Category Archives: Simon Wood

TMI

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  I’d have to disagree when it comes to writing fiction.  Fiction is like a river.  It needs to flow to survive (and a few rapids thrown in when it comes to crime fiction).  When a story gets bogged down by heavy detail and technobabble, the writer has effectively created a log jam.  The river stops flowing and the water turns foul.

Agree, disagree, I don’t care, I stick by this.  I like stories with pace.  It doesn’t have to be a fast pace but I don’t want the story to get sidetracked with too many little asides and procedural blah-blah-blah.

I really should listen to myself sometimes.  During the writing of Paying the Piper, I dug myself a big pit that took six rewrites to get myself out of.  I tend to steer away from procedural things when it comes to cops, etc.  I write about “everyman” characters (or Novice Heroes as it’s been dubbed).  I tend not to make my leading characters cops or FBI agents because I don’t know the mindset well enough.  However, I broke that rule for Paying the Piper.  I have an FBI agent as an important secondary character.  FBI procedure is important to the story.  I did my homework and inserted the FBI procedures into the story, like a diligent little writer.  It seemed like the right thing to do.  It wasn’t.  It was bloody boring.  I’d killed the pace stone dead.  Bugger!

The problem was I felt this obligation to insert everything into the story that I’d been told.  The story’s subject matter was very important to the FBI.  They’d spent a lot of their valuable time outlining all this information to me.  I felt that I needed to get this down as faithfully as possible out of respect for these people and the work they do.  That’s all very nice to the FBI, but not my reader.

Getting every detail correct is great for non-fiction book about the FBI but not for a fast paced thriller.  It was time to break a few G-man hearts.  It was time to cut.

I didn’t ignore what I was told.  I just became selective.  What did my readers need to know to understand what was going on?  If I showed the characters doing something, did the reader need an explanation to back it up?  I decided no.  The story isn’t about how the FBI do their job.  The story is about a vindictive kidnapper tearing a family apart.  This simple analysis became my mantra.  So I removed everything extraneous to the story and kept only what was relevant.  As I trimmed, the flow returned and the excitement was back.  This was a story worth reading again.

This is the problem with research.  A strong and varied knowledge base, while essential can be explained away in a couple of sentences on the page.  I can spend a day researching the ballistics of a 9mm pistol, but all I need to know is that a couple of rounds at close range are going to hurt a person quite bit.

Details are important, but the story is more important.  Everything else is TMI.

Yours streamlined,
Simon Wood
Paying_the_piper PS:  I received the cover art for Paying the Piper.  It’s quite bold.  I’d just like to point out that no teddy bears were harmed in the making of this cover.  A professional stunt bear was used.

Royale With Cheese

Everyone knows the scene between John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction about the little differences between nations—even the way the world sees a burger from Mickey D’s.  As a foreigner in this fair land, I’ve had to assimilate to a certain extent.  Where I’ve had to change most is in language.  My accent catches an ear (and always will.  I ain’t changing it for you guys) but the words that I say snag at times.  If I talked as I would with friends back in England, most Americans would be lost.  So I listen.  It’s quite amazing how different English-English is from American-English.  It’s  surprising how much word usages change even within California.  There are NorCal turns of phrase and SoCal turns of phrase.

My travels have been bouncing me between southern and northern California recently and I’ve noticed the little differences.  Take freeway speak.  In SoCal someone is likely to say, “I took the Ten to the Four-Oh-Five.”  All very Robert Crais sounding, but Bobby C. would stick out San Francisco way, as if he’d just called the place, “Frisco.”  Bay Area folks will say, “I took I-80 to I-5.”  Northerners tend to use their I for their interstates.  Southerners tend not to.

This is a very conscious thought when it comes to writing and getting character dialog right.  Know thy people.  No wonder so many writers stick to their geographical locales.  It may be subtle but it sure does stick out when you’re wrong.

