Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Nicky Black (aka Nicky Doherty & Julie Blackie)
Tell us about yourself.
Nicky Black is a combination of me, Nicky Doherty, and my friend, Julie Blackie. Julie wrote The Prodigal as a TV script for ITV some sixteen years ago. It didn’t get green lit in the end and a few years ago, I asked Julie if I could adapt it into a novel. She agreed, and here we are. Julie is from Newcastle and I’m a Northumbrian (basically a posh Geordie), but I spent many years working on run down council estates just like Valley Park throughout the nineties. I live in London now, and have a job as a director of a Social Enterprise. I write in my spare time, though that’s proving difficult and I’m considering my options right now (#watchthisspace).
How do you go about plotting your book?
I have been lucky with The Prodigal (and the next book, Heads) to have Julie’s scripts to work from. So there is a plot structure there already. But just as a film or TV adaptation of a novel cuts out story, minor characters (and often their characteristics and motivations), I do the reverse and write it back in. I am a planner. I create a chapter structure which changes as I progress and think of new ideas. But without a plan I’d be like a lost puppy.
How long does your first draft take you?
The Prodigal took four years to write start to finish, but a year of that was pretty much me putting on the shelf after the agent rejections started pouring in and I lost confidence. Then I spent another year refining, rewriting and editing, researching self publishing options and getting it proofed, copy edited etc. I reckon if I could write full time, a first draft would take six months.
Do you ever get writer's block? How do you tackle it?
I do get stuck, yes, sometimes for weeks. I tackle it by going back and editing what I’ve done already, reading and researching, and trying to visualise the scene I’m stuck on. I’ll picture the next scene in my head while I’m doing other stuff like housework or exercise and scribble down notes. Sometimes bits of dialogue or an entire scene comes to me while I’m in the swimming pool or something and I have to make sure I don’t forget it. Sometimes I do forget it which is acutely frustrating…
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
I don’t think I’ve had my first break yet, haha! A lot of the time I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the Amazon algorithms will kick in. In my mind I wake up one morning to a mahoosive spike on my KDP sales and I punch the air (J). Every time I have a price offer on The Prodigal I’ll really push the promotion in the hope that it will get some visibility. I keep waiting, keep trying, and get on with the next book in the meantime when I can. I think it’s a strategy that will pay off eventually.
What's the best writing tip you've ever been given, and how has it influenced you?
Julie was always told when she was writing for soaps – ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’ So when I realise I’ve spent hours agonising over one sentence I remind myself of that phrase, highlight the sentence, and move on. It’s hard though. I’m the sort of person that likes to get things right the first time.
What book do you wish you had written?
Absolutely anything by Roddy Doyle. I just love his work. But in particular A Star Called Henry. I’ve read it three times.
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
Loads! Both Julie and I worked in urban regeneration in the 90s (I still do). I see Valley Park as the Mother Ship: a place from which there is no escape, where scary things happen, where decisions are made over which you have no control. There is a command hierarchy and rules of the game that can’t be broken without serious consequences. I have met Micky Kellys and Mooneys in my time, but also my fair share of Margys who bring hope and much needed shouty defiance to places like Valley Park.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you've written?
Oh my goodness yes, do you? One of the best things about writing is that feeling you get when you just nail a sentence. Julie is great at writing dialogue, it packs a real punch. In fact, the whole book is a surprise to me. The positive feedback has been overwhelming. I never knew I would be able to pull it off, and I did, and I’m very proud of that.
What scene in your last book did you most enjoy writing, and why?
The opening scene of the next book, Heads. I loved writing it because it was kind of iconic between Julie and I. It’s the opening scene of her movie script, and it just sets the whole thing up. A young lad from Valley Park working the rave scene in the late 80s, the police on his tail 24/7, his unquestionable loyalty to his friends. It captures their individual characters perfectly and reflects a time and place that was unique to youth culture in 1989. We endeavoured to get the movie made in the late 90s and made this short tease with some funding from the Arts Council. I’ve stuck to the script pretty much word for word and it was so satisfying brining those opening few pages to life with words rather than film. I must have watched that tease a thousand times…
Describe your current work in progress in five words...
Heads: Their biggest party yet.