Monday, 21 April 2014

What works for me

This is my first attempt at joining in a Blog Tour, and first of all I'd like to say thanks to my fellow Orion author R.S. Pateman for asking me to join in. You can visit his blog to find out more about his writing process, and you can also pick up the paperback edition of his debut psychological suspense novel The Second Life of Amy Archer from Thursday - it comes highly recommended.

The idea is, I answer four questions about writing, and then ask another couple of writers to join in next week. Reading over a few of the offerings so far, it's fascinating and strangely comforting that everyone's techniques are so different from one another. I guess the only correct way to be a writer is the one that works for you.

So bearing that in mind, here's my answers:

What am I working on? 

I'm currently putting the finishing touches to the second Carter Blake novel, The Samaritan, and also starting to think about what's going to happen in the third instalment.

I wrote the first draft of The Samaritan in around five months, which is much, much faster than I wrote The Killing Season, so it was nice to get a few weeks away from it before turning in a rewrite at the end of January. I've since made a few more edits after discussion with my editor, and I think there'll be a few more tweaks before we lock it down.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

In a lot of ways, it doesn't.

That might seem a strange thing for an author to say about the beautiful and unique snowflake he's created, but it's true. I love crime fiction and thrillers, and when I started to write The Killing Season, I consciously incorporated a lot of the classic tropes of the genre: the driven serial killer, the mysterious outsider brought in to break the case, the professional law enforcement agent caught between playing by the rules and doing what's right. I wanted to use all of these conventions but still create a story that felt fresh and contained a few surprises and made the reader want to keep turning the pages. The reviews seem to bear this out: some of them say they were expecting a solid, run-of-the-mill thriller and got more than they expected.

On reflection, I think The Killing Season contains a lot of the same elements as other books in its genre, but there's nothing exactly like it, and that seems to be its secret weapon.

Why do I write what I do? 

Short answer: because I've always loved reading crime, mystery and thrillers, and it's what I seem to be good at.

When I started out writing my own stories, I did what everyone else does and tried to write in the style of my heroes. I tried a lot of genres on for size: horror, noir, adventure, mystery, psychological thriller, even science fiction. Over time, I developed my own style and, almost to my surprise, I found that what I was best at was at the thriller end of the spectrum.

I think all of the influences from other writers and genres inevitably feed into what I do, though. I'm often told my writing is very cinematic, and I take that as a big compliment. I guess that comes from my love of cinema, and perhaps also the fact that I'm a lifelong comic book geek. Certainly, when I'm coming up with my stories, I tend to imagine them in quite a visual way, coming up with a scene or setting that looks exciting and dramatic in my mind's eye.

How does your writing process work?

I always feel a twinge of guilt when I say I plot my books in advance, because I know Stephen King wouldn't approve. I write a fairly detailed synopsis before I begin, because it's important for me to have a plan in place, even if I don't follow it to the letter. One of my favourite quotes is from Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said that when preparing for battle, "plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." In fact, I like that quote so much I used it in my book.

As long as I know roughly where I'm going, I'm free to improvise and come up with better ideas as I go. The end of a book is often quite different from what I sketched out in the synopsis, because I need the weight of the book behind me to know exactly how it should end.

I have a full-time day job and three young children, so absolute adherence to a set writing regime isn't an option, unfortunately. My one rule is that I have to write at least 500 words a day. Often (particularly once I'm deep into a book) I'll aim for 500 and end up doing 1,000 or 2,000 words instead, but I find it's vital to have a modest target to make sure I fit in some writing every day.

Luckily for me, I can write almost anywhere: in pubs, in cafés, in bed, on park benches, on the train, in hotel rooms... even occasionally at my desk at home.

I prefer to type because I'm one of those writers who likes to tweak as he goes, and that's so much easier when using a computer. If I'm out and about without a laptop, however, I'll happily get the words down on a notebook and type them up later that night. I have to make sure I'm quick, though, because my handwriting is borderline-illegible even to me.

Most days, I settle down to writing in the evening, once the kids are in bed. If I've managed to squeeze in some extra writing earlier on in the day, so much the better. If not, I make sure I get some words down in a more or less coherent order before I can turn in for the night.

And that's pretty much it: I try not to look back too much and keep bashing out the words until I have a first draft. After that, I put it aside for a few weeks, and then I spend a lot of time rewriting and polishing and plugging in the necessary research. For that part, I print the whole manuscript out and go through it with a pencil and different colours of highlighter to help me work out exactly what to change, get rid of, or flesh out. That part is just like Stephen King tells you to do it.

And that's it from me. As I said earlier on, part of the deal is I have to infect two more unsuspecting authors with this blog chain, like some sort of blogging zombie, and here are my chosen victims:

Michael J. Malone's debut novel Blood Tears won the Pitlochry Prize from the Scottish Association of Writers, and his most recent book is The Guillotine Choice. Check out his blog, May Contain Nuts, for his instalment of the blog tour and lots more great stuff.

Douglas Skelton has published 11 books on true crime and history. His first thriller Blood City was published by Luath Press in 2013, the first in a series set on the tough streets of Glasgow from 1980 onwards. The second, Crow Bait, will be published in 2014. You can find his blog here.


  1. Interesting stuff. Good to see another soul suffering without sleep for their art. Someday you'll be able to quit the day job and just write, won't that be nice

  2. From what I hear from writers who have given up the day job, you tend to end up with the same level of productivity but spread over more hours - sounds very likely in my case!