Hot in the seat today is crime writer Steven Dunne.
Steven left Rhodesway School in Bradford, Yorkshire in 1976 after taking A-levels. He graduated from Kent University in 1979 and, after taking a year’s Post Graduate Certificate in Education at St Mary’s College in Twickenham, he undertook a variety of jobs in London, including Public Relations Consultant, freelance Journalist and supply teacher. He wrote occasional articles for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent while working on various writing projects including his own brief career in stand-up comedy. He wrote the Book for the award-winning Latchmere Theatre Christmas pantomime of Hansel and Gretel in 1989.
In 1988, he began teaching English in Croydon before moving to Derby in 1996, where he began to think about writing a novel. After being turned onto thrillers after picking up and devouring a copy of Silence of the Lambs, he began to realize that most thrillers he read were failing to provide the promised excitement so he decided to write his own.
In 2007, after spending two fruitless years marketing the novel to the publishing industry, Steven self-published Reaper, a thriller about a serial killer who strikes in Derby. It sold over 1500 copies in the East Midlands and in 2008, Harper Collins bought the rights and The Reaper was released internationally in 2009. A sequel, The Disciple, was released in August 2010. Both books were critically acclaimed. He signed a publishing deal at Headline and released the next DI Brook thriller Deity, in June 2012. The Unquiet Grave was released in October 2013.
When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?
I enjoy the process of starting a new book because all things are possible and I’m not under time pressures. As soon as I start, ideas I haven’t yet had begin to pop into my head. I’ll either make a note in the manuscript or more likely jot freehand notes into a new notebook.
Do you have a set routine approaching it?
I get started, it’s that simple. I have a vague structure in my head and the hardest thing at this point is naming the characters appropriately.
Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?
Keyboard. I’m in awe of writers who pen their work freehand but it’s not for me. Seeing the text as it might appear in the book helps my work.
How important is research to you?
It’s important, not necessarily to know every last painstaking detail about a topic of say, police procedure, but certainly to have sufficient knowledge to convince the reader that I know what I’m talking about.
How do you go about researching?
More often than not I leave research until the point in the MS that I need to know the facts I’m going to use. That way it’s fresh when I find my information. Obviously if a crucial part on which the entire story hinges needs to be researched it would be foolish not to be certain that it’s going to work before you hang your book on it.
How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?
Sometimes a notebook. If I’m at the computer, I’ll write ideas down on the MS or in a specially created document which I usually call “Scraps”. Detailed research is for the notebook because I may need to express it unconventionally, eg in a spider diagram. Otherwise, odd though it sounds, I store a lot of stuff in my head.
Tell us how that first draft takes shape?
I’d love to be able to write a quick and lean first draft but have never yet managed it. I’m a perfectionist and can’t leave the script alone. I work on the first half a lot until it’s in decent shape then use it as the launch pad for the second half of the novel. Often I don’t finish the first draft on the page but leave it incomplete a few chapters from the end then go back to the start and polish. As long as I know what’s going to happen I find it better to end the story close to deadline.
Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?
A suitable chair and desk and natural light are my main requirements. It’s a teacher thing. I don’t normally work at night, trying to keep office hours but this changes as deadline approaches and it’s all hands to the pump. The only other requirement is a copious supply of drugs and Tetley’s is my favoured addiction.
Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?
All too often the outside world intrudes with numerous breaks for cups of tea and maybe even some household chores. At its best, the writing flows and I can lose myself in the story.
What does your work space look like?
A desk, a chair and a laptop in a very cluttered office which I’m always threatening to sort out but never do.
Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?
I have to edit as I go because to launch myself at the day’s tasks, I re-read the previous day’s work. If it needs rewriting I won’t hesitate to revise it before I move on so it’s closer to where I want it to be.
I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?
The word count is an insidious tool but it doesn’t lie so it’s better to set a target which makes it easier to rationalize my time. 1000 words is my minimum and if things are going well it’s not too hard to get there and beyond. If things are going slowly, I tend to become overly verbose to reach my target and assuage any guilt about falling short. Pathetic really as I know a lot of it will be cut subsequently.
So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?
As I said the first draft is rarely completed so after eight or nine months I’ll have 90% of the tale in decent shape. I will rewrite and revise extensively so it’s as perfect as I can get it and my rewrites will inform me if my ending needs to change. Any final twists will emerge at this point and I’ll rattle off the denouement and spend days going over and over it to polish.
In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?
The computer is fine. I don’t have an ereader and I wouldn’t know what to do with it. When I’m satisfied, I’ll print out a copy for my wife to read and send an online copy to my agent and publisher.
What happens now that first draft is done?
I draft and revise to add improvements (or subtract) for as long as I’m able. Reading the whole thing in a couple of days is a pleasure if you’re able to progress without stopping to tinker. Until I absolutely have to let it go OR I feel it is publishable the next day, I won’t stop trying to add value. Sad, I know.
Thanks for digging into the depths of your first draft process Steven.
If you’ve enjoyed these questions on Steven’s first draft process, you can find the answers from other authors in the series Here.
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Due to the fact that I am engaging in the A to Z Challenge in April, the First Draft series will take a break for the month, but please still get in touch and we can sort out the articles and book them in as they are returned.