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Rules of Writing

by Graham Masterton

LESSON ONE: Don't write, talk, and use your natural voice, as if you were telling the story out loud to a group of friends. If there is a knack to writing it is to tell a story without consciously 'writing' about it. So many amateur writers have a good tale to tell, but are too concerned about making an impression on the page. Forget the fancy similes and the impressive metaphors, just tell it like it is. But do learn your grammar, syntax, spelling, etc, otherwise your amateur status will really show. Just like a motor mechanic's amateur status would show if he or she didn't know how to fix an alternator.

LESSON TWO: Don't describe, be there. Create a virtual world inside your head with weather, wind, noises, background music, smells and tastes. Forget about your PC ... let it melt and walk through it.

LESSON THREE: Never use cliches (except in dialogue where a character might reasonably be expected to talk in cliches). I recently read a new horror novel by quite a respected writer (well, bits of it, anyway) and he described total darkness by saying 'not even my hand in front of my face ... only darkness in its inky totality.' I mean, please. That's like saying night 'was like a coal-cellar ... only night in its nighty nightness.' Later he says 'a mental alarm bell jangled faintly deep inside my head.' Where else does a mental alarm bell ring except inside your head?

LESSON FOUR: Be surprising. Use metaphors and similes that nobody has ever thought of before. This requires thought, observation, and a sense of poetic rhythm and above all simpicity. Don't make the metaphor or simile so complicated that the reader is brought to a halt trying to work out what you're saying. I described a pretty but dumb girl as 'a small-town beauty queen who looked as if she had been hit in the head by half a brick.'

LESSON FIVE: Be rhythmic, and sensitive to the balance of your sentences. That's why the study of good poetry is so important. It teaches you how to rearrange a sentence so that it reads more easily and yet emphasizes the words that you want the reader to pick up on. Read some Rupert Brooke:

'In your arms was still delight,
Quiet as a street at night;
And thoughts of you, I do remember,
Were green leaves in a darkened chamber,
Were dark clouds in a moonless sky...'

Hear that brilliant repetition of 'Were'? And at the end of the poem:

'O infinite deep I never knew,
I would come back, come back to you,
Find you, as a pool unstirred,
Kneel down by you and never a word,
Lay down my head, and nothing said,
In your hands, ungarlanded;
And a long watch you would keep;
And I should sleep, and I should sleep!'

Do you see how much emotion is conveyed by those repetitions and re-statements?

LESSON SIX: Do your research and then throw it away. Unless your readership is of the Tom Clancy/Clive Cussler type, who relish reading about 3455 XY-cluster missiles, tell your story secure in the knowledge that you know where it's set and what your characters are like ... give them expertise in what they do ... but then tell the story.

LESSON SEVEN: Give your characters complete consistency. Don't twist their motivations to suit your plot. Even if it gives you a headache, try to think what they would actually do. Writing fiction is acting out a play on your own. As Ivor Cutler said in Turkish Bath Play ... 'You're going to do a play with just yourself?' 'Yes, there are 345 parts and I take all of them.'

I write with only the loosest of outlines since characters take on their own personalities and carry the story into all kinds of unexpected directions. With thrillers like Condor and Ikon I deliberately started writing several disparate plot-lines in order to set myself the challenge of tying them all up at the end. With Outrage, which I finished earlier this year (2003), I had absolutely no idea how it was going to end until the last 25 pages.

Nothing beats character and character-driven events. Real people behave in unexpected ways. That's how life works. And that's why so many thrillers are so wooden.

LESSON EIGHT: Avoid purple prose ... something grisly can be much more convincing and disturbing if it's described very simply. You don't have to tell your readers what to think. If you've described it vividly enough they will have their own reactions. 'If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, where is the man who has so much that he is out of danger?'

LESSON NINE: Write with your eyes. Don't see words, see people. Look out of the window and see the thunderclouds gathering on the other side of the river. Be conscious while you're doing it of the woman standing close behind you. You keep lookng out of the window but she lays her hand on your shoulder. You can smell her perfume. She says, 'You're frightened, aren't you?' And you say, 'No. Maybe. I don't know. It was the way he looked at me when he left.' 'I don't understand,' she says, and you turn around to face her. 'Nobody ever looked at me like that before. He looked as if he wanted to cut my guts out and hang me up on a hook.'

LESSON TEN: When you have finished writing a story, go through it and delete as many adverbs as you can, he said strictly. You'd be surprised how often they're not necessary, and you can convey your effect without them. They tend to slow down the narrative and distract the reader by interjecting an authorial voice in the middle of the action. 'I like you in that sweater,' he said, pointedly. My writing advice is always the same ... the message that William Burroughs gave me ... disappear, vanish, don't be there ... pick up your keyboard and walk.

