Word on the Wire

Month: June, 2014


I posted a photograph on Facebook this week. It was a lovely picture of someone’ s bookcase on which sat three of my novels. A fan had sent it to me. A writer needs to know that his or her stories are being read and, importantly, enjoyed and I was delighted. Some writers swear by reviews on Amazon, yet I know many good books by accomplished writers whose stories rarely garner more than a few comments. I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the reviews I’ve written can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I either like, occasionally love or, don’t get on with a novel. I rarely hate one. If a story doesn’t gel, I tend to put it aside because there are far too many other great reads deserving of my time. I wouldn’t dream of writing a nasty review as a means to vent my proverbial spleen because I know precisely how much work that writer expendedImage. It’s too cheap to take a pop at someone else’s work because you don’t like it. Which brings me to another point.

Most readers I talk to don’t bother to post reviews and it isn’t because they only read printed books. They also read on Kindle.   It took me a long time to discover this. Up until that moment, I admit I’d become obsessed and dismayed by (mostly) a lack of reviews, yet royalty statements and PLR lending are a more accurate barometer of a novel’s success or otherwise. One of the nicest comments I ever received was when I was talking to an ardent Seymour fan. He told me that he had name-dropped me and was delighted when someone in his company responded with ‘Wow, I love her books.’ I could have kissed him!

In a dark moment, some years ago, when I was a lot less relaxed about writing than I am now, my husband and I went to see an up and coming comedian. His name was Michael McIntyre and he was playing in the NIA in Birmingham to a sell out crowd of thousands. To cheer me up, my better half pointed to the auditorium and said. ‘See all those people, that number have read your latest novel.’ If you could have bottled the warmth of my response you could have used it to melt the most hardened criminal. But let’s not get too carried away here.

As one wise friend told me, success, fame ‘all that stuff’ is ephemeral and she’s right. I used to get a buzz out of telling folk I’d just met that I was a writer.   Most often, the response to this statement is delight, sometimes bewilderment, occasionally a ‘never heard of you’  followed by an interrogation along the lines of what are your book sales like and how much money do you make?   My reaction to the latter is to smile, make some self-deprecating remark and silently think, ‘well, I’ve never heard of you either.’ Occasionally, you might run into these same folk a few years later and their opening gambit will be, ‘Hello. Still writing then?’ Once asked this question – I admit I was feeling a little scratchy – I replied. ‘Sure. You still butchering?’ In case you think I was in conversation with a serial killer, I was conversing with a local ‘purveyor of meats’. The moral of the tale: you gotta do what you gotta do. Let’s not get too hung up on it.  

Once writer status (to some, quite wrongly, celebrity status) has been established, questions about genre arise. This has always been a tricky path for me to negotiate. It astounds me how many people expect me to either write romantic fiction or, if they have already discovered how many children I have, children’s stories. While nobody bats an eyelash at women who write crime, try explaining to the uninitiated that I tend to write thrillers with more than a hint of espionage, I’ve twice written under a male pseudonym and, by the way, my main protagonists are blokes handy with guns. The reactions vary from astonishment and disbelief to ‘good on you’ with no gear changes in between. To the astonished, disbelieving faction, there is only one response, ‘See the match last night?’



I was asked a question on local radio this week: ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ ‘The news,’ I responded, which is true but probably not the total answer because a news item, small or large, is only the trigger for a series of thought processes. It’s followed by the ‘What if…’ or premise. Take a tiny snippet from a newspaper about a banker who had fallen to his death from a balcony of a hotel in Shanghai and my immediate thoughts were as follows: Was he pushed or did he jump? If pushed, what kind of individual would do the pushing? Was it someone paid to do it? And what kind of man or woman would do such a thing? Is he/she driven by greed, revenge, getting kicks from it, or something quite different? As a result of this, Hex, my main protagonist in ‘Wicked Game’ and ‘Game Over’ was born.   Clearly, character has a huge bearing on a story.   A memorable main protagonist lights up the plotting process. I always try to be as loose in my thinking as possible at this stage. That’s where distraction therapy comes in.

I have various techniques for ‘cooking ideas and it usually involves the physical. All the time I’m swimming, walking, cleaning, or more hideously, ironing, I’m doing my best not to think at all. I’d even go so far as to say that I get my best ideas when brandishing an iron because my sub-conscious is desperate to dump the laundry and do something, anything, more stimulating. I’m a great believer in having a notebook within handy reach to jot down notes too cryptic for anyone else to decipher.   I then end up with a mess of ideas, most of which get dumped for being too clichéd, done to death (no pun intended) or lacking staying power. It can be a fun process as long as I don’t get too serious about it – there’s plenty of time for hard work and drilling down those ideas at a later stage.

A spin-off question from the broadcaster touched on how I got into writing. I explained that I’d fallen into it by chance and was ridiculously naïve about how difficult it would be. I also mentioned that I’d taken a traditional route. By ‘traditional’ I mean that I wrote and wrote and wrote for seven years before I got a sniff of a book deal.   No sooner than the words left my mouth I realised how old-fashioned that sounded.   Back then, and I’m only going back to early 2000, (my first novel was published in 2007) self-publishing was regarded as the only route for the desperate. A stigma was attached to it. One publishing editor warned me ‘never to self-publish because you won’t be taken seriously ever again.’ With this threat hanging over me, I soldiered on and it was miserable. You’d think a natural filter, in the form of an agent, would guarantee success, but the window of opportunity for obtaining a mainstream publishing deal was and remains narrow, sometimes stupidly so. How times change!

