Friday, 18 August 2017

Being grateful for loyal readers

I've recently been emailing past readers of my books to let them know that a new title is on the way ('Rocco and the Nightingale' - out 19th October from The Dome Press, since you ask).

It wasn't a spam mailing or anything that could be seen that way, as I prefer to stay in readers' good books rather than drop into their junk mail box. It means tailoring each email to specific comments they've made where necessary, but to me that's all part of the interaction. If they've been nice enough - and taken the trouble - to comment on my work, the least I can do is keep them informed in as personal a way as possible.

One very heartening aspect has been receiving acknowledgments that readers I'd thought were perhaps only wedded to one type of book, such as the contemporary Harry Tate and Marc Portman spy thrillers, or the Gavin & Palmer crime series, are quite happy to make a sideways jump into what is classified as a historical series - the Lucas Rocco novels set in France in the 1960s.

(Having lived through that decade, I still find it hard to look on it as historical, because that makes me sound like Old Father Time! Still, it could be worse).

Perhaps their loyalty happened because I tend to write series rather than standalones. In fact I've so far only ever written two of these singular beasts, one a YA novel ('The Lost Patrol'), and the other a light-hearted fiction adventure ('Smart Moves'). I never really set out to write series, but each time I came up with a new 'first' book, either the publishers or my agent asked if I was aiming at a series. Sensing what in the sales business is termed a firm 'buying signal', I of course, said, 'Series'. Well, as a working writer, you take the opportunities as they arise. And it's not just publishers who ask the question. Not long ago I received an email from a reader who'd thoroughly enjoyed 'Smart Moves', and asked if there was a sequel on the way. (There isn't yet, but maybe... )

The good side of this following is that readers like a series for various reasons, whether it be familiarity of characters, enjoyment of the settings, or simply knowing that there's a good chance they'll get a satisfying read like the last one. And plainly that can translate across even if an author writes a different kind of book. It doesn't work every time, I know that. Some spy thriller readers won't follow my Rocco series any more than fans of these French-based books will make the transition into a contemporary thriller. But clearly many do and I'm glad of that.

Whatever the reasons, I try to write the best, most entertaining story that I can. And if people like it and come back for more, then that's my job done, and I'm grateful for their loyalty and support.

'Rocco and the Nightingale' - the 5th Insp. Lucas Rocco book. Available in hardback, paperback and ebook on the 19th October.

 When a minor Paris criminal is found stabbed in the neck on a country lane in Picardie it looks like another case for Inspector Lucas Rocco. But instead he is called off to watch over a Gabonese government minister, hiding out in France following a coup.
Meanwhile, Rocco discovers that there is a contract on his head taken out by an Algerian gang leader with a personal grudge against him.
Against orders, he follows leads on the original murder case, discovering as he does so that the threats against him are real. When the minister he is supposed to be protecting is kidnapped, it soon becomes apparent that the murder, the threats and the minister's kidnap are all interconnected...

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Sunday, 6 August 2017

Writing for Beginners (34)

Learning to Focus

A recent shopping expedition to find a birthday present for my wife found me in a similar situation, writing-wise, to a friend who writes short fiction. Surrounded by a plethora of goodies, all suitable (and, what’s more, all potential vote-winners in the pressie stakes) I dithered and shuffled like a nervous teenager on a blind date, not sure what to choose.
Basically, (and here I hasten to say I depart from the teenager analogy – my teens, anyway) there were so many possibilities on offer I couldn’t decide which one to go for. In the end, I allowed greed to heap disaster on me by snatching at something in haste… which, as it happened, proved unsuitable.

But back to my friend. He mentioned that in spite of an abundance of ideas, he had recently found himself in a cycle of constantly starting something, then running out of steam because he couldn’t focus on where to go next. This had resulted in a string of projects, all abandoned at various stages and each resembling a lengthy art-house film: no end in sight and not a lot that made sense.

‘Lucky beggar!’ I hear you mutter. ‘If only I had so many.’

