Writing Habits: James McCreet

James McCreet’s debut novel, The Incendiary’s Trail, was originally published in 2009 by Macmillan New Writing, an initiative/imprint of major publishing house Pan Macmillan whereby new, unpublished writers are a given a book deal with no advance, but a much larger royalty percentage than a regular contract would offer. James is something of a success story for this imprint, as in January 2010, The Incendiary’s Trail was re-published under the main Pan Macmillan banner. A sequel, The Vice Society, is scheduled for May this year, also under Pan Macmillan, and James is working on the third.

Later this week I’ll be posting my own thoughts on the first book, which is a period Victorian detective story. As James says:

I’ve always been interested in detective novels and, after completing a postgraduate thesis on the origins of the genre, I wondered if it was possible to add something to what I had already read. The idea of having multiple investigators working on a single case has since become a theme with a lot of narrative potential and I hope that I’m writing something that will interest long-time fans of the genre. Setting the books in Victorian London harks back to those origins of Poe, Dickens and de Quincey, as well as providing an exciting location of limitless novelty. I’d say the city itself is definitely a major character.

Ladies and gentlemen, James McCreet!

James McCreet

Leeds, West Yorkshire, UK

What do you write?
It depends who you ask. In shops, my books appear on shelves as crime or as literary fiction. They have also been called gothic, historical and melodrama. My own definition is that I write Victorian detective thrillers, though I do acknowledge all of those other elements. At heart, I embrace the label of “genre writer” because it seems to me that genres harness the essential pleasures of reading, whether that’s romance, horror, sci-fi, crime or comedy.

When I started out writing novels, I thought very carefully about what the form meant to me as a reader and what the ‘ideal’ novel should contain. I drew up a list of my favourite writers and favourite books and identified precisely what my work should contain:

  • Narrative pace – the story has to be compelling enough that you just don’t want to put it down.
  • Great characters – people who interest or amaze or amuse you sufficiently that you like spending time in their company. This extends even to the most minor appearances.
  • Memorable scenes – just as we tend to remember particular scenes and lines from our favourite movies, I wanted to embed these in my books so that readers could return again and again, even if they knew the solution to the crime.
  • Novelty – readers are always looking for something new and I try to drop in plenty of surprises so that you can never really be sure what’s going to happen next. For me, the greatest pleasure of reading is when you don’t know whether to slow down to savour it, or speed up to get more.
  • Language – this is very important to me. There’s a beauty and pleasure in words beyond the story itself and I try to give my writing texture without disturbing the flow. I’m happy if the reader pauses for a moment to roll a phrase around their tongue. I do the same as I’m writing.
  • Originality – what writer doesn’t want to be original? I purposefully don’t read other writers doing a similar kind of thing because I want my voice to be distinctive. I’ve been compared to Charles Dickens, but I’ve read only one of his books.

What are your writing habits?
A novel takes about nine months, which is split into four distinct periods:

a) Research
I approach each novel with only the vaguest idea what it will be about – sometimes just a single word like “underground” or “river”. For the next three or four months, I immerse myself in primary historical sources. Many of these (newspapers, scanned books etc) are accessible via the Net and I also buy vintage books from the 1840s if there are no digital versions. Over time, I fill a small notebook with my most interesting discoveries about buildings, practices, people and themes. This is the raw material of my eventual plot.

b) Plotting
So I begin with a collection of places, people and concepts: a puzzle that will be rearranged into a plot. Initially, I establish what will occur in the first, middle and last chapters (these being the basic backbone). Thereafter, it’s a case of building bridges between these three narrative vertebrae in such a way that pace, character and novelty are duly served. The aim is to have a rough overview of about thirty chapters before I begin writing. Without doubt, it is the most difficult part of the process and might take a month of daily pondering.

c) Writing
In this period of four-six months, I write for two hours each day between 8.00 and 10.00 in the evening. That usually means about 1,000 words daily, and that seems to be my optimal word count. The most I have ever written in a day is 2,300 words. It doesn’t sound much, but it works well for me and I often stop myself at 1,000 words so I can spend the next twenty-four hours thinking about the next bit. That breathing space invariably gives me time to play with the plot in my mind and decide on the best approach.

I’m not one of those writers who needs to be in a remote cottage to concentrate. My first book was written mostly at home, but also on trains, at work and in hotels. In the early days, we had only one computer in the house and so my wife would talk to her friends on Skype as I wrote. My way of dealing with that kind of aural interference was to listen to heavy rock on noise-cancelling headphones while drinking whisky or cognac. Oddly, that combination seems to create a sublime calm and I still use it.

As for the practice of writing itself, I fluctuate between the euphoria of creation and the anguish of maintaining such a high level of willpower. Very often, I’ll dread turning the laptop on, only to turn it off two hours later in a state of bliss.

d) Editing
By far the easiest part of the whole process. I read through the whole novel again and make minor adjustments to the grammar and punctuation while correcting any typos I missed first time. Occasionally, I might switch the position of chapters to achieve a better balance or pace, but major cuts don’t occur. My publisher Macmillan might subsequently suggest further edits, but these have so far been very light and related predominantly to clarity.

What software or tools do you use?
Strictly old school. I use a very nice Caran d’Ache mechanical pencil and leather-bound notebooks to capture the initial research. Plotting occurs in an old A4 book of artists’ watercolour paper. Then I copy all of this into a Microsoft Word document on my five-year-old HP laptop, creating a basic document of about 10,000 words.

Thereafter, it’s Word all the way. The chapter structure and required research is all in the original doc and I work entirely from that until the novel is done. After each day’s writing, I store the document on two memory sticks and email it to myself.

James, thank-you very much! More information on The Incendiary’s Trail can be be found at the Macmillan site, and is available at Amazon (along with pre-orders for The Vice Society) and all good booksellers. James can be found at JamesMcCreet.co.uk, and information on the Macmillan New Writing programme can be found here.