Here, Andrew attempts to answer any questions about his writing, his characters, his settings.
Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
Beware that some answers may contain spoilers
Ideas are easy. Execution is hard. Andy, do you agree? Can you tell us how you develop a novel plot?
I find neither the ideas nor the execution easy.
Ideas don’t come to me easily. I usually get a small part of a scene only – I think my muse just likes to see me sweat. From it I have to grow an entire book. It usually happens on the fly too because I’m not good with planning things out. Far too often I’ll put a character into a situation only for something completely different to happen.
Do you remember the scene in Ledston Luck where Eddie stays behind after a briefing to give Cooper a piece of his mind? All of a sudden, out of Eddie’s mouth (not mine) came the words, “You look like shit.” I stopped in my tracks. I hadn’t considered this idea before, but I considered it now. Why would Cooper look bad? Sleep-deprived? Guilt-ridden? Those four words provided a major turning point in that book. Cooper was keeping a secret and it turned out that secret was the foundation of the book.
All I had to do was write it.
When they finally come, ideas are great. But execution is key. I think writing a story is necessarily all about filming a conflict. Even if it’s just a game of tiddly-winks, it’s conflict. Who’s going to win – that’s your basic conflict. How does the winner feel? Smug, guilty? Does he lord it over the loser? How does the loser feel? Betrayed, worthless, defeated and beaten, or does he feel angry? And what happens later when they’re standing side by side ready to cross that busy road? How easy would it be for the loser to give the smug winner a quick shove as the van approaches? Voila, you have your story.
In my Eddie Collins books, I try to layer conflict throughout the entire book. In his work setting, Eddie is in conflict with those he works with; sometimes it’s a minor conflict, sometimes major. In his home life, Eddie is always in conflict with his father, Charles. The moment they start getting along and seeing things the same way, that’s the moment their partnership becomes stale to read about. Eddie also ‘suffers’ from internal conflict too – as we all do; it’s called making decisions. And that’s just conflict from Eddie’s perspective; there has to be conflict for the bad guy too.
Keeping an eye on each of these conflicts is the key to good (I think) execution. As a writer, I must balance all these layers of conflict, with their various degrees of intensity or comedy happening at the same time throughout the entire book. And each conflict must be a complete arc too otherwise the reader will notice something isn’t right. They might not be able to put their finger on what the problem is, but it’ll catch their subconscious. And I can ‘see’ these arcs, and I notice if there are unnatural steps or misalignments in them – just a mood change in the character that shouldn’t be there for this layer of conflict to sound unreal.
Once you’ve written out each layer of conflict, you’ve inadvertently written a whole book!
Of course there must also be plot points. Born of conflict, the bad guy wants something. How’s he going to get it? He must go through a series of events to reach his goal, and each event must not be coincidental or contrived, but should be natural – even artificially so (coincidence exists in real life, but not in fiction (usually)), and this is where being a pantser comes in to its own. A pantser is a writer who writes his stories by the seat of his pants with little or no planning beforehand. I am a pantser, and my stories grow from an idea and follow plot lines that I believe would happen naturally. Being a pantser allows the story to sprout tangents that might not be foreseeable if I were a plotter – see the “You look like shit” line above. I could never have envisaged that, and the
story would have plodded along its predetermined (sort of predetermined – not planned) course – to its detriment, I believe.
My current story is being a pain right now. I know roughly where I want the story to end, but I’m a long way from it. I need to set plot points to get from here to there, I need to envisage scenes, but they have to seem natural. If they’re not, I need to go back and engineer circumstances or situations in order to make sure those later plot points are natural, that this is the only way things could have turned out.
I think character development is a by-product of story-telling. If a writer gets his story and character arcs right, then a character’s development is automatic. I give no additional thought to how my characters have changed throughout a story – just how they feel scene by scene. I concentrate on how Eddie is feeling at the beginning of the scene in The Note where he arrives home. If you can feel his genuine fear of what happens after he opens the door to his house, and write it, sculpting each emotion as required, then you have inadvertently again written your character arc and you’ve developed him too.
You don’t notice subtle changes in your reflection each day in the bathroom mirror. But pull out a photograph of when you were six years old and compare it to how you look today, and you’ll see a massive difference (unless you’re still six years old!). We see a massive difference in Eddie at the beginning of The Note compared with how he is at the end, while still retaining his core features. And it happened naturally, without my consciously thinking about it.
When you write, how hard is it to ignore your inner critic?
