Sunday, 10 February 2019

The Trickiest Question To Answer

'Where do you get your ideas from?' 

It’s a question all writers get asked. And it's almost impossible to answer.

People want there to be a single, simple answer. But there isn't.

Successful authors have a particularly tough time of it as they get asked hundreds of times a year. Stephen King, in a Q&A for The Write Channel, said:

‘I can tell you about fifty percent of the time where I got the idea. And the rest of it is totally like getting an idea in a dream and I can’t really remember where they came from.’ 

Neil Gaiman tells the truth:

'I make them up. Out of my head. And, surprisingly, people didn’t like to hear that. They look unhappy, as if I'm trying to slip a fast one past them, as if there's a huge secret, and, for reasons of my own, I'm not telling them how it's done. Ideas come from all over the place. You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.' 

My next novel The Diabolical Club is published in July. And I'll be attending a few literary festivals and book events closer to the time. And I'm sure to be asked the same question. But this year I'll at least have a few examples to share of the sorts of places that ideas come from.

Every subscriber to the book (See here), will be getting an additional free e-book of short stories featuring characters from my little universe of South Herewardshire. It's called The Nearly Invisible Man and Other Stories and I can tell you exactly what the spark was that ignited most of stories.

One was inspired by a very surreal pub quiz that I once attended in Lancashire. Another grew out of an article I read about a hacker who’d upset a great many Americans by gaining access to their Bluetooth sex toys. And yet another came from me pondering the question of how fat a person would have to be to be bullet-proof (and how far I was off the target!). That story proved to be quite fascinating to research and led me to discover this extraordinary photo.

Which just goes to show that, inside, we're all the same.

I also found an episode of TV show Mythbusters where Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman did a series of tests using mannequins and ballistics gel to discover what depth of fat would be needed to stop a bullet before it reached any major organs.

A single idea can lead you to all kinds of amazing facts and some great stories.

But, as I said at the start, half the time ideas come out of absolutely nowhere and there's no simple, easy answer to the question.

I'll leave you with this great interview with Neil Gaiman. Enjoy.

Clck here.

Saturday, 26 January 2019

The Rankin Route

Happy New Year!

Yes, it's been a month since my last blog post but I have a good excuse. There have been things like Christmas, New Year and snow to distract me. Plus I've had to go through the structural edit of The Diabolical Club with my editor and assemble a book of short stories that I'm going to be giving to my Unbound subscribers as a bonus. And I've done a few talks including three Burns Night dinners in a row. Oof. I am now mostly made of haggis and neeps.

So, today I thought I'd talk about how I write. It's the most common question I get (closely followed by 'Where do you get your ideas?'). I can understand why. As an author, it's always interesting to hear how other writers work. And, unsurprisingly, everyone is different.

Generally, they fall into two camps: Plotters and Pantsers. Plotters get everything sorted out before they write a word - the research, timeline, characters. One of my best mates is a plotter. That's why his office floor looks like this:


Meanwhile Pantsers, like me, work very differently. Instead of meticulously planning the journey, we have a general idea of which direction to take to get to our destination but have no idea what route we're going to take to get there. We've switched the Sat Nav off and we're exploring as we go.

Curiously, the author whose work method most closely mirrors mine is Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin who writes the Rebus books. In a 2016 interview for the Guardian he describes his process:

'A good writing day would comprise maybe 10 pages, which is around 3,000 words. I don’t do a word count. The story is as long as it needs to be, and better to pen 1,500 great words than 5,000 ordinary ones. The day might start at 11am, or 2 in the afternoon, or 7 in the evening.'

'I break for tea (or coffee) and stare at the kettle as I ponder the next few lines of the book. When the sun’s out, I often go for a walk and do my writing in the late afternoon or evening. When I hit a wall or a problem, a walk often brings sudden illumination.'

'During the first draft I don’t pause to read what I’ve written, except maybe after the first 100 or so pages. I do that over a few days, making notes about where the book could go next. I never have a clearly defined plan – I almost never know the ending before I’m well into the book. The story has a sense of where it wants to go, and I just follow it. A character in my first draft may change their name, because I’ve forgotten what I called them originally – that’s fine; it can all be fixed later. I also don’t pause if I get stuck on a word or a description – I will fix that in a future draft. I do make notes as I go – what might happen; how characters or incidents may connect – but even this isn’t fixed and I may find a better idea later. So I’ve got all these Post-it notes stuck around the desk, plus scrawled reminders on sheets of paper and scribbles in the margins of the manuscript. I work on a very old laptop – when the screen died, I had it replaced rather than buy a new machine. Every day or two I print out what I’ve written, just so I have it. I also save each day’s work to a memory stick that goes everywhere with me. Safety first.'

That's how I work. Tea. Walks with the dogs (I'm lucky to have lots of beautiful countryside around my home). The memory stick thing. Getting on with it and finding my way through.

