This afternoon folks, I am delighted to welcome crime writer M. R. Mackenzie to my blog. Here, Mike chats about how he approaches first drafts and a bit more about his upcoming novel Cruel Summer.
At the bottom of the page, you can find some testimonials from other authors, a bit more about Cruel Summer and some purchasing links.
Over to you, Mike…
1) When you begin the next book, how do you go about it?
I’m an obsessive plotter, so the first step for me, beyond coming up with the initial idea, involves writing a whole lot of notes. In the beginning, it’s not exactly a structured process. I write down any ideas I might have – characters, individual scenes, lines of dialogue, plot twists – in no particular order. I try to live with the idea for several weeks, letting it percolate at the back of my mind and not treating it too much like “work”: I tend to find that ideas come to me more freely when I’m doing other things as opposed to actively trying to come up with solutions.
Eventually, I’ll have amassed several pages’ worth of notes, and it’s then that I pull them into a Word document and start to sort them into some semblance or order. That’s when the “work” phase begins in earnest for me. I break the notes down into different categories – character notes, dialogue snippets, plot points I want to hit etc., and put them into the rough order in which I want them to occur in the narrative. Then I write a very broad outline of the plot from beginning to end – ideally no more than a couple of pages. I use a five-act structure for plotting, and I aim for a couple of paragraphs for each act. Once I have the overarching structure figured out, I then start at the beginning and write a more thorough outline, detailing everything that happens from the first to the final scene. The outline tends to be seriously long – my last one was over 20,000 words – and in many respects constitutes my true first draft. In theory, once I finally sit down to write the actual prose, I should never be stuck because I should have figured everything out at the outlining stage. In practice, it doesn’t always work like that, but I find that following this method means leaving as little to chance as possible.
Of course, it rarely happens in as perfectly linear a fashion as that. I’ll jump back and forth as the need arises, and the description above doesn’t factor in things like research, figuring out locations and drawing up character biographies, but I tend to fly more by the seat of my pants with those elements and work on them as and when it’s required.
2) Do you follow the same process you did for the book before?
Each project differs slightly from the last, but I’ve found that the process I’ve described above works for me and I’ve seen little reason to deviate from it. I discovered long ago that I’m incapable of writing without a solid outline. If I try to pants it, I invariably get to about a third of the way through, then hit a brick wall with no idea how to proceed. I’m a dreadful procrastinator, and I find that not knowing what comes next serves as the perfect excuse to procrastinate, so having a blueprint in front of me helps keep me moving forward at all times. I’m in awe of people who’re able to write without an outline – and especially the ones who’re able to construct a convincing whodunit without knowing beforehand who done it!
3) What is your research process, if you have one?
I’m not sure I’ve got one beyond “figure out the bare minimum amount I need to do and hope no one notices any glaring errors”. Research is probably my least favourite part of the writing process, as it invariably leads to the realisation that a particular plot development I’m desperate to include wouldn’t happen in real life. It’s also why I prefer to write about amateur detectives than the professional kind – because they’re so mired in rules and bureaucracy that I’d have to research and then present accurately in order for my writing to have any pretence of authenticity. But that’s not to say I don’t do any research. Right now, for example, I’m completely immersed in Frank Hagan’s Introduction to Criminology as I work through the early stages of planning the third instalment in my Anna Scavolini series. Anna is a criminology lecturer, and, in this novel, her job comes to the forefront in a way that it didn’t in the first two, so I feel it’s incumbent on me to get a decent grounding in the topic before I put pen to paper and completely embarrass myself.
Of course, working in a genre with a higher than average body count, part of the research process also involves figuring out gruesome and inventive ways to kill people and making sure I’m describing the effects as scientifically accurately as possible. I don’t mind doing THAT kind of research!
4) How quickly after thinking or planning do you sit down to write?
If an idea comes to me, I always make a point of writing it down immediately, because my brain is like a sieve. I could have the most brilliant brainwave imaginable, but, if I don’t commit it to paper (or a Word document), chances are I’ll have forgotten it within five minutes.
But, in terms of completing the outline versus starting the first draft, I do like to leave a bit of a gap between the two phases, and to spend that time working on a different project if possible. I find it’s helpful to get a bit of distance between myself and what I’ve written, because often, when I return to the outline with fresh eyes after a break, I’ll notice certain plot holes, lapses in logic and other issues I didn’t pick up before, and therefore avoid being blindsided by them when I’m actually drafting.
5) How does the draft form on the screen?
