Saturday, 9 September 2017

Revising a book

This was the second of my two pieces for Rebecca Bradley's excellent blog, which I'm reposting here. The initial one was on first drafts, aka the terror of the blank page, this one is on what to do once you've filled those pages.

Once again, make sure you check out Rebecca's blog to read about other writers' revision process; it's a cornucopia of great advice.

Your first draft has been completed, what state is it generally in?

Kind of a mess! It’s usually missing important scenes, characters have changed names halfway through, the geography and timeline is often a bit mixed-up, I’ve given places names like ‘Toytown’, characters are named after actors who I think could play them… the first revision is about going back through and fixing all of the placeholder stuff that I only put in there until I could think of something better.

What is the first thing do before you start to revise?

The most important thing to do is nothing.

As in, take some time off and don’t even look at the manuscript for a few weeks. I need to be able to come back and look at it with fresh eyes. Usually it’s not as bad as I had feared, and the things that need to be fixed are more obvious.

When I’m ready to go back over the manuscript, I print out a hard copy and go through it with a pencil and a set of highlighters, with a notebook to record anything that requires more detail.

How do you assess the damage that needs working on?

I read through the whole book. Normally I’ll have a good idea of what scenes and elements will need the most work before I start, but it’s important to see how it reads as a book, even in rough form.

I also find this process often gives me better ideas for new scenes, or ways to tweak existing ones.

Do you allow anyone to read that very first draft before revisions or can you assess it objectively yourself?

Are you kidding? No one ever sees my first drafts but me. I hate showing anyone a work in progress until I’ve been through it at least three or four times. I even get paranoid when someone walks into the room while I’m writing, and change to another window on my screen.

I email each day’s work to myself as an extra backup, and I have a recurring nightmare about accidentally sending a work in progress to my editor or agent.

What do you initially focus on, when approaching the completed first draft of the manuscript?

Getting the structure right, making sure the plot holds together and makes sense, and that the pace works. I usually end up cutting scenes and adding new ones if I feel the story is sagging at a certain point, or if I notice a key character disappears for too many chapters.

Do you have any rituals, writing or real-world, when revising a manuscript?

I like to book myself into a hotel for a couple of days to immerse myself in the book. The more remote the better. I like to go to places out in the country where I can go for a walk to give myself a break and wool-gather.

Essentially, my concept of what it is to be a writer was formed by watching James Caan in Misery at an impressionable age.

In what format do you revise, paper or computer?

As above, I print out a hard copy to read through and make notes, but after that I go back to the computer, save a new version of the file, and do my edits on the screen. I set my documents up with headers for each chapter so that it’s easy to navigate around the document and to switch the order of chapters if necessary.

How messy is the revision process – can you go in and repair areas or does the whole manuscript get decimated?

I quite like the process of pulling it apart and putting it back together again. Generally there will be some parts that don’t need too much work. Other parts will need major surgery, others will be taken out altogether. I’m an adder, so my books usually put on ten thousand extra words between the first draft and final draft. While it’s a net gain in word count, I’m still cutting stuff that doesn’t work and killing darlings as well as adding new material.

Is revision an overhaul of the story or is it minor editing?

The first run is usually more of an overhaul, but after that it settles down into a series of smaller and smaller edits until (in theory) I get it right.

What’s the biggest change you’ve made to a story during this process?

One thing I tend to do a lot of work on after the first draft is the ending. In one case, I expanded the ending and changed my mind about who the villain was! That obviously entailed going back and laying a lot of the groundwork earlier in the book so it felt natural.

When first drafting, many writers keep track of progress by counting words in a day. How do you make sure you’re progressing as you’re revising?

Good question, and with editing there isn’t as easy a way of gauging your progress as keeping track of words per day when writing a draft. I usually have a deadline on edits, so I’ll know it has to be finished by a certain date and work back from there, working out how many pages I need to cover a day.

Of course, some pages need more editing than others, so it may take a few hours to edit the first hundred pages, and then days to edit the next twenty.

Do you prefer to write the first draft or do you prefer the revision process?

Whichever I’m not doing when someone asks me! I probably prefer revision – it’s easier to fix something that already exists than create something from nothing. I always say there are hundreds of ways to fix a first draft; there’s only one way to fix a blank page.

What do you drink while you’re working?

I really want to give a more rock n roll answer, like Jim Beam black label, but usually it’s coffee, switching to tea when I’ve had too much caffeine. Occasionally I’ll have a beer.

How long does this process take and what shape is the book now in?

It usually takes a few weeks to do it right, although when I’m against a deadline, I need to cram that work into less time. When I’m getting close to finishing I’ll work way into the night fixing the last few things.

