An example would be in All That Is Buried I needed to know what bodies look like after different stages of decomposition in certain conditions. I wrote the scene up to the point of discovery, then reached out to a contact I have who’s a forensic anthropologist, asked a few questions via email, then jumped ahead to write the next part of the scene while I waited for a response. 

There’s no right or wrong way to do your research, but I’m in favour of just getting your story down as quickly as possible. I went to an event with Harlan Coben, where he said words to that effect. Planning isn’t writing, research isn’t writing – just write! Not to say that planning and research aren’t part of the process, but it’s easy to get bogged down in those stages.


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

Pretty much straight away. Once I’ve worked through the stages I talked about earlier, I’ll make a start the same day.


5) How does the draft form on the screen? 

The best way I can describe the actual writing of a scene is that it’s as if I’m stood in the corner of the room making notes as my characters get on with it. All feels quite immersive for me, like I’m there with them. Some people like to bounce around and write chapters out of sequence, but I tend to just write in the order they’ll appear in the final version.


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

The majority these days is in the house, either in my office or at the dining table. Previously though, big chunks have been written in a few of my favourite coffee shops, as well as hotel rooms, beach loungers, and train journeys to name a few. I’ve even written a scene while sat in a dentist’s waiting room in the notes app on my phone!

Thank you Robert for visiting the blog, finding out about your writing process has been fascinating.

First Drafts With… William Shaw

Hi everyone, good evening and welcome to another interview with an author on the all important first draft process. Tonight, Brighton based crime writer William Shaw answers my questions.

Over to you, William…

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

It’s quite a weird process. With Deadland, all I knew was I wanted to write a chase so I thought, right. Who is chasing who? Out of that came the image of these two boys hiding in marshland and the plot started to take shape from there. With The Birdwatcher I decided I wanted to set a novel in Dungeness. I spent a long time thinking, who would live there? Someone who doesn’t like talking to other people much? A birder who watches things carefully? Out of that came the character of the birdwatcher and the plot slowly emerged from there. 

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

No… each time it’s a little different. Once I know the theme it’s then a question of what do I need to do to write it. There was so much tension in Deadland I didn’t really need to think much about plot. I just let the story fall onto the page. With Grave’s End, my next one, I had decided this would be about natural history and landscape and there was much less inherent tension in the plot, so I needed to plot it carefully in order to give it a good sense of movement. In that one I planned every chapter before I wrote it – something I don’t normally do. 

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

I’m a former journalist so love researching. It tends to be an iterative process, though. In principle, I believe in “write first, research later”. I know from my journalism that the world is even stranger than our imaginations, so that it’s good to dream stuff up and then see if you can make it real. In Grave’s End wrote a plot about a badger digging up human bones and then had to check with a naturalist whether that was possible. Luckily it happens! But research can also stimulate great plot ideas too. When I wrote Salt Lane I spent time talking to people who are responsible for maintaining the drainage on Romney Marsh – (more fascinating than it sounds, I promise) – and out of that, much of the plot emerged. So I tend to do research as and when I need it. The real trick is to wear your research lightly though.

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

Again, it’s all bound up in a single process, a bit like the research. When I need to stop and plan, I do. I like to keep the writing going all the time though because that’s what keeps the world of a book alive in your head.

5) How does the draft form on the screen? 

I have to write a book in order – from beginning to end. I’ve never been interested in writing bits separate from the arc of the novel. I don’t really know why. I write a fairly uneven draft, some of it polished, other bits messy. My objective is to get to the end with things in a fairly good shape because I always think that a book only really reveals itself when you get to the end. At that point you can really see what it’s about: what themes you need to bring out, what characters you need to develop, what is missing and what needs to be chopped.
 
6) Where do you write the majority of the draft?

I do like to run off to an off-grid writing shack in Devon that I have where I often shift things along in a major way, but probably most of it is done at my desk at home in Brighton. For my next book, I’m trying writing standing up rather than sitting down. I’m told it’s much better for you!

Thank you for joining me on the blog William, finding out about your first draft process has been fascinating!

