evseymour

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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 I’m staggered by the number of authors I talk to (mostly unpublished) who declare in slightly lofty tones that they don’t bother because they don’t want to be influenced, or ‘simply don’t have the time.’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….

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NEVER A DULL MOMENT.

Keen to take advantage of a week ‘off’, I went to the theatre and reduced my ‘TBR’ (To be read) pile by a factor of two. The theatre trip was amusing for all the wrong reasons so I’m going to gloss over that one – apart from saying that the man sitting next to me fell asleep in the first half and let out a very loud snore. I didn’t blame him.  It didn’t put me off the theatre – not quite – and we booked to see another play in March. But back to reading: first up, and very belatedly, Jane Harper’s highly acclaimed novel, ‘The Dry’.

The big question that drives the plot forward is: ‘Who murdered the Hadler family?’ Although detective work plays a role, the novel is so much larger than a police procedural. For a couple of days after I’d finished the last page, I couldn’t reach for another story, so strong was ‘The Dry’ in my mind. Sublime and original writing – I so admired how Harper runs two complementary narratives alongside each other – coupled with a deceptively simple premise, it had me hooked from the very first line. In common with another Australian writer, the late Peter Temple, Harper uses her tinder dry environment to exceptional effect. No spoilers here so just go out and buy the book.

Finding something to follow was tough so I fell back on a tried and tested, ‘you know what you’re getting’ writer, Frederick Forsyth. Again, another deceptively simple premise: ‘What if a teenager hacker can outclass the most sophisticated security services in the world, with devastating consequences?’ The thing about Mr F is that his stories are terrifyingly topical. When you read them you always receive a masterclass in how the military and security services really operate. Intriguing international insights are discreetly whispered and, it feels, for your ears only.   His stories don’t ring with authenticity they clang. A devotee of the authorial viewpoint, he never writes in a ‘pin your ears back and listen up’ manner. It’s subtle and all the more pleasurable to read.

But it wasn’t solely a reading and theatre week. I caught up with friends and family and generally did that thing most people do over Christmas, which for me last year was a uniquely something and nothing affair.

With deadline one dispatched – more on this to follow – and deadline two met and on track for more edits, I really enjoyed my relaxing week in the run-up to February.   I even managed to make sense of my chaotic writing ‘shed’, and that’s really saying something.

INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE

No, not those early January days following all the celebrations when, bit-by-bit, we stutter into a New Year, with resolutions already broken. I refer to that weird space in time when a writer types the last word of a first draft.  Initially, all kinds of jubilant emotions kick in but, my goodness, they are swiftly tempered by a slump. The big question that haunts the ‘just finished first draft writer’: ‘Is it any good or not?’ (Note the polite version).

Some months ago, I swore off all sorts of things.  My life as I knew it became quite alien.  And the reason?  I was deeply enmeshed in a writing project that consumed me from day one. Consequently, Christmas and New Year festivities were more than scaled back. I didn’t write on Christmas Day, (I lie – I wrote notes before bedtime) but pretty much kept going throughout because, as every writer knows, when the force is with you there is little choice. I’ve never been possessed by a demonic power but this was how I imagined it would feel. All those characters whispering in my head and making their presence felt, occasionally at three a.m.

Ta-da, I emerged this morning not so much like a butterfly from a chrysalis, (nice thought) but an adventurer tramping, sleep-deprived through a jungle, without a compass. How the hell did I get here, I asked myself blearily?

Now, as any fool knows, a first draft is not a finished novel. There is more work to be done. Lots of it probably. So, short term, I took myself off into the sunshine for a long walk by a river and wished Happy New Year to all kinds of people. On my return home, I actually drank a cup of coffee, looking out across the garden, without feeling the need to take it through to where I write. More importantly, I had a conversation that was more or less coherent with my other half. I gazed longingly at the books amassed on my TBR pile and picked one out that came highly recommended – more to report in a future blog. I checked out my editorial work schedule and was pleased to see that there were some interesting manuscripts waiting in the wings. I reminded myself that I had a line-edit deadline to fulfil for my brand new novel (the title not yet absolutely buttoned down) to be released in June with Killer Reads. Stuff to do, in other words, but 2019 is looking great. I hope it’s great for you, too.

