Plotting – Guest Post by Neil White (author of The Domino Killer)

Today I’m delighted to welcome Neil White to the blog. My first ever guest post! Neil’s new book, The Domino Killer is out in July in hardback (thanks to NetGalley for the advance review copy!). He’s here to talk about plotting, but let’s talk books first.

The Domino Killer | Neil White

When a man is found beaten to death in a local Manchester park, Detective Constable Sam Parker is one of the investigating officers. Sam swiftly identifies the victim, but what at first looks like an open and shut case quickly starts to unravel when he realises that the victim’s fingerprints were found on a knife at another crime scene, a month earlier.

Meanwhile, Sam’s brother, Joe – a criminal defence lawyer in the city – comes face to face with a man whose very presence sends shockwaves through his life. Joe must confront the demons of his past as he struggles to come to terms with the darkness that this man represents.

Before long, Joe and Sam are in way over their heads, both sucked into a terrifying game of cat-and-mouse that threatens to change their lives for ever…”

It’s a gripping tale, neatly plotted and oozing authenticity. Two brothers, one a lawyer, one a policeman, both drawn into the investigation of their sister’s murder many years earlier. Secrets and lies, twists and turns abound as the case unfolds. It’s the third book in his Parker Brothers trilogy.

And now, thout further ado, over to Neil. Let’s talk plotting…

Plotting – a tangled weaving road, laced with potholes.

Plotting is one of the hardest parts of writing a book, because whatever is written in those early days can determine whether the book will be a success or not. A bad idea, or a good idea? It is hard to say then, it’s too early, but the idea takes shape there, jotted down with a pen and paper.

For me, learning to plot was part of the very long and steady learning curve. A necessary curve, but long nonetheless.
I started writing in 1994, the product of a few years of talking about it and then an idle moment when on holiday in Fuerteventura. ‘I’ll be a lawyer until I can be a writer’ was just some daft thing I’d say. I decided to test out my theory. How hard could it be? It’s only writing words, after all.

At first there were four pages of A4 in scruffy handwriting, and then there was a small typewriter with a tiny screen that only showed six lines at a time. Floppy disks saved the slow development of my opus, my creation, worked at in my bedroom where I lodged with my boss. I printed it off occasionally, so that I could marvel at how much I’d written.

Then came the crash. I sat down and read it.

Let’s just say that it wasn’t very good. Worse than that, I didn’t really know what it was about and what was going to happen. Looking back, I can’t remember the plot or even the characters, which perhaps says a lot about something I worked on for around three years.

I knew what the problem was: there was no direction, no coherence. I needed to plot.

I sat down and tried to come up with ideas, until I came up with a story about a serial killer in Boston, Massachussetts who was killing people who shared the name of Salem witches. His obsession with the Salem witches was because his wife killed herself out of a belief that she was a descendant of a Salem witch due to the coincidence of name, and that it had somehow caused her to be possessed by evil.

It didn’t matter whether the plot was any good. The point was there was a plot, and that was all that mattered.

So I started to sketch it out. A paragraph became a one-page summary, which turned into more pages, and I spent a few months fleshing it out, adding to it, putting in phrases I liked. The beginning, middle and end became more pronounced and chapters started to appear, the plot thinning out into strands, and then broken down into scenes. Eventually, it was a 10,000-word monster, a blow-by-blow summary of the book.

What helped was a documentary I saw about Steven Spielberg, who has a very meticulous way of setting out his storyboard, where he allocates a certain amount of time to each scene and will not deviate from it, regardless of how well the filming is going. In his view, his storyboard is balanced, and any deviation upsets the balance.

I looked at the summary again and tried to follow Spielberg’s method. After all, he’d done okay with it.

I looked at each scene and thought of its importance or complexity, and then allocated a certain number of words to each one, intending to reach a total of around 120,000 words. That helped enormously with the plotting and then the writing. If a scene was pivotal, it would have to be a long one, but that is too long for a fast-moving crime novel. So I found a way of splicing it with smaller scenes, which kept the focus shifting. Once I set out on actually writing it, working to a word count gave me discipline. If a less important scene ended up with too many words in it, I cut some out. If a major scene needed more words, I had to find some more.

