The big board of truth


I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.


A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:


I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.


Strata and substrata


Tapestry from the Ramses Wissa Wassef Arts Centre, Cairo

My favourite technique for building a novel is to bang all ideas together and see which stick: which complement and cohere and which fracture and fall apart. Characters, plot-threads, locations: they’re all ideas. Some will naturally work together, some will fragment and mutate, and some will just fall to the floor to be swept to the Municipal Recycling Centre of the mind.

The problem is that some ideas seem to go together quite well, but to make them work within a story requires a whole new level of intrigue and opacity. Generally speaking, complex is good: a twist – that famous, legendary twist – requires a substrata to run through the novel that the reader doesn’t even know they’re mining as they progress: in other words, a hidden layer of complexity within the story. Without multiple threads the story is bland, unchallenging, the simplest of the simples.

I like simple. I write adventures dressed up in speculative clothing. Adventures are perhaps the simplest stories as they’re fundamentally linear: good guy gets into a series of scrapes, each one sending her further towards the final resolution. But even here we need the complexity of betrayal, of emotional turmoil, of the realisation that they couldn’t trust their masters. Without this you have dissatisfaction, a children’s story populated with cardboard cut-outs.

This is not meant as an insult children’s literature, by the way. Some is outstanding: I’d point at Terry Pratchett’s Carnegie Medal-winning The Amazing Morris and his Educated Rodents. It’s a ‘simple’ story, but it’s brilliantly told and – well – brilliant.

Anyway, I find I’m becoming more complex as I learn the craft of writing. I want layers. I want secrets. I want to weave a diverse cast together and keep myriad plates spinning.

But when do you know when you’ve got enough threads? How do you know when you’ve gone too far? If you just keep weaving string upon string together not only will you never have a whole completed tapestry but you’ll just confuse and bore the reader.

I have a new idea. I went to a free festival at the weekend and saw a sideshow that inspired me. I’ve rammed it against my primary work-in-progress (which at the moment exists only in my mind) and it created interesting shapes. But to make it work in story form, how much work do I need to do? Are the changes coherent? Does it make the novel into something else entirely?

At the moment I have no idea. One day I’ll learn how to do this writing thing properly.

On location


The Carnac stones, Brittany

I have a problem. Actually I have many problems, but let’s keep the focus small, shall we? This particular problem is that I lack imagination. I struggle to write about places that I’ve never been.

I want to write a novel set in Brittany. I love its history, its myths and legends (which I don’t know enough about) and its position on the fringes. There’s just one problem: I’ve never been there.

I’m willing to bet that most novels are set either in a place that the writer knows well or a fantasy representation thereof. I hold as Exhibit A the writings of JRR Tolkien: what is the Shire but the idealised Black Country of his childhood? What is Mordor but the industrial ruin he saw it becoming? Donna Leon writes about Venice in a way that only a lover can.

Thus The Ballad of Lady Grace was set in an (unnamed) Norwich, where I was living at the time. Chivalry was set in Bradford, where I grew up. Oneiromancer was ostensibly set in London, but really it’s every inner city I’ve ever known, seen on television or read about. Only Night Shift was set in a place I’d never been – Antarctica – and even there the ‘location’ was the cold, not the landscape. I’ve been cold many times.

Maybe fantasy or sci-fi are easier because we can take our favourite elements, our favourite geographies, and build a world from the pieces. But I want to write about a real place, or at least a place based on a real land. I want it to taste right.

You might be saying ‘well, can’t Google give you location? Can’t Street View give you everything you need?’ And the internet is a wonderful, transformative tool. But location is a lot more than just geography and architecture. It’s about the way the air tastes. It’s the way the mist lingers in the valleys, and the way the sun finally burns it away. It’s the humidity, and the birdsong, and the berries in the hedgerow. It’s whether dogshit is picked up or left to rot in the long grass. It’s the buzz of insects, the looks of the villagers; it’s holloways or causeways. It’s claustrophobia or agoraphobia or hydrophobia or sunstroke.

It’s also how it changes in different conditions, in different seasons, in different streets.

This is why I’m considering moving my Brittanic adventures to Devon, where I can smell the tall hedges and the narrow lanes and feel the waves crashing against undercut stacks. Except that I’m sick of the southern-British bias in writing. I’m a northerner at heart; why not write about the Pennine hills?


