evseymour

Word on the Wire

Tag: Writing

TELLING FIBS.

I reckon that, however confident or self-assured, any author that claims to be relaxed when his or her book is published is telling fibs.

Imagine spending a year on a story, maybe more, crafting, cutting, researching, revising, and reworking. Oh yeah, and listening:

To your agent.

To your reading buddy if you have one.

To your other half if he or she dares.

Picture investing time and energy in characters that are as real to you as friends and family, only to bid them farewell, let them go and make their own way in the world. As with children, it’s only natural that a parent worries. We want out kids to be accepted. So too with books. This is especially important if, as I’ve done, a writer diversifies by writing in a different genre in which reader reaction is an unknown quantity.

Sarah Vincent, writer and good friend, wrote a brilliant blog recently, entitled, ‘Does Writing Make You Miserable?’ See her website: http://www.sarahkvincent.co.uk. In my case, honestly, no, writing doesn’t make me miserable, yet I’d be a liar if I didn’t ‘fess up to morphing into an unhinged obsessive the moment a novel is released. Tell me an author who doesn’t read reviews or check ratings, sometimes at hourly intervals, as if by simply looking one can actually influence a reader’s choice.

As if.

With so many books published daily, it’s no wonder that a novel can take a death-defying nose-dive one moment, only to ping right back up the ‘hit parade’ the next. All of this can take its toll on a writer’s nerves.

And I haven’t even started on reviews.

The fact is, no matter how many five star reviews a book acquires (and I’m talking independent reviews) it’s the one and two stars that a writer remembers, sometimes in gory detail. Critics, particularly of the armchair variety, can be cruel. I’d love to issue a lofty smile and say that criticism from any direction glances off me. It doesn’t. If you have a beating pulse and, trust me, in common with the rest of the population, writers bleed, a nasty remark, especially if it isn’t particularly constructive, can hurt like hell. What is one to do? Sometimes, once the sting abates, something will resonate and you can learn from it. Sometimes, it’s best just to ‘delete’. There is some truth in the adage, ‘No such thing as bad publicity.’

And the lovely remarks, the five star reviews, the general warm pat on the back from enthusiastic readers? I won’t tell fibs about that either. I absolutely love basking in the warm fuzzy glow.

My latest novel, ‘Beautiful Losers’ is released in the UK on April 1st by Midnight Ink. If you’d like to hear me talk about the novel, tune into Nicky Price’s programme on BBC Radio Gloucestershire after 3.00 pm the same day.

LET’S HEAR IT FOR THE GALS!

Two events took place last week on Tuesday March 8th. Both resonated with me. First, it was Independent Women’s Day and, secondly, my novel ‘Beautiful Losers’ was published in the U.S. The connection probably seems blindingly obvious, but actually the truth is subtler.

‘Beautiful Losers’ is the first time I’ve written with a female main protagonist in eight years. Prior to this, I wrote action adventure style/spy fiction with male main protagonists. Now every writer knows that it’s important to creep under the skin of both sexes, but choice of main player requires a special degree of skill and confidence. I explained why I preferred ‘writing as a guy’ a couple of years ago in articles I wrote for Book Oxygen and Books by Women. In the latter I was particularly revealing: ‘Returning to why I find it easier to write from a male perspective, the simple truth lies in my childhood.’ I went on to explain how my mother’s death when I was eight years old had a profound effect on my life. ‘From that moment my family consisted of my two big brothers and my father. In spite of me being sent away to school, they were the biggest influences on my life by far, while my mother’s death was and remains the most defining. It was a catastrophe and it changed us all, but for me something elemental shifted. ‘ I go on to describe the domestic mayhem that ensued, including a fast procession of females in and out of our house, and how the mood music at home focused on cars and women, booze and business deals, and that it was a ‘no-brainer’ to slip into a man’s skin when writing.

So why, you’re entitled to ask, the big departure now? Many factors, I guess. Three of my children are daughters and I’ve watched them grow up and have children of their own. Without going all ‘shrinky’ on you, I’ve not always found it easy to be around women, let alone be part of the ‘sisterhood’. It’s probably a hang-up associated with aforementioned ‘domestic mayhem.’ Over time, my attitude has changed simply because I’m older and I, too, have evolved. And there has been a surprising element of joy in discovering that my own sex is neither to be feared nor distrusted (mostly) and that there is, indeed, a special, unique camaraderie that exists between women.

And something extra that is hard to define.

‘Spiritedness’ comes close, and a determination to succeed whatever the odds, for it’s very often females that pick up the pieces when things cut up rough. It just so happens that same gutsiness is an essential attribute found in the best and most convincing main protagonists (male and female) and I hope that Kim Slade, my main player in ‘Beautiful Losers’, despite the pressures she is put under in my story, emerges a stronger, more grounded, individual than when she started – if only for a short time!

Like I said, writers need to drill down beneath the skins of their characters in order to make them as credible as possible – easier when there is much to celebrate about the fairer sex.

 

‘Beautiful Losers’ will be published by Midnight Ink on April 1st in the UK

 

 

SING SOPRANO

I have absolutely no idea how or why I missed ‘The Sopranos’ first time around, although a second marriage and five kids (my stock excuse) might have had a bearing.   As the saying goes, ‘better late than never’ and all the more poignant because James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano so convincingly, is very sadly no longer with us.

