Monday, 21 December 2015

Like buses...

You don't see anything new for a while, then suddenly everything happens at once.
Well, almost at once.
After months of being hidden away like a Hobbit, knocking seven bells out of my keyboard, I look up and find I have two new titles coming out in short order during 2016.

1) 'THE LOCKER' is the first in a new series published in paperback and ebook by Midnight Ink (Jan 8 in US - Feb 1 in UK).

A thriller mystery posing as a kidnap, the story begins with Nancy Hardman opening a gym locker one morning, to find a card addressed to her:

Hello, Nancy.
You’re at your usual locker at Fitness Plus. The time is 09:15.
Your cell phone is dead, your home phone won’t answer and your daughter, Beth, is home with the nanny.
It will take you 18 minutes to get home. If you drive fast.
Shame. You’re already 18 minutes late . . .

The kidnappers' only stipulation is that Nancy must tell her husband, Michael, an aid worker.
Trouble is, she doesn’t know where he is. But she recalls him mentioning a number she should call if anything unusual happens. This triggers a Code Red alert at specialist security company Cruxys Solutions, who send investigators Ruth Gonzales and Andy Vaslik to track him down.
But they can't find a single trace of him. No footprint, nothing. Yet Nancy insists that he is out there.
What do you do when a child’s life depends on finding a man who doesn't seem to exist?
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Reviews for 'The Locker':

"Readers who enjoy Harlan Coben and Joseph Finder will happily get lost in the nightmare presented here." — Booklist Reviews

"Gonzalez and Vaslik make an appealingly mismatched investigative unit." — Kirkus Reviews
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2) 'HARD COVER' is the 3rd book in my Marc Portman 'Watchman' series.
 
Portman, codename Watchman, is in Russia providing covert back-up to wealthy Russian businessman Leonid Tzorekov. A former KGB officer sympathetic to the West, Tzorekov has close links with Vladimir Putin and is planning to use his influence with the President to improve relations between Russia, the USA and the European Union.
 
However, there are those with vested interests in maintaining hostilities: powerful men around the hard-line president who will go to any lengths to ensure the proposed meeting does not take place.
 
The Watchman's role is to run security, evaluate risks and, where necessary, provide hard cover by taking more direct action. When this new assignment takes an unexpected and violent turn, Portman has no choice but to take the hard cover option...
 
And that means fighting back.
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Reviews of the first two books in the series:
 
"action-filled... a convincingly formidable one-man army..." - Publishers Weekly - ('The Watchman')
 
Knuckle-whitening, adventure-packed, and shocking, this page turner is guaranteed to grip readers from the first page to the last" - Booklist Starred Review - 'Close Quarters')
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Saturday, 12 December 2015

Writing for Beginners

Put on your purple hat

Continuing my occasional articles for beginners on the art of writing, taken from the pages of Writing Magazine and the subsequent compilation called 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' (see below)
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There’s a well-known poem which has been around for some time, known variously as ‘The Ages of Woman’… or simply, The Purple Hat poem. It deals with how a woman sees herself throughout her life. Starting at age 3, she sees herself as a queen, then as Cinderella… and runs all the way up to 80, when, after a life of living by the rules, she puts on a purple hat and says 'To hell with all of you, I’m off to enjoy myself!'

Now, I know a lot of you out there are of the hairy male persuasion, and wouldn’t dream of putting on anything purple unless you were (a) aspiring to the priesthood or (b) pushing your luck on the fashion front. But bear with me, because this applies to you, too.

Writing is all about rules, and mostly, if we want to be proficient writers, we follow them carefully; use commas here, speech-marks there, write for the market, double-space your manuscript, use one point of view at a time, etc and so forth. All good stuff and not to be ignored if you wish to be taken seriously as a professional writer.

But every now and then, don’t you think you should let go a bit or, as my dear old mum used to say, let out your girdle (or belt, if you’re a guy) and live a little?

There are solid reasons for doing this. Firstly, rules can sometimes stifle our inner creativity. Yes, they’re important in the normal course of events, but every once in a while, foregoing them is like walking onto a beach, kicking off your shoes, rolling up your trousers and flexing your toes in the water.

It’s liberating.

Another reason to kick the rules into the long grass occasionally is to see what we’re capable of when we’re not following them. I don’t mean Lord of the Flies kind of stuff – we’re civilised, after all, not a bunch of beasts. But have you ever tried writing something… daring? Something you wouldn’t normally write?

I remember once being on Dartmoor with school friends at the age of 12, and being aware that nobody else was about. By nobody, I mean ADULTS. (We were on summer camp and the teachers had left us to put up the tents while they went to the pub). And there was all this vast space and no-one filling it who could tell us what to do.

Best of all, there was an absolute blinder of an echo, which we only became aware of when knocking in the tent pegs and finding the tock noise coming back at us.

So we started shouting. And whistling. And making daft noises. Hell, we were boys – what do you expect - polite applause?

Then someone came out with a swear-word.

Cue giggles and scanning the horizon to see if anyone in authority was about, and within seconds, the harmless rolling slopes of Dartmoor - and a few hairy cows - were being roundly showered with every rude word a bunch of 12-year-olds could hurl at them… and quite a few we only thought were rude but weren’t entirely sure about.

And the best bit? Every word came winging straight back.

Have you ever been sworn at by your own echo? It’s brilliant!

Anyway, the thing was, after weeks and months of following rules of every description, we were suddenly free to do what we’d always wanted, but had never had the time or the opportunity to do.

However, back to writing. Have you ever tried writing something you wouldn’t normally entertain? (And I don’t mean taking a spray can and writing I WUZ ‘ERE all over the nearest railway carriage). I mean writing something you don’t even read. Wedded to Romance? Try Crime. Chuckling at humour? Take a walk on the Dark Side. Thrilled with mysteries? Let your mind go off into Sci-Fi. Grounded with the everyday? Take off into Fantasy.

A case in point recently was when I met a librarian friend who admitted she had tried writing erotica. Just to see if she could. She confessed it was difficult at first, purely because it wasn’t something she’d ever dreamed of writing. She even felt a bit… naughty. But liberated.

