Thursday, 26 May 2016

The story behind the book - 'Close Quarters'

‘Close Quarters’ – the 2nd Marc Portman spy thriller (Severn House)

 He's a professional shadow. A watcher who provides protection in hostile situations. He works in the background, stays off the record. Often the people he's guarding have no idea he's there.

Some people know him as Portman.

 After the success of ‘The Watchman’, the first in the Marc Portman series, which zoomed to No 1 on Kindle in the Espionage category, and featured Portman fighting Somali pirates and terrorists, I had to choose somewhere equally challenging for him to go in the second book, ‘Close Quarters’ - (see cover right).
Sad to say, I wasn’t exactly short of options.

At the time of writing in 2013/14, Ukraine was heating up to be another long-term centre of conflict, with pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukrainian Government forces in the east of the country, and increasingly seen to be backed by active Russian forces (or volunteers, as they were described by Moscow).

Watching the flurry of diplomatic activity as politicians from various quarters tried to help, I was struck immediately by the possibility of one of these well-meaning advisers or monitors being taken captive and used as a bargaining tool between east and west. After all, it has happened before.

Very quickly the idea of a US State Department official sent to check out the developing situation finding himself in custody and an unknown fate became the plot for a story, and Portman was on his next assignment.

This time he was hired by the CIA as a ‘black’ operative to extricate the official, Edwin Travis, from the hands of extremists and get him out of the country. But this time, unlike the wastes of Somalia and Kenya (‘The Watchman’), he has to get Travis free of his ‘hotel’ in Donetsk, which is teeming with Ukrainian forces, Russian-backed militia, and mafia killers on the lookout for his blood after a near-lethal confrontation on his arrival at the airport.

With only the distant voice of CIA Langley-based comms newbie, Lindsay Citera to guide him, Portman has to travel from Donetsk in the east right across the country to the border with Moldova, in order to get Travis out. But the one thing he cannot do in the hot-bed political atmosphere is rely on help from identifiable US forces or the embassy.

As usual, Portman is on his own.

Unfortunately, the CIA has an enemy in the camp, in the form of powerful and vindictive US Senator Howard Benson, who would like nothing more than to shut down their ‘black’ ops and bring their covert activities under control. When he gets wind of the operative known only as ‘Watchman’, he does all he can to identify him and use him to discredit the CIA, while also taking advantage of the worsening situation in Ukraine for his own financial ends as a member of the select and highly secretive Dupont Circle Group.

And he doesn’t care if ‘Watchman’ and the State Department envoy become collateral damage in pursuit of his schemes.

I have to say there was a point during the writing of ‘Close Quarters’ that I came close to giving up. It was after the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July, in the Donetsk Oblast (region), said to have been caused by separatist forces helped by Russian-supplied ground-to-air systems.

I was deeply shocked by the event and felt it was all-too close and something around which I couldn't - maybe shouldn't - centre a work of fiction, especially a thriller. I left it alone for several days while trying to make up my mind, should I ditch the entire book or continue? One way or another I didn’t want to be thought of as making capital out of such a dreadful event.

It was a close-run thing until my wife pointed out that the timeline of the novel was around May, so the airline disaster would not feature at all. In addition, not writing the book couldn't materially affect what had happened.

In the end I decided to continue with it, but I made sure I avoided any similar ideas creeping into the novel.


Portman is used to finding himself in hostile situations. But none can be more unpredictable than the troubled Ukraine, teetering on the brink of civil war.
When a US State Department official on a fact-finding mission to the Ukraine is placed under house arrest by Russian-backed rebels, the CIA hire Portman (codename Watchman) to get him out of the country. In that dangerous and volatile region, Portman soon finds himself up against local gangsters, Ukrainian Special Forces, professional snipers and pro-Russian separatists. And being a ‘black’ operative, the only support he has is the distant voice of recently-recruited CIA Langley-based comms operator, Lindsay Citera, on her first assignment.

What they don't know however, is that Portman’s most lethal enemy comes from his own side …


'Close Quarters' - Severn House - available in ebook, p/b and h/b editions.

For signed hardback copy - see here: Goldsboro Books


Sunday, 22 May 2016

Writing for Beginners (18)

You can’t be a beginner for ever

(Taken from the chapter 'You as a Writer' in 'Write On! - the writer's help book' )

There will come a time when, having written some pieces, maybe sold a few, you might begin to wonder about the next step in this thing called being a writer.
One approach is to think about cutting loose – mentally, at least – from the ‘beginner’ label and start thinking of yourself in a slightly different light.

