What’s Your First Draft Like? – Margot Kinberg

Today sitting in the first draft hot seat is Margot Kinberg.

MargotMargot Kinberg is a mystery novelist (she writes the Joel Williams series) and Associate Professor. She has also been blogging about crime fiction since 2009. She has written three Joel Williams novels and is currently revising the fourth. Margot blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

Thanks very much for having me, Rebecca!

When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?

The first thing I do is make a few notes with character names if I’ve thought of them, or major story events – whatever has actually sparked my imagination. Then I start planning the story.

Do you have a set routine approaching it?

I write crime fiction, so I always start with the person who’s going to be the victim. I plan who that person is, and why that person would be killed. The more I get to know about the victim’s life, the easier it is to plan the rest of the story. Once I know the victim, I move on to figuring out who the other people are in that person’s life. That gives me all sorts of possibilities for conflicts, interactions, and of course, suspects. Then I’m ready to decide how my sleuth will get involved. He’s not a cop, so I have to find a believable way for him to find out about the case and investigate. You might call it a set of ‘character circles.’ Once I’ve got those circles, then it’s time to start actually outlining the major events in the story.

Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?

Oh, no doubt about it – keyboard. My handwriting is virtually illegible, so I’m much better off using word processing. Besides, I type faster than I can write in longhand.

How important is research to you?

Research is absolutely essential. It lends credibility to a novel and besides, it teaches you as a writer. I think readers are insulted if they don’t think the writer cares enough about the story to get the facts right. Part of that attitude may also come from my academic background. You can’t write any sort of academic paper without doing research. So I’ve gotten accustomed to doing a ‘How do you know that?’ check before I write.

How do you go about researching?

When I have questions or want to check my facts, I ask experts. For instance, retail surveillance video features in one of my stories. So I talked to the manager of a local shop about how that store manages its security. Another time I had a question about police jurisdiction in one of the U.S. National Parks (it’s not as simple as it may seem to be). So I contacted the park, and their representative was happy to answer my questions.

And that’s what I’ve found in general. Most people are more than happy to share their knowledge, and they’re actually flattered to be asked about what they do.

How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?

For images, I use my ‘phone. It’s got a very decent camera and of course, I take it with me always. It also has a solid ‘Notes’ app too, that allows for voice recording. So if I get a brainstorm, I can make a note in written, audio or visual form.

For research, outlines, that sort of thing I use my laptop. I have a separate folder for each story, and in that folder I’ve got the outline, the chapter drafts, etc. And I have Carbonite, so all my files are also backed up in my cloud.

Margot First Draft (2)Tell us how that first draft takes shape?

To be honest, once I have my main characters and my basic story outline, I start writing the actual story. I don’t really go chapter by chapter, though. Instead, I go scene by scene if I can put it that way. And depending on how easy or difficult the scenes are, I may do several in a day, or only one. I find that writing that way helps me keep some continuity to the story I’m writing. Writing by scenes also frees me up to add in other characters, events, and so on that I didn’t think of when I started the story’s outline. And writing scene by scene lets me break up the writing task, which is important for someone like me who has a ‘day job.’

Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?

I like a beverage with me when I write. Usually it’s coffee (black, no sugar), but I also drink water and sometimes tea. Oh, and sometimes a glass of wine slips its way in there, too…

Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?

When I’m actually writing, I don’t like distractions. I really do better when I plunge into the characters’ worlds. But like most of us I have other obligations too, so I can’t be completely oblivious to what’s going on around me. Besides, my dogs would never allow it.

What does your work space look like?

I’m a bit of a minimalist when it comes to my workspace. I don’t care much for clutter, so as you can see, it’s fairly spare and ‘airy.’ I also like a lot of light when I work, both because it’s easier on my eyes and because it’s easier on my disposition. What I like about this setup is that it lets me concentrate, but still give my eyes and mind a rest when I need one.

Margot Home Office (2)

Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?

I edit as I go for some things. For instance, if I notice typos or grammar issues, I fix them right off. I’ve also been known to write a line of dialogue only to see that it’s just too wooden, cliché, or out of character. Then I’ll go right back and change it. If I can’t fix it right away I do my best and then move on.

For other things, like using words and phrases too often or awkwardness in tone, I don’t always edit as I go. I push right through and then come back later and fix those things once I have the scene(s) written.

I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?

Honestly I don’t do a word count very often. I find that it puts too much pressure on me and then the ideas don’t come smoothly and easily. What I do instead is set myself a goal of writing a given scene or scenes. That’s how I keep track of my progression. Perhaps it’s a bit unorthodox, but it helps me discipline myself without making me overanxious.

So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?

The first draft of a novel takes me about eight months or so, depending on what’s going on my life. By that time, the basic story is there. I’ve got the plot in fairly decent shape and the characters are mostly ready to go.

In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?

I use the computer screen. That’s because as I start the revision process, I find it much easier to go back in and change things than if I use paper or an ereader. I love Search/Replace, and using the computer screen also lets me toggle back and forth to different parts of the story as I need to do that.

What happens now that first draft is done?

The next step is to read it over and fix the obvious problems. Then I send it out to my trusty first readers, and they tell me what else needs to be fixed. When I get their comments back, it’s time for revision.

Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.

Thanks for hosting me – it’s been an honour.

You can find Margot on her blog, Twitter and Facebook


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.

25 thoughts on “What’s Your First Draft Like? – Margot Kinberg

  1. What a tidy workspace! (Do those dogs have nothing to say about this or is it forbidden territory to them?) Lovely to hear from two of my favourite bloggers… and it inspires me to get cracking with my own third draft.


    1. Jacqui – Every writer is different of course, so what works for me may not for anyone else. But for me, a story makes most sense if I start with the victim – well, a crime story anyway. Thanks for the kind words.


  2. Fab post! Margot, it sounds like you’ve found a terrific process. I can recognize similarities to how I work, too, especially in terms of scene-writing. That seems to work best for me.

    Good luck with your current project!


    1. Thanks, Kathy – And it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who does the ‘writing by scene’ thing. I’ve found it just helps keep me ‘on track.’ It also helps me to avoid too much ‘connecting narrative.’


  3. Margot, thanks for sharing how you go about putting your first draft together. It’s such a personal process, and everyone seems to do it a little differently. That’s one of the things I like to tell new writers…..there is no right way. There is just your way, and that is something you figure out as you go along. Rebecca, thanks so much for interviewing Margot.


    1. Pat – I think you’re absolutely right. There is no ‘correct’ way to go about getting that draft done. I think it’s good to find out how other people do it, because you can learn a lot. But at the same time, I think each author has to find her or his own approach. Nothing else will work as well.


  4. It amazes me that you find the time to write at all, Margot, given your day job and how much work you put into your blog. I suspect you must be related to Superwoman!

    Thnaks, both, for another very interesting interview.😀


  5. Rebecca and Ms. Kinberg, thank you both for this interview which, along with the many comments, is a fine testimony to writers without borders. I have a question and I hope you don’t mind. Assuming you have it sometimes, how do you overcome writer’s block?


    1. Prashant – Thanks for the kind words. Everyone gets writer’s block at times, I suspect. When it happens to me, I try to work on other parts of a story, such as a character’s description or another scene. Then I file that away so that I’ll have it handy. Sometimes I’m helped by reading others’ work too, to see how other authors handle whatever has blocked me.


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