Help! I need a cover designer…

July 31, 2012

Well, I’ve thought long and hard about it and have decided to shelve the current WIP on the basis that I think it is trite and formulaic.  I’ll wait until I get a new idea but might rework it sometime.

Right now, I have to concentrate on the process of getting Flight Into Darkness onto Amazon for the Kindle (end of this month).  I designed my own covers for the Lulu hardbacks but I’d like to have something more professional for the Kindle, so, I’m on the lookout for a good, inexpensive cover designer.  If anyone has any contacts, please let me know, either here or email me at  I’ve tweeted the request as well so we’ll see who pops up.   I think that the burgeoning eBook market will be a great opportunity for a budding artist.

With the experience of publishing the first, I then plan to publish The Zarathustra Principle and The Eye of Sayf-Udeen, spaced a  month apart.  Artcore and Miracle , I’ll think about but there’s nothing to be lost in doing those as well.  For the time being, they’re all free as PDF downoads from


Outlining, Plotting and Depth

July 30, 2012

I had the following question today from fellow Cloudster, Eli d’Elbée:

‘I was wondering if I could pick your brain regarding outlining and plotting. I suspect my biggest problem is not having a clear idea of the whole thing before I start. I know my characters and I know the start and finish (both are already written), but there are holes in the middle.
How do you approach each book? Do you outline and then start writing? If so, are there particular techniques one can use? Are there any books/website on this stuff?’

Ah, a difficult question but one that we all face at times (although I can’t imagine writing the beginning and the ending before the middle).  These are my views, for what they’re worth:

My own method is to produce a draft plot but I am always be prepared to change it as I go on. The characters do this for me as I write. I even split it into chapters with some idea of a hook at the end of each chapter, but these always change. So, I produce a kind-of synopsis which also includes a character list with some brief details of each player. Then a paragraph or two for each chapter from beginning to end.  I also include links to various websites that I found useful in the research phase.  I then refer to this ‘synopsis’ as I write to remind myself who did what to whom and when.

As for the middle of the story, try one or all of the following:

1.  A major misunderstanding or conflict between the MCs that creates confusion and distress. The reader knows it’s a misunderstanding but your characters don’t. Then surprise your reader at the end but a resolution that they hadn’t expected.

2.  An outside event that affects everything and changes the context for a while. This can be terrorist outrage, earthquake, tsunami, etc or simply crap weather, car crash or illness.

3.  A red herring or two but be cautious as the reader doesn’t like to have his/her time wasted!

Remember character development and that the MCs have to have learnt and grown during the story so that they are different at the end. The reader must feel an emotional attachment with the experiences of the MC, although they don’t necessarily have to like them!  Think James Bond; he’s a conceited arrogant killing machine but you still want to know what happens next.

As for references, there are plenty but I have used ‘The Plot Thickens’ by Noah Lukeman ( which is an interesting read and may give you lots of ideas. Actually, the free advice from the Writer’s Workshop is probably as good as anything.  In the end, however, everyone works in their own way and the important thing is to write. If it’s rubbish, then cut or modify it, but write!

So much for the process.  Back to me.  Me, me, me.  It’s part of the writer’s lot to have self-doubts and I am right there at the moment with The Collector.  When I read it, it comes across to me as trite, unconvincing, a bit boring with not enough depth.  I mentioned earlier that I’m reading Night Train to Lisbon and this is a book that has depth in bucketfuls.; maybe too much as nothing much happens in the story but you have to keep reading it.  I guess that’s what makes literary fiction.  Frankly, I like to mix intellectual content with action because it maintains my interest.  I did this with The Zarathustra Principle which I still think is my best book.    Frankly, with my latest WIP, I don’t feel that level of interest and wonder whether I shouldn’t put it to one side and try some other idea.  If I’m not interested in it, then the writing is bound to reflect it.  Ho hum.  The alternative is to revise it to add depth.

What is depth?  A child’s fairey tale has no depth, it’s a straight-forward narrative with two-dimensional characters and a predictable ending.  A literary novel puts you right into the head of the main character and the writing has to be very, very good to achieve that – better than I can do, I fear, but then, literary novels don’t sell well.  I looked for an illustration of depth and opened Mercier’s novel at a random page.  The main character is learning Portuguese from a record course:

But now everything was different.  Gregorius wanted to imitate the impetuous pace of the man and the woman’s dancing lightness like a piccolo, and repeated the same sentences again and again to narrow the distance between his stolid enunciation and the twinkling voice on the record.  After a while, he understood that he was experiencing a great liberation; the liberation from his self-imposed limitation, from a slowness and heaviness expressed in his name and the slow, measured steps of his father walking ponderously from one room to another…..

