Today in the first draft hot seat is Rachel Abbott.
Rachel has spent the majority of her working life running an interactive media company, designing and building software and websites, mainly for education, she has also fulfilled a lifelong ambition of buying a property in Italy. She has also found the time to fulfil her second ambition of writing a novel.
With no plan to publish, early readers applied some pressure, and in November 2011 Rachel published her first book – Only the Innocent – for all ebook formats.
The book proved very successful, and by February 2012 it had reached #1 in the Amazon charts (all genres). It remained there for four weeks. It also hit the top spot on the Waterstones ebook charts, and remained there throughout August, September and most of October 2012.
Rachel’s books are published by Thomas and Mercer in the US and Canada, and Only the Innocent was launched in paperback, Kindle and audio versions on 5th Feburary 2013 – going straight into the top 10 in the Kindle store. Foreign rights in Only the Innocent have been sold in several countries, including France, Germany, Brazil and Russia. An audio version of the book is also in development.
She still has a home in central Italy which she shares with her husband and two dogs, but also has another home in Alderney where they currently spend the majority of their time.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
I usually have the idea about my next book when I’m writing the current one. I haven’t yet been in the position of sitting down and thinking “what am I going to write about next?” because I’ve always known, so while I’m writing the current book I make notes of any ideas for the next one in a special notebook that is always with me.
When the time comes to write the book, I always start with the basic idea. For example, with Only the Innocent the idea was “what set of circumstances would be so bad that a woman would have no other option than to murder a man.” Then I have to work out what those circumstances might have been.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
Once I have the initial idea, I then have to start fleshing it out. I will probably already have a couple of characters in mind – in the example above it was the victim and the murderer. So I start to develop ideas for their characters – who they are, what they look like, where they live. As I do that, other characters that are associated with them spring to mind, and they find a place in the story. The important thing to me is that I have a visual reference for each character and each location. I need those people and places so firmly fixed in my head that I can practically see them.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
I use a mixture. My project notebook goes everywhere with me – especially to bed! If I wake up in the night with a great idea, I have to scribble it down straight away – even if that means writing in the dark. Occasionally I might find that I don’t have my notebook handy, so I scribble on bits of paper, and if I’m in front of a computer I write notes and store them in a specific folder. Then I pull all the bits together, and start to sketch out the story.
I am a bit of a software freak, so I use two different types of software for the planning stages. I start with Storylines from Anthemion. My novels tend to have several different threads, all of which converge towards the end of the book. These might be different relationships, or plot points that need to be kept alive. Storylines allows me to create a cork board with all the different ideas for the whole book. The plot points or characters are listed down the side, and the scenes or chapters along the top. I plot the whole thing out on the screen so I can see what happens and when.
Once I’m past this stage, I move on to using Scrivener. Storylines has lots of the features that I need, but Scrivener has many extras that I use consistently. For example, my stories are often told from multiple points of view. I can colour code each scene according to whose point of view I am writing from, and then produce a scene breakdown which immediately lets me see if the balance of POV scenes is right.
But more importantly for me, Scrivener allows me to create keywords for every single plot point and clue, and each scene can have multiple keywords attached. I can search for a specific keyword and find only the scenes that are relevant, so I can read the ‘story’ of a plot point in one go. For example, in The Back Road, a man went missing several years in the past. His name crops up from time to time, and it’s important to ensure that the information is consistent but not repeated. So each scene in which he is mentioned is flagged with an appropriate keyword. At the end, I select all the scenes with this particular keyword, and read his story in isolation – so that I can check that everything is there and I haven’t contradicted myself.
Oh – and Scrivener automatically outputs to Kindle as well as Word or just about anything else, so it’s quite to make a copy that I can read.
How important is research to you?
Massively important. I would say that about 50% of my writing time is research. Everything from what clothes my character might wear to how a woman might murder a man in cold blood.
How do you go about researching?
I start by researching the key elements of the book. For example, in Only the Innocent I had to think about how a woman would commit murder. If it’s not in anger, then poison is the method of choice for women, I believe. However, this had to be a murder committed within an hour or so and poison just wouldn’t do. I don’t believe that many women (and my woman had to be a normal, rational, law-abiding citizen for the most part) would actually stab somebody, so I had to find a way of executing the man that seemed realistic. That took quite a bit of researching.
As a book develops, new lines of research are always popping up – I’m currently researching the feasibility of hacking a Mac computer, so I’ve joined a Mac hacking site and found a really helpful man in Spain who has given me help.
