Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Peter Swanson
Tell us about yourself.
How do you pick character names? Do any have special meaning to you?
I am a full time crime writer living just outside of Boston, Massachusetts. When I’m not writing crime thrillers, I’m probably reading a crime thriller, and when I’m not doing either of those two things, I am trying to organize the ridiculous number of books that are threatening to take over my very small office.
I’ve published two novels—The Girl With a Clock For a Heart, and The Kind Worth Killing. My newest thriller — Her Every Fear — comes out in January, 2017.
Some names—usually of the main characters—have special meaning. For example, Ted Kimball, the frustrated-poet detective in The Kind Worth Killing is called Ted after Ted Hughes, and Kimball was my grandmother’s maiden name, and also my sister’s middle name. It’s a surname I associate with goodness, and Ted, especially compared with the other characters in the book he exists in, is one of the good guys.
But Ted Kimball’s name is an exception. Most of my character’s names are random assignments. Sometimes I open up the nearest book to any old page and the first name I see is the name I choose. More often, I think briefly about who the person is—say, a long-time resident of Maine—then Google up a list of Maine surnames. Or else, if I know the character was born in 1955, I might look up popular names from that year.
The only names I tend to avoid are those of any ex-girlfriends, because—if they do happen to read one of my books—I don’t want them to think I’m trying to send them a message.
How do you go about plotting your book?
I come up with a premise, and then I usually have some idea about the ending, and then I just start. No plotting. What that means is that I usually have a very bad moment about halfway through writing a book when I’ve painted myself into some unpleasant corner, but I think inspiration can strike during those bad moments. It forces you to think creatively.
How long does your first draft take you?
Nine months, give or take, which, now that I’ve written it, makes it sound like I’m birthing a child. I try and write between 500 and 1000 words a day, every day, when I’m working on a book. Many of those words get thrown out, and almost all of those words get reworked, but in just under a year, I have a solid, first draft of about a hundred thousand words.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
It took about ten years of novel-writing to sell my first book (which was, of course, the fourth book I’d written). I did what all aspiring writers have to do, which is try and land an agent. I received hundreds of rejections to my query letters, and only found an agent because he found me. It was at a time when I was close to giving up on getting traditionally published. My agent read a short story of mine that was online, and he approached me about turning it into a novel. He then sold it to the first editor he pitched. So it was very hard at first, but then, after my agent appeared like a fairy godmother, it got a lot easier.
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
The best writing tip comes from the best writing book I’ve read, which is Stephen King’s book, 'On Writing'. He says that if you want to be a writer you need to read a lot, and write a lot. Sounds obvious, I know, but it’s the best advice I ever got. It made me realise that I need to be writing every day, and reading every day, if I wanted to succeed as a writer. No excuses.
What book do you wish you had written?
I would love to be able to write a funny book. It’s my second favourite genre after crime novels. And the funniest book I’ve ever read is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis. It’s comic genius, I believe, and I would love to be able to write something half as good.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
Yes, all the time. When writing is going well, I think it’s being pulled from somewhere in your subconscious. It’s all you, of course, but it’s not necessarily the parts of you that you are aware of. I often look back on what I’ve written and wonder exactly where it came from.
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
The best thing is having a good day of writing, one in which you are totally involved in the story that you are writing, and those day’s words just flow. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it feels like the reward for all the other days when writing is like pulling teeth. In fact, those days, those teeth-pulling days, are the worst things about being an author, when nothing is working, and you’d rather be anywhere else than staring at your current manuscript. Not a good feeling.
Which book or character are you most proud of creating, and why?
I am the most proud of having written the character of Lily Kintner in The Kind Worth Killing. When I first started writing the book she wasn’t fully formed. I just had this idea of a sociopathic woman who had no problems killing the people she didn’t trust or like, but as I figured out her background, she became more fleshed out, and more unique. I like to think I created a serial killer who is, on some level, genuinely likable. At least that is what I’ve been told. Not by everyone, but a certain number of people have let me know that they were rooting for her, and that it was a very strange experience.
Describe your current work in progress in five words.
Son investigates his father’s death.