Why plan your novel?


I can think of no other creative endeavour where newcomers would be told to just start and see what happens. Want to learn how to build furniture – grab some wood, nails, glue and screws and see what happens! Want to start painting, grab some paint and canvas and have a go. Don’t worry if what you create something awful, you can always take it apart and remake it better.

Yet, a lot of aspiring writers are advised to just start writing and see where it takes you. I get that there’s a lot of value in just letting the words flow and listen to your characters. But.

A plan can be your friend

I started out writing by simply having an idea and then writing it through until it was finished. Then in 2011 I went on a course with Arvon that gave the basics of outlining and designing a plot. And it was a revelation – my books suddenly became a decent length, up from 50 to 60,000 words to a more respectable 90,000 plus. My writing improved, both in my opinion and in a commercial sense too – I got published.

You know what you like even if you don’t know why

If you write, you almost certainly read. Sometimes you’ll get a book that just works, even if you can’t put your finger on the reason why. Occasionally a book comes along that breaks a lot of the creative writing course rules yet still sells well and is read by millions. Unless you’re naturally gifted, unless you know why something works, it’s unlikely you’ll write a book like that. In music there are some musicians who don’t read music and study theory, yet manage to play sublimely. On the other hand there are many more who work within the theory to create beautiful music.

So what are the rules?

Well, there are many books that explain the rules of a good story. They are all at differing levels of formality and detail. I’ve read quite a few and distilled it down to this.

The opening 25% (or less) should cover who the hero or heroine is, what they want, why they can’t get it and most crucially, the reader should care about it. In my preferred genre, crime, this is usually quite simple. The protagonist is the detective, he wants to catch the killer, so you need a body or at least a crime. Usually the killer doesn’t want to be caught so there’s your tension right there. And most detective novels have something else going on – a marriage breakdown or threat to the family of the detective or some last chance in his career. Something that should make the reader care about more than catching the killer.

Once all this is established, you need a series of escalating disasters – wrong suspects, more bodies, problems with evidence, etc. all leading up to a big finish.

The final 10% or so should start with an event that makes you think the killer will never be caught or the detective will be in peril. Until the writer pulls a rabbit out of the hat and it’s all fine. Ideally this rabbit/hat combo should be something that was mentioned earlier on but it’s importance only becomes clear at the end.

Saggy middles

This is gives rise to every writer’s fear – a saggy middle. And no, I don’t mean the inevitable consequence of long hours at the keyboard and poor diet. I’ve just outlined the first 25% and last 10% of a book, which leaves the middle 60%. Without proper pacing – making sure the peril increases steadily – this can become saggy.

It’s not just crime

This basic outline works for any genre. Romance? First 25% to outline who the heroine is and her potential new man and why they can’t be together. Things get better and worse (mostly worse but we like a roller-coaster ride) for 60% of the book and then, just when they can never be together, something happens and it all ends happily ever after!

It’s a matter of scale

I was chatting with a very good author friend of mine who writes completely without planning. When I was talking to her, it occurred to me that she made it up for the whole thing, whereas I doing my making-things-up in 2,000 word chunks. I have a scene description – who’s in it and what changes for them. Then I have to make all the creative decisions. And my plans are not set in stone either. I’ve recently been doing a final edit before submission and just decided to swap two scenes over and completely rewrite a third one. If you read interviews with authors about how they work you’ll find there’s a whole range of approaches, from people writing detailed treatments through scene breakdowns to broad outlines and finally to people who just write.

To sum up

Don’t be afraid that a plan with stifle your creativity – for me its a different way to be creative. I can work out the bones of a story, see where things are leading, before I’ve committed tens of thousands of words to the page. It’s a much easier place to correct mistakes. And I find it just as satisfying to be creative in working out a plan as I do in writing a novel.

Also, I’m not trying to say that everyone should plan – far from it. I’m more saying that I’ve tried free-style writing and I’ve tried planning, and for me, planning gives me better books. What do you think? Are you a planner or not? Have you ever tried planning?


Motorhead England

Anyone who knows me in real life will know that usually I wear jeans and a rock t-shirt. However I have some t-shirts that are my favourites – Motorhead shirts. To explain this, I’ll have to give a quick history lesson.

Motorhead was formed by and always was defined by one man – Lemmy. He was a larger than life figure (despite being quite short), he was a roadie for Jimi Hendrix, then a member of Hawkwind. When that band kicked him out, he formed his own band on his own terms. At first they were a joke – too loud, too fast, too rough. “If Motorhead moves in next door your lawn will die” was an oft-quoted review. But Lemmy dug in. Through a chaos of bad management, poor contracts and line-up changes he continued to record albums and play concerts. He didn’t ever give up or compromise his principles. For over 40 years. Eventually Motorhead became a force to be reckoned with, not least because their fans were unswerving in their loyalty. In his own way both in interviews and behind the scenes, Lemmy proved himself to be one of the good guys.

