Thursday 19 December 2019

The End of the Year as we Know It

This year’s Lost Victorian Christmas card was designed by Jon Hart 
(check out #jonhartsart on Insta and Facebook).

It’s become a bit of a tradition that I write one final blog post near the end of December, and this year is no different.

It’s been a funny sort of year. I think I’ve been busier than ever since I started going freelance, but everything I’ve worked on is either top secret and under wraps, or not out for a while yet, so I don’t have much to show for my efforts. All of this groundwork should come to fruition in 2020 though, which will be a relief!

So what’s happening? Well, on the tabletop gaming front, the third edition of the Batman Miniature Game is about to hit the shelves. I’ve been working on the English translation and editing flat out for a few months. Knight Models are also continuing monthly releases for the Harry Potter Miniatures Adventure Game and the DC Universe Miniatures Game, so expect more stuff for those games very soon. The New Year will see the release of my biggest project of the year, The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms. This was a huge endeavour, starting out as a simple port of the Fallout: Wasteland Warfare system, but growing into its own beast of a game as the development process went on. In other news, I’ve just finished not one but two standalone board games, both top secret licences, which will hopefully launch next year. More news as it happens. Finally, there’s some really exciting stuff coming up for The Walking Dead (both Call to Arms – yes, the other one – and All Out War). To find out what it is, you have to listen carefully to the whispers…

From left: Sophie, Ali, James, and me!
(Thanks to Sophie for the pic)
The fiction front has been ominously quiet, and I do apologise for that (both to my readers, and to my long-suffering agent). I made a decision about 18 months ago to try something new. Something… gasp… not Victorian. In that time I’ve been working on a fantasy book, which is not only taking me absolutely ages, but has been suffering a bit as I’ve toiled away on the aforementioned games. It will be finished early next year, and then comes the task of finding a publisher! I’ve managed a few appearances this year, however, from seminars to panels. Staying in touch with the wider writing network is helping keep me sane.

It’s not been a great year for many people, and I’m sure lots of us will be glad to see the back of 2019. On a personal note, this was the year the gaming community lost Gustavo Cuadrado, my friend, and creator of the Batman Miniature Game, and that came as a suckerpunch. Political upheaval has made the world seem a bit grim at times. As much as I love a good social media rant, I am resolving to try to do a bit more good in the world next year, from charitable donations to simple acts of kindness. I don’t try to moralise too much, because I’m far from perfect, but when times are hardest, I think it’s more important than ever to grasp the nettle and help each other out: be excellent to each other, as two very wise men once said.

Which is a good place, I think, to end this post with a simple wish: that you all have a very merry Christmas (and/or non-denominational seasonal holiday), and a very happy new year.

Thursday 12 December 2019

Ghosts, Treat Them Gently

In blogs of days past, I’ve talked about ghosts on film, Christmas ghosts, and various weird tales. A few times, I’ve promised to write up a blog about my favourite spooky stories, but never really got round to it. Until now… (Dun… dun… DUUUNNN!)

It’s December. It’s my favourite time of the year, and I’m reading loads of short horror fiction. I’ve even done a stint at the UK Ghost Story Festival, where the following question was put to various panellists several times: What are your favourite ghost stories?

(Note: I’m looking primarily at stories about ghosts and malevolent presences here, not more broadly at horror and weird tales. That’s for another day…)

I’ve found it really hard to put together a top 5, and to be honest if you ask me on another day, you might get a different list. But as of now, here are the stories I would recommend to anyone wanting to scare themselves silly on a cold winter’s night.

The Woman in Black
Susan Hill
A modern classic, which has been turned into a stage play and two decent movies (one of which spawned a mediocre sequel), The Woman in Black is the quintessential ghost story. It’s told in the style of the masters (notably M R James), and follows many of James’s rules of the ghost story. It’s a short novella, so it just about qualifies for my list of short fiction, and it’s brilliant.

More by this author: Susan Hill has written a series of ghost stories now, some more successful than others. If you liked this, you’ll also (probably) like The Small Hand, and The Man in the Picture. (Maybe steer clear of Dolly and Printers’ Devil’s Court though. Even a writer of Hill’s quality can hit a dud.)

