Friday, 18 August 2017

Being grateful for loyal readers

I've recently been emailing past readers of my books to let them know that a new title is on the way ('Rocco and the Nightingale' - out 19th October from The Dome Press, since you ask).

It wasn't a spam mailing or anything that could be seen that way, as I prefer to stay in readers' good books rather than drop into their junk mail box. It means tailoring each email to specific comments they've made where necessary, but to me that's all part of the interaction. If they've been nice enough - and taken the trouble - to comment on my work, the least I can do is keep them informed in as personal a way as possible.

One very heartening aspect has been receiving acknowledgments that readers I'd thought were perhaps only wedded to one type of book, such as the contemporary Harry Tate and Marc Portman spy thrillers, or the Gavin & Palmer crime series, are quite happy to make a sideways jump into what is classified as a historical series - the Lucas Rocco novels set in France in the 1960s.

(Having lived through that decade, I still find it hard to look on it as historical, because that makes me sound like Old Father Time! Still, it could be worse).

Perhaps their loyalty happened because I tend to write series rather than standalones. In fact I've so far only ever written two of these singular beasts, one a YA novel ('The Lost Patrol'), and the other a light-hearted fiction adventure ('Smart Moves'). I never really set out to write series, but each time I came up with a new 'first' book, either the publishers or my agent asked if I was aiming at a series. Sensing what in the sales business is termed a firm 'buying signal', I of course, said, 'Series'. Well, as a working writer, you take the opportunities as they arise. And it's not just publishers who ask the question. Not long ago I received an email from a reader who'd thoroughly enjoyed 'Smart Moves', and asked if there was a sequel on the way. (There isn't yet, but maybe... )

The good side of this following is that readers like a series for various reasons, whether it be familiarity of characters, enjoyment of the settings, or simply knowing that there's a good chance they'll get a satisfying read like the last one. And plainly that can translate across even if an author writes a different kind of book. It doesn't work every time, I know that. Some spy thriller readers won't follow my Rocco series any more than fans of these French-based books will make the transition into a contemporary thriller. But clearly many do and I'm glad of that.

Whatever the reasons, I try to write the best, most entertaining story that I can. And if people like it and come back for more, then that's my job done, and I'm grateful for their loyalty and support.

'Rocco and the Nightingale' - the 5th Insp. Lucas Rocco book. Available in hardback, paperback and ebook on the 19th October.

 When a minor Paris criminal is found stabbed in the neck on a country lane in Picardie it looks like another case for Inspector Lucas Rocco. But instead he is called off to watch over a Gabonese government minister, hiding out in France following a coup.
Meanwhile, Rocco discovers that there is a contract on his head taken out by an Algerian gang leader with a personal grudge against him.
Against orders, he follows leads on the original murder case, discovering as he does so that the threats against him are real. When the minister he is supposed to be protecting is kidnapped, it soon becomes apparent that the murder, the threats and the minister's kidnap are all interconnected...

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Sunday, 6 August 2017

Writing for Beginners (34)

Learning to Focus

A recent shopping expedition to find a birthday present for my wife found me in a similar situation, writing-wise, to a friend who writes short fiction. Surrounded by a plethora of goodies, all suitable (and, what’s more, all potential vote-winners in the pressie stakes) I dithered and shuffled like a nervous teenager on a blind date, not sure what to choose.
Basically, (and here I hasten to say I depart from the teenager analogy – my teens, anyway) there were so many possibilities on offer I couldn’t decide which one to go for. In the end, I allowed greed to heap disaster on me by snatching at something in haste… which, as it happened, proved unsuitable.

But back to my friend. He mentioned that in spite of an abundance of ideas, he had recently found himself in a cycle of constantly starting something, then running out of steam because he couldn’t focus on where to go next. This had resulted in a string of projects, all abandoned at various stages and each resembling a lengthy art-house film: no end in sight and not a lot that made sense.

‘Lucky beggar!’ I hear you mutter. ‘If only I had so many.’

The fact is, many writers experience moments like this, when they can't focus on one particular task.  So eager are they to get their ideas down on paper they flit from one to the other like a honeybee on steroids and end up making a pig’s ear out of each one.

I usually find it hits me just after I’ve completed a large or difficult project, as I slough off the mental concentration of the previous job and try to fix on something new. With ideas collected all around me, I find my wastebasket becomes full of paper balls, my PC games get a hammering and I tend to drift around the house like Marley’s ghost.

This is where self-discipline comes in, and you have to rein back your enthusiasm for grasping at straws or launching into something without some forethought.

Begin by clearing your desk of all those project idea notes you’ve gathered save one. Yes, of course the others are wonderful gems, harvested in the bath, on the train or wherever it is your best ideas hit you. And yes, you want to write them all. But they are also a huge distraction. Stuff them in an envelope and put them somewhere temporarily out of reach, or give them to your neighbour with strict instructions not to let you near them for at least a week.

Now look at your choice of market. One way to help decide what to write, is to focus on the market you want to write for. Given that most magazines have a limited range of subjects or story styles they will accept, this immediately limits what you can work on. You should inevitably find yourself discarding all thoughts about writing anything that is not appropriate.

An alternative is to check the current stock of writing competitions. These may call for a genre or topic you wouldn’t normally try, but as a discipline it will focus your thinking away from that vast plethora of ideas swirling around in your brain.

This is also useful in that as well as a subject goal, you are automatically set a time limit. There’s nothing like knowing you have to meet a deadline for focussing the mind. It cuts out the temptation to dash off at a tangent – usually in pursuit of an idea which has just popped into your mind along with that little voice on your shoulder telling you it will be a real doddle to knock off in a couple of hours. It won’t, of course, and you know it.