She didn’t show me what she had written, but when she went back to her usual writing style (relationships and crime), she felt as if she had taken a real break, and was able to launch herself back into her normal genre with renewed enthusiasm.

I usually swap between non-fiction, features, relationship fiction, crime thrillers and occasional letters to our local Member of Parliament, just to keep him on his toes. And that, for me, offers a broad enough scope which lets me ring the changes and get a fresh perspective on whatever comes next.

And I know through experience that dipping the writing toe into uncharted waters can unleash a whole new approach.

So, if you’re feeling a little constrained, why not put on your purple hat (real or otherwise) and go ‘out’ there once in a while. Defy convention and write something completely different. See what happens.

You never know, you might just surprise yourself.

TOP TIPS
·       Choose a genre you don’t normally write – and go for it.
·       Take a cue from television or film, and write something in the same style.
·       Don’t worry about your usual locations or characters – get wild!
·       Try writing with a smile on your face.
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The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook here. 

 

Friday, 27 November 2015

So easy to forget

I mentioned recently in a tweet how, when seeing the copy edit of a book I'd written ('Hard Cover' - in the Marc Portman series, since you ask) I found I'd forgotten some of the details.

Nothing huge.... well, apart from a couple of characters' names and a plot point or two. Who? Did I write that? I mean, it's not as if I hadn't been living and breathing them for several months during the writing, so how come they'd slipped so easily from my mind, like melting snow off the roof?

As it happens, quite easily. And it reminded me of a freelance pilot I used to know years ago, who once told me his brain was full. When I questioned this (we were in a car at the time and he was driving very fast down a narrow road with one eye on the mirror - and the comment had come unbidden out of nowhere), he explained that he had to remember so much information related to flying, such as call signs, weight and load factors, airport, route and weather details and all manner of other statistics, most of which were related to keeping him in the air or placing him in jail if he got it wrong. (He didn't elaborate further, he was that sort of pilot. But I rather thought that jail was the least of his problems, since the alternative to not staying in the air for a pilot was probably death - although he didn't seem to consider that somehow).

I didn't think about it too much at the time, as I was wondering teeth-clenchingly how long it was going to be before we met a tractor, truck or a herd of animals head-on. We didn't, thankfully, but it was a close call. However, since then, I've begun to realise what that pilot was talking about, and how easy it is to feel that one's brain, like a hard drive, can get overloaded.

Take the book I mentioned above, details of which now seem sketchy. I wrote it about six months ago after a lot of research, sent it off... and promptly began another one. Out with the old and in with the new; clear the decks and start working on new characters, new scenes, new settings... and a whole bunch of new research. That's pretty much my writing life.

I'm sure I'm not alone in this. Life has a habit of piling on facts and figures, names and details (internet passwords alone are never-endingly added to) that it's no surprise if some of us begin to feel overwhelmed by having to absorb so much new information which demands to be recalled at the drop of a hat.

So what chance does a writer have, switching from one set of facts, figures or characters, probably never to be encountered again, to having to immerses themselves in a whole new set?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. I'd far rather have this minor problem to deal with than any that I used to have in a former life. But if you're ever at an author event and ask about a character or event in the author's book, don't be too surprised if you see them quietly having a goldfish moment.

Just for a few moments, they're probably wondering if you're talking about another author altogether.

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Monday, 16 November 2015

Book review: 'Gone Bad' by JB Turner

My latest review in Shots Magazine is right here.

If you like your main characters hard-hitting and willing to work outside the rule of law while keeping in close with it (in this case the FBI), then these books are worth a good look.

Jon Reznick's a maverick, and he's capable of going to extreme lengths and using methods that FBI Assistant Director Martha Meyerstein cannot possibly contemplate openly. When the need arises, she brings in Reznick. That causes professional problems for her but it gets results - and nobody can argue with that.

It makes for a charged relationship, but JB Turner somehow always keeps it real.

As I say in the review, just because 'Gone Bad' is shorter doesn't make it slower.

'Gone Bad' is a change of length for J B Turner, but still right up there in his growing list of Jon Reznick titles (three so far, plus other titles here).

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Sunday, 15 November 2015

Writing for Beginners (11)

‘Tis the season to be a writer
 
Whether you celebrate the occasion or not, Christmas will be looming large on your radar, and you will be either relishing or dreading the forthcoming couple of weeks. Relishing it because you love all the festivities, are a mad party animal and want to get on down, or because you simply need a break from work; or you'll be dreading it because you don’t do Christmas, possess the soul of a curmudgeon and want to punch Santa’s lights out for being so relentlessly in yer face.

Take heart, however; whatever your persuasion, if you’re a writer, this could be just the break you need to make it a productively Cool Yule.

Character studies
What better opportunity to build your latest characters based on the steady stream of visiting rellies (family) tramping through the house like a herd of wildebeest in search of water. You don’t see them from one year’s end to the next, you barely know their names or even where they fit into the family tree; so why not hijack bad-tempered Uncle Bill as the model for your current villain, or gossipy Aunt Janet as the meddling old busybody who comes to a sticky end in chapter four? Nobody will know, will they? Hardly any of them read, anyway.

A word of warning, however. Most families have a Rumour Network Co-ordinator (usually one person), who has the name and contact number of every living relative – and even a few who have passed on beyond life’s final chapter. And this is where your supposedly secretive character-stealing will be revealed, and you could face a familial row that would make an episode of 'Sopranos' more like 'Little House on the Prairie'. Stars on Sunday.

Atmosphere
Every Christmas gathering has it in spades. There’s joy, of course, and love, and often a sprinkling of things in the air like redemption, forgiveness and tolerance. Okay, they might not last longer than the first pulled cracker, but if you’re quick, you’ll be able to catalogue them.

Tension
Usually of the sort you could cut with a piece of soggy lettuce (and this is for guys out there), tension will rear its head when gifts turn out to have come from the local garage forecourt late on Christmas Eve. The ignition point is usually signalled by a senior member of the household rising wordlessly to her feet and going into the kitchen, leaving a chill in the air like the second Ice Age… followed by the ominous clunk of the pedal bin.
Or there’s the gloriously un-PC joke rattled off by Uncle Bert, completely unaware that the vicar is out in the hallway and he’s a staunch believer in hot pokers in uncomfortable places.

