Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Would I Lie To You?

Would I lie to you?

I make stuff up for a living. I’m not a professional liar; I’m an author of fiction books. It’s a weird contradiction considering one of the things I dislike most is telling a lie. I try to temper both aspects of my psyche by reassuring myself that when writing fiction it’s more a bending of reality than a downright untruth. So I’m happy enough with that. Except sometimes reality can prove not only stranger than fiction, it can sometimes overtake it to a point where it is almost unbelievable.
            When I was writing my most recent Joe Hunter novel, Marked For Death, I had him stumbling into a terrorist plot to attack soft targets in the US. Some of the scenes I’d written reflected too closely the shocking attacks that subsequently occurred in London and Manchester, so I went back and changed them. It wasn’t because I wanted to shy away from the horror experienced by the victims of the attacks, but neither did I want to cause them any distress. I don’t write action thrillers to glorify violence, but to show how ugly and damaging it really is. I stuck with the plot, if not the individual scenes, and instead of avoiding the issue altogether I wove the incidents into the narrative to add a touch of realism to my fiction. In one way, I guess that by still sending Hunter up against the bad guys I was thumbing my nose at those lunatics trying to terrify us into changing our way of life. But then, maybe I’m thinking too deep.
            No. I write primarily for entertainment’s sake. The Joe Hunter books aren’t some social, political or religious comment on the state of the world. They’re there for fun and a visceral kick of adrenaline. I make ’em up, so that readers can escape reality for a few hours, where they can cheer for the good guys and boo and hiss at the baddies. For this one I’ve ramped up the action to please my long time fans, and hopefully to give new readers another hero to root for.
            If you haven’t tried a Hunter book before, it’s probably a good idea for me to introduce him. Hunter is British, an ex-soldier who once worked for a fictional counterterrorism unit, but is now out in the world with little direction and a heap of physical skills. In the books he works for his friend Jared ‘Rink’ Rington’s private investigations firm in the USA. But Hunter isn’t an investigator; he is employed to do the kind of work where some physical intervention might be required. He tends to be a protector first, and sometimes a vehicle for vengeance. He isn’t afraid to use his fists or his gun when trouble arises, and he’s the type to attract trouble. In some respects he’s a throw back to earlier days, a bit like the lawmen of the Wild West, tough and uncompromising, with a set of questionable morals, but also good at heart. His adventures aren’t what you find in your typical British crime fiction novel, and aren’t whodunits or police procedurals, they’re more race against time thrillers. There’s a reason why I chose to write in this style and it’s because it’s the type of book I prefer to read. I grew up reading what used to be termed men’s action adventure books (now more commonly called action thrillers) and was hugely inspired by them when I set out on my own writing career. American authors wrote many of those books, and so I’ve absorbed more of their tropes than I have of classic British crime fiction writers. Crime obviously plays a huge part in the Hunter series, but viewed from a different angle than a mystery to be solved, and more a problem to be dealt with.

            Marked For Death is the twelfth book in the Joe Hunter series, but fear not, it is a standalone adventure, and a good place at which to meet Hunter if you choose to pick up the book. Despite the dark and fearful nature of the crimes involved, it’s a fun and frantic ride. And like I said, it’s makey-up stuff, although set against a very real backdrop, and genuine threat. In my humble opinion I believe it’s Hunter’s most explosive adventure to date. Honest. Would I lie to you?

