Category Archives: Zoë Sharp

Marcus Sakey on Successful Query Letters

Zoë Sharp

About two years ago I came across a piece by Marcus Sakey on his blog at The Outfit about writing successful query letters to agents. It was excellent down-to-earth advice. So good, in fact, that every time I’ve taught a workshop, or done a speaking event where there are would-be authors, I recommend that they go and read Marcus’s blog.

Things have changed a little over the past couple of years, however, and I wondered if Marcus had any new tips to add to his original post. Hence the fact I invited him onto ‘Rati for Expect The Unexpected Tuesday to offer an updated version.

For the one or two of you who maybe are not familiar with him, Marcus Sakey is the bestselling author of five novels, three of which have been optioned for film. He has been called “A modern master of suspense” (Chicago Tribune), and “One of our best storytellers” (Michael Connelly). 

His latest novel is THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES.  Marcus is also the host and writer of the acclaimed television series HIDDEN CITY on Travel Channel.

When I speak at a writer’s conference, I’m often asked about finding an agent.  And my response tends to piss people off. 

I explain the concept of a query letter, and then I say that a properly-written one should result in at least 75% of agents requesting the manuscript. 

People tend to disagree rather vehemently.  To them, I can only respond: respectfully, you’re wrong.

I know because I had that success rate.  In fact, once I had my query in its proper form, about 80% of the agents I queried requested materials.

Some people say that this isn’t realistic for today’s market.  And publishing has changed since I signed with my agent in 2005.  But while publishing has changed, the business model of agents has not. 

Other people point out that I’m an established author.  I wasn’t then.  In fact, I had no credits whatsoever.

Still others say that there are too many variables in play for query letters to achieve that success rate.  But remember, I didn’t say any query letter.  I said a properly written one.

Before I go on, I should address the elephant in the room: whether or not you even need an agent or a publisher these days.  After all, e-publishing, and especially Amazon, has fundamentally changed our business.

Whether or not to self-publish is a personal decision.  There are a lot of great arguments for it: a higher royalty rate, direct control of the promotion and pricing and cover design, an expedient publishing process.  Some authors, like my controversial buddy Joe Konrath, make the case that going with a traditional publisher at this point is akin to booking passage on the Titanic.

Me, I wouldn’t go that far.  I believe there are a lot of benefits to traditional publishing.  Foremost among them is the active involvement of a skilled professional editor.  I can say with certainty that my editor has dramatically improved all of my books.  I also believe that having a hurdle-clearing process benefits the overall quality of literature.   And the self-publishing world is still akin to the Wild West; some people will make their fortunes, but plenty will die of dysentery.

What will the publishing world look like in even one year, much less five?  I have no idea, and neither does anyone else.  Would I consider self-publishing?  Absolutely.  In fact, I have.  I self-pubbed a short story collection called SCAR TISSUE, and am delighted I did. 

But this article really isn’t about whether or not to self-publish.  Weigh the arguments.  Consider your own abilities (Can you write fast enough to feed the beast?  Do you believe an editor can improve your work?  Does the safety of an advance and a contract provide you a better headspace to write novels?) as well as the work you’re willing to do (Do you want to spend time formatting e-books, writing promotional copy, and managing cover design?  Do you have a platform to help you promote?  Do you enjoy the rather constant effort of reaching out to potential readers?) and make up your own mind.

If you decide that you would like to try the traditional approach, this is how you do it.

First of all, finish the book.  And I don’t just mean type “THE END.”  If it isn’t polished to a high gleam, if it hasn’t been read by a dozen friends and re-written in response to their comments, then you aren’t ready to worry about Step Two.

But let’s assume that it is.  The next thing you need to do is decide which agents to approach.

This is one of the ways you limit the number of variables in the equation.  Only query agents who represent work like yours. My own agent, for example, specializes in crime fiction, thrillers, and some nonfiction. Sending him fantasy would be a waste of time. It’s not his market, and even if he did like it, you’d be better served by an agent who really knows your field.

How to do that? Go to your local bookstore or library, and bring a notebook. Find the section that matches your genre, and start pulling books down. In their acknowledgments, authors almost always thank their agent (if they don’t, you don’t want that agent anyway.) Focus on books that are somewhat similar to yours, but don’t obsess. Don’t try to pick a favorite in advance.

After three or four deeply boring hours, you should have a sizable list. To find their addresses, turn to the Internet. You can Google search, using quotes around their full name. You can also look at sites like EveryoneWhosAnyone.com and AgentQuery.com. Again, not fun, but necessary. Make a spreadsheet, and include the agency, the agent’s name, the authors they represent, the address and email, and sections for dates to track who you’ve sent letters and when.

Okay, so you’ve got a targeted list.  Now it’s time to write the dreaded query.

It’s dreaded for a reason, which is that you already wrote the book. You slaved over every one of 350 pages. You know its intricacies, its subtleties, its moments of grace and its smelly underarms. Now you have to forget all that.

Here’s the key to writing queries. You’re not actually selling the book.

I want to repeat that:  You are not selling the book.  In fact, you could write a highly successful query for a book that does not exist.

All you’re doing is seducing the agent. You want to get them interested enough that they ask to see your manuscript. That’s it.

It’s like online dating. If you can write a charming email, you might get a date; if you get a date, who knows where it could lead. But try to put all your history and baggage in that first message and you won’t get any play. Instead, demonstrate that you’re worth someone’s time. That you are interesting, sincere, and respectful.

How do you do that?  Well, for one, you’re polished. Your language is compelling and your presentation is perfect.

Also, you’re brief. Agents are busy. There are hundreds of other queries to read.

Finally, you are a storyteller. You know how to tease, how to intrigue, and you’re not afraid to put those wiles to work.

After a professional greeting (Mr. or Ms.), begin with a 1 – 2 line paragraph explaining that you are writing them because you know they represent X, and your book is similar.   This shows that you have done your homework.  It also begins to frame their expectations.  By implication they know the genre and style of your work.  This is also a good place to put the word count, because if it’s appropriate (70,000 – 120,000, depending on genre), that’s a hurdle you’ve already cleared.

Next, in 3 – 5 lines, sum up your story. This is the hard part, but it’s easier than most people make it.  In essence, what you want to do is leave out the tangents, complications, minor characters, and themes. Remember, this is seduction. Focus on drama and stakes. Here’s mine:

For Danny Carter, retired thief turned respectable businessman, a normal life sharing a Lincoln Park condo with his loving girlfriend seems like the ultimate score–until his former partner comes looking for him. A hardened killer fresh out of Stateville, his partner wants to kidnap the son of Danny’s millionaire boss, and he needs help to pull it off. Doing the job could cost Danny his career, his relationship, and his freedom.

Refusing could cost him his life.

Did I leave out a lot? About 86,974 words. And man oh man did it hurt at first.  But look at what it accomplished.  By keeping the pitch brief, using only one name, and including significant stakes, I demonstrated that I know how to tell a story.

And that, my friends, is the point of the query letter. 

Think about it.  Agents get hundreds of these a week.  Do you really think they remember them?  Hell, I bet they forget the beginning of most by the time they reach the middle.  You try and read 300 queries, see how fast your eyes glaze over.

So instead of trying to convey the beautiful bleeding soul that is your novel, just show an agent you know how to tell a story.  That’s what makes them willing to read your manuscript.