Bio

William Shaw’s The Birdwatcher and the follow up Salt Lane were both longlisted for the Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. His books have also been nominated for a Barry Award, the Golden Bullet, and the CWA Historical Dagger. The Sun calls him “A modern crime master” and The Sunday Times named his book A Book of Scars as one of the 100 Best Crime books published since 1945. 

His DI Alexandra Cupidi series, set in Kent, featuring DI Alex Cupidi has been optioned for TV by Expectation Entertainment.

Before becoming a crime writer, William Shaw was an award-winning music journalist and the author of several non-fiction books including Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, about a year spent with the young men of South Central Los Angeles, and A Superhero For Hire, a compilation of columns in the Observer Magazine.

Starting out as assistant editor of the post-punk magazine ZigZag, he has been a journalist for The Observer, The New York Times, Wired, Arena and The Face and was Amazon UK Music Journalist of the Year in 2003.

Twitter: @william1shaw

An Interview With… Laetitia Rutherford

Hi everyone, today I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Laetitia Rutherford to the blog. Here, she discusses what she looks for in submissions, what her ideal query letter is and most importantly, what she does away from the office.

Thanks Laetitia for giving up your time, and over to you with your answers…

1) Did you see yourself becoming a literary agent after you left school? Did you actually have any other career plans?
In another life, I’d be a chef, a dancer or a yoga teacher, or maybe a therapist. But I kept on finding a pile of books in the way…

I didn’t have much awareness of the role before I joined a publisher and learned of the lines between author, agent and publisher. Agents are relatively hidden compared to other roles in the book business. Back when the Writers & Artists’ Handbook was the bible, agents may have seemed invisible or faceless and unreachable. Now with the internet and social media, even though a lot of the work is behind the scenes, it’s good that what we do is more transparent and accessible.


2) I read on your website that you represent authors across both fiction and non fiction. Do you have anything specific that you are looking for at the moment? 

We’re living in such turbulent times at the moment, the upside is this is an opportunity to bring challenging, timely ideas to the fore. Previously, climate change was seen as a negative subject, and people were afraid to address the state of our mental health. Now these are big on the agenda – but I would say that a solutions-oriented message helps. So I am looking for timely books in Non-Fiction, from expert or well-placed authors and often in the how-to-live arena, and I love a good memoir. In Fiction, be timeliness is part of it, but less so. I am also looking for timeless beauty, in addition to the crime genre, great emotional storytelling, and stories that reassure and charm. 

3) First and foremost, what do you look for in query letters? 

A headline encapsulating what the book is draws the eye. Then, a brief and cogent description of the book, and where it might fit in the world (though as agent, I would contribute to that side of it). Finally, a little about the author, touching on why they in particular match the work they have chosen to write. Also, it can be good to know why the writer has come to me: a well-thought out connection suggesting why we would work well together is a great starting point, though with fiction (especially outside genre) that may not always be possible to define.

4) On the other hand, what is your pet peeve about query letters? 

I suppose the scattergun approach is the least inspiring, where the writer seems to be sending out masses of queries without much targeting. Also, word count matters. A novel above 100,000 words presents challenges. Sticking to the rough word count of the form may sound workmanlike, but I think this is part of the discipline, the art and achievement of it, and the work’s commercial viability. 

5) What are your views on the crime and thriller market currently? Do you feel that there is a sub genre in need of more representation?
The market is exciting at the moment as it is searching and shifting away from the recent huge trend in psychological suspense, and towards more stand-out hooks in this space, and other blends of crime genres. There’s a latitude in the genre giving a good writer a lot of freedom, and editors are welcoming unusual concepts. 
I would like to see more diverse casts of characters in the genre, and unusual settings. I recently sold 2 books launching a sleuthing Welsh social worker (the first, Allegation by RG Adams comes out next summer). It was great to find how warmly people responded to this character. Also next summer, I’m looking forward to The Waiter coming out by my author Ajay Chowdhury, about a formerly Kolkata-based detective now working as a waiter on Brick Lane who becomes embroiled in a London murder. 
I’d like to see more richly drawn, compromised, women characters in positions of power, for example as barristers, or CEOs, as this would show real everyday problems projected on to the big workings of the world. Or unusual careers like the social worker or probation officer; or voices less heard from like the PA or bouncer. New takes on classic locked room and whodunnit would also be great to see a new writer run with.