The indie author has no need to beat his or her breast, to suffer tears and tantrums and for that I’m genuinely glad. I don’t care what anyone says, none of that ‘character building’ stuff is good for the soul. On more than one occasion I had a strong desire to chuck my computer and fledgling novel out through the nearest window before hurling myself out after it.   Now, independent writers are not only respectable they are on the rise.   The most successful will often obtain publishing deals from the very publishers who once wouldn’t have given them houseroom. The British have always admired the underdog. Good luck to them, I say, and about time too


Naughty, naughty, but I decided to take my foot off the gas this week.   I’d finished the first draft of a brand new novel and was at that point where I was double-checking research with a police officer before allowing the story to ‘cook’ before picking it back up, re-reading and discovering all those flaws that you’re simply too close to spot in an early draft. As far as the day job went, having finished one major critique for a client, I was reluctant to rush straight into another piece because it was a second and key read of a novel that I much admire and it was essential for me to come to it with fresh eyes. There’s a common theme here: cool objectivity.   When you work with words every day, you can easily become ‘worded out’.

All that changed within the space of a few Monday morning emails when my super eagle-eyed contact in the cops revealed a gaffe in the last third of my novel. If I were honest, I’d spotted it too but, in the interests of drama, had turned a blind eye.   It wasn’t so drastic that I couldn’t rejig the penultimate scenes prior to the big finish, but it did take a little thought and fresh application to achieve a level of authenticity without losing pace and tension. As I worked it out and translated each scene to the page, what I feared most – screwing up an edgy narrative – disappeared. In fact, the story improved exponentially. It’s currently ‘stewing’ before I lift the lid to take another peek.

Back to my week of sloth, I caught up with friends and family, and read a sizeable chunk of Patricia Highsmith’s ‘The Two Faces of January,’ now a major film starring Viggo Mortensen.   I hadn’t read it before. In common with ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, a psychological thriller that revolves around three main characters, the main players in ‘January’ are conman Chester McFarlane and his young wife, Colette, and drifter and adventurer Rydal Keener. Highsmith’s talent for carrying the reader along with ‘warts and all’ characters is on full display. As each sparks off the other, it’s hard to know why we are sympathetic to them, yet we are, perhaps, because they are more like us than we’d care to believe. It’s something I touched on in last week’s blog when writing about Sally Wainwright’s ‘Happy Valley’.  It takes a writer of great skill to get the reader onside with characters that are less than perfect, which leads me, somewhat tenuously, to the start of the World Cup.

Amid dirty play, dodgy decisions and yellow cards, who (and I’m no football pundit) could fail to be caught up in the drama of last night’s match between Brazil and Croatia? When Croatia scored the first goal, care of it bouncing off Marcelo Vieira, I surprised myself (and my family) by jumping up from the sofa and punching the air.   I watched rapt as Neymar made his mark by scoring two goals for Brazil. He also made his mark on Luka Modric by delivering a swift, sneaky elbow to the unfortunate man’s face. As in fiction, real-life loveable characters sometimes behave in less than endearing ways.    


Thursday’s child, according to the rhyme, is full of woe. Not this child! It’s been a good week on several levels.

Who could fail to be knocked out by Sally Wainwright’s sublime storytelling in ‘Happy Valley’? The concluding part was a showstopper of characterisation. The villain of the piece, Tommy Lee Royce, played brilliantly by James Norton, was the right side of cracked and yet also humanised by his touching response to the discovery that he had a son.   Sarah Lancashire’s portrayal of Sgt Catherine Cawood, a bereaved mother, who always knew that her daughter was no angel, was searing in its depiction of grief and rage and thirst for justice.

Often, when writers talk about characterisation, they refer to consistency of thought and behaviour. There is a truth in this, but what makes Wainwright’s work stand head and shoulders above the crowd is that she creates characters that tick to their own internal logic. She has that rare and genuine understanding of human frailty. She ‘gets’ that humans are inconsistent. We don’t always have to like them all of the time.  With immense skill, she translates this into fictional form. I suspect this is why she can turn her hand so effectively to comedy, as in ‘Last Tango in Halifax’ as well as writing gritty, crime drama with raw and credible characters that speak to the heart.   I look forward to the next series.

Back in the day, to coin a phrase, I worked for a top public relations consultancy off Regent Street in London. We had all sorts of high profile accounts and one of my jobs as a lowly employee was to write press releases, which I’d then push in front of a journalist’s nose in the fond hope of gaining coverage for a client. It usually worked. My boss at the time used to blither on that ‘Ishers’ (my nickname) had the best track record for getting press releases published virtually word for word, no subbing. I had good contacts with the Press and enjoyed an easy-going, symbiotic relationship. Flash forward a few decades and I’ve been surprised and a tad alarmed by how little editors of local newspapers and magazines are interested in local authors and new novels. This week, that all changed.

My other half picked up the Cheltenham Standard in Café del Art on Sunday morning and said, ‘This looks rather good.’ I had a quick flick through, found out the name of the editor and email address and, on impulse and without much confidence, contacted him early on Monday morning asking whether he’d like to cover my newly released novel ‘Game Over’. Back came a reply within hours.   By 5.00 pm, a journalist had contacted me for a telephone interview. The following day I was sent a list of questions, which I responded to and by close of play, the whole lot had been written, filed, ready to appear in today’s copy. Joy unconfined. This is how it’s supposed to work, and thank God for a newspaper that has gone back to core values, cares about editorial and doesn’t put you in a vice with the chilling phrase, ‘You take out an ad with us and we’ll do you an advertorial.’   I am not against advertising, but as I learnt a long time ago, column inches speak louder than paid for puff-up.