Every week we feature a Q&A with one of our Crime Cymru authors so that they can tell us a little bit about themselves. This week, Eamonn Griffin talks about interviews and his writing.
Hello. I’m Eamonn Griffin and I’m a writer. I live near Wrexham, though I’m originally from Lincolnshire. I’ve written and published five books to date. The most recent of these is East of England, a noir thriller set in Lincolnshire in the mid-1980s. As of 2020, I’m working on other books with the same protagonist; I’d like to develop East of England’s Dan Matlock – a debt collector with a troubling sense of justice that gets him into trouble every now and again – into an ongoing series lead character.
Could you tell us about your writing routine?
Well, I have a day job, so the writing and the ancillary work associated with that has to fit around the needs and priorities of that. This means in effect that I focus on writing – in the collective sense of research, plotting, drafting, rewriting and the rest of it – before work in the mornings, or afterwards, later in the day. I try and do at least an hour of first-drafting every day. For me that’s about five hundred words or so of new output. Every day. I’ve found it’s better not to think about times of the day, but instead to treat writing like a regular habit. Do some every day.
Do you write longhand in notebooks, use a laptop, or both?
I use notebooks for getting ideas sorted in my head and for doing things like plot-related diagrams, but I don’t write longhand. Instead, I first-draft into a Chromebook computer. I use Google Docs for first-drafting, in part because Chromebooks are light, zippy and have great battery life, meaning that you can work pretty much anywhere, and also because the work that you’re doing gets backed up to the cloud instantly (though you can work offline too). Also I can access Google Docs on my phone, which means I can also work without a laptop to hand, simply by using the relevant app on the phone. That means in turn that I can write on the bus, in queues, petty much anywhere if need be. I also use Google Keep, which is a notes app for lists and short messages for yourself. So, as my phone’s invariably with me, I use this to capture ideas that pop out of my head, to take a record of snatches of overheard conversation or of potential story elements.
Redrafting, editing and everything else that’s post-production work I do on a different computer altogether. A standard Windows laptop on my desk at home. I look at writing and rewriting as two different forms of activity that are prioritised by different sides of the brain. For me, first-drafting is the creative and fun bit that can be done anywhere; reworking and polishing in whatever form is more like administration in that you’re essentially trouble-shooting and problem-solving. So I treat that as admin. Inevitably there’s a little overlap between the two but keeping a distinction between them in part by using different computers is a trick that I’ve found really useful over the years. As someone who uses a keyboard pretty much all day every day, finding ways to vary your screen time can be very useful too, so that different aspects of writing don’t blur into each other.
How do you keep yourself motivated when your writing doesn’t flow?
There aren’t any shortcuts. You have to work through it. Early in a draft if I’m struggling, I simply write something else. There’s no law that states that a book has to be written in a linear way from start through to finish, so I can jump forwards if needs be and work on a different scene that occurs later. It can be useful to have the climax of the story at least sketched out as early as possible so that I’m writing towards something. With the Dan Matlock material that I’m currently working with, this means that there’ll tend to be final confrontations of different sorts to engineer and to put together. They can be huge amounts of fun to write, so it can be good to have something like that to work on if the words aren’t coming out of you straightforwardly at the point in the story I’m up to at that moment.
How important is organisation and time management?
They’re important, but not as much as commitment. No-one’s forcing you to write, and if another novel doesn’t exist then there won’t be too much rending of garments in despair. So you have to be self-motivating, realistic, and be prepared to carry on when it gets difficult or when your writing efforts might be met with indifference. Within that you need to be self-organising about your time, but that’s sometimes straightforward because the hour or so a day that you actually need is there if you want it to be. That’s not to ignore those who have other time and resource pressures – family, jobs, caring responsibilities, partners who don’t appreciate your writing or the time it might require as examples – but the time can be there. And writing is cheap. All you need is a pencil and some paper. If it means that the hour that you need is only genuinely there between midnight and one, or might only occur in a single block of time a week, then recognise that, and work inside the limitations and strictures that life throws at you.
In lots of ways, limitations can be good, because they can work to ensure that productive use is made of the time available.
How many times have you gone over and redrafted your book before sending it out?
Probably four. The first-drafting, a second pass to fix the basics – typos, logic issues with the story, character inconsistencies and the like, and then a proper redrafting on a line-by-line basis. Then a further skim back over the top to tidy up again. That’s plenty, I think. Any more than that and there’s the potential for the prose to be overworked, and a shift to take place in which the writing begins to takes precedence over the important things: the story and the characters.
How would you describe your writing process?