Conflict
Similar to above, but often sizzling just beneath the surface. And if you think conflict only includes drawn swords and pistols at dawn, wait for family feuds that have been simmering for decades to break out over the cooking sherry.

Stories
There’s no story like a true story, and families can provide fertile ground to the writer in search of an idea. You don’t have to mirror granddad’s account of his part in Rommel’s downfall, or Great Aunt Lil’s memories of the Blitz. But if you listen, you’ll find that there are things some family members have seen or done that can act as a springboard to your writing far better than staring into space or eating your own bodyweight in biscuits. And if your current storyline needs the background to tracking the disintegration of what seemed like a wonderful family gathering, all you need do is watch and wait…

Thinking time
When else do you have an excuse to go for a quiet walk with no other aim than to let your brain go into free-fall? There’s no office calling you, no project awaiting your boss’s approval, no pub or coffee date with your mates to draw you away or occupy your mind. So, while everyone else is lying around like beached haddock, you can take advantage of their inability to move by sliding out of the house and going for that walk you’ve been promising yourself. Don’t forget to take a notepad with you, because you may just get a belter of an idea, and it would be criminal to let it go to waste.

Writing time
Now this, of course, is the Promised Land for writers everywhere. But it might not be possible for everyone because of family commitments. However, if you are one of those for whom Christmas is a glorious and welcomed opportunity for doing absolutely nothing, with no interruptions and all the time in the world, why not kick back and settle down with a glass of something pleasant, to catch up on that writing you’ve been too busy to do for so long? Turn off the phone, put the television into storage, arm yourself with whatever you require to write… and simply write.
A final word of warning.

Alcohol
It's a great liberator – and I should know, because I’ve written some of my best work with a large glass of wine at my elbow. However, as I’ve also discovered, it can liberate the creative brain to a degree where what seems witty, insightful and brilliant on the screen is actually, in the cold light of day (usually the following day) a load of old tosh.
 
So, moderation in all things. Enjoy the break and whatever this season means to you, but whatever you do, keep writing.

TOP TIPS
·        Use the break to do some rough drafting.
·        Study people for character traits you can use in your writing.
·        Watch faces and actions for instant mood portrayals.
·        Take some time alone to walk. And think.
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Thursday, 12 November 2015

To Skype or not to Skype...

Spending most of my days staring at a PC monitor, hoping for flashes of inspiration, it's easy to think that you have to get out there to interact with people. (Ann, my wife, is often heard to suggest that I should get out more, but I think she means it in a different way). The truth is, putting aside fleeting chats on social media, I don't actually speak to many live persons day-to-day.

Which is not something I mind particularly.

But recently I was asked to chat to the year 7 class of students in the Sir Harry Johnston International School, Zomba, Malawi, and answer some questions about my writing.
Use Skype, went the conversation with the tutor, Colin Doney - or Mister Colin Doney, as they respectfully call him.

Easy for him to say. I'd only ever used Skype once before - and that hadn't been memorable enough to make me want to repeat the experience. It had been like talking to people through a fish tank wearing a snorkel and mask.  

However, not one to signal defeat, and happy to help out, I had a quick run-through with Colin, then waited for the call.

Happy to say, it was a memorable experience, and for all the right reasons. The connection wasn't perfect (probably my end, not theirs), but the questions from the students were. And not one of them asked where I got my ideas from! They were polite, interested and engaged, and had clearly thought through their questions beforehand.

As it happened, the event got coverage in the local newspaper, too. Okay, I'm not German, and there was a typo with my name, but what's a couple of errors between friends?

So, I'm sending a big high-5 to the year 7 students - not forgetting tutor Colin - for dragging me away from my isolation for a while and making me think on my feet. I had a buzz doing it and I hope they gained from the experience, too.

Interestingly, the school has three keys to success, which probably underpins the students' attitude and interest:
  • Be Determined
  • Be the Best You Can
  • Be Cool (taking a pride in ourselves and being in control of our choices)

I like that.

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Friday, 6 November 2015

My latest articles in Writing Magazine

My latest 'Beginners' piece in Writing Magazine is called 'Make Them Suffer'. And no, it's not a suggestion about inflicting harm on anyone or anything living; it's to do with taking your characters out of their comfort zone and putting them - and the readers - through the hoops of adversity.

It's basically another form of conflict, which is the food and drink of all storylines. But this isn't merely one-on-one as you'd write about in good-guy-bad-guy situations (or gals - they fight, too). This is placing your main character in tough scenarios so that the reader can share in the pain. It's also bringing to life the dangers the characters may be facing and the relief - or otherwise - of their escape.

It's what keeps the readers reading - the basic job of all writers, fiction and otherwise.

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My other piece this month is the New Author profile, which covers J S (James) Law, former submariner and author of 'Tenacity'.

This has a timely and relevant connection with my item above (all carefully planned, of course) because the central character, Danielle Lewis, is  a member of the Royal Navy Military Police, and her comfort zone is definitely NOT on board a nuclear submarine. But that's where she has to go to solve a murder... and the entire 'boat's' company is strictly male, claustrophobic and unwelcoming to the point of death.

Read more about the book and its author: www.jslawbooks.com

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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Burning the Evidence

I just discovered a good antidote for lack of direction, paucity of good news and a general feeling that walking through treacle might be a bit more progressive: have a good burn-up.

I don't mean the petrol-head kind - impossible where I live anyway, unless in possession of a death wish - which I don't have. I mean having a clear-out and putting a match to all the old dross and files for which there is no further use.

And that includes several drafts of novels which have now been published, and which I'd forgotten were in a drawer. As I don't see the Bodleian - or any other library come to think of it - wanting to keep my manuscripts for posterity, I decided to take me some BBQ gel, which is like napalm in a bottle, to the bottom of the garden and put the incinerator to good use.

I suppose I should have felt guilty, sending all those hundreds of thousands of words up in smoke. After all, they represented months and years of work, tucked away at my keyboard, and covered three Harry Tate novels, the Marc Portman thrillers (2 and counting), a Lucas Rocco novel and the manuscript of my newest series, 'The Locker' (which is actually the freshest of all and is out in January from all good bookshops and Amazon). Seven books in all, roughly three quarters of a million words; more if you count the number written that got them to that stage in the first place.

