evseymour

Word on the Wire

STICKING MY NECK OUT…

It’s often said that we don’t know how to complain in this country. We either go all shouty and launch a nasty review on Trip Advisor or we slump into passive aggression and say nothing.  At the risk of being controversial, I’m about to talk about book reviews.

There used to be a time when book reviews only appeared in newspapers and magazines, care of professional critics. Fortunately, we now have a more level playing field that allows writers, who are not big names, to also have their novels written about and commented on. The growth in the blogger industry is truly phenomenal and hurrah for that.  Anyone and everyone can now write a review and post it.  This all sounds lovely and democratic.  However there is a downside.  Too often, nasty reviews can be posted with little or no thought to the consequences for the writer.  This also includes folk who complain about the packaging, delivery issues, or the wrong book sent to them.

Let me make it plain that I am deeply in favour of free speech. I’m not talking about the kind of review that offers considered criticism and feedback even if the review is ultimately negative. I’m talking about the nasty, the horribly dismissive one-liner, the vicious and arrogant. And no, this is not written as a result of one star reviews of my own work.   After eleven published novels, I’m  accustomed, if not quite hardened, to these. So what am I really saying?

A couple of months ago, I read a review of an incredibly popular and successful debut novel (that I haven’t yet read). The self-styled reviewer not only attacked the work but also attacked, in the most offensive manner, the writer, the writer’s agent and publisher as well as scores of readers. It appeared on a respected site: Goodreads.

Nobody put glass in this reviewer’s food, punched him (or her) in the face, or insulted him publicly in the street. And here’s the rub, the anonymity of the Internet can obscure the identity of those who set themselves up as Judge, Jury and Executioner. Rather chillingly, the reviewer I’m specifically referring to posted a child’s face as his (or her) profile. What this kind of reviewer wouldn’t dare say to a writer in person, allowed and emboldened him or her to go for it in print. Gone are the days when, if you read a novel and didn’t like it, you simply set it aside, and chose something else – something I do quite often.

While I accept that ‘if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen’, that oft trotted out phrase to anyone who works in the Arts, as if ‘creatives’ are fair game to receive the sharp end of anyone’s pointy stick, it’s worth stating a few things.

The reader might spend minutes posting a ‘Ha, take that,’ review on Amazon. The writer has spent more likely a year writing a story with all the commitment, energy, passion, determination and self-belief that entails. Even bad books take time to create. However much a novel is disliked, and for whatever reason, the author will need at least twenty-four hours and often a good deal longer to lift him or her out of the crushing depression that ensues as a result of a destructive review. As for readers who carp about stories of action adventure with villains and assassins and gritty themes, when they only enjoy romantic fiction, the classics or another genre, they confound me. Did they not read the book blurb before purchase? More charitably, I like to think they fancied something new and then found they didn’t like it. A bit like checking out whether or not they really do have a food allergy.

Now I’m not saying don’t write a negative review. In fact, I’m deeply suspicious of any novel that receives trillions of five star ratings that all say how brilliant the story or writer is. But if a reader wants to post critical comments, it would be wise to ensure that these are thought out, and not simply a personal rant as a result of getting out of bed the wrong side, or because life is unkind or, dare I say, due to the reader going through the private hell of having his/her own novel rejected. Respectable and respected bloggers and reviewers, and there are tons of them, recognise this. Often a decent reviewer that doesn’t fancy a novel will simply decline to comment. It’s not a noble calling to save someone else from reading a novel that you personally hated by being deliberately unkind.

With regard to novels that are traditionally published, consider this:   a book may not be worth your hard earned, (in many cases 99 pence.) You may feel cheated of time and energy wasted wading through the most boring drivel, with characters that are cliched and with distasteful or alien themes in your view.   But respect the fact, or at least give a little credit to agents and editors at publishing houses who receive hundreds of manuscripts a week. Novels aren’t accepted for publication because of the goodness of the hearts of those who work in the industry. They (mostly) do so to make money. Their judgements count and they are accountable to higher beings like accountants. If you disparage a book in the crudest of terms, you disparage many more than the humble writer. So, if you are thinking of writing a review today for a novel that you really didn’t enjoy, resist the temptation to verbally work the story or writer over.

