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VM Giambanco First Draft Q & A

When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?

I start scribbling little notes on paper – always paper first – and it could be anything from a name to a situation or a question, in fact more often than not it is a ‘what if’.

Do you have a set routine approaching it?

It is not a routine as such but, inevitably, I seem to begin with scribbled notes which then develop into scribbled ‘situations’ or ‘issues’ or ‘scenes’ on a sheet of A3 paper – and by then I write in pencil because I draw all kinds of lines and connections between the various points, and I really need the A3 size to accommodate every doodle.

Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?

Pen first to write on a notebook, then pencil to do my sketches on the A3 sheet, then keyboard. Having said that, I still do my notes with pen and pencil while I’m writing the draft. If anything they become more important because I revise the previous outline in terms of what I have actually written.  They are my map to reach the end of the story.

How important is research to you?

Research is hugely important in some ways and not at all in others. I never start with research. It’s always a question of starting a chapter and going ‘hang on a second, I don’t know enough about this’ or having an idea and realizing that part of the story’s developments will depend on me knowing more about particular subjects (American jails, for example, or how to land a small plane on a mountain). Also, all the science that comes within the jurisdiction of the crime writer – and there is a fair bit which, thanks to shows like CSI and others, we are all familiar with – has to be correct because readers would be justifiably disappointed if they knew a detail was factually incorrect when it could have been so easily made right.

I think that research is important because it helps to create a world that rings true to the reader, and that is the only thing that ultimately matters.  I have set my novels in Seattle – an American city in the Pacific Northwest – a place I know very well and have researched extensively and yet the only thing that matters in the end is whether I have managed to make it come alive on paper. 

How do you go about researching?

I mostly use books, maps, internet and first-hand experience. For example, I needed to find out what it is like to be a police officer in Seattle and so I have spoken with a number of officers in the Seattle Police Department and have been out with them on patrol. It was an invaluable, humbling and inspiring experience and hugely important in terms of getting things right.

The internet however is a source of perennial wonder: when I was researching American prisons I could find out a surprising amount just knowing where to look – like menus, clothing, which wing was in lock-down and why, what items could be legally bought by inmates and even how to make chili in your cell.

How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?

Most ideas and notes are on paper because I like to be able to read and turn pages and add to them on the spur of the moment. I also use a lot of music when I write – mostly soundtracks, classical, pop/rock – and I have a folder for each book in my internet favourites where I file everything I read online from articles to pictures to music.

Tell us how that first draft takes shape?

It starts with the notes and then the story is turned around in my mind until I know I can find my way inside it and it feels as if I have lived there for a while. Only then I start writing and it feels like I’m trying to locate a tiny, delicate shape inside a huge lump of marble, and all I have is a blunt chisel. 

Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?

Before I start each book I re-read all or parts of some books I love to remind myself of how high the bar is. One of them is ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ by Thomas Harris, another is the novella ‘A River Runs Through It’ by Norman MacLean which deals with man and nature and what’s truly holy. There are other books as well and the group changes depending on what kind of story I’m going to write.

Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?

The world does exist – and the cat wants to be fed – even when I’m ‘deep in the rushing stream of inspiration’. Although in the very last few weeks, when I can almost touch the end of the story, I tend to disappear in the cave.

What does your workspace look like?

I can write anywhere but I have a small study with a desk piled high with papers and notebooks or – depending on what stage I’m in – deliberately neat and bare. I work from a laptop hooked up to a large monitor and I sit in a proper chair because if you are a professional writer a good chair is more important than the fanciest computer.

Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?

I edit as I go so that everything feels just right and when I finish my first draft it is as good as I can get it to be. 

I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?

I like writing substantial stories (around 110,000 words and above) so I need to keep an eye on the word count to make sure I have enough time to develop the story as I wish.

So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?

I use all the time I have to get the first draft on paper because when it’s finished I want it to be ready to be sent to my agent to get her notes. I like the first draft to be as polished and finished as I can. Most of the time is spent working out the story in my head before it hits the paper.

In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?

I always re-read and edit on paper. On the screen you just miss so much and it’s important to see the words on paper because that’s where they’ll end up.

What happens now that first draft is done?

I send it to my agent, Teresa Chris, who will give me notes and after I have incorporated them in the draft I will send the manuscript to Stef Bierwerth at Quercus and then wait for her notes. I can wholeheartedly confirm that this process of waiting for notes is still quite as agonizing now as it was on my first book.

Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you.

Thank you for having me, I will now return to the desk – which at the moment is stacked high with all kinds of notebooks, notelets, post-its, two A3 watercolor drawing pads, two small plastic polar bears and a t-rex (don’t ask).

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