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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