I didn’t follow the plot outline religiously, I’m not as disciplined as Spielberg, but the outline gave me a route map, and if I deviated from it, with a new idea or angle, I knew where the plot had to return to, as if it allowed me to take the occasional scenic route.

That finished plot ended up as a self-published book, Salem, which got me an agent, who eventually got me a publishing deal. It resurfaced, in a much re-worked format (and a different location, with Lancashire replacing Boston) in my third book, Last Rites. My only regret with Salem is that I didn’t pay for an editor; there are some grammatical howlers in there.

Now, I plot less. Not because I don’t need to, but just because I don’t have time. I set out the basics of an idea, try and get a notion of how it ends, and a few major points along the way, before I sit down with a pad and pen and sketch out the first fifteen scenes or so. I know I need to plot the next part when I get stuck, so I sit down with a bottle of wine and try to work out the next stage.

Some writers spend months planning and then blitz it. I can’t do that. I panic about not leaving myself enough time. So I start and plot as I go.

The hardest part is the middle, because I’ve arrived at a certain point but need to work out how to get to the end, and hopefully provide excitement along the way. Sometimes joining the end to the middle can seem impossible, but in the end it happens.

Ink – Written By Hand

Not long ago, handwriting was taken for granted as something anyone could generally do well. Today, children are taught how to type on tablets – putting pen to paper is an afterthought. INK follows Tanja Tiziana – a freelance photographer in Toronto, Canada – and her journey to rediscover the written word.

Gorgeous video. I love watching the pen scritch over the paper as the letters appear. Makes me want to rush out and buy some new pens. It’s been a long long time since I wrote with a fountain pen, and there’s nothing quite like the experience.

The 3rd Woman – Jonathan Freedland

The 3rd Woman Jacket image

SHE CAN’T SAVE HER SISTER

Journalist Madison Webb is obsessed with exposing lies and corruption. But she never thought she would be investigating her own sister’s murder.

SHE CAN’T TRUST THE POLICE

Madison refuses to accept the official line that Abigail’s death was an isolated crime. She uncovers evidence that suggests Abi was the third victim in a series of killings hushed up as part of a major conspiracy.

SHE CAN EXPOSE THE TRUTH

In a United States that now bows to the People’s Republic of China, corruption is rife – the government dictates what the ‘truth’ is. With her life on the line, Madison must give up her quest for justice, or face the consequences…

This is Jonathan Freedland’s first novel published under his real name, having already had a successful career with five novels under his pen-name of Sam Bourne.

The 3rd Woman has a fascinating premise, the familiarity of the backdrop of LA jarringly set against the premise that Beijing has taken control after America has defaulted on its national debt. Part crime thriller whodunnit, part political conspiracy, the story plays out under a confident hand, tautly plotted and rattles along to be devoured in a couple of sittings. The plot twists and turns in a most satisfactory manner as truths are revealed and Madison digs deeper into her sister’s murder, which turns out to not be the first…

Madison Webb is a fantastic, well-realised heroine and feels fully fleshed-out, as does the family dynamic between her and her sisters. I loved her sheer bloody mindedness in getting to the truth behind her sister’s murder, going up against some seriously heavy hitters. There’s a real sense of danger and peril as Madison upsets the wrong people, with unpleasant consequences.

It’s crying out to made into a movie. The Chinese-dominated smoggy LA would make a brilliant backdrop to a series… Netflix, are you listening?