RESEARCH: Buying a few local papers is always a great way to get detailed background on a community's character, the people who live there, and general social conditions. Another method I use a lot is to talk on the telephone to the information officers of the local chamber of commerce, usually with a specific query about 'what's the best hotel in town?' or 'where do young people hang out at night?' which will yield more interesting results than 'I'm writing a novel ... tell me about your town.' I also like to talk to police and fire chiefs about their day-to-day problems.

I also try to get hold of as many photographs of the town or city as I can, such as postcards and guidebooks. You can learn more from what a town is trying to say about itself to the world at large than you can by living there. Guidebooks subtly expose weaknesses and senses of inferiority as well as 'the unparalleled views from Snake Mountain' or 'the sumptuous colours of New England in fall.'

I prefer to research a book as I'm going along, since you can come across all kinds of interesting facts and odd perspectives when your mind is attuned to the subject that you're working on, which might not normally strike you as relevant. Occasionally I have started a book and stopped dead, completely at a loss to know where it's going to go next. The first chapter of Tengu remained an orphan for almost a year, as did the first two chapters of Spirit ... and Trauma was only completed when Richard Chizmar asked me if I had any old novellas knocking around that he could publish for Cemetery Dance, and it ended up being shortlisted for an Edgar Allan Poe award.

Finally ... remember that ultimately you are writing fiction and you are allowed to make things up. Research is simply to give your story 'feel' and 'solidity' rather than to impress your readers that you happen to know the name of the girl behind the florist's counter at the corner of Woodward and Main.

DIALOGUE: Dialogue has always been a special interest of mine ... getting characters to talk believably, which is unbelievably difficult! I have spent years working on dialogue to try to make it 'sound' authentic. You can't actually write down what people really say verbatim, otherwise your characters would be going 'um, er, well, I thought I saw this, you know, like, er, thing sort of, well it was coming out of his mouth, you know what I mean and it was like I dunno.' So you have to write pretend naturalistic dialogue, which I write and rewrite and say out loud to get a naturalistic rhythm and the feeling of reality. I'm not complaining about doing it, it's very interesting and a great challenge, especially since so much dialogue in novels is so wooden. My pet hate is those scenes like the one I recently watched in Murder, She Wrote (I only watched it because it was filmed on location in Ireland ... that's my excuse, anyhow). Jessica and The Villain faced each other at the end and discussed for about ten minutes how the dastardly plot had been done. In real life he would shot the old bat without saying a word.

IDIOM: Idiom is always one of the greatest challenges when one is writing about characters who live in a different country from one's own. I tend to set my novels in the United States because international audiences are familiar and comfortable with US settings, having seen them so often in movies and TV ... and of course the potential readership is much bigger than, say, the Isle of Wight. Of course there are thousands of different idioms throughout the US. The word 'berm' for instance, for the grassy strip seperating the two carriageways of a highway. In some parts of Philadelphia they don't water their lawns, they 'spritz' them. In Cincinnati they call soda 'pop' ... the same as in Britain. They also call pork 'city chicken.' In some southern states, couches are still called sofas. When I was writing A Terrible Beauty, set in Cork, Ireland, I had my friends at the local pub read all the dialogue to make sure I hadn't made any egregious errors.

DEMONOLOGY: Over the years I have collected many fascinating books about demons and mythology ... more than I will ever have time to write about. Among these books is the Dictionary of the Damned published in 1861; The Classification of Demons written by Michael Psellus in the 11th century; The Seven Million by the magician Johan Wierus who believed that there were 7,409,127 demons, commanded by 79 princes of hell. And of course there is the work of Francis Barrett, who published a book called The Magus in which he divided evil spirits into nine categories: False Gods, Spirits of Lies, Vessels of Iniquity, Revengers of Evil, Deluders, Aerial Powers, Furies, Accusers and Ensnarers.

NEW CHAPTERS: I have a dread of finishing chapters because that means I have to start a new chapter instead of waffling on with the situation and the scene that was in the old chapter.

Starting a new chapter means imagining the setting, the characters who are going to be involved, the intended plot development, the dialog, the weather, and so forth. The story isn't just 'there' to be written about. I have to bring in the scene-painters, the wardrobe mistress, the make-up artists, the lighting technicians, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all, and they all have to be organised and paid and given their coffee-breaks, during which I have to argue with the self-opinionated scriptwriters who want to put in unfunny jokes and 'meaningful' monologs, and the flouncing stars with their overweening egos. You think it's easy, writing a novel? It may not require a huge budget, but it's mentally very expensive.

