Andrew Barrett is a crime writer and Crime Scene Investigator.
We got together to talk about how he got started in writing, what his process is for each book, and why it might not be a good idea to write with an ideal reader in mind.
Thank you for agreeing to the interview, Andy. It’s great to be able to get to know more about you and your process. So, where did you author career begin?
I’ve never been a fanatical reader; perhaps that’s a strange thing for a writer to admit to. I’ve always enjoyed books, but I can go weeks without reading anything. If I do happen to bump into a decent block of spare time you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll give it to the writer in me while the reader goes hungry again.
But one day back in the late 80s I read a book and thought it was absolute garbage (today I have no idea what it was or who wrote it). I thought I could do much better myself, so I gave it a go. I was woefully wrong – it was a lot harder than I’d imagined it to be and my own story was the world’s worst literary offering. It made the garbage book look like a Booker winner.
I’ve been trying ever since to write stories that are better than garbage. I think I’ve succeeded in that but now my aim is to write books that people adore – just like every other author out there, huh?
Very true..! So how did you begin writing?
I began writing my stories long-hand and had no problem filling A4 pads and notebooks. While trying to better my little creations, I also tried to make them look good too. I borrowed my sister’s Olivetti electronic typewriter but they still didn’t look pro, and they certainly didn’t read like a good book would. That thing went through ribbons like mad, and besides, my sister wanted it back. My father could see I was serious about this writing thing I had going, and he got hold of a second hand Imperial 66 – a kerplunk (that’s the sound it made) typewriter that was older than he was.
I loved that thing – it was mine and together we crafted such stories that – to me and at the time – were award-winners, full of great characters and situations that would make a great book and wonderful television. Of course, today I read those early efforts and realise they were not award-winners at all. But that doesn’t matter – they were a thrill to write, a real thrill, and they formed part of the writer I have become today, a kind of apprenticeship if you will. I look back on those days with great fondness and although I still have the same drive to write as I had back then, I do wonder where that old Imperial is now.
So that’s the beginning of a career that is now about 35 years old. I haven’t ‘been hard at it’ for all of those 35 years: I’ve taken breaks to mess about with cars, I’ve worked abroad for a while, and I’ve worked on scripts for a few years too. But I’ve always come back to fiction writing – there’s no denying where the soul lies. And you’d think by now I’d be pretty good at writing, hehe. Still much to learn, and there always will be.
So in terms of starting a new project, do you like to outline all or some of it? Or do you just start writing and see where the story takes you?
In all aspects of my life, planning has always come second to spontaneity. Actually, spontaneity is the wrong word – I think ‘suck it and see’ might be a better way to describe it – life, I mean. I’ve blundered my way through it and I do the same with writing – more or less.
This is all sounding a little cryptic, isn’t it?
Let me give you an example. I’ve recently begun writing a new CSI Eddie Collins thriller, so far entitled The Pain of Strangers. The first scene I wrote for it featured a character I half created and half observed in real life – the name I gave him was Norton Bayford (no idea where that came from). He was a very colourful character, and very dangerous to know. His first scene, and so far the first scene of the entire book, was when Norton stabbed and killed a young man in the back with a bayonet.
I knew why the kid had been stabbed, but that was about all. From that scene I’ve grown several others. The crux of this particular story is that it will be a replacement series opener – the first in the series, The Third Rule, doesn’t really fit with the rest of the series and so I’m writing a book that will. It only took me six books to realise this!
This means I know where I want the feature characters to be at the end of the story, but that’s about all I know (and even that can be subject to change). Essentially, I start writing and see where the story takes me. I will only do any forward planning when I’ve written myself into a corner with a plot or sub-plot and need to find a way out of it. In that case I’ll use flow diagrams and work out the best way of pushing the story forward – so long as an option is feasible and entertaining, that’s all that matters.
That’s really interesting, and definitely an approach that is working for you. So have you ever tried to write a book that you’ve planned out first?
I once tried planning a book. After an hour I abandoned the idea; I found planning drained the enjoyment of creating a story. I suspect it would kill the impetus of writing it, and it would certainly curtail any natural organic growth too. Don’t you find that’s true about life, as well?
One might argue that a planned story, even one that took several weeks to plan, would get written quicker and require less editing than a meandering story developing thanks to the author’s mind being a Gro-Bag. I have no doubt that’s true, but I also have no doubt that writing an unplanned story is much more fun, much more entertaining; and I’d go so far as to suggest that if it’s fun and entertaining for the writer, then it’s fun and entertaining for the reader, too.
Yes, I think there’s a lot of truth to that. For me, my short stories are always unplanned, I just start with a character or a premise and go from there, and editing them always feels like less of a chore than my full-length novels (which I always outline).
So when do you know a story is finished, or ready to go to an editor?
This is a great question, Angelo.