I had tickets to take my sons to a Motorhead gig in early 2016 and they only missed out because Lemmy passed away just before the end of 2015. This shook me – the passing of a phase of my life that started in the mid-80s when my brother brought home a copy of Ace of Spades. For over 30 years of my life there was a Motorhead, a Lemmy.


So, back to the T-shirts. The iconic logo combination of Motorhead curving over the top, the Snaggletooth (the name of the big skull with the tusks) in the middle and England across the bottom first emerged about 40 years ago. Joe Petagno (who did artwork for Led Zeppelin) created the original Snaggletooth which then changed with each successive album cover across the years. It has now become synonymous with Motorhead.


However, recently I was researching bike clubs for my next book and came across an interesting fact. The most extreme bike clubs or gangs are known as outlaws or 1%-ers. (The most notorious of these gangs are the Hells Angels.) The members are in it for life with total commitment and are often viewed as criminal organisations by the police. They are also very protective of the system of patches worn on the backs of their jackets. What’s significant here is the three piece patch. A top patch called the top rocker will identify the club, the logo will be in the centre and the bottom rocker will identify the chapter, effectively staking a claim to a territory by that gang. The format of the three piece patch is fiercely defended. If a new club starts up with a three piece patch, they’d better have the approval of the local outlaw gang or a war will start.

So I read all this, then looked down at my t-shirt. Motorhead took that precise format as their logo – band name at the top, territory at the bottom. And they didn’t get any criticism for it. I cannot think of any other band that has dared to try this. It’s a sign of the respect that Lemmy commanded even in the beginning. It’s also equally telling that I can wear a shirt that says “England” on it while living in Wales and get no grief for it at all — not even during Rugby World Cup season!

I wanted to write this post (and well done if you’ve read this far!) because I bought five new Motorhead t-shirts recently as I was running out of clothes to wear. I made a conscious decision as a sign of respect for Motorhead and recognising what it means to me. And since I’ve made that choice, I’ve got into so many conversations with strangers. Yesterday I took the children to a museum and the bloke serving coffee said “Did you see them live?” It took me a minute to twig and then we had a long chat about music, mostly the concerts we’d been to and what was coming up soon.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, I’ve had shop worker chat to me about whether my kids listen to the same music (they do and they’re also finding their own way too), I’ve heard “great band” by way of greeting when I pass someone in the street.

I think what’s happening is a tribal thing. Most people when they get to their late forties aren’t in a place where rock t-shirts are their day-to-day attire. The people who comment are usually in work clothes, but can see me as a member of their tribe and it warms their hearts.

I’m lucky that I have many friends in many walks of life. And whether we all like the same classic car, or our children all face the same problems, when we’re together we feel like we belong. We can relax.

Something similar happens when I go to a rock festival. Even though I’m surrounded by strangers, I get a strong feeling of coming home, of being with people-like-me. What’s great is that through my t-shirts that feeling is now leaking out into my every day life. From what I know of him, Lemmy would’ve been proud that his music is still bringing people together over eighteen months after his death. He certainly didn’t suffer fools, but he was definitely one of the good guys.

So, next time you see me, or someone else, in a Motorhead t-shirt, you’ll know why.

Those exciting milestones

All writers have those milestones in their career that stick in the memory. The first time you actually finish a manuscript or a draft. That one alone suddenly moves you out of the “I’ve got a great idea for a book” category into the realm of a writer. There are many dubious stats but I’m sure that most people never even make it that far.

Then, and this one is like it was yesterday in my mind – the first time that a stranger buys your book. Over ten years ago I wrote and self-published a non-fiction book, The Busy Pagan. It had its own ISBN and when people ordered it from bookshops I sent it out to the wholesalers. The thought that someone was reading my words, not my family or friends but a stranger is the most wonderful thing. It’s the end of the writing process – so much more fulfilling than having a first draft in the bottom drawer of the desk.

Much more recently, I was going round the cycle of submitting the manuscript, getting rejections, making changes before going back to submitting it. After several years of this, getting the request to for a full manuscript was another landmark moment, thankfully followed by a publishing deal.

And then, at the beginning of this week, my publisher provided me with this link – The List – my project has grown from words on my screen to a real book. (It’s now available to pre-order, just saying.)  From now on it’ll be one thrill after another – when I get my physical copy, when the reviews come in, and of course when the first copy sells to a genuine stranger.

Looking back over this list one thing stands out. Writing is one of the loneliest professions – usually it’s just you and the words on the page. Once you get past the first one, which proves that you can write, the rest of the milestones are about sharing your work, letting other people breathe life into your words.

So this post is a long and rambling way to say thank-you. To the publishers, editors, cover designers and the readers. To everyone who reads what I write, and for a little while makes it live in their imagination, thank you. It is a strange and lovely thing that you are inhabiting the world I created in my head. You are the end of the process of being a writer. You make it all worthwhile.