Another stumbling-block to completing anything mid-stream is a lack of regular planning. This can be over a simple but important scene which, although small beans compared to the whole story, is enough to make you down tools in frustration and reach for something else.

Instead of letting this minor glitch derail your thoughts completely, take a long, hard look at the scene where you are stuck. On separate lines beneath it, type the key words of what you would like to happen next. (I generally use capitals to ‘shout’ at myself so I don’t miss anything – even if I eventually discard a particular idea). Forget grammar and punctuation – simply put down the points you need to cover.

For example, your key scene might have a character agonising over resigning from a high-powered but hated job, and the inevitable furore that will follow. You could end up with: FEAR – DECISION – DECLARATION – BOSS’S REACTION. Then think about what kind of scene could logically come next. You might end up with: FINANCES – OTHER CONSEQUENCES – ALTERNATIVES - WALKING OUT – FREEDOM – RELEASE. Repeat, as the old medicine bottles used to say, as needed.

In this way you are focussing on a small but crucial part of the story each time, instead of the whole feast. Rather than letting it defeat you, tempting you to grab hold of something else in the hope that it may be easier, you are building stepping stones towards completion of the larger picture.

Before you know where you are, you’ve got the path forward to the next scene and can repeat the exercise as required, instead of pigging out on ideas and ruining all your hard work.

TOP TIPS

·        Focus on one idea at a time. Trying too many at once will inevitably water down your efforts.
·        Plan what you intend to do next and stick to it.
·        Look for writing challenges (competitions, story websites requesting themed submissions) and see what inspiration they throw up.
·        Read, watch and listen. There are ideas out there everywhere.

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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out.

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Meet Matt Hilton - 'Marked for Death'

It's always interesting to get an inside peep to a professional writer's thoughts, and I thought I'd ask full-timer Matt Hilton, author of the Joe Hunter thriller series among many others, a few questions that were intriguing me.

I should say up front that I've known Matt for a few years (we met, in fact, in Baltimore at the famous Bouchercon conference, and had been giving each other the cool nod and blink for a while in the main hallway downstairs before we actually decided to speak. (A clear indicator of English reserve, I reckon, but we've been firm friends ever since, even though we don't meet often enough).

I used the term 'professional' for Matt, and that's what he is. He writes - all the time - and treats it like the job that it is. He's constantly on the lookout for new directions, which is what you have to do in this game, and doesn't rest on his laurels, even after all the books he's had published to acclaim here and in the US. And most of all, he's incredibly modest and easy to talk to, which makes him one of the most likeable people I know.

So here's Matt, under the spotlight as 'Marked for Death', his latest Joe Hunter book hits the streets:


  • Are you fully inside Joe Hunter’s head by now or is there more we have to learn about him?
  • After twelve books and a bunch of short stories, you’d think by now I’d know everything there is to know about Hunter, but in the last few books I’ve noticed that even he is trying to figure out who he is and where he should go next, and I am learning new things as he tries to find his way. There’s so little I’ve explored in his past yet, that I feel there’s a wealth of hidden knowledge to be tapped for future books. Saying all that, I find I can slip immediately into his head when writing the next book. Familiarity I guess, where you are happiest when slipping into a battered old pair of shoes or easy chair. I think there is loads more for me to discover about Hunter, and as we both grow older, wonder how that will impact in the stories we tell together.
  • What do you feel are the essential characteristics of a good action figure?
  • For me the action figure should still be human, and fallible. An emotionless, robotic super killing machine only works when it’s called the Terminator. With Hunter I’ve made him highly skilled, but also too impulsive and reckless for his own good. Where’s the drama where there’s no possibility of a perfect hero failing? I like when there’s a good possibility that everything could go to sh*t and then see how Hunter extricates himself from the mess.
  • You’ve spoken in the past of your admiration for author Don Pendleton and his creation Mack ‘The Executioner’ Bolan. Allowing for changing attitudes and circumstances, how different is Joe from Mack?
  • I first read the Mack Bolan books back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were a product of their time, and probably less than the politically correct books we tend to read these days. At that time I probably wasn’t savvy to the politics of the books, and was only along for the action-packed ride. In many respects, Bolan was a product of the Vietnam War, and the political backlash the war brought to a generation of Americans. In some respects Hunter is also a product of pre-9/11 so it’s possible (probable) that his outlook on the world is very different than many of his current readers hold. Some female readers might find Hunter’s attitude somewhat misogynistic at times, whereas he only sees his behaviour as being good old-fashioned manners. Mack and Hunter are similar in that they are both stand-up guys who will do anything it takes to help those in need of them, and to take the war back to the bad guys.
  • Give us a taster sentence or paragraph from page 99 of ‘Marked for Death’.

·       The Mercedes was filled to capacity with men Cahill had worked alongside for years. He briefly wished it was they he'd sent to the hotel to carry out the hit, but the past was the past and there was no changing it. He didn't waste any time repeating descriptions of their target – he'd already done so over his phone – but immediately ordered two of the men, Monk and Hussein, out of the back seat and sent them up the path in pursuit while he leaned across and accepted the semi-automatic pistol from the third man previously crammed in the back seat. Out of habit Cahill worked the action on his gun, checking a round was in the chamber, and then dropping the clip and making another quick check that it was fully and correctly loaded. He'd nothing to worry about, because it was another ex-soldier that'd prepped it for him, his English pal, Dan StJohn. In the front were two more colleagues from back in the day when you could merrily cap a rag-headed Jihadist and not worry about the politically correct ramifications. He grunted in humour at the memory: ironic that they should now make bedfellows of their previous enemies.

