Author Interview: Mark West

1. How long have you been writing or when did you start?

I’ve been writing since I was a little kid and part of it, I’m sure, comes from the fact that I was a big reader even back then and loved the short stories you would often find in Annuals and wanted to try it for myself. I was 8 when STAR WARS came out and me and my friends would play games about it (how I wish I’d kept hold of all those action figures!) and I began to write very short stories about them. My friends liked them so I branched out, using other characters we liked – like Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man – and some I made up myself (Detective West and his computer car was a personal favourite). I enjoyed the process of thinking up the stories and writing them and I loved the way people reacted to it, so I decided that was something I wanted to do. So yes, since I was eight.

2. What books did you grow up reading?

I read a lot of different books – one of my weekly treats was going to the library with my dad and being let loose in the kids section and finding new books to take out. My junior school had a book club – The Bookworm Club – and I bought several titles from there, two of which I still have in my library (“The Restless Bones”, an anthology edited by Peter Haining and “The Adventures Of The Black Hand Gang”, by H J Press). My absolute favourite though was a mystery series called Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators. This was created by Robert Arthur (who edited the Hitchcock anthologies in the 60s) and later continued by William Arden, M V Carey and Nick West and I adored them – great characters with a secret HQ I desperately wanted to replicate, beautifully plotted mysteries with smart villains and the occasional spooky sequence and just a real treat to read. I still read at least six titles of the series a year and have blogged extensively about it.

3. Do you play music while you write — and, if so, what’s your favorite?

If I’m writing at home I tend to. My wife and son got me a turntable a few Christmases ago and I fell back heavily into vinyl collecting so when I started writing the mainstream thrillers, I decided to play records as I wrote. I quickly discovered that swapping the sides would often interfere with my train of thought so, on my son’s advice (he’s 17 now), I set up a YouTube playlist of film soundtracks. Best thing I ever did really – the music trundles along, there are no lyrics to distract me and I don’t have to flip the record (I do still play my vinyl though). My favourites list is fairly fluid but I’m a big fan of Christopher Young and James Horner, though a lot of 70s & 80s albums are always in contention (as I write this, I’m listening to Colin Towns’ soundtrack to RAWHEAD REX and that’s a corker). You should also check out BLUE THUNDER from Arthur B. Rubenstein and Morricone’s ORCA score and Richard Band is always good fun too. If you’re interested, you can find my playlist on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL08gmExT3XZS4EjqIvcdGKa4B1kS-NqRA

4. How do you develop your plot and characters?
When I shifted from the horror genre (which I’d been publishing in since 1999 and mainly focused on short stories and novellas) to try my hand at mainstream thriller novels, I knew I had to change my approach slightly. I’ve known my good friend David Roberts for about thirty years and he’d often helped me out plotting some of the horrors (for example, in my novella THE FACTORY, I explained the plot to him and then we spent a lovely hour or two working out what kind of horrors I could inflict on the characters once they were inside the titular building). With the novels, it made sense to talk things through with him and that’s what we did – these are the Friday Night walks I mention in the acknowledgements of my books. I’ll give him the basic gist of an idea and then we’ll brainstorm set pieces and characters and put things together until we have enough information to mindmap it. Once the spine of the plot is in place, we’ll talk through a key section and I’ll go off and write it then move on to the next bit. It works perfectly for us, it’s good fun and healthy too.
In terms of characters, they’re generally suggested by the story itself. I usually get an idea of the lead – their names, what actors they look like and then I put in some personality traits and off we go. Secondary characters often come out of the brainstorm session or, later, in the mindmapping when we realise we need somebody fresh to do something.

5. What advice would you give to help others create plotlines?

Find yourself your own David Roberts!
I hesitate to call something easy, because all writers have different talents in different areas, but the plotline is fairly straightforward once you have the initial idea (and the initial idea is my biggest stumbling block). Once you know where your story starts and where it ends (the ending doesn’t have to be set in stone, but it helps to have a general idea of where you’re going), you then build the set-pieces in that allow you to get from point A to point B.

