Monday, 17 January 2011

How To Plan A Book

Over on the International Thriller Writer's site I've been leading a discussion on whether to plan a novel in advance. Here's my contribution, but you can read the rest of the debtate there.

Before starting the ‘Death Force’ series a couple of years ago, I spent about five years as a ghost-writer for Random House. I churned out seven action-adventure thrillers, books that were supposedly written by spies and special forces guys.

In many ways it was a frustrating experience. You get quite well-paid, but you don’t get any credit for your work.

But it did teach me one really useful thing – the importance of planning your plot.

When you are ghost-writing, you need to get the ‘author’ and publisher on board. The last thing I wanted to do was spend months on a book, and then get told it wasn’t what they wanted. So I started writing incredibly detailed outlines. I’d do a 15,000 word outline for a 100,000 word book. Every chapter and incident would be detailed, bits of dialogue, and character development. Then I’d make sure everyone was signed up to it.

And you know what. I found it was a tremendous discipline. It forced me to really think ruthlessly about where the plot was going. It forced me to think hard about turning point, and twists, and to fitting the characters into the story. And it made me much better at chucking things out – I could edit much more fiercely on an outline than I ever could on a finished manuscript.

So now that I am writing my own books I still do these incredibly detailed outlines.

And that has two big advantages.

First, the plots are much better. They start in the right place, they are tighter and leaner, and more exciting.

Second, when I’m writing the actually book, I don’t have to worry about plot and structure because that is already done. I can focus on jokes, dialogue, one-liners, terrific action descriptions, and all the other stuff that goes into a first-class thriller.

So if there is one piece of advice I would always give an aspiring writer it is – plan, plan, plan.

Why Japan and the US Are Still in the Game....

In my Moneyweek column this week, I've been looking at how demographics changes our perception of the big economic trends. Here's a taster....

Unless you happen to be a hedge-fund manager specialising in high-velocity yak hide futures, most investors operate on long time horizons. Whether the Nikkei or the Footsie will be up or down a bit by the time spring comes around, or whether the dollar will finish the year up or down against the euro, no one really has any idea.
The best you can do is figure out what the long-term trends are, and you’re your investment decisions accordingly.
Over a twenty or thirty year view, most of us probably think we have a pretty good idea of where the world economy is going. China will rise into a position of global dominance, closely followed by the other BRIC economies of India, Brazil and Russia. Japan will continue its long slide into irrelevance. Europe is just about finished, although the mighty German export machine will keep powering ahead. The United States is in irretrievable long-term decline, sunk by debts, deficits, and imperial over-reach.
And yet the latest demographic research suggests that script is just about completely wrong. In fact, Japan is doing much better than most people think. China isn’t doing nearly as well. German strength is deceptive. The US is far better placed than you’d imagine. And, in Europe, Britain and France will be the highest-growth economies.
In the long-run, economics is basically demographics, with a few supply and demand charts thrown into the mix. A country’s GDP is determined by the number of working people, multiplied by their output. Output per worker varies depending on productivity growth, fairly obviously. But the number of workers varies as well. Partly that depends on the participation rate – that is, the numbers of people who go out and get jobs. Welfare systems make a difference to that: they can easily deter low-paid workers from looking for jobs. So do social trends: the number of women working has made a big difference to employment rates in all the developed countries.
But the number of workers depends most crucially on birth rates. Once your population goes into decline, it is very hard for your overall economy to grow. And if the population is growing, it’s hard for the economy not to.
How does that change the big global economic trends? Like this.
Forget all that stuff about Japan’s lost decade. It’s nonsense, pushed by Keynesian economics to justify printing lots of money. As Daniel Gros, the director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, has pointed out, Japan ‘never lost a decade’. When you divide GDP by the number of working age people (defined as everyone between 20 and 60) Japan did better in the last decade than the US, and better than most European counties as well. That certainly seems to chime with the evidence we can see all around us. If Japan is doing so badly, how come the roads are full of Toyotas and our houses full of Nintendo Wii’s and Sony TVs? If Japanese demand is so weak, why is unemployment only 5%, half the rate in the US and the eurozone?
In fact, Japan did as well as a wealthy, mature economy could be expected to. It would probably have done better if the Bank of Japan had listened less to academic Keynesians, and printed less money. Even so, the message is clear. Japan remains one of the most innovative, successful capitalist economies in the world – it’s just not going to show up in the GDP numbers because its population is falling.
Next, re-think China’s rise to global dominance. True, the country is rapidly industrialising. It’s a big place, and it is going to be a big player in the global economy. But how big? Right now, China is in a demographic ‘sweet spot’. The one-child policy means there aren’t many children. And past population growth means there aren’t many old people either. So in this decade China has an exceptionally high percentage of its population of working age. That is terrific for growth right now, but bad for the long-term. By 2030, China will have a greater percentage of pensioners to look after than the US. That is going to act a big drag on economic growth. And there won’t be much anyone can do about it.
The US, by contrast, will be in much better shape. True, America had been running big budget and trade deficits, and its banking system is in a terrible mess. But those are all short-term problems. The over-60s currently account for just 18% of the US population. That will only rise to 25% by 2050. The US has one of the highest birth rates in the developed world (14 births per 1,000 people annually, compared with 12 in the UK, or 8 in Germany). And, of course, it remains open to immigrants, at least compared to other rich countries. There will still be lots of bright, hard-working Americans joining the labour force every year for the foreseeable future, and they won’t be paying a fortune in taxes to support an army of pensioners. It’s hard to see how that can be bad for growth.
Lastly, re-think what you know about Europe. Germany has catastrophic demographics, and the country is increasingly suspicious of immigrants. A kink in the birth rates means the working age population has been stable since 2005, and will stay that way until 2015. Then it falls of a cliff. You can’t keep an export machine going when there aren’t any workers. France and the UK, by contrast, are set to dominate Europe – they are the only two major countries with stable or growing populations.
What should investors make of that? Simple. Don’t be too pessimistic about Japan. It’s in much better shape than you’ve been told. The China story is over-sold. The US is in much better shape than most people have acknowledged. France and Britain look pretty good too. Turn all of that into portfolio consisting of index-tracking funds following the Nikkei and the S&P 500, with a side position in the FTSE-100, and France’s CAC-40. Then come back and check how your investments are doing in 2030 – and you’ll almost certainly find they have done pretty well.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A Great Review of Shadow Force...

