Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Behind the story

Ask most people about the job they do and it's not unusual to find that they can wax lyrical about it. That's certainly the impression writers get when we approach professionals, whether police, army, emergency services or any others, to find out a bit about the nuts and bolts of their particular professions. They're only too keen to talk about it.

Occasionally the tables are turned and writers get asked to chip in with some background about the project they're working on. We are, of course, shy retiring types (mostly), but there aren't many of us too backward about coming forward when given the opportunity.

When Midnight Ink, my US publishers, kindly asked me to guest blog about the Gonzales & Vaslik series ('The Locker' - Jan 2016 and 'The Bid' - Jan 2017), I was only too happy to comply. To be fair, it is about the books without giving away any spoilers, and not so much my writing life. But if you're interested, you can find the full blog here.

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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Latest articles in Writing Magazine

February's edition of Writing Magazine is now out there, and includes another Beginners piece - 'The Variety Show', along with a New Author profile.

The Variety Show is not, as you might think, about writing comedy or light entertainment performances, but simply about what kind of author one can be. This came about when the term 'hybrid author' popped up in conversation.

I regard myself as something of a hybrid simply because I write in different genres, from spy thrillers to crime, to non-fiction. I always have done, so I got used to jumping from one to the other to suit my needs - mostly financial, being a working writer.

This piece goes into why writers might try genre-hopping, whether out of interest, spontaneity, writing to one's strengths - or weaknesses - or a preference to following rules.

Whether you find yourself following any or more of these, it doesn't matter. In my view, you make the most of all available options; if you want to try something else because there's a chance of a sale and publication, go for it.

Be a hybrid. Or not. The choice is yours.

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The New Author profiled this month is Linda McLaughlan, and her debut novel 'Chasing Charlie', published by Black & White Publishing last April.

Described as a comedy of errors, it follows Sam, who follows her ex-boyfriend around London, trying to win back his heart.

A reflection of many - maybe most - other authors, Linda's writing was accomplished part-time, juggling jobs, children and other demands, all the while with an eye on getting that idea out of the bone and onto the paper. And like many others, she knew she wanted to write from an early age.

'Chasing Charlie' - out in ebook and paperback.

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Monday, 23 January 2017

Writing for Beginners (24)

What Makes a Story?

There are various elements which go towards making a story, such as a strong descriptive narrative, interesting characters, an unusual setting – even a brooding atmosphere. But by themselves, they won’t necessarily drag the reader beyond the first few words or the opening lines. To do this with any degree of success, and to make sure the reader doesn’t lose the will to live and use your story to line the budgie’s cage, you need to Make Something Happen.

As an example, I’ll paraphrase a certain well-known poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans:

The boy stood on the deck.

(Yes, I know – there's a key word missing… but stick with me). As it stands, this is merely a scene – and not a very helpful one. The deck could be on a boat or one of those hardwood patio structures; it doesn’t tell you about anything else. So what? Well, if we apply the full text of Mrs Hemans’ first line, we get a totally different picture:

The boy stood on the burning deck.

Now you have a story – or, at least the beginnings of one. (Especially when the next line tells you that everyone else had bunked off – and not to the pub). The sentence describes the same person and place… but by the addition of a vital word, you have something to sink your teeth into. The word ‘burning’ spells conflict, danger and the inevitable questions which come rushing at us when the words are used in conjunction. This is what leads us to read on, rather than ignoring it. Questions such as Why?…Who?… and What happens next?

Another example:

The river was relentless, flowing steadily to the east as it had done every day since anyone could remember.   

Very nice. Scenic, even. A scene of reliability and permanence. But not riveting. However, if you add something else to the mix:

The river was relentless, flowing steadily to the east as it had done every day since anyone could remember. Only today was different: today it carried Betty Mortensen's body in its cold embrace.

Another example might be to take a seemingly innocuous sentence also describing a person and place:

J stood and marvelled at the beauty of the river.

Very nice. But other than allowing the imagination to conjure up a pretty picture of a person looking at a river, there’s not much here to draw the reader in. What we need is something to kick the sentence into a whole new dimension.

J stood and marvelled at the beauty of the river, and wondered how cold it would be down on the bottom.

That pretty much takes the ‘nice’ out of the scene, and should lead even the most incurious of minds to ask why J – whoever she is – should be entertaining such melancholy thoughts. Is she suicidal? Vengeful? Disturbed? Going scuba-diving? Or has she been given a grant by DEFRA to study riverbed temperatures and conditions?

Another sentence, this time describing a common enough street scene, does little to make anyone wonder about whether they should carry on reading.

Mac sat in his car at the end of the street.

One might wonder who Mac is and why he’s sitting there, but not much more than that. Maybe he’s a car stereo nut, or loves the smell of his leather seats and brand-new carpets. By itself, this bland statement won’t really tell us. It needs something else.

