Today, I’m pleased to welcome William Shaw to the blog, to share his first draft process.
The New York Times has called William Shaw’s trilogy of detective books set in late sixties London “an elegy for an entire alienated generation.” Featuring DS Cathal Breen and the brash young constable Helen Tozer, they are set against the cultural and political revolution of the times. A Song from Dead Lipswas picked by Time Out as one of the crime books of 2013; The Daily Mail hailed A House of Knives as “a distinctive British crime drama, which benefits from a clear moral sense”. The third book in the series, A Book of Scars, was published in June.
Before becoming a crime writer, William Shaw was an award-winning music journalist and the author of several non-fiction books including Westsiders: Stories of the Boys in the Hood, about a year spent with the young men of South Central Los Angeles, and A Superhero For Hire, a compilation of columns in the Observer Magazine.
Starting out as assistant editor of the post-punk magazine ZigZag, he has been a journalist for The Observer, The New York Times, Wired, Arena and The Face and was Amazon UK Music Journalist of the Year in 2003.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
Write a two page outline that often has very little to do with the finished thing.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
You should see the state of my desk. Nothing like a routine could come from it.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
I taught myself how to touch type when I was 23 and have been thinking through fingers ever since. It’s weird isn’t it? You actually do think through your fingers, I swear.
How important is research to you?
Simultaneously really important and sort of not important at all. It’s really important for me to use a bit of research to kick off the story and then it’s really important just to write the story – unfettered by the practical realities. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding this method leads to all sorts of problems when follow up research shows that such and such couldn’t have happened. In A Song From Dead Lips I wrote an entire draft with Constable Helen Tozer driving the car before I was told that women police weren’t allowed anywhere near cars in 1968. But you can always fix that in the second draft and the most important thing is it’s supposed to be a story. Stories are about unlikely events.
How do you go about researching?
To be honest, 90% of it is now the internet, which is a bit dull. But I do like talking to real people too. For my next book, The Birdwatcher, I was looking for birding experts and so somebody told me to talk to Ann Cleeves. She put me onto her lovely partner, Tim Cleeves, who, it turns out, wrote the RSPB Guide Book which I had in front of me on my shelves. I’d never made the connection. The great thing is to find experts like him who understand both the world you’re trying to figure out and also get the idea of stories. Graham Bartlett is another one; he’s a former Chief Constable of Brighton, where I live, and also writing a novel himself. He helps Peter James with his books and he helped me hugely with The Birdwatcher. He understands that point I made earlier; just because something is unlikley, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Any policeman or woman’s career is full of unlikely events.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
I clip them and stick them into my research notes in Scrivener. I also turn the corner of a lot of pages in books.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
Having written that brief, two-page outline, then I start at the beginning, write about 10,000 words then go back and revise them until they’re strong enough for me to believe that this could be a book or even to convince my writers’ group that it could be. By that stage I have my voice and the world of the book nailed down and I’m confident enough to plough on with the rest of it.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
No, no, no! The trick for me is to un-fetishise the process. To be able to write anywhere, at any time, even if it’s just for a minute.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
Around two thirds of the way through, I become a knob. My children often claim to have come back from school and told me stuff about their day which I have no recollection of ever hearing.
What does your workspace look like?
My desk is a tip. On it currently I have a microphone, a mandolin, about thirty books, a football pump, various bits of sheet music, bills, a bicycle computer, a pair of binoculars, a dictaphone, dozens of leads, an Anglepoise, a pirate hat, a reminder card for my son’s next orthodontist appointment and a tankard that used to be my father’s. I have no problem working this way, except when I have to do my accounts.
I am lucky to work in a beautiful attic office with a gorgeous view over Brighton’s Preston Park. For me it’s important to prise the eyes off the screen and look into the distance.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
Bit of both… going back to edit what I’ve written the day before helps me get back into the right state of mind before getting the words out.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
I use a word count because I love to see the numbers rise, but I set myself a very low target. I would rather do little and often than attempt 2,000 words in a day. 600 is plenty for me as long as I write every day, come hell or high water.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
It’ll take me six months but it’ll be in pretty good shape.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
Isn’t that great, being able to read a draft on a Kindle, like it’s already a proper book.
What happens now that first draft is done?
I have good readers. My small but persistent writers’ group are pretty amazing. Collectively the group has produced at least nine best selling books. None of them mine. Yet.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
Thanks for having me… Answering the questions, I found it weird to realise that I actually do have a method.
A Book of Scars
Five years ago, teenager Alexandra Tozer was murdered on her family farm. Her sister Helen Tozer will never forget. Returning home after quitting the Met Police, she brings with her the recovering Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen, who slowly becomes possessed by the unsolved case.
He discovers the Tozers were never told the whole truth. Alexandra was tortured for twenty-four hours before she died. But when he tracks down the original investigating sergeant, the man goes missing. And so does Helen.
Suspicion falls on her. But Breen is on a trail that goes far beyond the death of a schoolgirl. For the two men connected to this case met in Kenya, during the Mau Mau uprising; and the history that Britain has turned its face from is now returning to haunt it.
So when another innocent woman is abducted, Breen knows he has just twenty-four hours to save her.
The third book in a powerful deconstruction of the sixties, A Book of Scars tears strips off the Drug Squad, the Kenya Emergency and the upheaval of society as we knew it – to lay bare forgotten crimes, and tell the history of the losers.