evseymour

Word on the Wire

WRITING IN THE CURRENT CRISIS

In the light of revealing my new G.S. Locke author name, I’d got a blog post all lined up to talk about pseudonyms, including the fact that, quite peculiarly in my immediate family, neither my brothers nor me have ever been called by our first Christian names by our parents, and this is not the only weird thing about me and ‘identities.’ I’ll save it, maybe, for another post. What seemed more pressing: how are writers continuing to write in the current crisis? Let’s face it, we’re only a little way into an appalling situation and sight of the ‘new normal’ looks a long way off.     

Authors, more or less, appear to split into two camps: those that welcome the opportunity, while acknowledging the crisis swirling around them, to hibernate and write, and those that are more bunny in headlights and find that they can’t concentrate at all. I’m caught in between. My next novel is with my editor so, in theory, I have nothing to create. Strangely, although the majority of the story was penned back end of last year, there’s an offbeat, much loved character that stockpiles cans of food ‘for a pandemic’. I don’t know whether this will stay in the final cut because I can’t work out whether references like this will resonate with, or turn off readers.

Similarly, a couple of authors have already been on Twitter asking whether their next novel should be written against the background of the pandemic, or pretend it never happened. It’s a really tricky one.  At times like this that I wished I felt skilled enough to write romantic fiction because I reckon this genre lends itself to a story without a single mention of Covid-19. 

Before the pandemic really took off, it was suggested that a ton of crime writers would be penning pandemic fiction. There’s a school of thought that those who’ve endured tragedy find resonance in art depicting the same. With what we’re all facing, I’m less certain. I reckon a good dollop of escapist stuff will be required, which is why I’m immersed in reading historical fiction right now.

FABULOUS BOOKS AND FILM

With coronavirus and floods, (and locusts plaguing Pakistan and parts of Africa), February has been a dismal month. But, on the reading and dramatic front, there has been no shortage of talent to shout about.

‘The Split’ led me to four straight hours of binge watching. Written by the brilliant Abi Morgan, it features a family of sisters who are divorce lawyers. The narrative follows them through the trials and tribulations of their professional and personal lives. For anyone who has had the misfortune to go through divorce, it will ring true; the script never puts a foot wrong. Acting is superb, with a strong cast that includes Nicola Morgan, Stephen Mangan and Deborah Findlay. Watch out for the genius scene in which a warring couple bellow at each other, but with the sound turned off. No need for words when their faces say it all. Be advised to have a box of tissues ready for the finale.

Late to the party, I read M.W. Craven’s rather brilliant ‘The Puppet Show.’ I loved this on so many levels. It’s dark. It’s brutal. But Craven’s original characters, in Poe and Tilly, lighten the load. It’s a totally worthy and deserving winner of the CWA Golden Dagger Award 2019. Published by Constable.

Next up, another author, Gerard O’ Donovan’s ‘The Doom List.’ Old style Hollywood glamour combined with blackmail and historical, larger than life characters, what’s not to like? I loved Tom Collins, a former cop turned PI and, naturally, of Irish descent. He’s the perfect fixer to the stars and those in a tight spot. If you want to disappear into the 1920’s, without mobiles or computers, this comes highly recommended. Published by Severn House.

Former Chief Superintendent, Graham Bartlett, has written a first-hand account of the investigation into the murders of two little girls in 1986, with best selling author, Peter James. Providing dramatic insight into the mechanics of a murder investigation, it also highlights the dogged pursuit of the police to bring a killer to justice. Published by Pan.

I had the pleasure of working with James Ellson on his novel, ‘The Trail,’ although he needed absolutely no help when it came to police procedure, as he’s a former serving police officer with Greater Manchester. Featuring beekeeper DCI Rick Castle, a missing person enquiry leads him to Nepal. What seems straightforward is anything but and Castle is faced with an unenviable moral decision. Published by Unbound Digital.

On the film front, check out ‘Hostiles’. Hands up, apart from some stunning exceptions, I’m not a massive fan of Westerns. (Perversely, I rather enjoy Western novels, notably stunners like ‘Nunslinger’ by Stark Holborn). Anyway, my other half strong-armed me to give it a go. I’m so glad he did. Cinematography is sensational, creating a picture of beautiful landscape at odds with the raw savagery that takes place within it. If you can get past the deeply upsetting inciting incident, brilliantly conveyed by Rosamund Pike when her entire family is wiped out by Rattlesnake Indians (a psychotic tribe despised by other tribes) then you are in for a powerful and thought-provoking piece of drama. There are no good guys versus bad guys. Through Christian Bale’s character, (he plays a captain tasked to take an old dying chief back to his homeland in Montana) we witness a dramatic and emotional change in his once deeply held beliefs about the enemy. It’s the kind of story that stays with you long after the credits have rolled, and comes very highly recommended.

