Welcome to the five hundred and sixty-second of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with crime novelist Michael Walters. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Good morning. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Mike: My name’s Michael Walters. I’m based just outside Manchester, on the edge of the Peak District, where I live with my three sons. I’ve written since I was a teenager and, in common with most writers, I embarked on numerous unpublished and sometimes half-finished books before my first novel was published in 2006.
Morgen: I have a couple of those, although I do plan to go back to them at some stage, hoping I have the practice now (seven years) to see where I can improve and finish them. What genre do you generally write and have you considered other genres?
Mike: I write crime fiction. The stack of unfinished works includes several non-crime books, but I gradually came to the conclusion that I most enjoy the combination of tight plotting and sometimes extreme characterisation that is typical of crime-fiction.
Morgen: I’ve done the same, worked my way up (across) to crime, helped by agent Judith Murdoch looking me square in the face and saying “You’re a crime writer, you need to write crime.” – I’d presented her with a chick lit! 🙂 There is always the option to self-publish your others, although it does sound like you’re comfortable in your crime ‘skin’. What have you had published to-date? Do you write under a pseudonym?
Mike: Under my own name, I’ve written three crime-novels set in contemporary Mongolia which are published by Quercus. As Alex Walters, I’ve written two books featuring a female undercover officer, set in and around Manchester, published by Avon HarperCollins. The latest of those, Nowhere to Hide, was published this month, November 2012.
Morgen: Congratulations. How exciting. 🙂 Are your books available as eBooks? How involved were you in that process? Do you read eBooks or is it paper all the way?
Mike: All five are available as e-books, although I’m afraid it’s still paper for me. Mainly because I already have too many books I haven’t yet got round to reading – the last thing I need is a device that would encourage me to buy them even faster!
Morgen: Almost all the people I’ve spoken to still prefer the book format, most reading paper at home then electronic ‘away’ and it’s great having the option. Apparently it’s getting more people reading which is the main thing. What are you working on at the moment / next?
Mike: I’m currently working on a fourth Mongolian book. It’s been a little strange to make the gear-shift again from writing about locations that are close to where I currently live to re-inhabiting the very distant Mongolian society. But I’m enjoying finding my way around it again.
Morgen: 🙂 I can imagine it’s a fascinating place to write about. Do you manage to write every day, or ever suffer from writer’s block?
Mike: I don’t manage to write every day, but not because of writer’s block. It’s simply that I have a day-job which actually feeds into my research as I do much of my work in the criminal justice area. But it does tend to take me away from the writing-desk more than I’d ideally like. On the other hand, I’ve become very adept at making best use of time on trains or in hotels for writing. I’ve done some of my best work on the Virgin train from Manchester to London.
Morgen: I was going to say “darn the day job getting in the way” but yours does sound really useful and having snatches of time usually makes us focus. I’m home all day, which I love, but the ping of new emails / social networking messages is all too enticing. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Mike: I’ve tried various approaches. At least one of my books started with not much more than a couple of powerful images that I wanted to explore. I was essentially trying to establish the sequence of events that might have led to the scenes I had in my head. But I found that a rather nerve-wracking approach – the equivalent to driving along an unfamiliar road in thick fog and half expecting to reach a dead-end at any moment! Now, I tend to write a fairly detailed synopsis in advance, which gives me something to work to. In practice, though, even when I’ve done that, the plot and characters fairly quickly take lives of their own once I start writing, and the best ideas often occur in mid-flow. The synopsis for Nowhere to Hide had a completely different ending from the final version. It was only as I was embarking on the last section of the book that I suddenly realised that the book was heading to a much more interesting conclusion.
Morgen: I suppose writing a series you do have to be more or a planner, especially for consistency (that sounds like a great guest blog topic if you have time sometime.). 🙂 Do you have a method for creating your characters, their names and what do you think makes them believable?
Mike: I guess that, like most writers, I don’t base my characters on real people (whatever my friends might fear) but I do draw on elements of personalities that I’ve come across. And there’s a lot of real experience goes into the books. My day-job gives me some insights into the ways people interact in real criminal justice organisations, where the office-politics are often no different from those you’d find in any other operation. So I can often draw on real anecdotes or incidents which reveal aspects of the characters’ personalities. In the Marie Donovan books, for example, although the plots are entirely fictional, Marie’s relationships with her colleagues often reflect the kinds of tensions I’ve witnessed in real life.