Image from the 1966 film adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You,
directed by Jonathan Miller who sadly passed away this year.
Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
M R James
Regular readers will be aware that I love M R James stories. It’s unhealthy. I re-read a bunch of them every year, re-watch the excellent BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, as well as the dramatic readings by Nunkie Theatre (do check those out if you have chance). His most famous story is Oh, Whistle, and with good reason. An all-time classic, cautionary tale, that’s perhaps rather too obvious for a top 5 list…

More by this author: There’s very little by James that wouldn’t make recommended reading, to be honest. I could well have picked The Tractate Middoth, the Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, Number 13, or the Treasure of Abbot Thomas in place of Oh, Whistle. Just grab one of the many collected editions (except that 150th anniversary edition I previously reviewed, with its shlonky editing) – you won’t be disappointed.

All Hallows
Walter de la Mare
Walter de la Mare takes some getting into if you aren’t used to the vernacular, because his prose is poetic and florid (probably because he was mainly a poet…), and his stories are almost all ambiguous to a fault. All Hallows is no exception. I’ve read this story dozens of times, and there’s no ‘true’ reading of it. Are there any ghosts in it at all? I think so, but it’s hard to tell. What you have here, then, is a masterpiece of atmosphere and sustained tension. The titular cathedral certainly leaves an impression, even if the spooks lie low.

More by this author: Another de la Mare story that doesn’t technically feature a ghost (but I which the characters are certainly haunted), Seaton’s Aunt is rightly regarded as one of the finest, most unsettling short stories ever written.

Dark Matter
Michelle Paver
Swiftly becoming regarded as another modern classic, and without my favourite ghost story of the last decade, this has all the elements of a really great unsettling story: incredible location, brooding atmosphere, isolation, tension between a closed circle of protagonists, and a really terrifying ghost! This tale of arctic exploration gone wrong is novella-length, but never drags, and includes some real heart-in-mouth scenes rendered vividly. Highly recommended.

More by this author: Michelle Paver is also responsible for Thin Air – a ghost story of a similar length, swapping the desolate Arctic Circle for a mountaineering expedition. For me, it’s a tad too similar to Dark Matter, and I found myself comparing the two a bit too often. I have no such qualms abour recommending Michelle’s recent full-length novel, Wakenhyrst, however. A ‘proper’ Gothic novel, with brooding locales, family secrets and malevolent forces at work – a real gem.

The Upper Berth
F Marion Crawford
The only thing I like better than polar exploration settings is seafaring stories. I’m an absolute sucker for them. The Upper Berth is one of the very best (and even recommended by M R James, which is how I originally came to read it). Sure, the scares might seem thin on the ground by today’s standards, but the pacing is fantastic, the setting wonderfully rendered, and the narration about as evocative as it comes.

More by this author: F Marion Crawford wrote several great ghost stories, most of which can be found in the usual anthologies of great Victorian stories. Of these, a special shout out to Man Overboard!, which was one of the stories that inspired The Lazarus Gate (in a roundabout sort of way), and The Dead Smile, whose resolution seems ridiculously clichéd today, but features some incredible lyrical prose.

Honourable Mentions
Just because I can never get my lists down short enough, here are the stories that almost made the top 5, and probably would on a different day!
·       The Signalman, Charles Dickens (what a denouement!)
·       The Inner Room, Robert Aickmann (none more ambiguous)
·       The Gateway of the Monster, William Hope Hodgson (one of Carnacki’s best cases)
·       The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (I mean, come on, it’s amazing)
·       Florrie, Adam Nevill (a genuinely original take on the ghost story).

(Wow, ten writers, and I didn’t even mention D K Broster or Henry James…)

And, naturally, if you find yourself in agreement with my choices, you might rather like my own novelette, The Ghost Writer, as well as the stories in the anthology Phantoms (including my own modern ghost story, One New Follower).

Friday 6 December 2019

Ghosts of Future Past

In my second December ghost story blog, I’m looking back at another panel from the recent UK Ghost Story Festival. Entitled History in the Making, this one compared and contrasted classic ghost stories with the modern form, and asked not only where the ghost story is headed in the future, but whether it’s even relevant to modern audiences.