The fact is, many writers experience moments like this, when they can't focus on one particular task.  So eager are they to get their ideas down on paper they flit from one to the other like a honeybee on steroids and end up making a pig’s ear out of each one.

I usually find it hits me just after I’ve completed a large or difficult project, as I slough off the mental concentration of the previous job and try to fix on something new. With ideas collected all around me, I find my wastebasket becomes full of paper balls, my PC games get a hammering and I tend to drift around the house like Marley’s ghost.

This is where self-discipline comes in, and you have to rein back your enthusiasm for grasping at straws or launching into something without some forethought.

Begin by clearing your desk of all those project idea notes you’ve gathered save one. Yes, of course the others are wonderful gems, harvested in the bath, on the train or wherever it is your best ideas hit you. And yes, you want to write them all. But they are also a huge distraction. Stuff them in an envelope and put them somewhere temporarily out of reach, or give them to your neighbour with strict instructions not to let you near them for at least a week.

Now look at your choice of market. One way to help decide what to write, is to focus on the market you want to write for. Given that most magazines have a limited range of subjects or story styles they will accept, this immediately limits what you can work on. You should inevitably find yourself discarding all thoughts about writing anything that is not appropriate.

An alternative is to check the current stock of writing competitions. These may call for a genre or topic you wouldn’t normally try, but as a discipline it will focus your thinking away from that vast plethora of ideas swirling around in your brain.

This is also useful in that as well as a subject goal, you are automatically set a time limit. There’s nothing like knowing you have to meet a deadline for focussing the mind. It cuts out the temptation to dash off at a tangent – usually in pursuit of an idea which has just popped into your mind along with that little voice on your shoulder telling you it will be a real doddle to knock off in a couple of hours. It won’t, of course, and you know it.

Another stumbling-block to completing anything mid-stream is a lack of regular planning. This can be over a simple but important scene which, although small beans compared to the whole story, is enough to make you down tools in frustration and reach for something else.

Instead of letting this minor glitch derail your thoughts completely, take a long, hard look at the scene where you are stuck. On separate lines beneath it, type the key words of what you would like to happen next. (I generally use capitals to ‘shout’ at myself so I don’t miss anything – even if I eventually discard a particular idea). Forget grammar and punctuation – simply put down the points you need to cover.

For example, your key scene might have a character agonising over resigning from a high-powered but hated job, and the inevitable furore that will follow. You could end up with: FEAR – DECISION – DECLARATION – BOSS’S REACTION. Then think about what kind of scene could logically come next. You might end up with: FINANCES – OTHER CONSEQUENCES – ALTERNATIVES - WALKING OUT – FREEDOM – RELEASE. Repeat, as the old medicine bottles used to say, as needed.

In this way you are focussing on a small but crucial part of the story each time, instead of the whole feast. Rather than letting it defeat you, tempting you to grab hold of something else in the hope that it may be easier, you are building stepping stones towards completion of the larger picture.

Before you know where you are, you’ve got the path forward to the next scene and can repeat the exercise as required, instead of pigging out on ideas and ruining all your hard work.

TOP TIPS

·        Focus on one idea at a time. Trying too many at once will inevitably water down your efforts.
·        Plan what you intend to do next and stick to it.
·        Look for writing challenges (competitions, story websites requesting themed submissions) and see what inspiration they throw up.
·        Read, watch and listen. There are ideas out there everywhere.

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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out.

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Meet Matt Hilton - 'Marked for Death'

It's always interesting to get an inside peep to a professional writer's thoughts, and I thought I'd ask full-timer Matt Hilton, author of the Joe Hunter thriller series among many others, a few questions that were intriguing me.

I should say up front that I've known Matt for a few years (we met, in fact, in Baltimore at the famous Bouchercon conference, and had been giving each other the cool nod and blink for a while in the main hallway downstairs before we actually decided to speak. (A clear indicator of English reserve, I reckon, but we've been firm friends ever since, even though we don't meet often enough).