But the truth is, apart from that last one, I have the published books on the shelf, so my scratching in the margins, numerous question marks and some seriously heavy under-scorings and even a couple of pithy comments to self in language my mother would not have approved of, didn't mean a whole lot. What the burn-up did, as I fed the pages into the top of the incinerator, was bring back snatches of dialogue, bursts of action and the names of characters I'd actually forgotten.

How could I? I'd lived, breathed and dreamed of these people and their doings over thousands of days and nights, so how could I possibly forget any of them? Well, I'm not sure... but my only explanation is that my brain can hold only so much information at one time, and each new book is so intensely focussed on the current set of characters, events and settings, that all previous works are elbowed out of the door.

Of course, as each stray page caught my eye, I couldn't help but scan the occasional paragraph and remind myself how the story had gone. It added to the time taken to go through them (about two hours instead of thirty minutes), and I'm sure my neighbour must have wondered what I was getting rid of so assiduously. She knows what I do for a living, and has already made it clear that she thinks I'm writing from close and personal experience. In fact, she once quizzed me about GCHQ, about which I know nothing much, and whether I'd ever signed the Official Secrets Act, which I have, and over which I went suitably blank - to her evident puzzlement.

As a useful bit of unexpected research, while I was stuffing papers into the funnel, the sound of a police siren came drifting over the hill. It was on a road which by-passes our hidden away corner of the woods, where even the wild boar go in pairs, but in the time it took to go by and fade, it highlighted for me just how long it takes to burn a bunch of papers - and takes even longer if you try forcing the issue.

Note to self for future projects where getting rid of incriminating files might be a plot point: don't stand there like a lemon reading them!

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Sunday, 25 October 2015

Writing for beginners (10)

Continuing my occasional articles for beginners on the art of writing, taken from the pages of Writing Magazine and the subsequent compilation called 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' (see below)
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Binge writing

For many part-time writers, it’s not ideas that are in short supply. Nor is it plotlines or characters or the pure mechanics of writing. It’s time.

The idea of having a few hours off devoted entirely to writing is something many people can only dream about. This may be a period found somewhere in the wasteland between work, family and all the other demands of modern living. It might be a few hours or minutes snatched from evenings and weekends, or possibly the occasional longer burst on holiday.

I tend to think of it as binge writing, when even a short bus journey was - and still is, incidentally - an opportunity to scribble down a few thoughts on paper, hopefully to be morphed into something coherent later.

(This doesn't ignore, incidentally, the excellent NanoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month, which we're almost into - which comes but once a year and which for many writers is a great excuse to let it all hang out and write like there's no tomorrow. If you haven't heard of this event, do take a look - it could be your excuse to join in and find out exactly what you're capable of).

In terms of everyday writing, it's surprising, though, to find how many people approach such valuable free time in blissful uncertainty, only to sit down and… stare at a blank sheet of paper, wondering what to do next.

Like all tasks, writing is something that requires as much planning as we can give it, and never more so than when time is a precious commodity. Dive in head first without a thought to planning the outcome, and it will soon slip away.

It’s not unlike painting and decorating. As a boy, I used to think that all you needed was paint, a brush, something to cover the furniture and a radio blaring loud enough to make your teeth bleed. My father, a keen DIY-er, taught me otherwise (especially the radio bit).

He used to plan his decorating jobs like the crossing of the Rhine, with a full family briefing on colours, materials, tools and clothing, all checked and double-checked days before picking up a brush. This preparation for the preparation used to drive my poor mother up the wall, she being of the ‘Just paint the ****** thing!’ school of thought. But she always understood this was necessary, because my father’s time was in short supply.

Using his approach, planning a writing binge would run thus:

Windows of opportunity. Not a term my father would have used, but it helps to identify when you may be able to set aside time to write. That way, everyone around you knows what to expect.

Materials. With time of the essence, you need to hit the ground running, so to speak. This means having everything to hand, be it paper, pen, printer ink, notes and reference sources.

Task. Is it a new project or an ongoing one? If new, take time out beforehand to jot down a synopsis from which to work, so you don’t slide straight into blank-brain mode or end up raiding the biscuit tin every two minutes because you can’t think of anything to write. For an ongoing project, you’ll probably have some ideas down already, aided perhaps by the last writing you did, and maybe some changes you want to make. Either way, you should be able to see a clear way ahead.

Objective. What do you hope to achieve during this writing stint? A page? Two pages? Solid (new) writing plus some editing? Be wary of aiming too high, and set a realistic goal for the time available. Lumping too much of a load on yourself will leave you stressed and dissatisfied – which might be reflected in your writing.

Dealing with distractions. Well, whoever guaranteed a smooth patch of utter bliss and quiet, with only the sound of a distant skylark to accompany your creative thoughts? If ever there was a day when your auntie Minnie was going to call round for a cup of tea and a moan, you can bet your buttons it will coincide with you-know-when. If you can bear to do it, lock the door, unhook the phone, bury your mobile in the compost heap and tell anyone who might be in the habit of calling round that you’ve gone into rehab. Basically, lie in your teeth if you have to; you owe it to yourself.

Plan breaks. Actually, it’s more a question of planning the amount of writing in between the breaks. Setting yourself a target that is manageable for you, followed by breaks away from the desk, gives you a series of work-plus-reward bursts which will help you focus on the best use of your time. The quickest way to lose concentration – and enjoyment – is to become stale and tired through sitting for too long without a stretch, a leisurely scratch and maybe a quick walk round the garden with a cup of tea and a biscuit to disperse the mental moths.

Review your progress. You can stand back and look at what you’ve done, probably best left toward the end of your writing stint; that way you can still make any quick changes you think necessary, note any extensive amendments you may wish to make next time and even revise the direction of your story in light of what you have just accomplished. Or you can leave any reading/editing until later, and make more leisurely decisions then.