Mac sat in his car at the end of the street, eyes fixed on the doorway of No 24.

Better - but still not enough. He could be a car nut with a door-knocker fetish.

Mac sat in his car at the end of the street, eyes fixed on the doorway of no 24. His mouth was bone dry, his knuckles white on the wheel ...

Now we’re getting somewhere. At the very least, Mac might be about to go and make an offer on a house he can’t afford. At worst, he’s in need of some anger-management classes. Either way, we’re led to imagine all manner of scenarios here ranging from family conflict to a crime or thriller setting.

For a story to begin to work, we need to add in that special element which plucks at the reader’s subconscious, be it a word or a supplementary sentence, hinting at something worth delving into but without giving away the whole beeswax.  And that element usually involves excitement, danger, threat - or something scratching at our innate curiosity. Almost akin to stepping into the unknown.

In short, we want to know more. And the only way to find out is to continue reading.

But here you have to be careful; part of what makes a story work is not revealing too early what is happening or what is about to happen. Tell everything right at the start, and there’s precious little point reading further. No surprise equals no tension.

This drip-feed flow of information, whether in a thriller, romance or any other genre of writing, allows snippets of information to fall onto the page, gradually building a picture for the reader to share. Too much too soon, and there’s the danger they might see the ending and give up.

Most stories also need people to make them work. A tree on a hill is merely a tree. Add a person – preferably two – and you have the makings of joy, conflict, a burgeoning relationship or a journey – all the things which make a good read.

TOP TIPS
·       Something must happen - or have happened - to make it worthwhile reading on.
·       A setting without people is just scenery. It can only last so long before it loses the reader’s attention.
·       A hint of what lies ahead is enticement enough to draw the reader on.
·       Don’t reveal too much too soon. The reader has to uncover things for themselves.
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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 here.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Some nice reviews

Every now and then it's nice for an author to report that someone, somewhere likes their book. It's a natural thing because you've put in a lot of time and effort, and you like to think that it's gone down well out there.

Here's a trio of reviews that came up just recently of my latest book, 'THE BID' - the second in my new Gonzales & Vaslik series.

An unnamed reviewer with slight reservations comes from Publishers Weekly. My initial thought was, is there a problem with gunfights, car chases and other stock thriller elements? But you can't win 'em all, and I'm grateful for the review because it's a whole lot better than being ignored.

The second comes from Fresh Fiction review's Viki Ferrell, and is the kind of response that makes it all worthwhile. I especially value her lovely comment ,"We can always expect an exciting thriller from Adrian Magson, and THE BID is no exception."

And again from Fresh Fiction, this time from reviewer Tanzey Cutter, with the immortal words, "THE BID is thrilling suspense at its best."

There are some truly lovely people out there and I'm very grateful to them.

I also had an interview piece about 'The Bid' by fellow author Alison McMahan in the International Thriller Writers monthly newsletter, The Big Thrill. You can read it right here. (That's not me on the horse, by the way, and I wouldn't look as relaxed as Greg Hurwitz does if it were; horses and I don't mix well).

This interview gave me a chance to talk about other aspects of my writing, too, especially touching on the long build-up to becoming a full-time writer. Hopefully, after 21 books in print, most of them thrillers in the spy and crime genres, I'm getting it right and readers find them entertaining and enjoyable.
Thank you, Alison, for your time and patience!

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Thursday, 5 January 2017

Review: 'Paradime' by Alan Glynn


PARADIME

Not a new book exactly - it came out in May last year - but new to me and one I was asked to review. I'm glad I was, because it turned out to be very different to what I initially thought.

Conspiracy thriller would be too easy a label. But there's certainly a conspiracy at work here, along with an innocent dupe who's not quite so innocent... nor entirely to blame for what happens to him.

It's a good one and you can read my review on the Shots Magazine website.

You can also see where to buy it right here.

Go for it - it starts slow but will draw you in.

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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Latest Article in Writing Magazine

January's Writing Magazine is now out and available, with my latest 'Beginners' piece called 'Courting Success' - or, as the strap line says, Make Your Own Luck.

Easy to say, of course, but on the surface, not that simple to carry through. But is that right?

If you look at the basic message, like any task or job, writing successfully gets better and easier the more you do it. Sounds trite, but I firmly believe it. And where some writers go wrong is completing a project, then sitting back to await the results.

That way lies disappointment. You have to get on with the next one - straightaway.

Courting success in writing is a bit like courting in the romantic sense; you have to try more than once if you want any chance of finding someone you really want to spend time with. Unlike romance, you also have to be professional and be prepared to write something new over and over again. (And no, that comparison probably doesn't really bare too much inspection - but I'm sure you understand).

Do it consistently, and editors will get to know that you can turn in the goods and meet deadlines.