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Merry Month of May

What a month. And I don’t mean the Royal Wedding.   No, I mean lots of new stuff going on.

Firstly, I’m very happy to confirm my participation in the Jericho Writers 2018 York Festival in September. Running from the 7th-9th, it promises to be bigger and better and the ‘go-to’ place for unpublished writers to meet agents, book ‘doctors’, other writers and those connected to the publishing industry. I’ll be talking about pace and tension, and (surprise surprise) crime fiction. Having attended once before, I can promise it will be a fun and relaxed occasion. Workshops cover every aspect of storytelling, how to pitch your novel for mainstream publishing, and how to go about self-publishing, with tips on marketing. This is just a shorthand version so, if interested, check out Jericho Writers’ website.

I’m as guilty as the next reader for always seeking out my favourite authors so, a few weeks ago, I decided to mix things up and try some new writers. (New to me, that is). I’d planned to take my stash with me for a forthcoming holiday until I realised, in my flush of enthusiasm, the books I’d ordered were scheduled for release after I got back. Undaunted, a fresh trawl supplied me with, among others, ‘Slow Horses’ by Mick Herron.   The first page was so good I couldn’t help but crack on – stuff the holiday. He’s been likened to le Carre yet I think his voice is distinctly different, and what a voice. The story rings with authenticity and ‘tradecraft’. Around seventy-five pages in, I had the shock of my life. Needless to say, I’ll finish it long before my break begins, which is okay as long as my other half doesn’t make off with Adam Hamdy’s ‘Pendulum.’ Having read the first page, he threatened to snaffle it first. Only one thing for it: I pulled rank.

In my last blog post, I mentioned that my new novel had been sent to my agent. This is always a nervous time for any writer, published or yet to be.   Fortunately, and in record time, it received a thumbs-up. Now awaiting the decision of my editors. In the meantime, noodling with big ideas for another Thane novel. Watch this space!

 

APRIL MASH-UP

It’s a bit of a ‘tatty’ post this month because, looking back over April, I’ve been flitting from one thing to another like a proverbial buzzy/busy bee.

It began with me playing an April fool on my best writing pal. This deserves some context. We pretty much natter via email most days and live close enough to meet up for coffee. She’s a writer (different genre) and also a freelance editor so we share a lot in common, not least we ho-ho-ho at the same stuff.   However we rarely contact each other over the weekend. Saturdays and Sundays, she’s involved with her family and so am I. But, as April 1st fell on a Sunday, I thought I’d put our mutual email silence to the test.   I wrote two words in the Subject Column: ‘Film Deal’.   She came back within five febrile seconds!   Of course, I came clean.

The late, great Elmore Leonard was a writer for whom film deals deservedly came aplenty. A couple of weeks ago, I turned to a novel I’ve had on my bookshelf for ages but never read: ‘Killshot.’ First published in 1989, it doesn’t date one bit. The strap line says something along the lines of when Leonard writes, pure gold pops out. I couldn’t agree more and I could definitely see how he influenced that other fabulous writer, Stephen King. Leonard’s characterisation of a couple of stone cold killers is to (pun intended) ‘die for.’ Fabulously, he pits them against a quite ordinary (and yet extraordinary, as it turns out) married couple. A proper big guys against little guys. I’ll leave you to guess who comes out on top.

