Word on the Wire

Month: July, 2014


I was going to write some ritzy, flippant piece entitled ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, but felt it would be so out of step with current political events and what can only be described as a bloody and violent week on the world stage, I frankly didn’t have the stomach for it. Social media, blogging and the like seem pretty pointless tools when set against a context of downed airplanes and a Middle East that is on fire. I’m not alone to state this. One sage Twitter follower said much the same this week. One of my daughters, loosely described as ‘non-political,’ surprised me a few days ago when she asked, ‘Has the world gone mad?’ It was hard not to respond, ‘Yes, it has.’

As a writer and self-confessed news junkie I often base a story on real world events. ‘The Last Exile’ emanated from the Stockwell Underground shooting in 2005. ‘Land of Ghosts’ emerged after I’d read extensively about Russia’s violations in Chechnya, a place whose occupants have been involved in an armed struggle for independence for centuries. For ‘Wicked Game’ I researched a vile brand of biological weapons, a central part of the novel. I am no stranger to finding fiction in the truth and I daresay there will be thriller writers tapping away as I write, strongly influenced by events so tragic that it’s hard to find the right words to adequately describe them. For this reason, as I often suggest to new writers, I’m going to follow my own advice: ‘Less is more’.



Some time ago, I started reading John Hart’s ‘The King of Lies’. Within chapters, I put the novel aside, not because it didn’t gel with me, not because I didn’t love it, but because the murder victim, Ezra Pickens, and father of the main protagonist was too similar in characterisation to the dead father in the novel I was writing. I didn’t want to be unduly influenced. On reflection, it was a bad move to pick up a piece of fiction when I was writing fiction myself. Usually, I read historical or straight non-fiction when writing. I don’t seem to suffer from reading other authors’ unpublished work each and every day because I have a kind of disconnect in my head when I have to analyse a novel, which doesn’t happen when I read purely for pleasure. So, with a heavy heart, I set it aside, and picked up and read books in other genres.

This week, I returned to ‘The King of Lies’. It was Hart’s murder mystery debut. For me, having read other work from this fine writer, it’s his most moving. Perhaps it was the subject matter, I don’t know. Basically, our main man, small town lawyer, ‘Work,’ is charged with his father’s murder, but Ezra Pickens was no ordinary dad. He left a legacy of family disaster behind him, including a bullied wife and psychologically damaged daughter. In short, he was not a nice man. Work has the fight of his life on his hands to defend his own case and prove his innocence. When Hart puts the squeeze on his main protagonist, he really suffers. Disturbing, credible and, at times gut wrenching, this atmospheric and claustrophobic story gripped from the outset.

What sets Hart’s work apart from other writers is his stunning characterisation. His understanding of people, how they behave, those small finely observed details, is on a whole new level to most writers. There is a recollection, quite early on, of the death of Work’s mother. It’s encapsulated in fourteen sentences and describes perfectly the immediate aftermath, after the police have gone, when three remaining family members, Work, his sister and father, are left to pick up the pieces. Pitch perfect, it rings of authenticity and blew me away. If I’m being honest, it was especially poignant because many years ago, almost to the very day, I lost my own mother and that overwhelming sense of loss has never left me. I doubt it ever will.

Hart’s writing resonates with deep emotional truth, which as a writer is hard to emulate. Prose is just beautiful and I often found myself reading a sentence twice to savour the words and the sentiment it contained. When writing it’s not a bad idea to find out what’s the worst thing that can happen to your main protagonist, and then ensure that it happens. In this regard, Hart’s novel ticks the box and every other. It doesn’t get much better than this. If you admire Dennis Lehane’s novels, you’ll love this author.


It’s been an erratic week at Seymour Central. Having worked solidly on revising a brand new novel – I’d barely come up for air for the past ten days – it was with relief mixed with apprehension that I sent it to my agent for a first squint. Normally, my other half has sight of early drafts but this time he was too busy with his own ‘stuff’ i.e. painting, which is fair enough, but it did make me wonder whether his eagle eye might have prevented me from making some awful blooper. (It has been known).

Meanwhile, back in the real world, I got on with WW work already scheduled in and did all those boring but very necessary jobs like having my hair done, teeth and eyes checked. All sound, thanks very much. It could have been a dull week, I guess, except with the sun shining, we both had one of those weak moments on what should have been a ‘school’ night, along the lines of ‘What shall we have for dinner? Oh to hell, let’s go out.’ So we did.