  • You’re one of the hardest-working writers I know, but is it (a) harder, (b) easier or (c), about the same writing a new book than ‘Dead Men’s Dust’.
  • Writing Dead Men’s Dust – the first in the series - was a totally different experience. Back then I was writing when I could, while also trying to hold down a demanding job and raising a family. I could only get to it as precious time allowed, so my output was nowhere near as high as it is these days. Also, it went through so many changes (even characters and situations), and I wasn’t that familiar with the characters or even where I wanted to take them, so it was a much slower process. These days I write full time, so my daily word count is much higher, and being able to write for prolonged periods I feel I’m more in tune with the book I’m writing, so I have to say that the mechanics of writing is easier for me. Of course other demands, and reader expectation adds new challenges, so I’m not suggesting it’s a simple process, just different and more manageable for me.
  • Putting you on the spot now. In which book did Joe say the following, and at what juncture in the story?

There were only two options open to me: surrender or resist.
             Surrendering isn’t normally in my vocabulary.
 

  • I won’t lie. I had to look it up. Hunter tends to have his little pithy sayings, and I wasn’t sure when he’d used this one. But I believe it was used in Slash and Burn, the third book in the series, and as per usual Hunter has got himself into a tight fix and has made the decision to get himself out of it, however uncompromising that plan may be. In this case, Hunter is caught in an untenable situation, where he is facing a corrupt sheriff and a bunch of deputies, while he is cornered in a motel room. However, the same sheriff has just kidnapped the woman that Hunter is protecting, so you can be reasonably assured that he won’t go quietly. 
 
  • Do you decide on the location/setting for the story first, or does the plot dictate that for you? 

  • I often make the decision beforehand about location. For instance, I’ll think ‘this one is going to be a mountain book’, or ‘this one will be set in the desert’ and from there then look for a specific location. Often the location determines the action scenes that play out, and often give me ideas then for the plot. Saying that there have been occasions where I’ve written a scene where the location is generic, and from there made a snap decision where it will go next. I often use different environments in the books to offer contrast and also adapt the action to that terrain – being hunted through an urban setting would be very different from in the open in the middle of a blizzard, for instance.  

  • What can we expect next from the hot Hilton keyboard? 

  • My next book to be published is the fourth in a different thriller series that I write featuring Tess Grey and Nicolas ‘Po’ Villere. It is called Worst Fear, and pits the mismatched duo of crime fighter and outlaw up against killers targeting friends from Tess’s past. Severn House publishes it on 29th September 2017. I’m also working on a brand new series, featuring totally different characters, and anyone who knows me might be surprised to find that this time the books are set in the UK (the Hunter and Tess and Po books are all set in the USA). It’s early days yet on this new series, so I’m loath to say too much as everything might change in the writing. But fans of my books hopefully won’t be disappointed. And of course, Hunter is never far away in my thoughts and I’m already jotting down idea for his next outing too.
 
Thank you very much for your time, Matt. I appreciate it.
 
If you want to read my review of 'Marked for Death' in Shots Magazine, you can do so right here.

 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Writing for Beginners (33)

Giving Value for Money

I was once asked by a writing course delegate, how I knew whether I’d done a proper job of writing a story, and were there any specific steps to go through each time.
Well, not every writer follows the same approach to their craft, in the same way that not every builder takes the same steps to complete a project (and we all know how widely that can vary!) But there are some basic rules to follow which allow a certain elasticity in approach, depending on one’s view of being a writer.
The first – and probably the main area – is telling a complete story. You can have the most beautifully worded tale in the world, with elegant narrative, realistic dialogue and mind-blowing descriptions of place, character and setting; but if your tale isn’t rounded and complete, you haven’t accomplished the main part of your job.
As writers, it is easy for us to get caught up in the mechanics of writing – the structure, grammar, punctuation and so forth – and to forget about the main components of a story. These should consist of, for the most part, a beginning, a middle and an end. The balance and importance of each of these may vary according to style, but as long as they are there in some form, the job has been done.
Imagine an ancient travelling minstrel, who sits down in the village square to regale the local peasants with a breath-taking tale of heroism, derring-do and romance. Instead of introducing the audience to his characters and saying how they fit into his tale, he launches straight in at the deep end. While he’s talking, of course, people are looking at each other in puzzlement because he hasn’t prepared the ground in the right way. Basically, he’s dropped his characters into the frame like a bucket of bricks, and left it to the audience to do all the work. Naturally, because they’re busy wondering what he’s talking about, they miss further salient bits of the story. I find this happens occasionally, when I have to keep turning back a few pages of a book to find out what in the name of Moses is going on, and where did such-and-such a character spring from.
The same minstrel may well begin his story in the correct way, with a great opening line, proper introductions and a thrilling background setting. Unfortunately, he goes off the boil by careering straight towards the ending like a runaway hay cart, without any kind of build-up. This leaves the audience feeling short-changed, as if there’s something missing. It’s a bit like going from the starter straight to the pudding – sometimes fun but not always filling.
Our wandering minstrel might, on the other hand, build the tension and excitement, gradually drawing his audience into the story right from the opening, leading them towards what promises to be a gut-busting grand finale. Then, just as the end seems in sight, he promptly hikes up his breeches and walks away without finishing, leaving everyone with their jaws in the fly-catching position.
Cue revolting peasants, wondering what happened to the pay-off. And revolting peasants being what they are, the minstrel’s next public appearance is likely to be centre-stage at the local rotten fruit-throwing gala.
The majority of readers like to finish a story with a feeling that they’ve been taken on a journey; that they’ve been entertained, shown some sights and brought to the end with a sense of satisfaction or conclusion. They may have a few questions, but these are usually along the ‘what if…’ lines, where their own imagination takes them off beyond the parameters set down by the author.
Where we writers might also fall down is in leaving gaps in the narrative, causing confusion by not being clear in what we are saying, or worse, not tying up loose ends. This is where editing is all-important, because we owe it to the reader to make as professional a job as possible of what we’re doing.
It’s a bit like looking at a graph: there will be peaks and troughs, reflecting the highs and lows of a story (activity versus descriptive narrative, for example). But as long as you have plenty of peaks, and they out-number the troughs, you can carry the reader forward into that much-described ‘page-turning’ territory, making them anticipate the next page for the thrills and excitement ahead.