Because Plot. Because I’ve been shaping story around the politics of (real and imagined) Brittany. Crowbarring it into Devon might work, but a Yorkshire secessionist league – whilst obviously something for us all to dream of – is currently stretching suspension of disbelief a little far.

There is another possibility, and that’s that I’m subconsciously using all this uncertainty to allow me to delay the actual writing of the damn novel. Really what I need to do is get the hell on with it; make my decision and stick with it.

But location is more than a backdrop. It’s a character, an ever-present – an ever-presence, even. A change in location can mark a change in mood, in intensity. Location matters. Give it the respect it deserves and the whole novel will be the better for it.

Doll’s house


This seriously disturbing ‘doll’s house’ is the work of Giai-Miniet. There’s more here, if you’re interested

I was going to write today about plotting and the difficulties thereof. But last night I realised that’s not what I’m struggling with. Plot is all about people, about what they do and what they cause to happen. I’m more concerned with the architecture: with giving my cast a place to inhabit, to interact with and to burn to the ground.

I’ve been struggling with making my ideas work. I have my protagonists – it’s a sequel to Oneiromancer – so that’s done. I have my location (contemporary Brittany). I have an idea of what drives the story and where I want it to end up. But I can’t get down and actually write the damn thing because I don’t have my backdrop: I don’t know what drives the as-yet-uncreated minor characters or villain(s); I don’t know what’s happened before my characters got on stage.

A good book is all about the creatures who inhabit its pages. No-one (these days) starts with reams of backstory. It must start in the middle, after the ball’s been rolled and as the pins are tremble at its approach. The die has been cast but the score is obscured.

But the author needs to know what that score is. I need to have built my doll’s house, to know the position of every wall, every piece of furniture (for a good solid chair is very handy for beating down any giant mutant rats that may sneak in), every hidden passageway. Then my characters can move in and – hopefully – burn the beds, rip off the wallpaper, dig into the cellar and maybe hack into next-door’s wifi.

But (most of) the walls will remain. My world. My political machinations. The bits that will only be revealed to my cast as they explore: the skeletons that’ll be exhumed; the maids to lust after; the cows that give blood instead of milk. The cast will change their world as they walk (run, career, hurtle) through it. But I need to know the nature of the diorama they’ve just been cast into.

A good plot allows your characters to pull down the world into which they’re been scattered. But the world has to have been there first.



How I imagine my Muse

At the moment I am trying to get down to a new novel and it’s not happening. I am stuck before I’ve begun. The words are not coming.

In previous novels I’ve toyed with ideas, worked out the feel of a novel, found a place to aim for – and then waited until the opening scene in mind. Then I wrote it, and the scene after, and the scene after that, until I had a story. Very linear, very much finding my way as I went (although not without forward planning: notes were kept as I went along, thoughts thunked, futures sketched).

Now that strategy’s not working. I’m trying to write two new novels and I’m just not able to get down to either. This is possibly down to the lack of strong liquor or hard drugs necessary to unblock my imagination-gland. More likely it’s that – thought I have the feel and know strong story-elements in both – I don’t have enough of a big picture. My worlds aren’t vivid enough. Something within the story lacks coherence.

My answer? To go back to my spreadsheets. Every novel has its accompanying batch of spreadsheets. From character ideas, random notes and finally a scene-by-scene breakdown, spreadsheets is where it’s at. I’ve already got a very broad ‘Act One, Act Two, Act Three’ sheet. My next task is to do a more detailed chapter-by-chapter run through that will almost certainly be ignored when the writing actually begins in earnest.

I’ve always resisted the division into the world into ‘planners’ and ‘free-wheelers’ (I refuse to use the word ‘pantsers’ as it’s so ugly). It’s never that clear cut. No-one – surely – writes a detailed scene-by-scene breakdown of a whole novel. And no-one can produce a (good) novel without looking forwards and making a note or two for a future scene. Some characters might just come straight from the subconscious fully-formed, but at least a modicum of work is needed before pen strikes paper.

Like most people I lie somewhere within the spectrum: a linear writer who makes notes and addresses issues sporadically as he progresses. So why am I planning more now? Well it’s partly because I don’t know where to begin. I have three – rather samey – starting-points in mind, representing each character/group. This obviously won’t make a good story.

