I can’t remember when I wanted to be an author, but I do remember begging my parents for a correspondence course on writing fiction when I was still at school. I can’t recall the company’s name but the workbooks were light blue and glossy and I loved them. I didn’t write a thing though, just read about writing. I think I was still in the ‘wanting to have written a book’ phase, rather than the much more important ‘wanting to write a book’ phase. I would stay there for a long time.
I joined the army aged 16 and it was during the next 12 years that I learned how to critique a book. To look past the words and look at sentence and story structure. Pace and why some dialogue worked better than others. Because there was no room for personal belongings on operations, you could only take a couple of books with you. That meant you shared them. And because we were all reading the same books, we would discuss them. Basically the British Army is one giant reading group . . .
Spin forwards a few years and I was working as a probation officer in Cumbria. In 2003 I was admitted to hospital with Burkitt’s lymphoma, a cancer usually found in the jaws of African children. After 6 months in hospital I’d lost half my bodyweight and had mobility problems. Cricket and cycling were out and I took up writing again. And this time I moved into the ‘wanting to write a book’ phase.
My first novel, Born in a Burial Gown, was about a detective returning to work after Burkitt’s lymphoma who’d had to hide the side effects of his chemotherapy. In 2013 I entered it into the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger competition and ended up being shortlisted. Although I didn’t win, I did attract the attention of an agent. She asked for the full manuscript and, after a nervous wait, she let me know what she thought. Which was that she hated it. It was 50,000 words too long, had morphed from police procedural into political thriller and was overloaded with detail. When that happens you have two choices: either sulk or take it on the chin and get working on another draft.
The following year I had the chance to pitch it to an independent publisher. With a CWA Dagger shortlist on my (thin) writing portfolio, he was keen to see my massively revised (and now 50,000 words shorter) manuscript. He offered me a contract and Born in a Burial Gown was published in 2015. I gave my future agent a copy at a conference that year and he asked to see my next book, Body Breaker. He offered me representation on the condition that I wrote a brand new series he could take to bigger publishers.
The rest is history. The first book in the new series, The Puppet Show, featuring world-weary Detective Sergeant Washington Poe and the brilliant but naïve analyst Tilly Bradshaw was sold to Little Brown in 2017 and went on to win this years CWA Gold Dagger. It’s been sold in 17 foreign territories and is in the latter stages of development for a TV adaption. The sequel, Black Summer, was published in hardback in June and in paperback in December.
It’s been a rollercoaster few years – some genuine highs (getting married, signing for Little Brown, winning the Gold Dagger) and some real lows (my mother dying shortly before I was published, being told I was going to die in 2003, dropping my portable speakers in the toilet etc) – but that’s life I suppose.
Over the years I’ve refined my writing process. I think if Poe ever wrote a book, he’d have the same low-tech approach as me. I actually start working on the new book while I’m writing the current one. I use a lever arch file system and have it split into sections: info for chapters; misc; to be added; plot; and research. The advantage of thinking so far ahead is that I can incorporate things for the next book into the current one. For example there’s something in Black Summer that my line editor said wasn’t relevant. I told him he was right, it wasn’t relevant to Black Summer, but it would be absolutely central to The Curator.
When I’m ready to start the new book – always on December 1st – I go through the hundreds of pages of notes and emails and bits of research and put them into some sort of rough order. This then becomes the book’s blueprint. I never edit as I write, if I think of something I want to change I make a note and that goes in the ‘to be added’ section of the file, ready for the second draft. I tend to over-write, so once I’ve finished the first draft and any major rewrite, I invariably have to go through and cut words and scenes, even chapters. I don’t mind this as it strips down the prose and makes you consider the merit of each word. When I’m happy, I print off a copy and read it out loud. It’s surprising what you can pick up when you do this. I make any changes then send it to my agent. He’s always quick getting back to me and I’ll work on anything he thinks we need to change before it gets submitted.
I’m often asked to distil some advice into a few choice, easily digestible nuggets so here goes: read lots (all genres and styles); never edit as you write; always end a day mid-sentence (that way it’s easy to start again the next day); go to literature festivals in the genre you’re interested in (everyone I’ve been signed by, I’d met beforehand); and most important of all, enjoy it – never forget, writing is a form of magic . . .
(c) MW Craven
The menu photograph shows the CWA Dagger shortlisting from 2013 which MW Craven had signed by Lee Child – when he first thought ‘I’m an author!’.
About Black Summer:
Jared Keaton, chef to the stars. Charming. Charismatic. Psychopath . . . He’s currently serving a life sentence for the brutal murder of his daughter, Elizabeth. Her body was never found and Keaton was convicted largely on the testimony of Detective Sergeant Washington Poe.
So when a young woman staggers into a remote police station with irrefutable evidence that she is Elizabeth Keaton, Poe finds himself on the wrong end of an investigation, one that could cost him much more than his career.
Helped by the only person he trusts, the brilliant but socially awkward Tilly Bradshaw, Poe races to answer the only question that matters: how can someone be both dead and alive at the same time?
And then Elizabeth goes missing again – and all paths of investigation lead back to Poe.
The gripping new thriller in the Washington Poe series from M. W. Craven, winner of the CWA Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of 2019.
Order your copy online here.