Anyone who read my last post will know that I have been hard at the writerly coalface. ‘Delete’ has become my favourite button, ‘cut and paste’ my favourite manoeuvre. It’s fair to say I have hacked, scythed and shredded in the name of pace and tension. As brutal as it is to cut material, I feel happier with the result. Just hoping my agent feels the same. More anon …

And before I forget, there are lots of new books popping up, with some exciting debuts. Unashamedly, I’m flying the flag for DHH Literary Agency and Dome Press. With so many authors making a splash, I urge you to go and check them out. What’s really nice, I’ve acquired some new mates on Twitter whom I hope will soon be friends in the ‘real world!’

 

 

 

LITERARY KARMA

Scooting around on Facebook, as you do, I spotted a number of writers who are embarking on edits, often after submitting drafts of new novels to agents or editors a couple of months ago. Now we all know that the likelihood of writing something fabulous straight off is as likely as winning Euromillions, but I bet we all secretly hope that edits are for others.

And squadrons of piggies may fly…

After the initial euphoria of the ‘thumbs-up’, there comes the downside of ‘Hell, what a lot of work I have to do.’ In my case, this is literary karma because my day job is spent analysing unpublished novels and suggesting edits to authors. As a veteran of the dreaded edits, I usually advise said author to read the critique a couple of times and put it and the novel away for a few weeks. Let suggestions percolate and then, if these resonate, revise.  This usually averts hot-cheeked fury and the strong desire to throttle the editor (me.) I’ve only ever received written attacks twice, both knee-jerk as soon as the critique has hit the inbox, which in many ways is surprising because however kindly constructive criticism is served up, it wounds.   It hurts. (Which is why bad reviews sting so much, but that’s a whole different story). A novel is like your child. Nobody wants to be told that his or her kid has ‘issues’.

With the stiletto firmly on the other foot, I settled down to figuring out which edits to tackle first this week. As every writer realises, even a slight change in a chapter or plot line has repercussions elsewhere. This stuff is not for the faint-hearted. Someone once told me that early drafts are like jam that hasn’t yet set. Sounds benign, doesn’t it? It might not have set but it can still be flaming sticky. Anyway, in the spirit of team effort (for that’s what writing is all about) I’m about to get cracking.

SO WHO DO YOU THINK I AM?

‘You like violence, don’t you?’ This was said to me a few months ago, not by a tetchy reader at a panel, (some years ago at Crimefest, a lady complained about violence in fiction. Mercifully, I was not the only target of her ire) but a close family member. It might have been a tease, but the edge was unmistakable. Did it bring me up short and temporarily render me speechless? You bet.

To place this in context, the event was a quiet ‘get-together’ in a restaurant, and I’d been championing a film or series, possibly ‘Peaky Blinders,’ but I actually can’t remember.   I know ‘Bone Tomahawk’ came into the equation and, although I loved the film, I can’t stress enough my revulsion at ‘that scene’.   It was a genuine cushion in front of the face job, with my eyes peeking nervously over the top.   Perhaps, this was what I was describing. How anyone could then construe, or rather misconstrue, that I love violence beats me. But neither do I run from it, and if you’re a news fiend, which I am, sadly, violence in our dysfunctional world is nigh on impossible to avoid.

My tastes in film and books definitely involve characters pushed to extremes by antagonists intent on propelling others to their limits for, (as in real life) it’s often when people are really up against it, you see his or her real personality, and what they are made of, shining through.  I reckon the more a writer ramps up the bad guys, the stronger the main protagonist. Given the subject matter of some of my novels, my bad guys (or women) are hardly going to slay the opposition with a few well-chosen words and a ‘take that’ slap on the wrist. Which leads me to a more important point…

Villains may well be sexist, racist, misanthropic and misogynistic. They may mete out violence, enjoy the suffering of others, and be a few brain cells short in the compassion department, but please don’t confuse me, and my beliefs with those I portray in fiction.

