Welcome to a new feature of my blog, the author Q&A. I think this is going to be a regular item, not for every book I review, but for those I think are that bit special. While I will be asking questions about the books themselves, as an aspiring writer myself, these Q&A’s will focus more on the art of writing. They’re aimed more at the writing community than at the general reader, and I shamelessly admit that I’m hoping to glean some of the author’s magic for my own writing! Of course, I do hope that general readers will find them interesting too.
Who better to kick off this new feature than Amer Anwar, winner of the 2008 CWA Debut Dagger Award, and author of the brilliant novel Western Fringes. Take it away, Amer!
Where did you get the idea behind Western Fringes?
Originally, I thought it'd be a great idea for someone to write a crime thriller set in Southall – I felt the place and the people would make a fantastic setting – I just never imagined I'd be the one to do it. I was thinking purely from a reader's point of view. But no one did it (not mainstream anyway) and the idea stayed with me.
I'd always harboured an ambition to write a book and, when I finally started to pursue writing seriously, the germ of the idea was already there. I knew I wanted to write a crime thriller, I knew it was going to be set in Southall and I knew it was going to feature characters like the people I knew and had met. The rest I made up as I went along!
How do you get your ideas? What’s the process and how do they go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notions?
For Western Fringes it was a very long process. It was my first attempt at writing a novel and so I really had no idea how I was supposed to go about it. It was a huge learning experience.
I knew it was going to be a crime thriller and I knew it'd be set in Southall… apart from that, there were two other things I guess I knew right from the beginning. One was from news reports of a crime that took place in the area and the other was, if I was going to write about the characters I wanted to, it wasn't going to be a police procedural or regular detective story with a police detective.
I had a rough idea of my main character and then I basically thought, well, he isn't a detective, doesn't know the first thing about trying to find a missing person. So, if it was me, what would I do? I just tried to put myself in his shoes and come up with a plan.
As for turning vague inspiration into fully fleshed ideas – that was the result of a lot of rewriting and editing. The first draft took about two and a half years. I was working full-time, doing an MA part-time and working on the book at the same time. I was really trying to find my way and just wrote down whatever idea came into my head. I'd read the advice that says to just get the first draft done and not worry about editing until after. That's what I did.
When it came to doing a second draft, in my head it all seemed great. I thought it'd basically be a matter of going through it all and making some changes here and there, and then it'd be finished. Boy, was I wrong!
I read through the first draft and thought it was awful. The ideas were there and for the most part, they were OK but it was the writing itself that was terrible. To be fair, I'd learned a lot in those two and a half years and the writing toward the end was better. Still, the second draft turned out to be a complete rewrite. I read the first draft and reimagined and rewrote the whole thing. Some bits did make it without any great changes but in the main, everything was rewritten. I repeated the process four times, over the next three years, before I felt it was ready to send to my agent.
Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?
I was fortunate in that I'd chosen to write about a place and people I knew, so I already had an understanding and a feel for a lot of the background. As I wrote, I made notes of things I needed to find out and then I'd go and research them. Thinking back, I did quite a lot of research but it was spread over such a long time that it only really felt like a little at a time.
I visited locations, made notes, drew diagrams and took photos. I talked to people; friends who'd worked in the builders' yard that the one in the book is based on; a friend who'd worked at the airport; a doctor; policemen; a friend's aunt who was a probation officer; a barrister friend of mine; I visited a butcher's shop; Southall Police Station; a self storage warehouse; and all of the pubs that feature in the book – purely for research purposes of course. There was also a lot of reading involved, newspaper articles, stuff on cars, money etc. – and location scouting and geographical planning for which GoogleMaps and Streetview were very helpful.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Well, I started out as a pantser and then eventually found I needed a rough plan to help me keep everything straight and work out ideas going forward.
If you plot, how do you go about plotting your stories?
As I said, I started out as a pantser but when I found I needed a plan to help me keep track of elements in the story, I used a single page for each day (in Western Fringes the action takes place over a little longer than a week) and bullet pointed what happened on each of the days. It really helped me see everything and then roughly start to plan how it might all come together at the end, though I didn't actually work out the ending until I was almost ready to write it.
The plan really helped after the first draft was finished because it gave me an overview of the whole book and made it easier for me to cut scenes, add new ones and change the chronology of certain events.
It was a learning process but it showed me that a rough plan is very useful. For the book I'm working on now, I've planned the whole thing out in advance, chapter by chapter, essentially just kind of bullet pointing the story, so I'm not floundering around, trying to figure out what happens next, which did happen at times during Western Fringes. Although it's planned out, as I mentioned, it's very rough and nothing is set in stone. I'm sure other ideas will come to me as I write and I'm quite happy to change the plan as I go along. It's really just a guide for me during the writing process. I'm quite prepared for things to go in totally different directions if it works better for the story.
If you’re a pantser how do you make sure you don’t go off on wild tangents?
As Western Fringes was my first attempt at writing a novel, I really wasn't sure how best to approach the whole thing, so I just started to write. I don't think you can prevent yourself from going off on wild tangents if you do it that way, as that's the whole point of being a pantser. You go where the story takes you, where the words lead you. It might not be the right place but you won’t know that till you've got there. There were quite a few tangents and wrong turns in the first draft of the book. Some of those were cut completely but others were changed or combined with other elements and worked into the story. There were complete characters and whole scenes that were cut but I wrote them, thinking they were where the story needed to go.
It was all a learning process and showed me that I needed at least some kind of basic plan to help me keep things in order.
Having said that, even if you do plan, I think you can still allow yourself to pantser it a bit. You might be writing a scene and suddenly you get an idea that may take you in a different direction and you'll just run with it, see where it leads. You can always change the plan afterwards.
Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?
I'd love nothing more than to be able to write full-time. Western Fringes took about eight years to write and during that time I worked on the book evenings and weekends, part-time and full-time. I had a full-time job when I started and was also doing an MA in Creative Writing part-time, so inevitably progress was slow. When I was made redundant from work, I took some time to write full time. Then I went back to work and writing slowed down again. After that, I was a stay-at-home-parent for a couple of years and managed to do some writing during the day. Then I went back to work part-time and finally took some time off again to do the last couple of drafts on the book in one hit.
I'm hoping to take some time to concentrate on writing full-time to get the first draft or two of the new book done. Western Fringes was a real journey of discovery in terms of learning about the writing process. Where it took five complete drafts to get to the stage that I was happy to give it to my agent, I think it should be there a lot sooner second time around.
When is your most productive period of the day?
That's usually been dictated by necessity. For a long time it had to be around other things, so I mainly wrote in the evenings and late at night. Weekends I usually write all day if I'm in and at my computer. The times I've been able to spend writing full-time, I find that daytime works best for me. I'll start around 9.00 AM and work until about 9.00 PM, with a break for lunch and other stops to make tea or grab a drink and a quick snack.
Western Fringes is an amazing piece of Southall noir. I note you hail from the same area. Is any part of it biographical? Are any of the characters/events inspired by true events?
Thanks very much, James. That's very nice of you to say. I wouldn't say any of its auto/biographical, although a fair amount was drawn from my own experience and knowledge of the place, and some of the characters were informed by people I met and heard about. A couple of elements in the story were inspired by real events, though I won't say what they are, as it might give something away. You'll have to try and figure it out.
Zaq and Raj are such compelling characters that reading the book I didn’t want to say goodbye to them. Are you planning a sequel?
I'm really pleased to hear you say that. I've been really surprised by the reaction I've had to the two of them in particular. Many people have commented on how much they liked the friendship between them. It was one of the most fun things about writing the book. I'm fortunate enough that a lot of it was based on friendships I have, which include very similar banter and mickey taking.
I am planning a sequel featuring the two of them again. I'm currently working on something else but have some ideas for Zaq and Jags' next misadventure, which will probably be the next project.
What other writing projects are you working on?
I'm currently working on another book, with a different main character and different structure to the story. It starts with an armed robbery that seems to go as planned, at least until afterwards, when things go wrong and the main character is left in the frame as having double-crossed the rest of the gang. I'm really looking forward to writing it.
Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of The Two O’Clock Boy) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Even when you think you've worked on something until it's really good, it could probably still be better. It usually takes someone else to point it out to you and it's not always easy to hear. But if you want to improve, you need to listen, take it on board and act on it.
As I said, I wasn't happy with the first few drafts of Western Fringes but by the fifth draft, I thought it was pretty OK. I sent it to my agent, who has an in-house editor to help get manuscripts in as good a shape as they can be. When I received the feedback, they thought it was good overall but… and then there were four or so lengthy paragraphs detailing what could be improved upon. It was hard to take on board at the time. I'd spent about five years working on it and, rewriting and improving it with every draft and yet it still needed a fair bit of work. It took a few weeks to absorb that and let the comments sink in properly.
Reading that email now is much easier as I know all of the comments were right and were only meant to help me improve. There were a lot of positives too but you tend to dwell on the negatives.
I made a list of the five or six main points that needed addressing and started a new draft. With one thing and another however, I had to stop work on the book and didn't touch it for about a year. When I did come back to it, the time away had really given me some distance and, I think, made me much more objective. I started a new draft right from the beginning and worked my way through the whole thing, with the list of main changes in front of me, so I could keep focus on what I was trying to change and improve. Turns out that was the draft that really shaped the book into what it is. It still took another draft to fix up some minor things and clarify others but then it was finally ready.
So, yeah, even when you think you've done a good job, be prepared for some criticism and advice. Don't let it knock you back too much. Let it sink in, then act on it.
Give me some advice about writing?
Just write. Read and write actually. The only way you ever get better at anything is by practise. Writing's no different. The more you do it, the better you'll get.
And read. Read about writing, pick up hints and tips that might help you but also read novels. Personally, I found myself going back to the books that really made me want to write in the first place. I re-read them in order to regain that sense of magic and wonder, the thrill and pleasure they gave me, so I could try and infuse my own writing with a little of it. Just as an example, the last couple of lines in Western Fringes were directly influenced by a book I read about 30 years ago. I loved the final lines of that book so much, I still think about it and knew I wanted to try and do something similar at the end of my own. I didn't copy it; I just tried to recreate that same feeling it gave me when I read it.
And while you're just writing, keep pushing forward. Don't worry about editing, just plough on until you have a completed first draft. Then you can go back and start editing. When I first started on the book, too often I'd get bogged down writing a paragraph, then re-reading it and editing it, over and over, trying to get it just right. In a couple of hours, I might only end up writing about 100-200 words, having gone over them multiple times. How long would it take to get a whole draft done at that rate? It was too easy for me to start editing on a computer… so I shifted to good old pen and paper! You can't worry too much about editing that way. At most, you can cross something bad out and make some notes but then you have to move on. Just keep going.
I don't think I'd do the pen and paper thing again but it helped me learn how to just concentrate on writing, writing, writing to get that initial draft done. It doesn't have to be good. Chances are it won’t be. As Hemingway said, "The first draft of anything is shit." But once you've got a whole book, you've got something to work with. Not just bits and pieces but a whole book. Some of the stuff at the beginning you might not even need any more and will simply cut out, so there wouldn't have been any point wasting time trying to get it just right, would there?
So, my advice would be to just write. And read.