6) What is your guilty pleasure genre, if you have one? 

Pleasure is central to reading so I don’t attach guilt to reading any genre of book! 

7) Is there a genre of book that you would never read? 

Never say never, but Sci Fi generally doesn’t appeal to me, nor full-on romance.  

8) What was the last book you read, that wasn’t one of your clients, and did you enjoy it?

I’m reading Eight Detectives by Alex Pavesi, an elegant high-concept murder mystery represented by my colleague James Wills, coming out from Penguin next year, and a delight. I adored Lanny by Max Porter; it’s like a crime novel wrapped in a state-of-the-nation piece wrapped in a poem. Amazing, and very efficiently done in about 200 pages.


9) Once you leave your desk for the day, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening, what do you do to relax?  

Go and give my children a cuddle, and our cat. Catch up with my husband on our day, and decide what’s for dinner. That if I haven’t already decided what’s for dinner.

10) Apologies for the sidetrack – Do you like Rod Stewart, and if so, do you have a favourite song of his?

If you had an 80s childhood like me, you can’t not like Rod Stewart! The voice, the hair, the activism, and he was a working class Londoner who made it big. It’s not my favourite music, but what a guy. 

An Interview With… Tom Witcomb

Hi everyone, this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Tom Witcomb to my blog. Here, Tom answers my questions on his path to becoming an agent and what he looks for in submissions.

Over to you Tom…

1) Did you see yourself becoming a literary agent after you left school? Did you actually have any other career plans?

Absolutely not! I was going to be in heavy metal bands. I read a lot as a kid – thanks to my mum’s love of crime & thrillers, and my granddad’s for Western novels he used to pick up for 20p in the charity shop at the hospital – and it was always a deep pleasure, but I wasn’t really your typical ‘bookworm’. I love film, music, video games, sports, design, whatever – a bit of everything. But I did love literature, and was ‘good’ at it, so went to Uni to study it (alongside film). It was there I got very ‘serious’ about ‘serious’ literature, and started reading all those books you should read etc. as well as my thrillers and comic books and sci-fi… 

In all honesty, whilst I vaguely understood the basics principle that there was a company somewhere who was printing these books, I’d not really considered the whole team of people dedicated to putting great books into readers’ hands. It wasn’t until I moved to London in my final year (and commuted back out to Uni!), whilst working at a takeaway company (a proto-Deliveroo called Deliverance that many Londoners will know!) that I met someone who asked me what I was doing with my English Lit degree. I had no idea, and so she put me in touch with a friend – Oli Munson (now director at AM Heath) And when I walked through the door it all sort of clicked into place. A three-week placement turned into a six-month internship (I carried on working at the takeaway company ‘til midnight every night!), and I’ve just celebrated my ten-year anniversary at BF.

2) I read that you represent authors of both fiction and non fiction. Does this have any challenges when it comes to both genres? 

Not really. I’m not sure how to elaborate on this answer. A big part of being an agent is knowing editors, and what they’re on the lookout for so looking after fiction and non-fiction clients just means a wider network of pretty awesome people.

3) First and foremost, what do you look for in query letters? 

Spell my name right, and I’m sort of only half-joking. Whilst the author/agent relationship is a particularly special one, there’s an underlying business relationship and an author taking the time to do their research, spell my name right, and absolutely nail why I need to take them on and help get their book into the world is a real bonus. Don’t get me wrong, I can look past spelling errors but come on – it’s right there, you can even just copy and paste! 

Beyond that, I’m just looking for a brief intro, a flutter of intrigue, an exciting short blurb about your book and then I’m getting stuck into the sample.

4) On the other hand, what is your pet peeve about query letters? 

See above! Actually, one of the most annoying things is when people act like they don’t care, the ‘hey, saw you online, thought you’d like this, don’t care if you don’t.’ They come in more often than you’d think. And it just leads me to think ‘then why are you even sending it to me? To anyone?’ It can’t be true, you’ve taken the time to find who I am, what I might like, and to write a fucking book. I see you. To be a success, you’ve got to care, now hang your leather jacket up and stop wearing your sunglasses inside.

