I have no words of wisdom for you this week. In fact, I was rather hoping you might have a few for me.
You see, I’ve finally decided I need to get my head round the concept of e-publishing. I know this may seem incredibly behind the times to some of you, but on this side of the Atlantic e-publishing has yet to reach the heights of popularity it has done in the States and, frankly, it’s such a huge subject that I don’t quite know where to begin.
Enter any kind of query about it into a search engine and you get a gazillion hits. I begin losing the will to live after the first twenty or so pages. (Coupled to this is the fact we’re on a cripplingly slow internet connection, and I am possibly the most non-internet-savvy person I know. Just ask any of my fellow ‘Rati authors who get regular panicked emails from me when my post is due and I hit a technical snag!)
The more I find out about e-publishing, the more I realise I don’t know, so I thought the best idea was to ask my ‘Rati friends what they knew.
And that’s where you come in – I hope!
I know I’m being cheeky to ask, but who else has the breadth and depth of knowledge that you do? You obviously enjoy reading in digital format, or you wouldn’t be here, so I hope you’ll forgive me for asking what may seem like a set of dumb questions:
If you’re a writer, do you have direct experience of e-publishing? By that, I mean, have you self-published one of your own titles and, if so, what was the biggest hurdle to overcome?
How did you go about the process itself of getting the book out there?
Is it a brand new work, or a book that was previously print-published?
If it’s new, who handled the editing and proofreading?
What platforms did you choose, and how did you make that decision?
Who handled the formatting?
Who designed the cover, and have you changed the cover or the title since the e-book went on sale? If so, why?
Is piracy a problem or do you feel the need for some kind of password-protection to prevent your book being shared?
Of course, just writing the book and navigating the technicalities of putting it on sale are only half the battle. People have to know about it in order to want to read it. I was a reader long before I was a writer, and I continue to devour all kinds of books. Therefore, I’m just as anxious to know the best places for discussion and recommendations. So:
Where do you go to get good recommendations on new e-books?
What annoys you most about authors’ behaviour on discussion forums or social networking sites?
How important are social networking sites like Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook, etc, to finding new authors or keeping up with a favourite author’s work?
Of course, I’m also thinking that maybe – just maybe – I should get an e-reader of my own. That throws up a different set of questions:
Do you have an e-reader and if so, what kind, and how much do you use it?
Or, equally, if you’d NEVER consider an e-reader, why not?
How much of your reading has gone over to an e-device of some description, and have you found any drawbacks? (This is other than the plane problem of not being able to use any electronic device until you get to 10,000 feet.)
Have I asked too many questions?
Should I stop now?
This week’s Word of the Week is osteoPORNosis – a degenerate disease …
We live in a Want it Now society. A No Waiting world, where delivery must be fast fast fast or we lose interest. Trash it and on to the next thing. Fifteen minutes of fame has become fifteen seconds.
If you’re lucky.
It may just be what I see of the UK, but kids’ ambition has turned from wanting some kind of career that might one day bring reward, to craving celebrity for its own sake – without apparently wanting to do anything to earn that status.
Patience and persistence, it seems, are dying qualities.
I have always said in the past that there were more persistent writers published than there are talented writers published, and I feel that was true.
It’s not just the actual business of writing an entire book. That’s tough enough. Having the self-belief and the knuckle-under mentality to keep going, a few hundred words at a time, until you’ve got a completed manuscript sitting there. Sustaining the idea, building the characters, developing the plot. It’s a feat that demands applause on the grounds of persistence alone.
There are hard drives all over the world cluttered with literary efforts that staggered to a halt less than halfway through, never to see the end of their journey.
By the law of averages, some of them might have been brilliant masterpieces.
Some would have been total dross.
Of course, some brilliant masterpieces do make it to the completion stage, are discovered and published to all-round acclaim.
Weirdly, quite a lot of the dross makes it that far, too.
In his last Murderati post, David Corbett talked, among other things, about the value of having a football coach who encouraged him in his endeavours. ‘Not because I was gifted. The reason I played football and not baseball or basketball was simple: I lacked any conceivable athletic talent. The only thing slower than me on the football field were the goal posts.’
Having someone to encourage your efforts at an impressionable age is vital for healthy development. What form that encouragement takes, and how you define the word ‘encouragement’ in the first place, is quite another matter.
Encouragement is important for writers, because self-doubt will always be part of the writer’s make-up. The devil on your shoulder, whispering in your ear nothings that are a long way from sweet. And the worst thing about that particular little demon is that whatever praise you receive only eggs him on. ‘Aw, come on – they don’t mean it. They’re just humouring you …’
Most fledgling writers don’t stray far from the nest for their first test readers. They ask family and close friends. In a lot of ways, it’s a logical choice. Who wants to turn their baby over to strangers who may send it out to play in heavy traffic?
Instead they turn to family. And family, being family, is most likely to deliver praise. ‘Well done,’ they say with a smile that doesn’t quite reach their eyes. ‘It’s great.’
Even if it isn’t.
After all, they love you. They want you to be happy, and most of all – unless things at home fall firmly into the dysfunctional category – they don’t want to see your fragile ego bruised. Possibly, also, they don’t want to have to live with the emotional fallout of telling you the hard, blunt truth.
That your baby sucks.
And then some.
Nobody wants to be told they’ve failed to achieve their dream, even if it is at the first attempt. Just as nobody wants to be told they haven’t got any talent ever to achieve their ambition. Or, worse and more cruel still I think, that they have some talent – just not enough.
Close, but no cigar.
Because, what if your bouncing baby bestseller is not actually destined forever for the slush pile, but what if it’s just … ordinary.
After all, some people’s terrible is other people’s brilliant. But there’s an awful lot of middle ground in between, so how do you distinguish between undiscovered genius and mid-list also-ran?
Somebody said recently that if you write for the approbation of others, then don’t do it. But if we don’t write to be read … then why do we do it? It’s just a voice in the wilderness, unheard.
That might be all right for the tortured artists among us, who work because they can’t do otherwise, driven by those whispering demons, urged on, flogging themselves until they’re bled dry by their ‘talent’.
Such artists are rarely appreciated – or acknowledged – in their own lifetimes.
But what about the rest of us?
Yes, we’re all driven to write in one form or another, but I see what we do as a craft rather than an art, and thus we’re all striving to better our craft in the hope that talent will out while we’re still in a condition to enjoy it.
If talent were enough.
If only talent were enough.
So, when do you decide that it’s not? And, if you make that decision, won’t the brockenspectre of regret follow you for the rest of your life?
I coulda been a contender …
If you block your ears to the critics, then surely you must also disbelieve those who offer praise.
Always waiting for the but …
The not quite.
Just as we live in a Want It Now society, we also live in one that attempts to homogenise us. It rounds off the corners and in doing so crushes aspirations at the same time as attempting to eliminate disappointments. It creates that vast pool of middle ground.
Everyone’s a winner, babe.
Some schools in the UK have banned Sports’ Day because of the negative effects losing the egg-and-spoon race may have on the pupils whose speed and agility and hand-to-eye coordination isn’t quite up to the task. Other parents have been known to sue because their little darlings are not selected for the school choir, regardless of actual singing ability …
They must all be winners, and the playing field will be levelled and re-levelled until that is so. But isn’t it as cruel to encourage those without talent, as it is to discourage those with it?
Will the rise of ePublishing be the artificially levelled playing field of the literary world?
No longer do struggling writers have to go through the selection process of submitting to agents in the hopes of being taken on. Agent rejections can be blunt, and hard. They not only don’t pull their punches, they’re usually wearing a set of brass knuckles when they swing. And more often than not they follow it up with a swift knee to the groin for good measure.
And even if you make it that far, there’s the whole painful process to go through again, submitting to publishers. If you thought agents could be brutal, wait until commissioning editors get hold of your baby and start casually disembowelling it with a few slashes of a sharp red pen …
So, the temptation to circumvent this process and go straight to ePublishing is understandably strong, but there are dangers, as were pointed out in JT Ellison’sexcellent interviewwith industry professional Neil Nyren on Murderati recently: ‘If you’re thinking of self-publishing an ebook, please—don’t make it a manuscript dump. Most ms never see the light of day for an excellent reason – they’re not very good.’
Because, if you don’t go through the pain of rejections and rewrites, do you really know if what you’ve done is good, or even good enough? How do you tell if you haven’t quite got what it takes, or are simply misunderstood?
Having some talent is not the same as having enough talent.
But how do you tell the difference?
Finally, please spare a thought for all those Edgar Award nominees who will be put out of their misery this evening – April 28th. I have the honour of being a contributor to a nominated title – THRILLERS: 100 MUST READSedited by David Morrell and Hank Wagner. Whatever the outcome, congratulations to the winners and commiserations to the losers.
