evseymour

Word on the Wire

Category: Storytelling

DARK AND DIRTY

‘Dark and dirty’ appears to sum up my viewing and reading over the past couple of months. A huge fan of Gerald Seymour’s work, (as I’ve said many times before) ‘Beyond Recall’ was utterly outstanding for its brilliant characterisation, hard-hitting storyline – a massacre in Syria instigated and carried out under the watchful eye of a senior Russian soldier – and its unusually poignant, upbeat ending. (Not something Seymour is particularly noted for). This time, Seymour’s main protagonist, Gaz Baldwin, is a ‘watcher’.  Witnessing an atrocity breaks Gaz mentally, spiritually and emotionally. Scratching out a life of sorts on the Orkney Isles, Gaz is recalled to service when the Russian officer responsible is spotted in Murmansk. It’s down to Gaz to identify him. Seems simple enough? But, of course, things do not go according to plan. It’s crammed with all Seymour’s trademark literary attributes, but, for me, this went beyond. Not only is it a story about love and loyalty, it reveals the price paid by those invested in protecting us. When old ways are abandoned by the ‘higher-ups’ in pursuit of the narrow and new, the heavy stench of betrayal clings to every page.

Similarly, in the first season of ‘Deep State,’ former MI6 field officer, Max Easton (played by Mark Strong) is reluctantly lured back into service.  This isn’t simply a story about an intelligence operation gone wrong; it’s about the difficulty of leading a lonely double life and the price paid by a spy’s nearest and dearest. Things turn very sour and quickly when everyone Max knows and loves, specifically his new wife and young family, is threatened.

Having got the ‘Strong bug,’ I was delighted to come across ‘Low Winter Sun.’ With a fabulous cast, including a mesmerising Lenny James, this is a ‘grab you by the throat’ thriller of police corruption and utter mayhem. Set in Minnesota against a backdrop of hard drinking, prostitution and drug dealing, there are definite shades of ‘The Wire’ to be found. As for the ending, it’s all too horribly real and credible. Loved it.

I thrill when discovering new writers and Michael Farris Smith is no exception. I read ‘Desperation Road,’ long listed for a CWA Gold Dagger Award, in a couple of days. The clue to the story is in the title. Farris Smith writes about individuals caught up in the grimmest circumstances, often through no fault of their own, with heart breaking honesty. At first, I wondered how his disparate cast of characters were going to connect and then, with some deft plotting, their roads cross and wonderfully collide to create the most dramatic and emotionally literate of storylines. Writing is to die for and, at times, I was reminded of John Hart and Dennis Lehane. You can literally feel the heat of the deep South enveloping you as you read. Revenge and redemption are my favourite themes. They don’t disappoint here. 

GETTING TO KNOW YOU, OFFICER

Just a quick intro from me: this is the first ever guest post to appear on my blog and I couldn’t be more delighted. If you’re serious about writing crime, former Chief Superintendent, Graham Bartlett, is the ultimate go-to man. Vastly experienced, he’s also skilled in recognising the dramatic imperative, which is so important for crime and thriller writers.

Let’s get a couple of things straight from the start. No police officer has ever ‘proceeded in a northerly direction,’ nor arrested a hapless burglar called ‘chummy.’

Now we’ve got that out of the way, as with any profession, cops are part of a structure, they have a certain way of talking, addressing each other and a very distinctive sense of humour. Now, as crime writers (I mention that here so if you are penning the next great dystopian sci-fi blockbuster, I’ll waste no more of your time) you might like a little insight in to the coppers’ mind and what happens when they open their mouths.

First of all, though, here’s a huge caveat to everything that follows. In all my advising, teaching and critiquing I bang on about how it’s your story, they are your characters and everything I say needs to fit your WIP. Unless you want to bore your readers to death, never (ever, ever) copy and paste a procedure in to your manuscript. Wear your research lightly.

Right, health warning out of the way, here goes.

Ranks, but not as you know it

The police service is a hierarchical, disciplined organisation where officers all have a rank and are crystal clear where they are in the food-chain. That said, it’s not the army. Sure, senior (not superior) officers give orders – sometimes – and junior officers (not subordinates) carry them out. But, as police powers are invested in individual officers, rarely can they be ordered to make an arrest, search anyone or use force, on paper at least. They are operational decisions for that officer, and that officer alone. It doesn’t mean in the real and fictional world bosses can’t cajole, encourage and very strongly ‘suggest’ their staff use their powers, but in most circumstances,  they don’t instruct them to.

When I was a Chief Superintendent running firearms raids or the policing of protests or football matches, I’d deliberately surround myself with junior officers who were comfortable questioning my decisions and offering up alternatives. Tactical Advisors, for example are Police Constables – the entry rank – but with far more training and experience of guns and shields than I had. All the decisions were mine but each and every one would have been mulled over with these sages who had been there, seen it and got the tee-shirt. So, don’t invest all the knowledge and wisdom in your senior officers, or if you do make sure they have the background or make it go wrong.

All friends together – sometimes

Many of the people I joined with chose different career paths to me. Some stayed constables, either as detectives or uniformed officers  and some gained a couple of promotions and settled there. One of my closest friends was Detective Inspector Bill Warner. An ex-boxer and cabbie, he was a formidable cop but one of the funniest and most talented people I knew. When I was running a briefing, he would address me as ‘sir’, ‘guv’ or ‘boss’ and to others he would refer to me as ‘the Chief Superintendent’ or ‘Mr Bartlett.’ Behind closed doors though, one to one, it was Bill and Graham. And, believe me, if he disagreed with something I was doing he would tell me – loud and clear.

