Where did you get the inspiration behind Highest Lives?
It was a simple thought. What if the most outrageous serial killer of all time was on the loose and what if Craig McIntyre, who has spent the last three books on the run from the US government, is asked to help out an LAPD detective with an investigation into the murders. Then to add mustard to the idea I was recently watching a programme on what billionaires spend their money on. Things like $100 cups of coffee with gold flakes sprinkled on top. These people are constantly looking for the new and the super-expensive. That got me thinking. What if the LAPD detective was also investigating a new recreational drug for the super-wealthy – for those bored with life and looking for something new – something insanely expensive and mega out-there. And, bingo, Highest Lives was born.
Highest Lives is the fourth in a series of conspiracy thrillers. This one touches on narcotics and serial killing. What attracted you to these storylines?
Craig’s world is a serious mess. His innate and preternatural ability to bring out the worst in people means he is always in trouble or on the run. I wanted to settle him down in one place for this book and the idea of him becoming a Private Investigator appealed. Over the last three books Craig has developed as a character and I wanted him to undertake a new role while still facing his old challenges. When I landed on the idea of him helping out the LAPD I needed a seriously ‘out there’ set of circumstances to give a reason as to why Craig would be brought in. When the detective, Sarah Tracy, learns of Craig’s background he seems the most obvious person to help her look into a set of crimes that seem all but impossible. And, as with all of Craig’s books, nothing is quite as it seems. On the face of it we have an outrageous serial killer and an insane new drug – but is that really what is going on?
You’ve had success with this series of conspiracy thrillers, the first, Darkest Thoughts, nominated by The Reading Agency as one of its Books of the Year for 2017. What attracts you to this genre?
I’m actually a conspiracy theory debunker in real life. I find the need in some people to look beyond the obvious, for a more Machiavellian reason to explain events, fascinating but ultimately flawed. The Internet provides the perfect vehicle to drive such behaviour. It’s easy to find, interact and agree with like-minded people on the web. In psychology it’s called confirmation bias – the in-built desire to strengthen your own beliefs and to ignore, or tear down, evidence to the contrary. So, when it comes to Craig McIntyre - his story sounds like a wonderful conspiracy theory – he’s a screwed-up result of a military experiment that can now influence people’s behaviour remotely. A sort of psychological Hulk. When he gets stressed people around him die. And yet in my books this is no conspiracy – it's real. In fact the Senator who runs the black ops agency that is always on Craig’s back uses conspiracy theories to cloud what he is really up to. And that’s what appeals to me about the explosion in conspiracy theories today – you can cover up an amazing amount of stuff if you just lie hard and often enough – because there are always people out there who will believe, and even champion your version of events.
What's your process for developing ideas from from vague inspiration to fully fledged ideas?
I wish I knew. I’d write a book on it. But the process is different for everyone. I’ve rarely met two authors that write in the same way. But there are some basic tenets I stick with. I run a creativity training business called Brain Juice - where I work with businesses to improve their creative thought and action. And some of the techniques I teach come in handy.
The reality is that I usually start with a book title and a single line – and then I write. But my methodology has changed a bit of late. I used to sit down with a blank page and start writing until I had 80,000 odd words written. Then I’d go back and try and wrestle it all into shape. Lately I’ve refined that process somewhat. I now come up with a ‘big’ idea for the book – a simple one-line strapline is often best – something that will provide the bedrock to build the book upon. I sit down and write a few thousand words. Then I stop, put away the laptop for the day and get on with life. But, as the rest of the day unfolds, I’ll find ten or fifteen-minutes head-time to ask myself what happens next in the story. When an idea pops up I bag it and the next day use it to help move the story on another couple of thousand words. And so on – until I finish. I also review what I’ve written every ten thousand words or so. Going back over my work – sorting out typos and plot issues – not in depth – more a first ‘light- edit’. When I’m finished the whole book, I read it all through once more and give it a more serious edit. Then it’s dropped into the back of the virtual sock drawer and I leave it alone. When I dig it out, a month or so later, I give it another edit. After this my wife will read it and make comments and I’ll give the book another run through before sending it off to my agent or publisher. After that I wait for the comments and work on those.
Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?
Most of it comes from my head. I’m not given to extensive research. I’ve always read a lot, both fact and fiction, and that serves me well for research. When I do need to conduct some research, I’ll dip into the Internet, maybe to fact check or seek out an answer that is bugging me, but not that often. I tend to set my books in places I’ve visited or lived. I’m a big believer that if I’ve been to a place then I’m better at bringing the book to life. It’s just easier to place characters onto streets or into buildings that I’ve been on or in. I can see the characters walking or driving around a familiar landscape as I type. This makes it easy to describe places and to bring genuine atmosphere to scenes.