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

How To Eat An Elephant (or write your novel) #writinginspiration

How to Eat an Elephant

At author events, and during interviews, I’m often asked what my working day consists of, and how I approach my writing. So I thought this could be a good opportunity to explain. Since leaving the police force to write full-time in 2008, I’ve managed to pen (actually that should be type, as I work direct onto my computer screen these days) twenty-two published novels, with between 90 and 120 thousand words in each, as well as a raft of short stories, novellas and flash fiction, primarily in the action thriller genre, but also some horror and supernatural. That’s not including all the words I write for articles, interviews and on the social media networks, of course – I’ve probably written more there than ever ended up in any published volume. When I say that, some people blink in surprise, and wonder aloud how I manage to write so much. The trite answer is that it’s my job, but in reality it’s also what I enjoy doing.
            I’m paraphrasing but there’s an old adage that goes something like “to eat an elephant take only one bite at a time”, and it’s with that steady approach to manageable chunks that I go. When you think about it, writing one thousand words a day is achievable (it’s less the length of this blog post). In 90 days, that’s 90 thousand words, and about the length of a modern manuscript of approximately 300 pages in book form. If you double your word count, you can write a 90K words rough draft in as little as one and a half months. That isn’t to say that your book is finished by any means, as editing and re-writing must be taken into account, but you can see how the daunting prospect of writing a book might not seem as impossible any more. Obviously I’m in the enviable position of having the time to write, to get down my word count, but being an author these days isn’t just about writing a book – there’s so much more that must be done that ekes into my time too. I’m still a family man with commitments, and part of my job these days is to engage with readers and attend library and bookshop events, and conventions, so every day isn’t a writing day. But I do try to write every day, even if it’s only a paragraph or two – each little bit of that elephant I tackle makes less to face tomorrow. When I’m on a deadline, I set myself a daily target of two thousand words, and I force myself to sit down and get them done. Usually, once I know where the book is headed and the adrenaline kicks in as the end comes in sight, I speed up, and it’s not unknown for me to write two or three times as much per day.
            I’m not much of a forward planner. I prefer to write by the seat of my pants. Usually I have a theme in mind, a very basic plot and where things might end up. Then I start at the beginning and write through to the end, usually being surprised by the direction the story takes itself as I go.  There’s no right and wrong way to write. Some authors prefer to meticulously plot their books, and write out a mass of notes, plot chapters and scenes beforehand, before ever getting down to writing the book itself. That’s good. I’m the opposite. But that’s good too. As is every other method in between. You have to find the way that suits you. I’ve tried plotting books out chapter by chapter and found myself getting bored, or going so far off tangent that getting the story back on its original track is almost impossible. I prefer my writing to be almost organic, growing in my mind as I put down new seeds on paper. I also write quite visually. By that I mean I choreograph scenes in my mind’s eye the way a movie director might, choosing the best angle, the best point of view to show the action from, and then translate them into the medium of prose. Often, by the action-packed nature of my books, I get caught up in the writing, and have been known to bounce about on my chair, fist-pumping the air while wearing a silly grin.
            My research method is similarly as organic. There’s nothing like getting your feet on the ground, and hearing, smelling, tasting and touching the environment to get a genuine feel for the places you write about. But because I’m often writing about the USA while sitting at my desk in a rural corner of northern England, that option isn’t always open to me. So I rely a lot on the Internet and Google Earth etc. But what I prefer to do is look out random facts, then follow other links to something I wasn’t looking for in the first place. It’s those little surprise finds that often add flavour to your writing, rather than some info dump grabbed wholesale from Wikipedia or some other source. Occasionally I come across a fact or even place or feature that I simply have to incorporate into the story. It’s also not unknown for me to make stuff up: I’m a fiction writer after all. Seriously though, by that I mean I’ve created towns and streets and islands that exist only in my imagination, where to use a real location might upset those living there, or bring down the value of their property when I blow up their homes (not literally of course).
            I tend to edit as I go. My first task is to go over what I worked on the previous day. I re-read and titivate. It’s an exercise that gets me back into ‘voice’ and also reminds me of what was on my mind when I last left off. From there I continue writing, and then repeat the process the next day. Often when I get to the end of the book I end up with an almost clean draft that I then submit to my editor. It’s never perfect, but any rewriting after that tends to be minimal to pick up hanging plot threads or major boo boo’s I might have missed.
            And the dreaded writer’s block? I can’t allow it to stall me. If I’m struggling to write I switch and go and do something different. I’ll write something for a blog, or a short story with different characters, or even mess about on Facebook for a while. As long as I’m writing, the problem seems to resolve itself and I’m able to return to my original piece with the heel-dragging demon exorcised.

            Best advice for aspiring writers? Don’t think one day I’ll write a book, start today. And keep on keeping on, one chewy mouthful of elephant flesh at a time.