5) What are your views on the crime and thriller market currently? Do you feel that there is a sub genre in need of more representation?

Crime and thriller’s always strong, but it feels as though the mass market is saturated and it’s sometimes hard to find an angle for new police procedural, or psych suspense. So I think we’re seeing the ascendance of those brilliant one-line pitch novels like The Chain or The Last and that will continue for a while. I’d love to see more translated crime fiction but we have a problem as a country that our education system hasn’t encouraged people to learn languages so the number of people within the industry who are able to read international crime fiction is low and it’s hard and expensive to translate on spec. I know, though, that we’re missing out on phenomenal writers around the world.

6) Do you have a guilty pleasure genre or novel that you go back to reading? 

I really hate the concept of guilty pleasures as by necessity it suggests there is such a thing as ‘the right stuff’ to enjoy. Listen to John Coltrane and Abba, they’re great, read Dostoevsky and Jilly Cooper, they’re great. It’s fine to not like things, but to feel guilty about liking something? That’s manure.

I don’t think I’ve read a book twice since I was a kid. Who has the time when there’s so much amazing stuff to read! (he says, having seen Jurassic Park 287 times) That said, I’m about to become a dad and am reading His Dark Materials out loud to the bump (yes, doing voices), and reconfirming that they’re the best books in the universe. The second Book of Dust will be published just in time for me to read to baby when it’s here. I’m massively looking forward to sharing books I have loved with my kid.

7) Is there a genre of book that you would never read?

There is stuff that I wouldn’t naturally be drawn to. In general I don’t really like Victoriana, I don’t like steampunk, I don’t like military thrillers, but I’ve also read examples of those that I have liked… so who knows, really. I’m game. If someone told me I should give e.g. Poldark a go, I’d give it a go. My wife got me reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife last year. It’s a book that I’d have passed over, I suppose, but I loved it.

8) What was the last book you read, that wasn’t one of your clients, and did you enjoy it? 

I don’t finish books I don’t like – life’s too short to push through something you’re not enjoying. For what purpose – because someone else thinks you should? No thanks! Same goes for films, telly and wine. The last book I read that I really enjoyed (leaving aside my collection of Collins reference books for mushrooms, butterflies and birds…!) is Lanny by Max Porter which is just phenomenal.

9) Once you leave your desk for the day, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening, what do you do to relax?

I ride my bike. It is one of life’s great joys, and putting the hammer down as you break away uphill is one of life’s great pleasures, even if you’re only pretending you’re in line for the maglia rosa… so that helps blow the cobwebs out. When I get home, I muck around with my dog, Sid, cook some food – my wife and I are both pretty good cooks (if that’s not too self-congratulating) – and watch some TV, or play Playstation which is the king of unwinding but also games these days are just mindblowing in complexity of visuals, interaction and storytelling. I’m also renovating my flat, so far too often the real answer here is that I’m to be found stuck up a ladder or under some floorboards somewhere. On Fridays, I meet my wife and we go for a long walk in the wetlands near our flat, or in Epping Forest, have a pint, cook some food – you can see a pattern emerging. We’ll watch a film, play some music…I’ve recently rediscovered, and introduced Jaime to, painting Warhammer…!?

10) Apologies for the sidetrack – Do you like Rod Stewart, and if so, do you have a favourite song of his?

I like Faces; A Nod Is As Good As A Wink… in particular (Rod’s voice is on point in Love Lives Here), but Rod’s not done anything good since before If You Think I’m Sexy. Alan Parks will hate me for this answer.

Thank you for visiting my blog Tom, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

First Drafts With… S. E. Moorhead

Hi everyone, and continuing the First Drafts series I am delighted to introduce fellow Liverpool writer S. E. Moorhead. S. E. Moorhead’s novel, Witness X, is out next year.

She was kind enough to join me for a quick chat about her writing process, from idea generation to first draft.

Over to you Sarah…

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

Usually, I have an idea in my head for about two years before I get the chance to really think it through and write it down. I let it brew in the teapot of my mind and give my brain a chance to come up with its own ideas without forcing them  which can be very interesting! However, at some point, I need to sit down and organise and structure all the thoughts, which takes discipline and effort.

