Monday, 13 March 2017

Drone wars - and things you just can't make up.

It's a fact that whatever gizmos we writers come up with on paper or screen, it's either been done, about to be done or will undoubtedly be done in the future. In short there's nothing much that we write about that stretches the imagination too far. Well, apart from portals into other dimensions, that is. (And yes, I'm just fooling - it will pop up one day, if it hasn't already).

I began playing with the idea of 'The Bid' - the 2nd Gonzales & Vaslik thriller/mystery, back in 2015. The plot is about terrorists using small drones or UAVs to make a strike at the US president.

I researched the subject and got a pretty good idea of the capabilities and limits of the kind of drones available then used as a leisure pursuit, and other, more commercial uses, for land and pipeline surveys, traffic monitoring, big game watching and film footage. It was and is a fascinating subject.

But the thing I was very quickly reminded about was that technology never stands still. And the limits I had written about soon got busted wide open.

You can read a piece I wrote on this issue for Shots Magazine right here: http://www.shotsmag.co.uk/feature_view.aspx?FEATURE_ID=334

'The Bid' - Midnight Ink Books - available in p/b and ebook.

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Sunday, 12 March 2017

Latest Articles in Writing Magazine

April's edition of Writing Magazine includes my latest Beginners feature, 'Choose Your Battles', along with a New Author profile.

As in most fields of activity, writing is one where it's wise not to try doing too many things at once. Whether creating characters, scenes or plots, doing necessary research, editing - or even finding the time and space in which to write, there's a temptation to cram all these activities into one's day.

It's called task-hopping, which takes time, effort and concentration, and doesn't help with the main creative. And I haven't even mentioned social media... oh, so I have.

The thing is, take each one of these at a time, not the whole smorgasbord. Stretch yourself too thin and you'll take the whole fun out of writing.
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My New Author profile this month is Joseph Knox, with his debut novel, 'Sirens' pub'd by Doubleday. The first in a series set in Manchester, it features a young detective, Aidan Waits, in disgrace after stealing drugs from the evidence room, and the nightmare in which he finds himself when he's blackmailed into an undercover operation tracking down an MP's runaway daughter.

One interesting aspect of Knox's journey to publication is that although he's a crime and fiction buyer for a major bookseller chain here in the UK, it took him eight long years to get published. The message there is two-fold; one is, if you really have a book inside you, don't give up and, two, it doesn't matter if you're in the industry, you won't necessarily get there any quicker!

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Saturday, 4 March 2017

Writing for Beginners (25)

Work in progress.

It’s tempting to think that these three words should be on a notice pinned to your door in big, bold letters so that your nearest and dearest can see when you DON’T want to walk the dog, collect the kids from school, paint the Sistine Chapel or run a couple of marathons backwards with a candelabra balanced on your head.

However, work in progress (or WIP as it’s known in the manufacturing industry) is something all writers are involved in, consciously or otherwise, all the time.

Like most scribes, I have an ‘Ideas’ folder, where I place all my back-of-the-envelope scribblings until they’re needed. These can range from thoughts about follow-on books in a series, to vague jottings about characters, names, plots or scenes which I might use in the future. Whatever they are - and this is largely psychological, I admit - I prefer to think of them as works in progress, no matter how vague or unformed they might appear at the time - especially to an outsider. (And looking at one just recently, if the notes had fallen into the hands of a zealous policeman, I’d have probably been introduced to some rubber hose treatment, such was the wording: kill street youth – body of woman – bogus church group – kidnap teenager – blackmail parents.)

Not, as one might think, the ravings of a would-be psychopath planning his next evening out, but a working writer’s ideas being jotted down for later use ( which, incidentally, became my third book).

And this is how most writing begins: as a seemingly random collection of words, on the way to becoming something more concrete. But for it to become that, the ideas have to be continually reviewed to see if anything sparks off into a workable story, otherwise they shrivel and die.

A way of not letting such valuable thoughts moulder is to immediately add a few words, allowing your instincts to kick in, and sketching out how you think the idea might grow and which direction it could take. Thus, in the heat of the moment, use that flash of inspiration, garnered through seeing something, hearing a snatch of conversation, reading a headline or whatever, and take it one stage further by jotting down a few extra words to make it more than just a passing thought. This way, you’re setting up a chain of ideas for the future, even if you change it completely later.

In the case above, I’d been reading about the death of a rough sleeper in London’s west end, and started thinking about what might have caused it other than drugs, disease or malnutrition (it’s always worth trying to find an alternative to the obvious, if only to make you think harder about something fresher and less tried).

At the time, there had also been a story running in the US about a bogus church charity preying on vulnerable runaways, and this gave me the idea of marrying the two events and combining them into a single story. The rest fell into place bit by bit.

