Today I’m thrilled to have crime writer Paul Finch talking us through his first draft process.
He cut his literary teeth penning episodes of the British TV crime drama, The Bill, and has written extensively in the field of children’s animation. However, he is probably best known for his work in thrillers, dark fantasy and horror, in which capacity he is a two-time winner of the British Fantasy Award and a one-time winner of the International Horror Guild Award.
He is responsible for numerous short stories and novellas, but also for two horror movies (a third of his, War Wolf, is in pre-production), and for a series of best-selling crime novels featuring the British police detective, Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg.
Paul lives in Lancashire, UK, with his wife Cathy and his children, Eleanor and Harry.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
In my case, the book needs a beginning and an end before I can seriously start to write it. It works for some authors to just get stuck in and see where the story takes them. Not for me. I need a rough idea what I’m heading towards. Okay, ultimately I may not stick with that ending, but it’s a target of sorts, and that gives me impetus to evolve a workable story. So before anything else, the very bare bones get sketched out.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
I don’t know whether it’s a set routine as much as a familiar path. Once the full story is up and running in my mind, or on paper, I divide it into chapters, fleshing it out with more and more details along the way. None of this will necessarily make the final cut. I make lots of changes as I write, but it’s a gradual process of development that I more or less fall into with each new project.
The actual first draft starts life on my Dictaphone. Once I know what the chapter is going to consist of, I set off on foot, walking the dog and at the same time dictating into my hand-recorder. It’s partly a way to get away from that computer screen, but also I find that exercising and getting out into the fresh air enables me to concentrate. I usually type it all up later. It’s never the finished version, of course – it always requires lots of nips and tucks, but this active process tends to help create a fast, driving narrative. At least, I feel it does.
How important is research to you?
At one time I used to spend too much time researching, though that was in the days when I was writing a lot of folklore-based horror and fantasy. These days, as I’m primarily writing my Heck crime novels, I don’t need to do quite as much. My police procedural knowledge is still pretty good, but even when it isn’t I like to get cracking with the actual writing these days, so I bash it all in leaving any necessary gaps for factual stuff, which I can research later on.
How do you go about researching?
I have loads of textbooks relevant to the stuff I write. I also have loads of contacts who are only a phone-call away. Failing all that, there is also the internet – which, as far as I can see, is just about the best research tool we writers currently have available.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I store them both online and in hard copy format, in organised files. In regard to the latter, I’m probably a bit old-fashioned – I literally have shelves groaning beneath the weight of folders and ring-binders. Even then though, it all gets a bit out of hand. I have so many idea files now that, even though I store them in very orderly fashion, and more importantly as potential stories, novels or screenplays – sometimes with rudimentary plots attached, I lose track of stuff. But it’s better to have it all there somewhere than to forget it and lost it forever.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
It isn’t a tidy process, I’ll tell you that. It’s strictly done on a chapter-by-chapter basis. But even then there are certain scenes I find easier to write than others. Character interaction, especially if there’s lots of dialogue, tends to come very naturally to me. I’m quite fortunate in that regard – my characters do tend to speak for themselves. Anyway, those scenes are generally easier, so if I’m tired, I tend to write those first. Descriptive work often comes later – that requires more thought in my case. But most complex of all are the action sequences. There are an awful lot of those in my Heck novels, but they don’t spill out naturally. I need to craft them, paying as much attention as I can to the syntax and the pace. Even when completed, they need to be relayed onto tape and then played back – I need to be absolutely sure they have the desired impact and don’t overrun or, God forbid, drag. It may sound a cumbersome process overall, but as I say, it happens chapter by chapter … so piece by piece, the book gets built.
Not really, but I do have indispensable tools of the trade. My Dictaphone is vital. I don’t go anywhere without it … better than a notepad for me, especially when I’m out walking the dogs. Also my laptop. I don’t want to create the image that I work around the clock, but most evenings when I’m sitting in front of the TV with my family, I like to have my laptop on my knee, mainly so that I can catch up with admin and marketing stuff, but also to potter around on the latest project – try to patch up any bits and bobs that maybe didn’t work out during the day.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
Better ask my wife about that. I do get lost a little bit, but that’s also because I tend to wear earphones when I’m writing – either because I’m working from a draft I recorded earlier, or because I’m giving myself a musical background to help create mood; not specifically to isolate myself.
What does your work space look like?
Not as tidy as I’d like. It’s our spare bedroom, and always has been. It’s furnished as a fully operational study, complete with desk, book-packed shelves, computer gear, bulletin boards, phone line etc. But it’s not always easy convincing the rest of the family that it isn’t also a lumber room. There are times when there are way too many boxes taking up the floor-space.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
Bit of both, to be honest. I try and keep it tight – I don’t regard writing the first draft as some kind of sprint to the end. It’s a lovely feeling having broken the back of the job by getting it all down on paper. When it happens, I suspect we all share that great feeling. But also, how cool would it be if that first draft was also your final draft, and something you didn’t have to rewrite in its entirety because you’d been too quick off the mark before? I try and go for a happy medium. But inevitably, no matter how careful you are, stuff slips through that needs extra work. So there’s no hard rule in my case.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
Like everyone else, I have to work within word-count limitations, so though it’s easy to say I like to give a project whatever it’s worth, it’s also the case that I have to be disciplined about it, though that’s usually for later. Though I dislike busting word-limits, at first draft I don’t worry about it too much. Hence I don’t worry about the word counter too much at this early stage. Once the first draft is done, I calculate how much I’m going to have to excise in order to get it under the limit. Often it’s many thousands, but that doesn’t worry me. Nothing was ever written that couldn’t stand a bit of trimming. I find it’s a rarity when all the fat is gone and I still have to cut some of the meat.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
I’m under contract to write two Heck novels a year, so there isn’t much time for artistic temperament. Though I produce and develop ideas all the time, the actual work must be conceived and completed within six months. Writing the first draft is only a part of that, of course, but as you can imagine I can’t afford to let it run over three months. I’d prefer two if possible. What shape is it in? That depends on how many sets of rapids I’ve hit en route. Ideally it will be very close to what eventually will be the last draft, and sometimes it is – but it’s different each time.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
I usually read it aloud from my laptop screen – preferably with an audience: my wife, Cathy, who will happily chip in if any issues arise. If Cathy isn’t available, I read it aloud to an empty room and must trust myself to note anything that doesn’t work.
What happens now that first draft is done?
The second draft basically. Thanks to the previous read-through, I should have a pile of notes with which to work, but it will still necessitate a another complete read-through and, if the work is significantly overlong, a far more vicious editing job – taking out every single word and phrase that doesn’t help create the impact I’m aiming for. After this, it’s then got to go to my editor at HarperCollins, and an even more thorough cutting process will commence.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
You’re most welcome. Thanks for having me.
Dead Man Walking
As a brutal winter takes hold of the Lake District, a prolific serial killer stalks the fells. ‘The Stranger’ has returned and for DS Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg, the signs are all too familiar.
Last seen on Dartmoor ten years earlier, The Stranger murdered his victims in vicious, cold-blooded attacks – and when two young women go missing, Heck fears the worst.
As The Stranger lays siege to a remote community, Heck watches helplessly as the killer plays his cruel game, picking off his victims one by one. And with no way to get word out of the valley, Heck has no choice but to fight fire with fire …
Give me a shout if you fancy doing the First Draft Q&A. You can find the list containing all previous authors Here.