I used the term 'professional' for Matt, and that's what he is. He writes - all the time - and treats it like the job that it is. He's constantly on the lookout for new directions, which is what you have to do in this game, and doesn't rest on his laurels, even after all the books he's had published to acclaim here and in the US. And most of all, he's incredibly modest and easy to talk to, which makes him one of the most likeable people I know.

So here's Matt, under the spotlight as 'Marked for Death', his latest Joe Hunter book hits the streets:


  • Are you fully inside Joe Hunter’s head by now or is there more we have to learn about him?
  • After twelve books and a bunch of short stories, you’d think by now I’d know everything there is to know about Hunter, but in the last few books I’ve noticed that even he is trying to figure out who he is and where he should go next, and I am learning new things as he tries to find his way. There’s so little I’ve explored in his past yet, that I feel there’s a wealth of hidden knowledge to be tapped for future books. Saying all that, I find I can slip immediately into his head when writing the next book. Familiarity I guess, where you are happiest when slipping into a battered old pair of shoes or easy chair. I think there is loads more for me to discover about Hunter, and as we both grow older, wonder how that will impact in the stories we tell together.
  • What do you feel are the essential characteristics of a good action figure?
  • For me the action figure should still be human, and fallible. An emotionless, robotic super killing machine only works when it’s called the Terminator. With Hunter I’ve made him highly skilled, but also too impulsive and reckless for his own good. Where’s the drama where there’s no possibility of a perfect hero failing? I like when there’s a good possibility that everything could go to sh*t and then see how Hunter extricates himself from the mess.
  • You’ve spoken in the past of your admiration for author Don Pendleton and his creation Mack ‘The Executioner’ Bolan. Allowing for changing attitudes and circumstances, how different is Joe from Mack?
  • I first read the Mack Bolan books back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were a product of their time, and probably less than the politically correct books we tend to read these days. At that time I probably wasn’t savvy to the politics of the books, and was only along for the action-packed ride. In many respects, Bolan was a product of the Vietnam War, and the political backlash the war brought to a generation of Americans. In some respects Hunter is also a product of pre-9/11 so it’s possible (probable) that his outlook on the world is very different than many of his current readers hold. Some female readers might find Hunter’s attitude somewhat misogynistic at times, whereas he only sees his behaviour as being good old-fashioned manners. Mack and Hunter are similar in that they are both stand-up guys who will do anything it takes to help those in need of them, and to take the war back to the bad guys.
  • Give us a taster sentence or paragraph from page 99 of ‘Marked for Death’.

·       The Mercedes was filled to capacity with men Cahill had worked alongside for years. He briefly wished it was they he'd sent to the hotel to carry out the hit, but the past was the past and there was no changing it. He didn't waste any time repeating descriptions of their target – he'd already done so over his phone – but immediately ordered two of the men, Monk and Hussein, out of the back seat and sent them up the path in pursuit while he leaned across and accepted the semi-automatic pistol from the third man previously crammed in the back seat. Out of habit Cahill worked the action on his gun, checking a round was in the chamber, and then dropping the clip and making another quick check that it was fully and correctly loaded. He'd nothing to worry about, because it was another ex-soldier that'd prepped it for him, his English pal, Dan StJohn. In the front were two more colleagues from back in the day when you could merrily cap a rag-headed Jihadist and not worry about the politically correct ramifications. He grunted in humour at the memory: ironic that they should now make bedfellows of their previous enemies.

  • You’re one of the hardest-working writers I know, but is it (a) harder, (b) easier or (c), about the same writing a new book than ‘Dead Men’s Dust’.
  • Writing Dead Men’s Dust – the first in the series - was a totally different experience. Back then I was writing when I could, while also trying to hold down a demanding job and raising a family. I could only get to it as precious time allowed, so my output was nowhere near as high as it is these days. Also, it went through so many changes (even characters and situations), and I wasn’t that familiar with the characters or even where I wanted to take them, so it was a much slower process. These days I write full time, so my daily word count is much higher, and being able to write for prolonged periods I feel I’m more in tune with the book I’m writing, so I have to say that the mechanics of writing is easier for me. Of course other demands, and reader expectation adds new challenges, so I’m not suggesting it’s a simple process, just different and more manageable for me.
  • Putting you on the spot now. In which book did Joe say the following, and at what juncture in the story?