6. What is the most difficult part of your writing process?

For me it’s absolutely writing the first draft. With all of the thriller novels, I suffered with two major issues. The first was that I somehow convinced myself I didn’t have enough of a story to hit the required length and that would dog me until I was more than halfway through the damned thing. The second is that I overwrite to a ridiculous degree, so my first draft can be anything up to 50% longer than the second draft (my novel DON’T GO BACK was written during the pandemic and it actually came in – for the first draft – at 210k words while the published version is about 90k). When I write the first draft I describe everything because I don’t know what I’ll need later and then I end up stripping out most of that in the subsequent drafts. The thing is, I can’t seem to write any other way and so I kind of embrace the craziness of it, even if it means it takes me the best part of a year to write something, rather than six months.

7. Whom do you trust for objective and constructive criticism of your work?
Getting together a team of beta-readers (the general name for people who read your work in draft and give you feedback and comments – I prefer to call them pre-readers) is a different process for everyone, but mine was slowly put together over time.

I have a hardy band of six – Sue Moorcroft is a good friend of mine, I critique her novels and she goes through mine both as a general reader and also looking out for technical details. In addition, there’s David (my plotting partner), Kim Hoelzli, Wayne Parkin, Richard Farren Barber and Steve Bacon (the latter two are very good horror writers) and I encourage them to pick as many holes as they possibly can. All of them are helpful and, more importantly, all of them tell me straight what they think. You have to trust your beta-readers to be blunt and honest – it does the writer absolutely no good to be told “yeah, it’s great” or “nah, didn’t like this bit” without being able to explain why. It should go without saying that you also need to understand what they do or don’t like, so you can judge more effectively.
Advice for new writers – don’t take up the offers of someone who happens to swing by on social media and says they’ll take a look. They might be perfect for your story but they might, inadvertently, also do it a lot of damage.

8. What do you think is the best way to improve writing skills?

Read, then read some more and, when you’re done with that, read even more. There’s a technical side to writing – sentence construction, paragraphs, punctuation – that can be taught but that won’t give you the heart and soul you need to make your story come alive. The only way you get that is by reading a book and seeing how the writer did something – if you love the book, it gives you an idea of how you need to build your own writing and if you hated it, it shows you what to avoid. All this assumes, of course, that you’re writing to please yourself in the first instance. Most writers I know want to be published and to do that you have to impress editors and/or agents, but the first person who needs to be impressed is yourself.

Advice for new writers – never assume you’re a genius and never put on social media “I’m the new Stephen King (or whoever your literary hero/heroine is), because it’s embarrassing if you’re not (and nobody is, really) and marks you out as either a newbie or a writer with absolutely no sense of self.

9. Do you prefer ebooks, printed books, or audiobooks most of the time?

Always print. I love the tactile nature of paperbacks and hardbacks, I love the new book smell and I like the product – the cover, the blurb, the weight, the care and attention in putting it together. I’m also a huge fan of the trashy horror paperbacks of the 70s and 80s and love trawling second hand bookshops for them and that wonderful sense of scale as you stand in front of the shelves and scan the spines as you inhale the scent of all those words. It’s glorious. I have nothing against ebooks or audio, but at the moment, they’re absolutely not for me.

10. How do you come up with character names for your stories?

I usually have a name fairly soon for the male and female leads though sometimes when David & I are discussing them, we use “Fred and Ginger” so we can keep track of who we’re talking about. The problem there is what when the final names settle in, we’re still calling them Fred or Ginger. For the remainder of the characters, I like to keep it really simple by picking a favourite film or TV show and downloading the imdb cast & crew list. For instance, with DON’T GO BACK, I chose the “Hunter/Hunted” episode from THE PROFESSIONALS TV series and that’s why the baddie has Cowley for a surname. By mixing and matching characters, actors and technicians, you have more than one hundred name combinations in front of you instantly and it saves spending too much time trying to think of names for yourself (and, if you write enough stories, you’ll quickly find you tend to repeat names).

www.markwest.org.uk

https://www.facebook.com/MarkWestWrites

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