(Like last time, I’m incorporating a summary of the discussion into my own thoughts on the topic, so a big shout-out to fellow panellists Laura Purcell and Paul Kane for their insights, and to our wonderful chair Sophie Draper for her thought-provoking questions.)

Sophie asks an inciteful question,
while I make my serious pondering face.
Any discussion of the modern ghost story should probably kick off with a look at the current masters of the form. For me, Michelle Paver and Adam Nevill are really excelling right now. John Connolly’s Night Music collections are truly superb. Meanwhile, aforementioned panellist Laura Purcell, along with Alison Littlewood, are proving that the long-form supernatural novel is very much thriving.

When you look at how the modern ghost story compares to the classics (M R James, Walter de la Mare, Elizabeth Gaskell, etc.), the parallels are really clear. In form and structure not a lot has really changed, and that’s probably due to the shared origin – those fireside tales I talked about in last week’s blog still form the basis of the

From left: Me, Laura Purcell,
and the greatest picture of Paul Kane ever taken.
traditional spooky story. What has changed, however, is the subject matter. The old clichés are generally best avoided (unless they can be subverted in a surprise twist). That’s not the same as conjuring a sense of the nostalgic, however – the Gothic form still thrives because its tropes are so familiar to the reader, and reading a good, slow-burn Gothic ghost story can be like slipping into a comfortable pair of slippers, voluntarily subjecting oneself to what M R James called a ‘pleasing terror’.

One thing that has changed, however, is the form and nature of the ghost itself. These days we find malevolent spirits inhabiting social media accounts, transmitting themselves like viruses, etching themselves onto old VHS tapes, or communicating through white noise on an untuned TV. It’s hardly surprising – what’s scarier than having your everyday life invaded by a malign presence? M R James said that a feature of the successful ghost story is that the spirits themselves are contemporaries of the protagonist. In the essay ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’, he said the modern idea of the ghost story had ‘setting and personages of the writer’s own day’. He was generally against ‘ancient’ ghosts – if a ghost ‘resembles a man in a pageant’, he didn’t think it was very scary.

Something we are seeing in the modern age, however, are new and interesting ways to tell a ghost story beyond the traditional printed or spoken word. The formalised short story is still pretty popular, but it’s being slowly superseded by things like creepypasta. Viral ghost stories – often manufactured, like Slenderman – have had a huge cultural impact. The ipad/monitor is the new fireside – kids are still scaring each other silly with ghost stories and urban legends; they just don’t have to contain it within their circle of friends any more. We tell ghost stories to strangers on the internet rather than to our family on Christmas Eve.

I think we’re going to see more interesting uses of modern technology and the ghost in the machine. Perhaps more of the blurring of lines between SF and the ghost story (I really like Adam Christopher’s the Burning Dark, which is really a ghost story set against the backdrop of an interstellar war). We’ve already seen lots of overlap between transhumanism and horror – the idea that we can transplant our consciousness into a server to live on after our bodies die (but then, is the mapped program really us? Does it contain our soul? Have we literally just turned ourselves into ghosts?) – these sorts of hyper-modern concepts are taking the ghost story to new places. After all, the ghost story has traditionally struggled to deal with modern technology – ghosts are less scary if you can take out your mobile and call for help, so storytellers used to simply use locations with no data or wifi. Oh no! But increasingly I think we’re seeing the ghosts actively using tech like phones to scare the pants off people. That text you received telling you to go to the spooky old house wasn’t really from your friend… There’s a bit of a primal fear attached to communication devices, where I suppose making a simple phone call could be a bit like conducting a séance – you never know who, or what, is on the other side.

Even this isn’t a new idea, of course – the Victorians were using electricity to commune with the dead 150 years ago. Parapsychologists use gadgets to detect and monitor ghosts, so why shouldn’t the ghosts use them back? Even my own story, One New Follower, features a ghost that used to get about when people saw it, then advanced to photography, and finally embraced the freedom granted by the Insta generation. Ghosts gotta move with the times.

