Ep 215 How to write a great police procedural. And meet AWC graduate and crime thriller novelist Sarah Bailey.

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In Episode 215 of So you want to be a writer: Discover how to write a great police procedural and why even new writers need author bios. We send out freelance writer Nat to uncover the curious business of naming colours. We’re giving away a signed copy of Tom Hanks’ Uncommon Type. And meet AWC graduate and crime thriller novelist Sarah Bailey.

Click play to listen to the podcast or find it on iTunes here. If you don’t use iTunes you can get the feed here, or listen to us on Stitcher radio.

Show Notes

podcast-artworkLinks

6 Tips for Writing a Great Police Procedural

How to Write an Author Bio for Any Occasion

The curious business of naming colours

 

Writer in Residence

Sarah Bailey

Sarah Bailey’s first novel, The Dark Lake, was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in May 2017 and in the USA and Canada in October.

Sarah lives in Melbourne, Australia and has two young sons.

She has fifteen years experience in the advertising industry and is currently a director at creative projects company Mr Smith.

Sarah’s second book, Into the Night, featuring Detective Gemma Woodstock, will be published in 2018.

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Competition

WIN: “Uncommon Type” – signed by Tom Hanks!

Your hosts

Allison Tait

Valerie Khoo / Australian Writers’ Centre

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@valeriekhoo

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Interview Transcript 

Valerie

Sarah, wow. I’ve just finished The Dark Lake, and I can’t even speak, to be honest. It was riveting from the first word. I could not put this book down. It kept me guessing at every turn. Every part of the story, not just the actual crime, so to speak, that took place, but every part of the story had me absolutely mesmerised. Congratulations! I’m just so thrilled.

Sarah

Thank you. Thanks so much.

Valerie

Honestly, I just loved it. I don’t even know where to start, because I’m still in that world. I’m still in Smithson. I’m still in that place. And I’ve got to calm down now. Let me just perhaps start with for readers who haven’t read the book yet – and oh my god, listeners if you haven’t read the book, you’ve got to read this book – Sarah Bailey is going to be big. I mean that. For listeners who haven’t read the book yet, tell them what it’s about.

Sarah

So The Dark Lake is a crime thriller, as you said. But it’s a crime thriller with a very character oriented focus, as well. So it’s about the story of a young detective in a regional country town. Her name is Gemma Woodstock. She’s got a lot of baggage, and quiet a lot going on in her life when the book starts. And then to add to all of that, an old high school classmate of hers turns up murdered at the local lake the day after a big performance has been put on at the high school where she’s now a teacher. And Gemma is assigned to the case.

So straight away there’s a bit of a problem there, because she actually knew her a lot better than she lets on. And as she starts to investigate the case, a lot of the past shared history of the two women comes to the fore, and also some of the other things that Gemma is dealing with in her life start to become more and more pressing, and more urgent in terms of needing to be resolved.

So there’s quite a lot going on, I think. It flashes back and forward from present to past. And I’m really glad that you liked it. It’s so nice to get feedback like that.

Valerie

I love it. Now, I want to talk more about the book and your writing process. But just to give people some context, just a bit about your own career background and when you started getting interested in writing.

Sarah

Yeah, sure. So I think I’ve definitely always been interested in writing. But I didn’t end up going down that path once I finished school and university. So I was initially really interested in journalism, and I finished high school and wanted to get into a journalist-oriented job. So I actually did a degree in media and communications, but also did marketing as part of that course, too. And then sort of stumbled, pretty accidentally, into advertising. But landed in an agency that I just loved. So I ended up staying in that role for over a decade. And then, you know, once you’re in a field of work like that I guess it’s quite addictive. Because you get more experience, and I really enjoyed it.

But I sort of think that a few years ago when I went on maternity leave with my first child and I oddly had more time to think, or at least more headspace, I really fell back in love with writing again. And I set a few little deadlines, wrote a few blog posts, and pitched them to various places. It was kind of that time when the social media world was really exploding, so there were a lot of places looking for content.