You never really get to a point when you think it’s perfect, you just get to a point where you’ve done as much as you can and it’s time to stop.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Writing a first draft

A while ago, I was asked by fellow crime writer Rebecca Bradley to contribute to her blog series on writing a first draft. You should definitely check the series out if you want to hear about lots of different ways to write the first draft of a book. Head over to her blog to read the others. There are tons of them, and it's a treasure trove of useful advice and tips for any writer.

How many ways are there? As many as there are authors. More, in fact. Big thanks to Rebecca for letting me repost my contribution here.

When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?

The first thing I do is to start noting down all of the ideas I have about the new project and start trying to get a very basic plot outline scribbled down. It’s always interesting looking back once I’ve finished a book to how radically different the finished product is from the first few ideas, but there are always some good scenes or characters or even lines of dialogue that make it through from inception to completion.

Do you have a set routine approaching it?

I’m still fairly new to this, so I’m experimenting with different ways to approach a new book. Having now written four novels, I’m beginning to work out the things to do to make my life easier. The most important thing is to write a rough but reasonably detailed synopsis that gives me the main characters and the key scenes. From experience, that synopsis changes a lot as I write, but it’s important to fool myself into thinking I know what I’m doing.

Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?

Depends where I am. If I’m out and about when I have an idea, I’ll usually write in a notebook or type some bullet points into the notes app on my phone. As soon as I get near a computer though, I like to transcribe my notes and start to arrange them into a coherent order. There’s one very important reason to do this as soon as possible, and that’s the fact that I have real trouble reading my own handwriting. I think I missed my calling as a doctor.

How important is research to you?

Quite important, because I like to ground my novels in reality as far as possible to balance out the more outlandish thriller-y elements. I don’t overdo research before I start writing, though – a) because it’s a great excuse for procrastination, and b) because the temptation to dump all the research you’ve done into the book is strong. I try to write as much of the book as possible and then research the gaps in my knowledge… which are numerous! The good thing about research is it will often give you a great idea for a new plot twist, or a solution to a story problem you’d been struggling with.

How do you go about researching?

Like most writers these days, I do a lot of Googling. The internet is an incredible resource for lots of things, from the minutiae of firearms to flight schedules to street views from all over planet Earth. I also read factual books and newspaper or magazine articles about topics that are relevant to whatever I’m writing. It’s always good to have visited the place you’re writing about (assuming it exists), but even when you’ve been to a place you can always learn more by reading about it. How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye? I always have a few notebooks on the go and try to record ideas and promising-looking research avenues as I find them. Quite often a newspaper article or website will have really useful information, so I email the pages to myself and store them in a (now gigantic) folder called ‘INTERESTING STUFF FOR BOOKS’

Tell us how that first draft takes shape?

I just try to plough ahead, knowing that it isn’t going to be perfect or pretty, but that it’s important to get a first draft to work on. It’s like working on any big project – you have good days and bad days. Sometimes you’ll make a breakthrough and get a lot of words down and they seem to be reasonably good words, other days you’ll be spinning your wheels, wondering if you should just give up on the whole thing. On those days, it’s important just to get some words down, no matter how clumsy, and trust that you’ll be able to fix them later on.

Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?

No – I just need space and time to write. That’s the challenging part. The main ritual is making sure I get time to write every day, whether it’s last thing at night or during lunch.

Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?

Unfortunately I don’t have the luxury of withdrawing from the world as I have a day job and young children, so I have to make the most of the available time. I think being forced to engage with the real world helps, though. You need to know about real life and real people to do the job.

What does your work space look like?

At the moment, I’m a writer without a workspace. The office is going to be redecorated, and so I have to make to with the kitchen table, the couch, or sitting on the floor with my back to the wall. Luckily I’ve never been the sort of writer who needs a perfect environment in which to write. [edit: I have an office again now. Still do a lot of writing on the couch and at coffee shops]

Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?

Mostly just keep getting the words down. Occasionally, if I have a really bright idea of how to fix an earlier scene I might go back and tweak a little, but mostly it’s about gritting my teeth and focusing on the finish line. I see many writers counting words in a day.

Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?

Definitely a word counter. I always aim to do at least 500 words a day. Most days I do more than that, but it’s important to have a realistic target that’s not too intimidating. So, that first draft is down.

Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in? 

My last couple of books have been written to deadline, so much faster than before I had a book deal. It takes me about 4-5 months to get a rough draft down, but that’s very rough indeed. After that it’s usually another month or two to get it in a good enough shape to send to my publisher. The most recent book is my most ambitious and sprawling to date, and it took a lot more time to whip into shape.