This week’s Word of the Week is exenterate, meaning to disembowel, from the Greek ex from and enteron intestine.
“For months I lay in bed and plotted how to kill my ex-husband. But I knew I’d bungle it and get caught, so I wrote it in a book instead.”
When I’m giving talks, I usually joke that it’s a great way of obtaining revenge – if someone really annoys me, I kill them off in a book. And I say that, since I’ve long since run out of people who have pissed me off sufficiently, I now take requests like a kind of literary contract killer. It always gets a laugh.
But, I’m careful in how I do this when I’m actually writing, and often the recognisable features of my victims are recognisable only to me. A private joke. A private satisfaction, if you like.
But what if they’re not recognisable only to me?
I was talking to someone recently who was faced with a literary dilemma. A member of his family had written what purported to be a novel, but populated it with characters clearly drawn from his own life and portrayed in the most unflattering terms. The writer has taken real events and added his own dark spin – a hinted-at piece of moral turpitude, the sly implication of a cheated qualification.
But what do you do about it without causing horrendous rifts within the family?
You might ask, what does it matter? Surely very few people are going to actually see or read this novel? And, at one point, you would have been right. After all, no traditional publisher would touch something they thought was going to land them in legal hot water, regardless of whether the quality of the writing was of publishable standard.
Enter the internet.
Anyone with something to say can be published to the world at the click of a mouse, and so it was the case here. The book was out there, albeit briefly, for anyone to read a sample or buy in its entirety. The person who felt most damaged by this was, as you can imagine, unbelievably upset by it.
But what can he do without tearing his family apart even further?
OK, ‘Rati, what would YOU do?
Apologies for this week’s post being a short one, but I’m somewhat under the weather. I’ll be back to respond to comments whenever I can stand up. Meanwhile, this week’s Word of the Week is phoney, meaning fake. It comes from the Gaelic, fainne (pronounced ‘fawnya’) and means a circle or ring. In the 18th century, some Irish gold was not considered the genuine article, so gold rings from Ireland were called ‘fawney’, which became English slang for fake. In the 1920s, this name had extended to fake gold rings passed around by American conmen , although the American accent led to the word becoming ‘phoney’ instead.
You may recall, at the beginning of March, Brett very kindly did an interview/review for the US publication of my Charlie Fox thriller, FOURTH DAY. It was an absolute pleasure to be able to return the favour with his latest – the excellent THE SILENCED. I confess I’d put off reading this book – but only because normally, reading on screen makes my eyes go a bit square, but this one no hardship at all! Highly unusually for me, I read it straight through in about a day and a half. Yeah, once the story grabs hold it really doesn’t want to let go.
Brett, as you all probably know, is the award-winning author of three previous books in the thriller series centring around Jonathan Quinn, whose chosen profession is that of covert cleaner. He’s the man who knows exactly where the bodies are buried – mainly because he’s the one who put them there. THE SILENCED is the fourth outing for Quinn, accompanied by his deadly companion, Orlando, and young apprentice, Nate, on a deadly chase across America from west to east coast, and then on to Paris and the UK.
Zoë Sharp: So, Brett – sitting comfortably? Is that spotlight OK? Electrodes not pulling out too many hairs, I hope? Duct tape allowing some circulation?
ZS: So, let’s begin. You were one of the original KILLER YEAR authors – the class of ’07. For those of us with the attention span of a goldfish, can you remind us how that all came about, and how much you feel it helped kick-start your career?
BB: Ah, yes. KILLER YEAR. It started back in 2006. There were several of us with books coming out in 2007 who had taken to blogging as a means of interacting and getting our names out there. We started following each others’ posts, sharing information, and becoming friends. We were always talking about how hard it was to get attention and market our books. I’m not sure who mentioned it—Jason Pinter or our own JT, one of those two, I think—but someone said if only we could band together, it would be easier to be heard. Instantly a big giant light blub went off over our heads, and within minutes a tag line came to me: It’s Going to be a Killer Year. Jason or JT shortened this to KILLER YEAR, and we were off.
It was great! And did exactly what we hoped, especially within the Thriller and Mystery community. When we showed up at conferences, people already knew who we were. Other members included former Murderati folks Toni McGee Causey and Robert Gregory Browne, and also Bill Cameron, Sean Chercover, Marcus Sakey, Dave White, Marc Lecard, Gregg Olsen, Patry Francis, and Derek Nikitas. We got an anthology out of it (KILLER YEAR: STORIES TO DIE FOR edited by Lee Child—that was almost all JT’s doing – thank you JT!) Also, the debut novelist program that ITW runs now is a direct offshoot of KILLER YEAR.
ZS: Where did the character of Jonathan Quinn originally come from? And did the name arrive all of a piece, or did you agonise over it?
BB: I didn’t agonize, but he didn’t arrive fully formed either. I knew I wanted to write an international espionage type story, but I didn’t want to do an assassin or super spy. There were enough James Bonds and Jason Bournes and John Rains in the world. I wanted to do something different. I also have this fascination with the concept I refer to as “what happens after?” By that I mean what happens after the main event occurs. We get news articles about accidents or murders or robberies or whatever, but we seldom ever get the follow up stories of what happens after these things occur. I consider Quinn an “after” character. He gets to work after the main action goes down, though he then is often pulled into creating some of that action himself. So I thought about him for a while, and he slowly took shape, and when I finally felt I had a good idea of who he was, I started writing.
ZS: Quinn’s character is a cleaner – he moves in and deals with the aftermath of death, cleaning up and disappearing the bodies. On the surface, he doesn’t sound like a very sympathetic character. How do you go about combating that?
BB: Good point. I definitely wanted him to be sympathetic, and knew I had to be careful there. Part of what I did was basically give him a personal moral/ethical code that included working for agencies and governments he feels are doing the right thing. This is something, of course, he can’t always know for sure, and could put him in the situation of working for someone he thinks is doing right, but who is actually doing something underhanded. I also try to show that he has a clear human side and cares about things. Though he might try to hide it sometimes, it’s always there, right underneath.
ZS: In THE SILENCED, the character of Liz asks Nate if Quinn is a criminal. He replies that Quinn is possibly the most honourable man Nate has ever met, but doesn’t that side-step the question slightly? After all, Quinn is a freelance operative – he works for the highest bidder, even if he does reserve the right to walk away from jobs he doesn’t like. Did you set out to give him this conflicted set of morals – this ethical dilemma – right from the start?
BB: Yes on all fronts. Definitely side-steps the issue. To many people there’s no question he’d be called a criminal. And I love the internal conflicts this causes him. In my mind, his job is slowly eating away at him from the inside.
ZS: I particularly liked the deceptively simple narrative style of the book, and the straightforward description of the action scenes – you let the action speak for itself rather than trying to over-dramatise something that is, by its nature, already dramatic. How do you go about putting together something like the scene with Nate and Julien’s colleagues in Paris?
BB: Thanks, Zoë. I appreciate that. I wish I could tell you that I sit there and plan everything out and find the best way to tell it, but, honestly I don’t. On that particular scene, I remember thinking, “Okay, Nate needs to go here, and find what he finds, and run into one of Julien’s colleagues,” then putting my hands on the keyboard and just writing it. Turned out he didn’t find just one of Julien’s colleagues but several, and I didn’t know that until it happened.
As far as action scenes themselves, I don’t know how to write them any differently than I do. It’s just the way they come out of my brain. And, like you said, scenes like that are already full of tension. I don’t need to go over the top.
ZS: And, following on from that, what are your pet hates in action narrative? What really pulls you in, and what throws you out of the story?
BB: Over description kills it for me. It makes me aware that there’s a writer behind the words, and takes me out of the actual story. Show me what needs to be shown, keep the tension high, and get to the point. That’s what works for me.
ZS: The supporting characters of Orlando, Liz and Petra are very interestingly portrayed and fleshed out. Are you in touch with your feminine side? Erm, I mean, how easy do you find it to write opposite-gender characters?
BB: Hahaha… I actually love writing female characters, in fact, sometimes they are the strongest characters in my stories. Orlando is often Quinn’s conscience and sounding board. She keeps him focused when he begins to wander off. In THE SILENCED Liz is great, too, as is Petra. These are all women who are sure of themselves while still having doubts and questions like any normal person would have. Am I in touch with my feminine side? I try to be, but that’s for others to judge, I guess.
ZS: It seems that many publishers, if they find a character they like, push for a series rather than standalones? Did you set out to write a series from the outset, or was it publisher-driven?
BB: I didn’t set out to write a series, but by the time I sold THE CLEANER I was thinking that way. A friend and former mentor was the one who mentioned the possibility to me. When he said, “I think you could have a series here,” it was like one of those hit yourself in the forehead moments. Of course, it was the first of a series. Why didn’t I see that?
