Fail to plan, plan to fail

A few months ago, I was watching Sky’s MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL with Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville, an absolutely peerless dissection of the more subtler nuances of football (soccer to those in the US). If anyone had told me ten years ago that those two would be the best pundits on TV… Anyway, Neville made a comment about a team’s defensive frailties along the lines of their plan being broken and once you let go of that, you’re improvising and then you’re really in trouble.

In football, and I suppose general sports, planning is essential to success at the top level.

Top teams nowadays have a huge backroom staff, usually in excess of a hundred, and most of them aren’t medical staff. A team will have a large number of ProZone analysts, looking through previous match footage of upcoming opponents, looking where their gaps are and presenting it to the manager. The manager will devise a plan and his job is to communicate it to the players.

Footballers don’t get paid for running around for ninety minutes on a Saturday, they get paid for that plus spend five hours a day going through fitness training (maybe an hour once the season’s underway) and a lot of drills and whiteboard activities. Drills let the team work together on specific scenarios they’ll face in the match, so when in the 38th minute, a player makes a run down the right unmarked and someone hits a sweet ball to them, it appears improvised but they will in reality have gone through that move fifty times.

What the hell am I talking about? Well, that quote keeps rattling around in my head as I go through my latest work-in-progress, FUTURE SHOCK. This started life as a short story about five years ago and I decided to flesh it out to a novel length work last year. The results weren’t great, largely because I’d been improvising and the plot was all over the place. It was a sobering reflection on how little “winging it” can actually work. I’ve now spent four weeks this year going back to the drawing board on it and doing what I should’ve done last year.

Plan.

I’ve gone through several iterations of a complex plan, further complicated by the fact I’d written 65,000 words of the novel and have to keep that in sync.

They generally talk about two types of writers — planners and pantsers, or architects and gardeners. To me, it’s just the same thing, depending on when you do your planning. Pantsers, i.e. write by the seat of your pants, generally create 60,000+ words in a dreadful first draft then edit it until it’s something that works. I learnt a long time ago that I’m much better planning first and getting the story nailed down before I write it. It still allows for improvisation but it means when you’re tearing the structure apart, it’s a 10,000 word synopsis you’re cutting up and not a 90,000 word novel. You’re less tempted to keep flawed storylines and more inclined to kill your darlings (remove the flab).

I just wish I’d listened to my own advice in October. This is a sobering reflection of how badly things can go. FWIW, the two drafts of THE HOPE THAT KILLS took me seven weeks all in, and is one of the most complete books i’ve ever written, tightly plotted, exciting, full of character and with a story that gets emotional attachment on page one. Likewise, the outline for COWBOYS AND INDIANS is nice and clean, with the sort of complexity that was maybe missing from WINDCHILL.

Back to the drawing board.

— Ed

Current project — FUTURE SHOCK, draft 2

Next project — COWBOYS AND INDIANS, draft 1

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Filed under DC Scott Cullen, Future Shock, Writing advice

Editing — hell is Microsoft Word

IMG_0007Fascinating piece on the register about Edinburgh scifi writer Charles Stross’s decision to dump Word for LibreOffice on his Mac.

I’m of a similar mind — I despise using Word and have been using Scrivener for over two and a half years to create my books, definitely a key reason in why I can be so fast.

My experience of writing (just finished my 13th novel) has taught me there’s three key phases —

Outlining
Writing
Editing

(Note that pantsers/gardeners, i.e. make it up as you go along, tend to do writing, then outlining, then editing, but it’s a lot less clear — they’ll write a book and then map it to a story structure, delete chunks and write new chunks and generally muck about until they get something. I tried it and it’s definitely not how I’m wired)

Anyway, I usually devote a third of the total time to each phase, say two weeks on each. Two weeks of messing about in Scapple then Scrivener to get my scene outline nailed and I can easily crack out an outline into a full novel in a fortnight, say 80,000 words. I then edit it so it makes sense then get feedback from three trusted alpha readers. Then I’m into another two weeks of changes to make it better.

What happens next is the industrial editing — structural then line then copy then proofing — and it’s all done in Word, using track changes. Scrivener doesn’t come into it, not the intention of the product.

But word is so bloody awful, especially the Mac one but the Windows one is so flaky. I want it to track changes and do it well. Word wants to do a million and one things very adequately, at best. Except for crashing, that it does perfectly. And adding a stupid ribbon. And Aargh.

Going through my final self-edit of CRASH INTO MY ARMS (really needs a new title) and it occurred to me how to get Scrivener working with track changes. Word has a decent feature to compare two historical versions of the same document and mark up changes. Tried it and the results are perfect. No more having to use the bugger until I’m in industrial editing mode, thank God.

— Ed

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Some very real COWBOYS AND INDIANS

Oddly enough, as I sit down to start work in anger on COWBOYS AND INDIANS (Cullen 7), set in the world of IT project delivery at a fictional financial institution I featured in GHOST IN THE MACHINE, a fascinating study into IT project failures hits my inbox —

http://mudano.com/download/metastudy/

Given I’m just away to start creating a fictional disastrous IT project in my head, this is a stark reminder of how much stranger than fiction fact can be. Some of the case studies in here should remind you that money thrown at people who sound like they know what they’re doing but don’t only ever results in wasted money. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen will out there.