If I’ve done my job properly at the planning/outlining stage, itall comes together fairly quickly as, in theory, I should know exactly what needs to come next at all times. In practice, there are invariably moments where I realise I’ve missed something obvious and have to backtrack and figure out some plot development or other that I inadvertently glossed over in the outline. Or sometimes a new idea will suggest itself to me that causes me to abandon my original plans – which in turn has all sorts of knock-on effects on the events which follow, leading to yet more frantic backtracking and re-outlining. But, for the most part, my first draft comes together pretty speedily. With the standalone novel I recently completed(which hasn’t officially been announced yet), I managed to write the first draft in just under seven weeks, working to a target of 1,500 words on weekdays and 2,500 on Saturdays and Sundays. I write linearly, starting at chapter one and working my way through to the end rather than jumping back and forth, though I’ll occasionally scribble down a line of dialogue or a chunk of description from later in the novel if anidea comes to me – or, if I’m struggling with a particular line or choice of words, I’ll leave it blank and return to it later once I’ve written the rest of the scene.
6) Where do you write the majority of the draft?
Because I juggle two jobs alongside my writing (one part-time salaried, the other freelance and varying in terms of hours from one week to the next), my days can look very different depending on what currently requires my attention. As a result, I tend to do my writing where and when I can, which can mean while I’m sitting at my desk at home while I wait for some work pertaining to my freelance job to come through, or just as easily on the fifteen-minute train journey to my other job or on my half-hour lunch break. These short writing spurts are some of my most productive, probably because I know I’ve only got a finite amount of time in which to get something done, the result being that I feel compelled to make every second count.
In terms of the software I use, I’m changing it up constantly, partly because I’m a restless type and partly because I keep hoping I’ll find that mythical perfect program. I’ve dabbled with minimalist writing apps like iA Writer and fully-fledged document management suites like Ulysses, but I invariably find myself coming back to good old Microsoft Word. It’s bloated and suffers from feature creep on an industrial scale, but I’ve used it for decades in one form or another, so I’m intimately familiar with all its foibles. And, when it comes to submitting my draft to my editor and then working through their notes, I’m going to be doing that in Word anyway. And, of course, Dropbox is an absolute lifesaver when it comes to chopping and changing between different devices – not to mention the peace of mind that comes from having a comprehensive catalogue of online backups.
ABOUT CRUEL SUMMER
Zoe Callahan is having the summer from hell… and it’s about to get a whole lot worse.
She’s stuck in a dead-end job, her relationship is going nowhere, and the memory of the Kelvingrove Park Murders three years ago continues to cast a long shadow over every aspect of her life.
When a prostitute is brutally assaulted by Dominic Ryland, a rising political star with a suspiciously spotless personal reputation, Zoe leaps at the chance to distract herself with a noble cause, and sets out on a one-woman crusade to bring Ryland to justice.
But in doing so, she quickly finds herself on the wrong side of some very dangerous people – people who have reputations to protect and who would think nothing of silencing Zoe by any means necessary.
An explosive thriller set against the backdrop of a sweltering heatwave, Cruel Summer is the sequel to M.R. Mackenzie’s critically acclaimed In the Silence and the second instalment in the Kelvingrove Park Trilogy.
ABOUT M.R. MACKENZIE
M.R. Mackenzie was born and lives in Glasgow, Scotland. He studied at Glasgow University and has an MA in English and a PhD in Film Studies.
In addition to writing, he works as an independent producer and has overseen Blu-ray and DVD releases of films by a number of acclaimed directors, among them Dario Argento, Joe Dante and Seijun Suzuki. In 2016, he contributed a chapter on the Italian giallo film to Cult Cinema: An Arrow Video Companion, and regularly provides video essays and liner notes for new releases of cult films.
His debut novel, In the Silence, reached #2 in Amazon UK’s Scottish crime fiction bestsellers chart.
PRAISE FOR M.R. MACKENZIE
“With well observed characterisation, M.R. Mackenzie writes with precision and passion. He is a writer to watch.” — Caro Ramsay, author of the Anderson & Costello thrillers
“Mackenzie brings a fresh new voice to the field of Tartan Noir.” — James Oswald, author of the Inspector McLean novels
“M.R. Mackenzie is right up there with the best contemporary authors working today. His prose is of such high-quality that I am instantly addicted to the words on his pages.” — David B. Lyons, author of Whatever Happened to Betsy Blake?
“This is splendidly written stuff, triumphing in a variety of areas – not least that of its dialogue, which is idiomatic and vivid (overcoming the hurdle at which many contemporary crime novels fall).” — Barry Forshaw, Crime Time
CONNECT WITH M.R. MACKENZIE
BUY CRUEL SUMMER
Apple Books: https://books.apple.com/gb/book/cruel-summer/id1461662074