Friday, 28 September 2018

Flip it!

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog about my writing process, and I promised ages ago that I’d do more of these. So today I’m going to talk a bit about planning.

Let’s get one thing straight right away: I’m not a meticulous planner (much to the chagrin of some editors). In the spectrum of ‘Are you a planner or a pantser?’, I fall pretty much in-between. I do some planning – sometimes lots of it. But I know the plan will change once I start writing – the plan is guidelines, more than actual rules. Yarr.

My planning starts life in a notebook. I carry one everywhere, so I can jot down anything that pops into my head about the current project. Once I’ve got enough notes that a story has presented itself, the fun begins. That’s when I take a pack of Sharpies (other brands are available), and a big flipchart pad, and start mind-mapping story elements. I have one or more flipchart pages for almost every book and short story I’ve written/am writing.

I don’t always go about this process the same way, and sometimes I do multiple pages for different purposes, so let’s take a look at some specific examples.
The Iscariot Sanction
This particular page is really just a plot chart, but doing it this way allowed me to identify the gaps in the story, and add extra scenes easily, then link them all with arrows later. The eagle-eyed amongst you will see that The Iscariot Sanction changed quite a bit after the planning. The key points are still there, but in this version John Hardwick started out in Alaska investigating the thinning of the veil, while Lillian battled vampires in London, then I brought them together at the midpoint. I also changed Sir Arthur’s name (which we implemented in the final edits of the Lazarus Gate, too) from Cecil to Furnival.

The Red Tower
I do this type of chart occasionally for fine detail, and I use a flipchart rather than an Excel spreadsheet so I can pin it up somewhere over my desk and refer to it easily. This is an hour-by-hour breakdown of character movements in Sherlock Holmes: The Red Tower – absolutely invaluable when dealing with multiple characters interacting over a short period of time.

As you can see, flipcharts don’t always survive contact with #bdog…

A Betrayal in Blood
This is the more usual way for me to start my flipcharting, but I’ve saved it till last because this particular example is the most interesting.

What you have here is the very first mind map for Betrayal in Blood, then called ‘The Trial of Van Helsing’. There are loads of little details that didn’t make the final book. The main reason was one of space. When I sold Betrayal, I’d assumed it would be a standalone book, and therefore length wouldn’t be an issue. It was only after I’d started writing that I found out it was to be published as part of an ongoing series of Sherlock Holmes pastiches, and therefore was subject to a strict word count. Chapters had to be cut, characters had to be conflated. A lot of my research into Stoker’s anomalous notes on Dracula sadly went unseen – I never got to really characterise Aytown, singleton, Young and Windeshoeffel, although I managed to put a little nod to them all in the book. There was also no room for the royal conspiracy I had planned, and to save space I ended up making Van Helsing far more villainous, and Arthur Holmwood less so.

Not all of these changes were to save space. Some became apparent during the writing process as being overly complex, or exemplifying the sin of showing too much research on the page. What we ended up with was a much tighter, more action-packed narrative, with clearer-cut villains and less ambiguity of motive. I’d love to revisit this plan one day, if only to write the essay about the inconsistencies in the ‘crew of light’s’ story.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Nothing to See Here...

I realised this morning that my blog has become rather neglected of late. Nothing to worry about - far from it, in fact. It's just that 2018 is the busiest year I've had since becoming a full-time writer and freelancer over five years ago, and finding time to blog, or even think sometimes, is getting hard!

Normal service will resume shortly. In the meantime, some quick updates:

  • I'll be attending FantasyCon 2018 next month, which this year is in the lovely city of Chester. Currently in the process of sorting out which panels I'll be on, and whether or not to do a reading. Would love to see you there!
  • Anthology news: First up, my new Sherlock Holmes story, the Cuckoo's Hour, is out now in the excellent Gaslight Gothic from Edge Publishing. Some words on that here. Secondly, I'm delighted to have a story in Marie O'Regan's ghost story anthology, Phantoms, available from Titan Books just in time for Hallowe'en.
  • Next month also sees the launch of my first licensed novel (and my first published fantasy novel), Destiny's Call. Set in Osprey Games' Ghost Archipelago world, it's an action-driven tale about a young boy with mysterious powers, fighting the good fight far from home while the whole world seems stacked against him. Also, check out the fab cover by Dmitry Burmak, right.
  • Speaking of fantasy novels, I'm currently writing one! Yes, the next project is a bit of a departure from Victoriana, but will be recognisable to fans as a dark tale of intrigue and mystery.
  • The tabletop games side of my writing life has gone a bit crazy. I should have some big announcements to make over the next few months, including one tremendous, super-top-secret licensed property that I've been working on for months. Almost ready to come up for air...
That's all for now: more updates soon. Do not adjust your set.