So it was with a sense of fevered anticipation that we prepared to devour 4,567 minutes or seventy-seven hours worth of viewing. And, my goodness, was it worth it. I can now see how ‘The Shield’ and ‘The Wire’ were spawned, both fabulously addictive series.

But back to David Chase’s ‘The Sopranos.’ It’s not easy to encapsulate six seasons, except to say that, as complex and credible characterisation goes, it doesn’t get much better. At various times, I hated Tony Soprano, top-dog crime lord. I hated his nephew Christopher, played fabulously by Michael Imperioli, I wanted to scream at the screen when ‘Sill’ dispatched Christopher’s girlfriend, Adriana. I loathed Pauli, one of Tony’s henchmen for his racism and mindless ruthlessness, and yet, at other times, I warmed to them, pitied them, found them endlessly amusing. If you could chart my emotions running through the entire series, the graph would dip deep, climb a bit, drop a bit, and soar, only to return to the bottom when character after character, to my mind, got their own kind of karma in spades. In many ways, my emotional journey with Tony Soprano mimicked that of his shrink, played with great style and class by Lorraine Bracco. Even she, in the end, realised that she was dealing with a self-serving sociopath as adept at manipulating her as his enemies and cronies.

Through it all, family was the glue that held it together, and I’m not just talking about ‘our thing’.   This is where the wives, girlfriends and widows played their greatest role. They saw the kids through school and advised on career choices, cooked huge dinners, ensured the refrigerator, (which had a minor part all its own in the Soprano household) was full, took care of their husbands’ every need while, on a personal level knowing said husband was banging some broad.  They did it all, while also knowing on an unpalatable, secondary level that the only reason they were able to live in style, eat out, holiday as and when, receive expensive gifts of jewellery and clothing, was because it came from ill-gotten gains and murder.   In spite of it, I found it hard not to feel respect for Carmella Soprano, played superbly by Edie Falco, for treading a fine path through the mayhem.

And the final climactic scene in the diner about which there has been much debate? Yes, I was reminded of The Godfather when Michael Corleone heads for ‘the john’ to pick up a gun. The man who casually glances across at the Soprano family definitely pricked my foe-detector. From a visual perspective, Hopper’s famous painting ‘Nighthawks’ sprang to mind. The final moment was not so much fade out as pitch black, indicating, for me, that Tony Soprano died as he lived. But what do I know?

A strong test of a series is the length of time it stays with you afterwards. I reckon this will take a long while to fade. In a lighter aside, I’m now in danger of asking any visitor to the house: ‘Do you want corfee?’ in that wonderful Noo Joirsey accent.

A FAMILY AFFAIR

I am a huge fan of John Hart’s novels. If my house were burning down, ‘The King of Lies’ would be snatched from the flames. As we’re in Oscar winning mode, I’d definitely hand Hart a trophy.   Yes, I admire his work that much, which is why I picked up ‘Down River’.

‘Down River’ features Adam Chase, a young man exiled for a murder he didn’t commit. His stepmother, who originally testified against him, has very different ideas, and when Chase returns home, predictably, he isn’t made to feel that welcome. Especially as, no sooner than he touches base, the body count coincidentally rises.

These are the bare bones of the novel and you’ll have to get hold of a copy to find out what transpires but suffice to say, that, in common with much of Hart’s work, this is a story about family, betrayal, human frailty and unrequited love.

As Hart himself says, family provides a rich hunting ground for the writer. For it’s within the close confines of family that the greatest pain is inflicted and received, and the scope for treachery and double-cross boundless. In this regard, I was reminded of Phillip Larkin’s famous quote about what your mum and dad do to you: ‘They f***k you up…’ Hart’s complex characterisation and his portrayal of destructive family dynamics is observed with such acuity and depth of psychological insight, I was pretty convinced that he must have endured a troubled childhood. However, after reading Acknowledgements, I’m glad to flag up that Hart’s mum and dad, to whom he pays tribute, are wonderful, as are his in-laws, wife and children. It exemplifies even more strongly, if that’s possible, what a fine writer he is.

And it’s not just about the compelling nature of his storytelling. Hart is one of those rare writers whose sentences I’ll often read at least twice. Beautifully constructed, sometimes spare, his prose conveys how someone really feels about a situation, how someone would genuinely react. There is no artifice, no false emotion to suit the requirements of plot. Master of the complex up/down ending, there is nothing cosy or false about his final scenes.   Apart from encouraging any reader to buy John Hart’s books, I have one final word on the subject: Sublime.

‘Down River’ is published by John Murray

LOTS GOING ON…

Hot off the proverbial press, I’m absolutely thrilled to see that Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, ‘The Unseeing’ is to be published in July with Tinder Press.

Now I openly confess a sneaky satisfaction because I was sent an earlier draft, via Writers’ Workshop, a couple of years ago and I recognised, when working on it, that it was a stunner.  Of course, since then, Anna and, no doubt, a fleet of editors have woven their magic to create the finished book.

