Interview with Paul Finch
By Kavell Dennis
Ahead of the release of Paul Finch’s latest novel Hunted, we at the Latitude Lookout got the chance to ask him some questions about his experience as a novelist, and screenwriter over the past twenty years. The former policeman turned writer offers up advice for up and coming writers, as well as experience of writing in different fields including writing for Doctor Who…
- For those unfamiliar with the Heck series, could you give a quick summary of Heck and the novel series in general?
My Heck books are a series of novels following the investigations of Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg. A northerner displaced to London, Heck is a career copper attached to the National Crime Group at Scotland Yard, specifically the Serial Crimes Unit, whose remit is to pursue serial violent offenders – usually murderers, but other criminal types as well – across the police force boundaries of England and Wales.
Heck is 36 when the series starts, and something of an obsessive loner; a clever and dogged investigator, who basically never goes home and, as such, has almost no social life. There has, on occasion, been romance. When still only a detective constable, he embarked on an energetic affair with Detective Constable Gemma Piper. However, this relationship broke down long ago. Gemma is now a detective superintendent and in fact head of the Serial Crimes Unit. She is Heck’s senior supervisor, and their relationship now, though understatedly affectionate, can also be very spiky. Heck also has a lot of emotional baggage. He joined the Greater Manchester Police as soon as he left school, so now, though still young, he is a veteran who knows every trick in the book. But he didn’t stay long in Manchester because serious family problems made life difficult for him. While Heck was still at school, his older brother, Tom, was a drug addict who was framed by a corrupt police unit for a series of violent burglaries. Tom was subsequently jailed for life, and after months of abuse by his fellow inmates, committed suicide – only a week before the real burglar was apprehended. The Heckenburg family, though solid members of the law-abiding working class, thus came to see the police as their worst enemy, and so disowned their younger son when he himself joined up, especially as he was unable to offer anything more than the rather lame excuse that he “wanted to show the bastards how the job should really be done”.
Since then, the books have been published in the following order: Stalkers – Sacrifice – The Killing Club – Dead Man Walking, while Hunted hits the bookshelves on May 7, and The Burning Man follows some time in November. Heck has encountered all kinds of killers, maniacs and perverts, but perhaps his most dangerous foe was the Nice Guys Club, a criminal gang who provided rape and murder victims for high-paying clients. Heck has tangled with them twice now, but has also clashed with cults, underworld assassins, revenge killers and general-purpose homicidal maniacs. There is never a dull moment in the Serial Crimes Unit.
- How has your experience of being a former policeman influenced your work?
Well, I’m glad to say that very few of the events in these books ever happened to me when I was in the job. But it wouldn’t be true to say that these stories weren’t at least a little bit influenced by real events, real people and so forth. I found myself in tight spots on occasion, and know lots of other coppers who experienced similar and even worse. I have a very larger reservoir of real-life information to draw on. But I think it’s aided me most in the way it’s helped me weave an air of authenticity around Heck. As a thriller writer, I don’t see it as part of my job to educate people about police procedures and protocols. Believe me, that would get very boring very quickly. There is so much paperwork, so much sitting around in court, so much ploughing through dusty old criminal records. But I reckon it’s important that the readers at least feel they’re in a real police universe, where the routines are right, the dialogue is right, the legalese at least sounds right. Having lived it, it makes it a lot easier for me to write it. For example, when I first began penning scripts for The Bill, I was probably the only writer on the team who didn’t need to go out for several ride-alongs with the Met. I already had the terminology, the attitude, the pitch-black sense of humour, and so forth. So if one of my Heck novels ever gets a negative review that claims “it is too far-fetched, it could never happen in real life” – it doesn’t worry me at all. It’s fiction, it’s a thriller. The idea is to excite and entertain my audience. However, if someone was to say “these characters don’t talk like real policemen, they don’t behave like real policemen,” then I would be upset. But thankfully that hasn’t happened so far.
- You began writing for The Bill as a scriptwriter, and now you have a novel series with the protagonist being a policeman, am I sensing a theme? What about police work makes it a great subject for your work?