Use these dynamics to add depth to your characters. So often, senior officers – such as my old rank – are shown as being penny-pinching, operationally inept, career chasers. Some are – not me obviously (!) – but most have rich operational histories and equally complex relationships with officers of all ranks. Think of Peter JamesRoy Grace and Glenn Branson characters. They go back a long way and the way they are in public versus private is very similar to Bill and I. Glenn is forever ripping into Roy about his taste in clothes, music and just about everything else, while Roy gives as good as he gets when it comes to Glenn’s driving and success with women.

What’s in a name?

Here’s something else about rank dynamics. No one ever bellowed ‘Bartlett. My Office,’ across a crowded incident room at me. In fact, I can’t remember ever being called only by my surname. It just doesn’t happen. Leaving aside the public v private relationships juniors and seniors who are mates, most senior officers address their juniors by their first name. And junior’s call anyone senior to them – above the rank of inspector – ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am,’ ‘guv’ or ‘boss.’ PCs call sergeants ‘Sarge,’ ‘skip’ or ‘sergeant.’

And, while we are at it, detectives never just refer to themselves as ‘detective.’ It’s meaningless and the equivalent of a police constable calling themselves ‘police.’ How daft does that sound? It’s the rank that’s important, so they say ‘detective constable’ or ‘DC’, ‘detective sergeant’ or ‘DS’ etc. Oh and, to avoid confusion Detective Superintendents are never referred to as ‘DS’ – that’s for the real workers; the sergeants. They are D/Supts or Det Sups. Have a look at this chart to help navigate your way round the ranks.

Laughing policemen/ women

Let’s end on a lighter note. Gallows humour is and always has been the safety valve for a profession whose stock in trade is human evil and misery.

Some of the acronyms that describe the various states or liabilities of those involved in road crashes may seem insensitive. FUBAR BUNDY – F*&$£@d Up Beyond All Recovery But Unfortunately Not Dead Yet and DODI – Dead One Did It are both examples of the dark wit of all emergency service workers, but they serve a purpose in keeping them sane amid the horrors we face.

In the mortuary, both police and morticians describe the cadaver, mid-post mortem, as being ‘canoed’. Why so? Well, that is what a human body resembles when it’s been slit from neck to groin and all its internal organs removed.

More generally, police officers never miss a chance to share their colleagues’ faux pas with the team. That could range from being late for work or an assignment, mistaking someone’s gender, right through to allowing a prisoner to escape or bumping a police car in the back yard. Some of these indiscretions have formal sanctions but all are punished with more summary justice – the provision of cakes. Fines are paid in doughnuts – or other more luxurious pastries – and are due within the same shift or the following one, at the latest. The penalties double on default. If no one has erred for some time, the sergeant might invent a lapse by one of the team and fine them anyway. Cops have to eat you know.

The deeper the better

There is nothing worse in a great crime novel than a cliched or shallow cop. Police officers are human beings with the same strengths, weaknesses and relationships as anyone else. Both of my non-fiction books, Death Comes Knocking – Policing Roy Grace’s Brighton and Babes in the Wood, specifically show what it feels like to police a busy city.

Cops experience fear, dread, pain and PTSD the same as everyone. They also have to show gargantuan restraint to stem the giggles and they take the mickey out of each other to get through the day.

You will want your readers to really care about your characters so showing these states, maybe through ‘close point of view’, is essential. Don’t be afraid for them to laugh, cry, get angry or make mistakes. They all have and that’s what makes them fascinating.

Matt Jackson in G.S. Locke’s Neon is a fabulous example. The situation he finds himself is a shocking as it is bizarre. His wife has been murdered and he hates Browne, his replacement. Despite the extraordinary series of murders he finds himself investigating, then being personally involved in, his character, the way he operates and behaves is genuinely authentic in those circumstances. The author has made the reality fit with the story. It’s a masterclass!

For more on making your characters authentic, have a look at my #bartlettsbloopers or contact me through my website at https://policeadvisor.co.uk/contact/

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.

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!

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.

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….

HOTTER THAN JULY

No, this isn’t a reference to the soaring temperature the UK has recently experienced but the fact that, for many months, ‘Hotter than July’ was the working title of my current novel. (For the moment, I’m keeping the new title under wraps). When I explained that changing and ‘chucking out’ (not just the title) is a major part of a writer’s life to a reader the other day, she looked horrified. With genuine concern, she asked if it bothered me.   I can honestly say, with this novel, not one bit. It probably has more to do with ‘team’ input than me. By team, I mean my agent, and editors at Harper Collins.

Often, under an author’s acknowledgements, thanks are given to the many people involved in bringing a story from first draft to publication. There’s an odd paradox that while writing is a solitary occupation, the work that goes into a novel involves numerous others.   And those ‘others’ can make the difference. This time, it was particularly important because my new story is more heavily biased towards crime fiction, rather than psychological thriller. With a nod to police procedurals, it was necessary to enlist the help of a consultant and former senior police officer.

Sometimes, even after many drafts, you instinctively know which bits in a book rock and which are … ahem… a little slow. You tell yourself that it’s necessary to paint the scene, reveal a set-up for a pay-off later, impart information (occasionally this is code for drifting into unnecessary exposition) and allow your characters to survey the countryside or cityscape instead of heading for their destination.   It’s actually quite easy to become wedded to certain scenes – after all you wrote them – when a sharp scalpel to excise would work better. This is where an independent eye and ‘tough love’ comes in.

Whether agent or editor is dishing out advice and suggestions, it’s vital to remember that they are on your side. They want the book to succeed. They have your best interests at heart. With this at the forefront of your mind, it’s easier to listen and, as happened on this occasion, a random line ignited a ‘Eureka’ moment and made me realise that I could take a more exciting and dramatic approach to the main character and, ergo, the rest of the story. Whether I’ve pulled it off remains to be seen. What I can say: more changes will be made before the final draft. All part of the deal.

 

 

 

 

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.