Wednesday 27 August 2014


Last Thursday saw my first (and hopefully not only) engagement at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where I was appearing with the Norwegian author Thomas Enger at an event titled Crime Fiction With a Twist.

Although I’m still very much a newbie author, I had a few events under my belt going in: a couple of appearances at Waterstones, CrimeFest in Bristol, and a few smaller talks to book clubs. Despite this, I was getting a little nervous as the date approached and I started to realise just how much of a big deal the Edinburgh Book Festival is.

By some estimates, it’s the world’s largest literary festival, with over 900 authors attending over two and a bit weeks. There’s certainly an impressive and truly international roster, from George RR Martin to JK Rowling. So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I entered the festival on the evening of my event and checked in at the author’s yurt.

A word about the yurt: it is the coolest VIP area I’ve ever seen (in my admittedly limited experience of such rarefied environments). It’s a network of interconnecting Bedouin-style tents lined with vivid carpets and soft furnishings on which to sprawl and read a book or tap away on your laptop. There’s a wood-burning stove. There’s free food, wine and whisky. There’s relatively famous people wandering about. Most mystifyingly of all, there’s no bouncer kicking me out for being an intruder.

I’d infiltrated the yurt a few days before in the company of fellow criminal masterminds Douglas Skelton and Mark Leggatt following the Crime Writers Association lunch, so I’d managed to get over the impostor syndrome a little bit by the time I visited again. I met up with the event moderator, the Scotsman’s Susan Mansfield, and we had a chat about the event format and in what order everything would happen. We were briefly interrupted while I was taken for a photocall. Which actually was a photocall. One word: bizarre. I had to stand looking moody and interesting while half a dozen shutterbugs snapped me from every conceivable angle, politely yelling for me to look at their lens. It felt like an elaborate joke.

Mildly shaken by the experience of momentarily becoming a Kardashian, I returned to the yurt to find Thomas Enger had arrived along with his editor at Faber. I’d read Thomas’s latest book, Scarred, earlier in the week and liked it a lot. I’m looking forward to checking out the earlier books in his Henning Juul series. We were introduced, had a quick chat, and flipped a coin to see who would have to read from their book first. I won, so Thomas was on first.

A couple of minutes before 7pm, one of the event people materialised to fit us up with mics, and we were led to the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre promptly at the start time. Did I mention Edinburgh operates like a very polite, incredibly friendly totalitarian regime? It makes clockwork itself look slow and inefficient.

Susan introduced us and, as per the coin-toss, Thomas went first. About three seconds after he started speaking, I realised I’d made a big mistake by going last, because I was going to have to follow him. His opening gambit was to tell the audience about his lead character, conjuring up the nightmare scenario of flames and death that begins Juul’s journey in the books. Once the room was holding its collective breath waiting for what came next, he read an early passage from his latest book.

My turn. Gulp. I knew I couldn’t match the drama of Thomas’s opening address, so I picked one of the most notorious scenes from The Killing Season to read: a short sequence from Elaine Banner’s point of view that ends with a somewhat grisly punchline.

Susan introduced both of us with some very nice praise and then kicked off the questions by asking us about our respective protagonists and our experiences of writing the books. The two novels are of quite different styles, so she did a great job of coming up with interesting topics that were applicable to both of us. There was an interesting discussion about political subtexts. Neither of us set out to make political points in our books, but both of us agreed that the subject matter does a lot to dictate the underlying themes.

The audience questions were great too. So far I’ve been very lucky with every single event I’ve done in that there’s never been an awkward silence before the first question. This time proved no different, with people chipping in immediately with questions for Thomas, for me and for both of us.

One of the questions that seems to come up a lot (and did again here) is about plotting. People always seem to be interested in whether you plan everything in advance or make it up as you go along. The answer for me (and I’d guess the majority of writers, if they’re honest) is “a bit of both”. I need to have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen in a book before I start, but I know I’ll change a lot in the process of writing the book itself. In particular, my endings tend to develop a lot once I have the weight of a book behind me. Good material for a blog post sometime soon, now I think of it…

By the way, nobody in attendance seemed to know what the twist in 'Crime Fiction With a Twist' was, so perhaps that in itself was the twist - eat your heart out, M Night Shyamalan.

The event flew by, and before I knew it, it was time to wind up and head over to the festival bookshop for a signing. It was great to meet some members of the audience, some of whom had read the book already and kindly said they were going cast their vote for me in the festival First Book Award [yeah – that is a shameless enticement for you to do likewise, if you would be so good].