ZS: The action of THE SILENCED shifts from your home city of LA, across to Maine and New York City, then on to Paris and London. I noticed with a smile the scene that takes place in the lobby of the Grand Hyatt in NYC, as it’s a familiar location to any ThrillerFest attendees and a nice nod to the genre. How did you go about researching the other locations of your novel?
BB: I’m big on location scouting. I love to travel, so I often plan my travel around stories I want to write. Such was the case with the London and Paris locations. I went there specifically because I wanted to feature them in the story, and took tons of pictures and notes and must have walked dozens of miles while I was there. The Hyatt in NYC I’ve been to many times, of course, and thought it would be a kick to set a scene there given that Thrillerfest and the Edgars are held in the building. As for the scenes in Gorham, Maine, I have a good friend who lives there. In fact, the house in question is loosely (very loosely) based on hers.
ZS: You’ve mentioned previously that you’re not an outliner – preferring to come up with the initial idea, maybe bullet-point the plot – and see where the writing takes you. Is that still the case? If so, how many drafts do you typically go through to get to the finished work? How much does the final version usually differ from your first draft, and in what respects? Major plot points? Minor elements? Any examples spring to mind with THE SILENCED?
BB: That’s pretty much still the same way I work. I’ve tried to do more detailed outlines, but a) they’re a chore, and I don’t want writing to be a chore, and b) once I start writing the book from an outline, I feel like I’m straight-jacketed and am just typing more than writing. The way I work is exactly how you described: a few ideas, maybe some bullet points, and usually a handle on where I want to end up, then go. I sometime refer to my first draft as a 300+ page outline. Rewriting is the key. I’ll do anywhere from four to six rewrite passes these days, with the first two or three being major passes and the others more clean up and polishing passes. I can’t recall specifically any huge changes in THE SILENCED, but there is one from THE CLEANER that I’ve cited before. In the version I sold, so that would already be draft three or four at that point, I had killed Nate off in the first 80 pages. Readers of the series know that here we are in book four and Nate’s still around. That’s because a smart editor convinced me it was a mistake to kill him off, and she was definitely right. I should point out that with the earlier books I had to do more rewrite passes than I do now, but that’s because, hopefully, I’m not making the same mistakes as much. I definitely try to learn from each book to the next.
ZS: Who are your first test-readers and what made you choose them/stick with them?
BB: The two I use (read abuse) for most books are Bill Cameron and Tasha Alexander. They are both great writers, and I trust their opinions. Bill and I often talk for an hour or more after he’s read a draft, going over all the points. They have both definitely made my books better. I’ve also started expanding my Beta Readers group. I’ve even roped Rob in to reading my latest.
ZS: I see you have a brand new Jonathan Quinn short story available in eFormat – ‘Just Another Job’. Will this also be available for us paper dinosaurs? Are you a frequent short story writer? I note that your story ‘Perfect Gentleman’ came in for particular praise in the KILLER YEAR anthology. What attracts you to short stories, and how did ‘Just Another Day’ come about?
BB: No plans just yet to bring the shorts out in paper. Perhaps once I have several I can package them together. I haven’t written many in the past, but I do have plans on writing more in the future, including several Quinn shorts from when he was just starting out…basically Quinn origin stories. ‘Just Another Job’ was something I did as a web exclusive for a member-only site a year or so ago, and was now able to make available for others to read. I do enjoy writing shorts, but sometimes find that it’s easier to come up with an idea for a novel than a short story. Don’t ask me why.
ZS: I see that as well as THE SILENCED you also have the first book in a new series with a new main protagonist, Logan Harper – LITTLE GIRL GONE. Tell us about this new departure? Why have you deviated from the Jonathan Quinn series? What avenues does Harper allow you to explore that Quinn didn’t?
BB: First let me say that I love Quinn, and will continue writing Quinn, but I’ve been feeling pulled lately to also write stories that are outside his world. Logan gives me this opportunity. Logan’s a former soldier and defense contractor who has returned to his hometown after losing his job and his wife over a crushing experience while in Afghanistan. He’s now just trying to make it day-by-day working at his father’s auto garage in the small California coastal town of Cambria. One morning when he makes his normal stop to get coffee at a shop owned by his father’s friend Tooney, he finds a man in back holding a gun to Tooney’s head. From there, Logan is thrust into a search for Tooney’s missing granddaughter that takes him first to Los Angeles, and then to Bangkok and finally to the beautiful Wat Doi Suthep temple above Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Logan allows me to have more of an everyman hero—albeit with some advanced training. He’s not a professional like Quinn. He doesn’t work for agencies or organizations. He just helps people, sometime reluctantly, while he tries to deal with his own demons.
I really love getting into Logan’s world, and am extremely happy with how LITTLE GIRL GONE has turned out. It’s been getting a lot of great response that I am very grateful for.
ZS: We’ve actually been to Cambria – lovely place, and we ate at a wonderful little restaurant that played Harry James and served terrific duck quesadillas. But I digress… So, what else is on the horizon for you?
BB: I have another book coming out later in April called SICK. It’s quite possibly the most suspenseful book I’ve ever written. And a story that will keep you guessing until the end. Oh, and then there’s the first in my new YA series, HERE COMES MR. TROUBLE. That will hopefully be out early May. At that point I may curl up into a ball and sleep for a year.
ZS: Well, Brett, it’s been real pleasure. One final question before the gag goes back on – what IS the best way to get rid of a body? Any last-minute cleaning tips I should know about…?
BB: I’d love to tell you, Zoë, but I can’t give away any trade secrets. I’m sure you understand. Thanks for having me! I’ve enjoyed it here at, what did you call this place? Murder-at-i? Well, whatever. Thanks!
I let Brett chose this week’s Word of the Week (think of it as a kind of last request) and he came up with shoice, which means when presented with several options to choose from, shoice is the option “choice” you “should” make.
As I’m wandering around the States on tour at the moment, it seemed an ideal opportunity to allow another author to wander around my Thursday Murderati spot. I’m delighted to be interviewing Scottish crime author, Crime Scene Scotland blogger and reviewer extraordinaire, Russel D McLean. Russel’s debut novel, THE GOOD SON, was described by John Connolly as marking “the arrival of an exceptional talent”. Russel lives in Scotland’s fourth city of Dundee, where his novels are set, and shares a house with a cursed mask. (Honestly, I’m not making this stuff up!)
Zoë Sharp: Can you tell us about your early work prior to publishing the first book in your PI J McNee series – THE GOOD SON?
Russel D McLean: I used to think I’d wind up writing Science Fiction, and indeed a lot of my early published shorts (for no pay, back in the days when ezines were first really kicking off) were (frequently poor) SF stories, usually dystopian, surrealistic and downbeat.
My first published crime shorts were still downbeat but I found the form suited my style for and soon enough I found paying markets like Alfred Hictchcock’s Mystery Magazine taking me on. Many of those early stories were focused on a Scots PI called Sam Bryson who served as my first run at themes and ideas I would later explore in the novels.
ZS: PI J McNee is described by another character in THE LOST SISTER as “You’re a man who drags his own disaster round with him like a wrecking ball. You want to help. But you can’t.” Does this sum him up for you, and where did the character of McNee come from?
RDM: It does sum him up in a way. McNee is consumed with guilt – both deserved and self-inflicted – and I think that leads to him making some very poor decisions which can really have an impact on those around him. Not that he’s a complete screw-up. It’s only one aspect to who he is, but in his darkest moments, this definitely applies to him. The person who says it is looking to hurt him with the statement. And I think it hits the mark.
As to where he came from, he started out as an archetypal PI, but I found the more I placed him in the real world the more he couldn’t be just a “lone ranger” hero. He became more complex than that. One of the things I wanted to do within the crime fiction sphere is show that actions and thoughts and events have real consequences, and McNee’s personality is very much formed by his experience.
ZS: What was it like to follow-up THE GOOD SON with the difficult second book – THE LOST SISTER?
RDM: I think, actually, it’s the difficult third book, if I’m honest. Number 2 had to be written fast due to contracts and luckily I really wanted to explore themes I’d tried in one of my earlier attempts at a debut novel.
The premise of THE LOST SISTER was supposed to be my first book and was originally written to feature Sam Bryson, a character I had explored previously in short fiction. Had all gone according to plan, I think the book would have been vastly different. But McNee brought a unique atmosphere to the book and writing with him as the protagonist allowed me to go to some very dark places I couldn’t have explored with Bryson. There are one or two elements still in place from that first attempt: a missing girl, a man who may not be what he appears, a mother hiding dark secrets, but I think because it’s now a second novel, it feels much more mature than it might have been otherwise.
