Thursday, September 27, 2012

Writing a novel diary: Part 2

The second stage of writing a novel, for me, involves collating everything I've learned in the first stage of basic plotting / research, and pinning it all down in terms of where everything should appear in the novel itself. This process is much like story-boarding a movie, but involves nothing more than my writing pad, a pen, and a LOT of thinking.

Before I was signed to a publisher ( and even afterward ) I used to feel a bit guilty for taking a long walk to think about scenes, chapters, characters, pace and dialogue. Especially in the summer. It always used to nag at me that I should be sitting behind my desk, slaving over a hot keyboard and actually writing something. However, I've come to learn that thinking is one of the biggest points about writing: you can't often write a scene without thinking about it first, and writing blind from a blank page often involves copious redrafts, which require thought themselves, which all could have been avoided with a bit of planning and, well, thinking.

So I walk, even if it's just pacing up and down in my office. I often listen to music, picking out movie soundtracks that match in tone the story I am writing as I find this helps visualise scenes much more dynamically. Not only that, but I visualise those scenes as though I'm watching a movie: the dynamics of film often provide a very useful starting point for both scene and dialogue as they're by default very brief and concise: if they weren't films would run for many hours, not two. Then, I jot down notes, piecing major scenes together, getting a feel for mood and pace with each one.

Once I've got enough major scenes ready ( usually between six and ten ) I know I'm ready to start doing my "Story Line". This, for me, is the ABC of writing a novel. I start by taking a clean sheet of A4 paper, and marking a line from top to bottom to make a left margin. At neatly seperated places down that margin, I write the words "Hook, TP1, PONR, TP2, Climax". This is the classic three act structure used by both movies and books. The hook is the first scene ( or even line ) that draws the reader in. TP1 stands for "Turning Point 1", the inciting incident that sets the hero of the story off on their journey. PONR means "Point of No Return": the hero is committed to their cause, often with all bridges of return burned. TP2 is "Turning Point 2", the point in the story where the hero starts to fight back against his or hers antagonists. The Climax, obviously, is the final scenes of the story.

Using this basic plan, I then "peg" the major scenes into place on the storyline, often moving them about, referring to my notes to see if events are occuring logically and if I can see that the story has pace and energy. Between the major scenes I start adding smaller scenes, introducing secondary characters, backstory, and in the case of the Ethan Warner series, revelations both scientific and paranormal that enhance the narrative with interesting bits of real-world research.

After a week or two of tinkering, I have my basic layout before me and I know that it can be written well as a 100,000 word novel. But despite this, I'm not yet ready to open Word and start typing. The next stage of the story involves making my Chapter Map, writing character descriptions for each of the novel's main players, and writing the synopsis for my agent and editor...

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Writing a novel diary: Part 1

So, it's time. I'm just starting the process of writing a 100,000-plus word novel, the fifth in the Ethan Warner series. The series debut, Covenant, was published in November 2011 and reached #26 on the Sunday Times Best Seller list. The sequel, Immortal, reached the same position, both books shifting tens of thousands of copies and building awareness of my work.

With these successes in mind I know that each novel must somehow improve upon or surpass the previous title, and that places some degree of pressure on me. However, the way I deal with that is to remember that people come back to a series because they like the way they feel when they're reading it. It's not like television, when a cliff-hanger can draw viewers back: that only works within the individual book, not the series as a whole. It is consistency that wins, and that's what I aim for. With the Ethan Warner series, it's a murder-mystery weaved with scientific revelations that expose myth as fact, and sometimes vice-versa.

The provisional title for Book 5 in the Ethan Warner series is Wraith. This is the name for a ghost in some dialects, but it is also another name for something known as a "crisis-apparition". I'll leave you to research what they are, but like all central themes with the Ethan Warner series they're a genuine paranormal phenomenon and one of these spectral entities will feature in the story. That is essentially where I start from: something new and interesting that has the potential for scientific credibility.

What I've done this week is start a series of notes. These are what I call my key-points, and usually involve listing the things that I do want in the novel, and the things that I don't. As Wraith is set to be a chiller-thriller, I don't want the things that have been done before: hanuted houses, possessed family heirlooms, phantom hounds etc etc. Some of the things that I do want: psychological tension, a sense of other worldliness and perhaps wonder at the sheer volume of evidence that ghosts are not quite the myth we think that they are, and a strong sense of genuine peril ( and not just supernatural peril, but real world threat to life and limb ).