There's a great review of Shadow Force in City AM today.

IT doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a book called Shadow Force – the first in a series that tracks a pack of mercenaries around the world – is not going to have much of a feminine touch. Well, journalist Matt Lynn has gone the full distance and got women out of the picture entirely. His cast of the characters at the beginning reads like a who’s who of an angry teenage boy’s warfare fantasy. There’s Steve, formerly of the SAS; Ollie, once of the Household Cavalry; David, of the Irish Guards; Nick from the Territorial Army, and so on. There’s a weapons glossary at the end, too. Well, fair enough. The kinds of men who will be reading this book won’t be sinking their teeth into it for its nuance – or for the now-popular genre of the female warrior (thank you, Lisbeth Salander). This is 100 per cent men doing, what Lynn seems to insist, is “man’s work”.

And perhaps it is. There’s an an undercover operation; a top secret unit, and possibly a death sentence for all concerned. Why? Well, Somali-based pirates are attacking ships off the coast of Africa, demanding millions in ransoms and pushing up the cost of shipping along this crucial route. The elite “fighting men” from Death Inc – the British government’s top-secret force – are called upon to destroy the pirates. Only once there, they realise they’re the target of a deadly conspiracy and their lives are the only thing that are expendable about the mission. Lynn is being tipped as the next Andy McNab and there’s no doubt he can spin a good, violent yarn with the right amount of real-life political darkness thrown in. Certainly a good read.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Why Stories Matter...

Over at The International Thriller Writers Website, I've been leading a discussion on why stories matter. You can read the other contributions there, but here's what I had to say.

Why do stories matter? It’s a good question for a writer to ask themselves. If you made cars, or taught kindergarten, or worked as a farmer, it would be much easier. Your work matters because people need it. It fulfils some function. But do people need stories? What function do they have?

You could argue – not much. After all, they are just a made up series of events.

I think they do have a function. After all, we’ve been telling stories ever since cavemen sat around the first camp fires. Probably a fair numbers of those stories were thrillers (featuring hair-raising bison chases, and the inevitable double-dealing Neanderthal). A fair number would have been romances as well. It must be the case that stories perform some kind of useful function, otherwise they wouldn’t have been a feature of very human society we’ve ever known. Their function might not be obvious, like a spade, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

So what is it? In my view, the function of a story is to make sense of the world. Its takes the chaos and randomness of life and gives it some sort of shape and purpose. In fiction, there are no co-incidences, and no loose ends. That isn’t always terribly realistic. But it is a lot more satisfying for the reader because it helps to make the world seem a more structured, ordered place than it probably really is. It helps make us feel our lives move towards a destination, rather than just wander around. Along the way they may also be entertaining, diverting, amusing and sometimes even educational. But that is their core function – and realising that helps you to become a better writer.

The FT's Reviews Bust...

The FT is running a review of Bust. You can read it here.

Overall, I'm quite pleased with it. Lynn’s book is fast-paced, entertaining and perceptive about the causes of the crisis," writes Tony Barber.

