Write Advice: author Vanessa Fox O'Loughlin
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, better known by her pen name Sam Blake, joined our Writing Crime Fiction Course Director Tom Bromley in the classroom to take questions from our students. In this session they discuss research techniques, approaching agents and how to keep tabs on your labyrinthine plot.
- Broaden your palette of techniques
- Master suspense and add intrigue to your plotlines and characterisation
- Explore a new genre and assess your potential
Q – Hi Vanessa, so glad you could join us! To kick off, would you tell us how you plot your novels? What are some key parts of your process?
Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin – Delighted to be here! That’s a good question, and the answer’s somewhat contract related. I’ve just finished a standalone project – and sent a first draft of 85,000 words to my agent – that was very carefully plotted. I often use a sort of table system of columns to plot each chapter so I can see how the books scans and which characters come in where.
However, for the last Cat Connolly book No Turning Back, which came out on 17 May in the UK, I had no time to do anything like that, so I just started writing! In a series you know the characters really well and it’s easier to write without a major plan. A great writer I know called Alex Marwood says she just writes ‘the stuff’ to get into a story – she doesn’t plot!
Tom Bromley – Finding a system to keep tabs of characters is really useful. I’ve done it with colour-coding in the past.
V – I also used Scrivener for the first time for the standalone. I have about a million files, but I still seem to end up properly writing it up in a Word document page after page.
TB – Do you feel more comfortable when you’ve plotted or when you’re flying by the seat of your pants?
V – I do think you need to plot crime fiction, ideally. The third Cat Connolly book was a bit of a muddle and needed a lot of sorting between drafts – I changed the killer, the way one person got killed and totally changed the ending between drafts.
For me, the plot keeps moving because lots keeps happening. In a procedural you’ve got the investigation to guide you, but in my recent standalone there’s more mystery, so that took a bit of building.
I also find that, much like how getting to know your characters book-to-book helps, each chapter becomes more instinctive as you get to know your story better.
I always end up moving things around at the end, but the first draft is all about getting the words on the page.
Q – What do you mean exactly by ‘the chapters becoming instinctive’?
V – Well, I have a sort of feeling of what needs to come next. I still end up moving things around at the end, and I always have too many points of view and have to lose some, but the first draft is all about getting the words on the page.
TB – For the Faber Academy Work in Progress course, I interviewed an agent and editor about what they looked for in a book. Both said voice. In that first chapter of Little Bones, you do a brilliant job of introducing Cat – there’s a lot of detail in there without it ever feeling as though you’re telling the reader a lot of info.
V – Absolutely, Tom. Everyone wants an original voice, but you only find yours through writing.
TB – If you haven’t read Little Bones yet, it’s really worth looking at that opening chapter in terms of introducing a protagonist. One example: she pushes some hair back which is still damp from having been swimming. You get character description, body language and backstory in one swift movement.
I can be a bit obsessive with getting details right – tiny things like train times – so to anyone reading it feels real.
Q – How much research you do, and how does that affect your plot?
V – Research is tricky because you often only end up using about 15% of it, and you don’t want to info-dump the really interesting stuff, but you need to have done enough not to make any howling mistakes that will wreck your plot. I think as a crime reader you’ll have a good general knowledge and can build on that. I can be a bit obsessive with getting details right – tiny things like train times – so to anyone reading it feels real.
The problem is that you don’t know who’s reading, and I want everyone to enjoy my books and not be jerked out of the story by something silly. I got a lovely note from a policeman saying he’s read my work and could relate – that was great!
On that note, you can usually find a police officer who’s happy to help you with your research on that side – there are even some online who offer services for writers.
TB – I’ve noticed how some crime writers do the ‘wisdom of crowds’ thing, too, by asking their social media followers questions.
Not that you can with any other genre, but in crime especially you can’t take shortcuts when it comes to your plot.
Q – In terms of research and place, do you visit the settings you are writing about?
V – I do visit if I can – it makes a massive difference to how I write it. In book three someone commits suicide (supposedly), and I found the exact spot in a park near where I live.
However, the standalone is set in New York in the beginning and it’s been years since I was there. A friend of mine spent a whole afternoon filming and brought me back stacks of newspapers and ‘stuff’ – things like menus and dry cleaning price lists. I love all that detail!
Q – Are there any complete no-no’s you think of in terms of crime writing over other genres?
V – The key with crime fiction is that you can’t con the reader, and you have to have your solution threaded through the narrative so that a reader can look back and see the markers. Not that you can with any other genre, but in crime especially you can’t take shortcuts when it comes to your plot.
Something important to note is that on your first book you have the luxury of time. Make sure to enjoy it and take your time.
Q – Do you have a particular writing routine?
V – I write when I can. I have two kids and run two businesses so I’m always busy, but I try to carve out time whenever possible – at night, on planes or trains – to get the words done.
There’s absolutely no time to procrastinate – especially when that deadline’s looming. Something important to note is that on your first book you have the luxury of time. Make sure to enjoy it and take your time. There’s nothing worse than having to deliver 100,000 words in three months!
Q – Once you’d completed your first book, did you head for agents or publishers straight away?
V – The second I’d finished my first ever book I sent it everywhere. It was terrible, and the hard work should really start when you put that last full stop down, but I didn’t know that then! By the time I got to book three I sent it to an editor who I had cunningly invited to speak at a lunch I was organising. She liked it and helped me with a lot of reader’s reports, which were amazing.
I got an agent with the early draft of Little Bones and then another one – my current agent – later. He actually sold Little Bones.
You can’t write to trends as the trend will be dead and gone by the time you’re finished. You’ve simply got to write your own book.
TB – Sarah Hilary, if I remember rightly, volunteered at a lot of crime writing conferences to make contacts and get advice.
Q – Looking back now on how you approached getting published, would you have done anything differently?
V – Absolutely! Also, there’s always the bigger picture of what else is happening in the market – you can’t write to trends as the trend will be dead and gone by the time you’re finished. You’ve simply got to write your own book.
Q – I noticed that your dedication for Little Bones was ‘for everyone who has ever wanted to write a book’. That felt quite heartfelt, with the work you’d put in to get there.
V – I learnt so much along the way but starting that first book set me on the path that brought me here, so it’s all good!
Just keep going. It’s tough to hear that it might not be your first book that gets published, but that’s your learning ground. You need to keep going and you will get there.
TB – A great comment to end on. Vanessa. Thank you so much for your time this evening – you’ve given us some great answers!
V – Brilliant to meet you all and yes, keep going! Courses like this are fabulous for getting going on your book and connecting with people. Good luck!