Today in the First Draft hot seat is crime writer Fergus McNeill.
Fergus describes himself as the author of the contemporary crime thrillers “Eye Contact” and “Knife Edge”, games industry veteran, app designer and occasional photographer.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
It all starts in a hail of notes and bullet-points, with the odd badly-written paragraph thrown in, trying to capture as many thoughts as possible before they evaporate. In the midst of all this chaos, the first thing I focus on is the overarching story concept – getting a general feel for what the story will be about, where it’s going to begin and where it will end. Once I have that, I start to play around with ideas for key scenes. I love those moments that really move you, and stay with you long after you’ve put the book down, and I want to have them in mind as early as possible, letting them shape the story before I get too attached to anything I’ve written.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
At the outset, everything is wonderfully fluid and changeable, so my main objective is just to explore as many ideas as possible. Often it’s about asking yourself questions – Where did this character grow up? How did she come to be in this particular job? What would her friends say if asked to describe her? – and letting that lead you into the story. Most of this work won’t be used directly, or it may end up being changed beyond recognition, but I’ve learned that even bad ideas can be the catalyst for something good. I’ve now disciplined myself to jot everything down, usually by tapping thoughts into my iPhone. I keep one big, untidy document for whatever project I’m working on, and I have that synched to my email account so it’s always backed up. Every so often, I’ll edit it on my computer, sorting it into some sort of order and, in the process, reminding myself of all those great (or terrible) ideas I wrote over the preceding weeks.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Years of working in the computer game industry has left me with sluggish penmanship and handwriting that is almost completely illegible. In contrast, my keyboard skills have developed to become extremely nimble, so I now carry a small laptop everywhere I go. Part of me is saddened by this, as I love that romantic notion of a good, solid pen and one of those delicious notepads with a fabric-feel cover and crisp white pages… but it just wouldn’t be practical. My typing keeps pace with my thoughts, while writing by hand would slow my progress to a state approaching rigor mortis.
How important is research to you?
Research is crucial. Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a wonderful screen-writing seminar by Robert McKee where he pointed out that the thing we call “writer’s block” is often just a “lack of research”. I’ve never forgotten that. Now, whenever things slow down, or the words are becoming difficult, I know that I probably need more research to fuel the story.
How do you go about researching?
In the past couple of books, a lot of my research has involved places. Sometimes it’s the scene of a terrible crime or the backdrop for a pivotal exchange between two characters, other times it’s just about understanding the route that a character takes on their daily commute to work, but in each case it helps me to convey a sense of place, and it makes the story feel more real to me. Because I don’t live near most of the locations, I use the net – Google Streetview, Flickr and Panoramio – to scout prospective settings before visiting them physically.
Another aspect of research for a crime novel is understanding police work. While I don’t really write traditional “police procedural” novels, I do try to portray my detective and his colleagues as realistically as possible. Several currently-serving officers have been kind enough to help me with my enquiries, and their input has certainly improved the stories, as well as saving me from some silly procedural mistakes.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I used to try and keep track of things with different documents stored in different places, but this led to problems. There were an extremely frustrating couple of weeks when I couldn’t find where I’d recorded the name of a particular road in Bath. I spent hours, panning around in Google Maps, trying to find the place again. Now, I use a web service called DropBox – it’s basically a large folder that I can access from any machine anywhere. If I take a photo, or find an online image or article on the web, I copy it to DropBox so that I’ll always have it to hand, wherever I happen to be writing. My notes are stored in the same way and, as I begin to develop draft chapters, I save them all to my DropBox too – it’s reassuring to know that, even if I lose my bag or damage my laptop, my work-in-progress is backed up in the cloud.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
I work on a chapter (or section) at a time. Occasionally, I’ll just type in a kind of “longhand” style, with full sentences and punctuation. More often, I’ll begin with a series of bullet points, sketching out the scene, touching on all the elements I want to include. In many ways, my first pass through a chapter is more akin to a film script, with dialogue listed in full, some narrative stage-direction, and very little else. This approach lets me develop ideas quickly, and understand the whole scene before I attempt to write it up properly.