That’s depth.  You’re right in the author’s head.  Another way he does it is in descriptive passages.  We all know that the sky is blue and the grass is green and try to find original ways to say it but Mercier has a way of describing what the sky and grasss are doing, rather than what they are. ‘A gusty wind drove low-lying clouds over him…’  There are exampes on every page and that’s depth.

I think I’ll just read some more…..

Kitchen sink stuff

July 24, 2012

I’ve beed hard at work on my next book (now entitled ‘The Collector’) and have reached one of those points where I need to take a break and think about where the story goes from here.  It has reached 26,000 words so there’s a long way to go but I have managed to do 14,000 words in 4 days so progress is good.  I drafted out the plot last year but have reached that point that all writers will be familiar with:  is it good enough?  is it what I intended?  Here are my self-doubts.

Will it be too short?  I know I’ve said that size doesn’t matter but much less than 60,000 words is considered to be a bit skinny unless you’re Ian McEwan.  Maybe it will be a novella.   The last third of the story has a lot of action and these tracts tend to be quite punchy and brief, in my experience.  I think it needs even more political intrigue and will add some.  I worry that it’s too light, Flight Into Darkness is the world of international terrorism and preventing WW3.   This one is about treasures looted from the Baghdad museums and the jeopardy is far less, although retired Irish sectarian terrorists are involved.  It needs to be edgy; less isn’t always more.  It’s a much smaller story largely set on one of the Hebrides islands but ending up in Switzerland.  Next, I worry that it might be considered ‘young adult’ stuff, like Biggles.  If so, then so be it, but it’s not what I intended.  Maybe I need to make it a bit grittier.

These anxieties are normal in writing, it seems.  I’ve always had them.  I’ve done enough of it to know that, no matter how good I think it is, my editor, Debi Alper, will take her red pen and tell me what works but, more importantly, what doesn’t.

Normally I work on chapters individually, keeping them as separate files, then produce a consolidated MS at the end.  This time, I’ve decided to do it as one document because I found that I was agonising over the length of chapters.  This is quite unnecessary because a chapter is only as long as it needs to be; you reach a hook and a new chapter begins.  Have a look at anything by Dan Brown (of Da Vinci Code fame); some of his chapters are a couple of pages long but there’s always a hook that makes you turn the page.  You have to turn the page.  I don’t happen to think that he is a particularly good writer but he is a superb story-teller.  If I had a small percentage of that skill, I’d be laughing.

I’ve also found that taking a break is good for the creative process.  It allows a certain detachment from the story and can let some new ideas bloom.  To help this, I read, watch films on DVD, maybe build a model aircraft and visit IKEA.  It’s all kitchen sink stuff, really.  In this case, literally.

The next book

July 20, 2012

In my last blog post I wrote about ideas which are the core of any novel. I retired almost a year ago and stopped work in order to write.  However, the chaos caused by changing status, home, country, etc plus the rewrites of Flight Into Darkness left little time for real new writing.  Now I’m also spending a lot of time on the ebooks thing as well.  However, the policy on those is to leave them for a while (the free downloads and hoping for some reviews) and I thought the time was right to get the next book underway.  I cheated a bit because I had already started it last year,  written four chapters and worked out a draft plot.

OK, first the idea:  this is a sequel to Flight Into Darkness.  Each story in this genre must start with an unusual aircraft accident.  In the case of the next book it is based on one that I first heard about around 1976 when I lived in Scotland and used to fly to the Island of Mull.  The landlord of the airfield hotel told me of a case:  On Christams Eve 1975, a visiting pilot decided to try to do a night take-off and landing in a Cessna 150 using only hand torches.  He was an experienced pilot and quite sober.  He took off but never returned.  His body was found the following year, 400 ft up a wooded hillside with no broken bones or signs of falling from an aircraft…or anything.  Then, in 1986, the wreck of an aircraft was found miles away in the Sound of Mull.  This is a true story and the mystery has never been solved.  Anyway, I’ve changed it a lot but have used the central idea as the ‘defining event’.  My version uses Irish sectarian villains but I will say no more about it except to offer some thoughts to other writers, for what they’re worth:

1. Make sure your plot is credible and watertight. If it is not, your editor (and you do need an editor) will spot it immediately. Make sure that there are no contrived coincidences. It must have a beginning, a middle and an end. End chapters at a natural point where the reader is compelled to find out what happens next.  Chapter length is not important.  The main characters must be different at the end of the story than at the beginning, because they will have lived through tough times and made it. Just like life….