And I got a real buzz out of being successful with some of my pitches. So even when I went back to work, I had a promise with myself that I would keep writing when I could. And then I had another stint of maternity leave where I wrote a whole lot more short stories and bits and pieces, and started thinking about novels.

And then about two years ago I decided it was time to bite the bullet. And I set a deadline; I really wanted to try to finish a novel by the time I turned 35 and pitch it and give it a really good shot. And it was funny, The Dark Lake ended up being published the day after my 35th birthday.

Valerie

I love it.

Sarah

So it was a good serendipity story.

Valerie

That’s fantastic. So you’re writing some short stories, and you said that you got some headspace to think about stories. And what I found interesting is I understand that you were actually working on another manuscript that wasn’t The Dark Lake, and presumably that maybe got stuck or something. But then you went on a drive to Phillip Island.

Sarah

That’s right, yeah.

Valerie

And that’s where, on that two hour drive, you mapped out the plot for The Dark Lake. Tell me a bit more about that drive.

Sarah

It’s a funny story. I was actually working really hard on this manuscript that I thought about, that I really liked. I thought the concept was really strong and I was really enjoying writing it. And I’d actually put a lot of effort and time into it. And then at about the 30,000 word mark, I just got stuck. And I couldn’t work through how to get to the ending. I sort of knew what the ending was, but I just found that middle part really hard.

But I was so determined not to give up. Because I had been told and knew that if you give up, you don’t have a book at the end. So you’ve got to finish. But I think it ended up being quite clear to me that it just wasn’t working for a lot of reasons. So I did park it.

But I had this other thought, just in my mind, about this detective, female detective, who had all these kinds of secrets. And I think I was watching quite a lot of Netflix shows at the time that were obviously really helping to feed that kind of particular storyline. So I had this idea of her and a lake, and something happening in the town and it all being central.

But I was driving down to Phillip Island one evening, and my kids fell asleep in the back. So they weren’t talking to me, or whatever. And I just had this really strong idea and thought about how the premise would work and particularly how the book would open. So kind of got there that night, put them to bed, and just wrote the prologue of the book. Which has ended up basically not changing at all from that first draft. Which is weird, because the rest of the book has changed a lot. But that opening prologue has stuck. And I went to bed, and I felt really excited about it. I kind of knew that it was a good opening, and I thought it was a good start to a story.

And then in the next morning, there was a news story on the TV, which was awful, an awful murder case that had just come out of nowhere overnight that had quite a lot of similarities to the story. Not the storyline itself, but just the premise of it, with a teacher, and her being found, and all this sort of thing. And I just took it as a bit of a sign that this was just the right story for me to write at that time. So yeah.

And then from there, the difference between this story and the one that I ended up stopping, it just flowed so much better, and it was just clearly a more rounded out idea. So I stuck with it.

Valerie

So when you were mapping out the plot on your drive, had you mapped out the whole plot? Or just the start of the story?

Sarah

I think it was mainly the start and the key premise of the book. And also, I sort of knew how I wanted it to resolve. But a couple of those layered pieces clicked into place later on. I think even, I don’t know what it’s like for everybody else, but I think even when I do plan out something, things evolve as you’re writing them, and characters evolve as you’re writing them. And you start to become a little bit more attuned to how they would act and why they would do something.

So I sort of had the basic premise, the basic main questions, and what Gemma’s story arc needed to be. But I didn’t have the entire book mapped out. And like I said, it changed quite a lot through the process of editing and getting feedback from people, which was amazing. So it’s ended up being a far better book than it was when I first thought it was finished.

Valerie

You also enrolled in a creative writing course at the Australian Writers’ Centre.

Sarah

I did.

Valerie

So tell me why you did that, and the impact of that course.

