Afternoon malarkey

Just a quick one to say I’ve done 69,000 words in November on Fenchurch 5; that’s my dialogue and actions draft, which needs to be all narratived-up. I’ve also made all the fixes I noted during the draft, which usually takes me a week to get started, but I’ve done in a day.

Anyway, I’ve got the copy edits for Fenchurch 4. Oh and Fenchurch 4 — In For The Kill is on pre-order now.

Notes on Nanowrimo

  1. Okay, so it’s the 13th November and my word count is 59,761, though I’ve written 1,758 today already. Which means I’ve already won Nanowrimo. But then, I’m aiming for double the 50k. So Argh.
  2. For future, writing three chapters a day is a lot better than four. It’s breaking me. I was going to try and finish by end of tomorrow, but I think taking it a bit slower and just doing three chapters today will be fine. I’ve done one, so I’m doing okay.
  3. I’m doing a “dialogue and actions” draft first, which is letting me figure out where the story problems are and fix wihout too much “cost” — all the description and careful narration are the expensive bits to fix, a chunk of dialogue with some notes is pretty easy to tidy up.
  4. The hard bit is figuring out, for future, do I polish each chapter after I write it or do I batter through? Battering through means that I discover the bits where the narrative logic breaks, much earlier. Which is what I want, so I’ll keep doing it.
  5. But, if I just batter on through, I’ll get to a messy first draft that’s dialogue and some actions and notes. Do I then review this and keep it in that form but tidier? Or do I combine a revision draft with putting in the actions?
  6. One of the big annoyances I have with my writing is repetitions. I spend ages trying to thin them out after I finish but I’m still left with a load of them. The reason I get annoyed is because people get pulled out of the writing by them. SO, when I’m adding descriptions and proper actions. I’m going to focus on making them fairly unique. Which will be very difficult, but will hopefully make for a much stronger book.
  7. But it’s a much better process than before. I’ve got almost 60,000 words of about 95,000 down and I’ve not used a single crutch word. No sighs, shrugs, nods or winks. WHO WINKS THAT MUCH???
  8. I think the process might not work so well for the next set of books I’m going to write, where it’s a more careful process and I’m teasing stuff out a bit more. And not having just pages of dialogue. So it might work for one of the POVs but not for the other two, which will be quite internal.

Anyway. I’m going to get some more tea. Hope your Nanowrimo stuff is going well.

Stranger Things 2 musings

If you’ve not watched it or don’t care about it, maybe move on? Cheers.

Now, I loved the first season of Stranger Things. It married the whole Stephen King High School weirdness thing with some rock-solid eighties references that weren’t so much NUDGE WINK as embedded in the storyline and showed a lot of love and affection for the period. The second series, STRANGER THINGS 2, launched on Hallowe’en and we just got round to finished it over the weekend. How was it? Mm. About 60% of the first season, I’m afraid.

The good

The first and last two episodes were very good, the last two being right up there with the previous series. And stuff happened. If anything they were too rushed and needed room to breathe, which I’ll come on to later.

Hopper (mostly) was interesting, but kind of went off the rails when he fell into the tunnels. He’s a cop, his storyline is about investigating, so why make him just stand around while El runs off? Bad writing there. Great acting, though.

Steve and Dustin were as unexpected as the first season. Some solid writing here — dark humour in the face of sheer terror. Pairing these two up was a stroke of genius as it let Dustin’s geekery develop and served to show how Steve had grown. It did happen too late in the series…

Dustin was the star again. He fills that Data/Chunk comic-relief role from the Goonies — who couldn’t love his RRRRR teeth — but gave him a really tragic arc this time. The inverse of save the cat; save the monster, it kills your cat. Horror lives off people making decisions — the good stuff is where bad decisions are made for good reasons, not just daft kids going into a house. Dustin taking in Dart felt like it could’ve been the right thing to do, but he kept covering it with lies.

Max. I liked her character a lot, but she just wasn’t given enough to do. Given how stuffed the show became, she could’ve been saved for season 3 and nothing really changed.