 

TOP TIPS

·        Is what you have written clear to the reader? Clarity is fundamental, in detail and plot. Lose clarity and you’ll lose your reader.
·        Have you explained who the characters are? It doesn’t have to be a whole page, as long as you let everyone know where they came from and what part they play in your story.
·        Have you left out or fudged what happened to character X or Y? If so, you may, like the minstrel, get more than just your five portions of fruit and veg. Readers will fasten onto even minor characters, so you owe it to them to wrap up the detail.
·        Have you brought the story to a satisfactory conclusion? You may know what the ending is, but have you made it clear to your readers, or will they be left forever wondering?

 

Friday, 7 July 2017

Latest articles in Writing Magazine

The August edition of Writing Magazine is now out - some holiday reading for keen writers - and includes two regular pieces from me.

The first is on my 'Beginners' page, and called 'Nota bene' - which deals with the topic of making notes, especially of random thoughts - and why you should do so.

Like many writers, I admit to peppering my house with stickies, each containing a jumble of letters which are meaningless to anyone else. But these are what I call notes in transit, hopefully containing the potential to grow into something substantial - if I leave them to fester long enough and they don't get swept away with my other clutter.

The fact is, creative writing is not a linear activity but an on-going and often random one. And note writing is still writing. It's just a little scattered, that's all.

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This month's New Author profile is on N.M. Brown, whose debut 'The Girl on the Bus' came out in April via Bloodhound Books. His story concept is simple and traditional: a girl climbs on board an interstate bus... then disappears. And a close friend enlists somebody to find her.

Sounds simple enough, although like all good stories, it's anything but.

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Friday, 23 June 2017

Writing for Beginners (32)

Don’t write yourself short

A dilemma common to many writers is one of size – and I don’t mean of screen, hard drive or their latest advance. I’m talking about the newly completed novel. It’s a belter, with fantastic characters, plenty of action and love interest, and the ending is a corker. Frankly, Spielberg would hyperventilate if only he knew it was out there.

The only problem is, it’s not long enough. Instead of being 90,000 words long, which the market might demand, it comes out at a rather wussy 60,000.

It’s like being made to wear shorts as a kid – they might have pockets and a zip, even creases down the front, but they’re still not real trousers.
So, how do you go about making a short book into a longer one without simply padding it to blazes?

To begin with, if you are convinced about the strength of your work, that it has ‘legs’ – in other words, it’s more than just a short story – you have to take a serious look at what makes it so good in the first place. Is it the theme? The power of the characters? The pace and tone of the storyline? The timing or relevance for the market? Could it compete with other books out there (assuming it catches and holds an agent’s or publisher’s attention)? And do you have such a genuine conviction about it that you can’t bear to chuck it in a drawer and forget it?

If so, then you have to look at ways in which you can use what you’ve got, and build on it.

It might end up bigger, as the actress said to the bishop, but will it be better?

First you have to step back from what you’ve written and look at how and where it could be expanded upon in a way that capitalises on its existing strengths. Don’t forget, you’re working with an already established storyline, and you don’t want to change it out of all recognition or water it down. Any scenes added must enhance the story and give it more depth. Similarly, whatever characters you bring in must add to the existing cast in a relevant way, rather than simply cluttering up the place like discount night at the local bath-house. 

Could the storyline stand a second strand or a sub-plot, strongly related to the main events but coming from another start-point? This would allow you to bring in other points of view, with characters coming together later in the story. In each case, you have to stitch the new elements into the back-story so that they are not seen as a bolt-on simply to fill out the pages.

Be warned, though: once you start adding depth, character or new strands, the word count will grow – often alarmingly. It takes discipline and careful editing to control it, but as long as your new characters or scenes don’t assume a greater significance than your original, or skew the story out of shape, it can be done.

Like how? I hear you ask. Taking an example right off the wall, let’s say you have completed a book based on the Titanic. Unlike the ship, however, your book isn’t big enough. It’s actually more of a dinghy. It needs more size, more content, more oomph. You can’t add more description, because there’s plenty already and anyway, describing heaving open seas (or bosoms) can be boring. More dances and events are simply colour, you’ve covered all the on-board relationships adequately, so more of same would be gilding the lily. This is a dramatic tale, not an advert.

If the story is about a huge ship’s invulnerability, you might have already covered the enormous iceberg or some other unexpected disaster which is going to befall this leviathan (now there’s a word I never expected to use in print). Big ship full of bright souls versus even bigger, unstoppable object equals drama. But what about bringing in another human aspect?

For example, the engineer who built the ship. Was he working to required specifications, or had he been forced to skip some details here and there on grounds of cost? Was the original steel supplied of the right quality – and is there someone, somewhere who knows otherwise? Is there somebody with a long-term plan who wants to damage the ship mid-voyage for various reasons, but goes too far - with disastrous results? Any or all of these could be fed into the mix – along with their back-stories, of course.

In effect, what this is doing is introducing other characters who are as closely connected to the ship as those on board (perhaps they are even on board, too, and therefore suddenly pitched into a nightmare of their own making).

This new cast of characters allows a greater exploration of the build-up to the event, introducing more depth and more points of view to what in real life was a very human drama.

TOP TIPS

  •         Bigger is not automatically better. Additional material has to fit in with and improve the overall work.
  •     Analyse which parts of your existing work could benefit from extra emphasis, characters or scenes.
  •     Weaving in another strand can add depth and contrast, as well as giving an alternative point of view.
  •         Avoid padding, such as unnecessary adjectives, adverbs or birds in the trees.