Sometimes it’s quite straightforward, and the short answer is: when I’ve tied up all the loose ends, and I have nothing else to add.
I’m one of those authors who likes to include a main plot and at least one, and usually three, sub plots – and I keep them all spinning throughout the novel. When each is resolved to my satisfaction, I go back through the book using my Chapter Profile (a mini synopsis of each scene and chapter) to determine where I can inject more of the theme I’m trying to promote, or where I can strengthen the story and add echoes of events throughout it.
That makes sense. So when you say resolved to your satisfaction, what does that look like?
‘To my satisfaction’ sounds a little presumptuous perhaps. But it’s true. I wrote no less than six endings for The Third Rule because I wanted the biggest bang I could find. Turns out I just had to be true to my main character – took me months to figure that out.
In The Note – a first-person novella featuring CSI Eddie Collins – Eddie survives an attempt on his life. Sounds great, right? But then, several years later I wondered what might happen if the would-be assassin escaped custody. It got my juices flowing, and it spawned a whole new book – This Side of Death was born out of a story I thought was finished – boy, was I wrong!
• I’ve never typed the words The End.
• I always do a paper edit and always use a red fine-point Bic.
Same here with the paper edit, although the pen varies for me. So, coming back to editing – once everything is resolved, what next?
I frequently make notes in the margin to expand points later if I feel I haven’t quite achieved what I wanted to say in a particular scene, or if it’s something pertinent that I want to echo later in a scene featuring the same characters.
In the book I’m currently working on, my main character’s wife ends their relationship. She cites that he works too much and spends too little time at home. Later in the book, this main character says to a burglary suspect, “I can’t believe you’d risk a spell inside away from your family, just for a few quid from an old man’s pocket.” Saying this line makes the character think about his own situation (a good echo), and it helps prevent what essentially has become a cliché sounding like a cliché – you’d be surprised how many failed relationships there are inside the police service. But by echoing this line and by making the reader aware of it, I’ve made the whole situation more realistic – hopefully.
Once this is out of the way, I go back through the manuscript again killing typos, condensing sentences, ridding the text of repetition and redundancy in exposition and description (something I tend to be quite lean on anyway), and I aim to smarten the whole thing up. I also take out stray adverbs and passive voices.
Part of this edit is where I listen to how each sentence sounds as I read it to myself. Some sentences have a lovely flow to them and sound almost musical, while others can jar, read awkwardly or even make no sense depending on how a reader might interpret it – see how many arguments on social media you can count simply because a sentence is ambiguous. In prose you have no emojis to help you out, so you must include tone in your word choice and it’s not always as easy as you might think, especially if you’re trying to be true to a character and the way they speak.
Yes, I know what you mean. And I think we’ve all seen those social media arguments… So, do you enjoy this process?
I often enjoy going back over a manuscript at this point. Sometimes I do I feel like you, Angelo, that editing is a chore, and I long to break ground with a new story. But sometimes I like to get comfy in a story, to really become immersed, and when that happens I add little flashes of detail that can make the scene sparkle a bit – this is perhaps my favourite and most self-indulgent part of the self-editing process.
Once this is complete, I send the manuscript to my star reader. She’s been with me since 2011 and has read everything of mine before anyone else. I trust her implicitly. Then the beta readers go through it, so too does the editor and the star reader again before it hits ARC readers.
And yet, still some typos survive!
Yes, typos are like glitter – you think you’ve got rid of all of them then find a little bit twinkling up at you – often after publication.
So when you write, do you have your star reader in mind?
This is a great question. It’s great because it assumes I’m writing the story to someone specific or for someone specific, and of course I’m not. I’m writing it for (hopefully) thousands of people. And therein lies peril.
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned before but when I was new at this writing game, I was afraid to read books for fear of writing like Stephen King or James Herbert. Really, I was. It wasn’t until my third or fourth book that something radical happened: I developed my own voice. It was a thoroughly exciting feeling; it was freedom at last and it was exhilarating. To write something in my own tongue without worrying how other authors might construct it, or if other authors might criticise it, was wonderfully liberating.
Get that: ‘criticise it’.
I’m going to shy away from what King says in On Writing because everyone who plays with words has read that book. So I’ll just say – in my own way – that when you write, you do so behind closed doors with your arm around the page as you used to do in a primary school spelling test, keeping your face less than three inches from the page. And when you’ve done writing and you’ve done editing and you’ve polished that manuscript so it’s just about as shiny as a fat boy’s cheeks after running a hundred yards (that was me, incidentally). When it’s Mr Sheen-polished – then you give it to people to read.
You give it (hopefully in exchange for cold hard cash) to as many people as you can. And you sit there waiting, cringing, fingers tingling, waiting, heart hammering, cheeks sweaty again. Waiting.
Some will hate it, but the majority, one hopes, will love it!