I noticed a little British/Irishism in Ken’s post from the other day.  Ken said “…when I had to go to hospital…”  Ding, ding, ding.  Ken omitted the word ‘the’ before hospital.  Brits and Irish drop the ‘the’.  I didn’t even notice I did this until Julie brought it up, because it drives her mental.  Americans tend to use English very formally.  The British twist and turn the language at every turn.  A friend of mine hates that I turn nouns into verbs.  Her all-time unfavorite is “are you gyming it tonight?”  Julie particularly hates it when I use ‘me’ instead of ‘my’, as in, “You got me keys?”

When I’m with American friends, I’ll slip into my Englishisms, but I’ll play it straight when I’m with strangers.  At least, that’s what I thought.  When I went home to England the other month, one of my chums mentioned, “You haven’t changed.  You sound just the same.”

Nice, I thought.  Mission accomplished.

“It’s just the words you use.  It’s straight American.”

Ouch

It’s true though.  I have developed an American turn of phrase.  It’s an occupational habit.  I’ve forced myself to sound American.  Like a left-handed person trying to write right-handed, it’s going to stick after a while.

A few people have spotted Englishisms in Accidents Waiting to Happen and they are there.  It was originally written three months after I’d arrived in the US.  Some nine years later, readers won’t find similar errors.  I know me’s American lexicon, now.  Have no fear, guv’nor.  I sound dead yanky now, don’t I, like?

So I’m always listening to the way people speak.  Writing is theft most of the time and I’m stealing all the bloody time.  I could steer away from writing American settings, but where’s the fun in that?  That’s the cool thing about language.  It’s so changeable and malleable.  It’s the little differences, y’know.  Like a Royale with Cheese.

Happy eating,
Simon Wood

Beach Boy

Accidents Waiting to Happen has been out for a while, so emails have been hitting my mailbox from readers.  I can honestly say there’s a little bit of trepidation when I receive an email titled: I’ve read your book.  Sounds innocuous enough, but a statement like that can be read a bunch of ways.  I’ve read your book…and I loved it.  But it could also mean, I’ve read your book…and you should be looking over your shoulder for a long time because I know where you live, you son of a bitch.

Luckily the emails I’ve received have been the former and not the latter—and for those who think the latter, I’m armed, okay?  So just back off, buddy.

So my ego has been fed over recent weeks with some very nice praise.  One of the recurring themes has been along the lines of, “a great beach read.”

Hmm.  A great beach read, eh?  No one has mentioned anything about it being a future classic of literature or a life changing experience.  It keeps picking up the beach and airplane tag.  I mentioned this to a friend and they asked, “Aren’t you offended?”

The simple answer is no.  I think it’s wonderful to be thought of as a beach or airplane read.  I have no pretensions.  I really mean it when I say I want to entertain the reader.  I don’t have an agenda.  I don’t want to educate.  I want to provide a little escapism.  I want someone to forget how cramped it is in economy and how much work is building on their desk while they veg out on the beach as they flip through the pages of my imagination.  If the book ends up as a dog-eared bundle of pages that spends the rest of its productive life as a doorstop, so be it.  All I ask is that they’ll remember me the next time they hit the beach or board a plane.

Yours in your hand luggage,
Simon Wood

Scaredy Cat

Because I write horror as well as thrillers and mysteries, people ask me what scares me, what my deepest fears are, and what sends me into a panic.  Austin Powers fears only two things: nuclear weapons and carnies.  I’m different.  Pretty much everything frightens me.  I think people are usually looking for a man-of-steel kind of an answer.  But I have to disappoint.  I’m scared of my own shadow.  Literally.  It’s always there, behind me, creeping up on me.  There it is.  Arrrrhh!!!

I’ll go into a cold sweat at a Starbucks.  The choice dazzles me and I can’t make up my mind what I want.  Suddenly that long line looks real short.  Now the choice isn’t the scary thing, but what happens when the green aproned personage asks for what I want and my answer is er, I need some more time.  I know the people behind me are going to start gnashing their teeth and all because I don’t know what fancy coffee I want.  Eek!