Sarah

Well, I’m giving away some of my top tips. But for me, I think because I wasn’t a writer, and because I had a career in another field, it was really important for me to do tangible things that made it clear that I was taking a serious step towards trying to write. So things like giving myself deadlines and actually treating it quite seriously. And obviously not to the point where I wasn’t doing my job, because I was still working in advertising. But just trying to make sure that it had a bit of structure, and that I actually told a few people that I was trying to write a book.

Because I think if you keep it a secret, it’s something that you can then skive out on yourself. You don’t have to be true to what you promised yourself you’ll do. So I found things like doing the course, and actually really taking that seriously, and trying to learn as much from that as I could, telling people I was really getting back into writing, and really trying to finish something – for me, it all helped make it become a more serious real thing in my life. So I think that’s why the courses were so good.

Valerie

And so give me some timelines. When you drove down to Phillip Island and you wrote that prologue overnight. And give me just some vague timelines as to how long then until you finished your first draft, and then the key milestones after that.

Sarah

So I was really keen to try to finish the book within a year. I thought that was a realistic timeline. And to be honest, I get so impatient and easily bored that I thought if I spent any longer on it than that I would probably lose interest myself. So I probably finished about half of the book between April, on the first night where I started it, and November. And then I actually went overseas for two weeks in November on a holiday, and had some more headspace then to think about it, and long plane trips which I find such a great place to write. Because you can really just zone in and get stuck into something.

And then when I came back from that trip, I actually left the job that I was in at the time. Gave them quite a bit of notice, but I was really fortunate to have had some long service leave saved up, because I had been there for so long. So once I left, I had two months before my year deadline was up. And so I spent a lot of that two months really writing quite seriously. So I was doing a little tiny bit of freelance work, but for the most part I was going to the library or a cafe every day, and sitting there and writing for four or five hours and getting all the words down.

Valerie

Wow.

Sarah

So I finished the draft within the year, and then started pitching it out to agents. So it was in bouts of intensity, though. Because obviously sometimes during that year it was really, really intense, and then other times it was a bit kind of an hour here or an hour there. So it was a bit all over the place.

Valerie

So if you were able to do four to five hours when you were able to focus on it fully, like when you had your leave, when you left your job, while you were at your job, how did you fit it in? Did you have Sunday afternoons? Did you just fit it in whenever? Did you have some structure? how did that work?

Sarah

I did fit it in all over the place. The good thing about my job, in advertising, is it’s so fast paced, you learn to do things really quickly. And I think that’s really helped.

I’ve heard a lot of journalists say this as well. They’re used to writing to a deadline, they’re used to getting the words down. And even though my role in advertising was quite business oriented, I wasn’t in the creative department, you’re still under pressure to do things quite quickly, you write presentations quite fast. You don’t really have time to procrastinate. And I think that’s definitely helped me, when I have time, I really use it quite well.

So I would try to do half an hour in the mornings, get into work, or go to the cafe near work early after I dropped the kids off, and just do half an hour of either editing what I’d written yesterday, or quickly jotting down the first bit of a chapter.

And then at night, if I didn’t have anything on – my kids were quite young back then, so they were actually going to bed at 8 o’clock, so you can have two hours after that, which was quite good. I’m finding it harder to write at night now. I don’t know if it’s just me getting older. But I definitely seemed to be able to do it a lot better then than I seem to be able to now.

And then I would occasionally just block out a weekend day, either a Saturday or a Sunday, and just really dedicate it to a big long stint. So the words add up, I guess, when you really focus that time. But I must say, having that time at the end, where I really had the big blocks of time, that was amazing. Because you just didn’t have to spend time getting back into the head of your story again. It was there.

Valerie

Yes. So what did you do – because this is set in a country town, or a town a few hours out of a capital city. Did you grow up in a small town? Or why did you pick there? And how did you get into the space not only of the place, but of all the complexity of all of these people’s lives?

