I’m in awe of this week’s First Drafter. Crime author, Ed James, shares his process and boy is he organised and prolific. Read on and share the awe. I wish I had half his organisational skills.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
I sit down with a pen and paper and do some doodling. A couple of mind maps to think through the theme I’m attacking, breaking it down to things I want to happen in the novel. I’ll then take my high-level plot structure and mash those bits into the structure, working out whether the broad pace is any good or not.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
Yeah, I’ve developed a method over the years I’ve been writing, which works for me but would probably drive other people crazy. It’s all about iterating on the idea, building up from the initial ideas to a high-level outline, then a scene outline, then revising that, then writing the first draft, then attacking that and so on. I’m not one of those writers who’ll splurge a load then cut like crazy and throw scenes around and so on. I’ve got a spreadsheet which lets me put in the target word count and the scene average (usually from my last book) and then it calculates the number of scenes and apportions them to the various acts I’ve got. I use Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” screenplay template, adapted with some good stuff from Alex Sokoloff’s “Stealing Hollywood” (the third act stuff in Save the Cat isn’t great), and it lets me develop my story in a standard way, which keeps me focused and disciplined. And I try to evolve and improve the routine with each book.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Both, actually. For each, project I’ve got a Moleskine cahier, which is about the size as an A3 sheet when open. All the way through my outlining process, I’m scribbling in the notebook and typing in Scapple, the visualisation app I use (it’s done by the same guy who did Scrivener). That first outline in Scapple will be about 12-20,000 words and will cover scene-by-scene what’s happening in the book, with each scene having an objective for the POV character (my books to date have all been 99+% single POV), an obstacle and an outcome, and also bullet point activities for the scene.
Getting to that point, though, I have to tackle the acts one-by-one. The spreadsheet tells me how many scenes I need, where I’ve started and where I need to go. I scribble out a mindmap and then throw it together in a logical order. Then add “grace scenes” around (the sort of transition scenes the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE did so well, which show character and are essential for a police procedural).
Then it’s all keyboard until I come unstuck again…
How important is research to you?
Very. But at the right time. I try to get the story beats nailed before I look at the detail. Sometimes the research is done miles upfront, e.g. visiting London to go round some locations, sometimes it’s done really late, e.g. specific forensic detail I’d missed first time through. But I try not to bog the book down in too much procedure these days and try to skip the boring bits…
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
Evernote, usually. It’s great for storing loads of news stories, research and just ideas. I use Feedly to subscribe to newspapers and blogs, and I surf through the headlines most days, saving off what looks interesting. When I’m looking at something specific, e.g. Uber, I’ll do loads of research and fire the websites into Evernote (it keeps static copies) for future reference.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
Well, the first draft is basically what I like to think of as the heavy lifting phase. I’ve got an outline and it’s pretty tight, what I do then is write the bugger. Scene-by-scene. In that order. Never looking back. Until the end. I write fast, 6-10,000 words a day, so I get through the first draft in a week or so. If it’s a 100k book, the first draft’ll be about 70k. Then I’ll go through it, editing as I go, but my main focus is testing that the outline/story works. Does the narrative logic flow? Do the characters behave consistently? Are there any shite bits? Does it fall apart? Sometimes I get my Spidey-sense tingling during the first draft and I’ll stop and refocus if it’s annoying. I chatted to Linwood Barclay about this and, while he’s a pantser, we both have that same mechanism going on.
I keep an old Amazon box on my desk to keep my cat off the keyboard and me. Usually it fails, but it’s her bed and keeps her quiet most of the day. I say my cat — we’ve got six but she’s definitely mine.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
Completely lost. Headphones on with some electronic music on — progressive house, deep tech, that kind of thing. I’ve got some weird ability to focus for four hours at a time, given enough tea.
What does your workshop look like?
A pigsty. It’s a big desk in a small room, facing away from the window which looks out across fields. I try and kill Facebook and Twitter and email while I’m writing. Don’t always succeed…
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
Never edit as you go. Your brain doesn’t work like that. There’s a load of studies into it, but there’s a “creative” mode and a “critical” mode. If you mix them, brain hurty. That’s why I focus on getting the creative stuff done first, then let my critical side tear the book a new arsehole.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
I do word count and scene count in a tracking spreadsheet. Stuff like counting down at my current rate to completion date, etc. It’s the only way I get through it all, to be honest…
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
So the second DI Fenchurch novel (out October) took me four days to outline and six to write the first draft, then another four days to revise and expand. It’s usually in a fairly decent state and readable.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
Computer. And I read aloud in the accents of the characters. Be thankful nobody has to hear my Welsh or Indian accents.
What happens now that first draft is done?
The first draft will probably have about 30 or 40 comments I’ve made about fixing stuff earlier or later, etc. I’ll got through them all, fix them where I need to and do a second pick-up draft. At this point, once I’ve edited a scene I’ll throw it into the Hemingway app, which picks up things like adverb use, passive voice, complex words, etc. I aim for a Grade 3 writing age, which is what most bestsellers are — I’m trying to not exclude people from the book.
Then I open the door, as Stephen King says. It goes off to my alpha readers to tell when I’ve been stupid with research and stuff. Or where it’s just boring or confusing. The next draft will pick up all those and focus on atmosphere and character and so on. Pity my poor alpha readers.
Meet PC Craig Hunter of Edinburgh’s Local Policing Unit. Ex-Army. Ex-CID. Back in uniform.
A straightforward domestic call out twists out of control when 16-year-old schoolgirl Stephanie Ferguson alleges her stepfather, Doug Ferguson, has been abusing her. Hunter is soon working with DS Chantal Jain of Police Scotland’s Sexual Offences Unit to kick off the prosecution. But before a full statement can be taken, Stephanie disappears from hospital.
Now, Hunter must hunt the girl down before anyone else can. Where has Stephanie gone? Did she run? Or did someone take her? Will he get to the truth before it gets beaten into lies? Or before Stephanie is silenced for good…? And why does this case keep throwing up old enemies from Hunter’s past?
MISSING is a fast-paced police procedural, full of action and suspense that will grip you until its breathless conclusion.
You can catch up with all previous First Draft Q&A’s Here.
Let me know if you are interested in doing one yourself.