Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Rob Sinclair
Tell us about yourself.
I’m Rob Sinclair, author of the best-selling Enemy series of thrillers featuring Carl Logan; Dance with the Enemy, Rise of the Enemy and Hunt for the Enemy. Having worked as a forensic accountant for a number of years, investigating large scale corporate fraud across the globe, I took the plunge into self-publishing back in 2014 and haven’t looked back - or taken much of a break! - since. I’m now writing full time, in between looking after my two young sons and keeping the house tidy (the glamorous life of a stay-at-home dad/author!).
How do you go about plotting your books?
I hate planning. Not just in writing but in any walk of life. I have a really short attention span and am very impatient so I just like to get stuck into things. I’m very spontaneous; I’ll buy a house or a car on the spur of the moment, based on gut, and I think this attitude and outlook carries through to my writing because I never do a lot of planning before I get stuck into a new book. I find that one or two big ideas is usually enough to get started and then I really just go from there. Luckily the more I write, the more the ideas seem to come. The trickiest bit is in getting that initial idea, but you really can’t force that I don’t think - you either have an idea or you don’t. The ones I have in my head tend to come to me in a eureka moment when I’m in the midst of doing something else. Then it just takes a bit of working around in my mind - maybe over days or weeks - before I start writing.
How long does first draft take you?
Once I’ve started it doesn’t take very long. I aim for 4,000 words a day when doing a first draft. It’s a number I’ve found to be easily attainable when in full swing and - taking into consideration non-writing days when I’m looking after kids - allows me to do a draft in 6-8 weeks.
Not all writers like to set daily targets but I like to have in my head a planned deadline for when the draft needs to be ready by, and the daily target just helps to break that down. Writing 100,000 words can seem like a daunting prospect on day 1 so splitting that down to a daily target really helps with motivation.
That said, drafting really is just drafting - it’s where I basically figure out my plot from start to finish. Editing is a much more lengthy and detailed process and usually takes me several more months back and forth with the editor.
Where do you most like to do your writing?
I do virtually all of my writing at home - either in the lounge or the dining room. Every now and then I might walk into town and work for a few hours in a coffee shop for a change of scenery but nothing beats the peace and quiet I get at home! Maybe in the future I’ll get myself a nice little retreat in the mountains or on the coast but for now my home works just fine!
How has your writing style developed over time? And your approach to writing?
Looking back it’s changed a huge amount, though it’s hard to explain exactly how and when that happened. But think of it like this; I started writing when I was working a full time job. I’d never written fiction before, I’d never been on courses or anything like that. I just had an idea one day and ran with it. So my approach in those early days was without doubt hit and miss, it was very inconsistent and inefficient because I was learning the writing trade at the same time as trying to develop the plot. And all my writing was early mornings, lunchtimes and evenings, working around my job. That first book took a lot longer to draft than it takes me now. Back then I was delighted to get 1,000 words in a day. But my writing was also much more raw, simply because writing was so new to me. That first book took a hell of a lot of work to properly plot and edit and it wasn’t until I got on board an experienced editor that I really had my eyes opened as to many things I was doing wrong (think simple things like pacing, characterisation, points of view, etc etc). Writing that first book was a huge learning curve for me and a lot of writing techniques and pitfalls that I came across on that project I’ve been able to take forward onto my more recent books - some now without even thinking about them.
What's the best writing tip you've ever been given? How has it influenced you?
All of my novels have a big emphasis on action. It follows directly from the types of books that I love to read and the movies that I watch. A really good piece of writing advice that I heard is “write the slow stuff fast and the fast stuff slow”. It’s a great way of thinking. Action scenes are by their very nature supposed to be fast and frenetic but it’s really important to slow the scene down, to show the reader exactly what is happening (show, don’t tell remember!). So don’t just write “Johnny stabbed Vinny in the gut”. What was really happening in that scene? Describe the people, their movements, the looks on their faces, the smells, all of the things that are necessary to put the reader right there in the scene. So what was going through Johnny’s mind as he plunged the razor-sharp blade into Vinny’s abdomen? What sound did the knife make as it pierced the skin and sliced through flesh? What was the look on Vinny’s face and what pained noises escaped his lips?