UPDATE: Contributor copies of Phantoms arrived today. Pretty thrilled I got to be a 'cover author' this time, especially given the incredible line-up.

Friday, 20 July 2018

Here's Negan!

If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead and, in particular, tabletop gaming, then some pretty exciting news broke this month. Mantic Games have announced the imminent arrival of Here’s Negan, a board game (designed by Yours Truly) based on the popular TWD prequel comics.

Unlike The WalkingDead: All Out War, which is a wargame with board game elements, Here’s Negan is a full-on board game experience, with players creating a walker-infested factory using illustrated game tiles.

The game picks up right where the comic book leaves off, with Negan becoming the leader of his fledgling group of Saviors, and leading them into the factory to clear it out, ready to transform it into the Sanctuary. In this game, Negan is not controlled by the players, but instead makes his way through the factory layout towards the objective, while you and your fellow players must clear a path for him, and achieve the mission goals at the same time. It makes for some tense, frenetic situations, and failure at even the smallest level means you’re dangerously close to getting a jab from Lucille…

The tricky balancing act for this game was to create that sense of both a cooperative and a competitive experience simultaneously. You want to win, but you also don’t want the other characters to die, because not only will it make it that much harder to achieve the objectives, but Negan will be most displeased! In order to measure your success, you must achieve Reputation points by impressing Negan. But be warned – he’s a fickle son of a gun, and he thinks you’re sucking up he might just bawl you out on the factory floor, and attract a truck-ton of trouble in the form of ravenous walkers!

Dwight, when he was still pretty(ish).
There are five playable characters in the game: Dwight, Sherry, Tara, John and Laura, each with their own specialties and weaknesses. Again, you really need to work as a team, but at the same time you don’t want to let the others steal your glory.

As you scour the factory, you can pick up new and improved equipment and weapons, as well as triggering random events that might be detrimental or beneficial. All the while, as in All Out War, the Threat Tracker ticks along inexorably, ramping up the tension and bringing more walkers into play. If it reaches its max level before you achieve the scenario goals, it’s game over!

The Walking Dead: Here’s Negan is available from Mantic Games and all good stockists from November 2018, and you can pre-order it now!

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Cloud Cuckoo Land

When Holmes and Watson are visited by the young Miss Harding, they cannot guess that they are about to embark on one of their darkest and most mysterious cases. Miss Harding's late uncle has left his entire estate to one of four cousins, but only the cousin who solves an elaborate puzzle can claim the prize – a puzzle contained within the very fabric of the bizarre Atreus Manor. The house has already claimed the life of one of the cousins, and drove another to madness, and Miss Harding will happily give up her claim if Holmes can get to the bottom of the secret. But is she really ready for the revelations about her family that the world's greatest detective will unearth?

Cover art by Dave Elsey

Really pleased to have an original Sherlock Holmes story published in the wonderful Gaslight Gothic anthology, edited by JR Campbell and Charles Prepolec. It contains stories by some of the finest horror and Holmes writers around, including Mark Morris, Steve Volk, James Lovegrove and Angela Slatter, so I’m delighted to be in such fine company.

My story, The Cuckoo’s Hour, is partly inspired by the recent trend for 'Escape Room' puzzles, though it’s really born of my obsession with Gothic fiction, especially Poe, and livened up with a healthy dose of classic Horror inspiration from the likes of Hammer and Amicus, that I've loved since my teens. Indeed, some of the same themes were used in my recent Holmes novel, The Red Tower (no surprise really, as I wrote them concurrently), although The Cuckoo’s Hour is rather more ‘sensational’ as the Victorians would have it.

But don’t take my word for it: the first review is up already at Sci-Fi and Fantasy Reviewer:
The opening story by Mark A. Latham, The Cuckoo’s Hour, is not only a strong opening story and one of the best in the anthology, but also one of the best Sherlock Holmes stories I’ve ever come across. Latham seems to have an innate understanding of the Holmes canon and characters, as well as how to write gothic fiction, to the extent that there are times when the story feels less like a pastiche and more like a piece of fiction Conan Doyle might have written in his later, more spiritual years. It’s effective as both a detective story and a piece of quiet horror, and features an ending that is genuinely unnerving, both in terms of its implications and the subtle way that Latham introduces such a twist. 

If you’d like to know more, there’s a webcast with the editors here.