Lucas was a kind of bland character in the first season, though I found myself warming to him on a second viewing, but his storyline with Max showed a stronger side of him. Some really good moments like the Venkman tag. And his sister was brilliant.

The bad

The strength of the first season, IMHO, was how the flipped the most-striking-looking boy (Will) from being the hero of the piece, as would so often happen, to being the damsel in distress and giving the hero role to Mike. Who was a bit weird-looking. But his character shone through. The second season seemed to want Will to be the lead, which cost them all of the great chemistry the other three had developed with El, while giving most of the “hero” moments to an actor who’d basically got lost in a parallel universe in episode one then reappeared for seven and eight. Will is just an empty vessel and not particularly interesting, I’m afraid.

Nancy and Jonathan (it took me a minute to remember his name). They’re just so boring. Neither actor is any good, though at least Nancy looks older than 12 in this series. Jonathan (is that even his name?) seems to have been cast for looking a bit like River Phoenix and Christian Slater. Neither character really did anything in this season, except some guff about Barb, one of the strangest phenomena in recent times. But maybe some people got something out of their predictable romance?

Bob was just Sean Astin. Yawn. Ever since he caused a million asthma attacks at the end of The Goonies, his career has been the cheese in Lord of the Rings or just rubbish parts, e.g. his role in 24 which has one of the most over-acted death scenes ever. His character here was supposedly going to be round for one episode but when they cast him, they expanded it. Well, should’ve kept it as one episode. His heroic sacrifice was handwavium, too — I’ll be honest and tell you that even, in the eighties, a government institution’s security system isn’t going to be written in BASIC (it’d be C on a Unix mainframe) and, even it if was, you don’t sit down and right some sort of loop code then get it to run first time. I really wish they’d stop using computer stuff as plot points — it’s really not exciting and just doesn’t work like that. Have another reason for him to sacrifice himself or you know keep him alive and up the romantic tension between him and Joyce.

The ugly

El’s storyline was just boring. Fair enough Hopper keeping her away from the world, but her visiting her mother felt like it should’ve been under Hopper’s watch to give her something to riff off. “Oh my mama showed me that because she wanted me to find them” is a tell of bad writing — rather than have her and Hopper do some investigation, she just guesses at the answer to move the plot along. And going to Chicago (very easily) was just dull. A whole episode with a gang of people killing people. Yeah, so obvious. The stinger set up something interesting — I thought they’d travelled to the Upside Down version of Chicago. There’s a lot of interesting stuff they could’ve done with all that but they just didn’t. Feels like a lot of treading water for season three. Yawn. At the end of that tedious bottle episode (while, let’s not forget, the rest of the cast were in grave danger) El ends up with a plan (find Papa and kill him) and another plan (she thinks people in Hawkins are in trouble) but somehow decides to go home so she can Deus Ex Machina the hell out of the story. Again, bad, bad writing. Maybe ending the season with the knowledge that Papa is still alive, but not there.

Billy. Just why? I thought he was going to have a number on his wrist and maybe just maybe be interesting. 8 and 11 are good, so it makes sense that one of their number would be a wrong ‘un. Why not him? No, he’s just . . . A guy. Who looked at least thirty and I thought he was Max’s dad for a while.

NO UPSIDE DOWN. What were they thinking? That was the best bit — a whole world that mirrors ours which has gone hideously wrong and is filled with demons. No, let’s have a cloud monster that kind of does something. And a lot of smaller demogorgons.

It was all over the place in terms of what it was about. Season 1 had one unifying storyline — where is Will? This was chaos. Will’s PTSD, new girl, El’s boring hunt for her mother, Mike doing nothing, Dustin being brilliant and stupid, Nancy and Will’s brother (what’s his name again?) doing some vague Barb stuff, Hopper doing some investigating then watching people do stuff. And so on. In a lot of ways, it felt like they were paying too much service to their fanbase (the Barb meme — she was a really bad character in the first series, miscast and boring, yet got so much love online). What was this one about? Self-indulgence.

