We just love Russel. He’s been working with Jericho since 2014 which (in his words) ‘officially makes [him] old’ and (in our words) makes him an expert. Through JW, he worked with Amanda Mitchison, who was nominated for Bloody Scotland’s Debut Award this year.  

Russel could be just what you need if you’re writing crime, horror, science fiction, or fantasy. Here’s what we talked about:  

Q: So that we can learn a bit about you, tell us about one writing-related thing you’re proud of, and one non-writing related thing you’re proud of.  

Being Scottish, “pride” isn’t something I do easily – but I fully admit, one of the best feelings for me in my career so far was being translated into French (Ed’s Dead became Ed est Mort) by a publisher whose backlist was a wishlist of some of my favourite authors. 

In my non-writing life? I guess I’m proud that, during lockdown, I somehow learned a bit of plumbing and enough DIY to install new kitchen worktops, plug in a new sink, and build a wee table and matching bench for the kitchen… 

Q: What brought you to the world of writing? What keeps you writing?  

I was one of those kids who was always writing – I don’t think I ever lived in the real world, so I was always creating narratives. But the first time I realised you might be able to do the same thing as an adult was when my dad wrote a few stories for BBC Radio 4’s lunchtime short story slot and got paid. When I realised he made money for doing that, I thought that if you could write a lot, then you might be able to avoid getting one of those pesky “real” jobs. Of course, the reality is quite different, but it fuelled the start of my career at least… 

As to what keeps me writing? The same as when I was a kid… I don’t think I can do anything else. Narrative and story are everywhere in the world, and its how I make sense of things. It really is what I love, in any form (not just novels: movies, comics, even computer games) and I just want to be part of creating this magical thing. I love learning new approaches, new techniques, realising the endless ways in which we can take the essence of storytelling and twist it in fresh new designs. 

Q: Tell me about what you’re currently working on.  

With a novel currently out on submission with my agent, I’m also working on a new non-crime novel (but it’s still genre!) that’s giving me an enjoyable challenge.  

On top of this (I like to keep busy!) I’ve been making a move into the world of scriptwriting, with screenplays at various stages of development. It’s been fascinating to see how the world of film and TV production works (and how it differs from publishing). 

Q: You’ve just received a new manuscript to critique: what’s the first thing you do? Walk us through your editing process.  

I start by reading it as though I’m a reader. For good or bad. The first thing I need to know is not whether the technical aspects work, but whether, as a reader, I feel engaged by or emotionally drawn to the book. If I’m not, then I need to be able to rationalise as to why. 

I’ll make notes as I go, usually interrogating why characters are doing things, or asking why a scene doesn’t engage. Then I’ll go back to those scenes, knowing the outcome, and try to look at why they didn’t engage at the time and what can be done to help. 

What I find is that most novels fall apart in the first third. If your first third isn’t set up properly, then your ending will never work. I focus a lot on setup. Once you have your audience emotionally engaged in your book (which should happen within the first ten or so pages, give or take) they will follow you anywhere as long as you keep that emotional engagement going. 

Q: How do you manage being on the other side of the editorial process – when your own writing is being edited? What should an author who is receiving critique for the first-time be aware of? 

All editors want to help you create the most engaging and best book possible. We don’t want to “rewrite” your book in our image, but rather we want to help you bring out the strongest aspect of your stories. So when an editor makes a suggestion, they’re rarely saying “this is the only way”, but they’re saying, “look at how this could work and think about what you can do to have the same effect on your readers.” 

It’s not a battle between author and editor. The editor always wants you to succeed. And they are able to look at your work from a different perspective. In my other job as a freelance development editor for various publishers, I often joke with my authors that “I’m asking the daft questions before the readers do,” but that is the job really; to look at the book and judge how someone who hasn’t read a blurb, who hasn’t seen a cover, who can’t ask the author questions, will react to it. As an author, I find that intensely helpful. An editor isn’t telling you what to do, but rather they’re helping you to consider potential reader reactions and how to navigate those. 

Q: What writing do you get most excited about working as an editor on? What really makes you intrigued by a submission?  

I think I get excited when, in the first few pages (preferably the first para!) I know that the author understand their characters, and is right inside their heads. Not that they’re telling us what’s in there, but that between the words there’s a sense that the author knows who these people are, what they want, what they need and so forth. To me, character and story are one and the same (you can’t have a story without characters who make that story happen—all story is created by the interactions and clash of characters with different/competing needs, wants, and desires) so if an author clearly understands and clearly communicate their characters, then I’m right in for the journey. Regardless of genre. 

Q: What do you read for pleasure? Is this different to the writing you enjoy working on?  

My reading and writing tend to fall into genre categories. My two big loves are dark crime fiction and horror (sometimes there’s little difference between the two!), so authors like James Ellroy, Megan Abbott, Iain Banks, Walter Mosely, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Alma Katsu, Tom Piccirilli, Lawrence Block, Stephen King (of course!), Catriona Ward, Stephen-Graham Jones, and Tim Waggoner all feature heavily on my reading list. 

I used to read a lot of SF, too, and while I read slightly less these days, I like to keep up to date where I can. So as much as I love classics like Philip K Dick and Alfred Bester, I keep up with newer authors like Charlie Stross, Justina Robson, Ken McLeod etc as well. 

I should probably stop here though… or I’ll give you a list that takes up several gigs of space on the JW website! 

Q: Finally, if you could only give one piece of advice to all aspiring authors, what would it be?  

Writing is like learning to play an instrument. That is, you can’t just pick up a guitar and play like Elvis Presley (Or, if you’re my generation, Slash from Guns N Roses) straight from the off, no matter how talented you are. Even after learning a few chords, you still need to practice, experiment, enjoy the failures and learn from experience before you’ll be ready to get up on the stage and blow an audience away.  

With writing, you can have a facility with language, but telling an effective story comes with practice and with understanding what you’re doing. Look at your favourite authors, deconstruct why their writing resonates, what works and what doesn’t, listen to any tips, tricks or suggestions, and then use what works for you. And keep practicing until you know you’re ready to get on that stage (or send out that page) and captivate your audience with your skill.  

Is your manuscript ready for a professional critique? Russel is one of 70+ Jericho Writers editors, so we’ll always find your perfect match.    

Head over to our editing hub to see the services that we have on offer. Not sure which service to opt for? Drop an email to info@jerichowriters.com and we’ll be happy to discuss which service would be right for you and your manuscript.


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