If, after having completed some projects (submitted or not), of entering competitions, of taking writing classes, of slaving over endless manuscripts - or even just a few - you still think of yourself as a beginner, perhaps you need to grasp the nettle and recognise that you are, in fact, a writer.
Imagine for example, finding yourself half a mile out at sea and going down for the third time. A lifeguard comes bobbing along just in time, but in response to your gurgles, he chirps, ‘Me? I’m just a trainee …’
There’s a hoary old saying often trotted out more in judgemental anger than true wisdom, and usually bellowed with biting self-conviction by an enraged parent, which goes, ‘Life is not a dress-rehearsal, you know …!’
Actually, I think life is a whole series, a multitude of dress-rehearsals, where each day is a practice session for the next, each phase of our life a preparation for what lies ahead. The daft thing is, we don’t realise it at the time.
In the same way, writing and submitting a story is all practice. Every time. And each work written and submitted, no matter what the outcome, should be treated as a step nearer success. Because whatever else you need in your toolbox to become a published writer, be it ideas, style, voice, stamina or dedication, you need the big-daddy power tool of inner conviction. Without that, you’re simply running uphill.
And to grasp that contrived sporting analogy before it slithers between the floorboards and disappears forever, there are gazillions of runners out there who train daily, weekly or less frequently, for the race they will one day enter. They wear the kit, check the stopwatch, use the correct footwear and clothes and monitor what they eat and drink.
But most of all, they run.
And for a few, training is all they will ever do. Because that’s all they need; the self-knowledge that is fed by doing something for the pure, unbridled pleasure of it, not for any tangible adulation or reward.
For others, putting themselves to the ultimate test is a step too far, where the possibility of failure is something they simply cannot contemplate. They may have the talent; they will certainly possess the intent and ability, the sheer will to overcome the many obstacles such as discomfort, lack of time or opportunity – even the call of family or work to do other things instead. But deep down, they still think of themselves as ‘training’, where shaving off a second or a minute here and there will make all the difference, where just a few more runs will extend their stamina and allow them to compete on terms with the rest of the field. One day.
They may be right. But there’s only one true test of ability, and it’s the same in writing as it is in sports. You have to step up to the line.
Instead of thinking of failure, consider how you will deal with success. How will you capitalise on your first (or next) sale? Will you go bigger and better or will you find your niche and enjoy it to the full? Ask many sports men and women, and they will usually tell you the same thing: coming second is simply not enough.
But at least in sports, there are three places on the podium to aim for. For writers, there is just one: an acceptance letter.
Equally, ask many keen sports men and women if they constantly try to improve their own times, and the answer will be yes. Shaving off those seconds or minutes is vital, and a reason to celebrate. It may not be a win, but it’s a measure of improvement – and a step towards a greater goal.
For most, it’s an inner drive which they respond to, something peculiar to each individual. So it is with writers, who see success in many different ways. But most would agree that receiving an acceptance note is a marvellous acknowledgement that they have finally produced something of value which is going to be published for all to see.
We’re learning all the time. It’s another fascinating aspect of life; that learning never stops. But there’s a point at which you have to put that learning to good use, rather than simply doing more of the same. And one way to do that is to think of yourself as a writer. Not merely a beginner.
  • Don’t think of your writing as a step in your training, but as a step towards success.
  • Consider your strengths as a writer and use them.If you write, you’re a writer.
  • The rest is simply a matter of progress.Every writer is a beginner at some stage.
  • YOU must decide when you are no longer there.
'Write On! - the writer's help book' (Accent Press) - on Kindle and in paperback.


Sunday, 8 May 2016

Latest articles in Writing Magazine

Give Your Book a Chance

My latest 'Beginners' item in June's Writing Magazine is about having the confidence to submit your work, whether a book or short story, to have it judged by the commercial market. Many writers don't, and as a consequence, never discover how far they can go with their writing.

I know how tough it can be from my own early experiences; you feel you're going to be ridiculed by some unseen editor or agent. But that's the thing to remember: they don't know you, you don't know them.

So what's to lose? Get it out there and see what comes back.

Who knows? You could have a winner sitting on your PC waiting to be found.


My New Author profile in this issue is James Hilton, whose debut thriller is 'Search and Destroy', published by Titan Books. And you've guessed it from the title - it ain't chick lit.
The good news is, if you like reading series novels with repeating characters, this is one and it sounds like it's going to be a long-runner. Jim has signed a three-book deal, so get reading!