There were only two options open to me: surrender or resist.
             Surrendering isn’t normally in my vocabulary.
 

  • I won’t lie. I had to look it up. Hunter tends to have his little pithy sayings, and I wasn’t sure when he’d used this one. But I believe it was used in Slash and Burn, the third book in the series, and as per usual Hunter has got himself into a tight fix and has made the decision to get himself out of it, however uncompromising that plan may be. In this case, Hunter is caught in an untenable situation, where he is facing a corrupt sheriff and a bunch of deputies, while he is cornered in a motel room. However, the same sheriff has just kidnapped the woman that Hunter is protecting, so you can be reasonably assured that he won’t go quietly. 
 
  • Do you decide on the location/setting for the story first, or does the plot dictate that for you? 

  • I often make the decision beforehand about location. For instance, I’ll think ‘this one is going to be a mountain book’, or ‘this one will be set in the desert’ and from there then look for a specific location. Often the location determines the action scenes that play out, and often give me ideas then for the plot. Saying that there have been occasions where I’ve written a scene where the location is generic, and from there made a snap decision where it will go next. I often use different environments in the books to offer contrast and also adapt the action to that terrain – being hunted through an urban setting would be very different from in the open in the middle of a blizzard, for instance.  

  • What can we expect next from the hot Hilton keyboard? 

  • My next book to be published is the fourth in a different thriller series that I write featuring Tess Grey and Nicolas ‘Po’ Villere. It is called Worst Fear, and pits the mismatched duo of crime fighter and outlaw up against killers targeting friends from Tess’s past. Severn House publishes it on 29th September 2017. I’m also working on a brand new series, featuring totally different characters, and anyone who knows me might be surprised to find that this time the books are set in the UK (the Hunter and Tess and Po books are all set in the USA). It’s early days yet on this new series, so I’m loath to say too much as everything might change in the writing. But fans of my books hopefully won’t be disappointed. And of course, Hunter is never far away in my thoughts and I’m already jotting down idea for his next outing too.
 
Thank you very much for your time, Matt. I appreciate it.
 
If you want to read my review of 'Marked for Death' in Shots Magazine, you can do so right here.

 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Writing for Beginners (33)

Giving Value for Money

I was once asked by a writing course delegate, how I knew whether I’d done a proper job of writing a story, and were there any specific steps to go through each time.
Well, not every writer follows the same approach to their craft, in the same way that not every builder takes the same steps to complete a project (and we all know how widely that can vary!) But there are some basic rules to follow which allow a certain elasticity in approach, depending on one’s view of being a writer.
The first – and probably the main area – is telling a complete story. You can have the most beautifully worded tale in the world, with elegant narrative, realistic dialogue and mind-blowing descriptions of place, character and setting; but if your tale isn’t rounded and complete, you haven’t accomplished the main part of your job.
As writers, it is easy for us to get caught up in the mechanics of writing – the structure, grammar, punctuation and so forth – and to forget about the main components of a story. These should consist of, for the most part, a beginning, a middle and an end. The balance and importance of each of these may vary according to style, but as long as they are there in some form, the job has been done.
Imagine an ancient travelling minstrel, who sits down in the village square to regale the local peasants with a breath-taking tale of heroism, derring-do and romance. Instead of introducing the audience to his characters and saying how they fit into his tale, he launches straight in at the deep end. While he’s talking, of course, people are looking at each other in puzzlement because he hasn’t prepared the ground in the right way. Basically, he’s dropped his characters into the frame like a bucket of bricks, and left it to the audience to do all the work. Naturally, because they’re busy wondering what he’s talking about, they miss further salient bits of the story. I find this happens occasionally, when I have to keep turning back a few pages of a book to find out what in the name of Moses is going on, and where did such-and-such a character spring from.
The same minstrel may well begin his story in the correct way, with a great opening line, proper introductions and a thrilling background setting. Unfortunately, he goes off the boil by careering straight towards the ending like a runaway hay cart, without any kind of build-up. This leaves the audience feeling short-changed, as if there’s something missing. It’s a bit like going from the starter straight to the pudding – sometimes fun but not always filling.
Our wandering minstrel might, on the other hand, build the tension and excitement, gradually drawing his audience into the story right from the opening, leading them towards what promises to be a gut-busting grand finale. Then, just as the end seems in sight, he promptly hikes up his breeches and walks away without finishing, leaving everyone with their jaws in the fly-catching position.
Cue revolting peasants, wondering what happened to the pay-off. And revolting peasants being what they are, the minstrel’s next public appearance is likely to be centre-stage at the local rotten fruit-throwing gala.
The majority of readers like to finish a story with a feeling that they’ve been taken on a journey; that they’ve been entertained, shown some sights and brought to the end with a sense of satisfaction or conclusion. They may have a few questions, but these are usually along the ‘what if…’ lines, where their own imagination takes them off beyond the parameters set down by the author.
Where we writers might also fall down is in leaving gaps in the narrative, causing confusion by not being clear in what we are saying, or worse, not tying up loose ends. This is where editing is all-important, because we owe it to the reader to make as professional a job as possible of what we’re doing.
It’s a bit like looking at a graph: there will be peaks and troughs, reflecting the highs and lows of a story (activity versus descriptive narrative, for example). But as long as you have plenty of peaks, and they out-number the troughs, you can carry the reader forward into that much-described ‘page-turning’ territory, making them anticipate the next page for the thrills and excitement ahead.