You’ll notice I may have diverted slightly from the original question – I’m like that, sorry. No, not anymore do I write for a specific person. I used to write for my editor, and though she is very relaxed in most aspects of spelling and grammar and will bend usage rules according to my whim, she is paid to read my work. And like or not, that is a major flaw when it comes to seeking praise. I do however, have an ace up my sleeve: she is called Kath and we have been best friends since 2011. She reads my work because (her words not mine) she loves my stuff. I used to write for her.
But that was a mistake.
Why do you say that?
It’s a mistake to write for anyone because you aim to please them, naturally. You aim to give them what they want. Don’t do it! It’s the death knell for your writing. Instead, you should aim to surprise them! Give them not what they want, but what they don’t expect. Keep your writing fresh, introduce new devices to throw them – and everyone else – off the scent.
The person I write for is the person writing this. I adore writing, and I adore playing with words, and constructing sentences that might be metaphor or might be lies. You, the reader, will never know, and you don’t need to – you just need the story to leave you feeling satisfied and yet hungry at the same time. You want me to play with your reading buds (like taste buds… but not), and leave a delightful flavour in your mind, something like your favourite colour, or your sweetest smell, your most relaxing sound. Reading is there to enjoy just like your favourite flower or the touch of satin…
My advice: write for you.
That’s very good advice. So how do you balance surprising people with the unexpected while at the same time giving them the type of book they signed up for when they bought it? Must be a tricky line to walk.
Genres are pretty big pools of story types – and by pretty big I mean they have a lot of sub-genres. Crime and romance have a particularly large pool each, and readers can easily whittle down to the kind of story that appeals to them the most. It would be no good at all reading my crime thrillers if cosy crime is your craving.
Once a reader has selected their preference – crime thriller, obviously – there are certain tropes they come to expect within that sub-genre. In my own sub-genre, they can expect murders aplenty, and they can also expect cops to be involved because my own sub-genre reaches out and tickles the one next door: police procedural, and also the one adjacent to that: noir.
These are three elements one can expect to encounter in any of one of my books, and another couple of elements that Amazon and other retailers don’t yet have categories for: forensic thrillers being one.
That said, I believe people know what kind of book they’re going to get from me because of the blurb and because of the reviews.
Yes, those two things together should give readers a good idea of what’s coming.
But what makes my writing different from any other crime thriller writers’?
Well, I’m a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI) and have been for twenty-six years. I like to think that my crime thrillers have a level of authenticity other authors can only dream of, or can only research. And in this case, research is like getting plastic jewellery in a cardboard box with Kellogg’s written on the side, while my own experience (and that of other forensic writers) is a lush, black velvet box with a satin interior and gold embossed script, and a rather fetching pair of magnifying glass cufflinks inside.
Sorry, don’t mean to sound immodest, but you get the point, and the point is this: with this authentic kind of crime thriller, you’re getting the cold sweat inside the nitrile gloves and you’re getting the stepping plates sliding out from under you, and you’re getting the cold stiff arms of a dead woman as you’re checking for defensive wounds and trying to get fingerprints from for ID purposes. In short, you’re getting the feeling, the feeling of being there as a CSI, picking up the clues and dealing with the cops and the press and the family and the public. You’re getting how it feels to be behind the scenes in a performance that still enchants millions of readers and viewers, while all you want is for your flash gun to work properly and not get the heavy end of the dead woman, all while wondering when you can break for a meal and a pee.
I’ve covered the second half of the question, the ‘while giving them what they expect’ part, so let’s grab the ‘how do you surprise people’ part by the scruff of the neck. And give it a wee shake.
How do I give readers something unexpected when they know exactly what’s around the corner, right? They know what’s around the corner because they’ve read every crime thriller under the sun, and they know all the author’s tricks. Dammit! That’s why I don’t write mysteries. I could never come up with intriguing ways of fooling the unfoolable . Is that even a word?!
No idea, but let’s go with it..!
From my point of view it’s better to let people know who committed the crime and give people the pleasure of watching the police solve the crime, or cringe at the mistakes they make along the way. And at the end of the book, I want people to understand why that person committed that crime – something often brushed over for the sake of a good story. I find that the why is often as engaging as the how.
The unexpected comes in several forms: a character takes out a gun at the most crucial moment or the most mundane moment – that’s a shock for the reader only when they’re truly not expecting it. From that we might see a major player get killed – another unexpected shock. Or how about a character we have known and respected throughout the book – or throughout the series so far – turns out to be a rotten apple? How shocking might that be?
The one thing that runs through all these unexpected examples is character. Forget the coincidence of a car crash or a bomb going off in order to kill a character, get down to the dirty level, the sick little puppy level – the person level. And further, get inside their heads and find out what made them take out a gun in the first place, or what – thirty years ago – made a well-respected cop turn a blind eye to domestic assault and incest. That is the most interesting and unexpected thing you’ll find in any story in the twenty-first century: the things people do and why they do them. People are fascinated by people and their secrets, and how they handle them. They want to know if they would have taken out a gun at that point.