One theme that has remained surprisingly strong in the ghost story is religion. In some respects, it’s understandable – after all, the ghost story really exists to help us wrestle with the big questions about the soul, and life after death, right? But society is growing increasingly secular, so it’s a big leap for most people to thing you can call a Catholic priest to exorcise the ghost. What if you don’t believe? What if the ghost doesn’t believe? Hollywood in particular seems to have an obsession with exorcisms, and the laying of ghosts by Christian priests and ministers, and we kind of accept that as a plot device. I do think we’re seeing less of that in British and world fiction. As soon as you can fix any haunting by calling a priest, you take away the spirit’s power. However, most people who read and enjoy ghost stories, and are scared by them, don’t really believe in ghosts any more than they believe in a god. So if you can suspend disbelief long enough to get scared, I guess you can handle the old consecration cliché.

(Speaking of belief, the panel was asked if we’d ever had a ghostly experience. We all had, in one form or another. I always say that I’ve seen enough to not rule anything out, but not enough to be sure of anything… the perfect amount to freak myself out).

I think the future of the ghost story is pretty healthy. It’s such a part of traditional storytelling in so many cultures around the world, that our grandkids will be telling them, and their grandkids, and so on. Will they be told in the same form? Well, I think a lot of that will depend on the creativity of the writers, and the power of changing trends. But our love of the pleasing terror isn’t go away any time soon.

Monday 2 December 2019

Scary Ghost Stories and Tales of the Glories…

If you’re a regular reader of the blog, you’ll know the drill by now: it’s December. That means I’m about to start obsessing over ghost stories, because in my weird ol’ head, ghosts and Christmas go together like… well… like Scrooge and Marley.

This year I got a head start, because on November 30th I attended the first UK Ghost Story Festival in Derby. It was a really great event, and I was fortunate enough to be invited onto two panels, and attend several others, chat to readers and fellow aficionados, meet social media friends in the flesh, as well as catch up with some lovely fellow writers who I really don’t see often enough. Most importantly, though, I got to hear about and talk about one of my favourite subjects: ghost stories!

I figured my panels would make great blog fodder, as well as give you a taste of what you missed out on if you couldn’t attend (it’ll be back next year, bigger and better!). So this blog will look at ‘supernatural shorts’ – this was a lively discussion about the short story format, and why it’s particularly great for ghost stories. What follows is a summary of the discussion, and my personal takeaways – big, big thanks to fellow panelists James Everington and Alison Littlewood, and our excellent chair, Sophie Ward (aka Rhiannon Ward).

From left: Sophie, Ali, James, and me!
(Thanks to Sophie for the pic)
So: why is the supernatural so effective in its shorter form?

The ghost story comes from the oral tradition (fireside tales). In this respect, we could say the shorter the better – as an evening’s entertainment, everyone sits around the fire and tells a story, and tries to terrify their companions. Variations on this theme used to be the kick-off point for many a tale – just look at the Carnacki stories. It’s also the setup for The Woman in Black.

Let’s delve into the classics of the form. My first ever experience with ghost stories was the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories – 1972 edition. I read it when I was far too young, and it gave me nightmares… but turned me into the man I am today (i.e. a weirdo). This book contains two of the best short stories ever written IMO: The Voice in the Night (Hope Hodgson), and Seaton’s Aunt (Walter de la Mare). These led me to track down more of the classic writers, and that’s when I found M R James, who remains my main influence. I also love really weird, ambiguous stuff – like Robert Aickmann’s The Inner Room, which I’ve read about five times, absolutely love, but have no idea what it’s about…

Fast forward to the present, and I think Michelle Paver and Adam Nevill are at the top of the tree right now. Dark Matter is astonishing. Adam doesn’t write a lot of ghost stories per se, but there are some absolute corkers in his short story collections, notably Florrie.

M R James wasn’t keen on long-form horror. He described Dracula as being too full of excess – it contained good ideas, but the ‘butter was spread far too thick’. He described Maturin’s Melmoth as ‘long – cruelly long – and we must keep our eye on the short prose ghost story.’

