Again, another great first draft Q&A for you this week, with crime writer Isabelle Grey.
All Isabelle ever wanted to be was a writer, and that’s pretty much the only work she’s ever done. As both Isabelle Grey and Isabelle Anscombe (journalism and non-fiction), she’s written advertising copy, exhibition catalogues and illustrated books, been a ghostwriter, magazine editor, journalist and reviewer, and now writes radio and television drama and fiction. She has learnt something from every single job. Writing is difficult, which is what makes it so endlessly fascinating, frustrating and rewarding.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
It’s never a decision. I have a virtual ‘bottom drawer’ where I put stray thoughts and ideas; when enough of them start to stick together and form a critical mass, then I try to work out what the story in there might be. Sometimes there isn’t yet a story, so it all goes back in the ‘drawer’ to mulch down for another year or so.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
Not especially. But there’s a set of questions that any story has to address, starting off with: Whose story is this? What’s it really about? Why do I want to tell it? I have to know what’s in in for me – what will really drive me to tell it.
I use paper to mind-map ideas, and to make reminder notes and jot down questions as I go along, but otherwise I pretty much stick to the keyboard. I wrote my first (non-fiction) book on a manual typewriter, so at some level I’m still full of wonder at the very existence of my iMac!
How important is research to you?
Very. Sometimes it’s better to start writing and then target the gaps, and sometimes a more scattergun approach throws up unfamiliar realities that take the story off in rich and unexpected directions. But it’s important to know when to stop.
How do you go about researching?
I’m a very dogged Googler, and can usually find a huge amount of what I want online. Only when I know I’m not going to waste their time do I seek out experts. Luckily I already know several former detectives and forensic experts, and, as a former journalist, I have no problem emailing strangers to ask specific questions. Most people are incredibly generous, and like to help you get it right. And there’s nothing like hearing someone speak about what they do.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
It’s all stored digitally, in documents or databases.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
I write quite a long story outline first, which throws up any fundamental problems. Once I reckon it’s going to work, I create a big, rough working-notes document into which I put everything in the vague running order of my outline. I use this as a prompt, and to go back to when I get stuck.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
No. I often do a lot of thinking or making notes away from my desk (on trains, for instance), but I very seldom actually write anywhere other than at my own desk.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
When my daughter was little, she told a teacher: “Mummy sits at her computer and writes down what the people in her head are saying”. There comes a point when I only want to be with them.
What does your work space look like?
I have a desk and computer in a corner of my main open-plan living space. But I also have a Dorian Gray attic, where everything else work-related is stored.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
I try to keep going, but generally, if I hit a rough patch, it’s because I haven’t set something up properly earlier on, so then I go back and fix it. That way I can go forward again more smoothly, and don’t waste time writing stuff that will only have to be junked later.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
Word-count. It keeps me competitive, gives me a target to beat.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
It takes until within a whisker of the deadline! I cling to the fantasy that my first draft will work, even though I know from experience that it’s always the second draft that counts. And the third will be even better.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
What happens now that first draft is done?
I leave it entirely alone for as long as I can, then, usually with the benefit of my editor and agent’s notes, start the second draft.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
Good Girls Don’t Die
Accused of grassing up a fellow officer and driven brutally out of home and job, Grace Fisher is thankful to survive some dark times and find haven with the Major Investigation Team in Essex.
One female student is missing, last seen at a popular bar in Colchester. When a second student, also out drinking, is murdered and left grotesquely posed, the case becomes headline news.
Someone is leaking disturbing details to a tabloid crime reporter. Is it the killer? Or a detective close to the case?
With another victim, and under siege by the media, the murder enquiry hits a dead end. The review team brought in to shake things up is headed by Grace’s old DCI. Who is going to listen to her now?