 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Latest article in Writing Magazine

Daydream Believer

The July edition of Writing Magazine is now out and about, and includes my monthly Beginners page - this one called 'Daydream Believer'.

No, nothing to do with The Monkees (although it does happen to be the title of one of my favourite songs), but rather about how the writing life is full of distractions. Doesn't matter what you do, noise, events, people - life in general, in fact - combine to intrude relentlessly.

There are ways of avoiding some of these intrusions - locking yourself away on a deserted island is one, albeit a little extreme. But is that really the best solution?

In my experience distractions can be useful. If permitted to intrude with a certain measure of control, they can even be beneficial. The odd break away from your PC or pen can allow you to see things a more disciplined mind might ignore. And with too much focus the brain can become stale, which is surely not what creative writing is all about. Ideas breed ideas, and so on and so forth.

The short answer is, don't cut yourself off completely. Allow some outside stimulus, even if it is a simple walk round the block (or island).

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Thursday, 8 June 2017

Writing for Beginners (31)

Thinking of the awful events in London and Manchester recently, and the sadness heaped on residents and visitors alike in both those cities, I couldn't help but be reminded of an experience I once had which serves to remind me of the beauty rather than the horror to be found in our cities at night. (I hope nobody feels I'm ignoring what happened - I'm not. Simply finding an alternative image).


It's not often I find myself in London, and even rarer after dark, but a few years ago I was a member of a cycle marshal team in a night-time charity walk around the city, along a route of 26 miles and with approximately 15,000 (mostly lady) walkers. My job was to encourage, help and watch over them, my writing hat parked on its hook for the night in favour of a crash-hat and a supply of water and emergency chocolates (well… nobody said we all had to suffer…).

I was therefore thinking of things other than storylines, plot points, deadlines, editing and how to get biscuit crumbs out of the keyboard – a sort of alternative writer’s retreat, if you will.

Part of my job was to keep a roving eye on traffic conditions, single walkers, limping walkers, walkers going off-piste, leery drunks, clubbers falling out of doorways and finding themselves face to face with a phalanx of ladies in decorated bras - more scary than you might think, even sober - and generally not doing a prat-fall off my bike in front of everyone.

In this fairly relaxed state of mind, I couldn’t help but notice some unusual, albeit unforgettable sights. There was the stern lady walking resolute but alone, whose face lit up when an elderly gentleman stepped out of a doorway as she approached and smilingly doffed his baseball cap; a pair of young tourists, luggage in hand, who stared in wonder as the walkers trooped along the Embankment and past the London Eye at two in the morning; two mallards in St James’ Park, standing quietly side-by-side as the human tide went by, totally fixated and therefore somehow part of the event; a policeman in Horse Guards Parade, gun held across his chest, alert yet nodding occasionally in approval; a young WPC on traffic duty, looking on wistfully as the column crossed the road under her direction; and a young man (very drunk) at three am, who asked me what the *@!* was going on. When I explained, he became suddenly sombre, before waving his friends away and staying to add cheerful encouragement to the walkers. (We didn’t understand all his words, but we certainly knew the tune).

I watched an urban fox near Vauxhall Bridge taking advantage of sandwiches left in bins, and some cheeky pigeons, ignoring the official mayoral line about not feeding the birds, picking up their share, too. The edifice of the MI6 building, sprouting cameras and spiked fences, loomed sinister and forbidding in the dark, yet improbably, within touching distance of every walker who passed by.

Buses filled with night travellers were the target of walkers, the passengers encouraged to wave back and show their support, and even emergency vehicle crews speeding by seemed aware of events while forcibly concentrating on other things.

There were many more such sights which came and went during the night, some poignant and human, others inanimate and fixed, all there to be looked at and stored in the mind or forgotten at will.

And suddenly I was in writer’s mode again, spotting scenes where others might not, noticing faces looming out of the dark, some smiling, others creased with effort, each no doubt with their own tale to tell, their own experience. hopes and fears.

Amid all these images and sounds was a welter of material, ideal colour for any genre, from human relationship dramas through to crime thrillers. All the elements were there for me as a writer to use, colourful and sharp; all I had to do was pick them up and let my imagination do the rest.

Oddly enough, what I recall most vividly alongside the above are flashes, mere glimpses of things seen and heard which have stayed with me ever since:

The dark, chilly recesses along the Thames; how my skin felt stretched and cold; the taste of tiredness in the mouth; the wind rustling discarded paper; ambulance lights bouncing shadows across shop fronts; the throb of an unseen helicopter high in the sky; a shop alarm in the distance; a figure in the bushes of Battersea Park; a pale face in the gloom by a darkened building; a siren from a riverboat, hauntingly atmospheric; and a mournful howl from an inmate of Battersea Dogs’ Home, no doubt sensing that while he was locked up inside, we lucky humans were outside having all the fun.

More than anything, however, especially right now, it's my reminder that there is true beauty in our cities, mostly unseen because we're in too much of a hurry, too anxious, too focused on where we're going, to take real notice. Hopefully, in time that beauty, whether in London, Manchester or any other place visited by the darker side of life, will rise up and help people recover.

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Sunday, 28 May 2017

Latest articles in Writing Magazine

June's issue of Writing Magazine comes with my latest new 'Beginners' piece called 'SELF-service'.

The capitals are deliberate, as this deals with the fact that to a certain extent (no doubt even a considerable one in some cases), writing requires a degree of what might be seen as selfish behaviour.