Okay, next paragraph.  This is the place for awards, previous publications, and nepotistic hookups. Will Stephen King blurb you?  Is Oprah your aunt?  Do you run a wildly successful blog?  Put it in there.

Also, if you have some experience that informed the book, consider including it. Be judicious: if you’re hawking a mystery novel, by all means mention that you’re a cop. If your character likes to cook and so do you, leave it out. In fact, if you have nothing to mention here, leave the whole damn ‘graph out.  Never write just to fill space.

Finally, end with what in advertising is known as a call to action: “May I send you the finished manuscript?”

If you’re writing a conventional query, you’re done. However, these days I recommend you query via email. There are a couple of reasons. First, e-queries are cheaper and faster and better for the environment. Second, you can include a little taste of your novel. Do it like this: “Page one of <insert compelling title here> follows. May I send you the finished manuscript?”

Then, after your name and contact info, paste in the first page or so of the novel. Do not attach it, as that will freak people out about viruses. Also, be sure to check your formatting, since email can screw that up, and manually insert line-breaks to double-space. Finally, make sure that you end on a minor cliffhanger, something interesting.

The idea is simple. The agent has just read your brief and compelling query letter. They’re intrigued. It’s the easiest thing in the world to scroll down and read a little more.  And then, because your first page is dynamite (right?), hopefully intrigued upshifts to excited. Simple as that.

A good query letter is not written in a day. Write it and rewrite it. Have friends and critique partners read it. Buff the hell out of it. Once you feel like it’s ready, start sending out waves, say 5 – 10 a week.

Doing it in waves is crucial, because it will tell you how effective your query letter is.  (Note: I didn’t say how interesting your book is.  Query letters and novels are separate things.)   Remember, your query letter isn’t finished until you’re seeing about a 75% request rate.

When you do get a bite, remember to write REQUESTED MATERIALS in big letters on the envelope or the email subject so that your manuscript hits the top of the pile. Then do a little happy dance and go send out another couple of queries.

Of course, the painful part is that for all the manuscript requests, you’ll get plenty of rejections.  I did.  This is a subjective business, and some very big names told me they didn’t like the book, that it lacked tension, that they didn’t think it had a market.  Which made it all the sweeter when CBS Sunday Morning called THE BLADE ITSELF “how immortality gets started,” or when we sold the film rights to Ben Affleck. 

Don’t sweat the rejections.  Have a beer, then send another query.  And great good luck!

Why do we read crime?

Zoë Sharp

It might seem an odd question either for a crime writer to ask, but why do we read crime? Of course, people have always enjoyed a good story, with a premise that grabs or intrigues us from the outset and characters that keep us along for the duration of the ride. Storytelling goes back to the cave and the campfire.

But why is the crime story in particular so popular?

Maybe it’s because of some human desire for vicarious thrills. We want to be drawn to the edge of our seats by the suspense, then given a satisfying resolution.

That’s not to say crime novels necessarily finish with a neat bow and a happy ever after. If you read a series you know that unless things are going to cross over from crime into a paranormal ghost story, the chances are that your main protagonist will survive at least to the next book. That doesn’t mean to say they won’t be changed or damaged by events – perhaps irrevocably. Ken Bruen is a master of this with his Jack Taylor series. Just when you think Taylor has reached rock bottom and can’t possibly go any lower, Ken takes it to another heartbreaking downward level.

But if you read a standalone, you know that all bets are off. Nobody has to survive past the final page. The good guys do not necessarily have to triumph. Anybody who’s read Duane Swierczynski’s THE WHEELMAN will know that the ending can be as shocking as the author cares to make it.

Do you read crime to be shocked?

Certainly in recent years there has been a rise of crime novels that are more violent – and which show a more twisted inventiveness to that violence – than previously. One publishing editor told me last year that they were only being allowed to buy ‘slasher-gore’ books of the type which the marketing people reckoned would sell well in supermarkets. It’s popular, but why? Perhaps there is something titillating in reading this from behind the safety glass of fictional perspective, of knowing that while someone can imagine such a thing, it hasn’t actually happened.

Do you read crime for the twisted violence?

Crime fiction also provides a sometimes painfully perceptive insight into social situations. The most uncomfortable subjects can be touched on within the confines of a novel, without resorting to outright violence on the page. Sometimes hinted-at nastiness lurking in the shadows is infinitely worse than anything we are forced to confront head on. It slips past our guard and makes us think.

Do you read crime to be painlessly informed?

Or is entertainment our primary goal, and anything else that slips along for the ride to be treated as a bonus? Perhaps life is painful enough without needing to absorb a worthy message from our leisure pursuits, other than some snippets of inside information that makes us feel as if we are getting a behind-the-scenes look. The late Arthur Hailey specialised in this with his series of thrillers published in the sixties and seventies, when he meticulously researched his subject – the hotel industry, airports, banks, or pharmaceuticals – before setting a novel in that world.

Do you read crime purely to be briefly diverted and entertained?

Some people, I know, read crime purely for the brain-teasing element of the plot. I’m not one of them, which is why the convoluted whodunits of Agatha Christie never really appealed to me as a reader, although for some reason I was fascinated by the character of Sherlock Holmes. I do not try to guess the outcome of a novel unless it is obvious from the beginning, and then I tend to hope that I’m being misled. Possibly this is why I can quite happily read books more than once – maybe I just have a very short memory.

Do you read crime for the puzzle?

Or do you want to feel satisfied by the experience in another way? There is a fine tradition of crime-fighter whose identity is either unknown, or whose position in society is more nebulous than official. At one end of the scale are the police, with the private detectives as the next stage removed from officialdom. And then there are the lone wolves, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher. Reacher follows the classic archetype of the mysterious stranger who rides into town to right wrongs before disappearing into the sunset. And that is part of his appeal. A Reacher who lived in a nice little house in the suburbs with a wife, two-point-five children and a dog would not be the same character.

Do you read crime for the satisfaction of right winning out over wrong?

This could be said to be at the heart of things for many people. They read about dreadful things being done by horrible people in the hopes of some return to normality, to balance, at the end. However gruesome the story, there is still some comfort to be taken from it. The feeling that there is a chance for justice – at least in a fictional world – when there is so little justice to be found in the real one.

So, fellow ‘Rati, why do YOU read crime?

This week’s Word of the Week is meretricious, meaning of the nature of or relating to prostitution; flashy or gaudy. Its root is from the Latin merere to earn, from which we also get the word meritorious, but this means possessing merit; deserving of reward, honour or praise. Why the difference? Sadly, the answer is purely down to gender. The Romans indicated somebody was feminine by adding trix onto the end of the word, from which we get aviatrix or even dominatrix. Sadly, there weren’t many opportunities for women to enter professions in ancient Rome apart from the oldest profession, that is. So, when a woman earned a living she was a meretrix and the dubious associations still linger.

And finally, just to let you know that the latest Charlie Fox book – FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine – is out today in the States in hardcover from Pegasus, along with the trade paperback edition of FOURTH DAY: Charlie Fox book eight.

 Plus, of course, available from A&B in the UK, and as an e-book, in large print, and unabridged audio.

The Great Book-Buying Debate: Redux

Zoë Sharp

We’re halfway through the Holiday Season between the excesses of Christmas and the promises of New Year. For many of us this means clinging to a few more days of indulgence before we have to shake off our sloth and get back to work.

The weather outside, not to burst into song, is frightful. We’ve had gales and rain and biting cold without the pleasures of actual snowfall. What better time to curl up in the warm with a good book?