Sarah

I don’t know. I think the country town thing was really important to me from a character perspective. Because I felt like she needed to be kind of isolated. She needed to almost feel quite claustrophobic and stuck in her life. And I think the nature of a small country town is much better suited to that than a busy city where there’s lots of people around. And I also think that somewhere where she grew up and kind of knew quite a lot of people aided a lot of the storyline. So that was important as well, that everyone knows everyone type scenario.

And the fact that it was fictional just made it a bit easier from an environmental perspective. So it didn’t have to pay homage to a particular place. I was quite keen that it wasn’t coastal and that it was inland, and that it was kind of a bit oppressive and hot. So making it up for me made a lot more sense. But there are a few towns that I’ve visited in my time that I definitely drew some inspiration from. Especially towns that have kind of grown quite quickly, or had businesses introduced which really had an impact on the culture of a town, and that sort of comes through a bit in the story as well.

And then in terms of the headspace question, I don’t know. I mean, she’s a combination of a lot of people that I know, but not anyone in particular. Just borrowing elements from lots of people. And I definitely read, I read a lot. And I think you sort of borrow a lot of characters from across your life that you’ve read. And I had such a clear idea of how I wanted her to be, and how frustrating I wanted her to be. Which has obviously worked, because I get a lot of emails from people telling me that they find her really frustrating. So that’s I guess, that’s been a big tick.

Valerie

Right.

Sarah

I really do. But I was quite set that that was important. I think that she’s definitely a flawed heroine. And I think for me, that’s the kind of stories I like to read is where there’s a little bit of tension and a little bit of diversity, and things don’t always go the way they should. And so I think that’s worked out the way I feel was right.

Valerie

Interesting. I didn’t find her frustrating. I didn’t find her frustrating. I found her fascinating. But anyway, sorry, I interrupted you.

Sarah

No, no. So I did talk also to a few detectives and police people, as well, particularly female ones. But I didn’t want to get too specific with that, because I didn’t want to end up using someone as the character. For me, she had to be fictional.

Valerie

Did you talk to police or do research? Because obviously, Gemma, the main character, is a police person. And did you talk to police or have to do research on procedure? And what would have happened in some of the processes and investigative approaches that they used?

Sarah

I did. And I’ve also been very clear that I wasn’t writing a forensic story, and it’s definitely fictional, it’s not fact. So there’s a little bit, or quite a lot probably, of creative license used throughout the book. But it’s all on the right side of being feasible and believable.

So my whole thought was that I didn’t ever want to do something that made someone start being, like, oh come on, this is ridiculous. But I felt like sometimes they could be like, hm, okay, yeah we’ll go with this. And I think when you’re writing a story that isn’t a really forensic and technical story, it’s okay that it moves along with a little of poetic license here and there.

Valerie

So tell me the rest of the timeline. Your year was up, you wrote your first draft, what happened then?

Sarah

So I was amazingly fortunate in that I went on the internet and downloaded a list of all of the agents in Australia, and read all of their subscription information very carefully. Because I think I had probably listened to your podcast, and it had said don’t not obey their instructions. They’re very strict with their instructions.

And so I started at ‘A’ in the alphabet, and approached Australian Literary Management. And it said, they said very clearly, “do no approach someone else while under subscription with us”. So I sent off my manuscript to them and waited, and didn’t approach anyone else. And then was really, really worried that I’d be waiting for a long time, and giving up precious book and work time. But I ended up hearing back from Lyn, my agent, within about three days. And she just said, yeah I like the start of this. So send me the rest of it, and we’ll see. So I sent her the rest of the book. And she called me and she said, look, I really love the story. I think that there’s a few things that you need to rework and look at, and if you’re willing to work with me, then I’ll sign you on. So I said yes.

And she and her team had quite a bit of feedback. So I probably spent about three or four months reworking the book based on their points. Which was tricky, only because it had been mine and mine only for twelve months. But their feedback was amazing. And I’ve really learned that pretty much all the feedback I get from the editors and the people invested in the book, they’ve all got the same agenda, so they’re very often right. Or there’s a version of what they’re saying that’s right. So it was a really good learning for me, how much better the book that I thought was done could actually end up being.