WRITING FOR CHILDREN: I wrote House of Bones and Hair-Raiser for Point Horror. Hair-Raiser was recently published in Poland although you're probably not fluent in Polish. The Hidden World was for even younger children. Writing for children is extremely difficult, because they are much more critical than adults, and don't make the same assumptions that adults do. 'Yes, but WHY did he turn into a six-headed werewolf? Why SIX heads?' etc.

WRITING ABOUT CHILDREN: I have no trouble writing about violent things happening to children, because violent things happen to all of us regardless of our age and a strong protective instinct toward children is a good motivating force for a character in a horror story.

GETTING THE DETAILS RIGHT: I don't actually think that I write very much ... I have far more ideas than I ever have the time to put down. Poor old Gustave Flaubert used to write pages and pages and cross it all out and end up with only two sentences to show for a day's work. Talking of researching a subject thoroughly and then throwing your research away, here's a doozy of a sentence from Robin Cook's new novel Shock which shows you exactly how NOT to do it:

'The only evidence of the cell's earlier rude aspiration from its developing follicle was the ragged remains of its corona radiata of granulose cells adherent to the comparatively dense envelope called the zona pellucida ... inexorably a pipette closed in on the hapless, immobile gamete.'

Terrific stuff! 'A hapless, immobile gamete!! ... and the pipette was closing in!!' Arrrgghhh!!!

By the way, talking of Flaubert, he could have made a terrific horror writer. Simple, chilling, highly visual. Here's his description of a dead woman on his father's operating table in Rouen:

'For the most beautiful woman is scarcely beautiful on the table of a dissecting room, with her bowels draped over her nose, one leg minus its skin, and half a burnt-out cigar on her foot.'

The cigar touch is near-genius ... suddenly you can picture the whole ambiance of the operating theatre, with the surgeon casually smoking while he works, partly for pleasure and partly to mask the smell of the body. That's how you can use acute detail to fill in character and atmosphere.

EDITING: Every morning when I start work I read what I've written yesterday and correct it and refine it. Even a change of one word can make an enormous difference to the impact of a scene.

The fine-tuning is all part of the fun. You just have to read what you've written and decide if it flows, if it contributes to the development of the plot and the characters and the general atmosphere ... and wherever it doesn't, alter it. For instance, Harry Erskine has just sat down in a white leather armchair behind a pillar in the lobby of a swish Miami hotel (the Delano) to talk to Amelia on his cell. But I didn't like white leather, I preferred light green leather because it is more unusual and distinctive and lends character to the scene. Cut pillar because we don't really need it. A cocktail waitress in a white designer uniform with gilt buttons comes up while he's talking and asks him if he wants anything from the bar. Cut cocktail because it's redundant. Cut designer because it's obvious in that kind of hotel. Argue about the necessity of gilt buttons (may cut these later, but like the toy-soldier uniform effect). Harry asks for a beer because he's a cheapskate. But then that's too cheap even for him, and he's trying to impress. He asks for a Nagayama Sunset even though it's $18 a hit. But he doesn't want to appear too serious about it, so he asks for a Nagayama Sunset 'but go easy on the nagayamas.'

Think constantly about what helps the story and what hinders it. At all costs avoid interrupting the reader's flow - so don't use unnecessarily obscure words or awkward sentence constructions. But you are allowed to relax with your language. 'She walked around looking as if everything she experienced was like, what?' expression.

SEX INSTRUCTION: 'Quest' was a question-and-answer sex survey, very mild by today's standards. Mayfair badly needed a circulation-building series to rival Penthouse, and the late owner and creator of Mayfair, Brian Fisk, and I went to dinner one evening in Bayswater and devised 'Quest'. I wrote the first article the same night sitting on the floor with my legs under my coffee-table. The first few articles were entirely written by me, but as time went on I started to interview real people, and that was a revelation. It absolutely amazed me how little people knew about sex. This, in turn, led to How To drive Your Man Wild in Bed, and all of the other sex books I came to write. The greatest pleasure in writing these books is seeing the relief on people's faces as they realize that other people have done or fantasized about doing the sexual things that they have been worrying about for years.

SEX SCENES: I have no problem with sex scenes, given my career as editor of Mayfair, Penthouse and Penthouse Forum, not to mention Private in Sweden. But writing good sex scenes is not easy and requires a high degree of restraint. One highly-erotic visual is usually enough for each sexual encounter, and you should be VERY careful about the use of similes and metaphors, so as not to seem either mawkish or absurd. 'It reminded her of a well-trimmed stick of celery being pushed urgently into a warm Camembert dip.'

