How to Be a Crap Writer (Part 2)

How to Be a Crap Writer - 2 350

In my previous post on the topic of being a crap writer, I looked at ways of identifying those among us who are not literary greats, and how those writers might justify churning out dross. This time, I’m interested in the kinds of basic errors many people seem to make between the title and the first page.

Now, rather than embarrassing anyone by holding up a giant pointy finger and including actual examples from the poor fools who cultivate such boo-boos, I’ll illustrate my points with instances from my own works, modified to show the kinds of blunders I’m talking about.

[NB If you can’t spot the mistakes, maybe you’re one of those poor fools!]

Title Errors
You’d think any author would be able to get the title of their book right, especially as it’s the phrase they most likely see at the top of the page every time they open the file to work on the damn thing!

Missing Letters

  • The House Tat Wasn’t There
  • The Hounds of Hellerby all

Missing or Misplaced Apostrophes

  • The House That Wasnt There
  • The Hound’s of Hellerby Hall

Wrong Words

  • The House That Wasn’t Their
  • The Hose That Wasn’t There

Missing spaces

  • Chapter1
  • The WatsonLetters
  • Writing:Ideas and Inspirations

Lack of consistency can be distracting for readers, from interchanging basic titles (Mr/Mister), to using the wrong tense. Also, using the right version of a word particularly applies to made up names and places, as well as common place names. Accents and dialects, where the correct spelling may be uncertain, can also tie you in knots. In my ‘Maps of Time’ series, several characters speak in a version of London cockney:

  • “There’s somefing you ain’t tellin me, girlie.”

In an early daft, I discovered I was spelling ‘something’ as somefing, somfing and somfin. Doh.

Keeping your finger off the spell-checker can be just as difficult – in the world of my Watson Letters series (being set in an almost post-Victorian parallel universe) I spell England’s capital city as Londen. Naturally my own spell checker picks this up as an error, so I have to take especial care not to correct it.

This is where an apparently stray word has been dropped in the middle of a sentence, either through overconfidence in a spell checker, poor editing or just being a bit of a divvy:

  • “Christie, you surly hasn’t sold pork Mr Morrison a hag-written story?”
    (“Christie, you surely haven’t sold poor Mr Morrison a half-written story?”)
  • I began to list some as pets of the crimes reported via our fried Estrada.
    (I began to list some aspects of the crimes reported via our friend Lestrade.)

Bad Writing
And finally, some authors just need to write better – poor sentence structure, repeated words, ill-placed commas etc:

  • The murderer’s bodies Lestrade thought had incisions, made in them that made it look like a crazed doctor could, have maybe been responsible he thought for the murders of the victims.
  • (Several incisions had been made to the bodies of all the victims, leading Lestrade to believe the murders may have been committed by a crazed doctor.)

This may seem like an extreme example, but it’s nothing like as bad as some of the utter drivel that’s out there.

However perfect we think our work is, it’s always worth taking another look before touching that big Publish button – I find I’ll often notice glitches and inaccuracies in my writing just before that crucial point, and while most of these aren’t blatant blunders, they’re things I should have corrected earlier. Being a good writer means paying attention to the small things, and as Sergeant Phil Esterhaus didn’t used to say:

“Hey, hey, hey – let’s be careful with that detail out there!”

Rules for Writing (and Other Variables)

Charles Dickens Rules 350
A few years ago, American novelist Colson Whitehead published a piece outlining his simple rules for writing (New York Times July 26, 2012). While I don’t completely agree with him, I do have my own ideas on the thorny subject of what writers should and shouldn’t do:

1: Show and Tell.
No, actually. While I can see the point of encouraging young writers to brag about their projects, the point of the phrase Show, Don’t Tell (to show what is happening rather than merely recounting events like some simple-minded horse), is always worth reiterating.

2: Don’t go searching for a subject, let your subject find you.
Well, this’d be fine if you’re the sort of person who does actually receive inspiration on a daily basis, but the question most asked by novice writers (Where do you get your ideas from?) is just another way of saying What should I write about? So what I say is do search for something to write about, otherwise that best-selling novel might never get started.

3: Write what you know.
This is a great rule if you happen to have had a particularly interesting/exciting/
adventurous life, but if you’ve worked in an insurance office for 15 years, it’s a bit limiting. Clearly, you don’t have to commit murder to write about a serial killer and you needn’t have survived a nuclear holocaust to create a post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy. Writing is about using your imagination.