And I’ll finish with structure and pacing. The Walking Dead (which I loved up to a point) always had serious problems with structure and pacing, spending long episodes with no forward momentum but then pushing into exhilarating phases. Stranger Things had no pacing issues — in fact, it’s one of the things I loved best, they started at a “movie” (hate that term but I’ll go with it) pace then kept it up for eight almost-hour-long episodes. 2 started with three boring reflective episodes, then introduced another threat, then had a weird El episode, then two episodes which should’ve been the back half of an eight-episode season. They broke Aristotle’s four-act structure by carving it into nine, giving far too much weight to the first act (it got four episodes), did the last two in two episodes and forgot to make the second act interesting. Call me a twat if you want, but the reason that structure works is it’s equally paced and gives sufficient weight to all of the elements — setup, action, resolution. Deviate from it and you go all lopsided. It’s something I’ve made a mess of before and it’s very interesting seeing it play out here. Very disappointing too as they had the perfect structure with the first season — eight episodes maps to each of the “sequences” you’d get in a screenplay, with each one ending on a cliffhanger or a reversal.

On coincidence

(Before I get stuck in, I got 6,457 words done yesterday. Aiming for an 80k first draft, so that’s a decent start. Three chapters of forty, though I was aiming for four — I wrote a pitch for a Fenchurch novella as part of that. And I stopped at 2pm. Ish.)

I wanted to write a few things about coincidence. Coincidence is bad. Very bad. And you should always show and not tell. But if you’re showing through a character’s eyes and they see events rather than learn about them, isn’t that a coincidence?

But what do I mean by coincidence? The OED defines it as —

  1. A remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection. e.g. ‘it was a coincidence that she was wearing a jersey like Laura’s’
  2. The fact of corresponding in nature or in time of occurrence. e.g. ‘the coincidence of interest between the mining companies and certain politicians’

So, there are two senses of the word and we need to be clear which is the problematic and why.

In sense 1, if I have Cullen happen to be at the same place at the same time as the killer who is about to strike again, then it’s bad. Why? Because I and Cullen haven’t earned that solution. Good writing (not that I’m that guilty of it) would require Cullen to go through a series of challenges and deductions to rise at the correct killer. Then having him work out when the killer was going to strike next and where and being there to catch them red-handed, well he’s earned that, even if it’s a bit hokey.

Sense 2 is just two things happening at the same time. So I could have Fenchurch seeing a murder. It happened in the second book, and it happened right at the start.

And that’s the kicker. It’s the “causal connection”. A coincidence is fine if it’s complicating things. Think about a film where our heroine is out on the town with her friend and then a robot from the future tries to kill her. In The Terminator, she’s saved by a human from the future, who knows about the killer robot’s plan and tries to stop him from killing her. We see Kyle Reese arrive and go through pain to get to where Sarah Connor is. And it’s the opening act of the film and it complicates things by setting up the film’s tension — future robot trying to kill past mother of future leader.

And a famous bad example is War of the Worlds. We go through all this tension about giant robots from Mars taking over the Earth only for their domination to fail when they can’t cope with a terrestrial virus.

It’s known as a Deus Ex Machina, technically, and the solution is to invert Chekhov’s rifle:

“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

to some along the lines of:

“If one intends for a rifle to go off at the end, one must place it, loaded, on the stage at an earlier point.”

It’s all about earning the payoff. Build the tension around that gun. And make who shoots it at who interesting. Don’t have your cop discover who did it by seeing something on their morning run.

 Anyway, onwards.


So I’ve never done it before, but this year the stars have aligned so that, at the start of November, I’ve got an outline done and edited, ready to write. And, ahem, a deadline at the end of it.

I’m going to do #nanowrimo.

What’s that, you say? National November Writing Month. NaNoWriMo. #nanowrimo

It’s not National any more, it’s International. But the goal is for anyone who’s ever wanted to write a novel to write a novel in 30 days. 50,000 words. It’s a great way to see if 1) you’ve got it in your and 2) you get anything out of the process. I found writing to be very cathartic when I started, even if my writing was terrible; enjoyable enough to learn to get adequate at it, anyway.