INTERSECTION WRITING: I did a great deal of 'cut-up' and 'intersection' writing with William Burroughs ... in fact two entire novels, one entitled Mysterious Babies (the manuscript of which is now sadly lost) and a shorter one called The Electric Ambush (the manuscript of which is sadly not lost). To put it simply, in 'cut-up' writing we would write sentences and then cut them up and reassemble them to see what new insights appeared. Sometimes these reassembled sentences would include fragments from magazines and newspapers as well. 'Intersection' writing is where, as William put it, 'messages travel along intersections' ... that is, you would pick out coincidences and correlations in what you were reading, writing and experiencing, and follow their meaning like following a route-map. 'A sort of book-code' he called it. 'When you read look listen think precise intersection points right where you are reading now look round ... Graham wrote "tip-tapping of a dripping faucet." Do you have a dripping faucet? I do in this room on the top floor of the lottery building Tangier. Needs a new washer. Speak to the porter. He sits on a bench downstairs. "We step quietly in to the street a man plays "Pasadena" on an old record player" "Pasadena". You got it? When I step quietly into the street so as not to stir the ambulant vendors and guides, there is a bus of the Pasadena hotel ... (Boat whistling in the harbor) past the green dentist remember the old dentist from Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory?'

Here is a fairly typical example of a 'cut-up' poem I wrote: Your Father's Mustache.

Typical is Your Father's Mustache/ when an impotent man/ looks at an obelisk body is bound/ sidles up to death bed 'Uncle Horrible' and 'Dried Meat'/ NOT PUSHED FOR MONEY come apart for good and all.

Awareness/ at all times/ of my sex a walk in the street/ about/ on sepia film moistplate of naked girl printed on the aching trees touch of the toys/ of leaves/ of Jacqueline Kennedy of her hard hand.

hair flares/ cigarette poised pointed breasts under/ faintly scorched school/ blouse sweet smell of femme libres/ and learning Milton still schools that look like wheels personalities of the beater/ & the beaten

A TASTEFUL IMPERSONATION OF MOTHER LOVE

I fall/ I am hammered again/ I am left/ among the chairs/ smoking cleaning my nails with/ a store window I am not prepared to look

neuralgia rages, I am unable to spit from here to the door.

Writing like this should be read as if you are shuffling through a random series of postcards, looking for similarities or images that jog your memory. It is not really intended for publication, any more than a mechanic has to explain to a customer how he has taken his car engine apart and tuned it. It's simply practice in disassembling and reassembling images and language.

WRITING IN DIFFERENT GENRES: Anything that you create can always be bettered. That's one of the reasons I like to write in different genres. The scene and character-building that I learned from writing Rich and Railroad was invaluable in writing horror stories - as were the action sequences and the interlinking of disparate plot threads that I learned from writing thrillers. I have never thought of myself as a genre writer and if it hadn't have been for the simple economic fact of having to make a living and therefore having to develop a name in a particular field (i.e. horror) I probably would have written a totally different novel every time.

WRITING RITUALS: As far as writing rituals are concerned, I find it difficult to get started ... like Harold Pinter, I suffer from 15-watt lightbulb syndrome ... anything is better than writing, even going out to buy a 15-watt lightbulb. I also have to finish The Daily Telegraph crossword although this only takes 20 minutes so it's not much of a procrastination and it does limber up ze leetle gray cells. There's only one thing you can do, and that is simply to start writing, no matter what it is, and no matter if you find that you have to correct it later. Or even delete it all. You just have to get going. It really is the worst moment of the day, though, when you have to go back to what you wrote last night and think...oh God, here we go again. It may take readers only a few hours to read a book but when you're writing one you have to live with the same people for months on end, and by God aren't you glad to give them all a grisly comeuppance in the end. Once started, however, I find it difficult to stop. I don't smoke and I don't drink anything except water when writing. I write solidly from 10am - 2pm and then stop, although most days I will go back later and do some correction and maybe write a little more.

I have often been asked when I do the most intense work, and believe it or not I do it in bed, at night. There is no better time for working out plotlines, characterization, new titles, etc. All of the most difficult storyline problems I have ever had have been sorted out by a couple of hours of concentrated thinking in total silence and total darkness.

Drinking alcohol and writing at the same time makes you realise how dangerous it is to drink and drive. You come out with sentences that, re-read the next day, are nothing but surreal nonsense, often involving scenes and characters that have nothing to do with the book you're writing at all. The last time I did it, one of my characters, in the middle of a horrific scene, said, 'This is a complete and utter waste of medical resources!'

SUBMITTING WORK FOR PUBLICATION: It's a hard cold world out there when it comes to selling fiction. These days all of the major publishing houses are all but inaccessible to any new writer who doesn't have an agent. One of the best ways to start these days is with small presses and magazines. There is a whole range of good small-press magazines and book publishers in the horror field, especially in the US. You can find out more about these by joining HWA (The Horror Writers' Association).

