Friday 20 September 2013

Bloody Scotland

I've been working flat out on the latest draft of the new Carter Blake book (the one that comes after The Killing Season), so I haven't had time to blog about my trip to Bloody Scotland. It was a lot of fun, and I even managed to get some writing done in between talks and beers. I've been to a few one-off events at literary festivals before, but this was my first full-blown crime writing festival.

It's a pretty new festival, in only its second year, but is already attracting attendees and big-name writers in droves. The first thing that really struck me was how well organised it was. Teams of volunteers on hand to direct you to the correct suite in the correct venue, talks that started and finished perfectly on time, well-ordered signings. Generally the operation seemed to work like a well-oiled AK47.

The second thing that struck me was how... integrated the whole thing felt. In a good way. There was no real attempt at demarcation between rank and file paying customers and the talent. Big-name authors were milling about the venues and buying drinks in the bar. There was no velvet rope separating the readers from the writers. Which was just as well, because almost everybody I met was both. I met a lot of cool people, both fans and authors, and got some great ideas and advice.

The centrepiece of the festival was the Scottish Crime Novel of the Year dinner on Saturday night. The guest authors were sprinkled liberally around the tables, so that everyone had a 'name' writer at the table. I got Craig Robertson, and took full advantage of the fact by interrogating him about the best way to be a working crime writer. Craig gave me some great advice and told me that as a writer with an agent and a book deal, I'm now eligible to join the Crime Writers Association. By coincidence, I had recently picked up Craig's Cold Grave, which has now moved to the next slot on my to-read list.

I went along to see my fellow Orion author Denise Mina talking about her experiences working for DC Comics, and particularly adapting Girl With the Dragon Tattoo for the medium. Denise was great as always (intimidatingly great - she could pretty much give up the writing and get paid for going around the world giving interesting talks), and it was interesting to hear about the process of adapting a novel into the graphic medium and the importance of being nice to artists. Interestingly, the crowd was mostly crime readers rather than comic readers, and Denise had to explain to them the age-old split between Marvel and DC fans. I've actually never really been firmly on one side or the other, and I can't understand people that refuse to read a book purely based on which company publishes it, but there you go. If you push me, I guess I'm a Marvel guy, but I like Batman better than any Marvel character.

Mark Billingham and Stuart Neville teamed up for a great event called Masters of the Dark, and the topics ranged from the pros and cons of killing off a series character to real-life policing anecdotes that would sound ridiculous if you tried to put them in a work of fiction. As someone once said, just because it happened doesn't mean it's believeable.

I went along to see Craig Robertson (along with Chris Carter this time) for a fascinating talk on serial killers, both fictional and real. It was great timing for me, as I'm currently finishing off a serial killer novel, and it was both comforting and alarming to discover there are other people who sit around all day thinking up ingenious ways to get away with murder. I'd love to read a medical thesis someday on the crossover between serial killers and crime fiction authors.

The festival closed with the main attraction: Lee Child. I've been a massive fan of Lee's since I picked up my first Reacher book a few years ago, and he didn't disappoint in person. He covered a lot of ground onstage, from his own life story to the deceptive heights of Hollywood stars. As a writer, I was particularly interested in what he had to say about the genesis of Reacher, and how so much of what is fundamental about the character (his lack of a supporting cast, freedom from a drinking problem, his approach to laundry, even his name) came about as a reaction to a lot of the existing conventions in crime fiction. He also gave us a glimpse into Reacher's future, and at an eventual end-point to the series.

I stuck around for the signing and got to meet Lee in person. He was friendly, approachable and cool, like most of the thriller authors I've met. I got him to sign Never Go Back for my wife, who's also a big Reacher fan (she had stayed at home with the kids to let me go to the festival, so I thought she really deserved it).

After that, I got back in the car and headed home to get back to work on book two. Killing Season will have been out for a few months this time next year, so it would be nice to come back to the festival as a published author, as well as a fan.

Monday 2 September 2013


The good news: after around four months of working every spare minute when I'm not actually asleep, I finally have a first draft of the second Carter Blake novel. The bad news: there's still a ton of work to do.