Now, who would play Madison…

Here’s an extract from chapter 7:

~~~~

Leo could see the mayor was on his last question. Quick check of the phone before take-off. He scrolled through his messages. One from an old friend.

Just heard. Can’t believe it.

Just heard what? He couldn’t stand it when people played enigmatic. Total power trip, lording over you the fact they had caught some nugget of knowledge that you lacked. He would not succumb. He would not send the words his pal wanted to hear: ‘Can’t believe what?’

It was bound to be about the food export story. There were new figures showing Californians were exporting so many of their staples – oranges, strawberries and avocados among others – they were running short themselves. He checked his watch. Yep, this was about the time the numbers were due for release.

But he checked Weibo to be sure. He scrolled through, but stopped short.

Tragic news about @maddywebbnews’s sister. Thoughts and prayers are with her family.

And then:

What a senseless waste of precious life. Hearts go out to @maddywebbnews #tragedy

That came with a link to an LA Times story:

Abigail Webb, 22, an elementary school teacher from North Hollywood, was found dead early Monday in what police now believe was a likely homicide. An LAPD spokesperson would give few details, but sources indicate the cause of death was a heroin overdose. Despite an initial examination of the dead woman’s apartment which could find no confirmed signs of forced entry, detectives say a later probe of the scene found damage suggesting a break-in. Ms Webb is the younger sister of the award-winning LA Times reporter, Madison Webb.

Leo read the words several times over, believing it less and less each time. He and Madison had been together for just short of a year, but he had seen Abigail at least a dozen times. She was the first member of her family Madison had let him meet. He liked her: she had all the fizzing energy of Madison and none of the taidu, the attitude. Perhaps a bit too wide-eyed for his tastes, but her enthusiasm was contagious. He and Maddy had been to see a show at the Hollywood Bowl on a double date with Abigail and a short-lived boyfriend, dropped soon afterwards. But once those two were up and dancing, Maddy and even Leo – usually too shy and world-weary for such things – had felt compelled to follow.

Now he thought about it, Madison was different around Abigail. The cynicism receded; she was gentle. She smiled more. In their moments together, the older looking out for the younger, he realized he had caught a glimpse of the mother Maddy might one day be – a thought which he had never articulated at the time and whose tenderness shocked him.

He read the weibs again. He was scrolling further down, as if he might see a message voiding the others, announcing a mistake. He kept scrolling.

‘Leo, you better shut that down. Take-off.’

He said nothing, but turned off the phone all the same and stared right ahead.

They were fully airborne, the plane straightened, before the mayor spoke. ‘You mind telling me what this is about? You look like shit.’ Getting no answer, he pushed on. ‘You’ve seen some numbers and you don’t know how to break it to me, is that it? This that Santa Ana focus group? I’m not worried. Wait till we’re on the air in—’

‘It’s nothing to do with the campaign.’

‘You don’t care about anything but the campaign, so tell me: what’s the problem?’

Leo turned his face to look at his boss for the first time. ‘There’s been a murder. Woman, early twenties, found dead in her apartment in North Hollywood. Suspected heroin over­dose.’

Berger hesitated, letting his eye linger, as if he were assessing a job applicant rather than his most trusted advisor. ‘OK.’

‘We need to get out ahead of this one, Mr Mayor. We have to make sure that this is investigated with the utmost thor­oughness.’ His own voice sounded strange to him, too formal.

‘We always do that, Leo.’

He tried to steady himself, took a sip from the water glass on the tray in front of him, which appeared to have arrived by magic: he had no memory of anyone giving it to him. He told himself to get a grip. Focus.

‘LAPD are only calling it a “likely” homicide. Which means they’ve got some doubts. But the victim’s sister’s a journalist. She’s going to be demanding answers. High-profile, award-winner, big following on Weibo. That means this case is going to be noticed. People are going to be watching the Department, the DA, to see how they handle it.’

‘Sure.’

‘And they’ll be watching you. You don’t want to be going into the summer with a big, unsolved murder on the books.’

‘So what’s your advice?’

‘I think that when we land your first call should be to the Chief of Police, ensure this case is a priority.’

‘As soon as we land, huh? That urgent.’

‘I think so, yes.’

‘Anything else you want to tell me?’

Leo turned back towards the window, the city below now little more than a blur. He pictured Abigail and then he pictured Madison. He shook his head.

‘Anything else you ought to tell me, Leo?’

‘No.’ He paused. ‘Like what?’

‘You sure you don’t have a conflict of interest here?’

Leo hesitated, so Berger spoke again. ‘I know who the victim of this murder is, Leo. The police department of this city – sorry, of the area – do still talk to me. I know her sister is your ex, so there’s no need to bullshit me, OK?’ His gaze lingered into a stare until eventually he looked away, towards the window, watching the earth below swallowed up by clouds. When he turned back, he was wearing an expression Leo had not seen before, one that unnerved him. ‘As it happens, I agree with your advice,’ the mayor said. ‘We need to get out in front on this one. In fact, I’d go further. You need to make this story go away. And, most important of all, you need to keep me out of it.’

~~~~

The 3rd Woman is out now from HarperCollins. .
JFBLOGTOURBANNER

disclaimer: Many thanks to @fictionpubteam from HarperCollins for the advance copy of Jonathan’s book for review. The opinions in the review are mine.