Always find out exactly what a magazine or a publisher wants before submitting anything. Never submit too much, and always double-space. The first tell-tale sign of an amateur manuscript is single-spacing. Look in the Writers and Artists Year Book for possible agents...then send those agents a short covering letter, a brief synopsis, and no more than the first three chapters of your book. Beware of any agent who asks for money to look at and/or promote your work. No serious or professional agency does this, and any agent who does is a crook

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?: I have various facetious answers, but the reality is that it mainly comes from asking yourself the question 'What if...?' As you probably realise from reading my fiction, I often use the device of explaining one well-known myth or legend by linking it with another well-known situation, and by introducing a paradoxical or controversial result. The Devil In Gray came from my interest in the US Civil War and particularly the Battle of the Wilderness, which was a win for the Confederacy at a time when they were doing badly, and also my interest in the African religion of Santeria. I simply asked myself 'What if the Confederates won the Battle of the Wilderness because they used Santeria magic to help them?' There was also the paradox of a slave-owning society having to use slave magic to help them out.

When you are writing, try to see a familiar situation in an unfamiliar light ... try to seek an unusual or surprising explanation. We all like to have familiar stories retold and re-interpreted, such as Mirror (Alice Through The Looking-Glass) and The Djinn (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) and Family Portrait (The Picture of Dorian Gray). I wrote two different interpretations of Tennyson's poem 'The Lady of Shallot' ... one for the last Hot Blood anthology and another for the BBC horror/fantasy website. Maybe you have a favourite poem/story/historical event which you can try to explain in a totally different way. For instance I wrote a story 'The Sixth Man' which gave a supernatural explanation for the failure of Scott's disastrous expedition to the Pole. The same supernatural presence appears in the Jim Rook novel Snowman.

Ideas usually come together in much the same way as the news stories I picked up when I was a newspaper reporter. I see an interesting story in a newspaper or magazine and then think 'what if this happened because of some strange or supernatural circumstances?' The Pariah, for example, was based on the raising of the Swedish galleon the Wasa and also the Mary Rose. Edgewise was based on stories of parental kidnapping and organizations devoted to helping fathers to regain custody of their children. It really is a question of taking some quite normal incident and standing it on its head. Chaos Theory, for example, asks if some famous assassinations could have been connected in any way, and why.

I was traveling through East Germany many years ago. I got caught in a thunderstorm in Leipzig and had to take shelter in a monastery where the monks had taken a vow of talking so they never shut up from morning till night and even talked in their sleep. They had a thousand stories to tell and I wrote down as many of them as I could. Before I left in the morning they gave me a huge breakfast of bratwurst, rye bread, and pickled pigs' feet. I keep all of their stories in a tin box in my attic with a silver crucifix on top of it and a circle of garlic flowers all around it. Whenever I feel like writing a new book I climb up to the attic and open it, although each time I do so I notice another cross-shaped mole on my left arm.

What I am trying to tell you is, ideas come simply from extrapolation, like taking the wrong road in a Lovecraft story and ending up in a world of tumble-down houses and inbreds (bit like Leigh-on-Sea, actually). Think of yourself eating your breakfast and then leaving the house, only to find that the seasons have changed overnight and it's summer again, but everybody you meet stares at you suspiciously as if there's something odd about you. What can it be that makes them stare so much?

As a trained newspaper reporter and experienced magazine editor I can see ideas littered around everywhere. There's a great idea in the newspaper recently ... in California scientists can sit you in front of a table, hide your hand from you, and lay a rubber band on the table. They stroke your hand and the rubber band simultaneously in the same way, and you very quickly believe that the rubber band is your hand. You ought to try it ... the possibilities are extraordinary ... I mean, eat your heart out, Matrix! This is alternative reality here and now.

The newspapers are filled with fantastic ideas for novels every day. I have more ideas for novels than I could conceivably write in a lifetime. And there's another idea ... rather like Scheherezade, an author is allowed to stay alive for as long as he can continue writing a series of novels ... if he can keep on going, he (or she) will be immortal...

Your plots should have what we call 'dramatic tension'. In other words a dynamic situation which our characters have to resolve. I once had what I thought was a brilliant idea for a novel in which an ordinary woman unexpectedly received daily payments in the post of $20,000 from an anonymous donor. Where were they coming from? And why? But there was no underlying dynamic to the story and I shelved it after 60 pages even though I knew it had a terrific twist in the end. Plunge your characters right into the thick of it from the very beginning. Show no mercy to your readers. They have paid their money to go on a roller-coaster ride ... give them their money's-worth.

Alternatively...