Many of you will have received books as gifts. I did myself. I gave a few, too. Some were the silly kind of book that you often end up buying for people at this time of year. Others were more serious bits of reading that I knew – or hoped – the recipient would enjoy.

Book buying in the holiday season tends to be somewhat different from the rest of the year, but it still got me thinking about a topic covered by own very own former ‘Rati, JD Rhoades, more than two years ago. Dusty asked what influences you as a reader to buy a book by an author you’ve never heard of before?

The comments were highly illuminating. But time moves on and buying habits do the same. With the sudden explosion in e-books, I wondered, what influences readers NOW in the choices they make?

So, with Dusty’s original questions firmly in mind, I devised a few of my own.

1. Where do you do most of your book browsing these days?

a) on line?

b) local indie store?

c) big chain or supermarket?

d) local library?

2. How much of your reading is

a) in print?

b) in digital format?

3. Where do you hear about most of your new books?

a) bookstore display?

b) bookstore recommendation?

c) discussion group? (If so, where/what kind?)

4. What makes you decide to try a book by a new (to you) author?

a) word of mouth?

b) advertising?

c) personal appearance by the author at a store or convention?

d) on-line buzz or reviews?

e) book trailer?

5. How big a role does social media play? Have you ever decided to try an author because you’ve seen them posting on line and been intrigued or amused by what they have to say?

Equally:

6. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook or any of the other social networking sites, does it put you off if an author constantly plugs their own work or does the repetition actually make you decide to give them a try?

7. How influenced are you by reviews? Not just reviews from respected blog sites or publications, but reader reviews on Amazon. Does the total number of times a book has been reviewed, or the number of five-star reviews influence your choice at all? Do you ever read the reviews?

8. If you’re buying a book on line, do you use the facility to read a free sample before you buy? And has this ever put you off the book?

9. How important is price, whether for an e-book or a print version?

And finally:

10. Did you give or receive a book this Christmas? If so, what was it? And any suggestions for how you nicely wrap and gift an e-book?

This week’s Word of the Week is toxic, which means of poison, but comes from the Greek toxon, a bow and apparently has its roots from the practice of dipping arrows in poison. From this we also get toxophilite, meaning a lover of archery, which is not to be confused with toxicomania, a morbid craving for poisons.

Obviously, this is my last post of 2011. A very Happy New Year to all my fellow ‘Rati. Wishing you health, luck and happiness for 2012.

Three Nuns, a Russian Drug Dealer and a Clown …

Zoë Sharp

I know this sounds like the start of a joke, and in some ways it is. A few years ago I was at a convention – it may even have been ITW – and members of the audience were asked to come up with an opening line for the panel members to pick at random out of a hat and run with.

I wrote:

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

The unlucky panelist who picked that one out?

Lee Child.

Did he run with it?

Of course – in his own inimitable style.

Has he entirely forgiven me?

Hmm, not sure about that one 🙂

So, when I was asked to contribute a piece about beginnings for a bulletin for the upcoming CWA Debut Dagger competition, held every year for unpublished authors by the British Crime Writers’ Association, this line sprang to mind.

And as an aside I asked competition entrants to complete the line in their own style. Here are some of the most entertaining, all of which will receive a copy of one of my e-books. And if anyone else would like to give it a whirl, I’ll give away another copy to the best effort!

Gary Ian David

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

Charlie fumbled desperately in the huge pockets of his unique suit. Out came streamers, sweeties, a disorientated live pigeon that flew to the roof and knocked itself out on a steel girder. A million silk hankies, a rubber sausage and a plastic hammer. A box of confetti exploded as he threw it away and a tramp caught an exploding cigar in mid flight. Children raced after the strange group of misfits, giggling, fighting over the clowns discarded novelties and falling over one another in their haste. A group of workmen did a fair interpretation of Benny Hill’s theme music as the group raced around, everyone chasing someone or something… all that was missing was The Keystone Cops. Wait for it… here they come. Nuns holding their skirts up, showing off their woollen stockings charged ahead of the drug dealer when he fell over and a bag of cocaine burst on the tiled floor. Yoshi Agnetha Yamashita pulled Aiko Frida Shoda back by her hair and screamed when her auburn wig came away in her hand. Michiko Benny Minamoto knocked his mate Atsushi Bjorn Takahashi over as they both struggled to head the nuns. Several uniformed police officers struggled at the back of the pack. The uniformed head of department stepped out in front of the charge and held his hand up. ‘Halt,’ he commanded. He was trampled underfoot. At last Charlie found his phone and held it to his ear. He stopped dead and the crowd ran over him. As they rushed toward a pair of glass doors, they slowly swung open… too slowly. The nuns crashed into them and as they fought one another a dwarf lifted up Sister Mary’s skirts and ran between her legs. He dived on top of the counter and grabbed the Walking, Talking, Weepy, Sleepy, Happy Chappy doll… the last one in the store… in fact the last one in the world. Camera crews filmed him holding the toy above his head and wealthy Harrods customers offered him obscene amounts of cash to part with it. He ignored their pleas and walked out with his head higher than anyone else’s in the store. On Christmas Day his son would be the envy of the world.

KJ Rabane

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

“Right so you say you’ve got the wine and the Russian rug runner-how are you getting on finding the Japanese arbour? The clown answers “they say Harrods is a store where you can find anything but I’m having trouble with the Japanese Abba. And this phone is hopeless I can hardly hear what you want. You should have written it down. What time did you say your mother was coming? By the way I’m wearing the clown outfit so I’ll be ready for the kids when I get home.”

Heath Gunn

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

“Waterloo, how does it feel you won the war”, shrieked the ringtone, the clown, with his mop of thick orange hair, glanced over his shoulder, held up his empty hand and all nine of them stopped dead in their tracks next to some French extra mature cheddar cheese.

“Billy, Hi”, gasped Thomas, the clown, “yes we are aware the fancy dress party started over an hour ago, and as soon as we beat our way to the tube we’ll be there”, “I know but unfortunately people who jump from railway bridges have little consideration for the timing of your birthday party”. He rolled his eyes at his pursuing entourage just as Lydia, the Russian drug dealer, tapped impatiently on the face of her bright yellow wrist watch.

“Billy the quicker I get off the phone, the faster we can all run to the tube station. Yes I’ll pick up some beers on the way, and vodka”. With that Thomas slid his thumb over the smooth screen of his phone and with a nod of his head the unlikely looking group lurched on through the well lit food isle.

Jean Harrington

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

Three nuns and not one a virgin. Why should they be? Zoe loved sticking pins in stereotypes and that sexually innocent women were the world’s most virtuous was one of her favorites. Take these three: a widow, a divorcee and a lesbian. They could probably write erotica if they so chose, but instead here they were in the Amazon fighting sin and snakes without a luxury or a lover among them. As she paddled downstream, they sat without speaking, waiting for their destiny to unfold, waiting perhaps to be pierced by a dart gun as they had been pierced by the Lord. But surely not by anything else.

Sandra Powley

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings…’

“Crap timing Ruth,” gasped the panting clown, clutching the phone to her ear. “The flashmob’s gone pear-shaped here and store security are getting heavy. Wait up…” She ducked down an aisle. Three nuns and a Russian drug-dealer ran past, pursued by a bellowing Japanese Abba tribute band – struggling to gain any speed in their platform heels – followed by two hefty, wheezing security guards giving chase. As the strains of karaoke Water-roo faded, she pulled off her red nose, took a deep breath and tried to concentrate on the voice in her ear. “What do you mean Hitler’s been shot? I’ve got News at Ten filming him outside St Pauls in an hour.” She pushed back her curly scarlet wig and scratched her scalp. “I know it’s short notice Ruth, but if Adam’s in hospital, I need a stand-in, so just get down to the protest camp for the news crew…Hang on.”

