Today in the first draft hot seat is thriller writer Tim Adler.
Tim Adler is an author and freelance journalist, who has written for Financial Times, The Times and the Daily Telegraph, among others.
Tim’s first book, The Producers: Money, Movies and Who Really Calls the Shots, was published in 2004. Bloomsbury published its follow-up Hollywood and the Mob, an exposé of how the Mafia has corrupted the movie industry. The Mail On Sunday made it Book of the Week while the Daily Mail picked it Critic’s Choice.
Tim is former London Editor of Deadline Hollywood, the entertainment business news website. Before that, he edited film trade magazine Screen Finance.
He writes for various B2B publications including Broadcast, Screen International and Television Business International. And he regularly features as a pundit on BBC Radio 4’s Today, BBC Breakfast and Sky News.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
I have two separate, well, careers seems too strong a word … strands to my writing life.
As a journalist and non-fiction author, I have written three nonfiction books, the most recent of which, The House of Redgrave was called “compulsively readable” by The Sunday Times.
And now I am trying to reinvent myself as a thriller writer with the publication in March of my debut Slow Bleed and now with Surrogate.
Non-fiction and fiction have completely different working methods.
Once I have decided on a non-fiction subject, I want to read everything I can about it and photocopy anything useful for filing away. On the Redgrave book I had two systems: one for things filed by subject matter and the other for people. What I was trying to do was create a family portrait of the Redgraves distilled from thousands of sources, almost like one of those pointillist paintings by Georges Seurat, where dots make up somebody’s face. Creating a timeline is one of the best things you can do – not only what was going on in your subject’s life, but also what was happening in the wider world. You get interesting juxtapositions.
For fiction it’s about getting the plot right.
The Americans have an ongoing debate as to whether you’re a plotter or a “pantster” – i.e. whether you make up everything by the seat of your pants. Jeffrey Deaver, on the other hand, often has hundreds of pages of notes which he carves the book out of, like a sculptor working in stone.
I’m somewhere in the middle.
Not having a plan would be like driving a car with permanently dipped headlights, not knowing where you’re going.
However there’s something, dare I say it, airless about Deaver’s work where you know everything has been worked out to the nth degree. It doesn’t have much élan. But if you’re writing a thriller, you have to know your plot twists, otherwise you are going to paint yourself into a corner pretty quickly.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
Both Slow Bleed and Surrogate follow a three act structure, with rising crises at the end of acts one and two. At the end of act one, the hero or heroine find themselves in a new world which they must learn the rules of. In short, get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at him, and get him down by the end of the third act.
For Surrogate I used the Scapple mind-mapping software for the first time, which is great because it allows you to sketch your plot and move things around before importing it into Scrivener. I absolutely love Scrivener: it’s rock solid dependable as a writing platform.
I find the best way to know if a plot is any good is to sit somebody down and talk them through it. You can hear yourself whether something works because of the confidence in your voice. Other parts of the story will sound lame – a bit like a dud shot in squash hitting the tin. And this type of story is very much about wanting to entertain people. Car journeys are good because you’ve got a captive audience (laughs).
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Each of my books has had a different working method.
For my first book, The Producers: Money, Movies and Who Really Calls the Shots – which argues that certain movie producers can be auteurs as much as directors – I decided to write the entire thing in longhand, thinking it would make it more authentic for some reason.
I was halfway through my second book Hollywood and the Mob, an expose of how the Mafia has corrupted Hollywood, when I met the Pulitzer Prize-nominated investigative journalists Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swann, who sat me down and taught me how to really research a nonfiction book.
For that book I used a piece of software called Writer’s Blocks, trying to create a collage out of thousands of pieces of references but the software wasn’t really there yet. Copy kept disappearing. Scrivener on the other hand has a wonderful corkboard application that allows you to swap index cards around.
However for my next book, I’m thinking about going back to pen and paper. I hope that’s not too pretentious. Fiction is about transferring what’s going on in your head onto the page and there can be something glib about writing software … I mean, Scrivener makes everything look so good … when it’s really about those thoughts flowing down your arm and onto the page.
Because what you’re asking readers to pay for is your imagination. Basically, you’re saying to readers, “My imagination is stronger than yours.”
How important is research to you?
Tremendously important. Obviously a nonfiction book is mostly about the quality of the research, and what you’ve dug up through your own probing. How much juice there is in it will define the success of the book.
Slow Bleed is a medical thriller about a surgeon whose son is kidnapped inside the hospital where she works. I interviewed a consultant obstetrician, a psychiatrist and an anaesthetist to make sure I got the medical details right. And Callum Sutherland, a retired Murder Squad detective who advises Lynda LaPlante on police procedure, was tremendously helpful on the mechanics of a murder investigation. My proudest moment came when my agent’s editor asked me how long I had been a doctor for.