Where do I get my ideas from? In my spiderwebby attic, right at the back, behind the rusted suits of armour and the bullet-riddled IRA raincoats, is a dented metal box. It was in this box that a rival of Mr Bramah suffocated while trying to prove that the Bramah lock could easily be opened. Inside the box are sheets of paper which are so fragile that they can turn to dust in your fingers. Inside these wrappings are bundles of monkey-skin tattooed by a Sri Lankan tribe. The tattooes are said to be the secret of sexual ecstasy so intense that it causes instant death ... the tribe died out. Inside the monkey-skin is a manuscript which was thrown into the River Vennes by Cardinal Vaudrey after the demonic possession of the nuns at Loudun in 1634. The manuscript was so evil that the water refused to let it sink, and it was rescued by an idiot fisherman who sold it for two bottles of absinthe. I came across the manuscript in Bruges in 1969 and exchanged it for 11 Belgian francs and a crucifix that used to belong to Rasputin. The manuscript contains all the ideas anybody could need to write ten million books. Every page is blank...

GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS: As far as graphic violence is concerned, the limit depends on many different factors. The intended age of your readership, of course (there is very little explicit violence in any of the Jim Rook stories, for example). The person or persons on whom the violence is being inflicted (careful with children, for example.) The tone of the story ... is it fantastical or realistic? The words used to describe the violence ... you don't want to sound lip-licking about it. The reason for the violence ... is it an integral part of the mechanism of the story or are you just being gratuitous? Often, the most horrific scenes are those which are implied rather than graphically described. I often quote the editor who complained to me that the killing of the girls in Family Portrait was 'highly graphic ... too much dwelling on spattering of blood' whereas all it says in the actual book is that they were 'clubbed like two seals.' The editor's mind had supplied all the spattering, saving me a considerable amount of effort and ink.

It really isn't easy to get the viscera right. They love viscera in Greece and Poland, and in France (where, after all, they cook and eat viscera more than in any other country). But a major reason why my books disappeared off the UK bookshelves at the beginning of the '90s was because there was a backlash against gruesome horror particularly from the book trade, wholesalers and retailers. I was discussing this with a very influential British editor the other day and he said that while he had always rated my novels very highly, they had gone over the top, intestinally speaking, for the UK market. However I have been working hard to get re-established in the UK so you may soon be seeing some novels that are more ghostly than gruesome. But don't worry ... I won't abandon you meatlovers!

NAMING CHARACTERS & PRONOUNCING THEIR NAMES: There is nothing worse than coming across a name in a story which you have absolutely no idea how to pronounce correctly. And if you do have to use a name with an unusual pronounciation, you should subtly inform your reader how to say it properly. My short story 'The Burgers of Calais' is a classic example. The French Calais is pronounced 'Cal-ay' while the American town of the same name is pronounced 'Call-us'.

Choosing names for the Night Warriors, for instance, is more difficult than you might think. The names have to suit the character, both in their waking manifestation and their Night Warriors guise. They have to be unearthly, but at the same time they mustn't be so bonkers that they don't seem natural and easily-pronounceable. Just as 'Louisville' which was featured in Night Wars is locally pronounced 'Loo-ah-ville' (amongst several other local variants.) The Zaggaline is a fairly obvious name ... he's an artist who draws zig-zag lines. Dom Magator was meant to sound dignified and important and heavyweight. Some names are almost onomatopoeic, such as Kalexikox, with his multiple clock-like instruments. Xanthys was meant to sound feminine and flower-like, like part of a petal, but also to have that nature-program quality of speeded-up flower-growth. I invent and discard quite a few names before I devise ones which I think will fit into the characters and the narrative as naturally as normal names. Don't ask me where the name 'Winterwent' came from, because I simply don't know.

SERIES & FAVOURITE CHARACTERS: I am rather fond of Harry Erskine because I think he is the character who most closely resembles me. I have used several characters more than once, especially Jim Rook, the remedial high school teacher withc supernatural insight who appears in eight books altogether; and Sissy Sawyer, the scatty old hippie fortune-teller with a bad smoking habit; as well as Nathan Underhill, who appears in Basilisk and Night of the Gargoyles. Then there's Katie Maguire who is the heroine of my Irish detecteive novel White Bones. Perhaps my favorite of all, though, is John Dauphin, who first appeared in my short story 'The Burgers of Calais'. He is overweight but he loves his food, and his appetite for honey-basted spare ribs is almost stronger than his appetite for battling against evil.