BOOKS GALORE

I had fond hopes of bursting into 2018 rested and full of good cheer after a lovely Christmas break. Instead, I’m sort of limping in half-cocked after a bout of ‘flu. Now don’t get me wrong, this is not the full-on Aussie version. I have not been hospitalised, but it was bad enough to put me in bed for the best part of a week, which is unheard of. I went off food, went off booze so that my unintentional dry January started in December – and not a drop touched since. All my best-laid plans went awry. During the ‘snooze’ time between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, I had intended to ‘woman up’ and plunge myself into techno hell by getting to grips with new software enabling me to update reviews and news on my website – not a chance. I was going to finish the first draft of a brand new novel – did a bit, almost made it, and faltered.

But it’s not all bad news…

One of the big pluses of Christmas is that I’m given lots of novels and so is Mr S, which means double the pleasure. In between sleeps, I was able to binge-read and, boy, what great books I’ve read. I have catholic tastes when it comes to literature. I also tend to read the ‘latest great thing’ months or even years after the hype has died down.   Having devoured ‘Stormbird’ by Conn Iggulden, I read ‘The Late Show’ by Michael Connelly. With female main protagonist, detective Renee Ballard, it signalled a departure from Connelly’s usual gig. I’d probably read another although, hand on heart, I didn’t find it as satisfying as some of his earlier work. I freely admit this could be due to the generally low mood I was in. Next up, ‘Archangel’ by Gerald Seymour. Written a long while back, it’s a tour de force of a story, and displays all the attributes commonly found in Seymour’s work.   His main protagonists are often difficult, complex individuals. Michael Holly is no exception and yet he displays the kind of nobility and integrity that make men risk all to follow him. Superb. I munched through’ Trinity’, the second in the War of the Roses series by Conn Iggulden in a couple of days. If history and terrific storytelling is your thing, it comes highly recommended.

So what’s next on the blocks? ‘The Midnight Line’ by Lee Child. (Mr S read and raved about it). Other authors in the pipeline feature Peter James, Stuart Neville, Clare Mackintosh, Colette McBeth, and, care of a nice deliveryman yesterday, Gerald Seymour’s latest ‘A Damned Serious Business.’ That’s for starters.   Like I said, not all bad news.

Whether you limped or burst into 2018, I hope it’s a good one for you.   Nothing like a decent read to make things better.

HAT TRICK

Last Friday, I was in the slightly surreal position of celebrating three novels published in 2017 with the same publisher. ‘House of Lies’, ‘A Deadly Trade’ and ‘Final Target’ are released under the Killer Reads’ imprint, the first a female led psychological thriller, the others part of the Joshua Thane series and could be regarded as espionage light. This all came about as a result of hard work by my agent, Broo Doherty, good faith on the part of Charlotte Ledger and Finn Cotton, talented design work for the stunning front covers, good fortune, magic, and a little of my blood, sweat tears. It’s true what they say: writing books and getting them published is down to teamwork.

So what’s next? Today, in the spirit of Christmas, ‘A Deadly Trade’ is available for free for the next twelve days. So get requesting and, hopefully, reviewing. Over the next couple of weeks, check out the Writers’ Workshop Blog for my ‘Seven Top Tips for Writing Thrillers’.   My new novel is taking longer than it should due to on-going editing work. While I might sneak away over the festive period to write, I’m also looking forward to a break, long walks, wood fires and space to think in reasonably clear lines – nothing like a deviation in routine to fire the imagination. I’d also like to get some reading under my (potentially expanding) belt. The pile on my bedside table grows daily and I think those Christmas elves will be delivering a few more.

Looking back on 2017, I think of madcap moving house (again) days, the joyous expansion of the tribe, great novels I’ve read, a couple not yet published. I remember laughter as well as sadness, particularly for those who should still be here and aren’t. The only resolution I’m making for 2018 is to take a longer view and, at the risk of cliché, get the work/life balance better aligned.

So that’s it, in a few weeks’ time, we’ll be well into the festive season and 2018 will be hovering on the horizon. I hope that, whatever dreams and aspirations you hold for the New Year are yours in abundance.