Once the skeleton is in place, I work my way through, turning the bullet points into full paragraphs, splitting and attributing the dialogue, and trying to create a smoothly flowing narrative.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
I don’t think I’ve ever written in silence – I need to be listening to music as I type. In some ways I suppose that has become a ritual but, as someone who doesn’t write every day, I find it’s enormously useful for mentally “picking up where you left off”. If I was listening to a particular album when I last worked on a chapter, I’ll avoid that album until the next time I work on that same chapter, when the music seems to take me straight back to the thoughts I had before.
I have different playlists for different narrative viewpoints, which helps to keep them distinct in my mind, and listening to something sad, or eerie, or tense, can really infuse your writing with a heightened sense of that emotion.
The only downside to all of this is that it tends to burn indelible associations into your head, changing the way you feel about particular songs. After using it as an audio mood-board for one of my characters, I can never again listen to Imogen Heap’s “The Moment I Said It” without being transported to a scene in one of my books.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
While I’m writing, I try to immerse myself as much as possible, leaving the day-to-day concerns of my own life behind while I focus on my characters. Even a phone call can be jarring, as it snaps me back to reality and I know it will take time to get back into the scene I was working on.
What does your work space look like?
Much of my first novel was set in and around Bristol, a place I knew very little about. I’d never lived there or spent any amount of time there, so I made a few trips to the relevant places to get a better feel for them and do some local research. And this, more than anything else, changed the way I write.
My visits were certainly enjoyable and informative, but there was more to it than that. It felt as though I’d “walked onto the set” of my story, and I found that the inspiration and words really began to flow. So now, wherever possible, I write “on-location”. In practice, this might mean sitting with my laptop on the sea-wall at Severn Beach, on a park bench in Winchester, or by the harbour in Bristol. Sometimes, it’s not practical to be right on the scene, but I’ll try and find a café close by, so I can walk through the place, then quickly jot down my notes while everything’s fresh in my mind. And of course, at the end of each writing day, you’ll find me on a train, or locked away in a hotel room, developing my notes and bullet-points into full text.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
I have a terrible tendency to edit as I go. I really shouldn’t, I know, but it probably stems from those early days in creative writing class, where I was working to produce polished sections or chapters that I could read back to my classmates. It certainly means that the first draft takes longer, but I tell myself it’ll pay dividends when I have to begin editing – whether this is true or not, I don’t know, but it makes me feel better.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
I’m a compulsive word counter – I keep an excel spreadsheet of all my chapters as the draft develops, with a word-count for each as well as a running total. However, though this may be seriously uncool and perhaps even a little bit OCD, it does allow me to get a feel for the pace and rhythm of the story as it unfolds. And in my case, it can also warn me if it’s been too long since my charismatic killer eliminated another victim!
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
I have a full-time day-job, which means I write mostly on weekends. The first draft probably takes 9 months or so, but it’s hard to say for sure, especially if I’m dividing my time with edits on a previous book. As to the draft itself, I try to arrive at the end with something that’s in reasonably good shape. If nothing else, that helps give me the confidence to let myself and other people read it.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
I tried reading a paper draft manuscript on a long train journey once, and it was a disaster. So many sheets of A4, perilously piled up on a table between other passengers’ coffee cups. And then, one generously-proportioned commuter got up and their clothing dragged half the pages onto the floor. If I had been a serial killer, I could have ensured they never did it again, but as a mere author I felt a less confrontational approach was needed.
Now, I use a Kindle Fire HD, which I can read just about anywhere, and without any fuss. It still allows me to quickly highlight anything that I want to return to later, but it costs less than a decent printer, and it weighs less than those dreaded reams of paper.
What happens now that first draft is done?
I completed the first draft of my last book over a weekend in Bristol, where I’d locked myself away, vowing not to emerge until the damn thing was finished. Once the last words were typed, I backed up my work to DropBox, phoned my wife to thank her for her patience, then went across the road to a nice restaurant and treated myself to a celebratory steak and chips. As days go, “first draft completion day” is definitely one of the best!
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
If you want to answer the First Draft questions, please just let me know and we’ll sort out a date!