STORY LENGTH: When I wrote The Manitou in 1974 I didn't actually have publication in mind, so I wrote the story until I got to the end and then stopped. But the next year I wrote Rich, my oil-tycoon saga, and the original MS was nearly 1,000 pages long. Sometimes publishers are constrained by paper costs and if you are being commissioned to write a novel by a particular publisher they will sometimes ask that you don't go burbling on too long. Another consideration is that booksellers can only display a limited number of very thick books on their shelves. Quite honestly I don't think there is a definitive answer. It depends on the genre (historical novels tend to be sprawlier), on the solvency of the publisher, on the type of novel that happens to be most popular at the time.

A reasonable length for a novel is 80,000 - 85,000 words. I have written shorter (Trauma, for example, was only about 60,000 words) and much longer. To give you some idea, Night Wars came out to 106,500. I recommend to first novelists not to write anything too long since one of the biggest expenses in publishing is paper, and it is also important that your book gets as much shelf-space as possible. But in the end it is the story itself and the way that you tell it which will determine the length. If your novel seems to be running out too long, go back and cut every sentence that you really like. In fact you should do that anyway. It's a process that writers call 'killing your darlings' and almost always makes for a better book. Having done that, go back and cut out as many adverbs as you possibly can. You'll be amazed how much tighter and more readable that makes your work, he said excitedly.

EARLY WORK: As far as my earlier work is concerned, I rarely read it, and when I do, I cannot recall writing it. It is just as if it has been written by somebody else altogether. In fact my writing has that effect on me only a day or two after writing something, and I think that enables me to be more objective and critical about it, and to cut out and alter things without feeling that I have 'killed my darlings.'

GRAMMAR & SENTENCE STRUCTURE: The rhythm of a sentence or a paragraph can help to create tension and atmosphere without even having to use words. Sentence rhythm and accurate grammar is highly important because although I want a story to be evocative, I want to remain 'invisible' to the reader and any jarring words or grammar or unbalanced sentences would destroy the suspension of disbelief and make the book far less scary.

At the same time I love really bad English of the 'dark and stormy night' variety. So did Stephen Leacock who was a Canadian humour writer whose books are well worth looking for, even today. They contain such great stories as 'Hezekiah Hayloft, a Hero in Homespun' and memorable sentences such as 'he jumped on his horse and rode off furiously in all directions.'

You wouldn't expect somebody to repair your computer if they hardly knew anything about computers and how they worked, yet so many people try to write with only a rudimentary knowledge of English (or whatever language they're trying to write in). I had some excellent training in bad grammar when I briefly worked as a greengrocer, and had to write all those signs saying potatoe's and tomatoe's. The choicest error was by the Cockney shop manager who wrote one vegetable as he prounounced it: 'Curly Cow.' In proper English, 'Curly Kale.'

SIMILES: Similes are not at all easy, and should be used very sparingly. How many times have you been brought up with a jolt when you're reading a novel because of some incongruous or laboured or (more often) unnecessary simile. A simile should be enlightening but it should sound completely natural and unforced. Here's one by Brion Gysin about travel in the Sahara: 'Officially timed departures are said to be relayed ahead to the next Bordj or fort where the captains are supposed to follow your progress across the floor of the desert, like a cockroach crawling across a a carpet in broad daylight.' That simile immediately adds scale to the size of the desert, it also gives you some idea of the slow rate of progress across the Sahara, and it also gives a feeling of the blindness and helplessness felt by the inexperienced traveler. 'In broad daylight' (when cockroaches do not normally come out) also gives a feeling of intense light and heat and the travelers' exposure to an extreme environment.

How one arrives at such similes is difficult to explain. It starts (as all good writing should start) with intense observation. I was trained as a newspaper reporter and I was always taught to look at every characteristic of the people I was interviewing, rather like Sherlock Holmes: their haircut, their jewelry, their teeth, the state of their fingernails and fingers (nicotine-stained?), their shoes (especially their shoes ... shoes are the greatest revealer of people's wealth, taste and personality). Then explain what you have seen to your reader, and if there is one characteristic that really sums the person up, try to find a graphic and memorable way of expressing it. 'His face was covered with a frosting of politeness.'

IMAGERY: As far as writing is concerned, accuracy and accessibility of imagery is extremely important. I am writing a scene at the moment (Ed:01/03/2009) in which an arson investigation officer is 'reading' the smoke and heat marks in a room in which there has been a serious localized fire. I tried to describe the marks that she was looking at as a 'medieval frieze painted in smoke' ... thinking of the story that the Bayeux Tapestry tells of the Norman Conquest. But somehow that didn't work and I was also concerned that many international readers would not immediately understand the reference. So after some deliberation I changed it to 'cave paintings' which give a clearer image of a smoke-stained environment and which everybody knows about and can imagine clearly and quickly.