Who am I to argue with the master? So I’ve tried to identify the elements of the successful ghost story. I think we can all agree on these three: Atmosphere; tension; suspension of disbelief. I add a fourth: Ambiguity. (MR James says the best stories give us ‘plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but when the climax is reached, allow us to be a little in the dark as to the workings of their machinery’). These elements are very difficult to maintain for a full novel, but can provide chills aplenty in a short story.

If you look at the classic long-form ghost stories, they’re really not as long as you think: The Turn of the Screw is only 43k words. Wilkie Collins’ The Haunted Hotel is described by M R James as a ‘short novel’ (also, cheekily ‘by no means ineffective; grisly enough, almost, for the modern American taste’). The Woman in Black, a modern classic, is really a novella.

The pitfall of the short story though is clichés – they can be really hard to avoid when you don’t have many words to play with. Things that were scary to Victorians and Edwardians have now been done to death (excuse the pun). So we have to look at new ways to frighten, while still avoiding what M R James would call ‘gory excess’. Tastes change. You can’t get away with hanging a story around a bloodstain that won’t go away until the body of the murdered maid is found – it was identified by Dickens in the mid-1800s as being a common type of story still in use. It was becoming cliché even then, so now you need an extra twist if you’re going anywhere near that device. And those twists are what really help short story writers today. By all means take a cliché or trope, but subvert it. The reader will be drawn in by the nostalgic air of the familiar, and still be surprised and delighted (and, hopefully, terrified) by a clever twist.

In a similar vein, we can use setting to do a lot of heavy lifting in a short story. I think short stories thrive when you don’t have many scenes, and ergo not many locations. If you can put a spooky twist on something familiar, that also helps – that way you aren’t spending ages describing a gothic castle or whatever – you’re picking something everyone can easily visualise, like a boring stretch of motorway or a bedroom in the family home, and playing up the differences (you’re surrounded by an unusually dense fog, or there’s a strange, slender figure standing by the roadside, etc.). Finding the unsettling in the mundane is pretty effective, and it saves the precious word count. My last ghost story (One New Follower) had: the pub, a muddy field, and a living room.

Finally, think about the ending of the ghost story. It doesn’t always have to be a huge twist (sometimes that in itself is contrived and expected). I always go back to that point about ambiguity. Ghost stories aren’t often tied up with a neat bow – ghosts are scary and confusing. They’re usually inexplicable, and while a character might turn to a priest or even a local pagan group to come and exorcise the ghost, there’s no earthly reason why this should actually work. A good ghost story should have a solid resolution at least for the characters involved, but might not ever explain the nature of the supernatural – after all, we only fear that which we don’t understand…

Thursday 8 August 2019

In Memoriam: Gustavo Cuadrado

I lost a friend this week.

It’s weird how hard it hit me. We were colleagues really, and distant ones at that, but in this solitary line of work you form unlikely bonds with people you might not ordinarily have met. And so it was with Gustavo Cuadrado.

I first met Gus maybe four years ago in Madrid, but we’d been working together on and off before that. He was the designer of the Batman Miniature Game, before I ever even came on board with Knight Models, and he was my principle contact with the company. We always found it funny that his spoken English wasn’t great, and my Spanish was terrible, and we both found it easier to email each other than talk face-to-face. That’s language barriers for you. But when I flew out to meet the Knight Models team for the first time, we hit it off. It didn’t matter that sometimes we talked at cross purposes, or I said something stupid while trying to order food at a restaurant, or he completely misunderstood me when I tried to explain an idea for Line of Sight rules. When the fluent English speakers had gone home, it was Gus who came out for drinks with me at a local bar or at the hotel so that I didn’t feel lonely in a strange land. Sounds daft maybe, but it mattered to me.

The other weird thing was that he was a fan of mine. This is a client who’d already risen from freelance designer himself to a senior role at Knight Models. He helped run things in the studio, and between us Jose (the owner of Knight), Gus and me would thrash out all sorts of ideas for new releases and crazy games. I think some of those games might never see the light of day, because they were very much Gus’ babies, and that’s such a crying shame because man, they were out-of-this-world ideas, full of ambition and love for the hobby. But this is a guy who’s about the same age as me, and he was already doing great work in the industry. He stopped being a fan and became a peer. We’d bounce ideas off each other, correct each other’s mistakes. He knew his stuff.