My ideas usually start with a ‘what if…?’

So Witness X started with the idea ‘What if it was possible to see the crime directly from a witness’s brain?’

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

The first two books I wrote, I just splurged all the ideas down and let the story develop as I wrote. I thought this was a good idea because I let my creative side take over.However, this made editing really difficult because I hadn’t taken the time to really think through the plotting and the story arc. Now that I have more experience, I plot the story first so that I haven’t launched off into a storyline that is going to be chaotic and will need a lot of work to bring it back to its arc. Then, I let the creative process take over. I think it is a balancing act between creativity and organisation. 

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

I tend to write about things that I am interested in and so I have already read books or watched documentaries in the past, so I have a stock of information.

But then when I need to fine tune my research, I love to speak to the experts; my brother, Justin, is a lecturer in Criminal Justice and an ex-probation officer, my other brother, Damian, worked as a forensic scientist for a while and knows a great deal about crime. One of my cousins, Julia, is a neurologist and my other cousin, Neti, is a psychologist, so I do tend to pick their brains. 

I also follow a lot of clever people on Twitter who are kind enough to answer my questions, and I read up and use the internet. 

I think the important thing is with research not to get lost down the rabbit hole of Google, but to write briefly in your ms what you want to say and then really focus in your research so that you can be as efficient as possible or else writing time is totally eaten up with research. 

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

As I say, I usually have an idea in my head for two years before I start writing, and so the thinking process takes time. I am a writer not only when the words are flowing, but when I am walking in the woods and thinking, daydreaming over coffee, scribbling ideas down on a mind map and even fumbling through a million little scraps of paper on which I have collected ideas.

However, once I sit down and plan on screen, then I’m in business and it seems to be an ongoing process for the next year when I sculpt my ideas into something that hopefully makes sense as a novel. 

5) How does the draft form on the screen? 

I tend to write parts here and there and then piece them together like a patchwork quilt, but I have just discovered Scrivener and this is making the whole process so much easier because all my notes and ideas are organised and easily accessible and I can build them up or use them as I go along. It’s like having all your notes, research and manuscript on the desk in front of you, but its all organised and in digital form.

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

I have a wonderful old writing desk with an interesting history, which you may want to see and read about here!

https://semoorhead.wordpress.com/2016/11/10/a-desk-of-ones-own/

It’s in the front bay window of my house and I sit looking out as the world goes by daydreaming when I should be writing!

Thanks for visiting the blog, Sarah. Finding out about your idea generation to first draft has been fascinating.

Bio:

S.E. Moorhead was born in Liverpool of Anglo-Irish parents. She has told stories since childhood and uses writing as bubblegum for her over-active brain; to keep it out of trouble.

Driven by her fascination with meaning, motivation and mystery, she studied Theology at university.

Over the last twenty years, apart from teaching in secondary school, S.E.Moorhead has raised two sons, attained a black belt in kickboxing, worked as a chaplain and youthworker and written articles for newspapers and magazines about her work in education and religion. 

She is married to Séan and still lives in her beloved hometown.

 

An Interview With Anne Williams

Hi everyone, and this morning I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Anne Williams to my blog. Here, Anne answers my questions on how she became an agent and what she looks for in a submission letter.

Over to you, Anne…

1) Did you see yourself becoming a literary agent after you left school? Did you actually have any other career plans? 

I went to university after I left school (following a gap year working as a tour guide in Italy, which I loved) and, once I got my degree, it occurred to me I could try publishing.  Before that I didn’t have the confidence to have a go at an industry that I had felt was too daunting to get into.   I barely knew that there was such a thing as a literary agent then, though a university acquaintance’s mum was one, and very generously helped me with a list of publishers to write to.   One of them had a gap in their publicity department and so I got my first job, as a publicity assistant.  I’d had to learn to type though, first, which was a huge obstacle.   That was in the days of typewriters…

2) In your view, how has the publishing industry changed since you first started out as a commissioning editor? Firstly for Michael Joseph and then Headline?  