Spotting a mountain of pannetone, she scooted over the lino like a commando and took cover. “Yes – and you also said that your rabbi is liberal…Hitler-Schmittler, Ruth – global economic crisis trumps religion,” she hissed, replacing a dislodged package in the display. “I’ll call you from casualty, once I’ve seen Adam and found out who shot him – and while you’re sourcing your Third Reich outfit, have a look for your commitment.” She put her phone in her pocket and ripped off her clown suit, scanning the food hall for a place to remove her make up.

Five minutes later, a middle-aged woman slipped out of the ladies room, wearing jeans and tassled loafers with a smart jumper and a Liberty scarf. Her face was bare and a navy beret masked her wig-flattened blonde hair. She took a pair of Prada-framed glasses from her expensive leather handbag, pausing for a moment to browse a row of preserves before she hurried off, empty handed.

Marian Crowe moved purposefully, navigating the crowded streets to the Royal Free Hospital, unaware that her journey was pointless. Adam had been dead for forty-seven minutes and his body had already been relocated by The Service.

Michael Higgins

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings.

“Yes, Mr. President?” said Jo-E, a smile on his face, well he always had a smile on his face, as he slammed open the leather-padded walnut door leading to the East Dulwich Deli. “No, no, I can talk, Mr. President.”

With a flicker of regret, Jo-E kicked one of the tables to the floor with a shoe the size of a London double-decker bus. This really would be a great place to eat, he thought, if it wasn’t for that damn Dancing Queen and her killer poodles.

Janelle Colquhoun

‘Three nuns, a Russian drug dealer and a clown are being pursued through the food hall at Harrods by a Japanese tribute band to Abba, when the clown’s cellphone rings …’

They abruptly halt. The three nuns knock heavily into the Russian. Anger shows on the eldest nun’s monobrowed face. The three members of the Japanese band look at each other with raised eyebrows and shrug.

“Keep going,” the Russian drug dealer yells, lapsing out of his Russian accent.

The cellphone persists with it’s Wiggle’s “Hot Potato” ringtone.

“For fuck’s sake answer the frigging thing!” the youngest nun screams, tearing off her wimple and stamping her foot, “This is fucked anyway! Like, hello, what sort of a daft film script is this anyway?!”

The clown, with his hands shaking and his painted smile drooping at the corners, reaches to press the button to answer the call.

There is an enormous explosion. The last frame the cameraman captures through his viewfinder is the clown’s red nose spinning off into the Harrods’ lobster display.

“And that,” Detective Malevolent said, pressing the remote control button, “Is what we know so far about the explosion at 6:03am in the Harrods’ food hall this morning. Any questions?”

All these are tremendous in their own way, and I wish everyone who took part the very best of luck when their entries to the Debut Dagger go in.

This week’s Word of the Week is pusillanimous, meaning lacking in courage and strength of mind; faint-hearted, mean-spirited, cowardly.

I shall be travelling much of today, but will get to comments when I can.

 

 

MY-NoWriMo

Zoë Sharp

November may have been National Novel Writing Month, but for me it was one month out of a three-month novel writing push.

I’d love to be able to say that the 50,000-word NaNoWriMo goal was the bulk of a book for me. Sadly, when I look back at the last nine in the Charlie Fox series it’s barely half way there.

But having started on October 4th, I was hoping to be at 70,000 words by yesterday. I hadn’t counted on only actually getting a total of seven days out of the whole of November when I wasn’t either away attending events or festivals, or had Something Else on to get in the way of a clear writing day. By the time I counted up my month’s words at midnight, I had just scraped 65,000 words. By two whole words.

Not bad, but no cigar.

 

(Don’t ask, by the way – this was taken at an event at the Velma Teague Library in June last year. My fellow chocolate cigar ‘smokers’ are Jeanne Matthews, Sophie Littlefield, Juliet Blackwell, with über-librarian Lesa Holstine reclining.) 

OK, so I’ve also been prepping the five stories from FOX FIVE: a Charlie Fox short story collection to go live individually, and as Christmas is coming up I thought I ought to have a new Charlie Fox short, too, which I’d written the bulk of a month or so ago, but you know how it is when you’ve put something aside and then you pick it up again. It really did need another fiddle. And a new title. And a cover.

(The cover is another belter by Jane Hudson at NuDesign that just captures some of the urgency and the flavour of the story for me. I know I keep singing her praises, but it’s not difficult when someone has as much talent as she does.)

Across The Broken Line – which has become the eventual title – was originally going to be part of the FOX FIVE e-thology. I wanted to have a go at a very broken-up timeline of catching Charlie in the middle of a job and then tracking back and forth through the various stages to show how things got to the point where it all goes bad. Sounds simple when you put it like that, huh? But I wasn’t happy with my early attempts so I put it aside in favour of Truth And Lies, which grew more into a novella than a short story. Whether I’ve got the broken timeline just right this time is another matter, though. I’ll wait for you to tell me!

But still, not making my 70k on DIE EASY rankles. I’m very good at beating myself up for not hitting a target so I’m still feeling a little disgruntled that I’m not as far forward with the new book as I would have liked. I’ve already dragged Charlie through a helicopter crash and the emotional trauma of coming face to face with someone from her past she never wanted to see again. And now she’s running round a hijacked sternwheel paddle steamer on the Mississippi river with bad guys abounding.

I even have a provisional cover – another from Jane at NuDesign:

But it makes me wonder about everyone who does manage to achieve their NaNo goal. I’ve seen/heard on Twitter about plenty of people who’ve done it, but how many fallers are there? How many achieved their 50k? How do you feel now it’s over – good or bad? And what do you think of what you’ve written – how much of it will you keep hold of? Are they finished words or just a starting point?

Was it your first attempt? Will you do it again? If you haven’t attempted it, would you ever consider it? Or have you ever put yourself through any kind of concerted effort for a relatively short period of time, like a month – whether it’s a diet or an exercise plan or whatever? Good experience or no?

Also, I can’t ignore that – if yesterday was the end of November – today is the first of December. I can officially say Christmas is coming. Today the tree will go up, the cards will start to be written, pressies will be wrapped.

And there’s now 40,000 words to be done by the end of the month …

This week’s Word of the Week is trepan, which not only means an obsolete cylindrical saw for perforating the skull (just in case anyone was stuck for a Christmas gift for that difficult relative) and to cut a cylindrical disc from something, but it’s also a decoy, a snare, or to ensnare or lure. Unlike a trepang which is a sea cucumber eaten by the Chinese.

 

Expect the Unexpected … questions

Zoë Sharp

Today is my turn to take the wheel for Expect the Unexpected Tuesday here at Murderati. So, I thought I’d share a few of the strange questions we’ve all been asked as writers when we go to do signings or events. I emailed round my fellow ‘Ratis and asked for their oddest Q&A, and also another oddball question.

So, in no particular order, here are their anwers:

Zoë Sharp (I thought I’d kick off, just to make things fair)

My oddest question has to be from someone at a library event. “If you were asked, would you write the autobiography of Tony Blair (then Prime Minister of the UK).”