I must start by telling you this. Everything you’ve seen in police drama and everything you’ve read in crime fiction only scratches the surface of what it’s actually like out there. I don’t mean that melodramatically. But it is a completely alien world to those who haven’t partaken in it. It’s a world in which the stakes can be very high indeed, but also where the camaraderie is second to none. It’s a world where during a single shift you can go through every kind of emotion, from deepest horror to uproarious mirth. It’s also a world where you never know what’s around the next corner. I’ll give you an example. One day in uniform, among various other jobs I attended to during the eight hours I was on duty, I had to personally deliver a message to a young woman that her husband had died that morning in an accident at work – as I was doing this, their children arrived home from school. A couple of hours later, I had the sheer pleasure of finding a missing two-year-old safe and well, and putting him back in the grateful arms of his mother.
There is no violence in either of those incidents, but you can imagine what it’s like running the whole gamut of human emotions in one day. On top of that, extreme danger is never far away. Every year I attend the Police Federation Conference, and a list is read out of all the coppers killed on duty during the last 12 months – and it’s usually substantial. These pressures can have enormous impact on the individuals involved, and can create bizarre characters, but the public will never see any of this because the police are very careful to keep things cool and professional when they are out and about. But as you can imagine, it’s a dream for writers.
- This is your fifth book, what have you learned between writing your first novel and your latest book, ‘Hunted’?
Well, it’s definitely been a learning curve, but I’d say that about my entire career, not just my novels. But with me, the main lesson has been that less is always more. The tighter I can make it these days, the happier I am. I like clean, crisp, tight prose. That doesn’t mean I exclude description or streams of consciousness, or dialogue which serves only to underline character rather than plot. What it does mean is that I don’t like flabby writing, which I used to be very guilty of in my earliest days. When you put your mind to it, you’d be amazed how much extraneous detail you can lose without actually spoiling a story.
- The Heck series has a pretty fast turnaround, the first being published in 2013, how are you able to write so quickly and keep to a high standard?
I’m not sure there is an actual formula I use for that. There is no doubt that a six month turn around per novel – I’m contracted to write two a year – is extremely testing. But I think I’ve always worked better under pressure. Possibly it helps that I always dictate my first draft onto a hand-recorder while taking the dogs for long walks, and typing it all up afterwards. If that sounds like I’m doing the work twice, that would be true, but you always write more than one draft anyway – and this creates the first draft a lot more quickly. Generally speaking, I can break the back of the job, i.e. get the damn novel written, in about two to three months using this method. Then comes the cutting and proofing. That can take another two or three weeks. But once I’m happy with it, I ship it off to Avon, where my editors do what they call the ‘structural’, which tends to mean listing a load of changes they want that will necessitate extensive rewriting. That doesn’t always happen, and when it doesn’t it’s usually a great relief. But to be honest, I haven’t had a structural back from them yet that didn’t improve the product. Following that, there’ll be the usual line-edits, copy-edits and such – made not just by me but by other in-house editors – looking for literals, typos and the like. The final proof tends to arrive on my desk a couple of weeks before deadline. This is the one I hate more than any other as it’s the last time I get to look at the book before it goes into production. The biggest problem here is resisting the urge to rewrite again. I’m a bugger for that. I always want to change things late in the day, but there’s no time for it at this stage – I have to be very disciplined. Maybe that’s part of the secret – pure discipline. Treating it as a serious job rather than a hobby. But as you’ve seen, it’s not just me; it’s actually a team effort. I won’t pretend there aren’t occasions when the schedule hasn’t slipped. But never by more than two or three weeks. The process seems to work, but it is tiring.
- You have a blog where fans of your writing can be kept in the loop about what is next, why do you think it is important to maintain a blog as a writer?
Yeah, my blog is at http://paulfinch-writer.blogspot.co.uk/. People have different purposes behind their blogs. Some use the facility to write essays on anything and everything, other simply to post cool stuff they’ve encountered while trawling the web. I use mine as an info point for readers and for promoting new projects. I’m not always happy with the way that sounds, but self-publicisation is important if you want to write as a career. The internet is a two-edged sword from our perspective. It gives us an unprecedented opportunity to push ourselves on a world stage. But it also gives the same opportunity to everyone else, which means there’s an awful lot of babble out there. You need to work hard to make yourself heard. It’s certainly the case that you can no longer afford to wait for high street retailers to spread your fame around. How many books do the high street dealers stock in any case these days? Even online retailers like Amazon can only do so much for you, because usually they are hosting millions of others at the same time. Your success may end up coming down to algorithms rather than the quality of your book – which is frustrating in so many ways.