There’s no bomb as such in my fourth CSI Eddie Collins book, Ledston Luck, but the other stuff is there, and readers comment more than anything else about the shock value of the ending and the turmoil of the main characters. Characters are why we read books and why we become immersed in stories – we become that person and we judge ourselves alongside them.
I totally agree about the importance of character – it’s an element of story that can be very easy to overlook or take for granted.
So, do you read a lot yourself? And do you have any favourite authors, or favourite books you’d recommend?
There are two things you should know about me. Firstly, I am a very selfish person.
Second… there isn’t a second.
At the beginning of the day, I am allotted 24-inches of time. I use between six and eight inches catching up with my beauty sleep – and yes, if I were to ever ‘catch up’ with it, I’d be in bed about four years. Anyway, I use another ten inches at work (yes, I’m still a full-time CSI, and yes again, overtime is not uncommon in my line of work), and another two inches when I come home playing dad to two small children and playing husband to one adorable wife.
So out of my 24-inches, I have four inches to play with (steady on!). Deduct another two inches for walking our idiot dogs and, say, washing up and putting the little ladies to bed or helping to bathe them. That leaves me with very little to call my own.
With so few inches left, I tend to be selfish with it. I squander it on writing. I know!
There’s no cure, unfortunately. I am one of those writers who sit down and stare at the screen for half an inch or maybe an inch before I begin producing words. Don’t get me wrong, if I’m writing a red-hot scene, I can punish this here keyboard and turn my fingers bloody as they blur their way through a few thousand words, but often, my pace is rather pedestrian as I fumble around in the darkness, searching for ways to describe what happens next. If writing and thinking about writing were a diet, I would be see-through by now.
As it is, I struggle to see my… toes. The reason behind it is because of those 24-inches, I only use a precious few to write with.
This is an extremely round-about way of saying if I have the choice between reading and writing, I choose writing every time. Every time. I love the worlds constructed by other authors – I really do – but I love the world I made the most.
I read every day, maybe half an inch, maybe an inch, in bed just before lights out. Part of the reason it can take me a month or more to get through a book is because I don’t spend a lot of time reading, but mostly, I suspect, it’s because I’m a very slow reader. It’ll take me a couple of minutes to get through one single leaf – a skim-reader I am not; I read each word, and I enjoy each word, and sometimes I marvel at word choices and the skill used in creating a metaphor or simile, or I try to engage with the bigger picture and work out where the story is going. Often I’ll try to spot the mechanics of a story: I read Mr Mercedes by a young author you might have heard of called Stephen King, and there was one scene that was very clunky, in my humble opinion, and seemed ill-fitting with its surroundings. I labelled the scene as a pre-cursor for more action later, you know, something planted to make a future event more acceptable, more ‘genuine’ – it was the set-up. And sure enough a chapter later, the lid was put on the set-up and we rolled on with the story, satisfied that the event was genuine. I like to find those set-ups, those cues.
Favourite authors. I have lots of favourites, and I have authors whose work I actively avoid because they mess with my head – and not in a good way and not intentionally on their part; authors who twist a crime story into something preposterous or unbelievable just because it’s easier than thinking a bit harder or seeking advice; or established authors who cannot grasp the notion that a sentence should be almost musical, should be beautiful, and should at the very least make sense.
Faves include the early James Herbert books, the early to mid-Stephen King books (Mr Mercedes et al are very good though, but I adored Shawshank, Green Mile, Insomnia (awesome), Christine…), Bernard Cornwell writes the best historical fiction on the planet, and I love Deaver, Billingham, Michael Wood, Peter May, and Andy Weir (I’ve read The Martian a few times, and watch the film two or three times a year when I have a couple of inches to spare). One of the books that surprised me was A.J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window. Finn kept me entertained not only with the story, but with his wonderful use of words, the turn of phrase, the way he conjured images in my mind that added an extra layer of enjoyment to the story – it’s one of my top reads of the last few years.
I’ve recently bought a fistful of classics that I feel I need to read before I croak it. I’m half way though The Catcher in the Rye – not loving it, but am looking forward to Lord of the Flies and To Kill and Mockingbird and The Secret Garden. I read The Secret Garden when I was a kid and though I remember nothing of the story, I do get a warm glow whenever I think of that book – time to become reacquainted, m’thinks.
On a more contemporary note, I’ve discovered A Boy Made of Blocks and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Both books deal with autism, and I found them fascinating and utterly absorbing.
That’s really great, Andy. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thanks so much for your time and all the best.
Andrew Barrett’s Book Group (Facebook)