He also works to music but not anything with lyrics. His go-to favourites are artists like Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream and Aphex Twin. I'm the same; no lyrics but my choices range from classical and light British orchestral stuff to prog metal like Animals As Leaders, or jazz from Orphic Okstra, or cafe music by Hot Club Of Detroit. I also use sites like to provide background noise.

A quick first draft (he says that the first draft of his latest book took 27 days. The Diabolical Club took me 36 days). Then lots of re-drafting to hone and shape the book into the final form that you submit to the publisher. That's me to a T. From first to final draft my characters will often change names, sometimes even change ethnicity or gender, plot lines will merge or be excised and new plotlines may be inserted. The first draft is the rough shaping of the block of marble, the pencil sketch. Subsequent drafts are the smaller chisels adding the detail, the intricate pen work and addition of colour.

It's kind of comforting to know that there's someone else out there - someone hugely successful - that does things in a similar way to me.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Mrs Jolly isn't jolly any more

I was in Henley On Thames last night in a pub where they have lots of old books on display as decoration. Naturally I had to have a quick butcher's and, to my delight, discovered a 1954 copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. A quick chat to the manager and a donation to a local charity and it was mine. It's a fascinating read.

Some things haven't changed in 64 years, such as the advice to writers that, no matter how much you want to see your work in print, you should never have to pay for that pleasure.

The appalling wages haven't changed much either. In 1954 you could expect the BBC to pay £1 per minute for radio broadcasts of up to 10 minutes and 15 shillings (note: 75p) per minute thereafter. And the book's preface states that 'many publications consider that a guinea (Note: £1.05) or less per thousand words is adequate recompense'. Now, I realise that £1 in 1954 was worth more - the equivalent of £26 now - but that's still pretty crappy.

The one thing that has noticeably changed is that, in 1954, almost every advert is for typist and copyist services. 

In the age of Microsoft Word, Scrivener, Ulysses and Final Draft, it's easy to forget that 'in the old days' the author either hand-wrote their manuscripts or typed them, which meant that there was just one copy. Therefore, if it got lost in the post, the writer would lose everything. That was why it was essential to have a copy made. And before photocopiers and printers, that meant hiring a copy typist (or you typed another copy yourself).

Here's a good example of an industry and a skill that has been lost due to technology. History is littered with them. 

My brother Si used to be a professional photographer. The arrival of digital photography has all but killed his trade. Why pay an expert when your smart DSLR can make decisions about exposure, shutter speed and ISO for you? Why pay a photographer for 20 stunning shots when you can take a thousand and, by fluke, 20 will be pretty good? Things got so bad that Si retrained as a teacher and now teaches photography at university. But even that role is changing as most of what makes a good photo is now done in post; he has more students lining up to learn Photoshop than photography.

When I was researching content for the K-series of QI, I spoke to the man who ran (then) Britain's last knacker's yard. As he pointed out, the horse industry once employed hundreds of thousands of people from breeders to sellers, trainers to saddlers, farriers to riding instructors, plus coach builders and many other peripheral horse-related jobs. And, when the horses died, the knacker was an essential link in the chain. The collected carcasses were recycled and re-purposed as fats, tallow (yellow grease), furniture glue, bone meal, bone char, sal ammoniac, leather, soap, bone for cutlery handles, bleach and animal and pet feed. These days we just incinerate them. The arrival of the motor car decimated the horse industry.

And now we are sitting at the advent of the driverless car. How many jobs will be lost to that particular innovation? No more cabbies, hauliers, delivery drivers, driving instructors ... and, if the cars really won't have as many accidents as human drivers do, there will be lay-offs at garages and repair shops and a drastic loss of revenue for insurers.

Technology is fabulous when it makes our lives better - I'd never want to go back to a typewriter for a start - but every new advance invariably has casualties. And for the typists and copyists like Mrs Jolly (see ad above) who would 'type or duplicate it for you', the arrival of the computer sounded the death knell on her industry.

However, replacing expertise with technology does have its dangers. Do we want a society made up of competent generalists instead of a expert specialists? I'm not so sure.

But then, I'm a bit old-fashioned, I'm an underpaid writer and I've had a few pints. 

Monday, 19 November 2018

As one door closes ...

Well, there's a thing.

The Diabolical Club is funded.

No more crowdfunding!

But now begins the work of editing, designing, typesetting, proofing, printing, marketing, distribution...

And I can't wait. Roll video!

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Jim Tinley RIP

If you're a regular visitor to this blog (or my previous blogs - see right) you'll know that I come from Cornwall. I grew up in Launceston, Blackwater, Penzance and Helston but moved to the South East when I was eighteen. My teens were spent in Helston and its environs and I still think of it as 'home' despite having lived away from Cornwall for thirty years.