 

TOP TIPS

·        Is what you have written clear to the reader? Clarity is fundamental, in detail and plot. Lose clarity and you’ll lose your reader.
·        Have you explained who the characters are? It doesn’t have to be a whole page, as long as you let everyone know where they came from and what part they play in your story.
·        Have you left out or fudged what happened to character X or Y? If so, you may, like the minstrel, get more than just your five portions of fruit and veg. Readers will fasten onto even minor characters, so you owe it to them to wrap up the detail.
·        Have you brought the story to a satisfactory conclusion? You may know what the ending is, but have you made it clear to your readers, or will they be left forever wondering?

 

Friday, 7 July 2017

Latest articles in Writing Magazine

The August edition of Writing Magazine is now out - some holiday reading for keen writers - and includes two regular pieces from me.

The first is on my 'Beginners' page, and called 'Nota bene' - which deals with the topic of making notes, especially of random thoughts - and why you should do so.

Like many writers, I admit to peppering my house with stickies, each containing a jumble of letters which are meaningless to anyone else. But these are what I call notes in transit, hopefully containing the potential to grow into something substantial - if I leave them to fester long enough and they don't get swept away with my other clutter.

The fact is, creative writing is not a linear activity but an on-going and often random one. And note writing is still writing. It's just a little scattered, that's all.

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This month's New Author profile is on N.M. Brown, whose debut 'The Girl on the Bus' came out in April via Bloodhound Books. His story concept is simple and traditional: a girl climbs on board an interstate bus... then disappears. And a close friend enlists somebody to find her.

Sounds simple enough, although like all good stories, it's anything but.

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Friday, 23 June 2017

Writing for Beginners (32)

Don’t write yourself short

A dilemma common to many writers is one of size – and I don’t mean of screen, hard drive or their latest advance. I’m talking about the newly completed novel. It’s a belter, with fantastic characters, plenty of action and love interest, and the ending is a corker. Frankly, Spielberg would hyperventilate if only he knew it was out there.

The only problem is, it’s not long enough. Instead of being 90,000 words long, which the market might demand, it comes out at a rather wussy 60,000.

It’s like being made to wear shorts as a kid – they might have pockets and a zip, even creases down the front, but they’re still not real trousers.
So, how do you go about making a short book into a longer one without simply padding it to blazes?

