Today in the First Draft hot seat is AJ Waines
AJ (Alison) Waines started writing Psychological Mystery Thrillers, following 15 years as a Psychotherapist. She is fascinated by the difference between the persona we present to the world and the real self that’s hidden underneath the surface. She’s intrigued by unusual psychological disorders, as well as by ordinary individuals who make one drastic mistake. Having worked with ex-offenders from high-security institutions, she’s been face to face with the criminal mind – an exclusive and privileged position.
Her Agent is Caradoc King (at United Agents) and she has book deals in France and Germany. She lives in Southampton with her husband and loves secrets, lies and anything hidden under floorboards. Her first two books, ‘The Evil Beneath’ and ‘Girl on a Train’ are out now on Amazon.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
When I wrote my first novel (not published), I started with an incident (following Stephen King’s great advice) and just kept going. I had no plan and no idea where the plot was heading. I managed to get an Agent on the basis of that book, but it didn’t really work. Since then, I’ve sketched the bones of the whole story. I like to get a title early on as a focus and usually break the book into three ‘acts’ and try to think about high points at key places in the story, as well as character arcs. The Evil Beneathhas two clear story-strands going on at once, so it gets pretty complex.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
I’m very lucky to have the whole day as a landscape for writing. I tidy away urgent emails, set up my tweets and do scraps of admin and then I’m ready. My job, first and foremost, is to get the story down. If there are sections where I need research or need to look something up, I usually mark an X and come back to it later, so it doesn’t interrupt the flow. My target is very low, 500 words a day, but I usually manage 2-3,000, so that I always leave my desk feeling I’ve achieved my daily goal.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
My handwriting has become very scruffy over the years, so I tend to go straight to keyboard where I’m faster. I have notebooks in every room in the house and one in my bag whenever I go out, in order to catch little fragments that pop up. Even when I’m not writing (watching a film, waiting at a bus-stop) the story is still buzzing away in the background and I don’t want to lose anything.
How important is research to you?
It’s easy to get bogged down in research, but it is necessary and has to be accurate for the story to work and for it to be plausible to the reader. I usually gather far more information than I need, and maybe use tiny scraps, but it’s nearly always on subjects I find fascinating (such as odd psychological disorders, or court cases with expert witnesses or forensic details). I have an online dictionary to hand and use onelook.com for seeking related words, if my brain goes numb.The Evil Beneathhas a number of themes that required research: police procedural, details of the different London bridges, where bodies found in the Thames end up and so on.
How do you go about researching?
As ever, the internet is king – but you have to be careful to make sure you’re gathering information from the right country! On a number of occasions, I’ve found details (the legal system is the worst one) and thought it was based on UK, only to come across a word like ‘license plate’ (instead of ‘number plate’) and think – ‘Oops – US – not applicable’ and had to start again.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I have a folder for each novel on the PC and a manual folder too. The manual one contains related press clippings, character studies, time-lines (I’m always getting into a tangle with dates, especially if I move chapters around) and big chunks of research (such as details of court procedures, medical issues). On the computer, I have the novel itself, a list of chapters with short details of the scenes, the story outline, possible titles and research in lots of separate documents. Then there are the notebooks I mentioned earlier, which I update daily by transferring the ideas somewhere else – I hate random jottings left lying about – I want everything to have a place.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
From my outline I tend to focus on what will happen in the next scene. I see and hear it unfolding like a film inside my head, which is quite common for writers, I think. Although I have the story mapped out, I like to leave room for changes and improvements and I’m constantly thinking ‘How can I do this more dramatically?’ Often it isn’t about action, but about the order of reveals or the way something is said or missed out. ‘What if?’ Is terribly useful. I keep asking this as I go along. What if she didn’t know? What if this happened first?
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
I can’t have any music on when I’m writing and I work best if the house is empty. I have good novels to hand, written by other people (currently Notes on a Scandalby Zoe Heller and Tideline by Penny Hancock) and sometimes I dip into it them to remind myself how writers begin and end chapters, how they avoid clichés and so on, when my mind starts getting fuzzy.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
I’m completely transported and lose track of time. I love it that way – when I‘m in the flow and seem to be ‘living’ the story. Pure escapism!
What does your workspace look like?
I have the study to myself, so I like it tidy but ready for work. My A4 ringbinder for my current novel will be on the desk, with a to-do list for the day alongside it. There’s a window on my left with a view of trees and neighbours and usually it’s incredibly quiet, which is a boon. I have a noticeboard with lots of coded passwords, social media addresses etc, a map of the world, a filing cabinet, stacks of ready-to-use post -it notes and a glass of water that I swap for the odd cup of tea or coffee, now and again.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
In the first draft, my main task is to get the story down, but I do tend to keep an eye on spelling, grammar, rhythm, avoiding clichés etc, as I go. I think the main qualityof the writing needs to be there at the start – it’s hard to ‘fix’ this later – whereas it’s easier to rearrange chapters, remove/add characters or alter outcomes at later stages.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
I just use the PC word counter. I try not to look until the end of the day.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
The Evil Beneathtook around seven months for the first draft, but had lots of revisions and editing, back and forth to my Agent, for about another two years. I shifted Agent in the middle, so it took longer than it should have done.
I do most of the reading from the computer screen, but the hardcopy (A4, double-spaced) always throws up lots of aspects I hadn’t noticed; spellos, repeated words, sections that don’t flow or are clunky – or flaws in the plot. It gives a completely fresh context. I think it needs both.
What happens now that first draft is done?
A bit of celebrating is absolutely necessary, don’t you think! Then I ask my husband to read it with red pen in hand. He doesn’t particularly like crime novels, so he’s a fairly tough audience, but he reads quickly and always gives me useful feedback; he won’t pull any punches. Then I re-read and re-write on the basis of what he’s suggested, before deciding whether to ask another reader for feedback – or risk sending it to my Agent…
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
You can find all previous first draft Q&A’s Here.
If you fancy answering the questions yourself, just let me know and we’ll see what your first draft is like!