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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