This week my blog is dedicated to Peter May. Today I’m pleased to share this Q&A with you.
“Peter May was an award-winning journalist at the age of just twenty-one. He left newspapers for television and screenwriting, creating three prime-time British drama series and accruing more than 1,000 television credits. Peter now lives in France where he focuses on writing novels. Peter May’s most recent novel, Entry Island, was a top 3 Sunday Times bestseller and The Lewis Trilogy has sold over 2 million copies in the UK. In 2014, Quercus brought into print May’s Enzo Files, which have since sold over 140,000 copies. Peter has won numerous awards. In 2013 he won the ‘Best Crime Novel Award’ for ‘The Blackhouse’ at Bouchercon in the US. In September, ‘Entry Island’ won the Deanston Scottish Crime Book of the Year and in October it won the Specsavers ITV3 Crime Thriller Book Club Best Read Award. See http://www.petermay.info for more details.”
Runaway is inspired by a time in your life when you ‘ran away’ to London. Did this make it harder to write or was the experience always tucked away eager to be called upon as the basis of a novel?
I don’t think it was harder or easier to write than any of my other books. Although it was based on personal experience it was a still a work of fiction. I still had to develop the characters and the plot. The hardest thing about writing any book is finding the right story. I’ve felt sure for about 30 years that I wanted to incorporate my experience of running away into a book, and I also knew I wanted to add to that the idea of these kids running away again when they were in their late 60s. But it took me a long time to find exactly the right motivation and plot.
The Lewis Trilogy was a best selling series, selling over 2 million copies. Your standalone novel Entry Island was a top 3 Sunday Times bestseller. Was it hard to move away from Finn Macleod or did you relish bringing new characters to life? Is there any kind of comfort zone in having recurring characters or do you find there is more pressure as readers come to love them?
Leaving Finn Macleod and the others behind, was like suffering a bereavement, but it had to be done. I had told their stories and it was time to move on. Of course, readers come to be very attached to characters and, like old friends, they want to see them again and again. As a result of that, publishers and writers face a dilemma: do they continue to feed the readers’ appetite even if the writer feels he or she has exhausted the story potential, or do they risk readers’ wrath by publishing books with different characters and different stories?
I have created and written soap operas in my time, so I know well how to tell long-running stories, and live with characters on a long term basis, but it can be a monster that sets a terrible trap for writers. I have twice walked away from well-paying TV drama serials because it’s a treadmill. It drains you physically and mentally. I don’t want to write if my heart isn’t really in it. That’s why I wanted to return to writing books when I quit television.
I was brought up on Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway. They were magnificent storytellers, and you went with them wherever they wanted to take you, meeting new characters with every new story.
If I have a story to tell, I want to introduce the readers to the characters, take them on a journey with those characters and when the journey comes to an end, I just hope the readers will say, “It’s been a great trip, I’ve really enjoyed meeting you, I have fantastic memories of our time together, goodbye,” and move on to a new adventure.
I’ve been incredibly lucky that my editor at Quercus, Jon Riley, has not just permitted but encouraged me to write standalone books after they published the Lewis Trilogy. He’s a publisher that is willing to take risks… after all, he published The Blackhouse when it had been turned down by every other publisher in the UK! In the crime genre, most publishers are insistent that their writers keep producing series, to build “brand loyalty”. That’s fine if the writers are happy with the characters and feel there is still lots of story potential. But I hope there is also room in the market for creating that same “brand loyalty” for a writer, just by using his name. It used to work. I just hope readers will trust me and go with me. So far I seem to have been lucky, and they have.
You had a prolific career as at TV dramatist. How different is it writing for television compared with writing a novel?
Any kind of screenwriting means that the story you imagine in your head will be filtered through the entirely individual “visions” of producer, director, actors, set designers, wardrobe and make-up. Sometimes it comes out looking the way you pictured it; sometimes these people bring it all to life in a way that makes it better than you ever imagined; and sadly sometimes it can get mangled into something that hurts your eyes and breaks your heart to watch!
An old friend of mine used to say he preferred radio drama because the sets and costumes were always much better, well it’s a bit like that reading a book, the reader’s imagination plays a huge part in the end product. In a way it’s much more satisfying that you get to communicate directly with your audience and tell the story straight to them.
What is your writing process? Do you plan it all before you start or just sit and write? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?
Although I wrote novels before I got sidetracked into a TV scriptwriting career, I really discovered the way to write that suited me best when I was working for television. As a result, I brought techniques from screenwriting to my novel-writing when I quit television. It’s normal, when plotting a TV serial or a movie, to write a breakdown of the story in detail, before writing the script. Plotting the story, and writing the script are two separate processes, sometimes they are done by different writers. I think it’s a good idea to iron out any story/plot problems before you commit yourself to the job of writing the novel.
The process starts with several months of turning the idea and the characters over in my head. I use a program called Scrivener and use it to collect all my thoughts. I usually have a lot of research to do, reading, and visiting locations, and this feeds into the story and shapes it.
Eventually I’m ready to write a storyline. But it’s more than a skeleton. It’s probably around 30,000 words, long, so when those writers talk about “seat of the pants” writing, this is my time to do that. I write it very quickly, probably in a week, but the joy of it is, all I care about is the story and what’s happening to the characters. I don’t have to worry about the “writing”. I don’t have to care if it’s punctuated. It’s the white knuckle ride of storytelling, and I just go with it. It is the bare bones of the story, the action, the drama, the themes, the characters and their relationships. If I could return to the analogy of taking a reader on a journey, this is the road map, it’s the travel itinerary.
When I’m done with it, I leave it aside for a little while, then go through it as objectively as I can. I try to identify anything that needs to be fixed, or areas that might need more detailed research. It’s much easier to edit a plan that is 30,000 words in length, than to edit and manipulate a 120,000-word novel.
Once I’m happy with my storyline, I start writing the book. Again, I write very quickly. I get up at 6am each day and write 3,000 words each day. I don’t stop until I have 3,000 done. At this stage, all I have to concern myself with is the writing. I know what the plot is. So I never have writer’s block, because I know where I’m going each day. I write Monday to Friday and take the weekends off. This final process of turning the storyline into a book usually takes 7 to 8 weeks.
I usually write one book per year but this year, I have to write two books, so it’s going to be tough going.
I like to end my Q&A’s with the same question so here we go. What question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer?
The question I wish I had been asked is, “What would you like to do in the future?” and the answer is:
Retire. But no-one will let me! I see all my friends beginning to take their pensions and work out what they want to do for the rest of their lives, and everyone says to me – “But you’re a writer, writers never retire! Anyway, what would you do?” Well, I’d do lots of things, I’d read, I’d play music and make videos with my friend Stephen, like this one we did for “Runaway” http://youtu.be/ii_jxQYNo0E?list=PLIcIuxtKgeDevPXsdxMjeykorcLx84y1V . I wouldn’t be short of things to do!
Runaway by Peter May is out now (Quercus, £16.99).