Shanghai Maps of the 1920s and 1930s

A map of Shanghai. I think it's from Paul French's book on Carl Crow. Its beautifully drawn

A map of Shanghai. I think it's from Paul French's book on Carl Crow. Its beautifully drawn

I love old maps, particularly city maps. They are a pictorial insight into a city and it's environment. They are not real, no map ever is. Rather they are a representation of how the designer's imagined the city to look. Even in the choice of what to represent, the designer and illustrator, Carl Crow and V Kovalsky, reveal who they are talking to - tourists to the city. The choice of subject matter, the chinoiserie, even the lettering, are selling the image that Shanghai wanted to portray. And sitting in the middle, dominating the river in both size and prominence, are the ships of the Western fleets, displaying graphically who controlled the city.

In the Inspector Danilov novels I use three maps to imagine the city. This one, a more detailed street map of the time and a map from an earlier tourist directory. All give me slightly different vision of the city. I have tried to be as authentic as I can, detailing the streets and areas that Danilov and Strachan inhabit and walk around. For me, the city is as important a character in the novels as any of the people, possibly more so.

I love maps, in all their shapes and sizes. It's no coincidence that the first explorers proclaimed their ownership of new territories by mapping them. And the Pope, when he wanted to divide the world between the Spanish and Portuguese spheres of influence, simply drew line down the centre of a globe, dividing the New World in half.

Maps show more than just streets and alleys, blocks and buildings, they show who owned what and when. They are a guide to the minds of their creators as they are a guide to the reader.

Finally, I'm not sure if anybody owns copyright to this image, but if they do, simply message me and I will be happy to attribute it.

Getting the words right.

'Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.'

Hemingway making his 38th revision.

Hemingway making his 38th revision.

Hemingway is one of my favourite writers. Achieving his pared back style took a lot of work, 39 revisions for the last page alone. 

I know exactly how he feels. Having written five novels now, I've come to the conclusion that all writing is rewriting. It's that process of constantly searching for the right words in the right order with the right rhythm, which makes something sing off the page. When I was working in advertising, I would sometimes write a single line over 100 times until it felt right, driving my co-workers mad. But if it was going to be done, it was going to be done properly.

Now I don't suggest you do this with every line of your novel. Sometimes you have to say to yourself enough is enough. There is the law of diminishing returns when the amount of work required to change something is not reflected in any improvement in the finished piece. 

When you get to that point, STOP. Say thank you very much and start a new project.

Perfectionism is a disease that has no cure. The more perfect something has to be, the less perfect it will always seem.

I've never thought anything I've ever done was perfect. Simply because, once I believed that, there was nothing left to achieve. Perfectionism is like nirvana -  to be strived for rather than attained.

That should not stop you from rewriting though. Go through that process of creating the plot and looking for holes. Fleshing out the characters so that they are tangible. Finding a voice for each character so that their dialogue seems unique and believable. Digging out and illuminating those themes that hide in the background like shadows. And finally. always finally, checking grammar, word choice, syntax, dangling modifiers, weasel words, and all the rest of the technical stuff that makes or breaks a novel.

I'll be illustrating a few tips and tricks that i've discovered for the last of these in the next post.

In the meantime, have a wonderful weekend. And to all my friends in Singapore, happy 50th anniversary!!!!


What kind of writer are you? A Pantser or a Planner?

Their are two kinds of authors in this world. Pantsers and Planners.

For the uninitiated, a pantser is a writer who doesn't work with a set plan, somebody who flies by the seat of their pants. A classic example of this kind of writer is Stephen King.

The opposite is a planner or outliner. Sometimes , these writers go into excruciating detail over the plots of their books, spending months or years working their outlines before they start writing. Jeffrey Deaver takes eight months to outline his books and only two months to write them. Jo Nesbo writes 100 page outlines that he then fleshes out to create the book itself.

Of course, these are the two extremes and there are variations that lie between the two.

I would describe myself as a pantser. I have a beginning, usually an image in my head. I will also have an end scene or location, plus a couple of scenes that I use as way points in the novel.  But that's about it.

Who's the killer? I don't know when I start.

Why did he commit the murder? I haven't a clue.

How will he get caught? Your guess is as good as mine.

By the time I've reached the end of the book, I will have worked all this out and so, hopefully, will my reader.

If you are a pantser, like me, then you are going to spend a lot of time editing your books. In my case, about the same amount of time as I spend writing the first draft. There's going to be an awful lot of time spent working out and back rationalising the plot. Plus planting the clues exactly where you want them.

It all takes time. But I wouldn't have it any other way because I hope I achieve a freshness and a surprise in the writing that is often missing from heavily planned books.

After all, if I don't know who the murderer is when I'm writing, how can the reader?

So next time you read a book, ask yourself, is the writer a planner or a pantser?

The funny thing is, you can usually tell.


Writing: 7 things I've learned so far.

I've been writing for about eighteen months now. I've finished one book, am in he midst of finishing another in the same series, and have got about half way through a completely different book.

This is what I learned so far.