In fact George Orwell was said to have uttered about writers:
“All writers are vain, selfish and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives lies a mystery. Writing a book is a long, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
 
I'm not advocating deliberate selfishness, but as with any important following or interest, there has to be a level of focus to the inevitable exclusion of other things. Like any day job, really, only the hours are different.
 
I know from experience how 'focussed' I can be when the writing takes hold - usually once a day if I'm lucky,and often at about 4pm, just when the rest of the household is winding down. (I've tried to adjust my timing on this aspect, but so far without luck. I must be a late afternoon scribbler).
 
Whatever your own particular situation, success demands sacrifice, and that can often be seen as selfishness by those around you.
 
The secret is to be aware of it and not let others suffer by allowing your writing to become a burden on them or what should be their shared time with you.
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This month's New Author profile candidate is Xan Brooks, a freelance journalist whose debut novel 'The Clocks in this House All Tell Different Times' was published by Salt Publishing in April.
 
Described as a social-realist fairytale of 1920s England, it follows an orphan, Lucy, who meets up with four 'funny men' or broken souls every Sunday, who have been named after the characters from the Wizard of Oz.
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Thursday, 25 May 2017

Writing for beginners (30)

Reviewing Your Writing Tools

Like anyone else in the creative business, writers need certain tools to do their job. Whether using pen and paper or computer, without them we would find it difficult to do what we do - which is putting down words on paper for others to read. It is no different to a bricklayer needing a trowel, spirit level and mortar; they are fundamental requirements.
 
But just as a bricklayer needs the basics, he also needs plans, materials and somewhere to build. And writers should also consider the intangibles which are vital to the creative process.
 
Ask any writer what they value most, and you’re likely to get a variety of answers ranging from peace and quiet through to simply having plenty of fresh ideas on tap. (Add to that the latest piece of electronic hardware or software, since we are, like it or not, bedded into the age where some think a good computer will make us better writers. It won’t, but it will help the process).
 
Let us examine atmosphere as a tool. A friend of mine works at her kitchen table. She does so because she feels it is her ‘place’ and she can sit down whenever the mood takes her. She also worried that friends will think she’s putting on airs if she bags a specific room to do her writing. Unfortunately, what is her place to write is also a major trade route for the rest of creation; family, pets, children from down the street, neighbours and visiting family members, all wanting a slice of her time. No wonder she complains of not getting enough peace to write.
 
Another friend tucks himself away in the spare room where nobody can get at him. Up there, he plays classical music and gets in the mood, Well, almost. Unfortunately, he often finds he can’t get in the ‘right’ mood for the words to flow, and ends up wandering the house like a refugee, trying to find where he left it.
 
Atmosphere is important, and varies according to the individual. Friend A needs to allocate herself a specific place where she can work in comfort with the minimum of interruption. Friend B needs to think about how, in the kind of place A can only dream of, he needs to create the right ambiance.
In both cases, they are victims of their own circumstances. Having a quiet place to write is not a crime, not is it pretentious, silly or even suspect. We wouldn’t, after all, expect a keen gardener to be satisfied using a tub in the middle of the living room carpet.
 
Friend A, if her writing is that important to her, needs to grasp the nettle and inform the family that she needs somewhere for herself. She isn’t locking herself away like a hermit crab, merely distancing herself for a while from the hurly-burly.
 
Friend B needs to think about what he is writing, and how the music he plays fits into that. Classical music may be something he enjoys, but it might be wrong for his frame of mind while writing. He could try varying the output to alter his mood.  A gentle violin piece may be too bland for creating a suspense story, and a piece of Wagner rattling the rafters certainly won’t do much for a story of soft candlelight and whispered sweet nothings.
 
Or how about some actual peace and quiet? Now there’s a novel thought (pun intended).
 
Another tool we tend to forget is a good source of reference. How often do we know the kind of word we need, yet can't quite bring it to mind? How accurate is our geography in a story – details of which might be subsequently picked apart by an editor at the expense of all our hard work? How often do we forget that what we knew even five years ago has changed dramatically because of shifting circumstances? (I must confess to this mistake once, when I quoted a 40-minute journey time from one part of London to another – a trip I used to take regularly. An editor queried whether I had done so recently, since that time has now doubled as a result of increased traffic, cameras, the congestion zone and reduced speed limits, which impacted quite seriously on the flow and time-plan of my story).
 
Thinking time is another tool we tend to overlook. Taking time out to think seriously about where our story is going can pay real dividends, rather than just giving it the odd thought over dinner along with interest rates, the children’s schooling and that bald tyre on the car.
 
Thinking, allied with jotting down ideas, alternative plots, ‘what ifs’ and some wild mind-mapping on scrap paper, can often serve to unblock the creative processes far more effectively than labouring painfully over a hot keyboard. So can walking, window-shopping or performing some other automatic task.
 
Our tools are important for us to do the job, whether it is part- or full-time. Having the right ones at hand - and reviewing them from time to time - could make all the difference between a job done well or simply snatched at and wasted.
 
TOP TIPS
·        Think about atmosphere and place. Are yours suitable for writing?
·        Take your writing time seriously and others will do so, too.
·        Having sources of reference at hand will save time and effort.
·        Give yourself time to think about what you are doing and where you are going.

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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.
  

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Saturday, 13 May 2017

Rocco re-branded

I mentioned a couple of days ago that a new Inspector Lucas Rocco book called 'Rocco and the Nightingale' is out in paperback via The Dome Press in October. This will bring the series to five full-length books plus a novella.

Fortunately, they have also taken the novella ('Rocco and the Snow Angel') under their wing and are re-branding it with a completely fresh cover.

This brings the appearance in line with the new design, which I'm delighted to see.

Available only on Kindle at the moment, this short edition finds Rocco on the trail of a killer after a former village priest is shot dead execution-style in a snow-covered field in Picardie, northern France.

