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Monday, 6 September 2010

Neil White, Author Interview

Neil White works as a criminal lawyer by day and a crime fiction writer by night. Born 1965, above a shoe shop, in Mexborough, a small South Yorkshire mining town, as the middle son of the manager and his teenage bride. His father's career in the retail trade took the family back to where they started, Wakefield in West Yorkshire where Neil gained an accent and a love of rugby league.
Kettlethorpe, a rough council estate on the edge of the tough city, was where he lived but that isn't how he remembers it. It didn't have a city feel, it was no concrete jumble, and he spent his childhood in the woods and fields around Kettlethorpe. He haunted places like Roly-poly Hill and Billy Goats Hill, the former so-named because they would roll down it, the naming of the latter being a complete mystery - it was a small clay bump in the land overlooking the estate, and he never saw a goat on it.

Tell us about Dead Silent in a few sentences.

My most recent book, Dead Silent, is the fourth in the series, featuring a crime reporter. The story was prompted by the Lord Lucan story, as I figured that the ultimate crime reporter's scoop would be to locate Lord Lucan. My idea was that the reporter is approached by a friend of a Lucan-type character, who supposedly killed his wife twenty years earlier and disappeared. The Lucan-type character will come out of hiding if the reporter can prove his innocence first. That was the basic plotline I started with.

What qualities do you need to be a successful writer?

An ability to write is obviously important, but persistence, patience, bravery, and an ability to be self-critical are vital too. I say persistence, because finishing a book can take a long time, and it is so easy to just give up. The first 5,000 words of my own books have always been the hardest to write, and so how many other people have given up on something because they thought it didn’t sound right? Get over the opening hump and the story can start to write itself.
Patience is important, because the two or three defining scenes you have in mind might not come until well into the book, and so don’t be in a rush to get to them.
I use the word bravery just because you have to be prepared to sacrifice things you like in your story to make the story better. Stephen King’s mantra is that “it’s all about the story, dammit”. If something doesn’t advance the plot, be prepared to ditch it.
An ability to be self-critical is important, because you can’t just assume that what you have written is good just because it has come out of your own pen. Imagine that you had just spent £8 on it. Would you be happy with it. Try and be objective.

What is your working method?

I try and do a 1,000 words a day, and I always write the books as the story unfolds. Although each 1,000 words might not make into the final book, it keeps the plot moving forward. I am happy when I have a complete story and can then begin to change and sharpen it.

What is the single biggest mistake made by beginners to writing?

Trying to say something “powerful”. Just tell the story. If the story is powerful, that will do all the talking for you.

How did you come to write this particular book?

It was just an idea I had, and so I crafted the plot around the idea. I am sure different writers work in different ways, but I tend to read or hear of something that sounds interesting, and I think that it would make a good basis for a story.

How can people buy your books?

I’m lucky enough to have had my books stocked by the major retailers and supermarkets. They can usually be found in WH Smiths and Waterstones, and of course the usual online retailers.

To what extent are grammar and spelling important to a writer?

They are probably more important to the self-published writer, as he or she won’t have the benefit of proof-readers, and bad grammar and spelling can jar. I don’t think an agent or an editor would be put off too much, if the writing as a whole showed real talent. Grammar shouldn’t make the writer’s voice sterile.

How much revision of your MS do you do before you send it off?

I am constantly revising, and it is only my contractual deadline that brings it to a halt. The advice I would give to a new writer is to actually start the book you want to write, and then to actually finish, in that bring it to an end, say that you can do no more with it.

Where and when is your novel set and why did you make these specific choices?

My novels are all contemporary and set in Lancashire. I didn’t consider at any point writing a historical novel, and I wanted to write a book set in the North, and so I chose the area in which I live, the old cotton belt in Lancashire.

To what extent do you think genre is useful in the publishing world?

As much as I would like book selling to be a purist pursuit, there is no avoiding the reality that publishers are in business to make money. Genre is crucial, therefore, as it is all part of the marketing. It is also vital as consumers, as how would we decide whether a book was “our thing” if it didn’t slot somehow into a genre that we liked?

What are your writing habits?

Mainly the 1,000 words a day advancement of the story. If I get stuck, I go back to the beginning and edit and sharpen. By the time I end up back where I’d got stuck, I have usually solved the plot dilemma.

How do you know where to begin any given story?

I start at the beginning of the story, and I have usually mapped out in some detail the first fifth of the book. When I have finished that part, I map out the next fifth. I tend to know some key scenes, and always how it ends, and so I know where the story is heading.

What sort of displacement activities keep you from actually writing?

The internet is a wonderful research tool, but also a real distraction. I spend too much time looking at online newspapers and rugby league sites. And if any of you are reading this instead of writing, I have just proved my point.

Do you have support, either from family and friends or a writing group?

I am one of those people who finds writing to be a solitary pursuit. The first person to see any writing is my editor, when the whole story is complete. I don’t know how people can share their work in writing groups. Perhaps I bruise too easily.

Is presentation of the MS as important as most agents and publishers suggest?

The unsolicited slush pile is a large one. Don’t give them any excuse to ignore it. Make your covering letter stand out and just given them what they want as far as submissions are concerned (the Writer and Artists Yearbook is a good place to check).

How long does it normally take you to write a novel?

It takes me a year to write the first draft. If I had more free time, it would still take a year, as I would just find more displacement activity.

What are your inspirations?

All I have ever set out to do is to write a book I would want to read, and so I am inspired by the books I like reading.

If there’s a single aspect to writing that really frustrates you, what is it?

I wish I could get it right first time. It would save me so much editing time. Some people can write great stuff as a stream of consciousness. I can’t, and so I constantly edit and re-edit.

Do you think writing is a natural gift or an acquired skill?

A good mix of both. You have to be able to write, but equally it is something you learnt to get better at (I hope). Having good editors helps, because now I start to see the flaws as I write them, thanks to the suggestions and corrections made by my editors on my earlier books
What are you writing now?

I am just about finishing off the first draft of what will be my fifth book in the series, which will be released in early summer next year. Once that is done, I will be starting a stand-alone book.

Is there any aspect of writing that you really enjoy?

The final full stop is always the time to pop the cork, because I know then that I have got to the end of the story without getting lost and making a hash of it. And seeing your own book on a shelf in a shop is always a real pleasure.

Do you have a website or a blog that readers can visit?

My website is

Given unlimited resources, what would be your ideal writing environment?

In a penthouse apartment overlooking the sea on the French coast, close to the Spanish border, with a rack of CD’s behind me, and a wine rack on the side.

Where do you actually write?

In the understairs cupboard in Preston.

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