4: Never use three words when one will do.
Okay, that’s a good one – too many writers blabber on inanely as if using more words will somehow impart greater meaning to their work. Less is more, as some famous person probably once said.

5: Keep a dream diary.
The only time I tried this, an idea that started as a dream turned into an unmanageable mess. Of course, if you ‘re lucky enough to have amazing dreams, maybe it’ll work out.

6: What isn’t said is as important as what is said.
Yup, that’s a good one.

7: Writer’s block is a tool — use it.
In this case, I defer to Terry Pratchett, who said: ‘There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.’ Nuff said.

8: Is secret.
I totally agree with this one, but as it’s a secret, I can’t tell you why.

9: Have adventures.
In this case, revert to Rule 3 – use your imagination. We aren’t all Ernie Hemingways, and while it’s good to write from experience, you don’t have to.

10: Revise, revise, revise.
Absolutely. Revise, re-write, edit etc. Do everything you can to make your work as good as it can possibly be.

11: There are no rules.
Er… Okay, do whatever you like. It’ll be fine…

‘Old Friends and New Enemies’ by Owen Mullen

Old Friends and New Enemies
Old Friends and New Enemies

When Glasgow PI Charlie Cameron is engaged to find a missing husband, his contacts soon lead to a body in the mortuary. But it isn’t the one he was expecting. Shocked to discover an old friend has been murdered, Charlie sets out to find the killer, but the path to the truth is far from straightforward. Crime boss Jimmy Rafferty also has an interest in following Charlie’s progress, and when the unsuspecting sleuth hooks up with ex-girlfriend Fiona, things start to get dangerous.

Owen Mullen tells a good tale – his main character is well drawn and believable and the villains are wonderfully gritty. The story is a slow burner with lots of character development, helping the reader to root for the hero and there’s also a few surprises along the way (which is nice) and an interesting twist to the ending.


The book starts with the all-seeing narrator then switches to first-person as the main character comes along, and the tale continues, switching back and forth throughout the novel. My problem here is I don’t know who’s telling the story. Now, I’m well aware there’s no rule that says a novel has to be all from the same POV, but it can be slippery old trick to get right. The likes of Iain Banks could do it (such as in Complicity, where the character of the killer is written in the second person), and changing between first-person narrative and omniscient narrator allows an author to let us see what’s happening with other characters. In this case however, I found it incredibly irritating and was constantly distracted from the story. A consistent perspective could have been much more appealing, though obviously would have impacted on the plot.

While this wasn’t one of my favourite reads, it’s definitely a crowd-pleaser, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for Mr Mullen’s next offering – after all, good storytellers are hard to find.

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Billy Burke – Georgian Villain No. 1

Georgian Villians No 1 and 2
In a previous post (Historical Writing – Fact or Fiction?) I talked about using research as a tool to help create realistic descriptions of everyday life. Generally, what I’m interested in is detail that adds authenticity to the story, rather than using characters who actually existed (although some of my books feature brief appearances by the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Nicholas Culpeper and Charles I). However, one of the times when I have written about real people was in my stage play ‘The Body in the Bag’, based on Edinburgh murderers Burke and Hare.

At the time, I was having a bit of a creative crisis and had trouble with endings (I later realised this was because I was trying to write stuff I wasn’t really interested in, but that’s another story). With Burke and Hare, I wanted to see if I could use the story to write a complete play. Since I already knew the ending (William Burke gets hanged), all I had to do was fill in the rest. Easy (ahem).

As a framework for the play, I used one of the confessions made by Burke (he made two), as a basic chronology of events. Since contemporary accounts seem to point towards the fact of Hare being the ringleader, my slant on the tale was to look at it from Burke’s point of view, and whether or not he’d been coerced into taking part in the murders. It’s quite clear he did kill people on his own as well as with his partner, but even when the last killing (of Marjory Docherty) was brought to the attention of the authorities by guests at Hare’s lodging house, there was a distinct lack of actual evidence pointing to the murderers. The powers that be needed someone to step forward and give a ‘true’ account of the murders and Hare, being the most forceful of the pair, took the initiative and dropped his pal in the crap, leaving Burke to take the blame and the rope. The image below shows Burke’s death mask (left) and Hare’s life mask (taken during the trial).
Death Masks 350
Writing about real people in this way gives authors a chance to explore and imagine. Clearly, we can’t know what Burke thought about or how he spoke, and the only words we have that we know he actually said, are those written in his confessions and the court records. We have a reasonable idea of what he looked like from contemporary sketches and his death mask, but we don’t know what he sounded like, how he dressed day to day, or what sort of man he was (apart from being a murderer, of course).