To begin with, if you are convinced about the strength of your work, that it has ‘legs’ – in other words, it’s more than just a short story – you have to take a serious look at what makes it so good in the first place. Is it the theme? The power of the characters? The pace and tone of the storyline? The timing or relevance for the market? Could it compete with other books out there (assuming it catches and holds an agent’s or publisher’s attention)? And do you have such a genuine conviction about it that you can’t bear to chuck it in a drawer and forget it?

If so, then you have to look at ways in which you can use what you’ve got, and build on it.

It might end up bigger, as the actress said to the bishop, but will it be better?

First you have to step back from what you’ve written and look at how and where it could be expanded upon in a way that capitalises on its existing strengths. Don’t forget, you’re working with an already established storyline, and you don’t want to change it out of all recognition or water it down. Any scenes added must enhance the story and give it more depth. Similarly, whatever characters you bring in must add to the existing cast in a relevant way, rather than simply cluttering up the place like discount night at the local bath-house. 

Could the storyline stand a second strand or a sub-plot, strongly related to the main events but coming from another start-point? This would allow you to bring in other points of view, with characters coming together later in the story. In each case, you have to stitch the new elements into the back-story so that they are not seen as a bolt-on simply to fill out the pages.

Be warned, though: once you start adding depth, character or new strands, the word count will grow – often alarmingly. It takes discipline and careful editing to control it, but as long as your new characters or scenes don’t assume a greater significance than your original, or skew the story out of shape, it can be done.

Like how? I hear you ask. Taking an example right off the wall, let’s say you have completed a book based on the Titanic. Unlike the ship, however, your book isn’t big enough. It’s actually more of a dinghy. It needs more size, more content, more oomph. You can’t add more description, because there’s plenty already and anyway, describing heaving open seas (or bosoms) can be boring. More dances and events are simply colour, you’ve covered all the on-board relationships adequately, so more of same would be gilding the lily. This is a dramatic tale, not an advert.

If the story is about a huge ship’s invulnerability, you might have already covered the enormous iceberg or some other unexpected disaster which is going to befall this leviathan (now there’s a word I never expected to use in print). Big ship full of bright souls versus even bigger, unstoppable object equals drama. But what about bringing in another human aspect?

For example, the engineer who built the ship. Was he working to required specifications, or had he been forced to skip some details here and there on grounds of cost? Was the original steel supplied of the right quality – and is there someone, somewhere who knows otherwise? Is there somebody with a long-term plan who wants to damage the ship mid-voyage for various reasons, but goes too far - with disastrous results? Any or all of these could be fed into the mix – along with their back-stories, of course.

In effect, what this is doing is introducing other characters who are as closely connected to the ship as those on board (perhaps they are even on board, too, and therefore suddenly pitched into a nightmare of their own making).

This new cast of characters allows a greater exploration of the build-up to the event, introducing more depth and more points of view to what in real life was a very human drama.

TOP TIPS

  •         Bigger is not automatically better. Additional material has to fit in with and improve the overall work.
  •     Analyse which parts of your existing work could benefit from extra emphasis, characters or scenes.
  •     Weaving in another strand can add depth and contrast, as well as giving an alternative point of view.
  •         Avoid padding, such as unnecessary adjectives, adverbs or birds in the trees.

 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Latest article in Writing Magazine

Daydream Believer

The July edition of Writing Magazine is now out and about, and includes my monthly Beginners page - this one called 'Daydream Believer'.

No, nothing to do with The Monkees (although it does happen to be the title of one of my favourite songs), but rather about how the writing life is full of distractions. Doesn't matter what you do, noise, events, people - life in general, in fact - combine to intrude relentlessly.

There are ways of avoiding some of these intrusions - locking yourself away on a deserted island is one, albeit a little extreme. But is that really the best solution?

In my experience distractions can be useful. If permitted to intrude with a certain measure of control, they can even be beneficial. The odd break away from your PC or pen can allow you to see things a more disciplined mind might ignore. And with too much focus the brain can become stale, which is surely not what creative writing is all about. Ideas breed ideas, and so on and so forth.

The short answer is, don't cut yourself off completely. Allow some outside stimulus, even if it is a simple walk round the block (or island).

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