Gus had real integrity, and humility. He wasn’t in this for any kind of fame or glory. He was in it for the love. He didn’t care if his name was in a book or not. When we worked on Harry Potter in the early days, I flew over to help with a bunch of promo videos. He was behind the camera feeding me lines while I sat there in a wizard’s robe doing interviews and playing games (getting all the rules wrong). He designed the game, but he wanted me to be ‘the face’ of it, maybe because he didn’t think his English was up to it, but really because he didn’t care for the spotlight – he literally only cared that people played his games and had a good time doing so.

Just over a year ago, I went back to Spain to talk about future freelance projects. In a quiet moment, Gus took me aside and told me the news, that he’d been diagnosed with cancer and was about to start his treatment the very next day. He was practical and pragmatic in his outlook, as he always was about everything. He was due to get married and go on honeymoon just one month later. Talk about timing. The wedding went ahead as planned. Gus’s wife is a treasure – that’s love, right? I can’t imagine what she must be going through if someone like me, a British guy who only met Gus four times, is literally crying at the loss.

One year. That’s all it took to go from diagnosis, to chemotherapy, to realising the treatment wasn’t working.

He got in touch with me a fortnight ago to tell me he was dying. He’d come off the treatment so he could stop feeling sick, and maybe just have some peace in his final weeks. And all he wanted to do was talk about games. He was fascinated by my latest rules. He was reading new rulebooks on his sickbed instead of novels or magazines. He was absolutely dedicated to the hobby industry right to the end.

Less than two weeks later, I get a message from Knight Models with the worst possible news, asking if I could write an obituary for social media. It’s not because I knew him the best, or loved him the most, but because I’m their words guy now that Gus is gone. That hit hard. I shed a few tears and then had to write some words on behalf of all these guys who were his friends, who’d known him for years, and worked with him every day.

My thoughts are with those guys right now, because they have to carry on, and do so with the legacy that Gus left behind. When you play BMG or DCUMG in particular, you can really see Gustavo’s own design style and ethos, because he threw himself into his work with real passion. Now the torch is passed on, and it’s our job to continue what Gus started. I find it weird to talk about that – distilling this tragedy into ‘the job’. But at the same time he was completely devoted to this crazy industry, and the best way we have to keep his memory alive is to keep his games alive.

Right now it feels raw, and I don’t even know where to start. So I think I’m just going to step away, and think about Gustavo, the man, not the games designer. About what a great dude he was, and how he was taken way too soon.

Adios amigo mio, te envío un fuerte abrazo y mis pensamientos estan con tus seres queridos.

Gustavo on the far left; our first meeting. Rest in peace, buddy.

Monday 20 May 2019

Answer the Call to Arms!


For the last year or so I’ve been hard at work with the guys at Modiphius Entertainment on a very special project, and it’s been hellish trying to keep it a secret! Well, I no longer have to, as today we’ve finally announced my latest tabletop miniatures game – The Elder Scrolls: Call to Arms.

You can read the official press release here.

My relationship with the Elder Scrolls goes back a long way. I’ve played every version of the game since Daggerfall, and I count Skyrim in my top three games of all time (right up there with System Shock 2 and Paradroid, if you’re interested). I did a bit of work on Fallout: Wasteland Warfare with Modiphius, focusing more on planning and rules feedback rather than design, and when they told me they had the TES licence I basically harassed poor Chris Birch (owner of Modiphius) until he gave me the lead designer gig.

What you have here is a classic skirmish game, marrying all the elements of customisable group-building and dynamic actions that (hopefully) you’ve come to expect from my games, with the strong sense of narrative and progression that Modiphius pride themselves on. There’s even a solo and co-op mode!

Lots more details and reveals to come in the next few weeks. But for now, feats your eyes on the Dragonborn, and prepare to write your fate in the Elder Scrolls!