 

LITERARY KARMA

Scooting around on Facebook, as you do, I spotted a number of writers who are embarking on edits, often after submitting drafts of new novels to agents or editors a couple of months ago. Now we all know that the likelihood of writing something fabulous straight off is as likely as winning Euromillions, but I bet we all secretly hope that edits are for others.

And squadrons of piggies may fly…

After the initial euphoria of the ‘thumbs-up’, there comes the downside of ‘Hell, what a lot of work I have to do.’ In my case, this is literary karma because my day job is spent analysing unpublished novels and suggesting edits to authors. As a veteran of the dreaded edits, I usually advise said author to read the critique a couple of times and put it and the novel away for a few weeks. Let suggestions percolate and then, if these resonate, revise.  This usually averts hot-cheeked fury and the strong desire to throttle the editor (me.) I’ve only ever received written attacks twice, both knee-jerk as soon as the critique has hit the inbox, which in many ways is surprising because however kindly constructive criticism is served up, it wounds.   It hurts. (Which is why bad reviews sting so much, but that’s a whole different story). A novel is like your child. Nobody wants to be told that his or her kid has ‘issues’.

With the stiletto firmly on the other foot, I settled down to figuring out which edits to tackle first this week. As every writer realises, even a slight change in a chapter or plot line has repercussions elsewhere. This stuff is not for the faint-hearted. Someone once told me that early drafts are like jam that hasn’t yet set. Sounds benign, doesn’t it? It might not have set but it can still be flaming sticky. Anyway, in the spirit of team effort (for that’s what writing is all about) I’m about to get cracking.

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.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARDS

You’d think that sitting on your own in a quiet space with just you and your computer, or pen and paper, thinking your own thoughts would be the safest of occupations. Well, think again.

There’s been a fair amount of chatter on the airwaves recently about the physical problems associated with sitting for extended periods of time, ‘hunched over’ a manuscript. ‘Author’s arse’ – a migration of fat to that area of the body might be a royal pain in the rear – pun fully intended – but at least it doesn’t hurt. Likewise, ‘Bloggers Bulge.’ Easier to conceal but, nevertheless, annoying and unflattering. Headaches can afflict anyone who sits in front of a screen for long periods; the trick to take short breaks, which might seem obvious. However if you’re engrossed in a major scene, it’s easy to overlook. My personal thermostat bust years ago, consequently, I’m a chilly mortal in winter, overheated in summer. Not being terribly active (even when standing) can exacerbate my temperature gauge. A minor irritation maybe. Neck, shoulder and back pain, well, that’s a whole different story.

After experiencing agonies with my left shoulder, I decided to try a standing desk.   The result was as instant as it was amazing. Aside from the freedom of shifting my weight from one foot to the other whenever I fancied it, (to a casual observer, looks like I’m practicing dance moves) I could finally say bye-bye to frozen shoulder. Feeling exceptionally pleased, and filled with the kind of zeal commonly found in those who’ve conquered addictions, I proclaimed to my writer mates that they also had to get a standing desk or similar contraption. My closest writing friend had problems with her back, made worse by sitting. Astonishingly, after taking my advice, these magically disappeared. Great. Big tick. Well done me. Unfortunately, what might sort out one problem sometimes triggers another. My friend developed excruciating pain in her feet. She now has two problems instead of one. I hang my head in shame.