Morgen: I think once we start writing, everything soaks in and incidents come back from years before. Nothing’s wasted. Do you do a lot of editing or do you find that as time goes on your writing is more fully-formed?
Mike: My first drafts tend to be reasonably polished, but often much longer than the final version. There are often scenes, exposition or character-development which I write largely for my own purposes – because I want to make sure I’ve worked out the back-story fully, for example, or because I want to get to know a character better – but which can be excised from the final version with no real loss to the reader. So much of my editing involves trimming back the material to make it as pacey as possible. That was particularly true of the new book, Nowhere to Hide. It continues the story begun in the first Marie Donovan book, Trust No-One, but also needed to work as a standalone novel. So I had to work out how much back-story to provide for a reader who might not have read the first book. My first draft erred on the side of caution, but I was eventually able to provide the essential details in a way that, I hope, doesn’t slow down the story for a new reader.
Morgen: Another great guest blog topic. 🙂 It’s interesting you say your first drafts are longer. My trouble is that I write more short stories and flash fiction throughout the year than novels (they just tend to be first-draft-Novembers then the rest of the year editing in spurts) so come out shorter but then as I go through them I see where detail is missing (some room descriptions, just enough so the reader can add their own). But you’re absolutely right, there will be details that only the writer needs to know. Some books can feel as if the writer’s done a load of research and then still has so much in it that it’s overwhelming (or showing off!). Do you have to do much research for yours?
Mike: Yes, quite a bit, though I’m fortunate that my day-job often gives me access to people or organisations that can feed into the books. Sometimes, it feels as if I’m being paid to carry out research, which is helpful! But I also have to make sure that I’m not abusing that access so very often I’ll deliberately fictionalise situations that have been partly drawn from life. The research is useful for providing the detail that makes the story convincing, such as the day-to-day challenges facing Marie Donovan working undercover.
Morgen: And of course another advantage is that you have people you can run facts past, which is often far more useful that going on the internet and hoping that it’s accurate. What point of view do you find most to your liking: first person or third person?
Mike: All my books to date have been written in the third-person. It’s not unusual for crime-novels to be written in the first person, partly because it enforces the plotting discipline that the reader knows only what the narrator knows – so the reader unravels the crime or mystery alongside the narrator. But I find it more interesting to write in the third-person because it means you can give the reader access to information that the central characters don’t necessarily have. That makes it more of a challenge to ensure that you’re not cheating the reader by unfairly withholding or revealing details which are critical to the resolution of the plot. Because the focus of the Marie Donovan books is her uncertainty about who is trustworthy, I have to be careful to play fair with the reader whenever I adopt another character’s perspective. If the story’s being told from a particular character’s point-of-view, it would be wrong to withhold information that you’d expect to be at the forefront of that character’s mind.
Morgen: It would but first person is limiting because the narrator can only tell what the other characters look like their thinking. Third person can get into everyone’s heads which is probably why it’s used more and more popular (so agents tell me). Do you write any poetry, non-fiction or short stories?
Mike: I used to write poetry and had a few published, but that particular muse seems to have slipped away in recent years. I’ve written a number of non-fiction books linked to my day-job work, though again not for a few years. My American publisher of the Mongolian books once asked me: ‘I assume you’re not the same Mike Walters who wrote these books that keep popping up on Amazon…?’ I had to admit that it was me all along. I’ve never really tried to write short stories. The prospect feels much more intimidating than writing a novel.
Morgen: <laughs> It’s funny. I’ve gone from writing shorts (I still do) to writing novels which, purely for the word count, was more intimidating but have had several novelists say the same as you. I do think it’s helped me realise when I’ve started to waffle, but then I’m on my sixth so hopefully it’s practice too. You mentioned partially-written pieces earlier, do you have pieces of work that you think will never see light of day?