TOP TIPS
·        Plan when, where and for how long you intend to write.
·        Have ready everything you need - especially a rough synopsis.
·        Don’t tell anyone – they’ll be unable to resist calling round.
·        Take breaks – even if only for a few minutes each.
·        Start planning the next binge.
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The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook. 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

My latest article in Writing Magazine


Time for bed!

November is in our gun sights already, with Writing Magazine for that month already out there. 

My 'Beginners' article this time is called 'Point in View', and deals with a problem most writers face at some time or another: that of having too many ideas and thoughts sloshing around in the brain to be really effective.

The secret here is to focus by narrowing your options. Don't let the surge of ideas corrupt the One you should be working on.

Easier said than done, I agree. But try writing in bed for a change. It could be the saving of your tangled thoughts and lead to a whole new burst of focussed writing.

Read the article and you'll see what I mean and how to use it. Bed-time writing certainly works for me.

Writing Magazine - paper and digital - available here.

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Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Guest Blogger - Matt Hilton

I've admired Matt Hilton's writing for some years now, after we met at the Bouchercon convention in Baltimore. And it's not merely his work I like, but his work-rate, as he's one of the hardest-working authors around, and produces the highly successful Joe Hunter series, managing to join the select few British authors with his books firmly and convincingly based in the US.


However, writing about this tough vigilante is not the only thing Matt can do; he has a new pair of characters coming out in November. So I thought I'd ask him to write about... well, anything he liked, and he's come up with an interesting topic which is close to his heart - and mine.

WHAT’S IN A NAME by Matt Hilton
 
What’s in a name? That which we call a round, by any other name would smell as sweet as cordite…

Being a thriller author, and one whose main output has followed a crusading vigilante across the length and breadth of the US, usually led by the barrel of his trusty SIG Sauer P226, I’ve come to expect a little criticism from readers knowledgeable about arms and armament. It seems that if this author gets a tiny detail wrong, then aficionados of weaponry delight in informing me of my lack of technical or tactical knowledge.
 
To be fair, they know their business, and getting something wrong can throw them out of the narrative, so I do sympathise with them and take my subsequent berating on the chin. It is of course right that I get my “spec” correct, otherwise it indicates that I haven't done my research to the nth degree. But shouldn’t a little artistic licence also be permitted?

There are tropes in thriller writing that have been handed down from one author to another, and I’m not infallible; sometimes I’ve fallen foul of some of those tropes. How many times have you either written (if you’re a writer) or read (if you’re a reader) that the hero flicked off the safety on their gun?
 
Quite a few times, I bet.
 
How many times have you wondered if the model of gun they are toting actually comes with a manual safety switch, or if the feature is actually part of the internal trigger mechanism? Probably fewer times. But readers knowledgeable about guns do know, and do think, and if you’ve got it wrong then woe betide you.
 
How many times has the hero “racked the slide” on their gun for dramatic effect, then a few pages on racked it again (without having fired a bullet): in reality this would expend an unused round which is very wasteful of them. As authors we’re using the trope to inform the reader of impending action, and hopefully ramping up the tension, not so much concerned if we’ve got the tactics of gun handling exact.

I’m not saying that as an author I should have free rein to do whatever I want with guns without expecting some negative feedback from those in the know;I’m only wondering why more lassitude isn’t given. In crime fiction the detectives and inspectors that proliferate popular novels and TV shows don’t exactly follow correct procedures either, but as readers we don’t want to sit through endless hours of paperwork and bureaucratic wrangling, we just want to get on with the story so happily suspend disbelief.
 
I think it’s because gun savvy readers are so passionate about their subject that they enjoy pulling down a lowly author when they’ve got it wrong. I was a police officer: if I wanted to I could spend all day, every day emailing crime writers and telling them how wrong they got their procedure. But frankly I don’t care to. If the book’s a good read, I don’t let the little mistakes (and oft wrongly used tropes) that slip into the narrative, bother me. It’s escapist fiction after all. But that’s a personal opinion, and one I understand isn’t for everyone. These days I do try to get my gun lore correct, and I’m not advocating that authors should be blasé about the subject.
 
It’s right that we get it right.

But what about when common word usage gets in the way of technical know how?

As authors we like to mix up our words and phrases so we don’t keep repeating ourselves, and sometimes we’ll mix jargon with slang to describe a scene, and yeah, we sometimes fall into tropes.
We refer to someone being shot and to being hit by a round, and we sometimes have smoke and the smell of cordite hanging in the air.

Technically speaking we’re wrong on all counts. The “round” is the entire cartridge/shell that is loaded into the gun; the bit that gets fired and hits the target is the bullet. Most ammunition these days come primed with smokeless powder. And the term “cordite” hasn’t really been used since the Second World War, so what we’re smelling is black powder or more correctly “propellant”.

The point I’m trying to make is that although the examples above are incorrect, they’ve also become common language, so to me should at least be permissible in a narrative. We say things that are incorrect all the time, and yet because everyone says the same, it’s accepted. How often do you “Hoover” the floor, when you actually mean you vacuum cleaned it; or you had a “Coke”, when in fact it was another brand of cola; or you went to the “garage” for fuel, when in actuality you went to the filling/petrol station?

I guess the best practice of writing about weaponry in a fictional tale is to get the spec and terminology down correctly when in the narrative, and allow turn of phrase and slang where dialogue is concerned: but what about when the story is narrated in first person? (You might have guessed that I do write from a first person point of view). In this case, is a mixture of “correct” and “turn of phrase” permissible, when they are the terms that the narrator would most likely use?

In books, guns blast people backwards, rounds fly, rooms are filled with a blue haze of gun smoke, the hero expends more rounds than his gun could possibly hold and never gets hit by the bad guys’ return fire. And although they are all incorrect descriptions of actual gun play, that’s OK by me. The same occurs in TV, in movies and in video games, but they don’t incur the same wrath as the written word. Thrillers are supposed to thrill, and to me getting bogged down in the detail only gets in the way of the fun, so I’ll use a little artistic licence. But that’s only me; I don’t profess to be right. And I’m sure that if I’m wrong then someone more knowledgeable will be happy to correct me.