After that, it was yurt time again for some post-event unwinding. I caught up with some friends, chatted to Lin Anderson fresh from her Society of Authors event, and probably drank a little too much of the complimentary whisky.

All in all, a very cool first festival experience. Next up: Bloody Scotland.

Sunday 24 August 2014

The fine detail

In the last couple of weeks I've been going over the copy edits of the second Carter Blake book. As those of you who looked at the picture above will probably have worked out, the current title is The Samaritan. It may or may not retain this title.

The copy edit is one of the later milestones in a book's journey toward publication. In earlier drafts, both the ones I do all by myself and the ones I work through with my editor, it's mostly about the big picture: getting the structure right, making sure the characters behave reasonably consistently, giving key scenes more punch, stuff like that.

The copy edit is the opposite of that. This is the stage where a very diligent and detail-oriented person (i.e. the polar opposite of me) goes through the book line by line making sure the fine detail is right.

That means spotting the typos and grammar mistakes that no one else has noticed or cared enough about to point out. It means picking up on continuity mistakes (how come this character is bald on page 54 and has dark hair on page 226?). It means finding gaps in the research (Ford stopped making that model in 2003, so it ought to have a higher mileage). It also means picking up on sentences that repeat the same word too many times. These things happen more often than I would like to admit, and it's a little humbling having it pointed out to you via the marvel of Word's track changes feature, even though you know this is an absolutely standard experience for all writers.

So you take a deep breath and open the document, praying there aren't too many red lines and comment boxes. It's a little like getting an assignment back from a strict teacher. It's an incredibly useful but occasionally dispiriting experience.

I went along with about 99% of the changes made or suggested by the copy editor, and added a fair amount of new changes myself. The only real point of difference was whether to use 'website' or 'Web site'.

The worst thing about reading through your copy edit is when sloppy writing or really obvious mistakes are pointed out to you, and you wondered why the hell you didn't notice them until now. It forces you to read every sentence carefully and ask yourself if this is really the best way it could be written. One (mercifully short) paragraph in this book had me banging my head against the desk wondering what the hell I was on about when I was writing it. Thankfully, I have the opportunity to fix it before it gets any further. That's why this stage in the process exists.

The best explanation I can come up with is, when you're writing a first draft - when it's going well at least - you're not stopping to think about the small stuff. You're writing in the knowledge that this is but the first of many passes, and anything that doesn't quite work can be fixed later. That's the way it's gotta be, at least for me. If I got hung up on making every line perfect, I'd never finish anything. The problem is that some of those glitches you decided to come back to later (or didn't notice in the first place) inevitably slip through the cracks and make it into later drafts.

Even when I read a book over again for a new draft, I tend not to analyse every sentence individually, unless they're unavoidably clunky. That's because I'm trying to read it as, well, a reader. The number of amendments and perceptive questions asked by a good copy editor really makes you appreciate what a unique skillset they have - to keep the big picture of the novel in their head while simultaneously zeroing in on tiny imperfections that creep into the paragraphs and sentences and words and punctuation.

I know I couldn't do their job. Not just because it's painstaking and detail-oriented and it's impossible to go on autopilot. The other reason is because I wouldn't be able to prevent myself from changing things about the style: to write it the way I would have written it. A good copy editor leaves the style alone and makes sure the writer doesn't embarrass himself. It's a tough job, and one I'm grateful for.

But I'm still going with 'website'.

Friday 15 August 2014

Festivals and libraries

I've been really busy over the last couple of weeks going over the copy edit of book 2. I'll blog about that process soon (in case anyone's interested) but I just wanted to quickly flag up a couple of events I have coming up in the next few days.

I'll be at the Edinburgh International Book Festival at 7pm on Thursday 21 August, appearing alongside Norwegian noir maestro Thomas Enger to discuss 'Crime Fiction with a Twist'. No, even I don't know what the twist is: it's that mysterious. I was through in Scotland's second-coolest city yesterday and dropped by the festival to enjoy the buzz.

Oh and to be happy about the excellent position of Killing Season in the festival bookshop.

On Saturday 23, I've been asked to give a talk at Cambuslang Library from 2pm. Really pleased to be visiting, as it was the first place I held a library card, and I have fond memories of the old building which, as is the way of things, was razed to the ground to make way for shoebox flats a while back.

The Edinburgh gig is ticketed, but Cambuslang Library is completely free. Hope you can make it to either or both.