Sunday, 18 May 2014

Tag blogging

It's like tag wrestling, only without all the grunt 'n sweat. We each take over from a previous author/blogger, and answer some set questions about how and why we do what we do.

I was asked to join in this author blog tour by Howard Linskey - 'The Drop', 'The Damage' and 'The Dead', which make up the hard-nosed David Blake trilogy. I was pleased to profile Howard in Writing Magazine's New Author column when he first came out (with his debut novel, that is, not...) and am truly delighted that he has continued at such a pace with his excellent brand of tough prose.
If you want to know how Howard's going from strength to strength, take a peek at his blog right here, and you'll see how he's jumped on board the author's rocket with a new series of books.

As for me...

What am I working on?

I’m currently working on the second book in the Marc Portman series (the first was ‘The Watchman’). Portman is a slight departure for me, because although it’s still in the spy thriller genre (like the Harry Tate series). It has a darker edge to it, is faster paced and the body count is a little more deliberate! It's also mostly in the first-person, so we're right inside Portman's head.

Portman’s a sort of long-distance bodyguard for spies in hostile areas. Instead of being with his charge, however, he stays in the background so that not even the spy knows he’s there. It gives Portman the advantage of being able to scope out the terrain and quietly deal with any threat that arises (and gives me the excuse for plenty of action).

 ‘The Watchman’ saw Portman in Somalia covering two MI6 officers who’d been set up by terrorist group al-Shabaab, to meet a sticky end for propaganda purposes. This next one (working title ‘Portman 2’), sees him somewhere colder, darker and just as lethal, guarding an American State Department official on a secret mission. What neither of them knows until the mission is well under way is that danger comes not merely from the known enemy, but from all sides, and Portman has to figure out a way of getting the man out of danger… and getting back himself to settle a score.

 How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Good question – and a hard one for me to answer. I’m hoping my writing style is different enough to make it enjoyable and readable in its own right, but that’s for others to judge. I’ve worked hard on trying to gain my own ‘voice’, whether in my crime or spy thrillers.

As with the Harry Tate books, I’ve tried to make Portman realistic in his approach to his work; he’s a very different individual, much harder in outlook and more of a loner. He doesn’t kill indiscriminately, but he has a job to do and recognises no half measures when it comes to protecting his charges. In the international field of Close Protection (only not so close in his case), he’s only as good as his last job, and he is already haunted by the spectre of losing a colleague in a former life. But more will come out about that in the future.

Put simply, he hates to lose and wants to continue working.

With the Lucas Rocco books, set in rural France in the 1960s, I try to make the background and characters as realistic as possible without being caricatures. I was educated in France for a while and still have family there, so for research purposes I have that to draw on, which helps.

Yes, there’s a black Citroen – but mainly because it ‘fits’ Lucas Rocco’s personality and stature. However, I don’t overdose the reader on French language, Gitanes or smoke-filled dives in Montmartre. Actually, the setting is predominantly Picardie in northern France, so that would be difficult!

Why do I write what I do?
Well, apart from the fact that I'm possibly ill-suited for anything else, (1) I’ve always wanted to write for a living – which I’m lucky enough to do, and (2), I’ve always loved crime and spy fiction. For many years I wrote and sold short stories and articles for women’s magazines (there was a market and it paid), while in between I wrote several novels, which was my main aim. Sadly, they all fell at the fence labelled ‘Not this one’ , so I consoled myself by writing more shorts.
But it kept me going.

Then I sold a crime novel set in London… which turned into 5 books in the Riley Gavin/Frank Palmer series. The main protagonist was a woman, something I probably picked up naturally from the magazine work and knowing that most crime readers were women, and this inspired me to try harder to get the character right.

In 2010, my agent, David Headley, sold my first spy novel (‘Red Station’ – the Harry Tate series), and happened to ask ‘What else have you got on the go?’ As it happened, I’d just finished what turned into the first of the Inspector Lucas Rocco crime series (‘Death on the Marais’, and he sold that, too, within the same 48-hour period.

However, the short answer to the 'why?' question is, I wanted to write and was ready – or desperate enough - to try everything. That included poetry, articles, gags for radio, short plays, and slogans on t-shirts and beer mats. (I was useless at poetry, the plays took too long and were rubbish… and the radio gags, although I sold a few, were in an even more crowded market than books. The t-shirts were fun, but took too long to turn into anything).

All this writerly thrashing about was partly to see if I could write; to see if I was any good at it; to see if I enjoyed it, and whether I had the stamina for it. Hopefully, think I might be getting there!

How does your writing process work?

I wish there was a definite process to give you. I’ve tried writing a synopsis or a plan or whatever you want to call, it, but I’ve always ended up going off-piste, mostly because I suddenly think of something more interesting to write, and want to get on with it. I put it down to having a short attention span.

In creative process terms, I usually get the grain of a nugget of an idea or three (most often from the news), and chew them over. It’s usually the one which bugs me most that turns into something I begin to work on. I don’t write in an A-Z fashion, but jump around writing scenes as they occur to me, chucking in ideas, questions, bits of research and so on. Some will end up on the equivalent to the cutting-room floor, others will survive and find their way into the story – a bit like laying a series of stepping stones which I can shuffle around until they fit. It sounds chaotic and probably is, but it works for me.

I tend to kid myself that I work 9 to 5, just like an office job. But increasingly this is rubbish and I do what most writers do and follow my nose and inclination, working best in the afternoons and in my head in the middle of the night. Some days will get 200 words, another will get 2,000 or more.

Once a project is finished and I’ve edited myself to a standstill (ie – I’ve got to the fiddling stage and am in danger of ruining it , I let Ann, my wife have the first read. She’s great at spotting time-line errors, typos and stuff, so if it doesn’t make sense to her, I know I need to re-work it some more until I feel able to send the ms to David for the first ‘industry’ read.

Then I wait.

There’s a fair bit of that in this game. Fortunately, it’s also thinking time for the next book.

I’ll pass on the baton now to Lisa Cutts ('Never Forget'), who writes excellent novels in between investigating murders as a DS with Kent Police. Lisa is another author who doesn't believe in letting the grass grow or resting on her laurels or any of those other analogies (and whom I also profiled in Writing Magazine).

Go Lisa.



  1. How lovely to hear that another Marc Portman is in the offing. Although my favourite novels are the Lucas Rocco ones. I love it that you can be so versatile and thanks for the great insights into a professional writing mindset.

  2. Thank you, Marina! That's so kind of you. I blame it (the different books and writing) on a short attention span. That's my excuse, anyway. Or maybe I just never truly got out of thinking, 'I'll give that a try...'
    Either way, it keeps me challenged and searching.