Of course, my initial idea might have easily fallen by the wayside or become something else entirely. But by thinking of it as a work in progress, I was committing myself to looking at it seriously and trying to build it into something solid.

The important thing is, never let a good idea go to waste.

My WIP folder contains all manner of oddments like this, and I regularly trawl through them to see if anything gives me that spark which will set me off onto a new project. It may be a short story, it could be an idea for a novel. But whatever it is destined to be, I see that WIP folder as being full of workable nuggets which I will get round to one day. And whenever I dip into it, I usually find myself adding a thought or two to one of the documents, like bricks in a wall, until one begins to take on an energy of its own.

Eventually, that document will ‘go critical’ until I can’t leave it alone any longer and it becomes a tangible piece of work with a deadline or a market in mind.

Occasionally, one of these ideas may be used subconsciously elsewhere, either in total or cannibalised to fit another work. It’s therefore essential to cull them on a regular basis and leave only the fresher ones to work on.

The other aspect of my WIP folder is that anything in it stays there until it’s completed and submitted. Only then do I transfer it into a different folder for finished work which is out in the market place. Why? Because by definition, anything in the WIP folder is still being worked on, polished, buffed up, amended – all those things we writers do until we’re satisfied we’ve done a good job and can submit it with a clear conscience.

TOP TIPS
  • Ideas need fleshing out, without which they remain undeveloped. 
  • Review your WIP folder on a regular basis and weed out any dead wood or add thoughts to others where you can. 
  • A WIP folder means you are never in the position of not having something to work on. 
  • A work in progress is merely that until it’s submitted or sold.
  • Your WIP folder is your breeding ground for the future.
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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, 26 February 2017

Latest article in Writing Magazine

An Eye to the Future

My 'Beginners' page in the March edition of Writing Magazine is to remind writers that there's a future out there, not just the present. (I'm writing from experience, as I know all-too well that in the white-hot heat of creativity - or the daily slog that it can sometimes seem - we tend to forget that we're putting something out there that will last a while, if we're lucky).


Books used to be short-lived; on the shelf one minute, gone the next, and all that was left was for the author to get working on another one to keep the interest alive unless they wanted to fade into obscurity and make starving in a garret a reality.

Publishers needed a turnover to keep going, and that included pushing authors to write more if only to stimulate the market (something some publishers are still surprisingly not very good at).

The advent of ebooks, of course, and self-publishing, has changed all that, and put some of the control into the authors' hands. Content, once written and printed, is no longer static; book covers can be changed at the click of a keyboard; links can be included to stimulate a reader's interest; even prices can be played with as never before.

It's changing fast, and writers need to get their eyes off the keyboard once in a while and see the future. Because it's right here.
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Earlier 'Beginners' articles have now been gathered in a book - 'Write On! - The Writer's Help Book' courtesy of Writing Magazine. Available as ebook or p/b here.
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Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Behind the story

Ask most people about the job they do and it's not unusual to find that they can wax lyrical about it. That's certainly the impression writers get when we approach professionals, whether police, army, emergency services or any others, to find out a bit about the nuts and bolts of their particular professions. They're only too keen to talk about it.

Occasionally the tables are turned and writers get asked to chip in with some background about the project they're working on. We are, of course, shy retiring types (mostly), but there aren't many of us too backward about coming forward when given the opportunity.

When Midnight Ink, my US publishers, kindly asked me to guest blog about the Gonzales & Vaslik series ('The Locker' - Jan 2016 and 'The Bid' - Jan 2017), I was only too happy to comply. To be fair, it is about the books without giving away any spoilers, and not so much my writing life. But if you're interested, you can find the full blog here.

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Sunday, 29 January 2017

Latest articles in Writing Magazine

February's edition of Writing Magazine is now out there, and includes another Beginners piece - 'The Variety Show', along with a New Author profile.

The Variety Show is not, as you might think, about writing comedy or light entertainment performances, but simply about what kind of author one can be. This came about when the term 'hybrid author' popped up in conversation.

I regard myself as something of a hybrid simply because I write in different genres, from spy thrillers to crime, to non-fiction. I always have done, so I got used to jumping from one to the other to suit my needs - mostly financial, being a working writer.

This piece goes into why writers might try genre-hopping, whether out of interest, spontaneity, writing to one's strengths - or weaknesses - or a preference to following rules.

Whether you find yourself following any or more of these, it doesn't matter. In my view, you make the most of all available options; if you want to try something else because there's a chance of a sale and publication, go for it.

Be a hybrid. Or not. The choice is yours.

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The New Author profiled this month is Linda McLaughlan, and her debut novel 'Chasing Charlie', published by Black & White Publishing last April.

Described as a comedy of errors, it follows Sam, who follows her ex-boyfriend around London, trying to win back his heart.