GOOD TIMES/BAD TIMES

It’s been slightly bonkers since I last posted. Rarely do so many great things collide in the space of a few weeks. After a slow start, reviews for ‘House of Lies’ have increased significantly and they are, to a woman, smashing. Not one, but two cover reveals were released for my Joshua Thane spy thrillers, ‘A Deadly Trade’ and ‘Final Target.’  My freshly revamped website was rolled out, care of Tony Astley at ‘Six Till Nine’. It looks a lot less busy and jolly than the earlier version. Lean, mean and generally deadly was the brief and this absolutely delivers. You can check it out on: www.evseymour.co.uk

While all this was going on, we managed to steal away to Anglesey during a spectacularly fine couple of days. With recharged batteries, I was able to pick up where I left off with freelance editing and my own work. As mentioned in previous posts, I try to avoid reading fiction for pleasure when I’m writing. Last night, I closed the final page on a book I’d been meaning to read ever since it was first published in 1991. In some ways, I’m glad I left ‘Wild Swans’ by Jung Chang this long because I probably have a greater psychological and historical perspective now than I did then.

The subjugation of an entire nation with millions of inhabitants under Mao is almost unbelievable until you read how it was carried out. Nobody was untouched by his ‘teachings’ and manipulative abuse of power. It ripped families apart, destroyed minds, driving many to suicide, and laid waste to the land itself. Even grass was deemed ‘bourgeois’. It allowed those with petty grievances and small minds to inform on neighbours who, according to the self-righteous, didn’t espouse Maoism. Many tormentors were women and it was commonplace for children to take part in beating teachers. With so many rules and regulations, it was easy to fall foul. People stopped thinking their own thoughts in case they inadvertently expressed them. In essence, fear stalked the streets, and humiliation was the order of the day. Those who were lucky were sentenced to hard labour. The unfortunate were denounced and tortured. There were times I winced and badly wanted to close the book. But…

I was knocked out by the sheer strength of human resilience and depth of kindness. I was amazed how many managed to hang on to their sanity and their moral principles despite brutal orders to abandon them. The term ‘brainwashing’ is often misapplied, but what occurred is as close as it gets and on an epic scale. It’s worth stating that the current President of China, Xi Jinping, grew up during these extraordinarily turbulent times. He could not have come through untouched, unscathed or unchanged.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment about people keeping quiet when they should have spoken out. I refer to the casting couch culture of Hollywood. While repression and ‘shutting people up’ comes in many guises, comparisons with dictators are unwise.  In China, during Mao’s rule, the threat was not simply to one’s career prospects (although anyone with an education and decent job was deemed inferior and banished to rural penury) your life and the lives of your children were on the line.   Thank goodness that, with Mao’s demise, China began its slow road to peace, sanity and prosperity.   It’s a comfort to know that powerful men, and also women, come but inevitably go.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

You’d think that sitting on your own in a quiet space with just you and your computer, or pen and paper, thinking your own thoughts would be the safest of occupations. Well, think again.

There’s been a fair amount of chatter on the airwaves recently about the physical problems associated with sitting for extended periods of time, ‘hunched over’ a manuscript. ‘Author’s arse’ – a migration of fat to that area of the body might be a royal pain in the rear – pun fully intended – but at least it doesn’t hurt. Likewise, ‘Bloggers Bulge.’ Easier to conceal but, nevertheless, annoying and unflattering. Headaches can afflict anyone who sits in front of a screen for long periods; the trick to take short breaks, which might seem obvious. However if you’re engrossed in a major scene, it’s easy to overlook. My personal thermostat bust years ago, consequently, I’m a chilly mortal in winter, overheated in summer. Not being terribly active (even when standing) can exacerbate my temperature gauge. A minor irritation maybe. Neck, shoulder and back pain, well, that’s a whole different story.

