Saturday, 30 January 2016

Talking About 'The Locker'

There I was, thinking I hadn't really been asked to talk about 'The Locker' (Midnight Ink - out now - see cover left), for at least a couple of days, when along came Marshal Zeringue.

He's a nice guy who runs the rather smart 'Campaign for the American Reader' blog. And he asked me to undergo his Page 69 Test, to give a (tiny) taste of what's in the book. You can read it here.

He also asked if I'd contribute to his Writers Read page, to show what book I was currently reading or had just read. You can catch that here - (it's 'Tatiana', by Martin Cruz Smith, in case you're wondering), and I can recommend it highly for lovers of crime fiction set in Russia... or indeed set anywhere. A good crime novel with interesting characters can work in any setting.

Reading it didn't make much of a dent in my books TBR pile, as I'm currently hard at work thinking and researching the next one in the Marc Portman series.

This is the point where I can often be caught staring into the middle distance with the blank look of a traumatised goldfish. Of course there's always something going on in there, but you might not believe it if you saw me.

As my wife says, it's not pretty, but at least I don't go out in public and do it.

No details yet (on the new project), just to say... there will be guns.

While mentioning it, may I also drop a hint about the third Portman thriller - 'Hard Cover' - (see cover right) which comes out in hardback on the 31st March (UK)? Thank you.

Marc 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 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 and fighting back. When the assignment takes an unexpected turn, Portman has no choice but to take the hard cover option...

For lovers of signed editions, both books are (or will be) available and signed with a flourish here:

'The Locker' - at Rossiter Books, by mail or in person - Tel: 01989 564 464

'Hard Cover' - at Goldsboro Books in London. - Tel: +44 (0) 207 497 9230


Sunday, 24 January 2016

Writing for Beginners (13)

Another one of my early articles for beginners on the art of writing. (With thanks to Writing Magazine for allowing me to use it). Like others, it is now in a compilation called 'Write On! - the writer's help book' - available in paperback and ebook.

Keep it simple

I recently read an on-line review of a novel which fairly thudded with capital letters along the lines of ‘A story of Deceit, Treachery and Betrayal, of Love Turned Sour, and the Search for Identity and Self-Discovery Amid Danger, Loss and … ’

Actually, I can’t remember the rest, because I was overwhelmed by an army of emoticons, those little animated creations for all occasions, which burst out of my computer and bounced around the room, screaming for attention.

At least, that’s what it felt like.

If we follow the blurb on the back of book covers, many novels encompass all these themes and more. They paint lurid pictures designed to draw in the potential reader, using catchy words to appeal to the senses so that the customer parts with their hard-earned cash in return for a few hours of somebody else’s pain, suffering, excitement, love and confusion.

Which is what they are supposed to do. This is the kind of stuff we as readers are looking for when we enter a bookshop. Equally, it’s the kind of thing we as writers feed on as an indicator when we’re looking for that brilliant idea which will propel us into the best-seller lists ahead of Dan Brown. If this is what’s selling, we tell ourselves confidently, then we can do it, too. (Forgetting that ‘this’ was probably written over two years ago and something else is about to come into fashion).

However, before we all go cosmic and start bashing the keyboard into submission (that's a writers' pun, btw) over our version of life in the fictional fast lane, it’s worth drawing attention to the distinction between describing a published novel (the book reviews and the blurb on the cover) and sitting at the keyboard considering what will appeal to an agent or publisher about an idea that is still a glimmer in the writer’s eye.

I’m not saying that an agent may not be turned on by a tantalising collection of buzz words like danger, love, disaster, treachery and so forth; many are and will continue to be, Lord bless ‘em. However, looking at it from the writer’s viewpoint, trying to pig out and include all these and more in your initial ideas for the novel may be a trifle unrealistic.

Keep It Simple is a useful credo to follow in most things. Ask any craftsman or manufacturer, and they will tell you that complex means time-consuming, challenging and usually a headache. Any sales person will tell you that making a presentation and including every single dot, comma and feature of your product up front, will invariably lose the customer before the halfway mark.
So it is with writers who set out right from the start to include in their novel a vast array of plotlines, devices and emotions, on the basis that if current novels in the bookshops have them, then so should their story. Some can do this; most can’t.

Film studios and agents like to use very brief pitches when considering ideas for films (based, it is said, on the length of a lift (elevator) journey or the time it takes to chase a studio executive across a pavement). A pitch, for the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy, for example, might have been: ‘Courageous elves, hobbits and humans wage ferocious battle against the forces of evil to save Middle Earth.’ A bit succinct, perhaps, but that might have appealed to the studio execs. (One wonders if adding ‘trees that walk and talk’ would have had the same result?)

However, what actually went into the films came later, with the story of evil, jealousy, great courage and redemption, of family, death and almost unimaginable dark forces, all being built and layered into the script and bringing in the various elements which made the films the stonking success they were.

Set out to include too many elements in a story right from the very beginning, and you’re likely to blow a gasket. It’s like grabbing all the parts of a flat-pack of furniture and trying to assemble them at once. (I should know – I’ve assembled a few).

Equally, trying to deliberately bring in ‘treachery’, ‘betrayal’ or a host of other buzz words purely because it sounds punchy and attention-grabbing, is certain to make the going hard. Far better to let your story – and the elements that drive it – evolve at their own pace. Sure, you need a plan or synopsis or some headings in mind, even if only in the form of key words as a way of giving the story direction. But allowing them to happen in an almost organic way is far easier.

In fact, many writers will testify to the fact that once they begin a story, they find it growing almost of its own volition, to the extent that some of the characters will take on actions and attitudes they hadn’t planned. Equally, other characters will introduce themselves (and therefore additional plotlines) almost by force of personality. This might mean throwing the synopsis or plan out of the window, but nobody said you had to stick to it come hell or high water.