2. Make the characters three-dimensional, believable and human, with weaknessess and strengths. Make sure that there are some main characters of both sexes. Thrillers tend to be male-based. Why? Women are more complex and more interesting. It goes without saying that they should not be just bed-warmers. Women are cats, men are dogs. Cats are usually smarter. Allow your characters to change the plot direction; it’s not set in concrete. Your characters are actually part of the story; you are just reporting it. As you write, you will get to know your characters and their motivations better, so go back and make them consistent throughout the story. Remember that your readers will identify with the main character; in fact, as they read, they will become the main character so make him/her someone interesting. Follow the point-of-view (POV) rules and then break them where you really have no choice.

3. Create an interesting villain. The baddies are really fun to write and are usually more interesting than the hero/heroine. Then try to make the hero/heroine more interesting as well so they can compete more equally. Be careful when/if in the POV of the villain. He/she should have secrets yet to be discovered. That way lies tension. Save some secrets for the end.

4. Avoid clichés. Try to look at things slant-wise. Read a child’s fairy story (Perrault is a good example) to see how not to do it. It’s kid’s stuff, direct, unimaginative and dull. Avoid that style. Nothing should be quite as it seems.

5. Read each draft chapter again and again even when working on later chapters. Take a break and go back. You’ll surprise yourself by how good/bad they are. Progressively refine them and make the standard consistent from beginning to end. Keep a detailed synopsis of what each chapter contains to avoid having to re-read everything to find out what your characters made you write.

6. Don’t agonise too much over the story that you want to write. It’s your story. Write it. Your editor will soon give you an objective opinion and will usually surprise you with the stuff that works and the bits that just don’t. You won’t see it, but your editor will. Don’t give up half-way through. We all get that feeling we’re only writing garbage. It’s par for the course. Oops…a cliché.

7. Never underestimate the intelligence of the reader. Stay ahead of the reader; let them work things out for themselves. Cut, cut, cut. There are things that, as the writer, you need to know but, often, these can be cut later and replaced with some innuendo, hints or a couple of cryptic sentences. The reader will appreciate the challenge.

8. Don’t worry about too much the word count. Size doesn’t matter that much; it doesn’t have to be a Ken Follett doorstop. I start to lose control of the plot above 90,000 words and usually end up around 80,000, but they are finally just the size that they need to be. Remember that Ian McEwan’s Booker prize-winning Amsterdam had only 50,000 words.


As for work rate, now that I can concentrate, I seem to be happy at around 2000 words a day.  After that I’m mentally exhausted and do a blog post. Like now!

Take this all with a heavy pinch of salt….I still don’t have a publisher!

Where do ideas come from?

July 16, 2012

Various commenters on my last blog have asked about work rate; ie, in my case, 5 novels in 4 years.  The simplistic answer is that I had a lot of free time.  I lived in Germany and my partner was in Portugal.  On weekends, after the shopping was done, I was free to do what I wanted.  The TV was mostly German-language and I don’t watch much TV anyway, so evenings were free as well.  Plus, I lived in a peaceful, quiet valley and there were no distractions.  Result = time to think, time to read = ideas.

I sometimes wonder whether ideas are like forlorn umbrellas in a lost property office, just waiting to be claimed.  I try to recall what, exactly, inspired each book.  In the case of the first book, Miracle in Carvoeiro,  the seed was buying a business in the little Portuguese village and I wanted to record my impressions while they were fresh.  Most of the characters in it are based on real people as well (I don’t do that now).  The Eye of Sayf-Udeen was a sequel and was fed by my discovery of the rich Portuguese history.  Artcore was inspired by the idea of a serial killer who  painted pictures of what he was intending to do next (I also paint).  The Zarathustra Principle was inspired by the ideas of Nietzsche and I wanted to write a German novel while I was still living there.  Flight Into Darkness was actually inspired by Peter Buckman (Ampersand) who advised me to write about what I knew (I was an aviation safety regulator).  So I did.

