Crime authors spill their guts about writing...
This week: Tom Bale
Tell us about yourself.
How do you go about plotting your book?
I live in Brighton with my wife and family. I’ve been a full time writer for a few years now, and before that I had a variety of jobs as well as a spell as a househusband with very young children. Writing was in my blood from an early age, and after years of collecting rejection slips I had my first novel, SINS OF THE FATHER, published in 2006. With my next book, SKIN AND BONES, I acquired a pseudonym and signed a deal that enabled me to write full time.
My approach varies from book to book, depending on the complexity of the story, as well as the length of the gestation period. If I’ve been contemplating an idea for months or even years, I’ll probably have built up a fairly thick sheaf of notes, with character bios and so on. At other times I’ve launched into a book only a couple of weeks after the initial inspiration, and in that case I’ll just get to work and wing it. I know that detailed planning makes sense, but whenever I sit down to plot out a story, I find the individual scenes start coming to life, and before I know it I’m writing the book rather than planning it!
Where do you most like to do your writing?
When I’m writing the first draft I prefer to work in a café, which I think is a consequence of my days as a project manager, when I’d often be focusing on a report in the middle of a busy office with phones ringing and people talking all around me. As a result, I’m pretty good at shutting out the hubbub, whereas sit me in an empty room and I start looking for distractions. For the rewriting process, which is often much more intense, I prefer to be in my study, working on a large screen so I can easily navigate my way round the document.
Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you tackle it?
Over the years I’ve found it’s inevitable that you have days where every sentence is a struggle to produce. One of my fallbacks is to switch to writing pure dialogue – even if it’s for a future scene somewhere else in the book. I’ve always found dialogue the easiest part of writing, so getting the characters to talk to each other often clears the blockage. But the best way I’ve found to avoid having those problems is to visualise the day’s first scene before sitting down to write. I’ll often try to compose the opening sentence in my head, and then it seems to flow more easily once I’m at the computer.
How easy/hard was it to get your first break?
Pretty difficult, I’d have to say. I first started sending off work when I was 15, so we’re talking the early 1980s. This was a time when even photocopying was unknown outside of a large office, so I was submitting an original MS, which invariably returned in too grubby a state to send elsewhere. Gradually the rejection slips became more personalised and encouraging, but the biggest blow to my ambitions came in my thirties, when a crime novel got on to the desk of a major publisher, who then held on to it for six months before finally rejecting. At the same time I’d had some near misses with a couple of TV scripts, so I was at my absolute lowest point. Then I saw a competition held by a new small press, Crème de la Crime, who were looking for 10,000 words of a crime novel. I happened to be 10,000 words into a new novel, so I sent it in, having decided that this would be the last thing I ever submitted – and it was accepted!
What is the best writing tip you have ever been given? How has it influenced you?
In terms of writing tips, I’ve never attended classes or had any kind of formal teaching. For me the best way to learn is to read – voraciously – and to write. But a few years back I discovered a wonderful website – by Alexandra Sokoloff. As the title suggests, it looks at how the three-act, eight-sequence structure of many popular movies can also work effectively in genre novels, and I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful.
What/who are you’re writing influences? Has this changed as your career has developed?
My first influence was probably Enid Blyton – just the scope of her imagination (as I recall it, anyway) in books like The Magic Faraway Tree. A little later, in my teens, Stephen King was a huge influence. What I took from him, most of all, was the importance of trying to create characters that the reader will care about – otherwise even the most exciting story has little impact. As I moved towards crime fiction in my twenties, John Sandford became the writer I aspired to emulate. For me, he’s the absolute master of the crime and thriller genre – his characters, plots, pacing, dialogue and prose are all top class.
Do you ever surprise yourself with what you’ve written?
Not while I’m writing it, generally speaking. But I’ve had occasions where I needed to skim through an earlier book prior to discussing it at an event, and not only have I become caught up in the story, but I’ve also been quite shocked or surprised by scenes that I couldn’t recall writing. After a few years, reading one of your own books becomes much like reading someone else’s (although that could just be because I have a terrible memory!)
What scene in your latest book did you most enjoy writing? And why?
I always find that the scenes featuring the minor characters are the most fun – perhaps because writing a novel is a long slog, and you’re living with the main characters day after day, so a scene that switches focus makes for a refreshing change. In the case of SEE HOW
THEY RUN, I loved writing about the rather unpleasant mother / son duo of Nerys and Michael Baxter – and again, as a general rule, the nastier the scene, the more fun it is to write!
What’s the best and worst thing about being an author?
The best thing has to be the freedom – both in terms of being able to dream up an idea and then follow that idea through the various stages of creation; but also the freedom to work wherever and whenever you want. If you’re a writer, you can be lying in bed with your eyes shut and still be working – at least that’s what I tell my family!
The worst aspect, for me, is the waiting. At almost every stage you’re waiting to hear from agents, editors, reviewers, readers – with no way of knowing what kind of response you’re going to get.
What’s the secret of your success?
The same for pretty much any writer who gets published – just sheer perseverance and a stubborn determination to continue. If you really, truly feel you’re a writer, then you simply won’t be able to give up, even if you want to!