I also do research on the run, as I call it. I’ll be walking along a street or sitting in a café and I’ll see something interesting and investigate it a little more. For instance, in Highest Lives I have set one scene in an old abandoned movie lot. Many year ago I made TV ads in LA and I explored every inch of the movie studio we shot on. And now it has become the abandoned lot in the new book. I love that sort of research. It’s hard to beat the richness that using a real place can bring to a book.
Are you a plotter or a pantser?
The latter – only as I said earlier this has changed a little and I now do ‘daily-plotting-light’ – for want of a better term. My main reason for avoiding too much plotting is three-fold:
- Firstly, I’m inherently too much of a doer to take the time to sit down and plot. I like to write, not plan.
- Secondly, I’m of the opinion that if I don't know what is going to happen next in a book, then neither will my reader. If I surprise myself with what I write then I’d like to think I’m also going to surprise my readers.
- Thirdly, I love the notion of the unexplored land that a white page promises. Plotting would be like handing me a Sat-Nav and I don't want, or need one – I adore getting lost in the story and having to figure a way out. It’s what I enjoy most.
As a pantser, how do you make sure you don’t go off on wild tangents?
I go off at wild tangents all the time. That's why I like flying by the seat of my pants. I never know where I will end up. Okay, I need to try and fix things once I’ve got it all down - but I find that easier than trying to plot it all out in the first place.
Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?
I still have a day job, although it’s a lot less frenetic than it was a couple of years back. I’m a marketing consultant and used to fit my writing around the job – now I fit the job around my writing.
When is your most productive period of the day?
I don't really have one. Because my job used to involve industrial amounts of travel I got used to writing on trains, planes and hotels at every conceivable hour of the day. At one point I considered asking United Airlines for sponsorship as I’d written so much on their transatlantic and US air routes. But if I was to pick a time of day I feel most creative – I’d pick first thing in the morning – and I mean early - five o’clock early – my head seems clearer at that time of day.
Is any part of your writing biographical or are any of the characters inspired by real people?
There’s always something of people you know in characters but I don't base them on real individuals. I tend to hear phrases and they make it into the books - but most of the characters are a little bit me and an awful lot of imagination.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I’ve just landed a new book deal with Polygon for a crime book set amongst the expatriate community in Spain – and it comes out in 2020. As a result, I’m working on the second in this series. I’m also playing with ideas for McIntyre 5 but haven’t put finger to keyboard on it yet.
Tell me a little about your journey to success, how did you secure that all important agent and first publishing deal?
I was the Marketing Director for STV a good few years back, on a contract basis. I’d been writing since my teens but when I knew my contract was finishing I said to my wife that I wanted one last throw of the dice at writing a book that would get published. So I spent the summer writing and about a month editing. I sent three chapters and a synopsis to four publishers and one wrote back and said they liked what they had read and could I send the rest. I was so excited that I e-mailed a copy of the finished work straight away. I then went to meet the publisher who told me that he loved the first three chapters but the rest was a mess of typos, plot holes etc. It transpired that in my keenness to send the publisher the book - I had sent a very old, and very poorly edited, version - but I still got a book deal.
Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of His First Lie and It Was Her) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before he became a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
You should never stop writing, ever. The book you are currently writing may be a million seller in the waiting – but it may not. That accolade may be waiting for your next book or the next. I’ll give you an example. Last year I wrote a Scottish crime book and although there was interest from some publishers – it was not picked up (I’d even written the second by the time it became obvious that things were slow). I could have kept plugging away with the book, looking for a publisher, but I had a meeting with my agent and he suggested that maybe we should park those books and I should write something else – and that was tough – but I did it. That new book is the book Polygon have just picked up. I meet people who have been plugging the same book for years and, although they still might get published, my one piece of advice to them is to write something new – and never stop writing something new.
Give me some advice about writing?
I have a few rules - borrowed or learnt over the years:
- Start writing: I meet so many people who say they are going to write a book – and never do. If you start writing then you move from telling people ‘I’m going to write a book.’ to informing them ‘I am writing a book.’ If you tell people you are writing a book there is artificial pressure to get the job done because they will ask how it is going. The proverbial kick up the arse as it’s called.
- Write about something you enjoy: I hear people say you should write about what you know – fair enough if you also enjoy it but for me just knowing about something isn’t enough to light up a page. In my case I really need to love what I’m writing about for it to be good. Imagination is there for the stuff I don't know.
- Set yourself a word count target for writing: I aim for two thousand words a day when I’m in the zone. But even if it’s five hundred words a week you’ll get there eventually – if you don’t set a target the chances are high you’ll never get the thing written.
- Let others see the work – and not friends: Find people who will give you genuine, honest feedback that you can work with.
- Don’t stop writing: Ever.