— Ed

Current project – outline of COWBOYS & INDIANS (Cullen 7)

Next project – draft 3 of CRASH INTO MY ARMS (DI Fenchurch 1)

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94th best crime writer of all time

WH Smith’s blog just announced the results of a recent poll on their top crime writers of all time and, apparently, I’m the 94th best crime writer of all time, ahead of people like Sara Paretsky, Martin Cruz Smith, James Lee Burke and Cecelia Ahern. Oh and some guy called Edgar Allan Poe, who invented detective fiction as a genre. Staggering, especially as they don’t even sell my books…

http://blog.whsmith.co.uk/best-crime-authors-time-voted/

Some seriously good writers in there, notably Mr MacBride at the top there – his THE MISSING AND THE DEAD is already my book of the year 2015. Staggeringly original police procedural.

Thanks to everyone who voted for me. Shucks. ;-)

–Ed

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Cullen 999

Screenshot 2015-02-13 08.49.01

Just noticed this morning that I’m up to 999 reviews for GHOST IN THE MACHINE on Amazon.co.uk, averaging 4.2 which is pretty high for a perma-free book.

This is completely insane to me – when I published it almost three years ago, I didn’t think that I’d get nine reviews, let alone this number (and being into my second year as a full-time author, either). Crazy craziness.

Serious thanks to everyone who’s read the book and posted a review, even the one-stars. Being able to do this for a living is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

— Ed

Current project – Draft 2 of CRASH INTO MY ARMS (DI Fenchurch 1)

Next project – Final outline of COWBOYS & INDIANS (Cullen 7)

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Filed under ebooks, kindle, literature, Writing advice

ED JAMES in conversation with JAMES OSWALD in Edinburgh on Thursday 12-Feb-15

Just a quick note to say I’ll be interviewing James Oswald at the Edinburgh George St Waterstones (damn, what happened to that possessive apostrophe?) tomorrow night, Thursday 12th Feb, to promote his new novel, Prayer for the Dead — I think the event’s free but ticketed – details here.

— Ed

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Filed under james oswald, literature, prayer for the dead, waterstones, Writing advice

Musings on SHOT THROUGH THE HEART

SHOT-Kindle-2015-01-20(This post is a rambling essay on genres but also features some news about the Supernature series and what happens next there…)

I posted a response to a thread on KBoards, one of the better places to discuss self-publishing and all that jazz, on the subject of using pen names to write in different genres.

Essentially, I’d tend to go with a pen name for each genre, based on my experience. As you know, I predominantly write police procedurals set in Edinburgh, Scotland, which I do not at all badly out of at all. A few years ago, I hit upon an idea to do a vampire thriller set in the Highlands of Scotland, called SHOT THROUGH THE HEART.

What I found when I released it was my existing audience either 1) sort of, kind of liked SHOT (about 20%) or 2) were largely ambivalent to it and the sales were nothing like for the other books in my DC Scott Cullen series, usually by a factor of ten (if I’d spent that time writing another Cullen, I’d have earned a lot more cash).

My thinking in the fourteen months since publication has been all over the place. In 2013, I started out wanting to write a sequel to establish a series. Then, when I started getting the “vampire=bad” feedback, it kind of morphed into a police procedural with vampires – I’ve finally written that book as a straight police procedural without any vampires (CRASH INTO MY ARMS, I’ll be starting the second draft next week), which’ll mesh well with my core audience of police procedural fans.

But… I get an email or social media post every couple of weeks asking what’s happening to Supernature. I’ve got a desire, if not exactly burning then at least on fire, to write a proper sequel to SHOT. I’m thinking through how to make that work – a revised draft of SHOT with more of a police element seems to be an idea I can’t get away from and I had a bash at that last week, which was going in a promising direction. The bits I disliked about SHOT were instantly removed by the police stuff and the flow of the story was a hell of a lot better. There’s quite a lot of Scottish folklore I could explore with that.

One thing I noticed last summer is based on trying the old “product funnels” thing, as espoused in WRITE. PUBLISH. REPEAT., by making SHOT free for a period. The result was it ended up cannibalising sell-on from GHOST IN THE MACHINE, the first freebie in the Cullen series – rather than buying book 2 in the series after enjoying book 1, the readers seemed to go for the other free one. Because it was vampires and they tended to dislike it, so I lost sales. If it’d been a straight pol proc, I think it’d have worked, most likely.

Of course, it could be that SHOT just isn’t that good – another reason a redraft will help is it’ll allow me to know if it’s a quality thing. Alternatively, it could be that I’ve not released book 2 in the series, so I’ve no real idea if it is a money-spinner. It did take about a year for it to break even on publicity and editing costs, which is another reason I felt my fingers got burnt. Finally, it could be that the cover is too “police procedural” – moody, monochrome shot with bright text – and it jars with the genre.

In summary, the lessons for me from publishing in multiple genres are –

1) People who like a writer writing in a genre tend to like the genre more than the writer, i.e. they’re less likely to buy you writing in another genre.

2) There are people who like the writer as much as the genre but they’re a lot lower. The crossover could be managed by other means, e.g. mailing list – “hey I’ve got a new book out in another genre under another name. You might not like it so I’m not forcing it down your throat” etc.

3) I might not have gone after the fans of vampire books in the right way (title, cover, product description, author name, etc). They might think it’s a police procedural.

4) If you’ve managed to get some level of success with your “day job” writing in a genre, that means you’ve got some tricks you’ve applied in building an audience there which should be applicable to writing in a new genre (and there’ll be some element of fun in learning it)

5) Watch your product funnels don’t cannibalise the main genre series.

Hope that’s of interest to you. I’ll be getting back to that redraft of SHOT in the summertime and will most likely do the second book back to back, while the characters and genre are still fresh in my head. At the moment, it’s called JUST WALKING THE DEAD, thought I really want to use the title HUNGRY LIKE THE WOLF, somewhere.

— Ed

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Filed under Ghost in the Machine, Shot through the Heart, supernature