Finally, Orion released the e-book and audio of Neon by G S Locke, the paperback to follow in July. The cover alone is enough to whet a reader’s appetite. If you’re looking for a serial killer thriller set in Birmingham, with an antagonist who writes his signature in lights, this could be just the story for you.

SLOW START

I had a slow start to 2020 for all the right reasons. I’d sent the first draft (mentioned in my last post) to my agent, which was nothing short of a miracle. Editorial work was steady and of exceptional quality, but I wasn’t rushed off my feet. A rarity, I had time to stand and stare, except I didn’t. When not walking, visiting and generally catching up on all things domestic, I read several novels, two of which stand out like shooting stars on a dark night: ‘London Rules’, by Mick Herron and the utterly sublime, ‘A Treachery of Spies’ by Manda Scott.

Already a committed fan of the ‘Slough House’ crew, I had moments during London Rules’ when I laughed out loud, but don’t be fooled by the hilarity and elegant writing. With terrorism and assassination attempts, there is plenty here that feels serious, contemporary and chilling. Plotting, as ever, is meticulous. Herron is a dab hand at persuading you to look one way when you should be staring at what’s right in front of you. Fast-paced, it’s the kind of story that you can polish off in an uninterrupted day.

‘A Treachery of Spies’ is a different beast. The story begins with a very old woman found dead in a car in France. The gruesome and puzzling circumstances of her death leads Ines Picaut, a lead detective, on a trail that travels back to the Second World War. The dual narrative is one of the brilliant aspects of the story as it switches from present day France to the activities of the British and the Maquis during the French resistance. To say I was gripped was an understatement. The story resonated more strongly as I’d read Damien Lewis’s ‘The Nazi Hunters’ last year.

As the title suggests, betrayal and the difficulties of who to trust in a situation, in which one false move can mean a swift death sentence, (if you’re lucky) powers the narrative. Consequently, Scott’s cast of characters are intriguing and complex, and tension is on a knife-edge throughout. At times, I wanted my imagination to shut down such is the brutality displayed towards those caught by the Nazis, as well as those French deemed to be collaborators by their countrymen. It’s a massive tribute to Scott’s writing that she tells it how it was, without gratuitousness or sensationalism. While the story may be fictional, the courage and commitment of those who fought against occupation and a cruel invader are never in doubt. But this is not a tale of ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Human frailty on all sides is laid bare in unflinching detail. If espionage is your thing, go and buy.

WRESTLING AN OCTOPUS

Earlier last month, I tweeted that writing a first draft was akin to wrestling an octopus. Oh yes, I know the theory. You understand your characters because you’ve done proper profiles. Structurally, you know the beginning, the middle and the end. You recognise what’s at stake. You have a clear idea about your ‘bad guys’ and the dynamic between him/her and your main character. You have your outline, which you’ve worked up into a full-blown synopsis. You’ve thought about themes, locations, that hard to pin down quality: ‘tone’. In short, you’ve covered all the bases. So what can possibly go wrong? Answer: quite a bit.

Generally, with every novel I’ve written, I get off to a gallop. Like all mid sections, it’s important not to break into a slow canter. This time was fine, incidentally. Pace nice and tight. I even boasted to another writer (Paddy Magrane) that I was on the home straight. Talk about tempting fate.

I have no idea what went wrong other than I had a crisis of confidence. I got too picky with what I’d already written. (Fatal with first drafts). I wasn’t even sure about what to write next. The words simply wouldn’t come. Not one of them.  It was as if English was not my first language. I was certain I couldn’t move on, without going back. Aside from those clever dressage horses, have you ever seen a pony go into reverse?  Mine wasn’t even slow trotting. My nag had fallen, crushed under a weight of self-doubt. The plot twist that felt so sure-footed on paper didn’t quite come off. Characters had their own voices and I wasn’t sure I liked what I heard.  That kind of negativity is pretty destructive. And yet it happens more often than one might think, or possibly admit. Embarrassing to say but I work with writers all the time who encounter such a difficulty. And yet it had never happened to me. 