Generally, I find that people will respond well to book research queries, and I have contacted individuals that I have found on Google in all kinds of companies – from builders on Anglesey to staff in deed poll offices. I try to make sure that I acknowledge them all, and keep a list of people who respond to a query so that hopefully I don’t forget anybody.
Before I start to write, I also send a whole list of questions to my friendly and ever-helpful policeman. He responds, and we chat on Skype – but these are only the initial questions – enough to get me going. When I have finished, I then have to go through everything to make sure that, even if the police aspects are not 100% accurate, they are accurate enough without making the story stilted by procedure.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
Scrivener again. I have a section of my ‘binder’ which holds character profiles, a research section to which I can add links, images, or anything else that might be relevant, location pages – these are really important to me because I want to be able to describe them accurately, and timeline documents – which I produce in Excel and then paste into a file in my Scrivener binder.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
By the time I sit down to write, I have the book pretty clearly in my head. I’ve already done the ‘flowchart’ and already sketched out the character profiles. But the first thing I do then is create the book sections – individual folders for any discrete elements – such as prologue, the past, the present – whatever the book demands. Then I sketch in the main elements of the book – somebody goes missing, somebody is found murdered, etc.
But once I then start to write, something else takes over. It is very possible that the shape of the book will change. One simple idea might fundamentally alter the course of the book – and then I just go with the flow and see where it takes me.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
Sorry to be boring, but none at all!
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
It depends. I read recently that Lee Child accused somebody of being a ‘pretentious git’ when he was asked about writers’ block. His view is that it’s a job, and we should just sit down and get on with it. I take his point, but I get ‘plot block’ sometimes. For example, I’m currently working on my third novel, and I know 90% of the plot. But there is one bit that just won’t come to me. I know exactly who has killed whom and why, and I know how it all ends. But there is one bit of the core action that I just can’t seem to get to at the moment. I’m hoping that when I get to that bit of the writing, it will just come to me – but if it doesn’t I will spend hours or days sitting talking to my husband and trying to find a way through. That’s when the outside world has to exist, because I need to bounce ideas around.
What does your work space look like?
Messy! Huge iMac and lamp, and loads of bits of paper. These are not necessarily book related, but might be contracts that I’ve got to sign, or bits of paper from accountants, or bills that I need to pay. I tend to ignore every scrap of paper that isn’t book related until the last possible moment.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
A bit of both, I suppose. I usually send the first 30% of the book to my agent to have a look at, so she can see if it’s heading in a good direction from somebody’s viewpoint other than mine. She will come back with lots of suggestions, and some of these will be taken on board immediately with others on the back burner until I’ve finished the first draft.
As I write, I also tend to look back at the previous day’s work and make some small edits – nothing major – but if I find that the book is somehow changing direction, I will go back and edit to ensure it all hangs together.
Scrivener keeps a count of words. It keeps the full project count, but with The Back Road I had a schedule to stick to, so I put in a target for the number of words that I wanted to complete in a month. It then works out a daily target from that, I can see how I’m doing against that target on a daily basis.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
The first draft is probably about three months. It all depends what else is going on. As a self-published author, I have to do my own marketing and the three months after a book release are pretty much dedicated to promotional work and very little writing, unfortunately. After that, things calm down a bit, but there does always seem to be a lot of admin that takes up time too. This might be dealing with my US publishers, or trying to get the paperback version of my books ready for general distribution. These things take time, so with book three, I suspect the first draft will end up taking about four months. The actual writing part of that is probably only about 50% of that time. The rest is research, making sure that I have the character profiles completed, locations identified and described, etc. I’m a very fast typist – something that I learned when I was much younger and now I’m extremely grateful for. I can type at about 90 words a minute, so when I really am focused, I can get through a lot of words in a day.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
The first read through is on screen. I can spot the big mistakes there. I also use the keywords I mentioned previously to check that all the plot points work well. I check all the action against my timeline too to ensure it’s all feasible. Then I print it out and read it again. This usually creates some very significant changes – for example, if there are bits that as a reader I think are too slow. Finally, I read it out loud. This has the biggest impact by a long way, and I kind of dread it, because I know I’m going to say ‘yuk’ so many times! Only when I’m really happy do I transfer it to my e-reader, and it’s amazing how many other things I pick up at that point.
What happens now that first draft is done?
It goes to my agent, and she reads it along with an editor that works for her. They both come back with lots of comments – and then it’s on to draft two!
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.