After experiencing agonies with my left shoulder, I decided to try a standing desk.   The result was as instant as it was amazing. Aside from the freedom of shifting my weight from one foot to the other whenever I fancied it, (to a casual observer, looks like I’m practicing dance moves) I could finally say bye-bye to frozen shoulder. Feeling exceptionally pleased, and filled with the kind of zeal commonly found in those who’ve conquered addictions, I proclaimed to my writer mates that they also had to get a standing desk or similar contraption. My closest writing friend had problems with her back, made worse by sitting. Astonishingly, after taking my advice, these magically disappeared. Great. Big tick. Well done me. Unfortunately, what might sort out one problem sometimes triggers another. My friend developed excruciating pain in her feet. She now has two problems instead of one. I hang my head in shame.

The mental health issues associated with writers are well documented; largely thanks to several big names brave enough to discuss them. Some feel that writers write because they are natural depressives, the general idea that writing is cathartic. Some believe that writing should come with a government health warning. Spending hours in isolation is deemed unhealthy. Yes, we have connections to social media, but it’s not quite the same as human interaction. (Not sure how many of my FB friends would turn up at my funeral!) All kinds of demons can assail you in the comfort of your own workspace, however nice you make it (and, naturally, with your standing desk in place.) Lack of confidence – is what I’m writing garbage? – and writer’s block, often inextricably linked, are just two that threaten to derail the writer. Fear of failure and rejection are also demonic big-hitters and they can cripple the unsuspecting author. To top it off, if you’re reliant on writing novels as a sole source of income, you could be in for an unpredictable, seat of the pants ride.

While reactive depression might be normal after a bad review, weak sales or, dare I say, other authors storming the charts with zillions of five star reviews, (green-eyed demons this time) while yours languish, it would seem that writers are more prone to a general sense of loneliness, isolation and abandonment than ‘civilians’. In addition, we’re expected to turn ourselves into mini celebs if there is a book to publicise. Pressing the flesh – even if only on social media – might come easy if you’re in sales, but for those who spend long hours alone crafting a story, ‘coming out’ can be quite a disturbing experience. By nature, most writers are not performers, let alone marketing men or women. And with so many books published every week, month and year, it’s necessary to ‘ ‘woman up’ or ‘man up’ to get out there and strut one’s stuff. It takes a different kind of energy and skill to ensure that a novel, however good it is, gets noticed by bloggers, reviewers and, very importantly, readers. While we might be passionate about our story, not all of us have those skills.

You might possibly conclude that the occupational physical discomfort endured by writers bear no comparison to the potential mental fall out. I’m not saying that writing turns you into a basket case, physical wreck, or both. Loyal and supportive friends who are also writers keep me sane and I hope I do the same for them. I guess anyone working in the arts and creative industries probably shares similar risks – perhaps with the exception of ‘Author’s Arse’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

SILLY SEASON

167890-FC50 copySharp-eyed readers will note that I have been silent since June. No, I was not sunning myself throughout July, (well, that’s a bit of lie because I’ve done a fair amount of walking and appreciating my new surroundings) but with a new home to organise, people to see, writing projects aplenty, and a new cover and title, ‘House of Lies’ to promote, my blog writing got parked in the long grass.

So now back to the crazy month of August when MP’s are on recess, the country is run by stand-in’s and families try to entertain their kids through weeks of pouring rain – well, it was the last time I looked out of the window.

Me? I’m juggling work commitments that include writing a brand new story while looking forward to the release of ‘A Deadly Trade’ later in the year, followed by ‘Final Target’ as part of the Joshua Thane series of thrillers, and published by Harper Collins’ imprint Killer Reads. The covers look drop dead gorgeous but I’m not allowed to splash them here even in a ‘For Your Eyes Only’ spy kind of way.   The cover reveals will be unveiled soon – promise.   Oh, yes, I also have a new website in the pipeline, which after ten years is long overdue. It’s going to be sleeker, meaner and thoroughly stunning – I’ve seen the sneak preview.

So lots to look forward to as we wend our way to you know what. Unlike the retail industry, I refuse to mention that word in the second week of August!