Valerie

What kind of feedback? What’s some examples?

Sarah

Sort of structural feedback. A few character actions that they thought were either too far or not far enough. So really challenging me to say, do you really think that they would behave like this? Or this feels a bit jarring based on what they did earlier in the book. Can you relook at that? Just stuff that really did help to balance the book out. Which I think you lose perspective on when you’ve re-read it 100 times.

Valerie

A thousand times.

Sarah

Yeah, a thousand times. So that was really helpful. Hard. It’s really hard to untangle something that you think is done. But did that. And they felt like it was in a position that it could get pitched out to publishers, so they sent it out to the five publishers they thought they were appropriate. And we were just super lucky. There were three, I think three of them were really interested. And then Allen and Unwin came through and said that they really wanted to buy the rights to it. And we accepted their offer.

And then, ever since, they have just been amazing. They also had quite a bit of feedback and changes, and I worked with an editor. And that was hard, too. But at that point it was so clear that it was going to become a book that that was quite motivating. So I was like, okay, I’m obviously going to do this, because I can’t not now. But it was definitely challenging, taking on board everyone’s different points of view.

Valerie

Yes.

Sarah

And it was basically published, it was published in May this year. So it was just over two years since I started writing it. And then Allen & Unwin purchased the world rights and have managed to sell them to quite a few different territories.

So it’s quite strange. I didn’t really ever realise this. But the book is yet to come out now in the UK, and Italy and China. So it’s kind of this rolling, ongoing, publication process. Which is quite great, because it really keeps the book in orbit. And it keeps my excitement about it high as well, which is really fun. But it’s been amazing, an amazing process, and such an amazing learning curve.

Valerie

And so fantastic that it’s been sold to America, and UK and China, and all of those places. That’s just wonderful.

Sarah

It’s crazy.

Valerie

So after you sent off the final thing, you did all the edits, you worked with Allen & Unwin. What happened then?

Sarah

So then it went into its own conveyor belt process. They were doing book covers and all that sort of stuff.

Valerie

But how about you? Did you kind of immediately start…

Sarah

Oh me? So I’m still working. I’m still working in advertising. So in the midst of all of the agent being quite encouraging and the book being pitched out, I’d obviously not worked for three months or so, so I had to get back to work. So I took another job in advertising, and so I was doing that from last July to now. So I’m still in an advertising role, but it’s a little bit more of a flexible one than probably what I had been in previously. So I’ve been able to split my time a bit better between writing and working, which has been really, really good. Because I’ve had a sequel to write.

Valerie

Are you writing again? Oh, you’re writing the sequel?

Sarah

Yeah. So I’m actually almost finished the final, final draft of the sequel, which will be out next May. So it’s actually been quicker, this process, because I had a real deadline by a real publisher, as opposed to my own self-imposed one. So it was pretty crazy.

I think it was last August that the American publisher and Allen & Unwin both said that they wanted a sequel to The Dark Lake. So I had almost a year, not quite a year, to hand in the first draft. And then I’ve just been doing edits and changes over the last few months. So it’ll be out exactly a year later than The Dark Lake, so it will be out in May this coming 2018.

Valerie

So were you always going to write a crime thriller? Is that your thing? Did you want to write crime?

Sarah

I think it is now. I’ve been told it is now. Which is fine. Because I really like it.

I didn’t ever intend to write a crime thriller, but when I think about it, all of the stories that I’ve ever really started or been interested in do tend to have some kind of crime murder type thing in them. But I think I do also really like that character oriented story type style. So I think if I can combine those two things, I think I’ll be pretty happy staying in this genre for as long as I’ll be allowed to.