Surrogate follows a childless couple who invite the surrogate mother they have paid to carry their baby to come and live with them. One day their surrogate disappears carrying their unborn child. Then they get a ransom demand. According to the police, no crime has been committed – by law their baby belongs to the surrogate. It’s down to them to find their surrogate and their baby. Barrie Drewitt Barlow of the British Surrogacy Centre advised me on surrogacy procedure.
How do you go about researching?
First, desktop research. My two most recent non-fiction books were researched using Factiva, which is a marvellous searchable database of every news story published. Each newspaper article was printed off and filed. I then drew up a hit list of people I wanted to interview. I only started The House of Redgrave once all the interviews were written up and filed.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
By the time I’d finished The House of Redgrave my bedroom looked like the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, with boxes of material stretching into the distance.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
I start rereading the book from the very first page and only begin writing once I have caught up with where I left off, making changes as I go. I will only go back two or three chapters if I am too deep into a book. And I will break off mid-sentence where I know what’s going to happen next or what the dialogue is to help me pick up the following morning.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
Because like most writers I have a day job, I try and carve out an hour each day before I go to work. Best of all I like writing in bed with a cup of coffee on the bedside table. I see it as giving my fiction writing the cream off the top of the milk, in terms of my energy and mental alertness, before the proper working day begins.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
Writing seems to me a form of meditation or like doing yoga. It requires mental concentration like playing a hand of bridge. Which is why you can sometimes feel so exhausted by the end of it – using your imagination is hard work. And occasionally my sacred hour of doing my own work just flashes by.
What does your work space look like?
Woody Allen once said that he could work on a subway train if he had too. I doubt that. Increasingly I need to work in silence, and I have heard of some writers even blindfolding themselves, wearing noise cancelling headphones and touch typing blindly. It’s about going deeper into your imagination.
I have a lovely desk with a Lenovo PC set-up; like Scrivener, Lenovo computers are real workhorses.
Occasionally I do like to work at the British Library in London, especially if I’m researching something. It’s comforting to be surrounded by soft coughing and the sound of turning pages. You’re alone in a crowd.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
Good writing is about boiling sentences down until they are as simple and exact as possible. I like to edit the copy as I go, smoothing and untangling sentences like a woman brushing her hair until it shines.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
At best I only have an hour each day to do my own work, so word counts don’t matter to me. In fact, I want to avoid typing for the sake of it – that’s the danger of word processors in that they make you think you’re getting words down on the page when really all you’re doing is typing. So even if it was just five words in one hour, I would be happy with that. Wasn’t it Flaubert who said that he spent a morning putting a comma in, and the afternoon removing it? My natural flow though is around five hundred words an hour for fiction and about seven hundred wph when it comes to journalism.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
I like to rewrite as I go along, so the first draft is really the fifth, sixth or seventh draft. However that first putting digit to keyboard is what I call “the muscle draft” where all the heavy lifting goes on. Anything else is just prettying up — cutting, polishing and rewriting.
Both novels took about nine months to get to the stage where I could show them to somebody asking for their opinion.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
Working journalists always proofread on paper. You catch more errors that way than working on screen. What I do is get a blank sheet of A4, hold it over the copy, and then work my way down line by line marking as I go. At one point I was chief sub-editor on a trade magazine so I use standard proofreading marks.
What happens now that first draft is done?
It’s time for the dreaded beta reader.
I have found that it’s hopeless asking non-writers for their opinion. They just nod and say, “It’s really good.”
I am also sceptical about paying people for editorial services. On Slow Bleed I made the foolish mistake of handing over what was for me a considerable amount of money for a set of notes from the script development head of a famous film company. What I got back was useless. When I complained to the owner, he told me cheerfully, “Oh yes. I’ve never known any script improve once it’s been through her hands.”
Fellow working writers are much more specific in their criticisms as they can spot what works and what doesn’t. One of the most enjoyable afternoons I’ve had recently was going through the plot of my next thriller with Rohan Gavin, author of Knightley & Son. I think the Americans call it breaking story, lifting up the bonnet and getting your hands dirty.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
You can find Tim Adler on his Website, Amazon and Twitter
How much is your child worth?
That’s the question Hugo and Emily Cox must answer when they get a ransom demand for their child – from Alice, the surrogate mother they paid to carry
The police are helpless. No law has been broken — the
baby belongs to their surrogate. And Hugo has a secret he’s keeping from his wife that makes their search even more desperate.
Now Hugo and Emily must find their missing
daughter… even if it costs them everything they own.
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