The Writing Process – part 1 – with Fergus McNeill

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Top crime author, Fergus McNeill has answered questions today about the writing process. Many authors have also had interviews with me and each interview will be on the blog every Monday.

Welcome to my blog, Fergus, and many thanks for your answers to the following questions:

1) CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOURSELF AND YOUR WRITING. FOR EXAMPLE, HAVE YOU WRITTEN ANY BOOKS AND ARE YOU WRITING AT THE MOMENT?

I seem to have been writing for a very long time, though in my defence, I started out when I was quite young. As a teenager I was creating interactive fiction – stories that play out on a computer, evolving and adapting depending on how the reader reacts to them. Over the years, I’ve written a number of articles, short stories – even a parody science fiction novel – but things only clicked into place when I started writing in the crime genre.
My debut novel is called ‘Eye Contact’, a contemporary crime thriller about a charismatic serial murderer who selects his victims at random, based on whoever meets his gaze after a certain time of day. Rather than being a police procedural, it’s told largely from the killer’s point of view, though it does introduce D.I. Harland, my Bristol-based detective.
The series continues with ‘Knife Edge’ and I’ve recently finished a third title which I’m editing at the moment.

2) HOW MUCH RESEARCH AND PREPARATION DO YOU DO BEFORE YOU WRITE? FOR EXAMPLE, DO YOU DO CHAPTER PLANS AND CHARACTER PROFILES ETC.? DOES ANY OF THIS CHANGE WHILE YOU WRITE?

I do try and sketch out chapter plans but I’ve learned not to be too precious about them. If something better comes to mind, and it takes the story in the right direction, the plan has to give way; it’s there to support your creativity not stifle it.
Character profiles tend to develop during the writing process, but I do like to know as much as possible about the people I’m describing. I usually try and base each one on a person I know in real-life, which helps to anchor their personality, mannerisms, speech patterns and so on. Then I can slot that real person into the character’s role and ask myself questions. How would X react in this situation? What sort of relationship’s is Z drawn to?
As to research, the internet is invaluable, but I’ve also found it extremely useful to go and spend time in the real-life places where each book is set. I don’t live in Bristol, but my detective does, so I’ve spent weeks there, getting to know the city, becoming familiar with the different locations and writing in-situ whenever possible. Visiting a location from the story is like walking onto a film set, and suddenly there’s a wealth of atmosphere and inspiration that hopefully makes the writing feel more real.

3) DO YOU HAVE A FAVOURITE TIME TO WRITE? HOW DO YOU BALANCE THIS WITH OTHER RESPONSIBILITIES SUCH AS FAMILY LIFE OR WORK?

For me the biggest challenge is time. I have a family, and a full-time job, so it’s not always possible to write when (or as often) as I’d like to do. I do try and devote one day each weekend to the current book – if I’m travelling to somewhere like Bristol I’ll write on the train – and then there are evenings and lunchtimes and other quiet moments that I can steal. I’m lucky to have a very patient and supportive family, and I’ve learned to carry my laptop with me wherever I go so that I can make the most of any free time I get.

4) WHAT PART OF THE WRITING PROCESS DO YOU FIND MOST IMPORTANT? FOR EXAMPLE, THE FIRST DRAFT, EDITING, REWRITING ETC.

I think the biggest challenge is the dreaded first draft. Once that’s down, even in a very rough style there’s a sense that you’ve ‘discovered what happened’ and the events from your imagination become ‘real’. Then it’s just a matter of improving how you recount them for the reader. Of course, elements of the plot may change, and subsequent drafts and edits can take ages, but once you’ve typed your way to the end of the story, there’s an extra feeling of achievement that helps carry you forward.

5) WRITING HAS LOTS OF HIGHS AND LOWS. HOW DO YOU KEEP YOURSELF MOTIVATED?

I wish I had a good answer for this. It’s incredibly uplifting when someone tells you that they enjoyed your book, but soul-destroying when they say they didn’t. Even now, with two published novels, I often find myself wondering if I’m wasting my time or questioning whether the book I’m working on has any merit. I suppose the truth is, I keep going because I want to write and I want people to read what I’ve written. Maybe the insecurity will ensure that I keep working hard to make each story as good as I can.

6) DO YOU USE SOCIAL MEDIA AND/OR BLOG? HOW USEFUL DO YOU FIND THIS?

Writing can be a solitary pursuit, so social media is a lifeline! It’s great to have a connection to other people who are following the same path – people who understand, and can share the highs and lows with you.
I do keep a blog http://www.fergusmcneill.co.uk. and I think Twitter is brilliant, I’m @fergusmcneill if you or anyone wants to procrastinate.

7) IF YOU COULD PASS ONE PIECE OF ADVICE TO A NEW WRITER, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

Well, everyone talks about the importance of not giving up, so I think I’ll say something different. My advice would be to start planning how you’re going to reach out and engage with people. A writer needs two things: a good book, and an audience to read it. There’s no point writing your masterpiece if nobody gets to hear about it, and as traditional publishing/retail models change, it’s increasingly the role of the author to help get the word out. So enter those writing competitions, and make sure you’re active on Twitter and Facebook. You might even consider starting a cool book blog…like this one 😉

Thank you so much Fergus for taking time out to answer these questions and for such well considered answers and helpful advice. Good luck with your third book!

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6 thoughts on “The Writing Process – part 1 – with Fergus McNeill

  1. Katie says:

    Hi Ruth and Fergus

    Great blog post!

    I really enjoyed reading about your books and writing routine. ‘Eye contact’ sounds very interesting am adding it to my 2014 book list of reads to eat through before next year.

    I agree its always good to have something with you at all time to get the writing down in quiet moments.

    Good Luck with your third book and hope 2014 is a great year for you Fergus and you Ruth. 🙂

    Take care
    Katie..

    1. electrasmoped says:

      Thanks for your comments, Katie! I’ve read Eye Contact – it’s a great crime novel and Knife Edge is on order. His answers give a good insight into the writing of novels and I’m in awe of him – 3 novels when he’s got a family and full time job! I must get a move on!
      Thanks again, Katie.

  2. thewannabewoodsman says:

    Good post Ruth. Interesting to advice at the end – wish I’d thought of it when you asked me! I get the bit about writing with job and family. ‘The Book’ comes to treated (by the rest of the family) in much the same way as an unpopular houseguest whose stayed too long. Speak soon, T

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