My answer? “If it’s his autobiography, he can write it himself.”

What’s something my main protagonist would NEVER say?

“What a pretty motorcycle. Do they have them in pink?” Charlie Fox.

And finally, what’s in my fridge? Fresh coriander, the last of the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, half a melon, grapes, spinach leaves, chillis, live yoghurt (might not have been live when it went in there) three different types of olives, feta cheese, chorizo, Marmite chocolate, cherry tomatoes, 1% milk, and something growing fur that growls when I open the door.

 

Alex Sokoloff

Well, my most-asked question is a completely expected one, given what I write, but I’d say an unusual one in general: “Have you ever had a paranormal experience?” And my answer varies, but very early on in life I noticed what seemed to be a correlation between mental/emotional illness and paranormal events. Emotionally disturbed people seem to have a high level of psychic awareness, and they attract synchronicities and even weirder occurrences, and I’ve been around for some of those weirdnesses. That’s a theme in a lot of my writing.

I can safely say that none of my main characters would ever say: “I’m voting for Newt Gingrich.”

 

Jonathan Hayes

What’s in my fridge? I live in New York City, and am pretty busy, so I tend to order for delivery most days. I have the fridge of a supermodel, nothing but condiments and wine. I have to do regular purges to dislodge various hangers-on – sandwich ends, the rotting husks of formerly fine French cheeses etc. On the plus side, it’s usually spotless, thanks to a combination of under use and my excellent housekeeper.

Stephen Jay Schwartz

My question? “How did you do the research for all the sex-addiction stuff in BOULEVARD and BEAT?”

My answer? “Uh … next question?”

What’s something my protagonist would never say?  “I’d rather you not wear the fuck-me pumps tonight.”

What’s in my fridge?  Tofu, non-fat milk, the last of the crusty old cake we made for Halloween, yogurt, Manchego cheese, ketchup and mustard.

 

Gar Anthony Haywood

Oddest question? Somebody (don’t remember who or where) asked me recently how I manage to get all my manuscripts to conform to what he perceived was my publisher’s general page count, as if I plan for them all to end at page 435 on the button.  Wish I could say I had a snappy comeback for that, but I was too stunned to say much more than, “My manuscripts end where they will, I don’t have any page-length expectations whatsoever.”

What’s in my fridge? Asparagus I will never touch.  (It belongs to the wife, who loves the stuff.  Me, I can’t stand it.)

Rob Gregory Browne

Questions I’ve been asked? The only thing I can think of is:  When my first book came out, I did a signing for Book Soup at the LA Festival of Books. I had a stack of hardbacks in front of me and guy comes up and asks me when Michael Connelly would be signing. I told him I didn’t know, but the schedule is posted, and gestured to the wall behind me. He looked at me and said, “You’re a poor excuse for an employee. You want me to report you to your supervisor?” 

I wish I could tell you I had a witty retort, but I was too dumbfounded to respond before he walked away in disgust.

Got nothing on the character front.  Half the time I don’t know what they’re going to say, so it’s hard to predict.  As for my fridge, I’d say that at any given time there are usually about two weeks’ worth or leftovers that nobody has the courage to look at, let alone eat.

Brett Battles

So, would you mind giving me a quote of something you’ve been asked? And your answer to it?

The question: Are “you” in any of the characters you write?

My answer: Definitely. Most obvious would be in my main protagonist, but with this caveat: pretty much any of their faults are mine, but, as much as I wish it weren’t true, few of their strengths.

What’s in my fridge? Seven hardboiled eggs, 21 cans of Diet Dr. Pepper, 2 bottles of Champagne, various condiments, 3 bottles of Pilsner, 3/4s of a bar of Toblerone Chocolate, 2 tomatoes, 1/2 bag of marshmallows, and a partially used 6 pack of 5-Hour Energy Drinks. (Wow, what happens at five hours and five minutes, Brett? Do your energy levels suddenly just crash? ZS)

 

JT Ellison

Fridge: Apple cider, wine, milk, caffeine-free Diet Dr. Pepper, 7Up, water, four different types of cheese, spinach, Dulce de Leche pudding, hummus, pizza crust, pepperonis, mushrooms, eggs. BORING.

Funny question: “So why don’t you write children’s books?”

(answer unrepeatable) Because sometimes I get huffy about it. My honest answer is usually because I don’t have kids. Then they logically reply but you were a kid once. Sisyphus.

 

Tess Gerritsen

It’s not a question  but a comment, meant to be complimentary, that startles me whenever i hear it: “Your English is so good!” (Said because they can’t quite fathom that even with an Asian face, one really can be American.)

What’s in my fridge?  Always a bottle of white wine!

 

JD Rhoades

I couldn’t begin to repeat to you the strangest question I’ve ever been asked. It was at a bookstore event, and during the Q & A, an older lady who my very well have been off her medications stood up and launched into this long, rambling, and nearly incoherent…well, the only way to describe it was “word salad.” After a couple of minutes, everyone was sort of looking at each other uncomfortably. When she finally wound down, I couldn’t resist; I said “can you repeat the question?” I felt kind of bad when everyone laughed and the poor mad woman just looked confused. Fortunately the host stepped in at that point and called on someone else.

 

My other favorite comment (not necessarily a question) was at one of those “moveable feast’ events where there’s a luncheon and the authors move from table to table to talk about their books with people who’ve bought tickets. I’d been getting a polite reception from the various tables, but it was clear they hadn’t read and probably hadn’t heard of any of my books. Finally I sat down at a table of attractive young women, one of whom immediately announced “we’ve decided we all want to sleep with Jack Keller.” Made the whole trip worth it for me.

 What’s something one of my characters would never say?

“Dang it, I’m fresh out of high explosives.” -Sgt. Thomas Calhoun, GALLOWS POLE

“Screw it, they’re not my kids, I’m not going to get involved.” -Tony Wolf, BREAKING COVER.

 

 Toni McGee Causey

The question that I still shake my head over is the lengthy one someone asked at a romance conference where we were talking about sex scenes and how to write them. First question out of the box from a woman in the back of the room was: “How would you go about writing a sex scene where the heroine, who is over fifty, is having sex for the very first time and is… excited… and [the questioner added] let me assure you this can happen–she was well… lubricated… so how would you describe that to the audience?”

The answer? “Very carefully.”

The rest of the answer? We don’t need a play-by-play of these details unless they are somehow extremely relevant to the development of the character and story. Most of the time, less really is more.

What’s something your main protag or one of your characters would NEVER say?

Bobbie Faye would never say, “Oh, dear, I shall just sit here on the porch and let the strong menfolk handle everything.”

What’s in your fridge? Sadly, very little, as I’ve just gotten back from a long trip and there is a desperate need for a grocery shopping in my near future.

 

PD Martin

This is hard, Zoë! Most of the questions I get asked are just ‘regular’. You know, how long does it take you to write a book, how long did it take you to get published, how do you do the research … One I get a lot is do I think crime fiction contributes to the crime rate. Has anyone done that one? Want me to give my official answer?

 

Something my protagonist would never say. I must be having a completely non-creative moment so I’m going with the fridge.

 

My fridge is full of boring healthy stuff at the moment because the Aussie summer is less than two weeks away and I don’t fit into any of my summer clothes! Ahh!!! So, celery, carrot, low-fat yogurt, eggs. There are also some gorgeous chicken pies hubby made (but I’m not letting myself have any). And beer, Chang (Thai) – man, I’d love one of those right about now 🙂

 

David Corbett

So, would you mind giving me a quote of something you’ve been asked? And your answer to it?