The mental health issues associated with writers are well documented; largely thanks to several big names brave enough to discuss them. Some feel that writers write because they are natural depressives, the general idea that writing is cathartic. Some believe that writing should come with a government health warning. Spending hours in isolation is deemed unhealthy. Yes, we have connections to social media, but it’s not quite the same as human interaction. (Not sure how many of my FB friends would turn up at my funeral!) All kinds of demons can assail you in the comfort of your own workspace, however nice you make it (and, naturally, with your standing desk in place.) Lack of confidence – is what I’m writing garbage? – and writer’s block, often inextricably linked, are just two that threaten to derail the writer. Fear of failure and rejection are also demonic big-hitters and they can cripple the unsuspecting author. To top it off, if you’re reliant on writing novels as a sole source of income, you could be in for an unpredictable, seat of the pants ride.

While reactive depression might be normal after a bad review, weak sales or, dare I say, other authors storming the charts with zillions of five star reviews, (green-eyed demons this time) while yours languish, it would seem that writers are more prone to a general sense of loneliness, isolation and abandonment than ‘civilians’. In addition, we’re expected to turn ourselves into mini celebs if there is a book to publicise. Pressing the flesh – even if only on social media – might come easy if you’re in sales, but for those who spend long hours alone crafting a story, ‘coming out’ can be quite a disturbing experience. By nature, most writers are not performers, let alone marketing men or women. And with so many books published every week, month and year, it’s necessary to ‘ ‘woman up’ or ‘man up’ to get out there and strut one’s stuff. It takes a different kind of energy and skill to ensure that a novel, however good it is, gets noticed by bloggers, reviewers and, very importantly, readers. While we might be passionate about our story, not all of us have those skills.

You might possibly conclude that the occupational physical discomfort endured by writers bear no comparison to the potential mental fall out. I’m not saying that writing turns you into a basket case, physical wreck, or both. Loyal and supportive friends who are also writers keep me sane and I hope I do the same for them. I guess anyone working in the arts and creative industries probably shares similar risks – perhaps with the exception of ‘Author’s Arse’!

 

 

 

 

 

 

YOU SAY ‘TOMATO’…

Remember that song flagging up the differences between US pronunciation and British?   (Clearly, not taking into account regional accents).   Well, I’ve been off-air because I’m busy editing not one, but two novels due for release in September and March next year with my US publisher, Midnight Ink. Added to edits I carried out last year for ‘Beautiful Losers’ (March 2016 release), it’s provided me with a fascinating insight into the differences between two nations, not just in terms of language but culture. According to my sharp-eyed copy editor, there were not too many unwieldy Britishisms with which she had to tangle and unpick but, even so, for smooth communication, there have been some.

Before I got cracking on the actual text, I corrected every single speech mark. We Brits tend to use single while Americans use double. I’d love to be able to say that with one flick of a button on my Mac I could magically make the transition without lifting another digit. Not so. Or, at least, not so as far as I could fathom. However there are distinct advantages to adopting a painstaking, if slightly anal approach, I got to pick up on pesky if minor grammatical bloopers. My excuse for having any bloopers at all – no, I’m not going to reveal which ones – is that I invested too much brio in the writing and not enough in the grammar. Moving swiftly on, the way in which we Brits talk to each other can sometimes pose problems for US readers who might take us a little too literally. There were the rather more obvious branding problems. Halfords is unknown in the US so I had to rely on a broader term. ‘Walking in crocodile’ confuses the hell and, when we talk about calling someone (as on a phone) Americans believe this means visiting in person. ‘Hooking up’ for a chat has a whole different meaning, involving sex – not what I wanted to convey at all.

While on sexual terminology, I received a genuine eye-opener. There is a scene towards the end of ‘Beautiful Losers’ in which my heroine, Kim Slade, confronts ‘the bad guy’. It’s a genuine ‘in extremis’ situation. She’s right up against it and she curses fulsomely and extremely offensively with a very Anglo-Saxon word. Let’s put it this way, it begins with ‘C.’ This is even more offensive in the States than here – completely unacceptable in most circumstances. Fortunately, Americans have their own plethora of profane terms. Would ‘Motherf**r’ do, instead, I enquired.