It’s your plan, after all; if you want to change it, go right ahead.

·        Let the pace of the story do the selling.
·        Don’t go overboard with buzz words and hyperbole.
·        Keep it simple – don’t over-elaborate right from the start.
·        Build to a crescendo, so the readers have something to look forward to.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Since when did 'probable' become proof?

The last time I looked, our rule of law required firm proof, evidence that somebody had committed a crime. Without it, there can be no conviction.

Clearly things have changed, with the pronouncement by Sir Robert Owen, QC, Chair of the public enquiry into the death of Alexander Litvinenko, a former FSB officer, that the Russian state, and therefore President Vladimir Putin, 'probably' ordered his assassination in London by two FSB officers in 2006, and that it was 'entirely possible' that Andrei Lugovoi, one of the officers, had been planning the murder since 2004.

(I should add here that in my Harry Tate thriller 'Execution', I make reference to FSB officers murdering an oligarch and friend of Alexander Litvinenko in London. But that was fiction. Sir Robert Owen's words carry the legal weight of the state behind them and pointed to specific living persons responsible, mine do not).

He added that there was a 'considerable quantity' of secret intelligence that was not aired in open court, leaving us to conclude with a nod and a wink that this was sufficient for us all to put on the black cap and call for something to be done.

Now, he could be right. Putin comes across as a powerful, even ruthless individual. He's not somebody I'd be happy to sit down with for tea. In my mind he joins Robert Mugabe, Kim jong-un, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (leader if Isil) and many others in whose company I would choose not to be.

But that's not the point.

The problem is that this rather weasly 'probable' and 'entirely possible', issued by a High Court judge, has opened the door for demands for punitive measures to be taken. I feel deeply sorry for Litvinenko's widow and son, but many families here in the UK have suffered over the years with not knowing who killed their loved ones, or worse, suspecting who did but lacking firm proof. Yet they remain dissatisfied, with no High Court judge on their side.

My worry is, how long will it be, now this stable door has been opened, before other convictions are brought (or suggested, like this one) but against UK citizens without firm and incontestable proof?

The irony is that British troops are currently being investigated by legal ambulance chasers for alleged war crimes in Iraq (to the loudly-expressed disgust of politicians - although I feel they won't see the irony, bearing in mind this Litvinenko 'judgment'). In a theatre of war, how firm can evidence be 100% of the time, that a crime was committed, with absolute proof?

Yet I wonder how likely is it now that somebody, somewhere, military or civil, will eventually be convicted on a 'probable' or 'entirely possible' judgement as handed down by the likes of Sir Robert Owen, QC? Because it's an easy way to appease public opinion.

And there will be damn-all we can do about it.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

My review of 'Strangers on a Bridge'

I probably don't read as much autobiographical material as I should, and this book - 'Strangers on a Bridge'  by James B. Donovan - highlights why I might be missing out.

It's a fascinating account of the court case against Colonel Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy uncovered in the US in 1957, and defended by James Donovan, a lawyer and former member of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services and forerunner to the CIA), who is also the author.

To say Donovan was reluctant is understandable. He faced a lot of hostility from colleagues and the public for defending 'a commie spy', as they saw it, caught with clear evidence of his occupation and guilt.

But Donovan was a bulldog who believed in every man's right (whether spies or not) to a defence under the American system of justice. Further, he did not want to see Abel consigned to the electric chair, and firmly believed that he could be useful if an American were arrested by the Russians in similar circumstances. If Abel were dead, he argued, what protection for an American spy?

(As it happened, there was such a possibility, when American U2 spy plane pilot Gary Powers was shot down over Russia in 1960 and sentenced to hard labour. This part of Donovan's argument wasn't the sole defence he put forward by a long shot).

However, it worked, and led to a prisoner exchange on the Glienicke Bridge in Berlin in 1962, recently the subject of a movie starring Tom Hanks - 'Bridge of Spies'. (Note - I haven't seen the movie so this review is not a comparison.

Read my review here on Shots Magazine website.


Sunday, 10 January 2016

My latest articles in Writing Magazine

Being asked not so long ago about what the secret is to writing, prompted me to think about how to distil the concept - if there is such a thing. (I'm a professional writer, so don't really analyse what I'm doing day-to-day, which is to sit my glutes on a chair and get on with it).

But it did produce a (reasonably - at least in the title) succinct answer in my latest Beginners page in February's Writing Magazine, which I called 'The 3 secrets to successful writing'.

Actually there were more than three, but I threw a couple of others in for free. They included 'work hard and often', which to my mind is a no-brainer applying to any job if you want to succeed.

I mentioned it only because somebody at a writers' conference once remarked, "It must be lovely sitting down at home all day, scribbling away for a living." Yeah, like it's that easy.

To counter it, a quote I include in the article is the one that goes, 'the harder I work, the luckier I get'. It wasn't my invention, and I've heard it attributed to several people. But it really does carry more than a grain of truth.

The New Author profile this month is Mike Craven, who comes to bookshelves with his debut novel, 'Born in a Burial Gown', published by Caffeine Nights.

Mike uses the unusual theme of a central character (in his case DI Avison Fluke), having the restriction of a serious illness - Burkitt's Lymphoma, which prevents blood-clotting. If it were known by his superiors, it would instantly put him out of a job, as any injury could be fatal.

Since Mike also suffers this burden himself, he brings a great deal of personal knowledge to the character. In addition, having spent many years in the probation service working with dangerous offenders and extremists, he carries a great deal of useful background knowledge to add colour and depth to his writing.

You can read more about Mike on his website here.