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

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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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‘Raven Black’ by Ann Cleeves

Raven Black
Raven Black
5 stars copy

The beginning of a new year brings death to Shetland when the body of a young woman is found lying in the snow. But the murder also sparks memories of another girl who disappeared years before, and the focus of the community falls, once again, on simple-minded loner Magnus Tait. The police meanwhile, have their own difficulties and with officers from the mainland vying with the local force, detective Jimmy Perez struggles to find a solution to the murder. And then another body turns up…

Ann Cleeves perfectly captures the sense of place in this intelligent and absorbing thriller. Her characters come alive as the action moves from one islander to another, revealing motives, suspicions and long-held grudges. The story cleverly avoids the usual detective-centred plot and instead gets under the skin of the island, its inhabitants and its weather. This is as perfect a mystery as you’ll find anywhere, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up committing a few crimes of my own to get my hands on the other books in the series.

Raven Black is Ann Cleeves’ first book in the Shetland series, which has been filmed as ‘Shetland’, a major BBC1 drama starring Douglas Henshall.

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How to Write an Unfinished Novel


Unfinished Novels 350

Not everything that ends up as a novel starts out as a novel. As Stephen King has said, you don’t know what a piece of writing will become until you write it. Might be a short story, might be a novella , or it might be an epic novel. And if it doesn’t go the way you expect, maybe it won’t even get finished.

The concept of the Unfinished Novel is not one I’d considered before – all the books I’ve started have reached completion and been published as planned. Until now. And because I’ve not been in this situation before, I’m not sure what to do about it. See, when I started ‘Ariadne 7’, I knew it was going to be different, and part of the difference was that the title came to me in a dream. Sort of. And because of that odd beginning, I’ve never really had a firm grip on where it was going.Ariadne 7 COVER 150x

Now, before you suggest I might be a victim of writer’s block – don’t even go there! As I’ve said before, I’m not a subscriber to that way of thinking. The novel in question has simply not reached the stage it needs to reach in order to be considered complete. It is imperfect, underdeveloped, flawed. So it will remain unfinished until such time as it is finished. And yes, maybe that day will never come, but I’m sure I have it in me to do something with it. I’m just not sure what.

The aforementioned Mr King is a good example of a successful novelist – he writes novels and they get published and sell millions of copies. But of the fifty-odd tomes currently available, there are at least another ten of the great man’s works that remain unpublished. So it’s not like I have to feel bad about my own shortcomings – if a literary genius like Stevie has problems finishing stuff, I probably shouldn’t worry about it.

The only fly in the fictional ointment, is the fact of the book still being listed as a pre-order item on Smashwords et al. For the moment, I’m thinking along the lines of it maybe being a novella, in which case it may well appear in some form by the end of the year. Until then, Ariadne 7 will remain on Smashwords as a ‘too be published’ book, maybe in December. Or maybe not.

All that remains is to decide which of my other projects to work on instead. Hmm…

Blogging – The Other Way of Writing a Book

Book Blog 350
There are two ways of writing a book – the first one is the obvious route: start at the beginning and write until you get to the end. The other way is to write a book that isn’t a book at all – in fact, it’s a blog.

Years ago, we used to occasionally read about some unknown blogger whose weekly posts had attracted the attention of some mega-huge publishing house and suddenly they have a book deal worth several squillion quid. Which is nice. But while that sort of thing doesn’t happen very often, the idea prompted a few money-grabbing basturds to punt a means of doing just that (converting blogs into books). The Interweb is full of such helpful people, but while I’m sure those sorts of ‘projects’ fill a few of those literary voids out there, it’s not the sort of thing I have in mind.

And just to be clear, I’m also not talking about folk whose daily diaries of homespun shite might make a nice coffee table tome for grandma. No, I’m talking about making your own blog into a book because it makes sense to do that, not just because it’ll impress the neighbours (which it won’t anyway).

The Watson Letters
Being a Sherlock Holmes fan, I started writing a blog calledmany years ago as a bit of fun, and for a long time that’s all it was. But when my original writing partner/co-conspirator moved on, I started wondering how the thing might look in book form. Now, part of the initial problem was that because I hadn’t started out with the idea of it ending up as a book, a lot of the content was just funny stuff, innuendo-based humour, fart gags and comedic literary references etc. It wasn’t story based. The later posts (which I’d written myself) however, did lean more towards telling a tale of sorts and so it made sense to concentrate on those.
The Watson Letters Vol 1 5_25x8_Cream_110 NEW COVER copy
Even so, with The Watson Letters – Volume 1: Something Wicker This Way Comes, there was a lot of editing to be done to knock it into shape and it took considerably longer to do this than I’d originally envisioned. By the time I got to the final version, the word count had dropped from around 30,000 to 23,000 and I wondered if it was even worth the effort to put out such a meagre offering. But then, I’d only ever intended it to be an experiment anyway, so I didn’t put too much of my hard-earned confidence behind it.