For the locals it re-opens memories of a wartime scandal around the villages of Poissons-les-Marais and Fouillmont, when young infatuation led to a spate of coldly efficient assassinations. But who is responsible for this particular death? And if there's a wartime connection, why so long after the event?

For Rocco it means pushing aside the veil surrounding old Resistance activities and fighting dangerous political connections to track down a deadly long-range killer with the ability to hide in open countryside.

'Rocco and the Snow Angel' - on Kindle.

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Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Rocco's back!

I'm delighted to announce that my series featuring Inspector Lucas Rocco is back with a bang.

The Dome Press are releasing 'Rocco and the Nightingale' in paperback on October 19. This is the fifth book in the series, set in Picardie, France during the 1960s. Other books (previously published by Allison & Busby) are:


'Death on the Marais'
'Death on the Rive Nord
'Death on the Pont Noir'
Death at the Clos du Lac'
 
There's also a Kindle novella out there called 'Rocco and the Snow Angel' - but more about that later.

I've been wanting to write more about Rocco's investigations and his tenuous professional relationship with the suits in France's Interior Ministry and his boss and former army commanding officer Commissaire Francois Massin for some time, but other projects and series somehow got in the way. (Blame it on my short attention span and a grasshopper mind).

However, now The Dome Press  have picked up the baton and I've been given the opportunity and impetus to bring Rocco out of semi-retirement and back into his Citroen Traction Avant (a car I wanted my father to buy when we lived in France many years ago, but he decided on a sleeker, more cost-effective Simca Aronde instead. Well, I was only 10 at the time and knew zip about gas-guzzling cars).


As with all my Rocco books, I tend to use or refer to as a backdrop a piece of France's history (Algerian Independence, assassination attempts on President de Gaulle, illegal immigrants, celebrity kidnapping, international trade deals, etc).

In 'Nightingale' the link is with the country's former African colony Gabon, and a government minister on the run from enemies. But that's only a small part of the overall picture, because this time Rocco has a professional assassin on his tail.

For future reference - 'Rocco and the Nightingale' - (The Dome Press) - paperback edition - 19th October. goo.gl/C9YGQq

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Saturday, 6 May 2017

Latest article in Writing Magazine

My latest 'Beginners' article in May's issue of Writing Magazine is called 'Avoid the Unlikely'.

This title came about because years ago, when I was writing lots of short fiction for women's magazines (during the period known by my wife as the frock years), I used a lovely literary agency, sadly now defunct, run by two agents, Cari and Lesley, who had the most charming way with rejections.

The words they used mostly were 'not very likely', meaning it lacked that certain something, whether depth, colour realism... in fact anything rendering it unlikely to be accepted for publication. And then explained why, which was a lot more helpful than sending a blank rejection slip.

I took this seriously, and carried it into writing my later novels. It made me slightly anal about checking detail, place, geography or anything likely to make a reader throw the book aside in disgust, but that was no bad thing. (A nod of thanks there to Google Earth, Street view, Wikipedia and a host of other sources that help with my research. It takes time to do but it's worth it in the end, even if I do get dragged off-topic endlessly when I spot something totally not to do with what I'm writing. But that's part of the fun). 

In addition, however, the story itself has to make sense in the structure, not simply the detail.

While it's okay when setting your stories against real-world backdrops to bend reality slightly , writing something that is simply not possible or plausible is another matter altogether.

As I learned very quickly, there are some very knowledgeable readers out there, and if I write something that simply doesn't wash, they are likely to write and tell me. Thankfully, that hasn't happened in a long time, if only because I try to avoid the unlikely.

So thank you, Cari and Lesley, for helping turn the unlikely into the likely.

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Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Writing for Beginners (29)

Stop fiddling!

A common topic of conversation came up recently, when a lady asked me about a book she was writing. ‘How do I know when it’s finished?’ she queried.

The cheeky answer would have been ‘When you write END at the bottom of the final page’. However, while there’s an obvious truth in that, I’ve heard the same point mentioned on several occasions, and found that the question usually arises for two very different reasons. Which of the two is causing the problem is where the individual writer has to decide.

The first comes out of the editing process. This encompasses everything from crossing all the ‘t’s’ and dotting the ‘i’s’, through verifying facts to checking timelines and continuity of detail (blue eyes suddenly turned brown, for example). Whether this is done during or after the main task of writing depends on individual preference. Some people like to edit as they go along, tidying up any mistakes or omissions at the end of each day; others prefer to TTBS (tell the bloomin’ story) and get the bulk of the work done, leaving it until later to worry about the grind of editing, when they can don a different hat.

Personally, I find there is something to be said for the TTBS approach, since coming back to a chapter after an absence often gives me a new perspective on the content and layout when judged against the rest of the work. I believe this allows me to see the detail with a more dispassionate eye, and I tend not to spend as much time editing as I do when I take the do-it-as-I-go-along approach and end up fretting myself into a nervous wreck over dots, commas and doubtful phraseology.

Whichever way works for you is best. But where some writers trip up is simply in over-editing their work. This usually occurs where you find yourself drawn back to a specific paragraph or section of a story, altering the wording because you are not quite satisfied with what you have written. If this happens more often than is usual, you should give it to somebody you can trust and ask their opinion, on the basis that a fresh eye might see what you cannot.

Because we sometimes get too close to a story, and can’t see the wood for the trees (apologies for that cliché), we begin to fiddle and pick away at the work until it risks becoming an obsession. The end result – other than never finishing what we started – is that we end up so far away from where we began, it no longer makes sense.

It’s a bit like the DIY bodger who, trying to level a rickety dining table, saws off bits from each leg in turn, eventually ending up with everyone eating Japanese-style.

