As you know, we love writers here, and we’re keen to learn from them. Earlier in the week we reviewed Ed Chatterton’s excellent new novel Down Among The Dead Men, so it’s kind of a thrill to be able to say that Ed has agreed to answer some questions about his writing process.
There’s a great quote from Raymond Chandler which, in essence, said that good books aren’t planned they are distilled. That really chimed with me as almost all my books (I’ve written about 35) start life as a rough idea based around one or two central characters and a couple of loose story possibilities. From there I start writing around a few key early scenes, gradually ‘distilling’ as I go. I always leave the endings unplanned as I believe that this makes the narrative less predictable. If I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen then it should be a surprise to the reader, right? That’s the theory anyway. In practice this means that I rewrite and redraft a lot. I’m continually refining and cutting and chopping until I’m happy. I know this is how a lot of writers work but I think I’m more ruthless than most. I enjoy working with editors and virtually never disagree with suggestions and cuts. Other people can see much more clearly what works and what doesn’t. A good plot should have a strong backbone but shouldn’t be in charge of the characters. Once a character starts doing something to help the plot I think the book starts to become hack work. Characters are the key.
Take us through a typical writing day for you?
It varies depending on what I’m working on but usually it would start with getting outside a coffee as quickly as possible. I’d then walk the dog or do something that takes me outside the house before starting work. After that it’s really dull: I just sit down and write. In recent years the rise in importance of social media has put huge time pressures on writers. Sometimes much of my day seems to be taken up with ‘selling’, which can be annoying when I know I’d rather be creating. I usually roughly work office hours, which is something I’ve always done. I’ve been a freelance creative for thirty years full-time and without being disciplined, or having some sort of routine, I’d have been out of work long ago.
Most of my kids books have been comedies and I’m a big admirer of good comedy writing. I think it’s by far the hardest type of writing. and I can tell you that writing drama is much easier. I love PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Kyril Bonfiglioli, SJ Perelman and TV writers like Armando Iannucci, Larry David and Ricky Gervais. The best contemporary comedy writers are working in TV.
In crime fiction my heroes are Elmore Leonard, George Pelecanos and Patricia Highsmith. I love the way that these writers centre their books on character. Reading a good Leonard book you get the feeling that the narrative could move in unexpected directions. These writers also write beautiful dialogue. I don’t read much contemporary British crime fiction, to be honest.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Quality has no relationship to sales.
How do you deal with feedback?
I find that a cosh to the base of the neck usually does the trick. If the feedback’s from my editor I do listen closely and enjoy the experience. Feedback from readers can be a two-edged sword. Usually people are very positive but I try not to pay attention to reviews, good or bad. Every writer will tell you that in a good review we’ll pick out the one negative comment and dwell on that. I have a particular problem with reviews that pick up on the sexual element of my books. One mainstream reviewer called ‘A Dark Place To Die’ ‘sex-drenched’. It has one sex scene.
How has your own experience influence your writing?
I’m not a huge believer in the ‘write what you know’ thing but I do think that a writer is better for having had some life experience. When I’m writing children’s fiction, less of my own life experience comes into play, while when writing adult crime there’s more scope to bring in things that help the books. I’ve lived in a few countries and travelled a lot and this is probably the main thing that has been an influence. For instance, despite the series being anchored in Liverpool, I like to widen the story out to include places I know well or that have had an impact on me. In the first book (A Dark Place To Die) the story bounces between Australia and Liverpool, echoing what was happening in my life – without the body count and violent drug deals. In this book the story moves from Liverpool to Los Angeles and beyond. Having lived in the US helps enormously.
Another area of influence is knowledge of policing and the criminal world. While I’m not a cop or a criminal I’ve had a fair amount of contact with people on both sides of the fence in one way or another. I like to think this lends authenticity to the characters, many of whom are based on composites of people I’ve met or know. In terms of my career experience I think my background in design and illustration/film helps me to write economically and in a very cinematic way.
The flip answer is: don’t start. I hesitate to say that because I know it’s not what aspiring writers want to hear. Sadly though, it’s the truth. Writing is an incredibly tricky road to take and simply writing well won’t help much (although that should be taken for granted.) If you do decide you absolutely have to write, then, for crying out loud do it in the privacy of your own home. And then, if the monstrous thing you produce still demands to be seen, coax it outside and then put it in front of someone with a bit of editorial experience. If you can’t find an amenable one at a publishing house – and you probably won’t – then there are a few decent editors for hire. This is a problem area (I believe) in that there are quite a number of dubious editorial ‘services’ offered. Ask around and when you have found a good editor listen to them. Keep writing and keep re-drafting. Don’t be precious. The most precious writers – the ones who react least well to suggestions – are often the least experienced. What you think is gold usually turns out to be, at best, copper. Hopefully, if you keep at it for long enough then you may eventually produce something worthwhile. And if you don’t, then put the vile thing you’ve created back into a locked room and throw away the key. It’ll be for the best, in the end.
What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…
Didn’t you read that last bit? No? OK…then I guess that you need to be professional. I did a workshop last year at the State Library of Queensland on this subject. In preparation I asked a few friends and colleagues, all pros, to chip in their advice. There were a variety of responses but, in essence, they could all be boiled down to ‘be professional’. By that they mean getting the basics right. Spell words correctly. Use decent grammar. Don’t submit ‘gimmicky’ manuscripts in violet-scented hand-made boxes. Have some idea of the market: if your book is a thriller submit it to a company that publishes thrillers, not cookbooks. Go further and try and find out who the publisher already publishes. If your stuff is like something they already publish it may be that they have that market share already ‘covered’. Use any personal contacts you can. Keep writing. Write anything. Write some more. Develop a skin like a rhino. Have a back up plan. Think about how you might sell your book. Do you have a good back story? Can you talk in front of groups of people? If not, you could be in trouble because authors have transmogrified (I’m not sure when, I had my back turned) into stand up comedians and dramatic actors. Perfect your performing monkey skills because you’ll need them. Above all, write something good that you have already shown to other people with critical abilities who have given you feedback that you have then acted upon.
What’s next for you?
I’m writing book 3 in the Frank Keane series. I’m about two thirds of the way through. I’m also writing a YA novel called ‘Archangel’ which is about halfway through. That’s a sci-fi thriller based on ‘slavery’ as a theme. I’m also doing a PhD which involves writing a ‘big novel’. Mine is called ‘The Last Slave Ship’ (www.thelastslaveship.blogspot.com.au) and tells the story of the final slaver voyage from Liverpool in 1809, combined with a contemporary narrative involving race-hate crime and civil unrest. I’m working on a film project with an Australian film company writing a movie based around the memoirs of the son of a famous Sydney gangland boss. That should keep me busy.
Ed Chatterton is the prize-winning author of more than twenty children’s novels (published under the name Martin Chatterton), and then turned to writing crime novels creating DCI Frank Keane. He was born and brought up in Liverpool, but is a serial traveller and has lived in Florida, Lyon, Australia and London. A Dark Place to Die was his first crime novel in the DCI Frank Keane series. Down Among the Dead Men is Ed’s second novel in the series and is split between Liverpool, Los Angeles and Australia. He lives in the UK with his wife and two children. To find out more visit his website at www.edchatterton.com