To get out of this awful self-defeating cycle, I gave myself a stern talking to, which didn’t work. I did not phone my agent. Nothing worse than a writer whining about losing her wits.  I did talk to my other half who, although kind, had no advice other than ‘keep going.’ (As it turned out, he was right). And then, mercifully, I had a breakthrough. 

Turning to St Google, I discovered reams of great advice. Essentially, a first draft is just that. It exists to muck around with. With a second draft, scenes can be switched, added to and deleted. Characters may change. You may warm them up or tone them down, or axe them completely. The second draft is actually where the fun starts but you need the original, as flawed as it is, first. Intellectually, I knew all this but, somehow, had failed to embrace it in my heart.  Anyway, after a short break, normal service has now been resumed and, as I speed towards the finish line, this will be my last post before Christmas and New Year Celebrations. Have a good one and, if there are writers out there who are currently struggling, remember what Ernest Hemingway said: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’ 

DISPATCHES FROM THE WRITING SHED

This blog post should really be called ‘Vive la France’ because there’s a whole French thing going on, starting with the French cop drama ‘Spiral,’ which returned to our screens with a seventh season this month. It seemed grittier and more gripping (not easy to say) than ever. If you haven’t already caught it, I urge you to do so. The characters leap off the screen and the plot lines are always varied, twisty and compelling.

As mentioned last time, ‘The Nazi Hunters’ by Damien Lewis was next on my reading list. As the title suggests the story is about a secret SAS unit and the quest to track down Hitler’s war criminals, many of which had flouted the Geneva Convention and executed captured SAS soldiers. But this is not simply a tale of ‘derring-do’. The extraordinary courage and heroism shown by the French who did so much to protect the British during the invasion and occupation of their country is astonishing – and for which they paid an extraordinarily heavy price. Of some 1,000 villagers in Moussey and its surrounding valley, who were seized and shipped off to concentration camps, 661 would never return. It’s a sobering tale but it’s also one that leaves you with the conviction that, whatever madness and cruelty is inflicted, good people will always triumph.

In my last blog post, I promised to give you a little more information about my brief (very brief) foray into TV. In November, I’m appearing in ‘Everything is Connected – George Eliot’s life,’ a new Arena documentary directed by artist Gillian Wearing on BBC 4. Transmission time has yet to be revealed so my lips are sealed, especially as I have absolutely no idea how much of my participation will actually translate to screen. More anon.

Other than this, I’ve been flat out writing, which is why this post is so brief. However, attending an art exhibition in a church some weeks ago, we glanced up and spotted the order of hymns. 007, huh? Surprising ‘The Saint’ didn’t put in an appearance!

Back With A Bang

Having signed off for the summer, I’m back, and what a lovely few months it’s been. Big feel-good wedding: tick. Holiday: tick. I read a couple of unpublished manuscripts that blew my socks off: big tick. I haven’t killed plants in the garden – this is deserving of a massive tick but I’ll refrain. I can still play several pieces on my piano by that wonderful composer Einaudi, without cocking them up: satisfied tick. And we hosted what we loftily call a garden party (nothing like those elevated dos at Buck Palace) and IT. DID. NOT. RAIN: hell of a tick.

On the literary front: the paperback version of ‘Her Sister’s Secret’ was released on September 5th and has already garnered great four and five star reviews published in e-book format. There is nothing more rewarding and I’m busily crafting my next story. Oh, and, between you and me, I make a brief TV debut later in the year, care of Arena Films, but more of that nearer the time of broadcast. And, yes, it was an eye-opening experience for a TV ingénue.

But a holiday wouldn’t be the same without books. It’s so easy to return to tried and tested writers you love but I thought I’d branch out and discovered a new writer (new to me, that is) Michael Robotham. I whipped through his novel, ‘The Drowning Man’ in a couple of days so, if you fancy something fast-paced, this one’s for you. I also read ‘Unnatural Causes’ by Dr Richard Shepherd. It provides a masterclass in pathology, (not the best reading before you go to sleep). A highly experienced forensic pathologist, Shepherd has covered some very high profile cases. One of the many interesting things about his book is the mental and emotional toll of dealing with the dead and, worse: talking to the deceased’s loved ones. It’s an occupational hazard that is under-appreciated. Similar applies to the Scenes of Crimes officer. And Kate Bendelow’s forensics book for crime writers: ‘The Real CSI’ is a genuine ‘must read’. Hopefully, future fictional scenes with SOCO’s and pathologists in my stories will now rock with greater authenticity.