So I had a ball writing it. But keeping everything straight – it’s a more complex plot than I think it looks – was mind-blowingly difficult. One of the many editing passes was strictly for dates and ages when we realised the missing girl was variously given as three different ages. So it was complex but hugely rewarding. I truly believe it’s a better book than THE GOOD SON (which I would still humbly suggest you read if you haven’t!)
ZS: How would you describe your books to someone who is just about to read them for the first time?
RDM: Really really good for propping up that table with the wobbly leg … oh, wait, you want me not to do the whole Scottish self-deprecating thing?
Dark crime novels with a real emotional hook that move the private eye from the traditional mean streets of America to the back alleys of modern Scotland.
How’s that work?
ZS: Do you have a set time for writing or do you work when you can?
RDM: I have to work when I can with my schedule and the fact I’m also employed full time. At home I tend to work very late at night. But I do have a “country retreat” (or, as it’s also called, my parents’ house) where I disappear and just write 24/7 for a full week or so when I’m coming to the end of a draft. I reckon if I lived out in the middle of nowhere, I’d write more.
But yes, I’ll write whenever and wherever I can. Which often means I don’t have much of a life, if I’m honest, between full-time work and what amounts to another full-time job writing. But the truth is, I bloody love doing it.
[Russel has set McNee’s PI office at 1 Courthouse Square – conveniently To Let, as you can see …]
ZS: How do your stories normally come about?
RDM: A lot of them start with images and notions. I usually have a scene in my head and I work from there. I need to give ideas a lot of time to stew, though, and generally it’ll take a long time for one of these images to become a workable story. I have a number of sketches (in words) and ideas scattered around my filing system and I just let them stew there until I have a really solid feel for how they should pan out.
ZS: Do you already have an outline or do you just have an idea at the back of your mind and see where it takes you?
RDM: I work half and half. Generally winging it right up to the point my agent demands an outline. Then I give him one. Generally that helps me figure out where I’m going. But usually right from the start I know my opening scene and my end scene. Those are always very clear to me. Everything in between is up for grabs. And a lot of the time, even with an outline, I’ll find a number of things change as I go on. It’s an inevitable part of the process. But while I don’t like the idea of outlines, I have to do admit they do help keep me focused and allow me to not have to think about complexities of plot when I’m focusing on bringing out the character in a piece.
ZS: What is the most important element for you when you’re writing?
RDM: Lots of coffee. An internet connection so I can do research on the fly. And isolation. If I could, I’d get myself one of those writing cabins all the cool writers seemed to have back in the day.
ZS: What aspect of the job do you enjoy most?
RDM: The sheer buzz that comes from writing. Genuinely, it’s the one of the few things I’ve ever felt absolute joy over doing. I am a huge believer in storytelling, in writing and in engaging with stories.
I still consider myself a reader who got lucky. Sometimes it’s very strange – and a huge honour – to think there are people out there who might be reacting to my books the way I have reacted to so many other authors.
ZS: You set your PI series in Dundee – Scotland’s fourth city. I know you explain in THE LOST SISTER that Dundee was founded on the three ‘J’s – jute, journalism and jam – but what appealed to you about this particular location? Forgive me, but it’s not the first place that springs to mind when you mention hard-boiled private eye novels!
[Dundee’s Caird Hall has doubled for St Petersburg in several Brit movies]
RDM: Ahhhh… but it’s not three “j”s despite what everyone says. Jute is right (we were the centre for the jute industry), journalism is also correct (DC Thomson are journalistic giants) but jam… the truth is it was bloody marmalade. Mrs Keillers, if I remember correctly.
In fact, it should really be two J’s, an M and a P as we’re also famous for pies. Or “pehs” as it’s pronounced locally.
[Desperate Dan of The Dandy comic is published by DC Thompson in Dundee]
But … here’s the serious answer … it’s not the first place that springs to mind and that in part is what makes it perfect. Dundee is essentially an unknown quantity to many people, but there’s so much that can be illuminated in the service of a good crime story. There’s a lot of history here, more than you might expect. There are a lot of small streets, of hidden stories. And then there’s the fact that it was a city that has gone through such great changes. From big industry to virtual poverty and back again. The old city is being swept away by a new cosmopolitan ideal and that’s fascinating to watch as it happens.
[Captain Scott’s ship, The Discovery, used in his ill-fated Antartic expedition, is berthed at Riverside in Dundee]
There’s a book (I think it was ten weeks at the top of the Scottish charts based pretty much solely on sales from Dundee) called THE LAW KILLERS by Alexander McGregor. A collection of true crime stories from Dundee. Part of the reason for its success was the idea that such things could happen in Dundee. So there is a very dark side to the city, too.
But mostly it was the fact that no one else was writing crime novels in the area (at the time – since then I’ve also been joined by McGregor writing his first fiction novel and Chris Longmuir whose debut, Dead Wood was also set in Dundee and loosely based on one of Dundee’s most famous murder cases) and that I felt it was physically and historically a great setting to use.
ZS: What is your biggest distraction when you are writing?Getting motivated to write is a problem for many authors. Do you have any strategies or ploys that you use to grease the gears of your craft, or has self-motivation never been an issue?
RDM: I am very easily … oooh, a shiny penny!
Sorry, what was I saying?
Yes, I am easily distracted. So sometimes it’s hard to get started. I’m always thinking about what I haven’t done or what I need to do. I’ve developed an inner voice, though, that tells me I need to pull my socks up. Basically I get going through fear and guilt. Most of the time these work for me. I also set goals for myself and until I achieve them I cannot my arse from the chair. Not even for bathroom breaks. When I’m working on a first draft it’s 500 words. Redrafting, it’s reaching the end of a chapter. So if I do find myself trawling Youtube or the blogs, it’s my own fault that I then need to pee and can’t get up until I’ve written the next 300 words.
So far, there have been no accidents.
ZS: There is such a thing as Too Much Information, you know … Anyway, what made you decide to write a series and not a standalone novel? Would you write a standalone novel?
RDM: I would write a standalone. I have one at early stages but it still needs more work. A lot more. It may not be entirely what people expect, of course, but that’s the fun.
In honesty, when it comes to McNee, I think I’m writing a sequence more than a series. Remember how I said I have last scenes of books in my mind? Well I know almost exactly how I want book 5 to end. And after that I’m writing at least a few different books before even thinking about coming back to McNee.
ZS: Are you easily amused and what was the last thing that amused you?
RDM: I think I am easily amused and yet you know this is the question that has caused me the most problems. I’m a magpie of humour, constantly distracted by shiny things and quick witticisms.
And of course, being a bookseller and an author, I will always have space to laugh at Black Books. Whenever something goes bad in terms of my writing, I always tend to watch this little skit to make myself feel better:
ZS: You’re a bookseller at Waterstone’s in Dundee in your other life. Does being surrounded by all those other books have an effect on your writing?
RDM: Off the top of my head, these other authors also worked for Big W:
And I’m sure there’s loads more. But there’s something in the water there. Although it should be noted that technically when I was first published I was working for another booksellers … (I’ve now worked for three different companies, three wildly different experiences).
But yes it’s a great thing. And despite what people may think I’m the last person to trumpet my author credentials in store. But you get to keep up on the market, see what’s what and obsessively check your sales figures in the company (but never when I’m doing any other task…)
ZS: What are you working on now? And are you going to stick to the family connection in the titles? Do you ever foresee a time when you might be writing THE SLIGHTLY PISSED OFF THIRD COUSIN (BY MARRIAGE) TWICE REMOVED?
RDM: A couple of hush-hush projects that may or may not come to fruition. And redrafting McNee #3 for submission to the interested parties. It does indeed continue the family theme and currently goes under the title FATHER CONFESSOR.
Luckily I plan on writing a sequence not a series so I have enough family members to write the books I want with McNee. And then I’m in trouble…
ZS: Now you’re published in the States, did any of the Scottish dialect words cause problems for your American readers?
RDM: In THE GOOD SON we had a bit of back and forth about the word “Jocks” which of course is a southern England nickname for Scotsmen and a US term for an athletically inclined individual, generally of High School age. So there was some discussion about using it as an insult. In the end I got to put in some naughty words in its place.
But strangely, that one incident, the language barrier hasn’t been much of an issue. I think because rather than write in something approaching Scots, like Chris Brookmyre, I’m using rhythm to suggest dialect a lot of the time. And most of the slang is obvious through usage. I think readers are far smarter than some folks give ‘em credit for.
[McNee and McLean both drink at The Phoenix pub]
ZS: Who’s the first person to read your work as you write, or after you’ve written?
RDM: It has to be finished to my standards before anyone sees it. Generally the first person to see a vaguely readable draft is my agent. I cannot let anyone I’m close to read it. Don’t ask me why. It’s the same as with touring, I always prefer entertaining crowds of strangers compared to people I know intimately. Maybe because I know they’ve heard all my good jokes…
ZS: Published writers are, it seems, under increasing pressure to act as their own publicists. Have you experienced this, and how does it impact on your ability to get on with the important business of writing your novels?