Everyday things scare me.  I lived in an apartment where the shower curtain had a habit of clinging to me when I got within a foot of it.  The material had an odd texture that felt like skin when wet, which was a distinctly unpleasant sensation.  I got to fear that damn shower curtain and avoided using it (and Julie got to hate that I didn’t shower).  But that was enough to spur a story about a haunted shower curtain…

A few months back, my Sisters in Crime chapter volunteered to man (or woman) the phones during the local PBS pledge drive.  I feared my phone would ring, because I might get someone with a weird name I couldn’t spell.   I thought, if I screw up the donation, PBS won’t get their money and Yanni won’t get his funding and he’ll hunt me down like a dog.

So yes, I can make anything scary.  It’s a talent.  Don’t applaud me all at once.  You can’t all be like me.

I made author fears a topic at a World Horror Convention panel.  It was a really interesting panel.  A number of the authors discussed their darkest fears.  Some were parents were frightened by the potential loss of their children.  Several had had incidents that led them to write stories.

Fear makes for great storytelling.  It’s a fossil fuel with an inexhaustible supply.  It drives stories.  It forces the reader, the writer and the characters to face what frightens them full on.  Stories thrive on conflict and facing your fears is the greatest conflict.  No one is fearless, so everyone can relate.

The best scary writing explores our archetypal “core” fears.  People fear the unknown, the loss of a loved one, loss of liberty, loss of control, their position in the world.  The point is that to write scary stories, you have to be fearful.  The adage goes you write what you know and fears are very real and accessible.  Horror stories just don’t explore someone’s fear of vampires, werewolves and Freddy Krueger.  They explore a power stronger than the individual and that overwhelming power has the ability to rob you of what you hold most dear or thrust you into an environment you desire least.  No one fears Freddy Krueger.  Everyone fears what someone like that can do to them.

So my myriad of fears are good for my writing.  They keep it real (scary).  And not just in the horror vein.  Thrillers thrive on fear.  There’s a terrible crisis that must be averted.  This can be anything from a ferry crossing gone bad to a kidnapping of a loved one.  It’s easy to see what I, the writer, you, the reader, and they, the characters have to fear.  For me it’s easy to slip into each situation.  My Next book, Paying the Piper, is about a child abduction.  Now, I’m not a parent, but I can imagine myself in the parent’s position and the terrible state I would be in if my child was snatched from me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m next in line at Starbucks and I don’t know what I want.

Yours cowering under the bedclothes,
Simon Wood

Killer Ideas

Img_2365 I live with a cold blooded killer.  I haven’t turned him into the cops because he’s my cat, Tegan. 

He’s on a roll at the moment.  It’s spring and that means young and inexperienced creatures are poking their heads from their protective homes and Tegan is there to bite them off.  I spent last week picking up the chewed remains of mice, rats, birds and a lizard.  As soon as I’d drop a carcass in the trash, he’d have the remains of something else dangling from his jaws.

“Tegan, you git.  Stop killing things.”

He’d look at me with a typical cat arrogance that said, “Yeah, right.”

After I’d dealt with his latest trophy and sat down, he joined me on the couch for cuddle and a purr (okay, I purr.  It’s what I do).  I stared into his big eyes and I looked for a sign of remorse and obviously saw none.  Morally, he wasn’t doing anything wrong.  He’s an animal and his genetic code is programmed with the need to hunt and kill—irrespective of how much kibble I give him.  He’s doing what he’s supposed to do.  But he takes lives on a pretty regular basis without a hint of killer’s repentance. 

That chilled my human sensibilities.

Transpose Tegan’s killer instinct to a person and that person wouldn’t be a cute, furry companion, that person would be a psychopath, no ifs or buts.  Tegan can wander in from a kill, snuggle up to me for companionship then clean up the two kittens he’s rearing.  Sounds cool for a cat, because we accept this as cat behavior, but we don’t accept this behavior in all things.  Substitute a person for Tegan and Tegan’s behavior would present a very different picture.  Imagine a father like any other caring for his family while there is still blood under his fingernails.  This is serial killer country.

People always ask, ‘where do you get your ideas?’  I don’t have to trawl through the aisles of the true crime section to learn about killers, or even experience terrible events.  Sometimes, I don’t have to leave the house. 