In what format do you like to read it through, e-reader, paper or the computer screen?

The first time I read through I have to print out. For some reason you miss the mistakes more easily on a screen. Later on, I send the document to my Kindle to read over a more polished draft.

What happens now that first draft is done?

Ideally, I take a break for a few weeks and come back to it fresh, but the available time doesn’t always allow that. When I come back to the draft the first thing I do is print it out and go through with a pencil and a notebook and lots of different coloured highlighters working out everything that needs to be fixed. There’s always a lot that needs fixed.

Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It’s been a pleasure having you Mason.

It’s been a pleasure for me too!

Friday, 11 August 2017

Win a signed book by me and a doodle by Ava

Competition time again.

This time, you can be in with a chance of winning a signed copy of the third Carter Blake book The Time to Kill (aka Winterlong). You'll also get some nice chocolate and an inspirational doodle that my more-famous-than-I'll-ever-be daughter Ava has kindly contributed.

To enter, all you have to do is make sure you're signed up to my Readers Club by midnight UK time on Friday 25th August. The lucky winner will be randomly picked from the whole list (so if you're already a member, you're automatically entered) and contacted by email.

Go here to sign up!

I'll happily dedicate the book if you desire, and post it with the other goodies to wherever you are. It's open to anyone, anywhere in the world. Good luck!

Friday, 4 August 2017

Top five writing tips

I'm appearing at the excellent Bute Noir lit fest this weekend - come and say hello if you're on the island!

In the meantime, here's a summer repeats. A while ago the excellent tartan noir author Michael J. Malone asked me to contribute my top 5 tips on being a writer to his blog. Head over there to check out some of the other great advice, and see below for what I said:

1. There’s no secret formula

The best preparation for being a writer is to read a lot and write a lot. Everyone says this, but that’s because it’s true. Like all writers, I started out as a reader. I always enjoyed creative writing at school, but reading widely helps you to work out what sort of stories you want to tell.  The other biggie is to take it seriously. If you want to write for a living, you have to treat it like a real job and show up for work, even on the days you don’t particularly feel like it.

2. You need a system, but everyone has a different one

I used to work in fits and burst, writing loads one day and then not doing anything for weeks at a time while I pondered all of the wonderful books I wasn’t writing. I had been told that a serious writer needs to write 1,000 or 2,000 words a day, and that seemed like an impossible task to fit in amongst all of the other responsibilities and distractions of everyday life.

My breakthrough came when one of my friends suggested just writing 500 words a day. That let me focus on a manageable goal, but at the same time, the words started to build up fast: 500 words a day, six days a week is 3,000 words. In four weeks you have 12,000 words. In six months, you have a first draft of a novel.

Everyone’s different when it comes to laying the groundwork. You don’t necessarily need to painstakingly craft your 3 act structure or write detailed biographies of every major and minor character. Stephen King doesn’t plot at all. James Ellroy constructs elaborate 300-page plot outlines.

They both write great books. Me? I try to plot in advance as far as possible, knowing that I’ll improvise a lot on the journey.

3. You need to put yourself out there

If you want to maximise your chances of somebody publishing your work, you need to let people know about it. Submit stories to magazines and competitions. Blog and tweet. Go to literary festivals and chat to authors and publishers in the bar. Do everything you can, because you never know what’s going to help.

The breakthrough for me was one of the things that took the least effort: I posted a few of my short stories on the HarperCollins Authonomy website (now sadly departed), and against the odds, it resulted in a contact from the agent who now represents me.

Even now I’m published, I think it’s important to make sure I’m as visible as possible, which means doing festivals, library events, guest blogs, interviews and basically never saying no to anything that gives me an opportunity to reach new readers.

4. You can learn from every writer

I’ve been inspired and motivated by so many writers. Not just crime writers, either: SF, historical, graphic novels, literary, horror, non-fiction. Listen to established writers and work out how their suggestions chime with your own methods and experience.

And you don’t just learn from the nuggets of actual writing advice like…

Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” (Elmore Leonard)

Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.” (Neil Gaiman)

Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” (Stephen King)

…but you learn just as much by reading authors in the genre you aspire to work in and beyond. If you read enough, you’ll start to notice things you can learn from, like a clever plot twist, or the way dialogue can do the heavy-lifting on character development, or a really amazing opening line.

And you can also learn from not-so-good books, from the flat-out terrible, to the ones that almost work but don’t quite. You start to see the pitfalls to avoid. And even if you think a book just plain sucks, you can still learn from it by working out what made it suck, and then not doing that.