When I began writing in the 80s, I wrote for me. Of course I submitted my stories but they earned so many rejection slips that I could’ve decorated my bedroom in them. When you get knocked back so often, it’s only natural that you begin thinking you’re no good at this. I never thought I would get sucked up by a big publishing house and find myself on a bestseller list somewhere, but I did expect to get picked up (oh, you naïve prick, you!). Well, at least I hoped I would.
And when I didn’t, it began to hurt. It hurt so much that I shrank inside myself and wrote my stories just for me – which was fine; I loved creating worlds and people. My ‘shrinking’ though led to my inner critic growing.
When I finished my very first serious book (the third book I ever wrote), I crafted a note that I pinned to my wall in front of my typewriter. It said something like: If you think you can’t write, read Charlotte’s Lodge. It was my own little motivational poster before motivational posters were invented!
But it didn’t work. I was crippled by the first clause: ‘if you think you can’t write’. That’s exactly what I did think, and seeing as I got very little support from those around me back then, it was hard to knock that bastard critic off his perch. He’d cross his legs, stick his nose in the air, close his eyes and fold his arms. And then he’d shake his head at me.
I hated that smug little bastard!
But I kept on reading and I kept on writing. If you’ve never tried writing a story, you should because it feels AMAZING. And it was that feeling that kept me going.
I published Charlotte’s Lodge on Amazon in 2011 or 12. I pulled it pretty quickly because it was obviously shit, and the few reviews it gained told me so. Imagine my nerves then at publishing A Long Time Dead. My arse was twitching like a rabbit’s nose. 150k copies later (or thereabouts – I never bothered keeping score), it seems that Dead wasn’t so bad after all.
But how did I know this?
A lady called Kath Middleton read and enjoyed A Long Time Dead, and then Stealing Elgar and then No More Tears. Get that – she enjoyed them! The smug little git on my shoulder opened his eyes, unfolded his arms. Ha, started to take notice, huh?
But then the pressure was on. I had half of the next book – The Third Rule, in the bag before a friend pulled me away to write scripts for a few years. Eventually, when the arse fell out of my life around 2012, I crawled back to The Third Rule and typed with shaking fingers. Could I produce something good, or had I lost my touch? I finished it, but I had no idea if it was any good. I know how that sounds, how can you not know if something’s good or bad? I don’t know, except telling yourself one thing or another is you just playing tricks on yourself; but when you hear it from someone else it starts to mean something. When you hear it from hundreds of people, you dare to wonder if it’s possible.
I can write. I can actually write!
I see the smug git has fallen from his perch at last.
But… do you believe in fate? The gods? Well, I’m a little superstitious at times. If I admit to myself that I’m any good, someone up there will bloody well see to it that I’m not. So, it’s safer to say that I’m mediocre, and that I’m still learning. And anyway, if I were to admit that, would it make me more complacent? I don’t think there’s any harm in trying to get better – and so that’s what I do with each new book. Honestly, I’m learning all the time, and I actually think there’s room enough on my shoulder for that inner critic to get comfy and read my stuff because without him, I’d be still churning out Charlotte’s Lodge. So I don’t ignore him – we work together.
But that’s not all.
I’ve said it dozens of times. Voice. I got mine half way through writing Stealing Elgar. Of course it sounds crazy, I’m not stupid. But until then, I was writing in the voice of the last person I’d read. Seriously, I had to stop myself reading King because I didn’t want an American influence to creep into my writing. It still doesn’t take me long to think in an American voice if I’ve just watched a movie. I would write in a style not unlike that last author I read and I couldn’t get out of it. I would also worry that King wouldn’t write that character like this, or Herbert wouldn’t write this scene like this… I was paranoid!
I think I put myself under a great deal of pressure, because one day I felt something somewhere inside me click – yes, physically (honestly!). From that moment onwards, I didn’t give a shit about anyone else’s style. I wrote like me. I hit upon my own way of telling stories and I’ve been writing like that ever since. And once you have your own ‘voice’, it feels wonderful, like a comfy pair of shoes, or like sleeping in your own bed again after being away for a week.
And now, when I’m punching the keys, immersed in constructing a scene, or trying to figure out how this character would react, it actually feels like rediscovering something beautiful that I thought I’d never see again – a favourite country lane, or a place on the sofa beside my old man – security, I suppose. I think people call it ‘the zone’.
What kind of research do you do, and how long does it take?