So, if you want to do it, I need 1700 words from you today. It’s better for your soul than growing a moustache, though do still sponsor anyone doing Movember, please!

And for the nerds, I’m using a new method which will hopefully speed me up even further. Most of my books have been a case of 1) do an outline, 2) write the outline into a draft very quickly (like a nanowrimo but any month of the year), 3) edit.

And the third part is the hardest. And slowest. So I’m spending a lot more time on the outline, which has helped to an extent, but still leaves plot issues in the draft, which the editing takes ages to resolve. And if my brain is fixing plot issues, it’s lazy on scene detail, so I put in loads of crutch words like sigh, shrug, lots of eyes, etc.

So this time, I’m writing the draft in two passes. First is dialogue and summarised action. This will let me focus on the story — plot and character. Then the second pass is taking stuff like ‘Fenchurch ANGER’ and turning that into something that fits the scene physically and emotionally and isn’t just him punching a table or something pat. I’ll let you know how it goes.

As of 9am, I’ve written 1814 words, of 480 were in the outline. And the first chapter of forty is done, ready for the second pass.


Well, I’m at that point in this book where my brain wants me up at 5.20 to get working. Gah.

I’m putting a hell of a lot more into this edit than I expect but I’m thinking it’s going to be one of my best books when it’s ready. And if you’ve already bought it, you’ll get it free when I update the file. How good am I?

One thing I get annoyed about is people who say all you need is Word. Yeah, right. I’m tearing a book apart into four levels of a hierarchy (Day > Chapter > Scene > Sub-scene, where the sub-scenes are logical breaks, such as moving from one line of questioning in an interview to another) and resequencing (quite heavily, a lot of the stuff near the end is in the middle now, but not all). And I’m doing it in less than a week. Including a redraft. The only tool for that is Scrivener. It’s so fast and so efficient.

Going over old ground

Argh. Editing an old book is a real kick in the balls, that’s all I can say. My agent says that it shows how far I’ve come, that I can see what’s bad about the old stuff and so on, but it’s really frustrating to see.

Anyway, I’ll try and focus on the positives. SNARED was the first new thing I wrote when I went full-time as an author almost four years ago. I’d spent the first few months of 2014 in a haze of doing what I’m doing now with the first three Cullen novels (and good Christ I’m never looking at them again), and there’s a lot of stuff I tried out for the first time and a lot of stuff I did for the last time, such as briefing scenes, which are just awful no matter how realistic they might be. So it was a learning process. And it’s becoming a lot tidier now for the work I’m putting in. I could spend months fixing what I see as deep structural problems, but really, there’s very little point in that.

And it’s giving me ideas for more books in the series, assuming anyone wants to read them. I’ve got the second one as BLOOD AND SAND and the third as FLESH AND BLOOD, but I don’t have to do them in that order. In fact, by my reckoning, I’ve got about year in my crowded schedule before I need to think about this lot again.

Back in time

So today I’m going through edits for something I did a few years ago which will be getting a facelift in the next few weeks. When I’ve done this in the past, I’ve found that the first few days are amazing fun, trimming and changing and cutting and adding, but then it peters out and I think I’m polishing a turd. Usually right about where the saggy middle is. Yes, I’ve got one of those. But it always seems like that painful bit becomes the strongest bit of the novel later on. Weird.

Anyway, that grinding noise you hear is my teeth.


Well, yesterday I got to the end of the first pass of my outline for the eighth Cullen novel, HEROES AND VILLAINS. Which is a pretty good feeling. And it was hugely enjoyable, I have to say. And I’ll also admit to being blocked on it, pretty much since the release of book seven, COWBOYS AND INDIANS, back in 2015. Can’t believe it’s been that long.

But writer’s block is a real thing. In that three-and-a-bit-year period from April 2012, when I published the first book, to 31-Aug-15, when I published the seventh, I’d written six novels about the same character. I’d also written the first DS Dodds book and one-and-a-bit Supernature books, which were nice palate cleansers. And I’d written the first Fenchurch book by that point. And by God did I need a break from Cullen.