It was a pretty idyllic childhood; a loving family, beautiful countryside, glorious beaches and great friends - many of which are still friends to this day - all conspired to make it so. School too was something I enjoyed, mostly because I was lucky enough to have such inspirational teachers. And among the best of the best were my three art teachers, Arthur Andrews, Phil Howells and Jim Tinley. Arthur died in the early eighties and Phil in the last year or so. But Jim was a bit younger than the others and retired to his beloved Porthleven - Helston's nearby fishing village - and became a well-known local character and painter. I last saw him in 2011 when we arranged to meet up for a drink and a catch up. He was, always, a wealth of anecdotes and dry humour and delighted in hearing what my contemporaries and I had got up to since our previous catch up. I, in turn, loved to see his latest work in progress. He was a very good painter and was brilliant at capturing the people who populated his beloved village.

Sadly Jim died earlier this month but he left behind a legacy of wonderful paintings including these below:

Some people touch your lives in ways you don't appreciate at the time. Even though I eventually became a writer it was my art teachers who made the biggest impact on me at school. They taught me to see the world around me rather than just glance at it. In particular they gave me a love of people watching, which ultimately led to a life-long fascination. Almost all of the characters in my books are drawn from life.

And there's the clue - drawn.

I'm sad that I haven't got down to Cornwall very often in the last few years; life has been too busy. And now, sadly, there will be no more boozy catch-ups.

But I relish the fact that the last time we met, Jim told me that I seemed to be turning into him.

If that means being a kind, talented, inspirational human being, I'll take that.

But I expect he was talking about the hair and beard.

Oh, and he told me to lose the belly, which, to some degree, I have (he'd got rid of his and was keen to demonstrate the fact).

RIP Jim. I'll raise a white wine spritzer to you tonight.

Saturday, 20 October 2018


A few years ago I self-published a surreal novel called The Third Condiment, under the nom de plume of Wixley de Lune (don't ask). The whole project was a way of using up hundreds of gags and weird ideas that simply didn't fit into any of my other books. And you won't be surprised to hear that I managed to sneak a bit of murder-mystery into it.

The book's narrator, the aforementioned Wixley, is a huge fan of agricultural crime novels - or 'Countrycide' books, especially those of Gabel Maypole. And I went so far as to create the covers of some of her better known books:

Wixley also loved a TV series called 'Widdershins' in which the eponymous detective has to conduct his investigations from inside a sterile ball as he has no immune system. Here's the DVD cover:

The novel is, by far, the silliest thing I've ever writter (or will probably ever write) but I am terribly fond of it. And you can order it here.


Saturday, 15 September 2018

Happy birthday Agatha

It's Agatha Christie's birthday today.

She died in 1976 at the age of 86 and, staggeringly, produced 73 novels (66 murder mystery), 28 collections, 16 plays, 2 biographies and a handful of broadcast works and poems in her lifetime.

But, as prolific as she was, the quality never seemed to suffer. She is still the third most published author in human history, having sold over two billion books - a record broken only by the Bible and Shakespeare.

I've been a fan of her work for longer than I can remember. In fact, one of my earliest television memories is of seeing Rene Clair's 1945 version of And Then There Were None on a wintry weekend evening (a dark and stormy night?) with my family and being thrilled by it. I've since read all of her crime novels and also those of her 'Golden Age' contemporaries - Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L Sayers and more. And, of course, I've read Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories too.

So, when I came to write what became first published novel, a murder mystery seemed to be the natural genre to attempt. A 30 year career in the police service helped too; I've seen more than a few homicides and hundreds of crime scenes. Throwing my knowledge of real-life policing against my love of murder mystery fiction created the delicious tension from which most of the novel's comedy is generated. A Murder To Die For is set at a murder mystery festival weekend celebrating the life and works of crime writer Agnes Crabbe - my thinly-disguised version of Agatha Christie. Crabbe's most popular fictional detective is Miss Millicent Cutter, a younger and saucier Miss Marple, and most of the festival-goers turn up dressed as her, Then, on the first day of the festival, one of the fans is murdered. It then becomes a race between the procedurally-driven police and the murder mystery fans to solve the crime, a job made much more difficult by the fact that the victim, witnesses, and very possibly the murderer, are all dressed as Miss Cutter.

Writing a murder mystery is no easy task and, while going through the process, my respect for Christie grew exponentially. To turn out at least one new crime fiction novel every year for 66 years is a staggering feat. Admittedly, the method of killing is very similar in many of her books - having been a chemist, her knowledge of poisons was excellent - but the plots are always extremely clever and leave the reader guessing until the last page.

Writing such a novel requires an extraordinary level of planning. You need to know where every person is at any one time. You need to create back-stories and descriptions to ensure that the players don't act out of character. I even needed to create a map of my fictional village to ensure that people's movements make sense, If Christie was able to keep all of that content in her head while writing (and writing without the luxury of word processing don't forget), she must have been some kind of genius. 

Luckily, she was a genius. And she was the first British woman to learn how to surf standing up.


She was.

So happy birthday Dame Agatha. And thank you for all of the entertainment, inspiration and murders most foul.