 

 

OLD FRIENDS

It’s that time of year and a chance to catch up with old friends. Even if you haven’t seen a lot of each other, you know with a long-standing mate that the passage of time makes little difference. So it is with books, which is why I grabbed Conn Iggulden’s ‘The Death of Kings’ from his Emperor series to read on the run up to Christmas.   One of his earlier novels, it tells the story of young Julius Caesar.   Rich with authentic detail and flesh and blood characters, the story really transports you back to life in ancient Rome. As soon as I read the first page, I felt entirely in a safe pair of hands, just as I did when reading his later novels on Genghis Khan. Sometimes, especially if you’re feeling a little jaded, you simply need an author on whom you can rely to entertain and enthral without gimmicks, and he’s one of them.

So what next? As you might imagine, books are big in our household and Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without an exchange of literary gifts. This year, I received a book penned by the great master of intrigue and storytelling, Frederick Forsyth. ‘The Outsider’ tells the tale of his adventurous life and reveals seeds sown in his childhood, which go some way to explain how he tumbled into writing.   Before you run away with the idea that he had a tragic or tricky upbringing, he didn’t, as he is pretty keen to point out.

My gift to my other half was ‘Affluenza’ by Oliver James, psychologist and broadcaster. It provides a fascinating insight into the ‘disease’ that first afflicted the States and now, by default, us. The affliction is best summed up as a cycle of wanting more, getting it, but without feeling any sense of satisfaction. Miserable, you want more and so the deadly cycle of misery is sustained. If you’re feeling under financial pressure or are driven by a crazed desire to ‘keep up with the Joneses,’ ‘Affluenza’ provides the perfect antidote.   The good news is that the simpler (and more achievable) your desires, the happier you will be. Good news if you’re hard up. Rubbish news if you set your sights on becoming a writer – I put that in!

So what connects these two books, you may ask? To answer that, I need to cut and rewind to a conversation I had with my long-suffering husband a couple of days before Christmas. For a variety of reasons, which I don’t need to bore you with, I was banging on (in a slightly Divaesque tone) about how ‘civilians’ don’t understand what it is to be a writer. How do you explain to someone who is, for example, retired, or works 9-5 that you might like to party hard one moment and then crave and demand solitude the next without seeming flaky, capricious or an insufferably pretentious ‘artiste’? How do you convey that, all the time you have that fixed grin on your face at a social gathering, you’re really taking notes or dreaming about the next scene you’re going to write? How do you put across that, actually, you’re a tad odd without causing either alarm or offence? You might think why bother to explain any of the above? Social niceties, especially at this time of year, often dictate, I’m afraid. Writers often unwittingly give false impressions that they are one kind of animal when, underneath, they are something else entirely, and I’m guilty of this as charged.

In fact, both Frederick Forsyth and Oliver James more than touch on this very subject in the opening of both their books. Aside from pointing out that anyone who desires to be a writer, and worse still, make a living from it, must be cracked, they also discuss the strangeness that is part of the DNA of any writer. James goes several steps further and, rather bravely, ‘fesses up to having a hell of a job getting ‘Affluenza’ published and describes what initial rejection did to him mentally. To top it off, the much longed for (and expected) fat advance from his existing publisher was never forthcoming, which was why his agent found him another. My God, I thought, there’s honesty and audacity.   Most writers would rather trudge chest deep through a bog than make such an admission.

So, if you’re planning on writing that novel in 2016, or you have a book that is about to be released and you’re anxious about how it will fare, may the force be with you, in true Star Wars fashion. And just remember, that should you have a wobble along the way, those old friends, both in book form and the real deal, will always stand by your side.   Best of luck to you all in 2016!

 

 

HUSH MY MOUTH!

First off, apologies for my spelling malfunction yesterday when referring to Ben Whishaw – what was I thinking?!  Clearly, not thinking at all.

Moving swiftly on, you may remember I gabbed on about the pure brilliance of London Spy and stand by my comments about superb acting and Ben Whishaw’s outstanding performance.  Masterful storytelling was a hallmark of the series until midway through the finale in which I skidded to a dirty great halt.