In each case the inspiration was the seed.  Then came the characters.  Know them well, and they actually write the story for you.  You may have some good ideas but, if you ignore what the characters are telling you, you’re fighting against the tide.  I always defer to my characters.  The results of this can be surprising.  For instance, in three of the books I found myself writing about religion, even though I’m not in the least bit religious.  It was the characters you see.  I become like a ventriloquist’s dummy.

As for work rate,  I tend to have a brain dump and sort it out later.   In some books, a lot of research is necessary but the writing itself I tend to do quickly, generally 80,000 words in 3-6 months, including research time.  Then comes the refinement by a professional editor, in my case Debi Alper.  Essential.  If I had another good idea, I often started a new book whilst rewriting the previous one. 

When writing, sometimes I come across a fork in the road and need to rest and think about which direction the story should take.  The wrong direction can be disastrous as it will eventually leads to a bad plot, massive cuts and a rewrite.   Generally, I look into the heads of the characters for some guidance and it always comes.  I may have to wait a week or so, but it comes.

So, there you have it.  That’s how I work.  Of all the elements above, I would say that the most important is to have time free from distractions.

Now, where’s the idea for my next book?  I’d better look through the lost property office; there’ll be a good one lurking there somewhere.

A writer’s journey

July 15, 2012

I am currently re-reading Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier (  I first read this book in 2008, before I started writing myself.  I’d always wanted to write but, bizarrely, reading this book actually discouraged me.  It is deep, philosophical and beautifully written.  As my eyes absorbed the words I knew that I could never write anything so complex or thoughtful.  When I first read it, I had never been to Lisbon or even Portugal but now I live there.  Strange how life reflects literature.

A year or so later, when Night Train was but a memory (I’d lent it to a friend and never saw it again), I started writing and my progress was rather like a street yob wanting to be a professor of philology.  My first book, Miracle in Carvoeiro, needed six rewrites and I got through three editors before finally discovering the fab talents of Debi Alper.  She encouraged me and, together, we created a novel that, if not publishable by the mainstream, was at least a massive step forward.  Since then (I write fast), I’ve written four more books.  Actually, five, but that one we don’t talk about…Debi hated it so much that I didn’t even bother with a rewrite.

I write the stories that I want to write.  This is not always a good thing because, in the end, if you want to get published, it comes down to a very simple question:  which shelf on W H Smith will it be placed? This is lowest common denominator stuff, I know, but ultimately it is very important because bookshops are where people used to go to buy their books and if they can’t find yours, it ain’t going to get bought.  So, I write what I want to write and this often leads me to cross genres; only Flight Into Darkness ( is fairly strict genre but even this crosses from mystery to thriller.  The first thing an agent looks for is good writing, and the second is the genre.  If it’s not clear then the rejection slip is issued.  So, writing what I want is not always a good thing but that’s what I do.

In the process of setting up my website, I re-read all my books, ostensibly to look for typos and formatting errors, although I am the world’s worst proof-reader.   When I read them, I found myself slightly surprised; they were not exactly as I remembered them; they were better.  That’s Debi’s magic wand, of course.  Now, coming back to Pascal Mercier’s book.  On reading it, I am amazed to see how my own writing in The Zarathustra Principle (  is rather like his.  I know that’s like a cat looking at the queen but mine is also philosophical and thoughtful although it crosses into the gothic genre.

The bottom line is that, during the uphill slog to become a writer, you do eventually get close to something that you can be pleased about.  Writing can be an end in itself but, like exercise, the process of writing imperceptibly improves your writing.  Getting published is another matter of course…

Now, how many books has Pascal Mercier sold?  It’s over two million, I think.

Dream on.

A review…my kingdom for a review…

July 14, 2012

Well, it’s now a couple of weeks since my website ( went live and I made all my novels available for free downloads as PDF files.  There have been quite a few downloads but what I really need is for some kind soul to read one or more and leave a review!  Then I can add those to the website and (with the reviewer’s permission) use them when I start the marketing drive that will be necessary when I Kindle the books and upload them to Amazon at the end of August.  I’ll probably start with Flight Into Darkness ( and The Zarathustra Principle (  The former is strict mystery/thriller genre and the other is rather mystical and literary.  Of course, the others are OK as well but these two have the best chance of making it.  Actually, I always liked The Eye of Sayf-Udeen as well (  And Artcore (, though it’s not for the sqeamish.  I self-published them all on Lulu ( and the funny thing is that Miracle in Carvoeiro (, my rather imperfect first novel, outsells all of the others.  Maybe there’s hope…..