Word on the Wire

Month: November, 2015


I’m always interested to know what other people are reading. Through word of mouth, I’ve often alighted on a really great book. When I wrote book reviews for the Cheltenham Standard I was reading a novel a week and this on top of editorial work. Fortunately, during that period, I built up a back log of reviews that allowed me to take almost three months off to write a novel (which appears in September 2016, more of this anon.)   In the past, I’ve switched to reading historical fiction when I’m writing, but lately I’ve found, and I’m whispering this quietly, that I don’t read as much as I should. And I know I’m not alone.

Now I’m definitely not one of those writers who doesn’t read other people’s work at all. “Too busy writing,” I’ve been told by more than one author, which I find a little startling.   Aside from the sheer joy of disappearing into someone else’s world, I like to see what the competition is up to. It also seems perverse to expect others to read your work if you don’t read theirs. Hey-ho. But I recognise only too well that at the end of a day of reading, writing and critiquing, I’m more tempted to reach for the remote than a book. Regular reading, for me, (not including stolen afternoons at weekends) belongs to the quiet space before I go to sleep. Forty minutes, tops. I’m a fast reader but even I know that isn’t enough. It also doesn’t take into account the times when I’m dead beat and simply need to crawl into bed and sleep. Combined with a recent house move, my reading has taken a slightly erratic turn. Yes, I read, but lately it’s been patchy and, hell, does it make me feel guilty.   Such a betrayal of an author’s energy, passion and time, it’s criminal not to give a story a good level of attention, several chapters at a time rather than several pages. In this shameful vein, I read much of Sarah Hilary’s ‘No Other Darkness.’ To be fair, I got off to a flying start because there’s a strong hook. Half-way through, life intervened and, in the mid-section, I quickly cottoned on that one of the ‘shout lines’ was similar to a novel I’ve been hatching for the past twelve months. What to do? Ditch or continue?

It’s often said that there is nothing new under the sun when writing fiction, that there are seven basic plot lines and that writers craft variations on these. “It’s all down to the execution,” one eminent agent once told me. New writers can get terribly hung up on the fact that their stories might touch on similar storylines in other novels, the avoidance of this often cited as the reason for ‘I don’t read.’ But, actually, there is nothing to fear. For every writer is as different and original as the characters he or she creates; the way in which a tale is told unique to the brain behind it. I’m glad I continued with ‘No Other Darkness’ because actually it’s poles apart from the novel I envisage and it rates as one of the most intelligent novels of the year.

Straightaway, we are introduced to Fred and Archie, two little boys trapped in an underground bunker. Five years on, in a throat wrenching moment, their bodies are found. Enter DI Marnie Rome, and the reader is plunged into a full-on police investigation that delves into the murky world of ‘Preppers’. These are folk who, preparing for catastrophe, bunker down (literally) with supplies of food and water and other necessities of life in order to survive. But the story is so much more than this. Writing is superb, characterisation cracking, and Hilary’s grasp of dysfunctional psychology, including post partum psychosis, impressive. She really knows how to explore the darkest recesses of the human mind. There were moments when I felt sheer dread and terror. If you want to be scared, (let’s face it, most of us enjoy it if only vicariously) slip out and buy it. Again, in another soft whisper, if it’s not too early, you could put it on your Christmas wish list.




I was going to post a lightweight piece to my blog today but it doesn’t feel right one week on from the horrific attacks in Paris. The media is rightly awash with commentary and I’m not going to add my opinion despite an abiding interest (due to the fact that I once wrote spy fiction) in security issues. I leave that to greater minds than mine. But what has resonated strongly with me in recent days is the stories of those who died, who they were, what they did and who loved them. So many different walks of life, different nationalities and occupations, old and young like. One Frenchman said this week that, if you want to stop the dreamers you kill the young. He might have added that by killing the young you also crush the hopes of the old. The pain of the many parents who lost sons and daughters last Friday is beyond comprehension.

But within hours of those grim events, shining lights of courage emerged: men throwing themselves in front of girlfriends and wives and women they didn’t know, a mother protecting her small son by covering his body with hers, a young woman hanging from a first floor window to protect the unborn child she carried. There are probably many more about which we will never know.