But having your own web-page or blog is one way you can try to counter this. If you make it interesting and readable, it can be a great promotional tool – and that the fact that it’s your own place means that no one is going to get uppity about the fact you’re talking about yourself (or if they do, they are idiots). On average, I get about 200 hits a day on my blog. I’ve no way of knowing how many of those translate into actual sales, but as long as there is that much interest in me, it’s got to be worth keeping it going.
- 7. You have experience writing a variety of genres, what is your favourite? Why?
Just about the only genre I haven’t written in is romance, and some would argue there is a romantic undertone all the way through the DS Heckenburg novels between Heck and Gemma. It’s a difficult question to answer because different genres give me a different buzz. I think, as an adult, you always look for something a bit meatier in terms of human drama. So anything concerning the human journey, so long as it’s well written and well made, is going to satisfy me at a grown-up level. But that doesn’t necessarily preclude genre. For example, Game of Thrones has shown that high fantasy can be a lot more than just swords and sorcery, while the Fox TV series The Shield was essentially a thriller, yet it painted an incredibly complex and multi-layered picture of a police unit at the sharpest end of law enforcement. So they all jockey for my attention. Horror is a big favourite of mine, though I don’t go for yukky, gory horror. I much prefer supernatural mysteries, especially something with a hint of ancientness. Don’t ask me why. It’s that prickle of fear and wonder you get when reading a really good horror story or watching an effective movie, that frisson of deep unease – and yet at the same time you’re perfectly safe in your armchair. I have lurid tastes, I suppose. That’s something I’ve many times tried to replicate in my writing.
- You have also written for Doctor Who, how did you get into that?
I kind of forced my way in. It’s quite a dramatic story actually. My late-father, Brian Finch, was a TV writer himself. In 1984 he wrote a Dr Who story for Colin Baker called Leviathan. It made it to rehearsals, and then was cut from the schedule for reasons of cost. I remember he didn’t let it upset him, but moved on to other work. The script then just gathered dust. Around 2009, a couple of years after my dad died, I was in a supermarket and just by chance began flipping through a copy of the Dr Who Magazine at the news-stand. In it, I noticed an article in which Big Finish had put the call out for missing scripts and lost episodes from the Colin Baker era, as they were looking to produce them all as full cast audios. I was at a bit of a low ebb at the time. I’d left The Bill a couple of years earlier, and Heck was still a couple of years in the future. I wasn’t earning regularly, and though I didn’t immediately see this as some kind of way forward, I did view it as an opportunity to get my dad’s original script out to the Dr Who fanbase.
I contacted Big Finish, told them about Leviathan and said that they could have it for their Lost Stories series if I could write it. I also presented my credentials so they could see I wasn’t just a chancer. They expressed interest in seeing the script, but then we had a real problem – I couldn’t find it anywhere. Me and my mum searched the house high and low, and found scripts from as far back as the early days of Coronation Street and Z Cars, but we couldn’t find anything Dr Who related. I was on the verge of giving up, sitting in my office at home, thinking I was going to have to call Big Finish and tell them the bad news, when I suddenly spied a dusty buff folder on a shelf. It occurred to me that I had no clue what was in that folder. I opened it and I couldn’t believe it, there it was: Leviathan, by Brian Finch. Only the last three pages were missing, but that was no problem because I was going to have to rewrite and extend the whole thing anyway, to adapt it for audio. But we took it from there. It was a fantastic experience. I attended the recording, where it was great to meet Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant. Colin was particularly gracious about my dad, as he’d worked with him on The Brothers in the early 1970s. On top of all this, of course, it was a big emotional thing for me to finally get a shared credit with my father, albeit a posthumous one on his part.