In general, you wouldn’t have thought there would be too many problems with deciding how a sentence or paragraph should be set down on the paper. Yet occasionally, something about the appearance on the page can look odd, causing you to be dragged back time and time again without knowing why, and reaching for your fiddling pen.

It could be simply a matter of clumsy spacing, which can hide or interrupt the pace of your delivery. If you want to say something that has some impact for example, introducing a piece of information that, in a film would be accompanied by some dramatic dum-dum-dum music, don’t bury it in a busy section of ‘he said’, ‘she said’ dialogue, where it will get lost or watered down. If it’s important, then far better to have it out there by itself, where it gets noticed.

Your answer may simply be in revising the layout of the problem section. You may have, for example, character A confronting character B, with the all-important high point being where A places a truly damning document on the table. (Cue dramatic music). Yet for some reason the passage doesn’t look right or command the weight you were looking for. The question is, have you put the information in the right place, or has it become little more than a vague gesture which your reader may not spot, thus losing the dramatic inference?

Try giving it some room, and alter the layout. Use the line space to set the action apart from the dialogue, and it could make all the difference.

The second reason for fiddling is more a matter of confidence; many writers find it difficult at first to let their work go out into the big, wide world. This is a great shame, because if you want your work to be read - and published - you owe it to yourself to face this ultimate test. In a  nutshell, it comes down to having the brass neck to say ‘Enough’ and to stick your pride and joy in an envelope and entrust it whatever fate awaits it. 
 
Thinking about it, why short change yourself? There are some who might prefer to hover in that writing limbo, where judgement is never passed on their work. Most people would probably agree that the not knowing is more difficult to live with.

TOP TIPS

·        Learn to know when you have done enough. Over-editing can be counter-productive.
·        If it looks wrong, try re-writing a passage. Then move on. You can always come back later.
·        Finish the story first, then read it through to gain a sense of the flow.
·        Don’t get hung up on one point. If you really don’t like it, cut it out or replace it.
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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.  

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Sunday, 23 April 2017

Writing for Beginners (28)

So what have you done today…?

This may come as a surprise to some people, but I have to confess to a secret: I don’t write every single day. Well, I have a life to lead, too, and that life sometimes has a habit of getting in the way . Take last week, for instance, when I put my foot through the ceiling while insulating the loft. Or maybe that’s best forgotten…

But, while I might not be actually writing, you don’t know what I’m thinking about, do you? As my wife can testify, repeated calls from Earth to Planet Adrian often fail to penetrate the muggy wool of creative thought, no matter what I’m up to.

It’s said that every journey begins with the first step.

Unfortunately, many journeys - in a writing sense, at least - never take place. Why? Because some writers don't actually get round to doing what they’re dreaming of, which is writing.

‘If only I had time … ’ is one of the most repeated complaints one hears from would-be writers (and readers, sadly, which is scary on another scale), and nobody is doubting the relentless pull of work, family, relationships, DIY, chat-rooms, mobile phone and so on.

But who said you had to write a whole book in one sitting? Do you eat a whole year’s supply of food in one go? Do you paint the entire house in one day? Do you repair that hole in the ceiling- well, actually, that one I grant you was different.

I know setting goals can be boring, and I wouldn’t suggest anyone regiments their life to the extent that they constantly have their eyes on some kind of rigid daily writing routine. That can stifle creativity faster than a dose of migraine, and we all have enough routines to choke an elephant. But looking at a way of getting round that flurry of everyday activity which kills off any attempt at writing, it can be done realistically, if you have the willpower and desire.

A gentleman recently told me with absolute conviction: ‘I never have a minute to write – I only wish I did.’ He then went on to list all the things he had to do every day, which kept him on his feet and unable to pursue his love of writing. My suggestion was to use his time in the bathroom to greater effect.

I’m not sure he was too impressed by this. But if he really was as hectically busy as he claimed, surely he owed it to himself to snatch at least a few minutes with a notepad – no matter where? If a man’s home really is his castle, then his bathroom must be not only the smallest, but the most private keep in the house.

Conversely, a lady in a bookshop had a very different attitude. She told me that whenever she managed to write something, no matter how brief, she felt a huge sense of achievement, even pride. She was also very busy, but managed to find and use little pockets in her day to good effect, even if it meant writing just the first line of a new story or sketching out a fresh scene which had suddenly occurred to her.

She was, quite simply, doing it rather than merely thinking about it.

Ceilings notwithstanding, I do this myself, even when I’m working on other projects. I jot down ideas, take snatches of dialogue which sound appealing, and I constantly think about what I’m currently working on or would like to work on next. In fact, if I were to check my IDEAS folder, I’d find stuff which will probably take me years to get round to… or maybe just a couple of days, because in there might be something that will fit in with a project I’m currently writing.

I liken it to chipping away at a large chunk of wood; eventually, I’ll have something recognisable which I can work on more fully and with more energy and focus, because the desire to do it will push me to get on with it.

And that’s the key: if you want to do something enough, you will manage it somehow. If you have that inner burn to write, that itch that simply won’t go away, especially when you pick up a good book or a short story and think you could do just as well, you will find a way. It may be a sentence here or a short piece of dialogue there; it might even be thinking of a name for a character, or a description. But those small, even tiny achievements are not to be dismissed lightly. Because they will add up, and they will grow, as will your determination to make something of them, no matter how busy. And that’s a greater achievement.

TOP TIPS

·        Snatch those pockets in your life (travelling, queuing, waiting – and yes, in the bathroom) to write something.
·        Thought of a scene? Sketch it out in six words – you can flesh it out later.
·       Take pleasure from having started something – but don’t let it stop there.
·        Say ‘I’m writing’ - and mean it.
·        Go to sleep with a sense of achievement.
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Taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook
Do you know a writer who might benefit from this book? If so, check it out here.  
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