Writing is work. My muse is washed-up, alcoholic on a park bench in a piss-wet hippy-skirt with earrings twisted painfully in her dreads. Maybe the gods of inspiration will drop a fiver in her hat and she’ll return, nourished, clean and ready to swing for the fences. But at the moment I’m on my own.

Different challenges require different responses. I have problems, but if I want to call myself a writer I have to work through them, because work is a strategy. Sometimes the best answer is to sit and think, to scribble, to cross out, to keep on pushing until something happens and the rose finally unfurls.

So it’s back to the spreadsheets with me.

Dead Lesbian


As Katy Perry once didn’t sing, ‘I killed a girl and I liked it.’ I know how she doesn’t feel; I’ve killed a lesbian at the end of Oneiromancer, and now I’m afraid I’m part of the Dead Lesbian Syndrome narrative.

For those what haven’t come across DLS (AKA ‘bury your gays’), it’s well summed-up here:

“Often…gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple, often the one who was more aggressive in pursuing a relationship, thus “perverting” the other one, has to die at the end.”

I wrote the novel before I was aware of DLS and, at the time, thought it was justified artistically and dramatically. Now I worry. I also worry that my worries are driven by fear of being accused of unconscious homophobia as much as they are of being unconsciously homophobic, which is taking ‘I don’t like myself’-ness to a whole new level.

The problem is that I don’t know what to do about it. I feel trapped. To change my manuscript to remove the death seems like pandering. Emotionally, the novel needs that death at that point. For reasons of pathos, and because it’s well mortared into the plot. I still think the death is justified. And yet I read things like:

“Taking the route of killing off yet another gay character teaches us that gay people are expendable and not worth keeping around. It’s a plot device that needs to be examined by every creative person who writes for TV, film or any other medium. It matters how LGBT characters are handled in the media. Representation matters.”

View story at

and I don’t want to be someone who perpetuates damaging myths, memes or moralities. All writing is political. Oneiromancer is my most political novel so far, but killing lesbians is not part of my agenda. I care about the messages I communicate, consciously or not.

So I worry. I worry about what it says about me and I worry about what the reaction will be. I worry that I’m worrying too much. I’m not going to change my manuscript at this point; I’m going to wait for an agent/editor/publisher – or public opinion – to tell me what to do.

This is my alibi. At least if I can show that I was aware of what was going on and that I agonised over it I can hide behind the ‘but I meant well, Officer’ defence. But this cisgender white male is worried that won’t stand up in court.

The nasty scene

Mr Punch

I’m at The Nasty Scene.

I’ve been dreading this. The most controversial scene in my novel; never have I written something I’m so uncertain about. It’s grown to occupy a special place in my canon – a watershed, a step forwards in maturity, confidence and self-assertion. But also sadistic, according to one beta-reader, and a moment that more than one person said would make them stop reading any further.

So what’s a boy to do? I’ve already chopped and changed and dragged it from its original home – about a third of the way through the novel to just past the half. In doing so I’ve had to seriously rewrite adjacent scenes and – with great reluctance – sacrifice a scene I rather liked. I’m also engaged with making the nasty scene better in itself: tackling errors of point-of-view and language.

But is it fundamentally unsaveable? Surely it’s possible to rewrite it so the outcome, story-wise, is the same without the vicious extremes. Of course it is; just because it’s become an idée fixe doesn’t mean I can’t shift my paradigm and dig a way round the obstacle.

But I wrote the scene like this for a reason. It’s supposed to be unpleasant. It’s supposed to be upsetting, to be a moment of visceral horror. It’s meant to be nasty. A key moment in the plot (although, being truly honest to myself, right now it’s hard to remember quite why it’s so important). It happens because of Reasons and causes Consequences. That’s what plot’s all about, right?

Mr Punch Temple of Fame

I guess the question I’m asking is this: how far is too far?

I know the answer to this: you’ve gone too far when the scene you’ve written detracts from the novel as a whole; when it’s out-of-step, a lurch to the side, pornography-in-Beatrix-Potter-style unsettlement.

But this is not the only unpleasant scene in Oneiromancer. It’s not a children’s novel. It has death and blood and pain (and hope too; it’s not relentlessly grim, I promise) and to pull punches would be to write a different story. I can’t take out a scene just because it offends the sensibilities of a few.

It’s a question of balance. Unfortunately I don’t have the experience (yet) to know where my pivot is.

You can read a bit more about this here, if you’re in any way interested.