RDM: I’ve had to do a lot of my own publicity over the years. That’s not too bad a thing because working in the trade I kind of know what I’m doing. I have connections that helped with last year’s US tour and in getting space on blogs like this to talk about what I’m doing. But its tough out there and sometimes I do feel lost at sea. I can only imagine how someone who doesn’t know the trade must feel.
I think publicity is a big problem because it’s tough enough writing a book never mind selling yourself to sell the book. You can become distracted by the whole publicity machine, too. It can eat up a lot of time and there are some authors I believe could benefit from less time publicising and more time writing, but then, would their sales figures dry up? It’s an impossible question to answer. I think you have to try to work with your publishers on things. Talk to them. Suggest ideas. Work together not against each other. Yes, they may not have as much time for you as, say, James Patterson, but if you can show willing I think you can get results.
In this business, as I’ve always said, no one knows anything. You have to find your ground. What you’re comfortable doing. What works for you. This blog tour was instigated at the behest of my publishers, and it’s something new for me. I’m having fun so far. Although I’d love to do another physical tour across the US like I did last year for THE GOOD SON. That was an absolute blast. Getting out there and meeting readers. Works for me, certainly.
ZS: In THE LOST SISTER McNee feels ‘I was starting to wonder whether I really had more in common with these thugs and monsters than with anyone close to normal.’ Would you ever want to meet your protagonist in person? if so, what would you say to him?
RDM: When he wasn’t on a case, maybe. But I think he’d be a pretty intense kind of guy. He’s not exactly into opening up to other people. Which is why I find him fascinating as a character. I tried to interview him once. The results were… intriguing…
ZS: Describe yourself in three words.
RDM: Beardy (is that a word?). Geeky. Distracted.
You can tell I’d do well on an internet dating site.
ZS: Do you have a favourite word, swearword, or phrase?
RDM: I have a bundle of favourite words. But I’m coming more and more to love Scottish slang that I grew up with. I think I’ve told you this before, but one of my personal favourites is “stocious*” as in, drunk. It’s one I use rather a lot when talking about writers cons like Harrogate or Bouchercon. Should I be worried by that?
As to swearing, I adore the versatility of “fuck” (hence my contribution to the anthology EXPLETIVE DELETED, an ode to that most wonderful of words). (Which Publishers Weekly described as “awesomely dark” by the way – ZS) And of course, I introduced the word “cuntybaws” to many Americans on my last tour, although full credit for that one goes to my agent.
Of course some people don’t agree with my occasional use of naughty words. I’m not going to get into the sweary debate here, but can we maybe get that clip of Billy Connolly talking about swearing up since he’s far more eloquent than I. (Your wish is my command, oh master – ZS)
As to phrases, I’m not sure so sure on that front. I probably have many that I overuse, to be fair. Certainly my agent would agree with that assessment…
ZS: What is it with you and badgers? Was it the music that first attracted you to them?
Ahhh … the badgers. It all started as an in-joke on my blog. For some reason I was compared to a badger. I think it’s my burrowing forearms and notorious temper when cornered. And then someone sent me the Badger Song and well, it went from there.
My friend Beccy, when I first started getting paid for publication, made me a T-Shirt that proclaimed:
Badger Badger Badger
I still wear it, years later. (and just so it makes sense, I hold a degree in philosophy)
Plus, badgers are just pretty damn cool. ‘nuff said, I think.
ZS: ‘Nuff said indeed. Russel, it’s been a pleasure. Let the questions roll!
Today it is my absolute pleasure to be interviewing our own Zoë Sharp. Her novel, FOURTH DAY, is just out in the U.S., and her follow up, FIFTH VICTIM, hits U.K. shelves March 28th. FOURTH DAY is a fantastic book, that messes around with several preconceived notions that a lot of us have. I thoroughly loved this book. Zoë has created a truly memorable protagonist in Charlie Fox, a tough, smart, talented woman. It’s no wonder that Zoë’s up for the Barry Award for Best British Novel this year!
For those of you in Arizona or California this month, and/or are attending Left Coast Crime in Santa Fe March 24th-27th, be sure to check Zoë’s tour schedule, and try to make one of her signings!
Brett Battles: First, congratulations on the US publication of FOURTH DAY, Zoë! Since you and I split Thursdays here at Murderati, I think we might be tempting fate for both of us to appear on the same day. But, the die is cast, so let’s dive in and see what happens.
So I have to say that when I first started reading FOURTH DAY, I thought I was going to have a bone to pick with you. Here you’ve set a novel in my home state of California, and it appears that it centers around a cult! A cult! Don’t you realize we’ve been trying to shed that image for decades? But, I have to say, by the end of the book I had forgotten all about any issues I had. So first question, what led you to center a story around the cult culture?
Zoë Sharp: Thanks, Brett, and it does feel a little weird to be here on the wrong day, doesn’t it? Like we’re going to cause some kind of reality inversion …
Cults of all kinds fascinate me, the way people can have their whole belief system turned on its head. And particularly the idea I developed for Fourth Day – that you can’t be rebuilt until you’ve been broken – which was one that fitted in really well with the psyche of my main protagonist. Charlie Fox has been walking a very thin line between whole and damaged for a while now. I wanted to see what happened when that line was stretched to breaking point. Putting her undercover into a cult, having her challenge her view of herself when she already had doubts about her morality, her code of ethics – and then to have those around her begin to doubt her judgment as well. It all felt exactly right for this character at this time in her life. Basically, she’s looking for redemption.
BB: The Fourth Day organization sounded very believable. At the beginning you do a great job of instilling the cult-vibe. What kind of research did you end up doing?
ZS: A LOT of reading, and I did get to talk to a few people who had been involved in cults at one time or another, which was always invaluable for that extra bit of insight. But, as I’m sure you always find with research, you do huge amounts of it, only to discard about ninety percent. I was not intending to write a California guide book, nor an in-depth exposé of cults in general. Fourth Day is not your average kind of cult, so I knew I didn’t have to follow the rules. I was aiming for verisimilitude, an appearance of reality, rather than outright accuracy. Liberating, in its way.
BB: Any fascinating tidbits you learned that you ended up not using you could share?
ZS: Well, I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you … Hey, do you think I could hire Jonathan Quinn to come and dispose of your body?
Erm, Brett, you’re not smiling. I was kidding, OK? Put that chair down …
I did a lot of research about the Branch Davidians in Waco and a nice little piece of info that emerged was that as well as the 75 ATF agents and 10 Texas National Guard counter-drug personnel, plus hundreds of agents from other federal agencies, there were also ten US Special Forces soldiers and two members of 22 Regiment – the British SAS – present as ‘observers’. That little fact sets off all kinds of ‘what if’ scenarios in my mind. I didn’t use it as such, but let me just say that it explains how a couple of guys who were not part of the official federal response to Fourth Day could be present and at least peripherally involved.
I also discovered that the military advisors at Waco recommended the ATF agents had their blood type written on their arms or neck after leaving the staging area and before the raid on the Mount Carmel Center compound. That was another little fact out of pages and pages of information that really stood out to me. I mean, it’s pretty chilling when you think about it. They were as good as telling these guys they were going to get badly injured enough to require blood transfusion. So I twisted it around a little and used it.
Interestingly, though, when I emailed various contacts in SWAT or law enforcement and asked how they would go about attacking or defending such a compound, everybody assumed I wanted to know from the point of view of the aggressors, not the defenders …
BB: In defense of my beloved state, why did you decide to set FOURTH DAY in California?
ZS: Yeah, I had to laugh when you said about picking a bone with me over having a cult in California as the plot of FOURTH DAY. I thought it might provoke that kind of instant reaction – or anti-reaction – which was part of the reason for writing the book. I wanted to take what might have been a same-old, same-old storyline, and put a fresh slant on it. There were various geographical factors that meant California fitted the bill as a location. I also wanted a desert area for its symbolism – Charlie walks out into the wilderness at the start of her search for some kind of self-awareness, for truth. And besides, she had spent a lot of time on the east coast – it was time she headed west for a little sunshine.
BB: What I loved about this story is how you play against preconceived notions, and twist things in unexpected ways. Was that part of the plan from the beginning? Do you rigorously plot that kind of stuff out first?
ZS: Yeah, I have to say it was part of the plan. I don’t like taking the easy way, the line of least resistance. I set a previous book – ROAD KILL – in Northern Ireland, and didn’t go down the paramilitary route. I also had Charlie joining a group of bikers as the main characters for that book – and not a meth lab in sight!