To be honest, it's not really bad news at all, as I actually enjoy the editing process. It's the time when the book goes from a rough, unfinished state to something that's more like the story I have in my head. Writers are luckier than most, because we get so many chances to go back over our work and tweak it before we have to show it to anyone. I don't envy musicians or athletes who have to produce their very best work in the moment, as opposed to when they happen to be in the zone.

My first draft tends to be all about getting the words down on paper without looking back too much. I work mainly on the computer, although quite often if I'm out and about I'll write a chapter longhand in a Black n' Red notebook I carry around, and then transcribe it at night. Once that's out of the way I can go back through the manuscript and decide what things work, what things don't work, which characters need to be developed more, which chapters need to be moved around and so on.

The actual first page (yes, I do have trouble reading my own handwriting)
I'm pretty sure most of the editing routine I've developed for myself comes from Stephen King's excellent On Writing. Any aspiring authors reading this should do themselves a favour and buy a copy right now, because it's the most useful and genuinely inspirational book I've read on the craft.

As soon as I've finished the first draft of a book, I like to put it aside for a couple of weeks to get some distance from the daily grind of the writing phase. Deadlines don't always allow the luxury of a break, but it's always helpful when I can fit one in. Once it's time to get started on the next phase, I print the book out on single sides of A4 so I can sit down away from the computer and read through it. For some reason, I tend to miss typos more often when reading from a screen. If it's printed out on the page, there's nothing to distract you. Once I have the hard copy manuscript, I sit down with a notebook, a pencil and some highlighters and get to work.

I don't think I'll ever stop printing the first draft out, no matter how good e-readers get.
I'm doing two things as I read through the first draft. Most importantly, I'm finding out how well it reads. Reading a book in one or two sittings is a completely different experience from writing it in small daily chunks of a thousand words or so. The read-through will give me a good idea of what works and what doesn't and what the big things I'll need to change are. As I'm reading, I'll use my notebook to record ideas for new scenes or edits to existing ones.

That's the big picture. The second thing I'm doing is looking for the smaller pieces of work that need done at the level of paragraphs and sentences and words: things like typos and awkward sentences and the places where I need to carry out some research before revisiting. I mark any mistakes with the pencil so I can fix them later, and add any extra detail that needs to be there in the margin.

I like to use real locations, buildings, street names etc in my books wherever possible, so quite often in a first draft I'll have something like:

"Blake stepped out onto xxx street and headed east. The sun was
beginning to set behind him, casting elongated shadows ahead."

This is where the highlighters come in. I use them to flag up any piece of information I need to check for consistency. For example, I tend to use one colour for information about location or geographical description, one for descriptions of characters, one for equipment (weapons, cars, whatever), and one for any mention of time or dates. In the example above, I'd want to check which street Blake was stepping onto, and if it makes sense for the sun to be setting at that point in the story.

It saves a lot of time later on if I can scan through the manuscript looking for any mentions of the time as it ensures I can keep everything as consistent as possible. It also stops a character from having blue eyes in one scene and green in another, or being 'on-camera' in one place when they need to be committing a murder somewhere else. This kind of thing is invisible to the reader if you get it right, but it's always noticeable if you screw it up. The second draft is where I start forcing myself to pay attention to the fine detail.

By the time I'm finished, the manuscript usually looks like a cross between a term paper with a lot of mistakes and some kind of day-glo Jackson Pollock painting. In the chapter on editing in On Writing, King recommends putting a symbol at the top-right of any page where you've made an edit, so you can find the pages that need attention easily. The first draft of this book is 365 pages, and if I'd bothered to do that, I'd have an edit symbol on roughly 364 of them (I'm pretty confident the cover page is okay).

Once that's done, I'm usually brimming with ideas of how to improve the book, and eager to get back in front of that Word file where I can start tidying things up and transforming it into something I'd be happy for people to read. For me, this is when the book really starts to come together.

And that's why I actually quite like editing.