When writing I make a point of not reading fiction in the same genre, so if anyone can recommend any new historical fiction writers on the block, or great non-fiction writers, do drop me a line. In the meantime, I’m plugging into ‘The Nazi Hunters’ by Damien Lewis. More of this anon.

NO SWEAT

When I started writing a blog I wrote weekly.  It nearly killed me so I believed a monthly blog would work better.  A monthly blog is doable, I thought.  No sweat. Well, I was wrong, which is why I’m just squeaking in my June blog on the cusp of July.  How on earth can the weeks fly by this quickly? And then I looked at my diary and made a sobering discovery.

In the past month I’ve read through final proofs of ‘Her Sister’s Secret’.  Actually, the novel is due to be released next week and I’m looking forward to seeing it ‘in the flesh’.  I’ve worked with six authors on their yet as unpublished novels on behalf of Jericho Writers.  I’ve carried out serious legwork (research) for a brand new story of my own, fielded phone calls – professional, that is –  (personal doesn’t count and there’s been plenty of those) and spent three glorious days away when I should have been working.  I also read Mick Herron’s sensational ‘Spook Street’, yet hardly made a dent in my ‘To Be Read’ list, which is why I feel so damned guilty for only just starting ‘Turbulent Wake’ by fab writer, Paul Hardisty.  Within pages, I was absolutely drawn in and enthralled. Having worked with Paul on ‘The Abrupt Physics of Dying’, it felt very special to be back and in such a safe pair of hands.  If you haven’t read his books, do.  Already I have the impression that ‘Turbulent Wake’ is literary fiction of the highest order;  superb, actually.   

I appreciate that my list of professional endeavours is as nothing to what the average agent ploughs their way through, but, phew, it makes me giddy to read, which explains why, in a bid to maintain a healthy work/life balance, I’m taking the summer off from blogging.  I will still be chirruping on Twitter and playing my face on Facebook so I’m not disappearing from the digital ether completely.  

Have a wonderful summer those of you who follow my blog. See you in…ahem… September.

WAITING GAME

A writer’s life is a waiting game.  This month, I’ve been in various stages of waiting, but the main wait (and for perfectly good reason) was for a title and cover to be finalised. 

If you’re an unpublished author, following the traditional route, you’ll be waiting for that email offering agent representation, or a ‘yes, please’ from a publisher.  A close cousin of waiting is hoping.  Depending on which way things roll, hope can turn to joy or disappointment.  Overall, hanging on for the cover, the final edits, the agent, the deal, represents the hidden, frustrating side of the business and, occasionally, it can be wearing, if not downright exhausting.  So what to do to avoid going stir crazy?  This is not a formula for all but, for me, this worked:

I gardened.  I walked.  I shopped (not for food). I spent time with friends and family, and read a couple of books, about one of which at least two trusted people asked me:  ‘Why are you reading that?’

I should explain that the author has a problematic past – and this is an understatement – but when said author wrote a ‘best selling and international bestseller’, I wanted to know what all the fuss about.  I should also add that I’d had an encounter with the author who, in a previous life, was a commissioning editor who allegedly wanted to sign me up with a major publisher only for the deal to fall through for obscure reasons.  Anyway, I digress.  Casting aside every preconceived idea, dare I say prejudice, the fact is I loved the novel, but felt extraordinarily guilty for doing so, which is why I’m neither mentioning the author nor the book by name.  Perhaps I’m being unfair, silly or cowardly.  Like I said: waiting can make you stir crazy.  The truth is it hardly matters a jot whether I endorse the novel or the author.  With a movie in the offing and fantastic book sales, he is doing quite nicely without a pat on the back from me. 

But back to waiting:  good news:  I now have a title for my new novel with Harper Collins:  ‘Her Sister’s Secret’.  The cover looks glorious but I’m not allowed to spoil the reveal just yet.  Can’t wait.

THE HOUSE THAT EVE BUILT

I haven’t fitted in a spot of house construction in my extensive free time (not) although moving three times in the past six years to satisfy my nomadic wanderlust might qualify me. No, I’ve been observing our local builder erect another home on the tiny development on which we live (eleven houses in total) and I have to say it’s not that dissimilar to crafting a story.