To try to hold to first impressions as much as I can. They’re usually right, even if imperfect first time around. Writing dialogue tends to capture what the character intendeds to say in the fist draft, for example, though not always exactly quite how they’d say it. Redrafting addresses that specific point. With descriptive writing I try to think in character terms always. I tend to write using a very limited third person perspective: we’re close to Dan Matlock all the time, and don’t have access to other characters’ thoughts. This means that the writing is directed by his approach to life, his observations, his views. Part of the process is policing this, so that writerly interludes that aren’t true to the character, their worldview, their vocabulary and their experiences don’t intrude.
How do you research? Online / offline / interviews?
Books and memory in the first instance. While the net is useful, not least for instant information on demand, I tend to use books for research materials, filtered by my own experiences and associations. I’m old enough to draw from my own memory of the mid-80s, for example, and it’s useful to mix that with refreshers from social and political history texts from the time. The Matlock stories work in context to the period, and it’s never a bad thing to remind yourself of what else was going on at the time the stories are set.
I’ve done interviews in the past; some of the criminal elements of the writings are drawn from real-world situations or from the experiences of those who’ve been involved in criminality in the past. I tend to blend the fake and the real, and documentary with a touch of storytelling. The goal is for the stories to have their own internal consistency and logic, and to be plausible. This means that I spend time reading about things like money laundering, scams, bare-knuckle boxing, firearms and pub licensing laws of the 1980s and so on, so there’s attention to genre-specific detail as well as to the popular culture and social attitudes of the time. That said, the books aren’t history lessons. All of this is contextual and background, and much of it doesn’t reach the book itself. It’s useful to have the knowledge to draw from though, as the information gives you options to select from, or to at least take into consideration.
Most writers think getting an agent is the golden key to traditional publication. Would you agree?
Perhaps less so that might have been the case even five years ago, but there’s still little doubting the advantages that an agent can offer a writer. In the first instance, securing an agent is affirmation from a publishing industry professional that your work has some value or potential, and that they’re willing to back you and your writing to the extent of representing you and your interests.
Secondly, good agents these days do more than sell your work. A good agent is an invaluable first critical engagement. Agents may offer their own editorial suggestions, not least because they know the available markets and they’re aware of the preferences of both the trade in general and of certain specific editors at publishing houses who might be interested in making an acquisition.
Third, and key for the writer, is that the agent is a buffer between you and the rest of the industry. Writers are often not the best businesspeople, and having a professional to fight your corner, to negotiate on your behalf, and to liaise with the wider industry is a valuable and necessary thing for mainstream engagement.
On the other hand, there are many more routes open to writers into publication than ever before, and while some publishers only accept submissions from agents, there is increasing openness to direct submission from writers. This is particularly the case with independent and smaller-scale publishers, and with the still-developing crowdfunding and self-publishing routes into print.
There’s help from other quarters too. Organisations such as The Society of Authors and The Writers’ Guild represent the collective interests of writers, for example. And groups like Crime Cymru too! Membership of organisations such as these not only support the individual in terms of contacts, events, access to legal support for the oversight of contracts and the like, and in training and development terms, but can offer an alternative perspective on the current status of writing professionally in its different forms (books, TV, radio, stage etc).
Agent or no, though, if there is a golden key it resides in the quality and the potential market for the book that’s been written. Good saleable stuff will tend to find a home in time, even if it’s not the home that was first imagined. However, quality isn’t the only criteria for acceptance; we’ve all read and bought bad books, and this can be taken as a sign that sometimes what sells is what can be sold, irrespective of its quality. It’s the same with books as with everything else.
Where did you get the inspiration for your latest story?
I respectfully decline to answer this question on the grounds that I may incriminate myself. I appreciate that’s not really a hard sell, but that’s how it is. These hands don’t get bloody by themselves, you know.
It’s where the stories are. Plus, crime as an overarching term is so broad that it can encompass many very different approaches, as the output from fellow Crime Cymru writers indicates. Cosy mysteries, serial killer yarns, police procedurals, historical murders, tech thrillers, race-against-time adventures, romances, swashbucklers, SF, noir, horror. Any all combinations of the above plus plenty more by way of sub-genre. A crime – or the possibility of one, or its aftermath, its planning and execution – offers untold possibilities for storytelling, plus it allows for explorations of new worlds outside the ordinary and everyday ones that many of us live in.
A creative writing textbook I once read – Writing a Novel, by Nigel Watts – said that stories offer three central pleasures: escapism, education and entertainment. Crime, in whatever flavour you might like it, has the potential to deliver on each of these in abundance. That’s what I’m trying to do.
East of Englandby Eamonn Griffin is available now in paperback and e-book formats from Unbound Books, from all good online and offline retailers. Eamonn’s currently working on other novels featuring debt collector Dan Matlock.
21st February 2020