A reflection of many - maybe most - other authors, Linda's writing was accomplished part-time, juggling jobs, children and other demands, all the while with an eye on getting that idea out of the bone and onto the paper. And like many others, she knew she wanted to write from an early age.

'Chasing Charlie' - out in ebook and paperback.

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Monday, 23 January 2017

Writing for Beginners (24)

What Makes a Story?

There are various elements which go towards making a story, such as a strong descriptive narrative, interesting characters, an unusual setting – even a brooding atmosphere. But by themselves, they won’t necessarily drag the reader beyond the first few words or the opening lines. To do this with any degree of success, and to make sure the reader doesn’t lose the will to live and use your story to line the budgie’s cage, you need to Make Something Happen.

As an example, I’ll paraphrase a certain well-known poem by Felicia Dorothea Hemans:

The boy stood on the deck.

(Yes, I know – there's a key word missing… but stick with me). As it stands, this is merely a scene – and not a very helpful one. The deck could be on a boat or one of those hardwood patio structures; it doesn’t tell you about anything else. So what? Well, if we apply the full text of Mrs Hemans’ first line, we get a totally different picture:

The boy stood on the burning deck.

Now you have a story – or, at least the beginnings of one. (Especially when the next line tells you that everyone else had bunked off – and not to the pub). The sentence describes the same person and place… but by the addition of a vital word, you have something to sink your teeth into. The word ‘burning’ spells conflict, danger and the inevitable questions which come rushing at us when the words are used in conjunction. This is what leads us to read on, rather than ignoring it. Questions such as Why?…Who?… and What happens next?

Another example:

The river was relentless, flowing steadily to the east as it had done every day since anyone could remember.   

Very nice. Scenic, even. A scene of reliability and permanence. But not riveting. However, if you add something else to the mix:

The river was relentless, flowing steadily to the east as it had done every day since anyone could remember. Only today was different: today it carried Betty Mortensen's body in its cold embrace.

Another example might be to take a seemingly innocuous sentence also describing a person and place:

J stood and marvelled at the beauty of the river.

Very nice. But other than allowing the imagination to conjure up a pretty picture of a person looking at a river, there’s not much here to draw the reader in. What we need is something to kick the sentence into a whole new dimension.

J stood and marvelled at the beauty of the river, and wondered how cold it would be down on the bottom.

That pretty much takes the ‘nice’ out of the scene, and should lead even the most incurious of minds to ask why J – whoever she is – should be entertaining such melancholy thoughts. Is she suicidal? Vengeful? Disturbed? Going scuba-diving? Or has she been given a grant by DEFRA to study riverbed temperatures and conditions?

Another sentence, this time describing a common enough street scene, does little to make anyone wonder about whether they should carry on reading.

Mac sat in his car at the end of the street.

One might wonder who Mac is and why he’s sitting there, but not much more than that. Maybe he’s a car stereo nut, or loves the smell of his leather seats and brand-new carpets. By itself, this bland statement won’t really tell us. It needs something else.

Mac sat in his car at the end of the street, eyes fixed on the doorway of No 24.

Better - but still not enough. He could be a car nut with a door-knocker fetish.

Mac sat in his car at the end of the street, eyes fixed on the doorway of no 24. His mouth was bone dry, his knuckles white on the wheel ...

Now we’re getting somewhere. At the very least, Mac might be about to go and make an offer on a house he can’t afford. At worst, he’s in need of some anger-management classes. Either way, we’re led to imagine all manner of scenarios here ranging from family conflict to a crime or thriller setting.

For a story to begin to work, we need to add in that special element which plucks at the reader’s subconscious, be it a word or a supplementary sentence, hinting at something worth delving into but without giving away the whole beeswax.  And that element usually involves excitement, danger, threat - or something scratching at our innate curiosity. Almost akin to stepping into the unknown.

In short, we want to know more. And the only way to find out is to continue reading.

But here you have to be careful; part of what makes a story work is not revealing too early what is happening or what is about to happen. Tell everything right at the start, and there’s precious little point reading further. No surprise equals no tension.

This drip-feed flow of information, whether in a thriller, romance or any other genre of writing, allows snippets of information to fall onto the page, gradually building a picture for the reader to share. Too much too soon, and there’s the danger they might see the ending and give up.

Most stories also need people to make them work. A tree on a hill is merely a tree. Add a person – preferably two – and you have the makings of joy, conflict, a burgeoning relationship or a journey – all the things which make a good read.

TOP TIPS
·       Something must happen - or have happened - to make it worthwhile reading on.
·       A setting without people is just scenery. It can only last so long before it loses the reader’s attention.
·       A hint of what lies ahead is enticement enough to draw the reader on.
·       Don’t reveal too much too soon. The reader has to uncover things for themselves.
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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.