I am a plotter and an outliner I’m afraid. The first thing I write is always the flap copy. I need to know if the basic idea is strong enough to grab me, whether I can get the crux of it across in half a page, make it sound like something I’D like to read, never mind anyone else.
I like to do a basic outline, with the main points, then go over it several times, interweaving the characters and the storyline until I have something both tight and complex. The more I can get the differing strands to weave back into the whole, the stronger the story feels to me. Then I do a final outline that is just from Charlie’s POV. Writing in first-person, she can’t know anything that doesn’t come to her directly, so I like to know in advance how she discovers all the facts in as believable way as possible. I hate books that end with pages and pages of exposition to explain how everything worked out.
I know some people say that if they outline too much, it makes the story boring for them to write, because they know what’s coming next. I don’t find that at all. Instead, knowing the destination frees me up to really enjoy the journey. And knowing WHAT is about to happen is not the same as knowing exactly HOW it’s going to happen. That’s the fun part to write.
BB: Yeah, we’re on different sides of the fence on that one. I’m one of those people who gets bored if I outline too much. But that’s what’s great about this business. No two methods are alike.
I read somewhere where you said you created Charlie Fox in a kind of response to the lack of strong female characters you saw in other stories at the time. You also mentioned that you didn’t want her to be a guy in a skirt. Well, I think I can say that you’ve certainly accomplished that. Charlie is a kick ass protagonist who is very much a woman. You push her to her limits, and definitely put her through the ringer in FOURTH DAY. I’m wondering if you set out to see how much she can take, and if you’ve ever pushed her too far and had to reel it back some…?
ZS: I grew up reading good old-fashioned thrillers, where the men were men and the women screamed or fainted a lot, or twisted their ankles at vital moments. Charlie was definitely a response to that. I wanted someone who could do her own fighting and was more likely to be in the rescue party than be in need of rescuing.
I always like to pressure-test my character. How people react under extreme circumstances so often defines them. Charlie is very cool and almost clinical in violent situations, which led one reviewer to suggest her attitude to violence bordered on casual. But that’s not it at all – she feels it, but she is professional enough to keep it buttoned down until later. It’s still not as acceptable for women to be capable of acts of violence in fiction. They are so often portrayed as victims. She has been a victim in the past, and made a decision a long time ago that she was never going to be put in that kind of position again. It’s her driving force.
Have I ever had to reel it back some? Well, there was this small torture scene in THIRD STRIKE, which was there to demonstrate how a fundamentally ‘good’ person can be pushed to do unthinkable acts in extreme situations. I thought it was actually quite lightly sketched. A bit like the shower scene in ‘Psycho’ – you think it’s real slasher stuff, but in fact you never see the knife go in. It all happens in the spaces between. So, with the scene in the book, there’s no gleeful wading through gore – I don’t do gratuitous violence – but it was quite a disturbing scene. My US editor made me take out the one paragraph that described what was actually happening, and I think she was quite right. Like that shower scene, you get the full picture in the spaces between the words.
BB: FOURTH DAY is your eighth Charlie Fox novel, and the ninth, FIFTH VICTIM, will be out in the UK this month, with a Charlie Fox short story, ‘Off Duty’ available as a bonus download. How do you go about keeping the series fresh for yourself? Or is that even an issue?
ZS: ‘Off Duty’ was written as a filler story that happens between the events of SECOND SHOT and THIRD STRIKE. In fact, there’s a very small reference to it in THIRD STRIKE, if you read closely enough! I like to come back to ideas from short stories and weave them in. One of the characters from a short called ‘Postcards From Another Country’ which I wrote for the mass market paperback US edition of FIRST DROP pops up again in FIFTH VICTIM, for instance. Things like that all help to keep things fresh.
You have a choice when you begin to write a series. You can either keep the main character unchanging or you can progress them as the series develops. I chose to progress Charlie as the books go on, so there is always a new personal challenge for her to face. Each book has a journey for the character as well as the main sequence of the plot. Tying the two together makes for a more complex and – I hope – ultimately a more satisfying read.
BB: When will the FIFTH VICTIM be available in the states?
ZS: Pegasus Books, who publish FOURTH DAY, will be bringing out FIFTH VICTIM next year. I’ve already seen the proposed cover for the US edition, and it’s stunning.
BB: Are you sticking strictly with Charlie, or have you considered writing a book or even series with other characters?
ZS: I keep trying out new characters in short story form. I have a lot of ideas buzzing around in my head, and I’ve had a supernatural thriller bubbling away in the back of my mind for years. I think it would make a great novel, or graphic novel, or a screenplay. One day, I’ll get around to writing it – maybe even as a collaboration …
BB: You’ve written elsewhere that the most influential book you read growing up was BLACK BEAUTY. Is there also one you could describe as the most influential book you’ve read as an adult? If so, what is it?
ZS: It’s quite true about BLACK BEAUTY. It was a book that changed attitudes and laws in Victorian England – for the better. What greater legacy could a writer wish for? But the most influential book I’ve read as an adult? Hmm, that’s a difficult one. Possibly THE RUBÁIYÁT OF OMAR KHAYYÁM or simply THE CHAMBERS DICTIONARY.
BB: Major congratulations are in order for your Barry Award nomination for Best British Novel! So tell us, how did you find out, and what was your first reaction?
ZS: I had an email from Judy Bobalik with the shortlists, which was amazing. I love the way an email can turn up out of the blue and make you smile all day. My first reaction, looking at the other authors, was that I’m the rank outsider! But at least I get to bask in the reflected glory until the results are announced at Bouchercon in September.
I’d only just got the news that the ITW book of essays, THRILLERS: 100 MUST READS, was up for an Edgar Award in the Best Critical Biographical category. I was one of many contributors, who must all be thrilled (no pun intended) to be nominated.
BB: And, finally, the “what can we expect next” question. So, Zoë, we know that FIFTH VICTIM is almost out in the UK and will be coming to the US next, but what about after that? What can your readers expect after that?
ZS: I’m already into the next Charlie Fox book, which is set in New Orleans. And, incidentally, a character mentioned in ‘Served Cold’, which appeared in the A HELL OF A WOMAN anthology, has found his way into the new book. We visited New Orleans last summer, when we were staying with Toni McGee Causey, and it’s a fascinating place, with a real split personality. I like the experience of light and dark, and if you can get that from a location, it adds so much to the tone of the story. Rest assured that she won’t be there simply to enjoy Mardi Gras and eat crawfish …
BB: Thanks, Zoë!
ZS: Brett, it’s been a pleasure. And hey, I like what you’ve done with the space. Looks different from this side. Next time, you come over to my place and we’ll talk about THE SILENCED.
BB: Sounds like a plan! All right, all, feel free to ask some questions in the comments section. Though I’m told she’ll be a bit jetlagged, Zoë’s promised to check in as much as possible. Let the commenting begin!
I’m a chronic maker of lists. I should have a list of lists, really. In fact, before I started writing my blog this morning, while I waited for a head of steam to build up in my desktop, I was making my Daily To Do List. It’s not displacement activity – honest. It’s time management … or something.
In fact, currently sitting on my desk are several lists. One is today’s, another is a list of jobs that really ought to get done before we go to the States next week, and another is a list of the last few remaining jobs to do on the house.
When I write it down like that, it’s rather sad, really, isn’t it?
I even have a printed-out shopping list of all the stuff we regularly buy, grouped together according to section, so a trip to the supermarket has become a case of crossing off the stuff we don’t need rather than remembering the stuff we do.
It’s not that I have a really bad memory, it’s just very selective – in the same way that given nine good points in a review and one bad one, it will inevitably be the bad one I can recall word for word. I do have a tendency to remember something once, and then because I’ve remembered it rather than actually done whatever it is that I needed to remember to do, I promptly forget it again.
Most of my To Do lists contain stuff that, in reality, I know I need to do, but seeing it in black and white – or green fountain pen in my case – and then being able to put a line through it when it’s sorted, gives a sense of satisfaction out of all proportion to the task.
Mind you, a friend recently suggested that I keep a Done list instead – enabling me to look back at the end of the day and see what I’ve achieved rather than what I failed to do. This is a very nice idea, but doesn’t help when I suddenly remember at 10:30 pm that I really should have booked the car in for service, or posted a cheque.
Of course, what I could do is have a both a To Do and a Done list, but I think that would get out of hand very quickly, don’t you?
What about you, ‘Rati? Are you listers or non-listers? And if you’re a non-lister writer, do you also not like to outline? I wonder if there’s any connection.
Some lists, I wouldn’t like to be without, though. Over the last few years, we’ve put together a packing list, which includes everything from passports and currency down to the stick-on in-car bracket for my phone, which is also our sat-nav. At the end of each trip, I add stuff on that we needed but didn’t take, and cross stuff out that we took and didn’t need.