Mike: Almost certainly. The first crime novel I wrote was a humorous book set in the West Country. I touted it around various publishers for a long time, until I sent it to Peter Buckman, who’s now my agent. Peter gave me the best advice I’ve received as a writer. It was (although more politely expressed) along the lines of: ‘You can clearly write. But don’t bother with this any more as I couldn’t sell it in a million years.’ He then asked me if I had any other ideas, and that was where the Mongolian books came from. But I suspect that first book will never emerge in any form…
Morgen: What a shame. I do like to think that if something is well-written (and well-edited) that there’s a home for it anywhere. The great thing about self-publishing, perhaps just as eBooks, that it’s likely to reach an audience that traditional books wouldn’t have done. Apart from that one (of sorts), have you had any rejections? If so, how do you deal with them?
Mike: I had lots of rejections before I was published. Now, I tend to deal with them by letting Peter handle the submissions for me, so generally I don’t even know…
Morgen: What a good plan. 🙂 So you have an agent, Peter, do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Mike: I’m not sure an agent is absolutely vital, particularly in these days of self-publishing, but I think a good agent is pretty much essential for anyone who wants to be published by any commercial publisher. I’ve been very lucky. Peter is unfailingly encouraging and supportive, but is also an excellent critic. He’s got a great eye for spotting exactly what needs improving in a book, and for articulating it in three or four concise sentences. And he’s almost always right, even if I don’t want to hear it. He’s also an excellent person to have by your side in any dealings with publishers!
Morgen: Second opinions are vital. I have a great editor (Rachel) who not only picks out flaws but also comes up with some great suggestions. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Mike: I think this is becoming increasingly important for writers. It’s not something I feel particularly comfortable with – I’d much rather just write and then let the book speak for itself – but I don’t think it’s possible to avoid it. But there are some elements I enjoy very much, particularly getting out and about and talking to readers. Library and similar events are always great fun, and it’s particularly gratifying to meet people who’ve read and enjoyed the books.
Morgen: Marketing it usually the answer to my ‘what’s your least favourite aspect of your writing life’, mainly because it takes us away from what we should be doing (writing) and because there are so many of us (I’ve realised that having booked in over 700 interviews with another 900+ questionnaires still out in the ether) jumping up and down saying, “pick me!”. Live events do seem to be the way to go and there’s nothing like meeting the readers whether that’s online or in ‘real’ life. 🙂 What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Mike: Just to keep writing. And keep reading. If you want to be published, you have to give some thought to what publishers are likely to be looking for. But I think in the end you can write only for yourself. There’s no point in sitting down and trying to write a bestseller because you’ll just end up with a pale imitation of what’s already out there. The best advice is just to try to write something that you yourself would want to read.
Morgen: Absolutely, write what you want to write because if the passion’s not there it’ll likely come across in the writing. If you had to choose a single day from your past to re-live over and over, what day would it be and why?
Mike: There are numerous days I could choose, but with regard to my writing it was probably the day when, completely by chance, I bought a copy of The Independent to take on a train journey, and then opened it to discover they’d picked my first book, The Shadow Walker, as their book of the day. And had given it a really positive review.
Morgen: Oh wow, how exciting. 🙂 Where can we find out about you and your writing?
Morgen: Thank you so much, Mike.
I then invited Mike to provide a synopsis of one of his books and this is for ‘Nowhere to Hide’…
‘On the North Wales coast two people traffickers are brutally murdered; a drug dealer is mown down in inner-city Stockport and in a remote Pennine cottage a police informant is shot dead. Seemingly random, these murders are the work of one professional hitman.
Reluctantly, Marie Donovan takes on another undercover role and finds herself working with DI Jack Brennan, a high-flying detective with a tarnished career. Soon, mistrustful of each other and their superiors, both begin to suspect that they are mere pawns in a complex game of criminal rivalry and police corruption.
As Marie struggles to uncover the truth, she realises that nothing is as it seems. With every move, she draws the threat ever closer until ultimately the killer is watching Marie herself. Out on her own, she finds herself with no friends, no-one to trust and nowhere to hide.’ Published by Avon HarperCollins.
Michael Walters has worked in the oil industry, broadcasting and banking and now runs a consultancy working mainly in the criminal justice sector including police, prisons and probation.
Under his own name, he has published three crime novels set in Mongolia, The Shadow Walker, The Adversary and The Outcast, all published by Quercus. As Alex Walters, he has written two books featuring the undercover officer, Marie Donovan. The second Marie Donovan, Nowhere to Hide, has recently been published by Avon / HarperCollins.
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