1. Never stop learning

I started to write about 20 years ago. I sat at my desk and bashed out a novel in three months. It was a mess. Oh , sure it had words and they were in the right order. There was even a structure to  it. But I hadn't learnt the art of writing. Nor the science. It's a skill just like plumbing, carpentry or advertising. I needed to learn about character arcs and flow, settings and punctuation, narrative voice and point of view. And the funny thing was, the more I learnt, the more I needed to learn. It's still true today. I'll never stop learning how to write. 



2. Writing is a process.

You have to sit down in front of a desk. Or in coffee shop. Or on a tropical island. Wherever you feel comfortable. You have to sit there and get out 90,000 words to tell a story. There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. But they don't have to be in that order. There has to be characters. But they don't have to be human. There has to be a setting. But it doesn't have to exist. At the end of the process, you have a book It might not be any good. Nobody might read it. But you have a book. Well done. Pat yourself on the back and read number three.

3. Writing is re-writing

Nobody, not even Stephen King, gets it right first time. Re-writing and editing wis where a book comes alive. The themes get emphasised and clarified. The words get clearer or more beautiful. The commas, full stops, hyphens and speech marks all get put in the right place. The book begins to make sense. Re-write and re-write again. Eventually you will stop. In the year 2203.

4. Write every day.

Even if it's a blog. Or a letter to the milkman. Or a not to yourself. But write. and then write some more. The only way you get better at writing is by writing some more. It's like riding a bike. Only more fun.

5. Know your genre.

Go to a bookshop. It's one of those lovely places where your competition is lined up on shelves. There are lots of shelves and even more competition. But the one thing a bookshop does is make it easy for readers to find the books they like. The classify them. And unless you are writing the world's best book, write in a genre that a publisher, a bookshop and a reader will understand. If you don't, you will make it very hard to find somebody to publish your work. I know this from experience. I've still got the manuscript on my desk. Sitting there, staring at me. reminding me every day to write in a genre.

6. Find a method of writing that works for you.

I'm a pantser. That means I fly by the seat of my pants. Usually, I have a beginning, a middle and en end, but I don't know where I'm going when I sit down to write every day. It means I have to spend a lot of time re-writing to make it all make sense. But I don't mind. Stephen King is the same. So is Ian McEwen. The opposite is a planner. Like John Grisham. Jo Nesbo. Jeffery Deaver. These writers don't lift a finger to the keyboards until they know exactly where they are going with the book. Find your method. It could be a mixture of the two, Who cares. As long as it works for you.

7. Have fun.

Each day, I sit at my keyboard and go somewhere new.  I learn something about the process of writing. I learn about myself as a person. I think I've got better at writing. I've certainly got quicker. And now I recognise when I've written something that's crap and I've learnt how to fix it. But the most important thing I've learnt is that, if I'm having fun when I write, it shows on the page. It's simply more enjoyable for the reader.

I hope these are helpful. Next time, I'll talk about the more specific stuff and technical stuff, I've learnt as a writer.

Five ways to avoid writing.

If I could give myself marks for procrastination, I think I'd score an 11. Since coming back to the UK, I've discovered even more ways to postpone the time when I actually sit down at my Mac and start to type my novel.


1. The House needs cleaning.

Well it does. But it doesn't have to be done all in one go and it doesn't have to include cleaning all the shelves in the every cupboard. Plus washing and scrubbing that Magimix that you were given ten years ago and have used just once. Ah, you tell yourself, I might use it this time. Yes, and rats might make ratatouille.

2. The Garden needs .......(fill in the blanks)

The Garden always needs something done to it. That's the whole point of gardens. They grow. And they never stop growing. Maybe you should just buy plants that never need pruning, never grow, never die and never need watering. Like plastic plants.

3. That cup of tea needs making.

And whilst you are there, might as well make a bacon butty to go with it. Of course, you'll have to sit down to eat it with the telly on. Ah there's an interesting programme on the sex life of the Andean cockroach. Big Brother's on next too, goody. (Five hours later, the Mac is till unopened and untouched.)

4. I need to blog.

My website is calling my name. Feed me with words Stroke me with your eloquence. Satisfy me with sentences. So, here I am, writing here and not writing there. So it goes. At least, this is now finished. So maybe I can return to the novel. But then, I hear some washing calling my name......

5. Twitter hasn't heard from me for a while.

Definitely my favourite way to procrastinate. Twitter misses me. It misses my unique blend of charm and wit. It needs the careful way I retweet, adding just a word or two of well-chosen bonhomie to an otherwise boring tweet on the sex lives of Andean cockroaches. I need to read about other writers pushing their exciting books on the sex life of the Andean cockroach. Even more important, I need to read every tweet from every spam bot in Russia. Cyrillic always looks so pretty, don't you agree?

Finally, after a couple of hours, I may get down to writing. But I glance at my cup of tea. It's gone cold. Maybe a fresh one would lubricate the words. And a bacon butty.....


Procrastination is an art form that I have raised to the levels of Picasso. What's your favourite diversion from writing?