First Drafts… with Andrew Barrett

Hi folks, and third up in the First Draft series I am delighted to welcome Andrew Barrett. Andrew is currently a CSI (crime scene investigator) and writes novels in his spare time. He took time away to chat to me about his first draft process. Over to you, Andy.

1. When you begin the next book, how do you go about it?

When I begin a book, I usually search for a scene. Scenes come to me without my having to consciously think of them. I suppose you might liken this to a What-if moment that most people experience several times throughout their day. I like to examine them quite closely, and travel down inside them a few levels, exploring where they might lead to. It is from this scene that the book begins. Stories don’t come to me easily. I have to wring them out of a scene.

For the next book, I pictured an old man sitting in a care home feeling embittered by a life that has passed him by too quickly, jealous of the youth that now tends him. He concludes that he feels this way – angry – because he’s been swindled out of his life by a greedy ex-wife. 

Though he’s in an ‘old person’s home’, he is far from immobile. And in order to cure his anger, he realises he has todo something about the ex-wife.

This is all great, but I’ve gone beyond seeing a single scene. For the first time ever, a whole story fell out of the sky and landed smack in the middle of my head, while I was awake, while I was sober, and while I was near a pen! I never get a whole story.

2. Do you follow the same process for the book as you did before?

And so for the first time I will not be following my usual process. My usual process, mentioned above, is to pull a story from a single scene, or perhaps from a couple of seemingly disparate scenes. I then write them. When I’ve written them, I hope that a large percentage of the story has presented itself by then, and I can continue writing until the book is finished or the ideas have exhausted themselves. Then it’s time to begin planning: how do I get to a logical conclusion with the tools I have, and the story I have? Sometimes it’s easy; sometimes it’s impossible and I have to re-write some of the story, and sometimes – rarely – I hit upon something so remarkable that I have been known to almost fall out of the shower or crash the car when they occur to me.

No, this time, because I was near a pen – actually it was Evernote on my tablet, but you get the idea – I already have a rough roadmap of the tale. Interestingly, as I was typing up these raw notes while standing at the kitchen table, hands still wet from doing the dishes, I came up with a couple of scenarios for the latter part of the book that would give me a good plot twist or two to follow. I won’t make up my mind about them until I get there – I want the most natural twist to win. Yet it has to be the least expected while retaining total plausibility.

3. What is your research process, if you have one?

For the majority of my books I do no research at all. I’m a Senior CSI and I’m lucky in that I know about the stories I create without having to search for details. I might need to import some facts about weapons or about the probation service, for example, but that’s about it. Since I write, usually, about a CSI working murder scenes, everything I need is already inside my head. For The Third Rule – a CSI thriller with a heavy political slant, I did a lot of research into capital punishment, into how laws are created. I went into great detail with the research – a lot more than I needed; but that was good because when I wrote those political bits I just dipped in and plucked out a fact or two to please those readers who know this stuff, and enough to project a sense of reality for those readers who nothing of it.

Generally, if you write with conviction about something, you could probably swerve any deep research, and still make most readers believe. The important thing about research, I think, is not to drown the reader in it. You shouldn’t be telling them how many hours you’ve slaved over a hot Google to get this fact for them, and shouldn’t be displaying your prowess at research to score points. You need research to propel the story – that’s all, leave the rest of what you’ve learned in a folder.Don’t hate me for saying that!

4. How quickly after thinking or planning do you sit down to write?

How quickly after thinking or planning do I sit down to write? This is an interesting question. I’m usually very impatient. It’s why I’m a pantster and not a plotter. I can’t wait to begin writing. I’m a big kid, and I have no patience at all. Forget unwrapping the Christmas present with decorum, when I’ve finished there are scraps of paper everywhere, and teeth marks in the box too!

Except for this time. This time, because I’m preparing The Death of Jessica Ripley for publication, I haven’t had the time to begin the story of the old guy in a care home. And it makes my teeth – and my fingers – itch. But it can also be a good thing. I have had the time to refine my main character and give him traits I might otherwise not have noticed had I not spent the better part of three weeks looking at him from afar. I can also modify the story: for instance, I think I shall have a violent kidnapping as my opening scene. There… doesn’t that feel good? Well, it does for me.

5. How does the draft form on the screen?

Usually fairly quickly. Writing first draft is my favourite part. Once I get into my rhythm, I don’t even look at the screen; I couldn’t care less how much red, blue, or green is on there; I couldn’t care less if I’ve forgotten a character name and have used an asterisk instead or I’ve used the word ‘slob’ six times in a paragraph. All I see, no – all I’m aware of – is my fingers hitting the keys. I’m probably not even present when most of the writing happens. And that’s a good thing; I’m away in the story smelling it, touching it, feeling the high emotion, and I have just enough of a connection with where I’m actually sitting in the real world to hit more or less the correct key more or less some of the time.

Of course there are times when words dry up and just getting a paragraph down was so painful I needed a tramadol afterwards. Mostly, that’s because I haven’t planned where I’m going and I’m just feeling my way in the dark, exploring. Sometimes this can go on for weeks – usually towards the end of a book when I’ve written myself into a corner than I can’t find a way out of. That’s my punishment for being hasty!

While I find writing first draft exhilarating – yes, I do! – I also find it scary – yes, I really do! I hate blank pages, they scare me, they have the power to stop me writing, to stop me thinking… and that is frightening.

Having said all that, I’m not a quick writer. I’ve never done Nano because I hate deadlines, but because I know I’d never get 50k down in a month. I just don’t have the time: I work full time and I have a family. Who knows what I could achieve if resigned. I’d love to find out one day.

6. Where do you write the majority of the draft?

I write in a bedroom in my house. I have a good desk, a comfy office chair, and a wireless mouse and keyboard that I can and do position anywhere on that desk or on my lap. I have two screens because ‘writing’ means promoting and taking care of official stuff too, and I find having two screens eases that feeling of claustrophobia that having a dozen tabs open all at once gives me.

I carry my phone with me, and that’s equipped with Evernote, so whatever notes I make in there follow me home and later appear on my desktop. I also have access to a tablet and Bluetooth keyboard some of the time, and if I’m on a roll, it goes with me. Mostly, I write inside my head and I just transfer those feelings via a jumble of words when I get the chance to.

Writing isn’t really about the words. It isn’t about characters. Actually, it isn’t even about stories. Writing is all about getting a reader to feel emotions. Emotions are everything. Art, music, film, food, drink, environment… these are all good mediums where people experience the most emotions, pure emotions. Novel-writing sits nicely inside ‘art’. Get people to feel emotions and you’ve done your job as a writer. Congratulations. How does it feel?

Thank you for taking the time Andy, and for visiting my blog. It’s been a pleasure.

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