When writers think about main protagonists for their stories, they often craft those same selfless and heroic attributes into their characters. They know that they must have someone to challenge the antagonist however twisted and perverse the ‘baddie’ is. It’s not just a neat device to create pitch perfect pace, ramp up tension and provide readers with a core character with whom they can identify, care about and follow for hundreds of pages. It’s because this is how we would like to see ourselves, as selfless, loving, protective and respectful of others. So much easier to replicate in the pages of a novel. Much harder to achieve in real life.


Remember that fab song from ‘Garbage’ with the chorus: “Pour your misery down”? Even if you don’t, the track definitely resonates with me, and particularly this morning as I tap away to the sound of heavy rain battering the roof of my hideout. Don’t get me wrong, solid and persistent rainfall with high winds usually conjures up images of flood and chaos, horrible for those badly affected, I realise, yet I always view it with relish, as a chance to bunker down and write my socks off.   ‘Good working weather,’ I mutter, eyeing up the next dark cloud as it heads our way.

Perhaps it’s connected to genre. If you’re a writer of frothy chick-lit or rom-com, do you yearn for wall-to-wall sunshine? Maybe romantic novelists are turned on by seductive misty mornings (think hero or heroine striding out of the murk). Does an impressive solar eclipse provide inspiration to sci-fi writers?   Does tempest and tornado do it for horror writers?

But back to rainclouds: I reckon it’s connected to light, or rather absence of it. It’s harder to write dark ‘goings-on’ in blazing sunshine and seventy-degree heat, somehow. You may rightly point out: “What about those novelists, (usually famous) who take off to pen their entire novel in foreign (hot) climes?” Well, I guess if you’re that talented, you don’t need a helping hand from Mother Nature.

So, taking advantage of our current weather pattern, I’m writing a much shorter post this week. Got a novel to write…


When you move to a new place and meet new people the inevitable question arises: ‘What do you do?’ I’ve tried all kinds of variations on a theme: ‘I’m a writer.’ ‘I write crime fiction.’ ‘I write thrillers.’ ‘I carry out editorial work for Writers’ Workshop.’ Often the latter begs clarification as it’s often translated as ‘copy-editing,’ which I don’t do.   It doesn’t matter how I couch my answer and, by now, I really should be used to the response any of the above elicits but it still often leaves me as bemused as the person asking the question. The reactions I get to the ‘writerly’ answer tend to range from a flat ‘That’s nice’ and a change of subject so fast you don’t have time to blink, to a ‘Crikey, how many books have you sold?’ This is often followed by ‘How much money have you made?’ It’s as if by stating you’re a writer all normal forms of social etiquette are abandoned. I would no sooner ask someone about his or her salary or take-home pay than book a flight to the moon.

And it doesn’t end there.

Out of those who profess interest (not that I expect it particularly) some quiz me about the kind of books I write. I use the word ‘quiz’ because this brand of ‘askee’ has hawk-eyes and a tone suggestive of a trick question. My response plainly will decide whether I’m a worthy individual, or not. This used to unsettle me. No more. I’ve now got my answer down to a fine art: ‘Used to write spy fiction and am about to have a series of psychological thrillers with a female lead published’.   It’s a kind of hedge your bets response, although it does split people into two camps: those who are disappointed that I don’t write ‘proper’ books i.e. literary fiction and those mightily relieved I don’t.

And I mustn’t forget an entire sub-section of folk who reckon that they have a good book in them if only they had the time to write. On occasion, I’ve been advised to write it for them because the story of their life as an accountant/sales adviser/beauty consultant is not to be missed. ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up,’ they say. ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ I respond with a shaky laugh as I edge my way towards the nearest exit.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I’m greeted with enthusiasm and a promise to check out my website. Very occasionally, I’ll spend a happy time discussing various novels and writers – this happened by chance just the other day in the building society – but more often than not I get the same ‘this is out of my comfort zone’ reaction.   To be fair, I know what hell it is to state you’re a doctor or dentist, the cue for hearing about a stranger’s ailments and tooth decay. Perhaps it’s no different to my own reaction to someone sharing an interest in competitive fly-fishing or the manufacture of widgets for a living. Everyone does his or her own thing and, to quote Barry Norman, ‘Why not?’ However, I rarely respond with ‘So what was your biggest catch and how much prize money did you win?’ or, for that matter, ‘Do tell, what’s your annual turnover?’