With all that detail, though, what you can’t do is to bore the reader, or drag things out unnecessarily. You have to make it exciting. You want the readers on the edge of their seat, totally gripped, in suspense for what is about to happen. Using lots of sharp, punchy language always helps. Short sentences and paragraphs. It creates the sense of pace even though you’ve slowed the scene right down. As a very general rule I always like to keep sentences below 25 words. Don’t ask me why, it’s just a habit. I’m sure there are plenty of sentences in all my books that exceed 25 words, but I analyse each and every one to make sure I’m happy with the exceptions, and I always cut them down whenever I can.
As for the slow stuff, just get on with it or skip over it completely. You don’t need to go into detail about the characters going to the toilet or going to eat or sleeping. Either mention it if it’s needed and move on quickly or just ignore it altogether.
What book do you wish you had written?
One of my favourite books recently was I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. It’s a thriller about an ex-spy, so essentially the same genre and basic set up as my own work. There’s something about it’s breadth, a story spanning something like 25 years, that’s just really engrossing and memorable. It’s 900 pages long but never feels dull, and the length gives the book a really epic feel. The actual plotting and style isn’t at all dissimilar to my books, but I just can’t imagine developing such a vast plot and managing to hold it all together as well as Hayes did. When I hit 80,000 words I’m happy, that’s always my bare minimum for a draft. The thought of further plotting to reach something like 200,000 words just makes my head hurt!
How much do your own life experiences appear in your writing?
I think it’s inevitable that life experiences creep into my work. I don’t set out with that in mind but the age old saying is “write what you know”, and it makes sense that characters and settings and even to some extent the plots of my work are influenced by things I’ve really seen and done.
Settings is a more obvious area where my past job as a fraud investigator has been really helpful as I travelled to numerous less than salubrious places that make great settings for globe-trotting thrillers. I also used some small elements of the cases I worked on in some of my plots - maybe traits of a particular character or the nature of a particular fraud or corruption scheme.
But really the bulk of my books are fiction and it just comes from somewhere in my (muddled) head - influenced by every book I’ve read and every film and TV series I’ve ever watched.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you've written?
All the time!! Sometimes reading a scene back after drafting it I get really gripped by the writing and can’t actually remember where some of the words came from! It’s always pleasing when that happens as I hope it’s a good barometer for how others will feel when reading my work. But my surprise goes further than that. I think because of the lack of planning I do before writing, it means that I really do just go with the flow and quite often even the few elements of plot or character I have in my head beforehand turn out quite different when I’m actually writing, and often it’s a not entirely conscious thing as to what ends up on the page. Maybe I planned a fight scene to go one way, but then when I’ve written it out it’s actually a different person who’s been fatally injured than I originally intended. Which then screws up your whole plot. But I think it’s best to keep the writing fluid in that way - I’m never so stuck on an idea that I won’t completely revamp it or even dump it altogether if it’s just not working when I’m writing it out.
What are the best and worst things about being an author?
The best thing, particularly about being a self-published writer, is just the complete freedom I have, not just in what I write but when. I like being able to work from home, set my own schedules and deadlines and take time off whenever I want to. I always hated having to work for other people, I hated commuting, I hated unappreciative clients. All of that is gone now and I just feel privileged that my job essentially is a full time hobby. Writing itself never feels like work to me.
The worst part of being an author is getting the damn books to sell! Promoting and marketing can be a really thankless task. It can also be expensive. It took me a lot of consistent hard work in promoting (and a bit of a gamble with various forms of paid advertising) to ever get my books off the ground and it’s something which you can never let up on. As much as I love being in control (of anything), marketing and promoting is the one element of being an author I wish I had more expert help in (or at the least just a magic and faultless formula for success - anyone?).
Describe your current work in progress in five words...
Best book I've ever written.