The Hay Festival 2017

I have a confession to make. We’ve lived here for nearly six years, and The Wife was born in South Wales and her mother still lives here. So, we have had many opportunities to go to the Hay Festival. And this year was the first time we actually managed it!

An awkward distance

This was the first problem. According to a popular mapping website, the journey from home to the festival site was under an hour. But, we bought a week long ticket for the park and ride, so parking, catching the bus and getting into Hay itself added another fifteen to twenty minutes. Then there was security, venue changes, queues, etc. Factor in a bit of tractor-time (our route is all one lane A roads) and we ended up leaving between ninety minutes and two hours before our first lecture. In the end it was an annoying in-betweeny distance. Too close to justify paying out for an expensive B&B yet the daily travelling was a grind!

On the positive side

It was brilliant. I experienced the same feeling as going to a rock concert – that feeling that you’re home, among people like you. In the current times of Trump, Brexit and anti-intellectualism this was a real tonic. Just to be somewhere that thinking, debating and reading are normal was lovely. The talks, to be honest, varied slightly in quality. But they were, in the main, given by people who are good at writing books, not at public speaking. To keep it positive, honourable mentions go to Andy Stanton, Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough and Tony Robinson! Although it was tiring we, all five of us plus mother-in-law, had a really good time.

Time for a crossover

I don’t know if my readers are aware but I run two blogs. My other (not-so-secret) identity is writing The Penguins Knee – my life as a house-husband and father to three boys with Aspergers.

With this is mind, my boys found it a contradictory experience. They all loved being in a place of books, with the chance to see and meet some of the authors they know. On the other hand, it was a new place with big crowds. These crowds were very variable. When the talks were all in progress and during the weekdays it was pleasant – no queues for food, not much jostling, a chance to sit down and catch your breath. However, it was possible for literally thousands of people to come out of talks all at the same time. Which, for our Aspie boys (and us) can get overwhelming. Also, going up every day overloaded them – they needed more pyjama days interspersed with festival days.

On the up-side, they did get used to the place and find the food stalls they could eat from, the quiet places to recharge and generally settle into it. Overall it was an enormously positive experience for them. (Not so much for our bank balance but most of that was on food and books!) They all loved their time there.

Now that we’ve learnt the ropes we’ll definitely be going back. When the program is out I think we’ll be far more selective about when we go, where (or if) we stay and which talks we go to.

Did any of my readers go to Hay? What do you think?

A quick update

As long term followers of my blog will know by now, my brain has a limited capacity for producing words per day. When I start either writing or editing intensively, I don’t have any spare words left over for putting down in a blog. Or answering emails. Or marketing my book. Or organising life, come to think of it!

So, this is me coming out of hibernation. I’ve just gone through a fairly major edit on The List. I’ve got the word count down by something like 6,000 words by tightening up everything.

Thinking about editing it occurred to me that a book takes months or years to write. And maybe a few days or weeks to read. One consequence of that is that the words a reader reads might’ve been written years apart. Even if you write a book straight through from opening chapter to satisfying conclusion, it will still need editing. I know that in my case sometimes new sections are written in during the edit stage. So, if you read The List, you might get a paragraph from 2015 next to one from 2017.

This is why I tried to blitz the edits. I went through the whole book in around ten days. I made many minor changes to language. It was subtle, but it very slightly moved between formal and colloquial, clear and flowery language over the course of the manuscript. Hopefully I’ve done a good job and it’ll read much better now. (I do know that most readers won’t spot these changes but I do believe that they have a subconscious effect on the perceived quality of the book!)

Now that I’ve handed over the edits I have two things to focus on. The Sequel when I get my writing brain back and marketing on social media. I had a revelation on that last point. Facebook and Twitter are great but it’s getting harder and harder to get your message in front of people who might want to read your book. (I have a friend who gets between 3% and 5% of their page likes actually seeing what they post.)

So, I’m starting a mailing list. Click here to sign up. If you’ve read this far, you’ll realise that this will be a sporadic newsletter. When I have a finished manuscript I’ll probably send out updates once a week, certainly as publishing date approaches. If I’m head-down and writing, you might not hear from me for a couple of months! (And I won’t be selling your data either.)

I’ll just leave this here and hope it appears when this is shared on Facebook!

What do you think? If you’re a writer do you alternate between self-promotion and writing? Or have you some magic to let you do both?


Modern crime writing

A lot of crime writers bemoan the modern era of smart phones, Google, Facebook and everything else that conspires to change the face of crime and detection. Some even go so far as to write retro-crime setting their books in a past period.