Friday 17 May 2019

Planner or Pantser?

Fresh off the back of a successful workshop session on Planning Your Novel at Derby Quad, I thought it’d be useful to turn it into a blog post, as part of my occasional series on the writing process. This particular session was great fun, taking the form of a Q&A with the estimable Alex Davis. The workshop wasn’t just about typical writing advice, but specifically about the methods I’ve devised to aid my planning, with the overall theme of: everyone’s different! Find a method that works to you even if it seems weird…

Q.  Were you always an author who planned your stories, or did you ever try the ‘pantster’ approach of just getting stuck in?
A. I was a total pantser, and still am a bit. My first novel had the briefest imaginable outline, although I was 100% set on the mid-point and the ending – it took a lot of working out to get there. It also took me 2 years to complete…

The reasons I started taking planning more seriously were (a) I began writing on a contract, and therefore had a deadline to hit, and (b) I started adding more crime/mystery elements, which really needed more structured planning.

Q.  What difference did you notice to your process when you had a more solid plan for the book?
Although I still prefer writing the book sequentially, having a detail plan means that if I get stuck on a section, I can skip ahead to another bit, because I know at least roughly what needs to happen in any given scene. It doesn’t make me a better writer or anything, but it does make me more productive when I can just get on with stuff and not spend ages procrastinating, or trying to remember why I wrote that random scene, etc.

Q.  What is the very earliest stage of your planning process?
A. Premise – or concept, then premise, but the two are basically intertwined. From the premise comes the question ‘is there a story there?’ If yes, I flesh it out into at least a paragraph, and write some character notes, then bounce that idea off someone – usually my agent. Usually I just know if the book will work or not, but If he thinks it’s got legs, I can start work on it properly with confidence. All of this is usually handwritten. I write things down all the time in notepads, and sometimes when I read those notes back some ideas leap out and take on a life of their own.

This leads to brainstorming, which usually takes the form of a mind-map on a big flipchart page (or several! The mind-map for Iscariot Sanction spilled off the flipchart and ended up being transferred to a roll of wallpaper…)

Q. How does your planning process tend to progress? What steps do you always take before you start writing?
A. I’ve found a groove finally, which I’ve used on my last three books. This goes:

  • Premise
  •  Elevator Pitch – or, the story in a nutshell.
  •  Flipchart 1: Mind Map. (See my earlier blog on flipchart planning!)
  •  Flipchart 2: The plot. Every scene gets a thought bubble, and these get linked with arrows and character notes, and scribbled out and changed several times until only my dog can understand it. From this is born:
  • Synopsis (usually 2 pages) and character notes (usually a short paragraph each)
  • Long synopsis with full chapter breakdown (not for dissemination). Some writers like to plot a ‘beat sheet’ first, but personally I find that a bit too formulaic – like, ‘this character moment has to occur exactly 75% through the novel’ etc. Gets used in screenwriting a lot.

If any sections are particularly tricky, like a whodunit where you have to track every character’s movements simultaneously, I do a third flipchart, which is the detail map of one or more chapters. Some more technologically minded folk use a spreadsheet for this.

I then set up a fresh manuscript – my favourite part. It’s like sleeping in clean sheets… Into this I paste each chapter header onto a different page. I bullet point these sections, adding detail if necessary – which characters are present? Whose POV is it? What clue do they need to find to get to the next chapter? How do they find that clue?

I start writing under the chapter descriptions, crossing off each point as I cover it. As I write, any additions I make (usually lots), or things I change or delete, get added into those chapter descriptions, so that when I start the chapter, it’s the most up-to-date version of the plan. If I do decide to change anything during writing, I go back and add comments to myself to change it in editing. I NEVER tinker with earlier chapters until editing begins – always forward, never backwards.

Q. Some people find that planning and plotting in detail can take the ‘fun’ out of the writing – do you ever feel that?
A. I can understand that, and it can be the case. For me, planning a story is working out what story you’re going to tell. The first draft is then telling that story to yourself. The second draft is finding the best way to share it with the reader.