I’ve a new series beginning this November, with Blood Tracks being the first featuring investigator Tess Grey and ex-con Nicolas ‘Po” Villere. Unlike my Joe Hunter thrillers, it isn’t as dependent on gunfire to push the action on, but there are some scenes where weapons come into play. I’ve tried hard to get it right, and hope I've done so. But more than that I hope I’ve written an entertaining and thrilling mystery.
 
Corrections on the back of a signed blank cheque please.

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Bio:
Matt Hilton quit his career as a police officer to pursue his love of writing tight, cinematic action thrillers. He is the author of the high-octane Joe Hunter thriller series, including his most recent novel ‘The Devil’s Anvil’ – Joe Hunter 10 - published in June 2015 by Hodder and Stoughton. His first book, ‘Dead Men’s Dust’, was shortlisted for the International Thriller Writers’ Debut Book of 2009 Award, and was a Sunday Times bestseller, also being named as a ‘thriller of the year 2009’ by The Daily Telegraph. Dead Men’s Dust was also a top ten Kindle bestseller in 2013. The Joe Hunter series has been widely published by Hodder and Stoughton in UK territories, and by William Morrow and Company and Down and Out Books in the USA, and have been translated into German, Italian, Romanian and Bulgarian. As well as the Joe Hunter series, Matt has been published in a number of anthologies and collections, and has published novels in the supernatural/horror genre, namely ‘Preternatural’, ‘Dominion’, ‘Darkest Hour’ and ‘The Shadows Call’. Also, he has a brand new thriller series featuring Tess Grey and Nicolas “Po’boy” Villere debuting in November 2015, with ‘Blood Tracks’ from Severn House Publishers. He is currently working on the next Joe Hunter novel, as well as a stand-alone thriller novel.

Matt's website: www.matthiltonbooks.com
Follow him on Twitter: @MHiltonauthor
See him on Facebook: www.facebook/MattHiltonAuthor

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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Writing for Beginners (9)

Continuing my occasional articles for beginners on the art of writing, taken from the pages of Writing Magazine and my subsequent compilation 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book'  (see below).

Get out of the garret!

Heard about the lonely writer who struggled in his garret for fifty years, bent over his trusty Adler (a sort of early virus-free word-processor) ignoring all other worldly distractions in order to produce the perfect story? By the time he emerged triumphant, fingers numbed, back aching, blinking into the daylight and clutching his hefty manuscript… the world had gone digital.

To the other extreme, take the ever-gregarious wildebeest. Some experts believe they don’t group together simply because they happen to be going in the same direction, or for security against marauding carnivores. It’s more mundane than that; they band together because (a) they like to chit-chat and exchange news, views and grass recipes with other wildebeest, and (b) because nobody else understands a wildebeest quite like another wildebeest.

As writers, it goes without saying that we need a bit of peace and quiet to get the ideas out of the bone onto the paper. We can’t all produce best-sellers at a corner table in a café or on the 08.15 to work. But it’s worth remembering that there is a world out there - a world containing a lot of other writers, all sharing the same hopes, burdens and fears. And it’s surprisingly easy to lose sight of this and become isolated, fixated on the idea that the only way to write effectively is to shut ourselves away.

This was brought home to me recently while talking to a new writer. She was amazed when I happened to mention that I experience the occasional rejection letter. This seemed inconceivable to her, based on a firm belief that, as a published writer, everything I now write - even on spec - must be automatically accepted, a sort of Gold Card access to the coffers of the publishing world.

Yeah, right.

Some might call her naïve, but further discussion revealed that she had never talked to other writers, published or otherwise, and had therefore built up presumptions which had never been corrected.

The fact is, we all need to network with others of our kind, in order to share common experiences. And this is probably more important for writers than many others, because we engage in what is arguably a fairly lonely way of passing the day. Some might dispute this and say they're able to work quite happily on their lonesome without interaction. Fine. But toiling away in a garret was never meant to be an industry standard!

There are ways, of course, for new writers to ‘plug in’ to what is going on, and pick up on some useful secrets and tips along the way.

Joining a writers’ group is one, and there are plenty dotted around the country, usually meeting once a month. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea at first, faced with a group of confident faces with tales of output, word count, competition successes and how they are just waiting to hear the good news about their latest submission.

But don’t be put off; most groups are welcoming and eager for fresh blood (in the nicest possible sense), and will usually encourage members to show/read their work for analysis by the rest of the forum. While criticism in such a face-to-face manner can seem a little daunting, the wise writer will cherry-pick the comments and gain some gold dust to take away with them.

The benefit is that being able to talk about your writing is a surprisingly useful way of making you think about it in the wider sense - as is being able to comment on the writing of others. As a consequence, you might well spot ways of adjusting and improving the way you work and develop some ideas for future projects.

Literary fairs or exhibitions are also great meeting places for writers of all genres. The subjects under discussion will be broad, and you might have to pick and choose to find your particular area of interest. But these events often include workshops hosted by professionals, where writers of every level can pick up all manner of information and advice about the art of writing, as well as how to go about the basics of doing background research, making submissions and finding a market for their work.

Book signings and talks, usually held in bookshops, are also ideal trawling places for picking up tips and ideas. Most published writers are happy to share their experiences, and since most have come up through the ranks writing short fiction or features, you could say there is some degree of common ground.

On a more personal basis, finding a like-minded ‘buddy’ to talk to is invaluable. Especially on a cold, wet Monday, when the postman has just dumped another impersonal rejection letter on your doormat. One way to counter this literary kick to the vitals is to take time out and talk about it to another writer over a cup of coffee. Because ten to one they’ve experienced it, too.

But never forget - one of the best ways to combat a rejected story is to send it off somewhere else!

In short, problems which may have seemed insurmountable can often be brought into a clearer perspective when aired with someone who understands what you do… and most of all, why you do it.
Garret-hound or wildebeest… or a mix of the two?

It’s your choice.

TOP TIPS

·        Too much isolation can kill off creativity.
·        Ideas need the compost of outside contact.
·        Mixing with other writers can stimulate ideas and ambition.
·        Talking with like-minded individuals is refreshment for the soul.
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The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook. 

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Sunday, 20 September 2015

Guest Blog - Marion Grace Woolley

Having had the honour a while back to guest blog on Marion Grace Woolley's blog, I was desperate to return the favour, partly because she would be my first ever guest blogger (an event worth the Italics and the odd whoop, I reckon), but because I know what an inventive writer she is, with a great background. I also said write anything you like, so was intrigued by what she would come up with.

