Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Angela Clarke
Tell us about yourself.
How long does your first draft take you?
Where do you most like to do your writing?
My name is Angela and I eat too much chocolate, and I have no plans to change that. Oh, and I’m a writer. My latest crime thriller in the Social Media Murder Series is Watch Me. I spend too much time on social media, and I have no plans to change that…
My first draft is very fast and usually quite short – around the 45,000 word mark. It comes out in a fairly swift blast, of barely intelligible story. I won’t go so far as to describe it as prose, it’s more like a stream of consciousness, with dreadful spelling, where I tell myself what happens. I can usually complete it in about 6 weeks. After that the real work starts whipping it into a state where another human could actually read it.
I have a degenerative connective tissue disorder called Ehlers Danlos III, among other things this dictates that I write in a fully supported seat (no hanging arms, feet, or head). Which means I usually write in my study, in a high-backed chair me and my dad pimped with a memory foam single mattress topper. But I’m lucky to have a room of my own. It is lined with books, and a giant pin board covers one wall, another is covered with notes of my latest book. And it’s always full of clutter. I only tidy it once I’ve finished whichever book I’m working on; it’s become a superstition now. And it’s a handy excuse to keep piling it high with the detritus I collect. From the outside, I’m sure it looks like chaos, and a little bit frightening with details of legal procedure and forensic reports taped to the wall. I love it.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you tackle it?
I’m not sure I believe in writer’s block. Not in the mythic – I can never write again, my muse is spent, I’m an empty well, my career is over – way. I do believe in procrastination: I prove its existence to myself on a frequent basis. And I believe in being paralysed with emotion: some writers, when terrible things happen, are able to channel their feelings into the work. I am the opposite. When grief or fear settles over me I can’t write, but then I can’t really do
anything else either. Which only leaves plot knots. Those tricky sticky bits you get to where you know what has happened so far in your book, but either you don’t know what happens next, or, more usually with me, you know what needs to happen, but can’t seem to get your characters to that point. I deal with plot knots by getting away from the screen. I try and do something physical, like going for a walk, or a swim, or even unloading the dishwasher and folding and putting clothes away. I find that if you’re looking the other way, the solution often sneaks up on you. I’m also a big fan of a plot nap: a nap in the middle of the day where I’m thinking about my book when I fall asleep. Something magic happens in my subconscious when the rest of me relaxes and drifts off, and I often wake to a solution. If I’m still stuck I will go all out to do something else creative, something that will take concentration, like watching a film, or a good TV show, or painting a picture. Not thinking and worrying over the plot knot, seems to be the best way to undo it.
How has your writing style developed over time? And the way that you approach writing?
With each project I work on, I try to develop and push myself as a writer. Above my desk I have quote from Hilary Mantel pinned: ‘The inner process, the writing life, it doesn’t change at all. Every day is like the first day, it’s like being a beginner. There’s no time for complacency. You need to be extending your range all the time.’ That’s what I try to do: extend my range. Show up each day like an eager kid at a new school. Bring enthusiasm, a hunger to do well, and a pack of chocolate biscuits. A huge part of what matures my own writing, is reading others’ work. I try to read between one and three books a week. There are so many incredible writers out there today – Sarah Hilary, Jane Casey, Graeme Cameron – I’m discovering new ones all the time. And that’s before you delve into our rich history of literature. I try to work out why certain books are so good, and then I try to emulate that in my own work. Not copy their ideas, but study their craft and think about how I can push myself in that area, whether it’s beautiful prose, killer descriptions, clever twists, narrative tricks, there is just so much good stuff to choose from. So many things to try. Even if I know I will never be as good as many other writers, I hope that I prove to be better than my earlier work. I hope that I am extending my range.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
I am a big fan of Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: ‘Start as close to the end as possible.’ I critique a lot of manuscripts for personal clients and through The Literary Consultancy, and I often share this sentence with writers. You want to start as close to the action as possible, right on top of it, so the book is a blistering fire cracker of pace and energy and excitement. Especially if you are writing genre fiction. Especially, especially if you are writing crime or a thriller. In turn I try to practice what I preach, and often end up cutting the first three
chapters of my own first readable draft: it’s just me getting to know the character. The reader doesn’t need to hang around while I work out what my character does for a living, where they live, who they love, what they think about the current music in the charts, blah, blah, blah. You can convey all you need in a few sentences here and there, maybe a paragraph. Get straight to the meat of the plot. Get straight to the story. That’s what’s going to pull your reader through your book.
What book do you wish you had written?
