evseymour

Word on the Wire

Category: Storytelling

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.

SO WHO DO YOU THINK I AM?

‘You like violence, don’t you?’ This was said to me a few months ago, not by a tetchy reader at a panel, (some years ago at Crimefest, a lady complained about violence in fiction. Mercifully, I was not the only target of her ire) but a close family member. It might have been a tease, but the edge was unmistakable. Did it bring me up short and temporarily render me speechless? You bet.

To place this in context, the event was a quiet ‘get-together’ in a restaurant, and I’d been championing a film or series, possibly ‘Peaky Blinders,’ but I actually can’t remember.   I know ‘Bone Tomahawk’ came into the equation and, although I loved the film, I can’t stress enough my revulsion at ‘that scene’.   It was a genuine cushion in front of the face job, with my eyes peeking nervously over the top.   Perhaps, this was what I was describing. How anyone could then construe, or rather misconstrue, that I love violence beats me. But neither do I run from it, and if you’re a news fiend, which I am, sadly, violence in our dysfunctional world is nigh on impossible to avoid.

My tastes in film and books definitely involve characters pushed to extremes by antagonists intent on propelling others to their limits for, (as in real life) it’s often when people are really up against it, you see his or her real personality, and what they are made of, shining through.  I reckon the more a writer ramps up the bad guys, the stronger the main protagonist. Given the subject matter of some of my novels, my bad guys (or women) are hardly going to slay the opposition with a few well-chosen words and a ‘take that’ slap on the wrist. Which leads me to a more important point…

Villains may well be sexist, racist, misanthropic and misogynistic. They may mete out violence, enjoy the suffering of others, and be a few brain cells short in the compassion department, but please don’t confuse me, and my beliefs with those I portray in fiction.

BOOKS GALORE

I had fond hopes of bursting into 2018 rested and full of good cheer after a lovely Christmas break. Instead, I’m sort of limping in half-cocked after a bout of ‘flu. Now don’t get me wrong, this is not the full-on Aussie version. I have not been hospitalised, but it was bad enough to put me in bed for the best part of a week, which is unheard of. I went off food, went off booze so that my unintentional dry January started in December – and not a drop touched since. All my best-laid plans went awry. During the ‘snooze’ time between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, I had intended to ‘woman up’ and plunge myself into techno hell by getting to grips with new software enabling me to update reviews and news on my website – not a chance. I was going to finish the first draft of a brand new novel – did a bit, almost made it, and faltered.

But it’s not all bad news…

One of the big pluses of Christmas is that I’m given lots of novels and so is Mr S, which means double the pleasure. In between sleeps, I was able to binge-read and, boy, what great books I’ve read. I have catholic tastes when it comes to literature. I also tend to read the ‘latest great thing’ months or even years after the hype has died down.   Having devoured ‘Stormbird’ by Conn Iggulden, I read ‘The Late Show’ by Michael Connelly. With female main protagonist, detective Renee Ballard, it signalled a departure from Connelly’s usual gig. I’d probably read another although, hand on heart, I didn’t find it as satisfying as some of his earlier work. I freely admit this could be due to the generally low mood I was in. Next up, ‘Archangel’ by Gerald Seymour. Written a long while back, it’s a tour de force of a story, and displays all the attributes commonly found in Seymour’s work.   His main protagonists are often difficult, complex individuals. Michael Holly is no exception and yet he displays the kind of nobility and integrity that make men risk all to follow him. Superb. I munched through’ Trinity’, the second in the War of the Roses series by Conn Iggulden in a couple of days. If history and terrific storytelling is your thing, it comes highly recommended.

So what’s next on the blocks? ‘The Midnight Line’ by Lee Child. (Mr S read and raved about it). Other authors in the pipeline feature Peter James, Stuart Neville, Clare Mackintosh, Colette McBeth, and, care of a nice deliveryman yesterday, Gerald Seymour’s latest ‘A Damned Serious Business.’ That’s for starters.   Like I said, not all bad news.

Whether you limped or burst into 2018, I hope it’s a good one for you.   Nothing like a decent read to make things better.