Stories are out there waiting to be discovered.  Anything and everything can be the ignition source for a story.  It’s all about watching the world around me and seeing how things interact and what everyone else misses.  Usually, it’s the little things that people miss that make for the best stories.  With a little ingenuity, the mundane can become the extraordinary.

So Tegan could be the genesis for a very nasty killer.  All it takes is a little imagination and a dash of transposition.  J

Yours on golden pondering,
Simon Wood
PS: My local Sisters in Crime chapter is putting on a 1-day writer’s workshop.  If you’d like details, please email me at simonwoodwrites@yahoo.com

Mulling

"What are you doing?"

"Something."

"Well, it doesn’t look like something."

RufflesI had a lot of conversations like this in school with teachers that usually led to one of those "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" kind of lectures.  Sadly, my footwear never came with "bootstraps," so needless to say my school years weren’t my best.  Daydreaming was an issue that I didn’t shift until I went to college.  Now the daydreaming is back–in career form (of sorts).  Daydreaming is even tax deductible.  You just can’t daydream without a bag of Ruffles in your hand. 

Now that one book is in the bag and I’m embarking on the next, I’m in that daydreaming faze, where I’m piecing ideas, themes, scenes and other stuff together before I start outlining.

Normally, when Julie comes home at night, I’m banging away at the keyboard and she knows her little man has been hard at it since 9a.m.  At the moment, when she comes home, I’m stretched out in front of the TV with a cat or two on my chest.

"What have you been up to today?"

"Working."

"It doesn’t look like you’re working.  It looks like you’re vegging out."

"I’m being conceptual.  I’m forming a story, wrapping my head around the idea.  You know me, measure twice, cut once."

"So it’s been a DVD day."

"No, it hasn’t."  I sit up and a kitten slithers off my chest.  "I have been working.  I’m mulling things through is all."

"Simon, what’s that pile of Dr. Who DVDs sitting on the floor?"

Doctorwhodiamondlogo"They help me mentally cleanse my palate."

"And this empty Ruffles bag?" she says, picking it up.

"Brain food."  I snatch the bag from Julie and aim a sleepy kitten at her.  "Julie, you have no idea about the creative process.  I am mulling.  Mulling is an important part of the writing process.  Now move, I can’t see the TV."

Julie’s an angel, but she can be mean sometimes–don’t you think?

The problem is that we live in a quantifiable world.  We need results.  Tactile ones at that.  When I’m in the throes of a book and Julie asks, "How much have you done?"  I can answer, "Twelve pages," or "Three thousand words" or "Two chapters."  These are things the world and Julie can hang their hats on.  Me included.  I like quantifiable.  There’s traction.  Forward motion.  Progress.  Industry.  A paycheck.

Mulling doesn’t inspire the same response.  Mulling is intangible–like air.  It’s there, but you can’t see it.  But just try and go through a day without it, and you (and I’m looking at you, my old teachers and Julie) will be begging me for some of that intangible stuff.  Yeah, too bloody right you will.

So I’m mulling and I’m going to take my time with it.  There’s no point in going off half-mulled.  That would be ridiculous.

I think I’ve explained myself sufficiently.  Now where did I put my Ruffles and those kittens?

Yours in front of the TV,
Simon Wood
PS: I’m attending my first LA Times Festival of Books.  It should be a lot of fun.  If you’re making the trip to the UCLA campus this weekend.  This is where I’ll be signing this Saturday.

Crime Time Books (booth #355)   11:00am-noon
Sisters in Crime (booth #355)   2:00pm-4:00pm
Book ‘Em (booth #441)  4:00pm-5:00pm

Checking In At The Checkout

I’ve arrived—big time.

Have I made to the New York Times bestseller list?

No.

Have I been short listed for a Pulitzer?

No.

So what’s the big deal? Do tell, Simon.