Writer’s block hits when you can’t be bothered with what you’re supposed to be bothered with. It usually hits authors with contracts that they’ve signed but they don’t want to fulfil, usually because they’ve nothing more to say about the character in a series, or because what seemed like a cool idea on a pitch is actually pretty cold.

I know you guys didn’t want a break from Cullen, but I couldn’t write another book. So I wrote the first Craig Hunter book, MISSING. Halfway through the first draft, I stalled. Hard. It was missing something. It was all plot, no character. So I started replacing some of the characters with Cullen characters, e.g. introducing Chantal Jain and Sharon McNeill. And, of course, Cullen himself. And that allowed me to show another side of him.

This year, I wrote the short TRAVEL IS DANGEROUS for the CWA Anthology, featuring Cullen and Bain pissing about in Glasgow. It helped me focus on what the Cullen stories do best. And that’s what I’ve pumped into HEROES AND VILLAINS. Deviance, humour, banter, shocks and twists. I’ll keep you posted on my release plans for it, but safe to say it’s definitely happening and it’ll be brilliant.


I sent this email to someone yesterday about my “career”, which is pretty mental given that 1) I’ve got a career and 2) it’s writing.

I did submit to agents, synopsis and three chapters. To about fifty of them. First two books was all rejections and, fair enough, they weren’t very good. The third one got full reads from two of them; they took three months to reject. Which got me really annoyed and I spend a week making notes on a revision. Then I did nothing for fifteen months, while my day job took over. Then a friend of mine, Gary Marshall, released a very good self-published novel called Coffin Dodgers on Kindle and started doing pretty well with it, so I thought I might as well. Just need to dust off that draft and publish it. So I looked at it and realised it needed a hell of a lot of work, which took about three months then my dad agreed to do a proof read for me, which was my first editing, I think. Actually, my girlfriend did a big chunk as well.
So, on 12th April 2012, I self-published the first Cullen book, “Ghost in the Machine”. And it sold so slowly. It got to the point where I bought it myself to check the KDP dashboard was working. But it made me determined to make a success of it, so I read all the guides on selling ebooks and applied the ones that seemed to have low-cost, high-impact. But the most important thing I did was work on book two. Then edit that and release it. Then book three, which started out as a 3,000 word short, but ended up being 85,000 words. Ahem.
Before the second book came out, I went to a Scottish crime festival called Bloody Scotland and saw an author/agent/publisher/coffee addict called Allan Guthrie talk about digital publishing. One of the tricks he mentioned was what’s become known as funnelling, i.e. making the first in a series free so you make money on books two and three. And it took me about four months to decide that the £20 I made a month from book one wasn’t worth clinging to. 400,000 free downloads later, book four in the series, and by September I was at no 4 in the free chart and making a decent full-time income from it. And it didn’t slow down. Then at Christmas, I got an email from the aforementioned Al Guthrie asking me if I’d be interested in meeting up. So we did and he became my agent and a very good friend, too.
And *that* led to my big break, getting a deal with Thomas & Mercer, part of Amazon, which led to some big deals for other books. But if that hadn’t happened, I’d be doing the self-pubbing thing exclusively, instead of a couple of books a year.
The big lessons I learned were —
> Take control. You’re in charge of your career.
> Delegate what you’re not good at. But make sure you delegate to people who are competent and who you can trust.
> Get your work edited — development, line, copy, proof. If none of those mean anything to you, you definitely need it. The blight of self-publishing is that authors either don’t understand editing or are too arrogant to get it.
> Experiment. New covers, promo sites, adverts. But don’t overspend.
> Keep writing. Develop your craft. But be careful writing in other genres.
> Develop a method. Work out how you best write, whether that’s sculpting outlines and writing iteratively, or starting at page one and just writing.
> Stick to the method. All the difficult creative times I’ve had have been because I’ve been too arrogant and skipped important stages.