I wouldn’t say the rest is history because I’ve only worked for Dr Who sporadically since then. I’ve done a few other audio dramas for Big Finish, which brought me to the attention of BBC Books who asked me to write a Dr Who novel for the Matt Smith era, which I did, Hunter’s Moon. Look … everyone wants to write for Dr Who, so that means there is a lot of competition. Even if you’ve delivered for them in the past, it doesn’t mean they’ll come back to you all the time. But I’m very proud to have those feathers in my cap, and it’s definitely somewhere I would go again in the future, time allowing.
- Writing novels and writing for the screen are quite different, are there any lessons that you have learnt from writing in such varied fields?
I wrote scripts first, and I think that taught me some invaluable lessons. My prose is often described as “cinematic” in that it is dialogue-driven, usually divided into scenes, and most importantly, or so I’m informed, “taut”. It’s certainly very gratifying to see my novels so often designated as “page-turners”. This is definitely an inheritance of my script-writing days because if your script isn’t a page-turner it isn’t going to get made. I think I may have touched on this earlier, but pace is all-important when you’re writing drama. Remember, film is an entirely visual medium, so that means when you’re writing a film script you say only what needs to be said both in terms of dialogue and stage-direction. Obviously you don’t apply that to the letter when it comes to novel writing. A novel is a larger, chunkier entity – the average screenplay is about 20,000 words, the average novel about 100,000 – but even then I try to keep it tight. In some ways it’s even more important to do this with a novel. If a story starts to sag, it’s much easier for a reader to lay the book down and do something else than it is for a viewer to walk out of the cinema. So after my first draft, I always hack my prose down. For the same reason, I try to end every section – whether it be scene or chapter – on a hook. By that I don’t mean a literal cliff-hanger, but some kind of tense note. Make your readers want to keep flipping the page. If it works in film, which it does, you can be damn sure it’ll work in a novel – at least, it seems to have worked so far for me.
- You have experience with scriptwriting, having written feature films and for TV, do you have any advice for students who want to get into writing for the screen?
This is the toughest nut to crack in professional writing. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of opportunities out there. The internet is full of start-up film companies who are looking for scripts. Assuming you’re happy to write your first few features on spec – which you’ll need to be, because no one will pay a newcomer up front – it’s a matter then of going out and finding these guys and sending them your material. As I said, just search on line. Writing for modern British television is slightly harder. Unless you’ve already got a track record it’s a bit of a closed shop these days, mainly because we don’t produce as much TV drama as we used to. It’s a different kettle of fish with radio. I’d advise all would-be playwrights to listen to as much radio drama as they can. There is lots of it, it occupies regular slots and it covers the whole range from thrillers to comedy. If you catch something you can particularly empathise with, again it’s only a matter of searching online these days to find out who produced it and where they are based. Not all producers are easily approachable, but some will read unsolicited manuscripts, or they have assistants who will do that for them. Obviously, if you’ve already got an agent, you can ask he or she to look out for what’s available. If your agent doesn’t cover film and TV, they may be able to advise you about someone who can – many writers of my acquaintance have two agents, one to cover their novels, one to cover their screenplays. If you haven’t yet got an agent, you can find whole lists of them online or in regularly published compendiums like The Writers And Artists’ Yearbook. These entries usually state the agent’s particular preferences and whether or not they are open to uninvited approaches by new authors.
The most important thing of all, however, is to be able to write film and television drama. That may be an obvious point to make, but it is quite a discipline. For example, the style of presentation needs to be correct. This is not the problem it used to be as these days you can acquire script-writing software like Final Draft, which is pretty much the industry standard. But in addition, you’ve got your basic three-act structure, you’re got to make every word count, it’s as important what you don’t say as what you do, etc. It’s a very different animal from a novel or short story. But it won’t elude you forever if you practise an awful lot, i.e. write lots and lots of scripts and screenplays, and when you’ve finished writing get some friends around to perform them on tape, to see how they sound; rehearse them, workshop them etc. At the same time do some basic research, and for that I would recommend going online again – there are numerous websites that contain free-to-read copies of some of the greatest film scripts ever written. Download a few, study them. You’ll be amazed how slick and tight they are, but that’s the way it is with all writing – the best way you can pick up tips is to watch and learn from the masters of the art.