The changing face of crime

This link shows how much technology is changing criminal behaviour. To summarise, in about twenty years, the number of bank robberies in the UK dropped by around 90%. From better CCTV to screens that rise in under a second to smart water, the advantage has swung firmly towards the banks. If you add in the rise of internet banking meaning that there are fewer branches carrying less cash, you can see why the traditional bank hold-up is consigned to history.

Of course, criminals have never stopped wanting to separate people from their money. Much crime now is moving online. The last successful bank robbery I read about involved distracting a bank worker and attaching hardware to their computer terminal. This then interrupted network traffic and diverted money away from the rightful owners to the criminals’ accounts. Obviously this is a far cry from a traditional robbery and needed a lot of technical skill.

I’m catching up on a series (DI Tom Thorne by Mark Billingham) so currently I’m reading a book written in 2004. To me that doesn’t feel very long ago, but already we’ve had a video rental store owner talking about Blockbuster and complaining that no-one rewinds their rental tapes!

The only advice I think I’ve got is that you have to pick a date, write in that date and stick to your guns. If it appears dated later on, well you’d have to be thankful that people are still reading it and also just say that it adds authentic feeling to the piece!

The changing face of detection

The other side of the coin, the police service, is always changing too. I had a realisation the other day – the time when a lone Detective Inspector could solve a crime has passed. The image of an Inspector Morse figure driving around a classic car, listening to opera and solving crimes is as outdated as a bank robbery by men with stockings over their faces and sawn off shotguns!

Murders, especially serial killings, are now solved by Major Investigation Teams. There will be a senior officer at the helm, but he or she will be aided by a large team of both police and civilian helpers. Some TV programs (like Scott and Bailey) focus really well on the personal stories of a small number of protagonists, while still keeping the ensemble feel of a modern investigation.

In my Jonah Greene series, without realising I was doing it, I’ve found my own way around this problem so far. In the first book the death is not treated as suspicious, so a full MIT is not called together, leaving the protagonist to work on his own.

Now I’ve seen the problem, I am working on other ways to keep writing in the modern world but to keep the focus tight on a few major characters. But, for the minute, I’d like to keep my powder dry on those!

What do you think? Do you prefer really authentic modern crime novels? Or are you happier to delve into the past where it’s all more understandable?

Where do you get your ideas from?

This must be one of the most common questions that writers get asked, so I thought I’d have a go at answering it.

Training Inspiration

I believe the brain is capable of being trained even in something as nebulous as creativity. I can’t find the quote now, but someone said “I write whenever my muse strikes, and I make sure that happens at nine every morning.” Let me explain a bit. I write crime mysteries. So, I pay attention the news. I scan the headlines. If I see something that piques my interest, I record it or buy the newspaper. I see what’s going on the world of the police, how real crimes unfold. I started off making it a conscious process, now it’s become second nature. It also helps that I have an enquiring nature and tend to look up and check anything I find interesting in case it comes in useful later.

A bit here and a bit there

Secondly, I don’t think I’ve ever had a flash of divine inspiration that allows for a whole book to be written. Instead I think of ideas. Sometimes it’s characters. I have had what I call a Harry Potter moment where a complete character arrives in my head. Other times, I indulge in playing “What if?”. My main interest in writing is asking “what happens next?”. If I read a book or watch a film, my brain keeps running another fifteen or twenty years past the end to imagine what would happen to those characters. It’s probably why a lot of my books feature the “what happened 20 or 25 or 30 years ago” style of plots.

I do keep notes (probably not as well as I could) about all these ideas. At the moment I’ve got a character that I’ve matched up with a crime for them to solve. I also have a really gruesome series of murders that would make a fantastic book, but at the moment I haven’t got a detective in mind to solve them! And I’m aware, because of the idea, it would be quite a departure from my usual style, so I don’t (at the moment) want to make it one of my current series. So, that idea is parked for now. I’m sure I’ll come back to it.

The same applies to characters. I collect traits of both appearance and personality (and sometimes phobias) – some are observed in people, others just come to mind. Then I combine them together in (hopefully) interesting ways that people can’t recognise in my friends(!)

Actually writing the book

As I’ve said before, I’m a great believer in planning. Partly that’s because I have a very busy life and with a solid plan, I can drop in and out of a draft. I can actually write as little as a few hundred words every day without losing track of what’s going on.

When I have a decent main character matched up with an interesting crime, I try to put it into a plot. I need at least two crisis points, some major setbacks and some breakthroughs. I check I’ve got a decent antagonist who the reader can understand if not agree with. Also needed at this stage is a strong cast of supporting actors and some good locations too. Plus a something extra to make it stand out from the crowd!

So, that’s where my ideas come from. I think I’m very fortunate in that I seem to have too many ideas. Well, fortunate in some ways – it is also very tiring! But at least I can skip over those courses and blog posts that suggest ways of generating ideas. For me it’s more a case of marshalling and herding the ideas into sensible patterns that make good books.

I know I have writer friends who read this blog. How do you get your ideas?