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!


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)

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.

·        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.

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.


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.

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:
Follow him on Twitter: @MHiltonauthor
See him on Facebook: www.facebook/MattHiltonAuthor