It’s changed enormously.  First of all, whilst Headline was in its infancy, the Net Book Agreement went, which meant that booksellers could discount books, opening up the way for the supermarkets to stock books, and leading to a boom in commercial fiction, but making life tougher for traditional booksellers.   Then, after my Headline days, came the ebook revolution, and the increased dominance of Amazon. So life became tougher once again on the high street, with so many bookselling fixtures falling by the wayside, making it much harder for authors to get a traditional print publishing deal than had previously been the case.  But ebooks also mean that more authors can be published in e only, either through self-publishing or e first publishers, which has meant more opportunities in many ways.  Ebooks have marked a seismic shift in the industry.

3) How did you find the jump from editor to literary agent and what do you enjoy most about your job?  

There is great freedom, in that I can pretty much take on any author I feel I would like to represent and can sell, and the sense of possibilities can be very exciting.  As an editor, I was lucky to have a lot of commissioning freedom (much more than would be the case now) but you were always part of a bigger organisation, and what you could and couldn’t take on depended on them.  Now it’s a much more individual decision, whether to sign up an author or not.   That can be fantastic when it works out, since their success vindicates your faith in them, but you feel it more keenly when it doesn’t, since you are more directly involved with the author and their ups and downs.  It’s all much more personal. 

What I enjoy most is seeing an author succeed!  My lovely author, Julie Houston, has recently had a huge success in ebook with her fifth novel, A VILLAGE AFFAIR, the first I’d managed to place with a publisher after lots of rejections. We soldiered on together, and she has been in the Kindle top 100 bestseller list now for almost five months and is currently at number 6.  She’s been in the top ten for a month.   Seeing an author, whom I knew would be hugely enjoyed by thousands of people, finally reaching her audience, and them getting so much pleasure from her writing, is immensely rewarding.

4) First and foremost, what do you look for in query letters?  

An author who is writing in an area in which I feel I might be able to place them, and them doing it a way that marks them out from the crowd – with an original idea, twist or type of character, for example.


5) On the other hand, what is your pet peeve about query letters?   

Ones that are clearly sent out to hundreds of agents worldwide and that tell you they are the best thing since sliced bread.

6) In your view, do you think there anything missing from the thriller market at the moment that you think ‘I could see that in a book’?    

I think the bases are pretty well covered, but I’d like to see more novels set in slightly different ethnic communities, either in the UK or beyond. Being from the North, I also have a soft spot for books set there.

7) Do you have a guilty pleasure genre or novel that you go back to reading?  

I never feel guilty about reading a book.  I don’t often re-read fiction – there are too many new writers to explore. 

 

8) What was the last book you read and did you enjoy it?  

I read THE BAY AT NOON by Shirley Hazzard, which I loved.  It sent me to read her book about Graham Greene, GREENE ON CAPRI, whose THE QUIET AMERICAN I’d actually re-read a few months before, on a trip to Vietnam, as well as to re-reading Norman Lewis’s wonderful NAPLES ’44.    I love it when one book leads you to another.

 

 

9) Once you leave your desk for the day, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening, what do you do to relax?

Go downstairs and start cooking dinner, though in the summer I often have a little wander around my garden first.  On a Friday, my husband and I very often go out for dinner at our local pub – they gave us a bottle of champagne a while ago since they’d worked out we were their best customers!

 

10) Apologies for the sidetrack – Do you like Rod Stewart, and if so, do you have a favourite song of his? 

I really don’t like Rod Stewart, apart from Maggie May, which I in fact think is a great song!   It also has the same title as a book by one of my longest-standing authors, Lyn Andrews.

 

Thank you Anne for taking the time out of your day to answer my questions.

Bio: Anne Williams worked for over fifteen years as a commissioning editor, first at Michael Joseph, then for thirteen years at Headline during which time she was Co-Publisher of the Review imprint and Publisher of the main Headline imprint. Anne commissioned and edited a number of Headline’s major commercial fiction authors, including the Sunday Times #1 bestsellers Sheila O’Flanagan and Lyn Andrews, and prize-winning crime writers Barbara Nadel, Manda Scott and Caroline Graham (on whose books the tv series Midsomer Murders was based). She joined the Kate Hordern Literary Agency in 2009 and is based in Central London.

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