Set in London in 1837, ‘The Unseeing’ is based on a true story and tells the tale of Sarah Gale, a seamstress sentenced to hang for her role in the murder of Hannah Brown on the eve of her wedding.  Elegantly written by Mazzola, a criminal justice solicitor, rich in historical detail, the novel exudes atmosphere and authenticity.  Needless to say, there is much more to Sarah’s story and you’ll need to buy the book to find out.  Glorious news and I wish the novel great success.

CLIC SARGENT CHARITY AUCTION – COME ON ALL YOU BUDDING WRITERS!

It’s that special time of year again and I’m thrilled to be taking part in this year’s writerly auction to raise money to support children and young people with cancer. Bidding begins on Friday February 25th at 8 pm and lasts for ten days. Apart from doing your bit for an extremely worthwhile cause, you could be given the opportunity to have the opening chapters of your novel critiqued by professional writers or, if you fancy your name written in lights in a famous author’s novel, this could be your magic moment. For details, check out the website:

Whatever you decide, please give it a go. The charity really does help those in the most testing of circumstances and when it’s needed most.

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!

 

 

HEROES

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.

CONFESSIONS OF A BOOK REVIEWER

A couple of weeks ago I left a teaser at the end of my ‘Back on Air’ blog. I wrote: ‘I’ve another little gem to disclose, which should materialise in a couple of weeks. Until then, I’ll keep you guessing…’ Well, guess no more. This week my book review of ‘The Judas Scar’ by Amanda Jennings appeared in the Cheltenham Standard, a new weekly newspaper that combines wit with an incisive take on all things Cheltenham. I’m delighted to play my small part but for more personal reasons than you’d think – it’s completely reignited my passion for reading.

To put this into context and in case you’re scratching your head, I’ve always loved stories in whatever form they come, whether it’s through watching film, sitting in a pub listening to a well told tale, or more obviously, through novels. Reading to me is heart and soul, meat and the proverbial drink. Not exactly rocket science you could say – I’d be a very poor novelist if I didn’t enjoy reading – but, and I’m not admitting to a heinous crime, I can’t be the only writer who, at the end of a long working day, is tempted to slump in front of the television or switch off the light rather than getting stuck into the latest thriller, romance, historical yarn or whatever. Give me a few days holiday and I can tear through the pile of books stacking up on either my Kindle or bedside table with relish, but weaving it into my every day can be more problematic. In my guise as an editorial consultant, there is a tendency to feel slightly ‘worded out,’ and the lure of easy viewing is on a par with a lover you keep going back to because you can’t think of a good enough reason to move on.

Reading for the purposes of review has been a revelation. It most fully completes what I do. As a crime writer whose day job is to help others craft their work, I ‘get’ how much it takes to craft a story. I know about the blood, sweat and, sorry guys, tears from first idea to publication. I understand the many decisions a writer takes in the creation of a great plot, how much they give of themselves to fashion that unique voice. When I write a review you won’t catch me being scathing or sycophantic. You will know that I’ve really read the novel, thought about it and will give it my considered opinion. Stories are stories are stories. I make no distinction between genres because the process is the same and I pretty much love them all, although I admit I’m a poor judge of sci-fi and fantasy.   This aside, not for me the dashed off, vented spleen and plain nasty review by armchair critics who need to get out more and live a little.   Book reviewing should be a privilege as much as a pleasure, and I’m glad to have been given that opportunity.

An Officer and a Spy

A few weeks ago I finished reading Robert Harris’s ‘An Officer and A Spy.’ Rich in period details, evocative of France in the 1880’s – you can almost smell the sewers in the Parisian heat – the story is based on real life events:  the Dreyfus case.

Alfred Dreyfus was an officer wrongly convicted of treason and sent to Devil’s Island.   Those, and there were many, who brought him to trial made the evidence fit the crime largely because Dreyfus was a Jew and anti-Semitic feelings at the time ran high.  A family man, Dreyfus was not the easiest individual to like.  He had a pedantic attitude to work and prized diligence to detail.   He was, in essence, a bit of a prig, but he was an innocent prig.  What makes the case so interesting and appalling is that even when it was discovered that Dreyfus could not possibly have committed an act of treason and that all the evidence pointed strongly to another, elements in the army insisted that the innocent Dreyfus serve out his life sentence in truly grim circumstances.  The reason for this:  it would be too embarrassing to admit a mistake had been made.  In summary, the Dreyfus case bears all the hallmarks of a conspiracy.   Had it not been for a few brave souls committed to saving Dreyfus, he would have died in captivity.

As depressing as it is when individuals pervert the truth, condemning others to save face, it’s also uplifting to witness those few prepared to stand up and risk all for the sake of justice.  Colonel Georges Picquart, Chief of the Statistical Section was instrumental in saving Dreyfus, as was the writer, Emile Zola.  Both men risked lives, freedom, relationships and livelihoods.   Given those circumstances, it’s tempting to wonder what sort of people we would be.  As every writer knows, it’s only under pressure true character is revealed.   Those who throw caution aside in the pursuit of justice are very special indeed.   They are the stuff of main protagonists, but in the Dreyfus case, truth really is stranger than fiction.