During my first book tour, when my PI background was still a prominent part of my bio, I did a reading in Davis, CA at the Avid Reader, and only two people showed up — one man, one woman, neither with any interest in my book. Rather, both had cases they wanted to discuss with me, cases that involved vast conspiracies so insidious “no one would touch them.” I can’t recall the specifics of either now, but I was asked to take up the call and expose the faceless monsters behind the curtain. The fact I had two such characters at a single reading — and on one else — seemed odd for a campus town, and just a little discouraging. I humored both of them by agreeing the cases sounded dire indeed, but I was out of the business and sadly couldn’t help. For the most part they seemed mollified just to talk. Thankfully. Would have been nice if just one of them had ponied up and bought a book, but I suppose that’s asking too much.

 What’s in your fridge?

The severed head of the last person who asked me this question.

 

So, ‘Rati. What’s the strangest question you’ve heard asked of an author. Or that you’ve asked an author? Or been asked yourself?

What’s something your character would never say? Or something your favourite character would never say?

And what’s in your fridge?

 

Just for the fun of it

Zoë Sharp

I hope you’ll forgive me this week if I repeat a blog I did over at Sirens of Suspense a couple of weeks ago. We’ve been rushing around like eejits for the past week or more, and although we expected to be home a couple of days ago … we’re not. Long story that involves builders letting people down and the prospect of houses not being finished for Christmas means our DIY skills have been called into service. And, weirdly enough, we rather enjoy it.

Part of the rushing around involved seeing our friend, fellow crime author Anne Zouroudi, doing two events for Kirklees libraries with Penny Grubb and Lesley Horton, plus a crime writing workshop also with Lesley, and interviewing the delightful Martina Cole at the 4th Reading Festival of Crime Writing last Friday. So, if you’ve been wondering why I’ve been very quiet on these pages, that’s my excuse …

 

When was the last time you did something just for the fun of it? Or took a moment to really observe rather than just see your way through a familiar journey?

As a race, humans are becoming hardened to beauty, disconnected from the simple pleasures in life, and I find that very sad. As a writer, part of my job is to dig deep into the kind of emotions that drive us on a primal level. To do that, I need to be in touch with those kinds of feelings.

And maintaining a sense of wonder definitely falls into that category.

Andy (my Other Half) is as daft as I am about this. We rush to the office window to see a steam train passing on the other side of the valley, a low-flying Hercules transport plane lumbering overhead, or a particularly beautiful strake of sunlight on the hills behind our house.

I still build snowmen – and snow-bears, and snow-Easter-Island heads, and I was in the middle of a full-size horse last year, but the snow turned powdery and its head fell off, dammit. I know – what an excuse – the wrong kind of snow …

I still ride the shopping cart back to the stack after we’ve loaded up the car at the supermarket, still laugh like a drain at dirty jokes and whoopee cushions. But frost on leaves or winter mist or sunlight through a cloud leaves me breathtaken.

Because how can you hope to write something that will instil any sense of wonder if you don’t have it yourself?

We are not simply hardened to beauty in the modern world, but isolated from it. A fabulous cliff view will now have a safety railing to save you from yourself. Everything, we are told, would be better with our lives if we just had the latest gadget, a larger TV, a newer car, a bigger house. And it takes something drastic to make us realise that those things are not important.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to come out with some worn platitude about the best things in life being free. Whoever said that has never had to pay for meds, make the rent, or put food on the table. Those things cost money, and you better have it when the red bill arrives, or life is going to turn pretty ugly pretty fast.      

 

At the moment I’m caught between rich and poor in my writing, and it’s making me re-evaluate a lot of things. By definition, my bodyguard heroine Charlie Fox works for those wealthy enough to afford her services. In the latest book, FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine, she’s babysitting the rich and powerful of New York’s Long Island playground. She sees what too much of everything has done to these people, and it makes her reconsider what’s important in her life – love, health, happiness.

And just as FIFTH VICTIM is gearing up for its January 2012 publication in the States (sorry, but it’s been out in the UK since March this year) I’m also hard at work on the next in the series – DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten. For this book I wanted to set the ‘haves’ much more firmly alongside the ‘have-nots’. Where else was better to do that – where was the contrast more stark – than New Orleans, post Katrina.

OK, so the centre of NOLA looks very much as it always did, but some of the outlying areas are derelict ghost towns. It’s a fascinating setting for a book, and one that grabbed me from our first visit last year. As for the huge recycling plant – Southern Scrap – a crime thriller writer couldn’t ask for a better location for a confrontation, or a show-down.

But driving round the place it was hard not to be saddened and sobered by the destruction still on view. I came away grateful for what I have, and even more determined that as I pass the good things in life, I don’t want to miss them because I have my eyes in a text message and my ears in an iPod.

So, ‘Rati – what did you see today? And what will you notice tomorrow?

This week’s Word of the Week is innuendo. An Italian suppository …

Getting to the heart of it

Zoë Sharp

I used to tell people that I had ideas for maybe forty novels, but a few years ago I was advised to stop doing this. “You don’t want everyone to think that you’re churning them out like some kind of production line,” I was told severely. “Every one should be hand-crafted and ripped from your soul.”

But they are – trust me on this. Yes, I have a word target each day, calculated from how many words I want to achieve each month, but that doesn’t mean I just dash off any old rubbish purely to fill an empty space. I can’t work like that.

I know there are the theories that say you can fix a page but you can’t fix a blank page, but I’d rather have it more or less right the first time. Once I’ve imagined a scene, written the dialogue and the action, it’s like I’ve cut the grooves in a record and trying to go back and make major changes to existing words just scratches the whole thing into an unintelligible mess.

Like I said: clean, simple, and right (ish) the first time.

So, I do agonise over every sentence, every line, every word and chapter break and scene. I plan and re-plan the sequence of events, the major plot points, and even after I have my writing outline sorted, there’s still room for total left-field changes.

I just had one of those with the new book, DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten. My original plan was for a bus hijacking.

What I’ve just written is a helicopter crash.

(And I don’t mind telling you this, because I’m only a third of the way through writing the book. By the time I’ve finished it and it’s been through the production and publishing process, you’ll have most likely forgotten. Hell, I’ll have most likely forgotten.)

And in that synergistic way things have of happening, it just so happens that for many years I’ve known somebody who was a rotary wing pilot before he retired. Not only that, but he survived a very nasty crash-landing in Australia. I called him up and he talked me through it in wonderful, atmospheric detail.

So, when you read the pilot’s name as Capt Andrew Neal in DIE EASY you’ll know he really exists and has the skills to match.

And maybe it was something to do with the fact that the pilot went from being just an invented name, an actor playing a part, to someone I actually knew, but he instantly rounded out into a very real person. One of those cameo parts that steals the scene. Not that the character of Andrew Neal matches the real Andrew in many details, although I did borrow one of his real experiences as a throwaway line.

This seems to be happening a LOT at the moment. Another character has gone from a bimbo to a MENSA-level businesswoman. She’s just made my main character, Charlie Fox, an offer she will find it very hard to refuse.

I never saw that coming. It certainly wasn’t in the outline.

But I’m damn glad it’s happened.

For me, these organic changes are a sign that the book’s coming to life under my fingers, that parts of the story are weaving back in on themselves and getting stronger. I may not analyse to quite the same amazing degree that our David does, but I hope the overall effect is the same.