Okay, I will. I saw Accidents Waiting to Happen at my local supermarket, nestled between the latest expose about Britney’s trip to rehab and 10 ways to lose those fat thighs for summer. Now I know it may not sound like much to see my book at the checkout, but it is to me. One of my earliest posts talked about the importance of distribution. Having been published in the small press, I know the publisher’s uphill struggle just to get the book on the shelf. Success is almost entirely based on people knowing who you are and ordering the book. Essentially, the process of finding readers is tough. Simple math (and economics) will tell you that the more shelves a book sits on, the greater the chance someone will see it and buy it. That happens when the publisher has the clout to get the book on a lot of shelves.

A few years ago, my local MWA chapter hosted a presentation given by a publicist for Random House. The publicist was very good. She took us behind the velvet curtain to see the mighty Wizard of Oz and told us how the bookstore-publisher relationship worked, how books got into the store and where they got placed. I banked everything she told us. I experienced the realities when every one of my small press books came out but didn’t make it to the shelves. A key reason I targeted Dorchester as a publisher I wanted to do business with was because I kept seeing their titles displayed predominately wherever I went, including airports. That kind of visibility is worth killing for.

So while having a title at the supermarket might not sound like much, consider this. The average big box bookstore will carry thousands of titles—a bibliophile’s candy land. But a supermarket doesn’t carry thousands of titles. A few dozen at most. So for my small offering to the publishing world to make it to a supermarket is a nice coup for me—and tells you the kind of reach Dorchester possesses.

Bing! Happy author on aisle five. Bring a mop.

This occurrence isn’t unique to my local supermarket but several supermarket chains across the country. I could become the shopper’s favorite. The next time you’ll see my face, it might on advertising placard in a shopping cart—or on the back of a milk carton, if things don’t go too well.

While I was satisfied with my checkout success, Julie wasn’t. In one supermarket, she spotted my book in their book section and made me an instant bestseller by moving Accidents to the #10 spot. My sense of fair play kicked in and I did the British thing of telling her to put those books back, but those words didn’t make it past my lips. Instead I said, “I feel I’m more like a #7 bestseller type. Not #10.”

In publishing, visibility matters—and I like to think I’m being seen. Now who needs help loading their purchases into their car?

Yours here to serve,
Simon Wood
PS: This brings me neatly to a little game I’ve been playing with my newsletter chums. Seeing as there is a little piece of me everywhere. I’d like to visit every store to see it sitting on the shelf, but I can’t—and this is where you come in. I want you to check your local bookstores, libraries and supermarkets and hunt down the book. Then take a picture of you and the book on the shelf and send me the picture with the store’s location. I’ll take all your pictures and make a photo album. But if you cause a kafuffle in the store and people ask who sent you, I’ve never heard of you and I will deny all knowledge of this conversation. Good hunting.

Gone Fishin’

Ah, the air smells fresher.  Colors are more vibrant.  Everything is good with the world and I am happy.
 
The reason for my good spirits is that I completed my next book, Paying the Piper, and turned it in on deadline.  Dorchester has it and they’re happy and we’re holding hands as we walk into the sunset.
 
I like completing a book, because I can be me again.  As the deadline looms, I start to discard extraneous life items like weight from a sinking balloon. Such things as regular meals, entertainment, exercise, and tidying up after myself have gone by the wayside.  I’ve put on 10lbs over the last few months.  Nothing else matters except for finishing the book.  Now that it’s in the bag, I can see what’s been going on in the world.  I can read for pleasure, see a movie, walk my dog—and Julie says tidy my damn room.  She has a point there.  There are over 2000 sheets of paper in various piles stacked haphazardly around my office. This week it’s my intention to clear up the house and weed the garden.  Then get back to the home improvement projects I have planned which include a kitchen and two bathrooms.
 
I’m particularly happy to be able to draw a line under Paying the Piper.  The book was on a fast track so I didn’t have a lot of time to write it.  To compound the pressure, there was a lot of messy life stuff that got in the way, not to mention having to promote Accidents Waiting to Happen.  So hand on heart, the last six months have been a pain.  But I’m not complaining.  This is what I want to do with my life and I signed on knowing it would be tough.  It was just a little tougher this time around.  But I did it.  Well done me.
 