Cocos is one of my favourite haunts in town, so much so that its cocktail bar features heavily in ‘Game Over’ and sets the scene for my main protagonist, Hex, to be picked up by sexy Simone Fabron. We (that’s my other half and me) had a lovely dinner, as usual, but if I thought I could escape from writing, I was wrong. On the table right behind us a chap, and I use the word appropriately, was talking loudly to his companion about the children’s book he had written, illustrated and self-published. It was hard not to listen and chip in but I resisted temptation. 1. Because children’s books are not my thing. 2. It would have been rude and intrusive and 3. Because I was receiving death stares from my other half who already hears quite a lot about ‘bloody books.’

We got home reasonably early and switched on the TV and stumbled straight into the Brazil versus Germany match. In common with millions, I watched goggle-eyed as Germany just went for it. It was thrilling stuff and, although I know as much about football as I could write on the back of a stamp, even I could fathom out that their team work was superb, their tactical moves designed to terrify, crush and pretty much render their opposite number/enemy/opponents powerless. The speed with which the Germans repeatedly struck was awesome and, boy, were the Brazilians awed. Their faces resembled the numb, catatonic expressions more commonly observed in people who have encountered death and destruction. Doubly heart-breaking because Brazil is the host nation, fans were destroyed. I have never seen so much smudged face paint and great rolling tears of anguish.

It struck me that a football match is a bit like a good book. It takes you on an emotional journey of highs and lows, setbacks and triumphs and finally to that great climactic scene where the truth is out, the main protagonist up against his or her adversary and one of them is going to remain standing while the other is vanquished. To me, those 90 minutes on the pitch were like a real life version of a thriller in which themes of revenge, pity and redemption play central roles. Who could fail to feel for the Brazilian team while still cursing petty acts of revenge as one player more than once deliberately elbowed his German counterpart? When Oscar scored that lonely, solitary goal, you had a clear sense that he was seeking redemption for his side. Not that the crowd seemed much in the mood for forgiveness.


Often, I receive lovely emails from clients thanking me for helping them craft their stories. I can count on two fingers, no offence intended, those that have been less appreciative of my efforts – not everyone takes to criticism kindly, however constructive. I’ve written about this before and the bottom line: editors are writers too. We know what criticism feels like. We don’t flag up errors to be tricky or destructive. We do it because we want to make a novel the best it can be, to give a story its greatest chance of survival in a hugely competitive market.

As everything is winding down for the summer – MP’s due to escape Parliament when it goes into recess in less than a month, the rest of us either preparing to negotiate school holidays or counting the hours until that well-earned break, World Cup almost over, Wimbledon crushingly done and dusted for some, it seemed timely to wheel out a kind of end of year report. It’s dedicated to all those lovely writers who, through Writers’ Workshop, I’ve played some small part in helping on their way to gaining agent representation or publishing deal. And this is not to forget those writers who go it alone and self-publish. I’ve worked on the full manuscript of most mentioned, or looked at the first 30,00 words or so to give the writer a ‘steer’. Marcus Cameron was one of these and he was kind enough to write: ‘… those initial directions were critical – both for my growth as a writer and my confidence.’

In a way the following list is my thank you to them. If I’ve missed anyone, contact me and put me straight so that I can include you in another blog.
My ‘ones to watch’ are as follows, and in alphabetical order:

David Beckler: ‘Brotherhood’ published by GWL.
Marcus Cameron: ‘Thread of Fate’ to be published in October 2014.
Paul E Hardisty: ‘The Abrupt Physics of Dying’ published by Arcadia Books early 2015.
Paddy Magrane: ‘Disorder’.
Luca Pesaro: ‘Zero Alternative’ published by ‘Three Hares’.
Pauline Rendall: ‘Hangman’s Wood’ and, following short story competition success, agent representation with Watson, Little.
Mike Woodhams: ‘Paths of Courage’.

I must also make special mention of J J Durham and her novel ‘A Killing Kindness.’ I was sent a snapshot of this in preparation for a one to one meeting at the Writers’ Workshop York Festival last year, and absolutely loved it.

So, if you are stuck for a novel to read this summer, check out those mentioned. From dodgy goings on in the corridors of power, to corruption in financial markets, and espionage on the high seas, good old-fashioned gangland and detective tales, stories with themes of greed and redemption, sexual perversion and super viruses, and not forgetting 1850’s London in which the lead detective teams up with none other than Charles Dickens, there is plenty of variety from which to choose. Go on. Pick a novel. You know you want to.