These are real people to me. I care what happens to them. I’m thoroughly engaged by what’s driving the bad guys. The good guys are never entirely good, all the way through. Light and shade. Bright and dark.

I admit, though, that I get a little nervous when things are going well. It’s like the two cops in the squad car in the middle of the graveyard shift and one says to the other. “Boy, it sure is quiet tonight …”

But at the moment, the new book is humming along and the best I can do is cling on for the ride – at least while the going is good. And yes, I did hit my 35,000 word target by the end of October. Woo-hoo!

Because I know, come the final page, I’ll be absolutely convinced it’s the worst thing ever written. Not just the worst thing I’ve ever written, but the truly worst thing. Ever.

The writer’s life – one day up. One day down.

But I wouldn’t change it for the world.

This week’s Word of the Week is carphology meaning fitful plucking movements as in a delirium, from the Greek karphos straw, and logeia gathering. Also floccillation which has a more specific meaning – the fitful plucking at the bedclothes by a delirious patient.

Next week, by the way, I am appearing at:

  • The Wordpool festival in Blackpool, first at the Palatine Community College at 11:30am, then at Moor Park Library at 2pm, and finally at the Central Library with Meg Gardiner and Jenn Ashworth at 7pm, all on Monday, November 7th.
  • At Meltham Town Hall (1:30pm) and Slaithwaite Library (7:30pm) with Lesley Horton and Penny Grubb for two LadyKillers events on Thursday, November 10th organised by Kirklees Libraries.
  • I am interviewing the remarkable Martina Cole at the 4th Reading Festival of Crime Writing at 5pm on Friday, November 11th.
  • And finally, I will be teaching two workshop on crime writing with Lesley Horton at Huddersfield Town Hall on Saturday November 12th (again for Kirklees Libraries) starting at 9:30am. Oh, and I’ll be trying to get a bit of scribbling in as well …

 

Starting Over

Zoë Sharp

At the start of this month I began work on a new book, tentatively titled DIE EASY: Charlie Fox book ten.

Actually, that’s not entirely true – well, what do you expect from someone who lies for a living? I should say that as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing tentative about it – DIE EASY is the perfect title for this story. Ever since I first saw the old Bruce Willis classic ‘Die Hard’ I’ve wanted to do a riff on that theme. Let’s face it, it was that movie turned a light comedy TV leading man into an all-action movie star, bare feet and all. And as my book is set in New Orleans – The Big Easy – what better title?

OK, that was itsy little lie #1.

Itsy little lie #2 was that I didn’t start this book on October 1st. I should say I RE-started the book this month, as I wrote the opening three chapters and the half-page jacket copy outline way back at the beginning of this year.

But then Other Things got in the way – like getting the entire Charlie Fox backlist out in e-format, plus putting together an e-thology of CF short stories, FOX FIVE: a Charlie Fox short story collection. And I have to say that I don’t begrudge the time spent on those projects at all. It was a thoroughly energising experience that has brought me back to my writing, and the series, with renewed enthusiasm, as I’ll explain.

Having found out, however, that my lovely US publisher Pegasus Books is bringing FIFTH VICTIM: Charlie Fox book nine out in January 2012 instead of the March I was expecting, I realised that I needed to Extract My Digit in quite a big way if I’m to deliver the finished t/s of the next book before publication of the last one.

(Of course, Brit readers have already been able to get hold of 5V from Allison & Busby since March this year.)

At that point I had only 5800 words written out of 100-110,000 and no full outline. I knew the broad brushstrokes, the major dramatic highlights and emotional themes, but not the nitty-gritty that would enable me to actually get on with the scribbling.

So why write the opening scenes at all?

Because I wanted to know where it all began. Sounds totally illogical, but very few books start at the very beginning of the story itself. Deciding the right jumping-in point – where you grab the reader by the arm and rush them towards the edge of the cliff – is a vital choice for me. Until I know that, I can’t get on with it. I know some people just start writing and worry about that later, but sadly I’m not one of them.

From early on in the series, I’ve been trying to avoid the foreshadowing opening. The ‘had I but known’ style of thing. I did it in the first book KILLER INSTINCT, but I’ve tried to avoid it since, otherwise it becomes very old very fast. I’ve used a couple of flashforward openings, though, and those I do like.

For instance, some people assumed that the opening chapter to SECOND SHOT: Charlie Fox book six was from the very end of it, but without giving too many spoilers, it’s not.

When I wrote ROAD KILL: Charlie Fox book five the original opening for the story had a group of soldiers standing around a fallen motorcyclist who lay screaming in the middle of a road through a very dodgy housing estate in East Belfast, with an angry crowd gathering.

It was a great opening chapter and I loved it.

But it never made it into the final cut of the book. It simply did not drop my protag – and the reader – into the right place in the story. One of the reasons that book was such a pig to write was that I held onto that opening chapter far longer than I should have done. Even now, I still hanker after that original rather than the first chapter I eventually went with. But the final version – which opens with Charlie swinging a sledgehammer into the walls of her cottage – does better serve the story.

Sigh.

But I digress.

It’s now twenty days into October, and so far I’ve had three zero-word days and one day when I only managed a bit of reshuffling, which added 43 words to my total. (Yes, I’m sad enough to keep it all on a spreadsheet.) But yesterday I still managed to hit 20,000 words and I’m aiming to be at 35k by the end of the month.

Then 70k by the end of November, and 105k by the end of the year. That leaves me the last bits to finish off in January, print it all out, do a read through to try and catch inconsistencies, repetitions, check my chapter breaks are in the most effective positions, and ruthlessly scalpel out unnecessary words.

Just like that. Ha!

But I’ll be keeping a running tally of all this on my Facebook author page – seeing as how I’ve almost discovered how this social media stuff works – and possibly on Twitter as well.

I hope you’ll stop by and have a giggle at my expense.

Speaking of having a giggle at my expense, if you happen to be near South Wales next week – October 26th – I shall be appearing at the Newport Big Read event in Gwent. If you can make it, I’d love to see you there.

So, ‘Rati, that’s how I’m intending to tackle my writing schedule over the next couple of months. How about yourselves? And if you’re not writing a book at the moment, how do you deal with big tasks that seem overwhelming at first glance? Do you break them down into work first/reward later, or do you put them off as long as you can possibly manage before knuckling down?

This week’s Word of the Week is ultracrepidate, which means to criticise beyond the sphere of one’s knowledge. It comes from the painter Apelle’s answer to the cobbler who went on from criticising the sandals in a picture to finding fault with the leg. “Ne sutor ultra crepidam.” – “The cobbler must not go beyond the sandal.”

The first thing that comes to hand . . .

Charlie Fox

I’m out and about today, so I hope you don’t mind if I play a substitute?

Here for your entertainment (and possibly your enlightenment) is the second in an occasional series of guest blogs from my close-protection expert and main protagonist, Charlie Fox, touching on the subject of personal security. For those of you who didn’t see her opening instalment back in June – which went into how to spot and avoid trouble in the first place – you can catch up on the subject here. For those of you who enjoyed the words of wisdom last time out, read on at your own risk . . .

 

Charlie Fox: People assume that if you want to stand any chance of defending yourself from serious attack you need either to be built like an outside lavatory or be some kind of martial arts guru. Well, yeah, it all helps.

But deterrent or brute force are not the only alternatives.