Argh! This is such a difficult question, or at least it’s a very long list. I’m going to say Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes. That book blew my mind. Not only is it perfectly, crisply, tautly written (I think you can feel Sarah’s great publishing and writing experience in those pages), but the story contains the most incredible twist. I do not know how she came up with it. I wandered around for weeks afterwards trying to figure out how you could get your brain to work like that. Mine just doesn’t – I don’t think most writer’s do. There is an elevation, a step up, a leap of imagination that I can’t comprehend. Honestly, I was asking good writing friends if I should try something extreme like experimenting with drugs, because I couldn’t understand how she conjured this incredible idea.
Don’t worry, they told me not to take drugs, and I came to accept that Sarah just has something that I never can or will be able to replicate. That’s why I wish I’d written Behind Her Eyes, because I’d never be capable of doing it. And I’m cool with that. (I’m lying, I’m so not over it!)
If you could be a character in any book, including one of your own, who would you be?
I would love to be Freddie Ventonin my Social Media Murder Series. She’s a real Marmite character, and I know some readers get irritated with her, with some finding her selfish or impetuous (they prefer her more reasoned counterfoil DS Nasreen Cudmore). But she’s young, only twenty-three in Follow Me, and twenty-four in Watch Me, of course she exhibits traits that often accompany immaturity. She is idealistic, as we often are when we are younger, before time and experience sands our clear cut lines into shades of grey. And Freddie has a good heart, a big heart. She believes she can change the world, fix it, make it a better place. And she is unapologetic about speaking out against injustice. That’s the bit I really admire, the bit I wish I had: the ability to fire one liners back when people are nasty, the quick-fire tongue, and the balls to stand up and say what she truly believes. To call out the wrongs, and to hell with the consequences. She speaks up, even when it puts herself in danger. I wish I was that brave.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
My characters surprise me all the time. I tend to have six key plot points planned out when I start writing. I know where the story is going. But as my characters come to life they reach certain crossroads and take different decisions. That’s because by that point they are real, flesh and blood and sentient. And they are different people to me: they make different decisions to me. I write the plan, but they write the story.
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
The worst thing about being an author is all the things you have to do that are not writing your next book. I don’t mean social media – I love interacting with readers, book lovers and fellow writers online, though I probably do it a shade too much (see above). I mean all the admin. Nobody ever talks about how Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Woolf had to fill out self-assessment tax forms. And there are so many emails. Hundreds of them, every day. I’m aware that bureaucracy and admin and experiencing inbox overload aren’t limited to being an author, in fact, they’re pretty universal. So I guess I’m saying I hate modern life. Like I said, the worst thing is all the stuff that isn’t writing.
One murder. Five witnesses. No body.
(Technically that’s six words, but I never said I was good at maths. Oh, and it’s called Trust Me and it’s out June 2017)
Describe your current work in progress in five words
About the author...
Angela Clarke is a bestselling author, playwright, columnist and professional speaker. The second instalment in her Social Media Murder Series Watch Me (Avon, HarperCollins), shot straight up to number 15 in the UK Paperback Chart in January 2017. Her debut crime thriller Follow Me (Avon, HarperCollins) was named Amazon’s Rising Star Debut of the Month January 2016, long listed for the Crime Writer’s Association Dagger in the Library 2016, and short listed for the Good Reader Page Turner Award 2016. Follow Me has now been optioned by a TV production company. The third instalment in the series Trust Me (Avon, HarperCollins) is out June 2017. Angela’s humorous memoir Confessions of a Fashionista (Ebury, Penguin Random House) is an Amazon Fashion Chart bestseller. Her play, The Legacy, enjoyed its first run at The Hope Theatre in June 2015.
Angela has given talks, hosted events, and masterclasses for many, including Noirwich Crime Writing Festival, Camp Bestival, Panic! (in partnership with Create, the Barbican, Goldsmiths University and The Guardian), Meet a Mentor (in partnership with the Royal Society of Arts), Northwich Lit Fest, St Albans Lit Fest, BeaconLit, and the London College of Fashion. She also hosted the current affairs radio show Outspoken on Radio Verulam in 2015, and has appeared regularly as a panel guest on BBC 3 Counties, BBC Radio 4, and the BBC World Service, among others.
In 2015 Angela was awarded the Young Stationers' Prize for achievement and promise in writing and publishing. She also works for The Literary Consultancy critiquing manuscripts and mentoring. Angela, a sufferer of the debilitating chronic
condition Ehlers Danlos III, is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, volunteers with Womentoring, Meet a Mentor and at HM Prisons. She is passionate about bringing marginalised voices into the industry.