I reckon she came up trumps.
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“Where does all the darkness come from?”
“It’s funny your books are so dark, you’re actually a really happy person.”

 The first comment came from my mother after the release of Lucid. It involved an uncle murdering his niece after dosing her with LSD – undeniably dark.
The second came from my twelve-year-old nephew, who is himself an avid reader and perhaps the greatest challenge to my books-shouldn’t-carry-age-limits stance - see here. Thankfully my theory holds strong. The words in my books are just long enough, and the concepts just adult enough, to lose out to Point Horror.

When posed by loved ones, these are questions that get under your skin. We’ve all got demons to draw on for inspiration, but what causes some writers to go looking for that inspiration in the first place? Why don’t we all just write Mills & Boon or happy-ever-afters?
Part of it has to do with what I’ve grown up with, I suppose. Sure, I liked the Care Bears, but I also liked Goosebumps and reruns of The Twilight Zone. Something my nephew would undoubtedly understand with his interest in Horrible Histories. As much as adults like to deny it, most kids love a bit of gore.

That graduated to a strong interest in horror movies. I think Pet Sematary may have been the first book-to-film adaptation I saw, having read the book. I loved Stephen King, James Herbert and Shaun Hutson in my mid-teens. (I also loved Terry Pratchett, but that doesn’t quite fit into my tale so well.) My dad and I bonded over horror movies. We’ve sat through The Human Centipede and Midnight Meat Train together, as well as more humorous stuff like Severance.
Now, I’m not saying this should be everybody’s bag, but for me it’s pure escapism.
I live and work in an area of Africa that experienced a genocide just over twenty years ago. Part of my job recently involved showing human rights delegations around memorial sites and refugee camps, talking, in depth, about what happened. The country is very different today to how it was two decades ago. It has a very modern capital with big shiny buildings, voted the second safest city in the world for women to walk alone at night. Yet the scars are still there. Survivors exist, trauma exists, mass graves exist.

I am extremely aware of the difference between reality and fiction.
Which perhaps makes it strange that I should abhor the reality of murder whilst adoring the fictionalisation of it. My novel Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran was written in first person about a young girl who took pleasure in killing.

Duality tends to create a really big problem within our black and white rigidity of social norms: how can you say one thing, and think another? Perhaps due to generations of ambiguous political figures we inherently come to mistrust anyone who can think dualistically on topics that should clearly divide.
Writers don’t have that struggle with duality – or, if they do, they seldom turn it into a war.

Writers, actors and artists live somewhere between socially accepted normality and inner reality. They create the moral person committing an immoral act, the villain who is accidentally a hero, the character you identify with even though you hate what they do, the character you don’t identify with yet can’t stop reading, the voice in your left ear and the voice in your right.
We are all a very big mixture of everything, but provided an author doesn’t get lost in the maze of their own imagining, they return to their balance point.

There was an interesting interview with late author Ian Banks - see here - in which he was asked:
Q: When you're writing about dark material, is it in any way strange writing in the first person?

A: Not really, no. It's a technique you get used to as a writer, you know? You don't really think about it, you just get on with it. It's an answer to a technical problem, if you like, and so it's something you adopt quite naturally and easily. It has no real bearing on your own psyche.
It seems awful to reduce the creative process to a ‘technical problem,’ but it is. Fiction authors are in the business of escapism. The moment you stop to ask yourself whether what you’re writing is acceptable or offensive, you’re no longer escaping.

Perhaps the most shocking things to write about provide a chance to explore the most complex parts of being human. Sometimes we like to escape with romance and happy endings, and sometimes we like to escape into a puzzle. Hutson’s Nemesis was the first novel I even put down because I was too squeamish to continue. More recently, Laine Cunningham put me right off my dinner with a scene in He Drinks Poison, involving jam jars.
Far from resenting these writers for making me uncomfortable, I feel an incredible sense of admiration for minds that stretch further than mine. It is at the point of greatest discomfort that we tend to learn most about ourselves.

That, I think, is my attraction to darkness.
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Marion Grace Woolley studied at the British Record Industry Trust  (BRIT) School of Performing Arts, Croydon. After obtaining an MA in Language & Communication Research from the University of Cardiff, she declared that she'd had enough of academia and decided to run away to Africa.
Balancing her creative impulses with a career in international development, she worked and travelled across Africa, Australia, Armenia, and a few other places beginning with 'A'. In 2009, she helped to oversee the publication of the first Dictionary of Amarenga y'Ikinyarwanda (Rwandan Sign Language), a project of which she was immensely proud to have been a part.
The same year, Marion was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers. She currently lives in Rwanda, where she works in human rights and international development.

Marion's website is here
Her blog is here
See her on Facebook
Catch up with her on Twitter: @AuthorMGW 
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Friday, 11 September 2015

What's My Motivation?

My latest 'Beginners' article in October's issue of Writing Magazine is called 'What's my motivation?'

It deals more with the carrot than the stick approach, since most writers tend to respond negatively to any kind of forced regime to get the words on the paper unless they impose it themselves. And the best motivation of all is striving to match the desire to be a writer because you want to - by simply doing it. The rest is down to sweat and determination.

Asking somebody to jump across a sand pit (see the article) illustrates this by way of finding out what you can do - then improving on it and gaining the confidence to go further.

And that's what writing is all about; doing it again and again and stretching yourself.

As I say in the article, it's better to say you tried than regret never having done so.

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Also in this month's issue is a profile of debut author Susan Murray.

Her novel 'The Waterborne Blade' was published by Angry Robot in May, and the sequel 'Waterborne Exile' quickly followed in August. A good way to hook readers; don't keep them waiting for the next book.

Details to buy here.


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Sunday, 6 September 2015

Writing for Beginners (8)

Getting the (Writing) Buzz

I met up with a friend and writing colleague recently, to discuss a forthcoming literary event we were doing together. For reasons of convenience, the fact that there was a decent coffee shop, and no doubt for the same reason salmon and wildebeest invariably end up treading familiar territory, we met at a local bookshop.