If truth be told, I don’t do any research. Okay, I may need to quickly look up a word or check a famous person’s name or whatever, but otherwise I don’t do any at all.
Ah, no, that’a s lie – forgive me. I have researched weapons (Stealing Elgar, The Third Rule), and I have researched man-traps and the like (Ledston Luck). But overall, not really. If it sounds plausible, it’s okay to make things up. Remember the MLPD (Multi-Layer Protein Dye) I used in The Third Rule when Eddie was fingerprinting McHue’s window? Yup, I made that up. Since I wrote that piece, there have been several spray on dyes used for latent fingerprint detection but they are horrendously messy – no one has ever questioned me about it.
Oh, and I also researched, quite intensively, how laws become laws here in England, and the mechanisms behind them for when I was detailing The Third Rule. I also made up the Justice Ministry, and someone from the government must’ve thought it was a whizzo idea because a few years later on, we got one.
I spent many weeks trawling newspapers (yes, newspapers!) and government websites for info I could use in The Third Rule, and so now I have a thick paper folder as well as many electronic folders of stuff pertaining to English law and capital punishment. This was the book I researched the most. All the rest of the books have had minimal research done. And I guess I’m very lucky, aren’t I? I write in a field that I work in – but I certainly don’t profess to know it all. CSIs gather and process evidence; we have very little knowledge of lab work, and we know very little of dead bodies when compared to biologists and pathologists, so although we have our own narrow band of expertise, we’re really not experts.
Wow, turns out that first line right up at the top there was an outright lie!
What was your hardest scene to write?
What was your hardest scene to write?
I’ve been giving this one a lot of thought. I can think of several tough-to-write scenes. The first one is from The Third Rule, and it involves Sam getting run over by a speeding car.
Writing that scene itself was a breeze – keep melodrama out of it, write it like you would a bullet point list, short, sharp, and shocking. Easy. The hard part about that scene were the peripherals: the graveyard scene where Jilly beats Eddie up in particular; the parts where Eddie feels really guilty…
I found them tough to write because these scenes aren’t the short, sharp, shocking scenes at all; they’re the deep, intense, burning thoughts of grief-stricken parents. And they were so tough because I had to really imagine what they were going through – and that wasn’t at all pleasant.
When I wrote that collection of scenes, my son, Lewis, was three or four years old. One day as we played in the back garden, I was too slow, and he got through the gate and was running down the driveway towards the road. I wasn’t quick enough.
He ran straight out into the road. And I followed and scooped him up. Luckily there was no traffic, and everything turned out okay. But it was one of those times where everything goes silent, where you go stone cold, and all you can see is your hand reaching out and missing by a mile.
Back at my desk, of course things didn’t work out so well because I wanted to find out how I’d feel if there had been traffic. It was awful, and I wrote that collection of scenes with tears dripping onto my keyboard – honestly. If you want a scene to be convincing, you have to live it – as best as you are able, of course.
I’ve had people who’ve suffered similar tragedies in real life read the book and the results weren’t good, and I’ve deliberately put potential readers off The Third Rule after I’ve found out that they lost children to road accidents.
I can recall another scene that I found tough to write, again in The Third Rule, though this was tough for a completely different reason. It was when Mick went to interview Henry Deacon. I had huge reservations about this scene and spent a long time chewing my nails over it. How could I get a newspaper reporter into someone’s house, and get the upper hand and keep it there, sizzling. How could I get Henry to become subservient to Mick?
As it turned out, I had Mick elevate himself into one of his obstinate moods, climb up into one of his real extravert moods, and not take no for an answer. I’m not sure that I scored a ten out of ten here. I achieved the aim of the scene: to get Henry to open up to Mick about all his illegal activities, but I think I made Henry too soft too quickly. He threatened to throw Mick out several times, and he threatened to call the police several times too, but he didn’t do either. He should have tried to muscle Mick out of the door, but he didn’t; he succumbed to Mick’s arguments too easily.
Do you recall in Black by Rose, how badly Brian treated Ros? I wrote the scenes where he’s basically drowning her in the bathtub – I wrote them at warp speed ten. And once I’d cracked the first draft I went back over them with great deliberation. They were tough scenes to write (it’s just one scene, but split up and mixed with other scenes) because Brian demeaned Ros first. I have a real dislike for bullies, and a real dislike for domestic violence (who doesn’t?), and these scenes were both of those and more. I wrote how the cold bathwater filled her lungs and how eventually her body became lifeless. I don’t take those scenes lightly – they are a bastard to write with empathy; they are a mix of short and sharp but with lots of feeling in there too.