I haven’t fitted in a spot of house construction in my extensive free time (not) although moving three times in the past six years to satisfy my nomadic wanderlust might qualify me. No, I’ve been observing our local builder erect another home on the tiny development on which we live (eleven houses in total) and I have to say it’s not that dissimilar to crafting a story.

First, there’s an architectural plan. Now I know lots of successful writers are ‘pantsers’ – writing by the seat of their pants – and I have to admit, of late and for a variety of reasons, I’ve become more pantser than planner, but usually I have a rough idea of where I’m heading however vague that middle bit might be.

Getting back to the building development: early on, the ground is surveyed and pegged out. I liken this to reading a ton of novels, not necessarily in your chosen genre, to stimulate those creative writing muscles. I’m staggered by the number of authors I talk to (mostly unpublished) who declare in slightly lofty tones that they don’t bother because they don’t want to be influenced, or ‘simply don’t have the time.’ As Joanne Harris said only last week, and I paraphrase, the best favour you can do yourself as an up and coming writer or even a published writer is READ. And read anything. Cereal packets. NHS leaflets. What some wag has written on the back of a dirty old van. Romantic Fiction when you really like Crime and vice-versa. You get the drift.

Having dug out the footings, and channels for pipes, next the cement goes in. This is where my analogy runs a bit thin because everyone knows that the first draft is more runny jam than hard and fast concrete. In other words it can be changed and often radically so, which really isn’t possible when building a structure, but I digress. Breeze blocks next and these most closely resemble the cast of characters you’re going to use. All the houses here are timber-framed, providing the basic structure of the building, similar to the spine of the narrative and overarching main plot line. For bricks, think scenes, necessary for pinning the story together. Then there’s plastering – could this be style or tone?! Wiring has to be pace and tension to electrify your story. Sorry about that! I admit that I stumbled a bit on plumbing although I guess one could compare it to removing all the crap bits. (Pun intended). As for painting and varnishing, how about polishing the final draft to within an inch of its life?

No do-it-yourself manual on how to build a house – I’m sure I’ve missed out crucial elements – but maybe a rough guide to writing a story. Maybe….

ART FOR ART’S SAKE

We all recognise how solitary writing is. I occasionally feel as if I’m stuck in a far-flung outpost, disconnected from reality, (not a bad thing sometimes) ploughing my own literary furrow, alone. Since October, I’ve been living, breathing and sleeping in my imaginary world – hence my very limited activity on Twitter – but last week, I reconnected with a trip to the Capital.

I can’t tell you how great it was to kick off with a long overdue visit to Goldsboro Books, David Headley’s bookshop baby (now fully grown and mature adult) and home of DHH Literary Consultancy.   There, I caught up with my agent and, after a whizz around the bookshop, we sauntered off for a working lunch with my publisher.   An hour and forty minutes later, I emerged with a new set of edits and spent the rest of my stay belting around various watering holes not far from Leicester Square. Two life times ago, I used to work in a PR consultancy not far away in Gt. Marlborough Street. That same frenetic, edgy, noisy, ‘being part of something’ feeling I experienced then assailed me now. Ironically, I’d be lying if I said I found it entirely pleasant. Perhaps I’ve spent too much time in solitary.

I headed back to ‘the sticks’ and on Saturday visited Malvern Theatre to watch ‘Art’, a play written some time ago by Yasmina Reza. Brilliantly conceived, it tells the story of three friends, Marc, Yvan and Serge. Serge buys a modern art painting for an absurd amount of money. The canvas is all white. When Marc comments that’s it’s ‘shit’, (‘merde’ I’m guessing in the original) all hell breaks loose.

With an all-star cast, featuring Denis Lawson, Nigel Havers and Stephen Tompkinson, we knew we were in for a treat but Tompkinson’s sensational and hilarious rant in the mother of all soliloquies had the audience breaking out in spontaneous applause.   The play, above all, is a study of friendship, the bonds that bind us, and those that break us, and it seems particularly appropriate for the uncertain times in which we live. I left the theatre with my ribs aching from laughter, but the play was not simply comedy gold. There was a message in the mayhem and it left me with a strong sense that we all come, make a lot of noise and then we fade away. Strangely, there is unity and grace in that thought.