As if that were such a strain.

It was one of those barn-like places where books come at you from all directions, and if you’re of an easily intimidated frame of mind, you’ll feel a little awed by the sheer volume of… well, volumes.

But it could easily as have been one of the local independent bookshops, as the net result was the same: I felt a warm glow spreading through me like a virus – and it had nothing to do with the coffee.

I have to admit the visit did me the power of good. Because it took me right back to the years before I got published, when I’d find myself in a bookshop, eyeing up my favourite authors and wondering how they’d done it. How they’d got there.

And thinking: I want to be part of this!

(That desire has in no way diminished, by the way, even though my 20th published book comes out in January).

By being part of, I meant being published – and there was, as there is now, such a huge variety of possible subjects to choose from, it was a little like being in a sweet shop and not knowing where to turn next.

That’s not to say that this recent experience was instantly productive or impressive. I had the drive home to follow, during which many creative thoughts probably slid out of my brain and fell onto the hard shoulder to join the bits of shredded lorry tyres, the occasional shoe (why always one?) and the unfortunate wildlife which hadn’t managed to join the chicken on the other side. But I did reach my PC with enough energy remaining to make me sit down with a renewed sense of enthusiasm for what I was doing for a living.

And that was worth its weight in gold.

Writing being the solitary procedure it so often is, we can so easily fall into the habit of getting too wedded to our keyboard day-to-day, of simply having our minds cluttered with the very idea of being productive, come hell or high water. It’s a bit like thrashing around in the sea and not going anywhere; it might look impressive for a while, but it soon gets tiring. This false productivity also comes at the expense of self-motivation, because it can leech away that fantastic yet hard-to-explain buzz which set us on the writing path in the first place.

A good way of resetting your writing default, therefore, is to re-acquaint yourself with the marketplace. And the only way of doing that is to get out there in it, even if just for an hour or so. Forget the internet and all those soul-less sites which, although packed with colour, information and ease of access, simply lack the sheer atmosphere and tactile quality of a room full of books.

It means going to a bookshop or library and becoming absorbed by your surroundings. Pick up a book or ten and check out the blurb. See what’s out there and allow yourself to take in the sheer volume and variation of published works, whether in your favourite genre or not. Check the latest publications and see what’s hot – and who the publishers are. Do a quick word count to see what’s current, and take a peak at how the opening couple of paragraphs are handled and compare them with your own style.

It’s also worth looking at the strap lines on books. Yes, it’s marketing-speak, and meant to catch the eye for a split second before the reader moves on. But do the snappy lines give you any ideas? Do they throw up an image in your mind? If so, what kind of strap could you think of for your current/future project?

Many books also contain a lot of information about the author (their websites) and the publishers and agents (check the attributions pages). This is especially useful for the yet-to-be-published, and at least gives you a name to aim for when making that first submission.

Of course, some might say there’s a down-side to being surrounded by so much published material. The very sight of so many books, many claiming to be ‘best-sellers’, can be a rather brutal reminder of just how much competition exists out there. Well, very true. But life is all about competition (sorry, kids) and trying to overcome it. Instead, take comfort from the fact that those authors on the shelves all had to start somewhere – and most of them probably did a lot of what you’re doing right now before they got their big break.

The worst thing in the world would be to try and pretend that the successful authors don’t exist.

The best thing in the world is to try your utmost to join them.

TOP TIPS

·        What do you want to do – write or push words around?
·        Renew your desire to get published by becoming absorbed in the marketplace.
·        See what else is being published and compare it with your own writing.
·        Take in the books on the shelves and reinforce your determination to put yours within distance of joining them.

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Originally published in Writing Magazine, this article also appears in 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' - available in paperback and ebook:
UK - http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1908006773/   US - http://www.amazon.com/dp/1908006773/
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Friday, 28 August 2015

Now what... ?

Having spent the past few months working on two books, both series novels, either writing, researching or editing, I've just come to... well, a junction. That's the point where I've finally torn myself away from the temptation to fiddle with just a few more words here and there and the submissions have been made to agent and editors.

The rest is in the lap of the gods. (That's not the agent or editors I'm talking about - they're way more important).

Not that I'm without things to do. I have articles to write and other deadlines to meet, as well as considering the next book projects. But it's like the quiet after the storm, where suddenly I don't have to switch on the PC as soon as I wake up, or read a few pages of the latest manuscript or rip out my own teeth as I wrestle with an unwilling chapter.

And it's all a bit discombobulating.

Do I start writing something else right away? (Don't feel like it).
........ go for a long walk? (Don't feel like it... although I should).
.........catch up on a couple of DVDs on the TBW pile? (Tempting... but so decadent).
.........catch up on my expenses record? (Definitely don't feel like that).
.........go out and fix the shed roof? (Can't. It's raining - thanks, Met Office, for getting it so badly wrong yet again. Sunshine all day, you promised - and we've got stair-rods!)
.........do some promotional work? (Don't... )
.........or should I write an angry letter to my MP just for the hell of it and because he's there? (Hell, no. I'm not that desperate).

The net result is what I believe nautical folk call the doldrums. I have as much enthusiasm as a dead sloth and a similar amount of direction. I've been up and down stairs at least a dozen times in a couple of hours, made several mugs of tea (for myself as well as the builder doing some remedial work on the roof), checked my social meedja sites, ditto Amazon rankings, taken a selfie which freaked me out - Christ, is that what I look like close-up? - stroked the cat several times, eaten far too many wine gums and generally wandered about the place like Marley's Ghost.

I haven't started kicking the furniture yet but it's been a close-run thing... and my wife, Ann, is watching. She's got a worried look on her face, although she has witnessed this kind of writerly situation before and will only take action if I start doing weird stuff. (I've currently got a rubber band around my head and am flexing my eyebrows and hairline waiting for it to works its way up and flick into the air. But I don't think she's noticed it yet).


The next thing might be to push one corner of a cushion in and put it on my head like a hat.

You've never tried it? Oh, you should - it's great... although I think it's a boys-only thing, don't ask me why.

There. I feel better already. 

(P.S. My wife, Ann, made the cushion. Neat, huh?)

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