That brings me to one of the most horrific scenes I’ve ever written. It was in The End of Lies, you might remember it. I was going to mention the scene in Leeds train station between Sienna and Becky, where Becky double-crosses Sienna and sells her out to Savage. Remember that? I saw all the colour rush out of Sienna’s face – poor woman.
But actually, the scene where Sienna is tied naked between two trucks as Streaky abuses her is probably the one sends shivers down my spine. All I kept thinking while I wrote that was, “The poor cow.” I had to have something so abhorrent (did you go, “Urgh!”?) as a counter to the millions of pounds on offer, and I honestly couldn’t come up with anything more horrific – I’m sure other authors could, but that’s about as far as I want to take abuse/torture/bullying.
I was going to end there, but as I was posting this, I realised there was another scene that I wrote and decided not to publish. It was in a script, and it showed a mother reaching into her baby’s cot and strangling the child the death. We could see the legs kicking the sheets off during the struggle. That was just too harrowing. I’ve attended crime scenes where everything on this page has happened, but to write it is somehow worse than seeing it. Perhaps one day I’ll slacken off a bit and include more things like this, who knows.
But for now I don’t see the need for really graphic scenes. I think it affects the reader much more if there’s an inference to the scene too – they have to imagine what’s happening and worse still, they have to imagine what’s about to happen. I think most people come to this genre to experience new emotions, to put themselves in other’s boots, but for me, they still need to be entertained, and entertainment doesn’t need to be excessively or gratuitously abusive – mentally or physically. Enough is as good as a feast.
There are many ways to make demands on a reader, some of them will earn that reader’s loyalty and others will cause that reader to close the book and burn it.
I use a simple vocabulary that flows easily, sounds good, and is slightly rhythmic (I hope). We ‘read’ words by recognition. Once you’ve learned what a word looks like and how it sounds, you will forever read it using recognition. Try reading a word over and over and eventually you won’t recognise it and it’ll sound foreign to you.
I think the moment you begin using words that are unfamiliar just to make yourself look cool, instead of sticking to a more recognisable word, you begin to look like a prick. Now you’ve put yourself against the reader instead of with her; now you’re teasing the reader instead of helping her to trust you. I hate naming names, but consider that wonderful English writer, James Herbert. I loved his early books, but they always left me feeling a bit dumb because every page or two he’d plant a word in there I’d never seen before. So if I wanted to get the full benefit of the story, I’d have to have a dictionary with me. I hated feeling like that. Some might argue that it’s a good way to grow one’s vocabulary. My reply: good for you. I write story books, not educational ones.
I’ll also include swearing here. I use lots of swear words, and there are lots of swear words to choose from. I love to use them because the world right outside my front door or my office door, is literally immersed in them – and I want as much reality as it’s polite to give. That means omitting some swear words from my books. Those swear words are still considered taboo, and so I choose not to use them. That’s me taking care of the reader; they know when they pick up one of my books, they’re going to get fairly realistic dialogue, but they know they’re not going to cringe because of it, and they know they’ll be able to recommend me to Mable next door.
So I don’t do it.
The reader knows that the story is fiction, but they want to believe it’s real; they want to sink into it until the line between fiction and reality disappears. This is giving the reader exactly what they want, but you can still make the experience a demanding one. Choose a topic that floats on the edge (or over the edge, if you’re a brave writer) of general acceptability.
In crime fiction there’s a scale that goes from cosy right the way through noir and into something altogether more sinister. Your reader knows where you as an author sit on this spectrum, and she feels safe with you. You’re not going to hurt her, are you? You’re not going to carry her over one of those invisible thresholds into the next category along? No, surely not. But wait, we could peek over the fence, couldn’t we? And when we do, the reader squirms a bit – but it’s okay, she knows it’s fiction, remember?
And what happens if we smash that fence with our axe and immerse ourselves in that hard-boiled domain she’s avoided for so long. Is this demand acceptable? It might be fiction, but the reader is pretending it’s reality, and they aren’t squirming now; now they have their hands over the mouth, eyes wide, wondering whether they can scream without throwing up.
Personally, I don’t like to break that unwritten contract with a reader; I really do want them to feel safe with me. They know what swear words they’re going to get, and they know I’ll never take them anywhere too offensive. I really do hope that I make a reader cry, laugh, cringe, and shriek. But I never want to make anyone unhappy.