I finished the book Sunday and I haven’t thought of anything creative since then—except for my impending tax return which is due at the end of the week.  I feel weird not writing anything.  Guilty even.  It’s not right that there isn’t a keyboard attached to my fingertips.  I’m in a vacuum—and I don’t like it.  But I have to stay strong.  I promised myself a little break and I’m going to have one.  I’m a little worried about Julie though.  She said, “I don’t have anything to read.  What am I going to do?”  The withdrawal hit her after a day or two.  She’s jonesing for a story.  By the end of the week, she’ll be pressing herself up against me and saying, “Got any pages for me, baby?  Mamma needs some eye candy.”
 
“But I don’t have anything,” I’ll say.
 
“Don’t be like that,” she’ll reply.  “Julie knows you’ve got something tucked away.  Just a few pages will get me through.  A synopsis will do.  I know you have a short story tucked away somewhere.  You’ve always got a short story.  Give it up, baby.  Julie will make it worth your while.”
 
I think Julie has a problem…
 
I was planning to take a month off, but as usual, it ain’t gonna work out that way.  I already have another book project due before the end of the year in addition to my next novel project.  So my resolution to be good to myself in 2007 has been put back a year.  So my month’s vacation has been reduced to this week—from which I won’t budge.  It’s my birthday on Saturday.  This week is all about me time.  That’s final.  Unless something falls into my lap between now and Sunday.
 
So if you’re reading this, I’m not here.  I’ve gone fishin’ with Royston.  We could both do with the exercise.
 
Yours elsewhere,
Simon Wood

Chaos Theory

I saw my author-friend, Tony Broadbent, not too long ago.  We hail from the same hometown back in the old country.  We got to chatting and he gave me a pat on the head and told me I was an anarchist. 

“You’re like the Gary Oldman of the mystery world,” he said.

I love Gary, but I asked, “Is that a good thing?”

“Yes,” he exclaimed.  “There’s a lot of anarchy in your writing.”

How subversive, I thought.  I’m a rebel without an agenda.  Mum will be delighted.

Well, the little exchange got me thinking about my writing.  I don’t think people hit the keyboards with an agenda or a theme tucked under their arm—or if they do, it sort of sticks out.  Agendas and themes develop on a subconscious level.  Well, they do for me.  I don’t go out of my way to put a slant on my stories.  I just try to entertain, but inadvertently, I show a little leg now and again.  So, I looked for the anarchy.  And I think I saw it in the shape of conflict.

Conflict.  Stories require conflict.  It’s a driving force.  Characters and stories thrive on it.  More so in mysteries and thrillers than other genres.  The nature of the genre means there are going to be casualties and collateral damage.  So I like to inject my stories with a lot of conflict.  The problem is that I’m quite a literal person and I think about things in very pure terms.  Blame my engineering background.  When I think conflict, I think about total annihilation.  Everything my lead character holds dear is under attack.  I create this person so that I can destroy them.  I place them and their world in an ivory tower, then go about stacking as much C4 explosive around the foundation as possible to blast it all apart.  It only seems fair, doesn’t it?  Conflict by its nature is salt to a wound.  Character assassination is key.  Only by putting everything in a protagonist’s world at extreme risk can the character grow and thrive.  There can’t be a comfort zone for this person.  Wouldn’t you want to read about a character in a situation like that?

I flicked through some of my stories to see what I did to my characters and the annihilation is there.  Characters have their reputations destroyed, home life obliterated, are framed for things for crimes they didn’t commit, have personal property confiscated or stolen or destroyed.  These characters’ lives will never be the same.  There will have to be a lot of rebuilding by the end.

So I guess I do have anarchistic bent.  Sorry.  It wasn’t intentional.  It’s just the way I tell ‘em.

Yours destructively,
Simon Wood
PS: Saturday I’m signing at San Francisco Mystery Bookstore.
PPS: Saturday also marks the 39th anniversary of Jim Clark’s death.  Jimmy is a personal hero of mine.  His name might not mean much to most readers, but Guyot will be shedding a tear.

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