If you’re reading this in one of the countries around the world that encourages its citizens to bear arms, you might decide to take that route. But I’m a Brit and back home we’re liable to arrest if we’re caught in a built-up area during the hours of darkness in possession of a loud shirt, never mind anything that qualifies as an offensive weapon.

That means not only are firearms of any description out of the equation, but also pepper spray, TASERs, and anything more than a butter knife. Good job all the thieving toe-rags out there also play by these rules, isn’t it?

Ah, hang on a minute . . .

So, if you’re a civilian and the only black belt you own is the one holding up your black trousers, you need a fallback plan.

And that, I guess, is where I come in.

I’ve always been a big fan of the sneaky ‘speak softly, but’ approach. Trouble is, if you do carry a big stick and end up actually hitting someone with it, you’re likely to find yourself in the back of a squad car with your wrists braceleted together behind your back faster than you can say, “Hey officer, he started it!”

(Trust me on this.)

So when is a weapon not a weapon?

All the time.

As I mentioned last time, having a dog is a good deterrent. But if you don’t happen to own a ferocious pet of some description?

Well, then you have to use whatever item comes to hand.

Speaking of which, here are a few fairly innocuous everyday items you might like to consider for personal defence:

I admit the bent fork doesn’t look so innocent now, but it started out as a cheap table fork, same as can be found in cutlery drawers across the country. (OK, my mother would probably die before letting such inferior stuff lurk among her hallmarked silverware, but that’s another story.) I found this one in the kitchen of an organisation called Fourth Day, out in California. I was unarmed and in need of something I could use for my own protection – something that wouldn’t be missed like a chef’s knife. I bent it into this handled claw shape using the steel legs of a bed frame, and kept it under my pillow.

And yes, when I needed it, my improvised knuckleduster proved pretty effective.*

Not only is it a nasty thing to hit someone with, almost guaranteed to do some damage and mark them for later identification, but the way the handle bends around your fingers makes it hard to take away from you, and it also protects your hands.

Protecting your hands is vital. If you’re not a bare-knuckle fighter by training or disposition, the chances are that the first time you hit someone in anger, for real, you’ll break something.

And as soon as you injure your hands, you’re halfway stuffed.

You should avoid it if you can.

Same reason why I’d be wary about using a bunch of keys clenched inside a fist for self-defence – there’s as much chance of breaking your own fingers as your assailant’s face.

Instead, as you’re walking along a deserted street or back to your car in a darkened parking garage, why not just carry a rolled-up magazine? In the past, I took on a burglar with a copy of Bike, which is a nice weighty mag and perfect-bound – it has a thick spine instead of just a row of staples. Tough enough to be effective, flimsy enough to be laughed out of court. And while he was down on the floor still gasping, at least I had something to read.**

Roll the mag up reasonably tight and keep the hard ridge of the spine to the outside. Then strike with it as you would a baton. Practice. I’ve seen the end of one of these punched through an internal door. (OK, practice on an old cardboard box – you’ll be amazed at the damage you can do.)

Of course, going to check out anything, alone, at night, is downright bloody stupid. But we all do downright bloody stupid things occasionally. At least take a flashlight rather than a flickering candle.

I keep a four-cell Mag-Lite by the bed … purely in case of a power-cut – why else? Hold it like the cops do, just behind the head. That way you can use the tail-end to strike out at an intruder without breaking the bulb. And once they’re down you still have the light to see who it is you’ve clobbered.

 

A steel-case pen is another terrific improvised weapon and one that most people have about them at any time. It can be used clenched in the hand in a hammer grip to strike at the eyes, face, temple, side of the neck, ear, shoulder muscles or chest.

And if you don’t have a pen? The handle of a toothbrush will do the job, a small pocket flashlight or even a roll of sweets. Basically, anything that’s small and cylindrical and easy to hold, but will not cause damage to your own hand when you use it.

There are numerous grips you can use with this kind of object, like palm-push and pointing finger. All will be just as effective if delivered with determination to a vulnerable area.

The last item in the group shot above is a small canister of hairspray. If you’re being attacked, threaten someone’s eyes with it – hell, if they’re attacking you, don’t threaten, just point and squirt. I happen to know that a liberal dose of lacquer in the eyes will take the fight out of just about anybody.*

Not to mention what you can do with a canister of spray and a cigarette lighter . . .

So now you’ve chosen your improvised weapon for self-defence, what do you aim for?

Given a choice in a close-up scuffle, I’d usually go for the throat. Might sound like a cliché, but think about it. In a fully dressed assailant, the body is likely to be covered up. The face too, if they’re wearing a ski mask to avoid you picking them out of a line-up afterwards. I’ve been there, and let me tell you that not being able to see your attacker’s face all adds to the scariness of the situation.***

The eyes are a good choice, but harder to hit if they’re wearing glasses. But the throat is usually exposed and is a small, easily identifiable and relatively soft target. That is one area you could hit with your fist and be reasonably assured of it hurting them more than it hurts you. (I’d try to use a forearm or elbow-strike, though.)

Anywhere on the face is good, too. Eyes, temples, ears, neck, or the soft area under the jaw. There’s a sweet-spot about halfway along the jawline itself (just about where the tails of a droopy moustache would end) that will put them down every time if you place it right.

You can trust me on that, too.***

I’d bypass the body for an initial strike. Unless they’re wearing fairly light clothing, in which case the fleshy vee under the rib cage – the solar plexus – is a good aiming point. A solid blow there with leave your attacker doing landed fish impersonations on the ground while you leg it.

Most guys, I’ve found, have pretty fast reactions when it comes to protecting the family jewels from sudden attack. Mind you, if you are forced into close contact then there’s always the opportunity for a fast-raised knee.****

Instead, knees, ankles, shins and feet – probably in that order. The knee is a straightforward lateral hinge joint and very vulnerable to impact. Ask any sportsman.

 

 

 

(And if you’re squeamish, you might want to scroll past this next pic a bit sharpish.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back with me? OK. Deep breaths – you’ll be fine.

Unless you’re Jean-Claude van Damme, don’t go for high kicks to the head. It’s opening yourself up – if you’ll pardon the pun – for a hefty punch in the knackers.

Instead, a low level stamp-down kick to the side of the knee always proves effective.*****  The shins contain a huge cluster of nerve-endings that will put most assailants down if gouge or clout them with enough gusto. And when it comes to the final target – the feet – the instep is probably a better target than the better-protected toes.

Unless, of course, you’re being mugged by a guy in flip-flops.

In which case you should be ashamed of yourself – grow a pair.

So, questions for you – what do you carry that you could use to defend yourself in an emergency? And have you ever had to use it?

 

As mentioned, I’m out and about today, but I’ll get to comments when I can. Tomorrow I’m guest-blogging over at Jungle Red Writers. I hope you’ll stop by and say “hi”. I’ll bring virtual cookies!

This week’s Word of the Week is cognition, meaning the act or process of knowing, in the widest sense, including sensation, perception, etc, distinguished from emotion and conation; the knowledge resulting or acquired. And as an aside to that, also cognosce, which in Scots law means to examine; to give judgement upon; to declare to be an idiot.

 

All techniques mentioned are described in the following books in the Charlie Fox series:

*FOURTH DAY: Charlie Fox book eight

**ROAD KILL: Charlie Fox book five

***KILLER INSTINCT: Charlie Fox book one

****FIRST DROP: Charlie Fox book four

*****HARD KNOCKS: Charlie Fox book three 

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