Happily, the book is selling and feedback has been positive, so the second volume (as blog posts), is well on the way. The difference with my recent posts, however, is that I’m now focused on the fact that they will end up in book form, so the way I write and develop the storylines is much more in keeping with my general literary ethos, which is to say they’re written with no thought to planning, endings or story arcs, but created with several spoonfuls of spontaneity and such like. And since that’s the way I write anyway, so far it’s not posed any problems.

My approach to the blog means I try to write at least two new posts each week, and with each post being between 500 and 1500 words, it’s a reasonable way to notch up my word count. As it stands, I’m at about 15,500 words for what will be The Watson Letters – Volume 2: Not The 39 Steps. Whether that volume will be followed by a third and fourth etc is anyone’s guess, but I suppose the main reason I started the blog in the first place was to have a bit of fun, and so long as that aspect of it is in place, I’ll continue churning them out.

As Sergeant Phil Esterhaus used to not say

‘Hey, hey, hey – let’s be careful with those blogs, lest they end up on the coffee tables of old women!’

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‘Barking at Winston’ by Barry Stone

Barking at Winston
Barking at Winston

When battered rescue dog Bruce is adopted by a wild and wacky family, he finds his new owners have troubles of their own. As well as sharing several episodes from his own short life, Brucie uses his canine second sight to dig into the truth behind a complex tale of family life through a bunch of very different characters all vying for attention, love and happiness.

Barry Stone writes with a genuine warmth for language and he has a particular talent for portraying family life. I liked the idea of using Brucie as the narrator, but though the story started off well, when the animal revealed a talent for second sight I’m afraid I got a bit lost. Whether this was to do with the plot, or a lack of concentration on my part, I can’t say. Nonetheless, I thought it was neat way of revealing the family’s experiences, utilising a host of different viewpoints and voices to tell the story.

I’ve known Barry since I appeared in one of his stage plays many years ago, and I have to say I don’t think this is his best writing. Even so, I’ll be interested to see where his literary career takes him and what other surprises he has lurking in that inventive mind of his.

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How to Be a Crap Writer

Star Trek Writing 350
Back in April 2016, I started writing reviews of the books I read. This prompted me to look at adding a bit more variety to my reading habits. Now, that doesn’t mean I was suddenly going to start perusing the sort of books I wouldn’t normally touch with a barge pole, just one or two I might previously have only have glanced at and moved on.

Now, not wishing to lumber myself with a pile of unreadable tat to wade through, whenever anyone asked me to consider a review, I’d always have a peek at the book in question before agreeing to anything. Sadly, a lot of the time, I couldn’t even get past the first page for the mass of bad grammar, poor spelling, illogical sentence structure and general profusion of utter drivel. Nevertheless, I did start taking on literary tomes that were new to me (in style, genre etc), and while I knew that at least some of those would definitely not leave me gasping in amazement, I was okay with that, as even mediocre books can teach us something. (They can, can’t they?)

In casting my literary net further afield (and this particularly applies to the eBook market), I began to wonder why it is that some folk write so badly. Is it laziness, stupidity or what? I don’t know. But thinking about it prompted a few thoughts on how these people might justify churning out such dross.

So here’s my 12 rules on how not to write a novel, inspired by some of those (sorry) really shit writers:

1. Always assume your particular writing style is totally unique and utterly compelling.

2. Your writing will come over as dead clever if you stuff the dialogue with clichés, making your characters sound totally unique and utterly compelling.

3. Don’t worry if you get writer’s block, it’s a sign you’re breaking new ground.

4. Re-writing and all that editing stuff – that’s just for people who aren’t very good.

5. Use loads of adverbs, that way readers who don’t have good imaginations will be able to visualise what’s happening.

6. Always write what you think will sell well.

7. Don’t worry too much about spelling, grammar and punctuation – if you’ve got a totally unique and utterly compelling writing style, readers will overlook a few errors.

8. Don’t read anything by the writers you really like, cos that’ll just put you off.

9. Write in a genre you’re not familiar with. In fact, the less you know, the better.

10. Make your central character just like you.

11. If you’re new to novel writing, you’ll probably start with creating a mythical/fantasy/magical world of some sort. Be different – come up with original character names such as RthMiiert-Bogg, Argzipztrg, and FTarttMinger-Plural. It doesn’t matter if readers can’t pronounce them, so long as they look interesting.

12. Finally, don’t let anyone read your epic tome – they’ll only drag you down with their criticism. Publish and be damned, as some famous author once said.

I’ve always said you can’t teach anyone to be a good writer – that’s something they have to work out for themselves, but it’s pretty certain that you only get to be good by constantly striving to be the best, by being critical, by cutting the dross, by working at being a writer.


NB Since I first wrote this post, I’ve reviewed more than 230 books. An additional 24 were too crap to make the grade and I happily allowed them to fall by the wayside. Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed that these days my reviewed books list consists of mainly four- and five-star reviews. This is because I stopped reading dross and became more conscientious about the books I agreed to take on. Even so, there are still a few that slip through the net by pretending to be well-written when they’re not, so if you’re one of those authors who concentrate on making the first three pages of your novel totally brilliant while leaving the rest to chance in the assumption that readers will continue reading in the hope the dross will improve, just stop, okay? Stop and write better.

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