Today I am thrilled to introduce, in our first draft seat, crime writer MD Villiers.
MD Villiers was born in Johannesburg and studied psychology at the University of Pretoria. She has worked as a tennis coach and has had jobs in recruitment and marketing. She was shortlisted for the CWA debut dagger in 2007 and her first novel, City Of Blood was published by Harvill Secker in May 2013. She currently lives in south-west London.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
The idea for a story could come from anywhere – something I read in the paper, or overheard, even a photo. Then I ask: what if? At this stage I’ll make notes, or write a few paragraphs before putting it aside. For some reason this usually happens when I’m midway through another novel. By the time I get back to that idea, the story and characters have been in the back of my mind for a while.
I need to have a strong sense of place before I could start a novel, and I also need to be very clear on the character’s voice. Without that no amount of planning seems to get me anywhere, but once that is in place I can start writing.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
Just to sit down and write. I try to plot and structure the novel but I don’t necessarily stick to the plan.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Mostly straight to the keyboard, but I make of notes in various notebooks, draw diagrams and scribble on pieces of paper.
How important is research to you?
At his stage of the novel, research is not all that important. I try to get the story right, and try to get to know the characters. Once I have a rough first draft on paper, I’d start thinking about research.
How do you go about researching?
I like to visit the place I write about, even if it is a place I am familiar with. My first novel, City of Blood, is set in Johannesburg, and although I know the city, going to Jo-burg again gave me a much better feel for the city. I also talk to people and there is, of course, the internet, but things change over the time it takes to write a novel. With City of Blood I had to double check just about everything. I found, for example, that a certain type of beer that I mentioned in the book when I started writing it, was no longer made in South Africa when I completed the final draft(that was three years later).
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
Countless notebooks. Photos are helpful and I have separate folders on my laptop for different ideas and stories I work on.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
I write the first few chapters, then the ending. I need to know where I’m going with the story. Once the ending is in place I tend to write a few chapters on both ends of the novel. I usually have the last five chapters in place by the time I reach the halfway point. The tricky part is to fit the pieces together. I often have chunks of dialogue, and different scenes that need to find a place in the novel – bit of a chronological nightmare at times.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft
Nothing I can think of other than my laptop.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
I could easily get lost in the process, but I still have a day job that needs my attention, family and friends, and life in general.
What does your work space look like?
Chaotic, I write pretty much anywhere, and often sit on my bed with pillows stacked behind my back. Mainly my ‘work space’ is my laptop.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
Edit as I go. I need a breather, so when I have no idea what comes next I’d go back over what I’ve written and edit. I also read out loud to myself or to a friend. Feedback helps at every stage of the book.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
Word count helps to make me feel as if I’m progressing, but at the stage of the first draft that I am at now, it’s more about working out exactly how I’m going to get to that final chapter than just putting words on the page. It’s as hard to cut the bad parts as it is to write from scratch so I’m careful with what goes into the novel in the first place. I often have separate files for each character where I play around with a few ideas or add those extra scenes or conversations that I’m not sure about.
Six months maybe. And nothing is fixed yet, plot can change, characters can be added. I started City of Blood with three POVs, and three drafts later I had five. It ended with four viewpoints and a completely different story than I had in the 1st draft.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
Paper and on screen, but I find reading on the page the best way to edit.
What happens now that first draft is done?
Deep breath, pause, start again. I’m always relieved to get to that point, but a first draft is a long way from a complete novel.
Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.
You can find MD Villiers on Twitter – Here.
To read any of the previous First Draft Q&A’s you can check the list Here.
To be a part of the First Draft series, just get in touch and let me know. Along with the answers to the questions, I’ll need a profile photograph, a first draft photograph and three links that you feel are your most important.