But I do find it funny sometimes, because I obviously now get invited to lots of crime type things, and I do almost feel a bit like, oh, I didn’t really feel like a crime person. But I love it. I love reading crime. And I do obviously really like writing it. So I’m pretty happy that it’s worked out this way.

Valerie

Yeah, it’s brilliant. So before we wrap up, tell me what are your three tips to aspiring writers on what they should be doing?

Sarah

So I thought about this. We already talked about doing a course. And I do really believe that doing… Not doing courses forever, in terms of almost procrastinating with doing courses. But definitely cherry picking a couple of courses that really will kickstart your re-interest in writing again, or a particular topic that perhaps you feel like you get stuck on. And for me, just that basic creative writing course was so helpful to me. Just that re-programming I almost needed to do with structure and that kind of character journey. And I think it really helped me think about my stories in a little bit more of a scientific way, almost. Which I think, especially when you’re writing crime, is actually quite helpful because there is such a structure to it. So I really loved that creative writing course with the Australian Writers’ Centre. It was really great.

Another tip, and I know that everyone says to read a lot, which I think is definitely, definitely worthwhile. But I try sometimes now to read with intent. And what I mean by that is just, when I’m actually looking at a book and looking at the way it’s been structured and why it works so well. I still read it and really enjoy it, but I am I guess a bit more conscious of the way that it’s been put together, and the decisions that the author has made.

And I find it really helpful sometimes to sometimes look at a book and say, I’m going to read that more as a learning experience book, than a complete pleasure book. I tend to do that with crime obviously a bit more than I do it with just fiction, which I really love and don’t really think too much about. But a couple of the big crime books over the last couple of years, I’ve read or reread with a bit more of an intent, and a bit more of an eye on exactly how and why it’s worked so well. So I find that quite inspiring.

And then I guess, I’m just a big, big deadlines person, and a big finishing person. So I set really strange little deadlines for myself all the time – whether it’s that chapter, that word count, that problem I need to solve, that date that this needs to be done by. And for me, it just helps me stay on track. And I think if I didn’t do it, I just don’t think books would get written. So, I think finishing is very important.

Valerie

Do you reward yourself?

Sarah

I do. And it can be either, like, I’m not actually going to go to that thing until that’s finished. Or it can be really micro things. Like, I won’t have another coffee until I finish this chapter. I think it’s just little, it’s just breaking out the time. Because everyone’s got the same amount of time, I suppose, it’s just a matter of how you use it. So I find the deadlines for me, if I didn’t do it, it just wouldn’t happen. I think that’s pretty useful in terms of trying to get to a finished book or story.

Valerie

And finally, when you did hear from presumably your agent that you got the deal, the book deal, can you just describe what you were doing at the time, and how you felt to the news, and what actually happened?

Sarah

Yeah. It was pretty funny. I was at work and I was in the car with my boss at the time, driving out to a meeting really far away. And she called me and said, this is the offer, I think it’s amazing. You’ve got to take this, they’re being really supportive, and Allen & Unwin are an amazing publisher, and whatever.

And I was in the car and I was so excited, but I was about to go to this presentation or something. So I was trying to temper my excitement. But my boss at the time, he was an old friend, so he was so excited for me as well, and it was really nice actually. So I sort of knew that it was likely, and then it all got formally confirmed about two days later. So it was such an exciting time.

And that whole rolling, I had this amazing rolling few weeks of that news, and then the overseas news, and then the news on the sequel. And it was just dream after dream after dream. So it was amazing. I felt incredibly lucky, and just so thankful that I’d actually finished the book that, you know, I definitely quite a few times had decided that I couldn’t do it. So it was incredible. It was really nice.

Valerie

Sarah, you’re not lucky, you deserve it. It is an absolutely brilliant, brilliant book. I have loved reading every word. So I’m just so, so thrilled for you as well. And like I said, this is just the beginning. You’re going to be huge. I know. All right, anyway, thank you so much for your time today, and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

Sarah

Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

 

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