One of the best pieces of advice I got came from comic book writer Mark Millar. At one of his events he spoke about knowing a lot of people who said they were writing a novel or a screenplay, but what they were actually doing was sitting around in coffee shops with a laptop talking about writing a novel or a screenplay. It reminded me of the sign Harry Bosch keeps on his desk: Get off your ass and knock on doors. The writer’s memo should be the opposite: Sit your ass down and write some words, something like that.

5. It’s the best job in the world

The most pleasant surprise is that my dream job really doesn’t disappoint. You have to love writing, of course, because there’s a lot of that to do. But all of the other stuff is so much fun too: events, signings, working with publishers on making the book better than you thought it could be, seeing early proofs of the cover, walking into an bookshop or library and seeing a real-live book with actual words you made up inside it.

I’ve done a lot of different jobs: some which I’ve enjoyed, some I’ve hated. All in all, I would have to say being a writer is substantially more fun than real life.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Not the Booker Prize 2017

Don't Look For Me is on the (extremely long) longlist for the Guardian's Not the Booker Prize 2017. If you'd like to make me very happy by casting a vote for me, here's how:


All you have to do is cast your vote in the comments below the article.

You need to choose two books from the longlist, from two different publishers, and accompany those choices with a short review of at least one of your chosen books. It would also be very helpful if you could include the word “vote”.

Here is a template for submitting your vote for the Not the Booker shortlist. Using this template will ensure your vote is properly structured and won't be discarded!

[yourusername] - Vote # 1 - [Book title only]*
[yourusername] - Vote # 2 - [Book title only]*

[A review of one of the two books. We're looking for something like 100 words, give or take, but we're very generous regarding the word count. Only one review is required, but we'd love to hear your thoughts on the second book too.]

[Anything else you want to tell us, including a review of your second book. We'll read it all, I promise.]

The review should be something above 100 words long, although as our happy and glorious terms and conditions state, we don’t promise a perfect count. Please just make it look like you care.
It’s that easy. So let’s get voting. You’ve got just over a week. The deadline is 23.59 BST on Monday 7 August 2017.


Always nice to be on a list, and I believe this is my first mention in the Guardian, which is nice.

If you're looking for another choice for your second vote, June Taylor's Losing Juliet, Jay Stringer's How to Kill Friends and Implicate People and Derek Farrell's Death of a Devil are also very good shouts, but there's loads of good stuff on this list, which is kind of the point, I suppose.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Fringe elements

Quite naturally for me, I'm appearing on the fringe of things a couple of times over the next few weeks.

First up, I'm excited to be part of the special Two Crime Writers and a Microphone podcast recording at the Harrogate festival this Friday:

Steve Cavanagh and Luca Veste play 'Two Truths and a Lie' with top crime writers A.K. Benedict, Elle Croft, Mason Cross, Julie Cohen and Isabel Ashdown for their popular podcast Two Crime Writers and a Microphone.

Watch live from The Incident Room studio!

Click here to book tickets [SOLD OUT]

...and in August I'll be appearing as part of Blackwells Bookshop's Writers at the Fringe event running alongside the Edinburgh festival:

Now in its tenth year, Blackwell's Writers at the Fringe brings you once again the best in Scottish writing.  Every Thursday during the Festival we invite a selection of Scottish performers to give us a taste of their work.

New and unpublished works of literary art stands alongside established novelists, from folk music to contemporary fiction and all that is found in between.

Thursday 24th August
Sara Sheridan
Peter Ross
Natalie Fergie
Daniel Shand
Mason Cross

The event is free, click here to book your ticket

For more information or if you would like a signed copy of any of the books because you can't make it to the event, please contact Ann Landmann on 0131 622 8222 or

Check out my events page to see where else I'm going to be, including Bute Noir, Oban and Bloody Scotland.

Hope to see you over the summer...

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Presumed Dead - cover

Book five has a title and a very sexy cover. I think this is my favourite UK cover yet - it's really different to the previous ones, but does a brilliant job of selling the story.

See below for a taster of what the new book is about. Presumed Dead will be published in the UK on 19 April 2018, and you can preorder the trade paperback here (I'll post links to ebook, audio when they become available):


Fifteen years ago, an unidentified killer terrorised northern Georgia, killing hikers with two shots from a pistol, before disposing of the bodies along the remote trails and in the rivers in the vicinity of Devil Mountain.

The killer was never brought to justice.


Carter Blake has returned home for the first time in many years. The visit stirs old memories, including a girl from school who vanished without a trace.

Blake runs into the mother of the girl, who mentions a case she's come across in Georgia, where someone is convinced their relative is still alive, fifteen years on.

Adeline Connor was the Devil Mountain Killer's last suspected victim. She vanished without a trace.

So why is her brother so convinced she's still alive?