It’s common knowledge that, if the big climactic scene, the one the audience has waited hours for doesn’t deliver, the preceding story is screwed.  I wouldn’t go this far because it would be grossly unfair.  There were plenty of big revelations to sustain attention, and the way in which Danny’s every effort to reveal the truth was thwarted with chilling ease ratcheted tension to fever pitch, but the fact that, in the final analysis, there were more questions than answers says a lot.

Who were all those people holed up in Alex’s attic with listening devices and cameras?  I assumed that they were intelligence officers carrying out a dastardly form of torture that would give the most deranged terrorist a run for his or her money.  (As a claustrophobe, there was one point when I almost ran out of the room screaming).  Why, instead, wasn’t Alex offered a deal from the lonely bowels of an interrogation room in SIS HQ?  If he refused, why wasn’t he let go and left to the tender mercies of a ‘Wet’ team?  Why was Charlotte Rampling, Alex’s alleged mother, dragged in to reason with Alex in his dying moments when the intelligence service thought so little of her?  Why on earth did she throw her hand in with Danny in a doomed endeavour in the final seconds of the episode when previously she had so stoutly defended her position?

If I were Tom Rob Smith, I’d be tempted to respond with the ultimate put-down:  his novels have sold in millions and been made into a film.  Precisely, but that’s why I expected so much more.

 

 

LONDON SPY

Almost eight years ago, I was at a lunch in Smithfield. It was part of a promotion organised by my publisher for my novel, ‘The Last Exile’.   I had the pleasure of sitting between the lovely Chris Simmons (Crimesquad) and Maxim Jakubowsi, renowned bookshop owner of Murder One in Charing Cross. The big buzz was neither my novel, nor me, but one Tom Rob Smith. ‘Had I read his stunning debut, Child 44?’ they both asked. No, I hadn’t, but I soon did.

As I said in my last post, I love a great tip-off. Set in Russia during the 1950’s, Child 44 is based on the Rostov child serial killer, Andrei Chikatlo.   I love novels based on true-life events and, to say I was blown away with it, is an understatement. A few months later, I wound up on a BBC Radio programme with Kate Saunders arguing why Child 44 would make a good inclusion on the Booker Prize list. But that was then. I read Tom Rob Smith’s follow-up novels, but I’d no idea he’d made the transition to screenplay writing until recently. As soon as we had our aerial sorted last week, we ‘binge-watched’ four episodes of ‘London Spy.’ I’m thrilled I did.

Again, Rob Smith weaves a compelling story from a real life event, the mysterious case of the ‘Spy in the Bag’ about which all kinds of theories were trotted out in the grim aftermath, including the fact that the MI6 officer was into sadomasochistic gay sex, a theme explored in the series. But the screenplay is so much more than this.

In true spy fashion, there are codes and mathematical formulae – the only part where I got slightly lost, possibly because numbers is not my strong suit. Performances are fabulous, particularly from Jim Broadbent in a role that is not his usual (no pun intended) bag, and Edward Holcroft is superb as Alex, the contained, strange and offbeat spy and mathematical genius.

As for Ben Wishart…

He is simply mesmerising as bewildered Danny, fitting the part so well it honestly feels as if he isn’t acting at all. His grief at the death of his lover is as searing as his fearlessness for finding the truth at whatever cost. It’s his quest to go into all the darkest corners of the establishment and beyond that drives the narrative.

There are many memorable scenes in this drama but one sticks in my mind.  Danny comes face to face with Alex’s mother, played by a very sinister Charlotte Rampling. Towing the party line that her son was into sadomasochism, ticking off all the reasons why she believes it to be so, and arguing that his death was an unfortunate accident, Danny puts her down with one ‘take that’ sentence. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t watched the series. Safe to say, I’ll be tuning in for the finale tonight. I’m not a fan of hyperbole, but this drama is genuinely pure brilliance.