Welcome back to First Draft Friday. The series where authors lay bare, their drafting processes, routines and even any secret rituals!
In today’s hot seat we have crime writer Mark Edwards. Mark writes psychological thrillers. His influences include writers such as Stephen King, Ira Levin, Ruth Rendell, Ian McEwan, Val McDermid and Donna Tartt and movies like Rosemary’s Baby, Single White Female, Fatal Attraction and anything in which scary things happen to ordinary people.
he loves hearing from readers and always responds to email firstname.lastname@example.org
His first solo novel, THE MAGPIES, topped the Kindle chart in the UK and was a top 5 bestseller in the US, Canada and Australia. WHAT YOU WISH FOR followed in March 2014 and BECAUSE SHE LOVES ME will be published in September 2014.
He has co-written four novels with Louise Voss: CATCH YOUR DEATH (a No.1 bestseller in the UK), KILLING CUPID (chosen by Peter James as his book of 2012), ALL FALL DOWN and FORWARD SLASH.
After a career that has taken in everything from picking broad beans and answering complaint calls for a rail company to teaching English in Japan and being a marketing director, he currently writes full-time.
He lives in the West Midlands with his wife, their three children and a ginger cat.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
I’m mainly going to talk about writing a solo novel. The process for co-writing with Louise Voss is quite different – you can read more about how we do it Here.
The first step is to think about it for a while, see if I’m excited by the idea, work out if I think readers will be excited by it too. There’s no point writing something that isn’t going to find an audience. For every ten ideas I have, only one makes it through this process, which also involves checking to see if it’s been done before. Last year I had a great idea for a novel about someone murdering pregnant women…only to discover that at least two other writers had already done it.
I then write a blurb: basically, a short outline, less than a page; an extended version of the blurb you’ll see on the back of a book. I write it like a pitch. This helps crystallise the idea and makes me focus on what I want to achieve. This is also another good point at which I find out if the book sounds exciting.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
It changes but usually, after writing the blurb I set about planning the novel, though I normally only plan out the first third. That’s all I need to get started, although of course it helps if you know how it’s going to end (which I rarely do). I will write out a list of main characters, with some notes about them, and list a number of key events. The initial idea, if it’s a good one, almost always comes with an instant visualisation of a few important scenes. These scenes don’t always make it into the final draft but they really help me get a handle on the story and the characters.
I know some writers plot everything out from A to Z but I would find that boring. It’s more fun for me to start off with the first part of the road illuminated and darkness beyond the first bend.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Pens? I remember them… I actually never use pens, not even for editing. I do it all on the computer. I wrote my first two novels, back in the 90s, on paper, then typed them up. I couldn’t bear to do that again… It’s so laborious. Plus I can barely read my own terrible scrawl. I am always buying beautiful notepads with the intention of using them to make notes but never do.
It depends on the book. The Magpies and the similar one I have out in September, Because She Loves Me, required almost no research because they are set in a familiar world. The virus thrillers, including Catch Your Death, needed loads of research, as do the ones involving the police, such as the next one with Louise Voss, From the Cradle. And with What You Wish For, I read a lot of books about people who are obsessed with aliens, browsed their forums, etc, to find out what they believe in. Research is vital for things like police procedure, science, etc, but can also help you get inside the heads of your characters. But, as we all know, you have to be careful not to let your research show on the page.
How do you go about researching?
Google is obviously the best thing ever for research. Some of the things I’ve googled… I am sure I must be on a government list somewhere. Apart from that, I enlist experts to help me. For example, Louise and I have befriended virologists and cops, and my local university has a CSI suite which they allowed me to visit. They have a room set up like a murder scene with blood splatters on the wall. Great fun.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I used Scrivener to write Because She Loves Me and found it enormously helpful for storing notes. Otherwise, it’s just a case of copying emails and web pages in a folder…which I invariably never look at again!
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
Once I’ve got the first bit plotted out, I start writing and the story and characters develop as I go along, and I make notes in my plotting document as far ahead as I can see. For example, if I’m 25% through the book I will probably have the book planned up to about 50%. As I go along I always encounter numerous horrific knots in the plot. There’s always a point about two-thirds in when I get completely stuck, where I have so many dangling threads in the plot and plates spinning that I start wondering why I didn’t choose an easier career. Like crocodile wrestling. Sometimes I realise the book has taken a wrong turn and have to go back and delete whole chapters and pick it up again. In the past, I wouldn’t have done this. I think my willingness to delete great chunks of a book are a sign that I’m a proper writer now!
When I’m past that point of working through the pain, the last third pretty much always writes itself. That’s the most fun bit. I can write the last third of a book at great speed, adrenaline surging.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
No – well apart from a ferret called Bob who sits on my right shoulder throughout, wearing a specially-made tutu.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
I only became a full-time writer six months ago. Until then, I wrote whenever and wherever I could. One book was written entirely on my commute – 40 minutes in the morning, 40 in the evening. I have written chapters while supervising a crawling baby. I am somehow able to block out the world (while keeping one eye on the baby, in case social services are reading) while I’m writing. But it’s not ideal! These days, having the space and time to go away and write without constant distractions is blissful. But I am still very much in the real world. Though my wife says I live in a dreamworld most of the time…
What does your work space look like?
Picture your local Starbucks or the lounge at a Virgin Active gym… With two pre-school children at home, I do most of my writing in cafes. I roam Wolverhampton with my laptop, spending a fortune on coffee. But I do have a little desk in the corner of our dining room where I work when the kids aren’t around.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
I don’t ‘line edit’ as I go, unless I spot something that I can immediately improve. But I do edit the plot if necessary or rewrite scenes if I realise they need to change. It’s best to plough ahead, I think. You could spend days perfecting a chapter…only to cut the whole thing later.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
Yes, I do count words but I set myself weekly targets rather than daily. Generally I will aim for 10-15,000 words a week, more as I get towards the end.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
Working four days a week, it takes about two and half months to write the first draft. When I was writing in my spare time it took six to nine months. Because I revise the plot as I go, it’s generally in pretty good shape at that point, although there will be lots of comments in the manuscript saying things like ‘Check this!’ and ‘Does this work?’ The second draft takes around three or four weeks, by which point it will be ready to go to the editor.
My aim is to write three novels a year. If I was rich I would write one novel every three years and spend the rest of the time lounging about. But right now I’m trying to get as many books out as I can while I have the momentum and am doing well.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
Computer screen. Though I did read through The Magpies on my Kindle, without making any notes, before going back and editing it.
What happens now that first draft is done?
I get a one or two trusted readers to read it: my wife and, usually, Louise. They will have lots of thoughts and suggestions, and I will then set about working on the second draft. I would advise not asking too many people to read your first draft as they will all have different opinions and it will get very confusing.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
As usual, if you want to take part in the First Draft series, just let me know! You can find a list of the previous Q&A’s Here.