The problem is, if you put too much detail into the plan, so there’s nothing left to work out as you write, you sort of tell yourself spoilers, and it can make you lose enthusiasm for the work. Once a story is on paper and out of your head, your brain starts looking for new shiny ideas instead. This is probably why GRRM hasn’t – and perhaps won’t – finish A Song of Ice and Fire. He’s sat down with the TV execs and gone through his story in detail. He’s told the story in full, and now he’s lost forward momentum on the actual hard graft of writing the thing. That’s where a good work ethic comes in, because some days you just need to grind out those words!

Q. Does the plan ever change as you go along, or do you tend to deviate much?
A. Every damn time. And that’s a good thing. I saw a thing on social media recently that put the different types of ‘planner’ into a D&D alignment chart. I am a ‘lawful pantser’, which I suppose means that, no matter how meticulous the plan, I always leave myself enough rope to hang myself.

Q. What do you do if the story does suddenly starts going in another direction from the plan?
A. This happens a lot, and you have to have honest conversations with yourself. If this really a ‘better’ idea, or just a ‘new’ idea that’s turned your head. If it’s genuinely better, then maybe look ahead to the next big milestone and work out the butterfly effect: if you change this thing here, can you still pull the story back on track, or do you have to alter everything? If it’s the latter, then maybe you aren’t telling the same story any more, and that can be a real problem, especially if you’ve sold the book and the editor is expecting one thing but you want to deliver another.

My rule of thumb is to look at the ‘beat sheet’ – even if you don’t strictly follow the formula, every story supposedly has 15-18 traditional beats, and it’s worth knowing what those beats are in your own story. If a change ends up altering 5 or 6 of those beats, that’s a huge change to the synopsis, and it might be a good idea to really stop and think before diving in.

Q. What advice would you give to an author who’d never tried to plan anything out before in detail?
A. Don’t feel like you have to. I think if I wrote a less complex book, I’d do less planning – the level of my chapter breakdown method for Destiny’s Call, for example (YA fantasy) was about a quarter as detailed as The Red Tower (Sherlock Holmes pastiche). Do what works for you. I wrote my first published book with barely anything except some incoherent notes in a pad. The second book had a synopsis but not much more. It’s doable, you just might find you’re not as efficient without a plan.

Q. Do you tend to think in terms of three-act structure when you are planning?
I really prefer the four-act structure. The Lazarus Gate is the most obvious example, where the mid-point of the book is really the point where everything changes. The hero has to come to terms with this new situation before they can find a solution. I think I always start with three acts when I’m writing that initial synopsis, but it always comes back to four… The main difference is that after the mid-point twist, you don’t just continue the rising tension, but have to come up with a whole new set of obstacles because the twists was such a game-changer.

Q. Does the plan help where it comes to things like writing synopses and ‘pitches’?
A. I always start with those things, because for me the plan has to be born from the pitch, which has to be born from the premise. BUT there’s a hidden second stage of pitching if you’re selling a completed manuscript (rather than selling on spec).

The pitch and synopsis that I bounce off my agent usually gives rise to lots of ideas, which then go into a plan. Sometimes the synopsis will change a few times as a result.
When the book is finished, there will almost certainly be differences between the manuscript and the pitch. So, I retro-fit the pitch and short synopsis to accurately reflect the content.
This is where the chapter breakdown really comes into its own – because I’ve updated the chapter plan as I’ve gone along, I can simply condense each chapter into a sentence or two, making it as pithy and exciting as possible, and BOOM: instant synopsis that’s fit for the publisher’s eyes!

Q. Do you feel like you can change the plan once the publisher has agreed it with you?
A. If they’ve specifically signed off on a detail plan – often the case with licensed fiction – then any changes to plan really should be run by the editor first. Normally though, a publisher will sign off on a synopsis that doesn’t include every little detail, so there’s some freedom. If you go really off-piste, like kill the protagonist when the plan said they were going to ride off into the sunset happily, or you decide they wake up and it’s all a dream, the editor will probably have something to say. They’re paying for it, after all – they should know broadly what their money is buying.

That’s it – hopefully you find some useful bits in there. Remember, this is just my own planning journey and everyone is different!