I can't obviously reveal too much here regarding actual plot, but I can say that Ethan and Lopez are in peril by this stage in the series, and are following a broader mystery that ties in closely with what they'll discover as the story unfolds. To this end, I'm also making notes of how things are at the end of Book 4 in the series, Beast, and tying it in with the threads of the new novel.

Finally, and most excitingly, I'm starting the research into real-life phenomena relevant to the story. Already I'm discovering a wealth of related material, much of it stunning enough to raise goose-bumps on my arms when I read it. That's just the beginning though: as I build up research material before coming to write the first draft, I must also begin the lengthy process of seperating what is genuine from what is fake. What I'm left with will forge the heart of the story, the revelations that leave readers of previous novels in the series inspired to search the Internet for confirmation of things they didn't believe were possible.

The next stage, which I will detail in the next post, involves weaving the plot together and developing the story in more depth. Here's where a mixture of practical planning and a BIG imagination come into their own.

Thursday, September 06, 2012


It's coming... The next Ethan Warner novel is due to hit shelves on November 8th, 2012 in the UK and Commonwealth. ( Readers in the USA and Canada will have to wait until early 2014, due to the slower hardback-then-paperback publishing process out there. )

Here's the cover and the back page - I think it looks awesome! The cover for Australia is slightly different and conforms with their own series of designs for the series.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

"Sock Puppets" - the whole dirty review saga.

For those who don't already know, a massive row recently erupted when it was revealed that some authors have been creating false accounts on Amazon / Goodreads etc in order not just to review their own works positively but to give unjustly poor ratings to other authors. These accounts / authors have been referred to as "sock puppets" ( for reasons not worth bothering going into ).

This whole sad thing has gone even further due to investigations by bloggers / reviewers / authors etc, who have discovered that some authors have even paid to have positive reviews posted on their works. This bizarre attempt at self-promotion has armies of both detractors and defenders all bellowing their own justifications ( it's just advertising - it's fraud - it's just repeating what others have said etc etc ).

The Internet and writing festivals have been alive with raging battles both public and anonymous, accounts on both Twitter and Amazon have been banned / closed, some authors are under heavy fire for their dishonest attempts to promote their own work or unfairly slate the work of others, and many are questioning the validity of any rating site.

Personally, I couldn't give a sh*t. I actually have one blatantly unfair review of my debut novel "Covenant" on Goodreads, where the "reviewer" ( if you can call them that ) joined the site, reviewed no less than 87 books in a single day to "up" their review rating, then wrote a one-star review of Covenant. They then periodically delete that review and re-post it in order to keep it at the top of the book's review list and in plain sight for anybody seeing the page for the first time, neatly avoiding Goodread's entirely sensible policy regarding repeated negative reviews of any one title.

Do I care? No. Why? Because all of this hoo-harr involves reviews on sites which account for a tiny percentage of the book-buying public. Think about it. Your book appears on these sites and receives, say, 100 reviews, averaging say 3.5 stars ( almost the standard score for EVERY book ever published, it seems ). Some love your work. Some hate it. Some are indifferent. That's life. A couple of people seem to hate your work so much that they create a vendetta against it. That's life too - there are idiots out there and there always will be.

Then your publisher tells you your book sold 30,000 copies in its first two months.

So you sold 30,000 copies and you got 100 reviews. That means, maths fans, that about 0.33% of your readers bothered to review your novel on a public forum. Throw in a few enthusiastic bloggers and maybe a newspaper or two and you might even reach 0.5%. Even if you're a self-published author selling 1,000 copies a year, the percentages remain the same.

The point is that nobody cares much about online reviews. People mostly buy books they think they'll like the look of, enjoy them and then go off to read something else. When your next book is published they'll either want it or they won't. If the sales of your next book increase, then they like you. If your sales fall, then either you need to think about your writing or your publisher needs to look at their PR campaign. Either way, something's amiss. Your fans, the people out there who buy books in their millions, will let you know what they think of your writing, and what Amazon or Goodreads reviewers think won't matter a jot.

It's always great to read a positive review of your work: not just because it's exciting and satisfying, but because you know that somebody out there has paid their hard-earned money and felt that they got satisfaction from doing so. Everybody wins. But I personally also enjoy reading well thought-out negative reviews, because they sometimes highlight issues with my writing that affect all readers, as opposed to the subjective opinion of the individual reviewer.

But if you get reviews that seem a little suspicious, IGNORE them. Don't respond, don't flag them and for God's sake don't reply to them. I've found some authors on-line who have done that and it just gets messy. Just stay focused and keep building your sales, as that's the real sign of a successful author. Leave the gutless bickering and the malicious tantrums to others and get on with what you enjoy: writing.