All this daft organisation will – with any luck – help us to pack for this month’s US mini-tour for FOURTH DAY using only two carryon-sized wheelie bags. The only complication is that I’m attending two conventions – both the Tucson Festival of Books (March 12th/13th) and Left Coast Crime (March 24th-27th) which necessitate a frock or two, and a pair of heels. Fortunately, I only ever buy dresses that scrumple up.
A bigger packing problem at the moment, though, is the weather. We were lulled to expect pleasantly warm temperatures. Instead, I hear of rain in San Francisco (OK, so maybe that’s no great surprise) and SNOW in Tucson. That wasn’t in the game plan at all. I haven’t had so much packing confusion since one year when we went skiing in New England and then carried on down to Daytona Beach for Spring Break. It’s the only time I’ve been to Florida and taken a fur hat.
It doesn’t help that I’m a wuss when it comes to the cold. I admit it. Take the time we went to Death Valley. We drove in along mile after mile of arrow-straight road, past signs that said, ‘Do not leave your car!’ and ‘Take water with you!’ and ‘Much danger, Will Robinson!’
And when we got there? I was chilly and had to put on a sweater.
Everyone told us Arizona would be mild and balmy at this time of year, unlike last June when we were there last, when it was hot enough to dry the spit on your eyeballs. We also lived up to our Mad Dogs and Englishmen reputation by walking around in Houston at high noon. Even our own shadows were trying to hide from the heat.
But the hotter it is outside, the more every building cranks up the air-con, so as soon as I get inside, I freeze. Ho hum.
So, I’ve really no idea what to expect in Scottsdale and Tucson AZ, or San Diego, LA, Lancaster, Sacramento or the Bay Area CA, or Albuquerque and Santa Fe NM. Any pointers welcome. Remember those carryon bags. We can’t afford to take stuff we’re not going to use, but I really don’t want to shiver, either!
What about you, ‘Rati? What’s the best or the most useless item you’ve ever taken on holiday with you?
This week’s Word of the Week comes courtesy of a writer friend, Kate Kinchen, and is another of those words that doesn’t exist but should do. It’s sarchasm, which is the gulf between one who speaks in a sarcastic tone of voice, and one who doesn’t get it.
Somebody once told me that writers have to take more criticism in a year than most people have to deal with in a lifetime.
The advent of the internet has turned everyone into a critic. Not just that, but an anonymous critic. In some ways this is good, if it allows somebody to speak their mind when they would feel constrained not to do for otherwise – for whatever reason.
Of course, in other ways it’s terrible, because it allows people to be snide and nastier than is called for, in the knowledge that there won’t be any comebacks should they happen ever to bump into the author they’ve slated.
Getting honest, critical feedback on your work is always going to be tough. I’ve found that writing fiction is far more personal than the non-fiction article work I did previously. That was easy – I was telling someone else’s story and somehow the ultimate responsibility for it also lay elsewhere. All I had to do was make my words convey the meaning without getting in the way of the story itself.
Although most of the time I approach fiction is much the same, there’s no doubt it is very different. It is the collective jottings and jumblings from inside your head, which you are spilling onto the page for anyone to pick apart with a sneer for your apparent lack of nuance or narrative voice.
There is nothing more terrifying than being given a blank piece of paper and told to let your imagination soar.
OK, perhaps there are slightly more terrifying things. This pic of a giant coconut crab, for instance, still makes me nervous about going to put out the garbage, although apparently they’re bought as pets in Japan.
Very cuddly, I’m sure. But I digress.
At the beginning of last year, I found a great writing group, the Warehouse Writers, which meets in the Warehouse Café at the Brewery Arts Centre in Kendal on alternate Wednesday evenings. We email work around the group beforehand, which gives everyone a chance to read it and make notes. On the night, a sample of the piece is read out – either by the author or by someone else, so the author can hear it for themselves – and everyone throws in their two-pennyworth.
The group is about twenty strong, although the average turnout would be less than half that, but those who participate do so actively. Several of us are working on novels, or short stories, poetry, non-fiction or memoir.
I like the group because of its honesty. I may not always agree with their comments – in fact, sometimes they don’t always agree with their comments – but they give definite food for thought without animosity.
After all, the last thing I want is to be given encouragement to continue down the wrong path with something. Ultimately, being given false hope will lead to greater disappointment.
The problem I suffer from – and I think every writer suffers from this at some point or another – is that by the time I’ve finished a piece of work, I have lost all judgement about it. I can’t tell if it’s the best or the worst thing I’ve ever written, and sending it away for anyone’s opinion is agony. You hope for the best but expect the worst, and any delays seem to confirm your darkest fears – that the work is so poor it’s failed to hold their attention. The fact that the person to whom you are sending it may have been too busy to do more than download the file or open the envelope before putting it to one side, has no relevance here.
Hope makes us dream of being contacted within days – hours – and told that this is the best thing the person has EVER read, EVER, and they want to publish/submit it just as it stands, with no alterations. You are not to touch a word of your deathless prose, not even to move one comma.
Experience tells us that when they do eventually get back to us, their praise will be cautious and there will be many points they don’t like/understand/ believe work in the context of the rest of the story.
And because I have a warped sense of self, even if by some miracle the Hope scenario worked out, I’d be worrying that they didn’t want anything changing because they simply didn’t know where to start trying to make something worthwhile out of such a morass.
But, realistically, what do you expect when you send a piece of writing out for critique by anyone? And at what stage should you send it? First draft? Twenty-first draft?
I like to send out the opening of a new book. Finding the right jumping-off point for a story is so important, and a first-time reader may only give you a certain number of pages to come to a decision on whether or not to continue, so for me it feels vital to get this right. I’m looking for as much doubt and criticism as possible at this stage. It’s the foundation for the story – if it’s not solid, the rest of the construction may come tumbling down.
Then I also like to send out something when it’s in its first completed draft form. I self-edit as I go along, so I hope that by the time I’ve reached the end, I hope it’s a reasonably clean typescript.
I always make sure I send something out when I know there is still an opportunity – and probably several – to make changes based on the opinions I receive. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had stuff sent to me only to be told that it’s already gone out on submission. Are these authors looking for critique, or simply affirmation?
I have come across some people who bring pieces of work to a writers’ group meeting (not the Warehouse one, I hasten to add) that is not only already as finished as they’re prepared to make it, but which has already been submitted and possibly awarded prizes in competition. I’m not sure what they hope to gain from this exercise other than admiration. Even if I spot something that I would change, it’s pointless to suggest it, because the time for minor alterations is past. Mostly, I am at a loss to know what to say other than, ‘Erm, yeah … very nice.’
And that’s the kind of approval you can get from your mum.
Although, now I come to think of it, my mother has never said much in the way of admiration for my work. It was only when I was about six books into the Charlie Fox series that she told me she didn’t care for Sean much …
So, ‘Rati, if you’re a writer, what do you hope for when you put a piece of work up for critique? How much does that expectation differ from what you actually get? And if you’re not a writer, do you have any examples of times you’ve performed a task at home or work and looked for feedback? Did you get it? What makes you feel good about criticism? What makes you feel bad?
This week’s Phrase of the Week is Sweet FA, meaning anything boring, monotonous and now worth describing. Although this has come to mean Sweet Fuck All, it actually stands for Sweet Fanny Adams. Fanny Adams was an eight-year-old girl from Hampshire who was found murdered and dismembered. At about the same time as this crime, the British Navy changed their rations from salted tack to tins of low-grade chopped-up sweet mutton. The new ration was tasteless and unpopular, so sailors suggested with macabre humour that the new meat was the remains of the murdered girl, christening the ration Sweet Fanny Adams.
And finally, I hope you’ll forgive me two bits of BSP. I’m off to the States next month on a signing tour for the US publication of FOURTH DAY. The full tour itinerary is on my website here. I hope you’ll check it out and, if I’m at a library or store – or convention – near you, that you’ll come and say ‘Hi!’
The second bit is that I’m absolutely chuffed to little mintballs, as my friend Donna Moore would say, that FOURTH DAY has been nominated for the Barry Award for Best British Novel. The results will be announced at Bouchercon in St Louis in September. But, until then at least I can bask in the reflected glory of a shortlist that also contains Kate Atkinson, SJ Bolton, John Connolly, Reg Hill and Roslund & Hellstrom!
There used to be a guy who ran our local municipal tip – that’s garbage dump in American – where we’d go if we wanted to dispose of items too large to fit into the standard-issue blue bin bag and put out for collection every week. Now, landfill is a universal problem, but the council are enlightened enough to have separate skips – OK, dumpsters – for garden waste, wood, metal, electrical appliances, as well as the usual recycling bins for glass, tin foil, paper, plastic, batteries and glass.