Follow You Home – Mark Edwards

follow_you_home-blogtour

It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime, a final adventure before settling down.

After a perfect start, Daniel and Laura’s travels end abruptly when they are thrown off a night train in the middle of nowhere. To find their way back to civilisation, they must hike along the tracks through a forest…a haunting journey that ends in unimaginable terror.

Back in London, Daniel and Laura vow never to talk about what they saw that night. But as they try to fit back into their old lives, it becomes clear that their nightmare is just beginning…

Follow You Home is a chilling tale of secrets, lies and deadly consequences from the author of #1 bestsellers The Magpies and Because She Loves Me.

Follow You Home is a deliciously twisty and nicely paced psychological thriller. It starts out with our young couple on a night train from Hungary to Romania. They meet another young couple on the train and end up getting kicked off in the middle of nowhere.

Then the fun begins.

Something… bad happens. It changes them. Mark drops hints as their lives unravel and you’re drawn deep into their story. What exactly happened on that fateful night?

The pages turn, the chapters speed by. The events in Romania were bad enough, but someone has followed them home. The suspense never lets up and the twists and turns keep coming.

Loved it. Rattled through it in a couple of sittings. This is the first of Mark’s books that I’ve read, but I’ve added him to my list. If you like dark, tense, psychological thrillers, I’d recommend you add him to yours!

disclaimer: Many thanks to Liz for helping to organise the blog tour. I received an advance copy of Mark’s book for review from Netgalley.

Tracer – Rob Boffard

Tracer - Rob Boffard

Our planet is in ruins. Three hundred miles above its scarred surface orbits Outer Earth: a space station with a million souls on board. They are all that remain of the human race.

Darnell is the head of the station’s biotech lab. He’s also a man with dark secrets. And he has ambitions for Outer Earth that no one will see coming.

Prakesh is a scientist, and he has no idea what his boss Darnell is capable of. He’ll have to move fast if he doesn’t want to end up dead.

And then there’s Riley. She’s a tracer – a courier. For her, speed is everything. But with her latest cargo, she’s taken on more than she bargained for.

A chilling conspiracy connects them all.

The countdown has begun for Outer Earth – and for mankind.

Tracer is a *huge* amount of fun, a thrill ride of action-packed sci-fi that you don’t see too often. It’s set on a massive space station containing the remnants of the human race, a million souls crammed into an 18-mile long metal ring. It’s tense and claustrophobic, overcrowded and dirty out there in space, and you feel every bit of it.

The action comes thick and fast and frantic. Right from the start you’re along for the ride with Riley and the rest of the Devil Dancers, a crew of tracers – free-runner couriers who transport cargo around Outer Earth. Rob has a deft ability to put you slap-bang front and centre of the action as the crew move around the station and you get a real feel of tension as the story unfolds, with the viewpoint shifting from Riley to Darnell, Prakesh and the others.

I loved the characters and the setting. Riley is a fantastic kick-ass free-running heroine. Parkour in space – what’s not to like? Darnell is suitably evil as our bad guy and there are plans within plans within plans…

Tracer is due to be published by Orbit Books on 16th July 2015.

I highly recommend picking it up.

[Edit] Met up with Rob on his signing tour when he came to Leeds. He brought the sunshine with him, which was nice.

He also assures me that the follow-up to Tracer will be turned all the way up to 11…Rob Boffard

Stealing time

From “I Steal Time” | MORNING, COMPUTER, by Warren Ellis.

Walking in London with a friend from America who works in film. I stopped at a roundabout near Covent Garden, looked up. He asked what I was looking at. Everything, I said. It’s my practice. I take five minutes every day just for me, to look around and see where I am and be there.
[…]
It’s easy to feel like you’re living on borrowed time, and that time is running out. For five minutes a day, I like to turn the hourglass the other way. I’ve stolen six hundred hours from the countdown clock that the world would have drained away from me had I let it.

In the chaos in which we live our lives these days, with the constant pinging of notifications, the deluge of media and advertising, the constant thrum of people doing stuff, wanting stuff, needing stuff from everyone else, it’s important to stop and take a moment.

In the words of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off :

Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Take a moment. Look around. What do you see?