Until then, however, don't sit on your laurels. Finish one project, punt it off - and start another. When I was writing short fiction years ago, it wasn't uncommon to find I had 30-40 stories out there on submission. It wasn't a scattergun approach, but my way of not agonising uselessly on what I'd done, but of getting on with the next potential sale instead. Not so easy to with books, but the idea is the same.

As the old saying goes, the harder you work, the luckier you'll be.

This is likely to be my last blog post for 2016 (unless I get a whizzer of an idea that needs airing), so I'll take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and the best of all years to come in 2017.

Happy writing, too, of course.

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Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Writing for Beginners (23)

The story-teller's apprentice.

A plumber friend of mine was recently talking about when he started out in the profession many years ago. He began as an apprentice - what in some trades is known unbecomingly as ‘an oily rag’ - to an experienced plumber. This introduction to the noble art of water-and-waste management meant he was given all the fetch-and-carry jobs, such as running off every few minutes for whatever materials were needed (including a one-way pipe and a long stand), digging trenches, drilling holes… basically, whatever the plumber required him to do. One of the worst jobs, which he hated due to suffering mild claustrophobia, was clambering about in gloomy lofts.

In time, of course, he realised something the plumber hadn’t told him: that all these ‘apprentice’ jobs were merely a run-up – a taster – to the real work, and that whatever he learned as a beginner would stand him in good stead. Because while he might not like fetching and carrying, or crawling about in confined spaces on his hands and knees, it would soon become second nature. And, as well as being instructed formally where all the pipes went so that the system worked efficiently, he was learning subliminally, too.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. I’ve met quite a few writers who have launched into their very first book without actually putting pen to paper in any other way. No short stories, no articles – probably not even a letter home to dear old Mum. I haven’t personally met one for whom it has worked, although I’m sure they're out there. But for most writers, it’s not that simple. One way or another, you have to do an apprenticeship.

But why? Well, like the plumber’s apprentice, you learn more about any craft simply by doing it. And even though a lot of what you do might appear mundane, even uninspiring (and we all go through that), there’s no beating getting in at the sharp end. Because while you’re plugging away, you are beginning to absorb skills, habits and knowledge about the art without thinking about it. And in doing so, you are learning how to assemble all the requirements for making a story come together.

Doing the groundwork. Like the apprentice, you have to make sure everything is ready before you begin. Yes, in writing, you can do some research as you go. But the job is so much easier if you don’t have to keep breaking off in mid-flow, thus spoiling your concentration.

Pacing yourself. You may be desperate to finish a scene or story. This could be because of time constraints, or because the sheer excitement of a good scene threatens to take over. And while this is a wonderful feeling for any writer, you have to learn to temper your enthusiasm and not splurge out the ending all in one go. To do so might ruin what should have been a gradual build-up of tension. The main rule is, don’t cut corners, no matter how tempting.

Alternative routes. Occasionally, you may find yourself up against a brick wall with no easy way through. Learn to look for an alternative, instead of automatically junking the whole thing (although that, too, might be an option you have to consider). Essentially, find out what works for you, and it will stand you in good stead for the future.

Having enough material. The story must have legs – not padding. Have you got the storyline, plot, characters and scenes to last? Or will you run out of material halfway through? Building a synopsis or chapter plan might help here – as will experience.

Quality control. Unlike the poor apprentice, you won’t have a plumber looking over your shoulder. But if you can develop a critical eye for your own work (most easily learnt through analysing what you like about other writers) you will find yourself checking your output as you go, thus avoiding some of the more obvious mistakes.

Pride in your work. This should be a natural development, because everybody likes to think they’re getting better as they go along. Hopefully, the more you write, the more you improve.

Learning to take criticism. Whether it comes in the shape of a refusal letter from an editor or the comments of a writing tutor, it’s something all writers have to face. And like the weary apprentice, after a hard day slaving over a U-bend, being told something isn’t right can be depressing. But that’s all it is; it means it’s not right. So fix it. Even if you do decide to junk it and start again.

Stretching yourself. Don’t settle for the easy jobs. If you only ever write short stories aimed at magazines, enter competitions once in a while. Try a non-fiction project. It might not be what you want to do all the time, but working on something different, with different demands, can be a useful challenge.

Don’t hide in the attic. Like the apprentice hoping that if the plumber can’t find him, he won’t be landed with another job, keeping your writing to yourself won’t help you grow. Get it out there. Submit it to agents, magazines or websites, show it to writing group members and friends. Good or bad, feedback is essential if you want to know - and learn by - what others think of your work.

TOP TIPS

·       Like any other job or craft, writing has a learning curve. This is best served by doing it.
·       Learn the rules of market guidelines and presentation, and you will move forward a lot faster.
·       Be professional in your presentation, language and attention to detail.
·       Study your competitors and analyse how they do it.
·       If offered advice, accept it and learn from it.
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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 here.