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?


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?

Three Hundred and Fifty

It’s been a long time since I blogged. At first this was because I was writing but then the summer holidays arrived. As I’m a stay-at-home Dad or House-husband, the summer holidays mean that the three boys take priority. As they get older, they stay up later, and my writing time diminishes. I have, unfortunately, never been one of those people who can rise early in the morning and write before the boys wake up. Unfortunately once you stop writing, and especially if you start submitting to agents, it becomes really hard to get your momentum going again.

I found salvation in a writing blog that I’ve signed up to – Randy Ingmersons Advanced Fiction Writing Magazine. I get a monthly email and it is always an interesting read. This month there was an article about how to organise your writing and increase your productivity by setting word count targets. It was all really useful but one particular nugget helped me out. It’s a simple starting point for writing when you’re struggling – write 350 words a day.

It’s kind of a trick because it’s very easy to write 350 words – it’s not a huge amount and can be done in twenty minutes if you set your mind to it. The reason it’s a trick is because hard to stop once you’ve written 350 words. Usually I write between 450 and 500 words every day. It doesn’t sound like much but it does mean that the word count is going up quite satisfyingly. certainly after a dry spell, it’s a good feeling. For ages, I’d written about 16 or 17 thousand words, now it’s over 21 thousand.

And what it does is keep your book alive in your head. I do a lot of my writing in my head, running plots and characters around while I’m doing other, slightly more mundane jobs. Then, when I have enough, I write it down. But while I’m writing a mere 350 words a day, then my book is moving forwards.

So that’s my one tip for the day – write 350 words. I’ve made this blog a living demonstration of the principle – it weighs in at 350 words!

Writing and Music

In my head I’ve always compared music and writing. Both listening to music and reading books are two important parts of my life. Unfortunately, I am not blessed with any sense of pitch or rhythm. Thankfully however I appear to have more talent as a writer than I do as a musician!

I view literary fiction as being like the perfectly composed concept albums. Think about the Dark Side of the Moon where Alan Parsons worked with Roger Waters and the rest of Pink Floyd. On that record there is not a note or sound effect out of place. The whole is put together precisely, everything exactly where it needs to be. It’s probably not to everyone’s taste, and could probably be compared to works in other genres like really complicated jazz or even Bach. In literary fiction, every word is there for a reason. You know that the writer has pieced it all together so carefully, thought over the phrasing and the voice. Even sacrificed (to some extent) ideas like readability and commercial success to make something pure and perfect.

But then at the other end of the spectrum are pop songs. Short, sweet genre books, everything from chick lit to blokey mysteries and action books. Now, they  shouldn’t be dismissed. Professors have studied the work of the Beatles and other artists like the Beach Boys to see how the perfect pop song should be constructed. Likewise a well constructed, straight to paperback, lightweight book is a joy in itself. It takes you out of yourself for a few hours and into a different world.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples to be made. But this comparison also raises another important point. Many songs work incredibly well, even though they are framed within a very familiar template. Blues songs have incredible depth and passion, even though the format is quite strict and rigid. And the same applies for most genres in both music in books. In fact, I’d go further and say that in some cases, work that defies genre, is more challenging than it is satisfying.

What do you think? Is it just a strange way my brain works or can you see what I’m on about here?

by Graham H Miller

Enhanced books

I was looking for something to read this morning so I picked up a Kate Mosse. I vaguely remembered that she’d started one of the big fiction prizes (the Orange Prize for Fiction) so I flicked through the back to find her bio.

I was a bit surprised to find that there was more than just a bio at the back. There must have been fifteen or twenty pages. There was an extra story, written specially for the Waterstones version. I’ve seen reading group notes in books before, but this also had a plot synopsis and Kate explaining what some of her themes were throughout the book.

I’m still not sure what I think. As a writer, I always approach work with an attitude of “you can’t explain anything to your reader”. In other words, your book has to stand alone. If you’re submitting to an agent, you can’t explain the themes in your cover letter, because they’ve got to be able to get the message of the book solely from what you’ve written. Except now, you can go on to explain some of the deeper meaning behind it.

Overall I think it’s a good thing. From a writer’s point of view, it’s interesting to have someone successful explain how they did it. Writing is as much a craft as anything else. Just like a carpenter, sometimes you need someone to show you the steps that result in the finished article. And, in this age of e-readers and the internet, authors need to look for ways to stand out from the crowd. I suspect a lot of authors are doing similar things, as well as tie-ins to the internet. In many ways it’s an extension of the culture of blog-tours, twitter and all the other social media. The other thing I’ve noticed is that some publishers are including logos on their books to indicate how much action, romance, sensuality, etc. is in the book.

Looking over the best-selling authors list, I reached a surprising conclusion. What readers want, more than anything else, is consistency. The real high-flyers are the likes of John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz and Barbara Cartland. Of those, only Koontz really takes risks. But you still know roughly what to expect when you pick up one of his books. It’ll be thrilling, and there’s a high chance of something paranormal taking place, and you might find yourself veering into horror on occasion.

At the moment, I’m reading a DI Alan Banks detective novel by Peter Robinson. I know I’m going to get a complicated investigation, a dour Yorkshire detective with a messy personal life and highly cultured tastes. Most of the time, I think, most readers want this – comfort food for the brain. Occasionally though, it is nice to be surprised. I read the Night Circus based on the title and a very short blurb. I thoroughly enjoyed it, partly because I didn’t know what to expect. Similarly with the Rivers of London, which took me equally by surprise, although the blurb was a bit more forthcoming.

Ultimately, publishing is a business, and the most profit in any business is giving people what they want. So, these enhanced books will sell more copies and people will enjoy them more. If you’ll excuse my lapse into office-speak, they add value to the reading experience and that must be good.

What are your thoughts? Please leave comments!