THEMES: One of the common themes which links my heroes and heroines is my interest in the way that ordinary people deal with tragic and unnerving situations. It's surprising how often people respond to fear and disaster with humour ... often very mordant humor. These are not sick jokes but the recognition that humans are incredibly vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, and yet here we are living in a world crowded with diseases, potentially dangerous machinery, volcanoes, wild animals, floods, hurricanes and ladders that fall when we're using power drills which enable us to make compensation claims through dodgy insurance companies on TV.

PARALLEL EXISTENCES: I have always been interested in parallel existences, especially when I consider the extraordinary chances and coincidences that affect our lives. When I was deputy editor of Mayfair magazine I planned to stay there for several years to help the magazine develop. But my flat was burgled by druggies and so I moved temporarily into a basement flat owned by the editor. One night he had a noisy party that went on for hours and when I complained about it we had an argument and I quit my job on the spot. I found a new job as executive editor of the UK edition of Penthouse and after two years there, Wiescka joined the company as my editorial assistant. I threw a lavish Christmas party for the staff and contributors, and what happens at office Christmas parties? Thirty-five years later Wiescka and I are still together. But supposing I hadn't been burgled, or my editor hadn't arranged a party, or the job at Penthouse hadn't been available?

PUBLISHING: It is so damn hard to get hold of my books because of the structure of today's publishing and bookselling trades. When I started out, publishing was a very personal one-to-one business and editors were literate and well-educated and always on the lookout for interesting new mid-range books. These days all the publishing companies are mostly owned by massive international conglomerates and they are more interested in profit than developing authors. Booksellers will not give up any of their very limited shelf-space to any book which they are not confident will sell quickly. Publishers have to pay to have their books displayed in bookstore windows, and they even have to pay for those cozy handwritten notes of recommendation which you see on some bookstore's shelves. Smaller publishers find it very hard to compete. So thank God for online bookselling.

SETTINGS: The settings for all of my novels are very important to me because when you are trying to suspend disbelief with a wild tale such as Night Wars it is essential that the reader feels 'grounded' in reality. Knowing a city is much more than just a visit or research ... it's trying to understand the people who live there, their social background and their aspirations, what they eat, what they do for fun, their local expressions, etc., as well as knowing the different suburbs and areas, upscale or blue-collar or ethnically divided. All that, even before you get around to the horror story ... but building that kind of background is the really entertaining part of writing, for me anyhow.

I mostly set my books in the United States for commercial reasons (bigger audience, greater worldwide acceptability by a readership familiar with American settings.) I have occasionally made forays into France (The Devils of D-Day) and Britain (Prey) and Poland (The Chosen Child). I published a vampire story 'The Laird of Dunain' which was set near Inverness and another story 'Evidence of Angels' which is set in Edinburgh.

THE MIRROR METHOD: One of the best tips is to have a mirror on your desk next to your PC. When a character is about to say or do anything, try to duplicate their expression in the mirror. You may find that they do not actually have to say anything ... you simply have to describe how they look. I learned this from Ward Kimball who used to draw Donald Duck cartoons at Disney.

SWEARING: One interesting problem is that of swearing. Obviously many people swear these days as a matter of course, but it looks very much more offensive on the printed page than it does in day-to-day conversation, and of course you have to consider that while you can use your judgement about swearing when you're talking to somebody in person, your book may be picked up at the local library by some dear old lady who is very offended by seeing the words in print. Therefore when I write I include all the words that my characters would naturally use, and then go through and see if I can substitute or delete them or use stronger non-swearing phrases to get the effing point over. What personally offends me about swearing is not the words themselves but the linguistic impoverishment of the people who use them. Swearing has only become more rife because education in English expression is so poor. I still like the joke about the man who goes into a shop and asks for a packet of frozen pissoles. The shopkeeper says 'No ... it isn't spelled with a "p"... it's spelled with an "r".' 'Oh, sorry,' says the customer. 'Can I have a packet of frozen arseholes.'

GETTING STARTED: Getting started is always the hardest part ... it requires the most work, anyway, because you have to visualize your characters and your scene and your forthcoming plot out of nothing at all ... and while you may be the one writing the book, you don't know any more about any of these things than anybody else, because none of it exists yet! But do try and get right into the story, as if it's already started. The first line of my latest novel: 'I hear noises,' said Mrs Bellman. 'Two or three in the morning, when it's pitchy dark. It sounds like somebody dragging a sack past my door. And I hear screaming, too.'

As far as writing novels is concerned, I always find that the first chapters are all blood, sweat, Word and tears, but suddenly the characters all shake themselves, stand up, brush themselves down and get on with the story for me. D on't give up. That moment will come to you, and after that everything will fall into place.

Now write 108,000 more words, and you've done it!