Historical evidence and detail are a great place to start, but I’ve always thought the job of a writer was simply to make things up, so unless I need actual facts, that’s exactly what I do.

William Burke was hanged on January 28, 1829, in Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, watched by several thousand spectators.

Branding Schmanding – Indie Author Identity

Author Branding copy 350
There are a lot of statistics tossed around about how important book covers are, and while we could argue percentages all day, I reckon most people would agree it’s the image on a book’s cover that plays the biggest part in the decision-making process when it comes to parting with our cash. But how much thought do indie authors put into branding their books? Or to put it another way, do they always consider how recognisable their author identity is?

Until recently, I hadn’t given much thought to this in relation to my own books, even though I’m well aware of how it works with other writers: some of my favourite novelists have instantly recognizable brands that make it easy for me to pick out their books, whether on the shelf in Waterstones, or on Amazon.

Here’s a couple of examples: the current covers for Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ series have a clear theme, colour scheme and placement of the author’s name, all of which help pull them together as a series. Philip Pullman images
Meanwhile, these three Ruth Rendell covers show not only a similarity in the types of image used, but how the size and typeface of the author’s name gives them a ‘group’ feel. Of course, both author’s, having produced a great many titles, have gone through many different covers and designs over the years, and like anything else, this is probably as much to do with changing fashions in book design than simply trying something different. Ruth Rendell images

However, to get back to my original point, a few weeks back, I started to think about my own books in terms of branding. At the moment, I have the potential for four different series (though two of them are only as far as volume one). For my middle-grade series ‘The Christie McKinnon Adventures’ I had started out with a particular idea for the cover of the first book, but hadn’t given any thought to what I might do with the second one. Bizarrely, it was only when I came up with the design for the second book that I wondered if I could do something similar for the first one.
Hellerby Hall Cover 6 copy
I’d never been completely happy with the first cover of ‘The Hounds of Hellerby Hall’, so I was happy to try something new. Using the shadow of a hound across the title seemed to work quite well and as a device, ties the two books together nicely. The only problem now, is what to do with the next one in the series. But since I don’t even have a title yet, I’m not going to worry about it for the moment.
The House That Wasn't There JUNE 2015 copy
As I’ve only just updated the covers on Amazon et al, it remains to be seen whether any of this will make a difference to my sales, but it has made a difference to how I see the books, and that can’t be bad.

‘End As An Assassin’ by Lex Lander

End as an Assassin
End As An Assassin
5 stars copy

With the killing of a sleazy drug baron, hit man André Warner completes his final contract and heads for Geneva where he hopes to begin a comfortable retirement. Then on route to Monaco, he meets young and beautiful divorcee Gina, and finds himself contemplating a different future from the one he’d planned. But awkward questions from a nosy neighbour, and an encounter with a mysterious biker, prompt Warner to wonder if there’s something he’s missed. After a visit from the police and the threat of exposure, he’s left with difficult decisions to make, so with Gina at his side, he sets out to fulfil one last contract.

From the first page, I was pulled straight into the world of the assassin – a world of guns, exotic locations and fast cars, and whether I wanted to or not, I was already rooting for the one-man killing machine, and booing/hissing at the bad guys. Lex Lander writes about killing people like he really knows what he’s talking about. Whether this is the voice of experience or just the product of a damn good imagination, I can’t say, but his attention to detail reminded me of Frederick Forsyth, along with a chunk of that great man’s storytelling genius, too.

If you like your villains mean and your heroes handsome you’ll be right at home with this first instalment of André Warner’s adventures, but for the squeamish and scaredy-cat types out there, be warned – there’s a lot of killing, and innocent victims don’t always live to tell the tale.

This is a great start to the series and I’ll be adding Mr Lander’s other books to my to-read list very soon.

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