Today’s first draft Q&A is with crime writer Christoffer Carlsson and is a part of his debut novel blog tour.
Christoffer was born and raised in Halmstad, on the west coast of Sweden. He earned his PhD in Criminology from the University of Stockholm where he currently serves as a lecturer. In 2012, he was awarded the International European Society of Criminology’s Young Criminologist Award.
Carlsson was a voracious reader before he became a precocious writer. A child of the crime genre, he devoured genre classics from Enid Blyton to Mankell and Sjöwall-Wahlöö and, inspired by these, he sent his first manuscript to a publisher at the age of eleven. Twelve years later, his critically acclaimed debut novel, The Case of Vincent Franke (Fallet Vincent Franke), was released closely followed by The One-Eyed Rabbit (Den enögda kaninen).
In 2013, Carlsson published his first novel in the series about troubled police officer Leo Junker. The Invisible Man From Salem(Den osynliga mannen från Salem) was named Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year by the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy in 2013, making Carlsson the youngest winner of the award ever. The book was also shortlisted for the prestigious Glass Key Award in 2014. The second installment in the series, The Falling Detective (Den Fallande Detectiven), was released in August 2014.
At the tender age of 28, Carlsson is a master of psychological complexity who writes taut, often melancholy, page-turners that are loved by readers and critics alike.
You can find out more about him at the following blogs!
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
I make myself some coffee and start with the idea, jot it down in my notebook. “A story about a girl who has to find her lost brother, before the police does”, for example (it’s rarely more complex than that, at this stage). Where such (sometimes really strange) ideas comes from, I don’t know. At any rate, then I imagine the beginning and write the first scene, testing the mood of the piece and the language and rhythm of the narrator, the way s/he thinks, speaks, writes, and acts. I don’t do big chapter-by-chapter outlines or anything like that, for several reasons. Firstly, people who do such outlines typically end up diverging from it anyway, so it tends to be a waste of time – it seems to be more about control than about the actual composing of a book. Secondly, I don’t do them because I can’t tell whether or not the idea will work until I actually start writing. So that’s what I do as soon as I can. And at this stage it’s really fragile, in a sense, because whether or not it will develop into a full story depends on an intuitive, kind of instinctive process that I guess goes on inside me while I write, like “does this excite me? does this feel good?”
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
I used to, but I don’t really, anymore (aside from what I just said). The way my life is right now, I need to be able to write however and whenever possible.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
I prefer pen and paper and I still write much of the first draft that way. There’s something about the physical act of putting words to paper that speaks to me. It feels more real, somehow. You can feel the words meet your fingertips as you touch the page. The fact that you bring something into existence that wasn’t there before, becomes much more obvious that way. Since writing with pen and paper is slower, I also choose my words more wisely. If you take a first draft written with pen and paper and compare it to one I’ve written on a computer, the pen/paper draft is much, much better.
How important is research to you?
For the first draft, it’s completely irrelevant. Later, when I have the rough story down, I do a number of checks and reviews to make sure that I got the important facts alright. However, since I write crime fiction and work as a criminologist, I already know quite a lot that (I think) other writers need to look up. So I’m sort of blessed that way.
How do you go about researching?
Doing actual, scientific research has taught me that one of the most stupid things you can do is begin by talking to people. If you know nothing about a topic – say, epidemiology – and go talk to an epidemiologist, you’re probably going to ask a lot of (for them) stupid and (for you) irrelevant questions. Usually, I read as much as I can about something before I go to talk to people; that way, my questions will be smarter and more relevant, and I’ll know what I need from them. Because talking to people is necessary. Reading is crucial but it will only get you so far. Now, there are exceptions, of course: sometimes, asking a dumb question is the best you can do to get what you need, but … that’s for another interview, I think, haha.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I actually don’t store stuff that way … I mean, I don’t store pictures or research material. What I do store, I guess, are ideas, as separate pages in a notebook or documents on my computer.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
It’s linear, written from the first to the last chapter. As the story emerges on paper and in my head, I begin to get a feel for how the characters and plot will develop, how it all will come together at the end. Once I’ve written, say, the first four chapters, I’ll know what Chapters 5 to 8 will look like, and once I’m there, I’ll have Chapter 9 to 10 done, and so on. This way of working is not something I recommend, because it is very time-consuming and if you fuck something up along the way (say, if I took a wrong turn in Chapter 9 but don’t realize until I’m at Chapter 15) you have to go back and fix it. But it does have one – I think unbeatable – advantage: it demands that you, the writer, pay close attention to the internal logic, pulse, and narrative of the story. You need to listen very closely to what the story is telling you to do, where to go (because it does tell you that, even though you also are the one bringing it to life – it’s fucked up, I know). The result will be something quite lovely: every story will have its own, organic universe and life. It will have its own twists, themes, and integrity because it is told the way it needs to be told by you, at that moment in your life.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
Haha, no. If there were, I’d never get a draft out the door.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
No, no, the outside world still exists … unfortunately.
I don’t really have one, you know? I write on buses and bus stops, trains and platforms, in cafés, restaurants, and bars, in my living room and in hotel lobbies … anywhere I can find a seat, basically.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
Both, actually. I prefer to move ahead, deeper into the story, but I occasionally go back and do some editing.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
I count words. On the days that I write, I rarely end up with less than 1 000, which is a good limit because if you get 1 000 words written, you (should) have made some progress. That’s all it is, counting words, a numeric sign of progress. You have to make sure you actually do progress, though. When I write intensively, which I do for about two to three weeks every year, usually during summer, I usually get 3 000 words down.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
I’m pretty quick, I think. It’s taken about two to three months to get it down. And – it’s shit, but it’s shit with a potential.
In what format do you like to read it through, e-reader, paper or the computer screen?
Paper. When I edit, this is the only way I can read. I don’t know why.
What happens now that first draft is done?
Now the real work of editing begins, and for me, that’s really where it becomes a story. I take out chapters, sometimes characters, and I put new ones in, I make adjustments to the ones I keep – I add a detail here, a clue there, a better final line to this chapter, a different introduction to that chapter. This is what takes so much time and mainly, I take things out, like sentences and paragraphs. This time around, for the third Leo Junker book, my first draft was 560 pages. Right now, I’m quite a bit into the editing process and it’s down to 460 – and it’s still going down. So there’s a lot going on in this later phase.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
Thank you, it was a pleasure being … had.
The Invisible Man From Salem
In the final days of summer, a young woman is shot dead in her apartment. Three floors above, the blue lights of the police cars awaken disgraced ex-officer Leo Junker. Though suspended from the force, he can’t stay away for long. Bluffing his way onto the crime scene, he examines the dead woman and sees that she is clasping a cheap necklace — a necklace he instantly recognises.
As Leo sets out on a rogue investigation to catch the killer, a series of frightening connections emerge, linking the murder to his own troubled youth in Salem — a suburb of Stockholm where social and racial tensions run high — and forcing him to confront a long ago incident that changed his life forever.
Now, in backstreets, shadowed alleyways, and decaying suburbs ruled by Stockholm’s criminal underground, the search for the young woman’s killer — and the truth about Leo’s past — begins.