Of course, they don't agree with the conclusion. But the FT is a slavish pro-EU paper. so I wouldn't expect them to.

Predictions for 2011...

In my Money Week column I've been making some predictions for 2011. Here's a taster....

Predictions are ten a penny at this time of year. Just about every City economist and strategists has outlined their big themes of the coming twelve months. Tensions in the euro zone, rising inflation, a double dip recession and currency battles between China and the US have been exhaustively forecast.
But what makes a year interesting is not the trends that continue much as before, or the decisions that were relatively predictable. It is the stuff no one was expecting. Who would have guessed for example that BP would come close to being destroyed by an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico during 2010, that Cadbury would be taken over or that both Greece and Ireland would go bust and put the euro in mortal danger?
So what might catch us out in 2011? Here are five surprises to watch out for?
One: The British economy comes storming back.
The UK is turning the corner faster than anyone could reasonably have expected. Growth keeps surprising everyone on the upside and unemployment hasn’t taken off in the way many feared. The coalition has proved remarkably durable, and has made a good start on getting the budget deficit under control – and, a few rioting students aside, the public have accepted austerity.
It may not last – but then again it might. In fact, there are encouraging signs of a recovery. The 30% devaluation of sterling in the wake of the credit crunch is reviving our withered manufacturing industry, and cutting into the massive trade deficit. The crisis in the euro zone has stopped the bond markets getting too worried about our own fiscal problems. Real wages are being cut – average earnings are rising by just 2.2% a year whilst inflation is running at 3.2% (and that’s the official figure – the real rate is far higher). That isn’t much fun for anyone, but there are few quicker ways to restore your competitiveness of your economy than cutting wages and devaluing your currency. It is too soon to be talking about an English Tiger, but there are signs the UK will do surprisingly well this year.
Two: Rupert Murdoch sells his British newspapers.
There is no evidence that the pay-wall for The Times and The Sunday Times has been the success that Murdoch must have been hoping for when he embarked on the experiment. News International claims 100,000 users, but it isn’t clear how many are paying full-price, or will stay with it. I haven’t met anyone who has subscribed, and I suspect you haven’t either.
Meanwhile the circulation of The Times continues to plummet. It is down to 466,000, down 17% on the year. The Sunday Times is stagnant whilst The Sun and The News of the World are also in decline. But the real problem for Murdoch is that he wants to take full control of BSkyB. It’s going to be hard for him to do that whilst he is also the country’s most powerful newspaper publisher. Too many competition issues are raised.
Is he really going to sacrifice the chance to get full control of a fantastic, growing business just so he can hang onto one that looks to be in irretrievable decline? It sounds unlikely. This is the year to get some money for the papers whilst they are still worth something.
Three: Jean-Claude Trichet’s term is extended at the European Central Bank.
The capable Frenchman is due to stand down in October from the world’s second most powerful central bank. The two leading candidates to succeed him are Mario Draghi, the governor of the Bank of Italy, and Axel Weber, the President of Germany’s Bundesbank.
Neither man is remotely suitable. Installing an Italian at the ECB’s Frankfurt headquarters would provoke riots in Hamburg and Munich. It might well be the decision that finally pushes Germany into quitting the euro – with Austria and the Netherlands close behind. But Weber wouldn’t be much better. He would be the hard money, austerity candidate, signalling years of German domination. Greece and Portugal might well decide there was no future for them in the euro.
What’s the EU to do? It could appoint and obscure central banker from Finland or Luxembourg. But that wouldn’t have much credibility. It would be far easier to extend Trichet’s term by two years until the euro is through the current crisis.
Four: The IPO market returns.
In 2011, there will be an upsurge in new listings. The private equity houses took over hundreds of companies at the height of the boom. With the credit markets unfreezing, and the equity markets doing well again, they will be looking to unload a lot of those businesses. They won’t be able to sell them to each other they way they used to, so they will have to list them instead. On top of that, governments will be looking to unload some of the banking shares they took control of during the credit crunch.
The net result will be an IPO bonanza. The investment banks will have so much stock to sell, they’ll need to tempt private investors into buying shares in new issues they way they used to. They’ll only be able to do that by offering them at a discount. Stagging – buying shares in IPOs and selling them within days – will be back.
Five: An African investment stampede.
On Christmas Eve, China invited South Africa to join the BRIC group of nations, making it the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). That was an indication of how the continent is starting to join Asia and South America in rapidly modernising its economy. We tend to focus on the African disaster stories, but China in particular is pouring massive investment into the region’s wealthier countries, and growth is starting to pick-up. This will be the year when investors get bored with the other emerging markets and start looking to Africa instead.
Indeed, by the end of the year, South Africa, some of its neighbours and the UK may be among the best-performing economies – and that really will be a surprise.