Nevertheless, there’s an awful lot of stuff that gets thrown away for no good reason other than its owners don’t want it any more. Working stuff. Stuff that, if they could be arsed, could be given away with a postcard in the local newsagents’ window, or put on a swap site like FreeCycle, or taken to a car boot sale at the weekend. One man’s rubbish, after all, is another’s treasure.
The guy who used to run the local tip understood this. He also understood that people often don’t have a lot of spare cash, and children eat up a goodly proportion of it. So, if someone came in with an outgrown child’s bicycle in good order, he wouldn’t just sling it into a skip, he’d put it to one side against the fence, and let that person choose a slightly larger bicycle from the stock already there to take away with them.
That’s my kind of recycling.
He made going to the tip an adventure. He would come bouncing out of his little hut and beckon you over to show you the latest treasure he’d unearthed. One time, he showed us a beautifully made wooden rack with loops cut out of it and marbles secured into the loops with wire. We couldn’t guess what it was for. An old-fashioned printer’s drying rack, he told us. The marbles slid up and gripped the paper gently enough for the ink to dry without smudging.
Of course, such free-thinking is not part of today’s bureaucratic make-up. The council soon knocked that on the head, no doubt citing some Health and Safety/insurance/liability issue as the reason. The guys who run the tip now are friendly enough, but the fun’s gone out of it.
They are not really people people.
Some people find fun in everything they do, no matter how mundane it might seem to the rest of us. They make a trip through the supermarket checkout a real giggle, or something as tiresome as a late-night short-hop plane ride an experience to remember.
When we were touring in the States back in 2007, we took a LOT of Southwest flights. They were cheap, yes, but cheerful, too. I still recall getting on one flight in Phoenix. It was late, the plane was full, everyone was tired and grouchy, and when the standard safety briefing began, nobody was paying much attention to the cabin crew.
“We’re not anticipating any problems with our flight tonight,” said the woman on the address system, briskly, “otherwise I would have called in sick …”
Heads started to come up all the way along the rows of seats ahead of us.
“… but in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, an oxygen mask will drop down from the overhead compartment in front of you. Place the mask over your nose and mouth and tighten the straps around your head. Always adjust your own mask before helping others. If you’re travelling with children – we’re sorry. Pick the one you like best. If you don’t like either of them, pick the one with the most potential. If neither of them have potential, nyah.”
By the time she finished, she got a round of applause from everyone on the aircraft.
A people person.
Of course, some people cultivate this, like the yeoman warders at the Tower of London. I confess that I don’t often watch video clips sent to me – mainly because our internet speed is horribly, horribly slow, but this particular guy is absolutely fantastic at his job. He imparts history with humour. If only I’d had a history teacher who’d made ingesting historical facts this much fun, I might even have continued going to school past my twelfth birthday.
What about you, ‘Rati? Any nice examples of people you’ve come across who turn an everyday task into an event? Equally, anybody who springs to mind who takes what should have been a fun experience and made it deathly dull?
This week’s Word of the Week is sophomore, which means a second-year student. I’m sure most of you have come across the word, although it’s used far more in the States and in the UK, but did you know it comes from sophos, meaning wise, and moros meaning foolish?
I believe I may have mentioned it before that I don’t like making mistakes. It bugs me to realise that I’ve left some small error in the final version of a book that I just know people are going to spot and giggle about. And occasionally they do.
I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading over Christmas, and finally got around to finishing the final part of the Millennium trilogy. Wonderful books once I got into them – I can entirely understand their popularity – but chock-full of factual errors, including one involving how a TASER functions which was a major part of the plot.
But anyway …
If you watch any kind of TV cop shows, it’s easy to see where a lot of writer’s mistakes come from – Hollywood. I’m a bit of a fan of TV cop shows, I admit. A couple of episodes of NCIS or CSI, or Without A Trace are what I need to wind down before I head back up to the computer to put in another late-nighter. But it’s purely entertainment, not research.
Because we don’t have ‘live’ TV we watch stuff on DVD instead, which means we can watch old and new series almost back-to-back. For this reason we happened across an old episode of CSI where the plot centred on illegal street racing, a la The Fast And The Furious, and a new episode of NCIS: Los Angeles which also had street racing as its backdrop.
Why is it that so many people get car stuff wrong in books and on screen? I mean, I can understand gun errors. Not that many people have seen a real gun up close, never mind handled or fired one. I didn’t think there was any thriller writer out there who still talks about flicking the safety-catch off a Glock, but I’ve been surprised recently.
And I have to say that the movies don’t help. I’m amazed how many TV cop shows have somebody run out of ammunition at a vital moment, and only realise the fact because they keep pulling the trigger on their semiautomatic and it goes ‘click’ repeatedly. Now, anybody who’s shot a semiautomatic knows that when the magazine is empty, the slide locks back (see pic below and please excuse silly grin – I don’t get to play with firearms much these days). Squeeze the trigger and nothing happens. No ‘click’. Not even once, never mind repeatedly.
Of course, there are oddities. I had one character using a SOCOM Mk23 covert pistol in one book. This is designed for taking out sentries. When the suppressor is fitted, the gun has a slide lock that prevents the ejection of the brass, so the noise of the mech working does not negate the silencing of the shot.
But I digress …
Back to cars. Just about everybody’s driven a car, or seen one, or sat in one. But I can’t believe the writers for one of those cop shows I mentioned came up with the idea that fitting a new experimental-type of battery to a car would cause it to, a) go like brown smelly stuff off a shovel, or b) explode for no apparent reason. I confess that don’t remember a great deal else about that particular episode because I was too busy laughing.
And, for heaven’s sake, vehicles do NOT burst into a dramatic fireball after a few rounds fired into them. Most times, you need to blast away with incendiary rounds before the damn things even start to burn. Erm, not that I’ve tried it, of course …
They don’t blow up from being pushed over cliffs, either. And if the engine is turning over without the engine firing, it’s NOT the battery at fault. Shooting out the radiator will not cause the car to stop instantly, either. Speaking as someone who’s had their radiator holed by a disintegrating fanbelt, you can get quite a few miles before the engine temp climbs to the point where you have to stop and let it cool down, but you CAN limp home if you’re careful.
Medical clangers are even more prevalent. My favourite go-to guy for all queries of a forensic or medical nature is Doug Lyle – DP Lyle MD. Doug is the author of numerous mystery novels as well as forensic books, and I recently came across an old issue of the MWA newsletter where he listed the top ten writer’s medical and forensic mistakes:
The Quick Death: “No one dies instantly. Well, almost no one. Instant death can occur with heart attacks, strokes, extremely abnormal heart rhythms, and cyanide and other ‘metabolic’ poisons. A shot to the chest or abdomen leads to a lot of screaming and moaning, but death comes from bleeding and that takes a while.”
The Pretty Death: “I call this ‘the Hollywood death’ – real dead people are ugly, pale, waxy and grey.”
The Bleeding Death: “Dead folks don’t bleed. When you die your heart stops and the blood no longer circulates and it clots. Stagnant or clotted blood does not move.”
The Accurate Time of Death: “Determining time of death is neither easy nor accurate. It is always a best guess and is stated as a range and not an exact time. In real life, the ME would say that death likely occurred ‘between 8pm and midnight’ but that might make him appear wishy-washy and Hollywood likes its heroes to be smart.”
The One-Punch Knockout: “The hero socks the bad guy’s henchman in the jaw. He goes down and is apparently written out of the script because we never hear from him again. It’s always the henchman because the antagonist, like most people, requires a few solid blows to go down.”
The Disappearing Black Eye: “If your character gets a black eye in Chapter 3, he will have it for two weeks, which will likely take you through to the end of the book. He will not be ‘normal’ in two days. On a good note, by about day seven your female character may be able to hide it with make-up.”
The Quick Healing: “If your character falls down the stairs and injures his back, he will not be able to run from or chase the bad guy or make love to his new lover the next day.”
The Untraceable Poison: “No such thing.”
The Instant Athlete: “Your PI drinks too much, smokes too much, and eats donuts on a regular basis. He will not be able to chase the villain for ten blocks. Two on a good day.”
The Instant Lab Result: “The world is not like CSI. In the real world, the same test can take days, even weeks. And the coroner will not likely release a report until the results are confirmed.”
Obviously, I’m paraphrasing, but if you want the full run-down you’ll just have to go out and buy one of Doug’s excellent books, such as FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES. I highly recommend it as a fixture for every crime writer’s bookshelf.
So, what mistakes have you come across lately, on page or screen?
And just so you don’t think I’m being entirely without humour today, here’s a wonderful sketch with Ronnie Corbett and Harry Enfield: My Blackberry Is Not Working!
This week’s Word of the Week is culverin, which was an early form of handgun; later a type of cannon with a long barrel of relatively narrow bore, used in the 16th and 17th centuries, also culverineer.