Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part V

Enemies at the Door coverWhat, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

Quite simply – his or her work must be a page-turner. I don’t mean that it needs to have explosions on every page but it has to keep the reader interested. Whether that be through a driving storyline, taut narrative, beautiful writing, eloquent wordplay, fabulously rendered characters, or a combination thereof – whatever; it can have the most meaningful subtext in history but that’s no use if readers won’t keep turning the pages.

Some exponents of classic literature do this effortlessly. Books I’ve read in virtually one sitting include Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Sallinger, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning by Laurie Lee, A Kestrel For A Knave by Barry Hines, A Handful Of Dust by Evelyn Waugh and even Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – a mammoth book by modern standards but so well written and so intriguing that you just keep blazing through it. The same applies to certain genre works. Take the Song Of Ice And Fire series by George R.R. Martin. Very popular now thanks to the TV series, but the books are so readable – and that’s quite a feat when you see how incredibly long they are.

It would be great if we could bottle what these authors have brought to the written page and try to sell it, but it’s too intangible. Whatever it is, it keeps their readers entranced all the way through – at least, it kept me entranced. We all have to find our own way in that regard. However we do it, we must tell a story that our audience will stick with from the beginning to the end and then yearn for a sequel.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

The worst aspect for writing for a living – I’m guessing that’s what you mean – is the self-discipline it requires. That’s my personal opinion. I don’t have another job, so I have to keep writing all day and every day in order to make a living. But even then I can find it tough. My Dad was astonishing in that regard. All his life as a freelance writer, he worked a solid nine-til-five, Monday to Friday. He was in his office bang on time every morning, and he was only ever late coming out of it if some murderous deadline was proving difficult. Of course he didn’t have the distractions we have today – like Facebook, like our favourite online forums, like 24-hour news channels. But he still got his head down and worked all day like a Spartan, never taking unnecessary breaks. I am far more scatty. I don’t mean that I sit around twiddling my thumbs. I always aim to work a normal day shift, but sometimes, if I’m struggling with something, I go and take the dogs for a walk or kick a football around the garden to try and work things through (yeah, right). To make up for this, I sometimes work in the evenings and at weekends. Other times, if I’ve taken on more work than I should, I have to do this regardless. None of this makes for a good equilibrium, I fear. In fact, there are times when I’ve got the job done and I wonder how I managed it.

Anyway, that’s the worst aspect of the job for me – trying to match my time and energy, trying to keep a healthy schedule, balancing work, recreation and so forth.  I’m sure it’s different for every writer though. Some talk about writer’s block, and while I’ve never suffered that, I do think there are times when you simply get tired. Contrary to the popular view, writing a novel – say100,000 words or more – is an enormous physical undertaking. There are times when you just can’t face that, though it’s always important to remember that things could be worse – you could be digging coal 1000 feet underground, like my grandfathers did (in both their cases having just fought a World War), or you could be having to deal with sick and dying people and their relatives. As things go, there are far more perks to writing for a living than drawbacks.

Have you any sage words of wisdom for anyone wishing to become a writer?

The most important lesson I can impart is keep persevering, despite all the brickbats this industry will throw at you. I’ve encountered far too many writers who bruise so easily that I know they’ll never make it. There is nothing to gain from having a tantrum just because someone has said they don’t like your stuff.

It’s a bit of a cliché, but we can all paper rooms in our houses with rejection slips. I once heard, to my disbelief, that Stephen King – even though he was already an established bestselling novelist – had his first nine drafts for The X Files knocked back. Incredible, but at least that shows that if you get rejected, you’re in good company. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that rejection is not just par for the course, but an integral part of the learning curve, because it doesn’t just toughen you up for what is an extremely brutal game, it teaches you where you’re going wrong. I always advise new writers that if an agent, publisher, producer or script-editor has taken the trouble to tell you why he doesn’t like your work, you need to take note of it. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with him, have a look at the points he’s raised and take them on board. Even those who don’t take the trouble to explain can indirectly assist, because if a submission of yours continually gets bounced you must conclude that there’s something wrong with it. Paying attention to that and taking appropriate action could be the difference between getting accepted the next time or being rejected again.

You have to make rejection work for you, or you’re in the wrong business.

I would also recommend that writers network feverishly; get to know other writers and editors in your field, ask them what slots are available and who’s buying, talk to them about their work, talk about your own work – it’s an indirect form of self-promotion, but the sort that isn’t going to get up someone’s nose. With the internet, authors now have a tool that I never had when I was first writing and which generations of writers before us could not even imagine. It allows us to get out there, talk to fellow professionals, advertise ourselves and look for market opportunities without even having to leave our keyboards. Remember that if you don’t wave your own flag, no-one will do it for you. The days of the misanthropic genius being discovered by accident while slaving away alone in some dim, candle-lit garret are long over. There are far too many people competing for too few slots for miracles like that to occur. Get out there into Cyberspace, listen to what’s going on, learn what’s hot and what’s not, and, where appropriate, promote yourself and your work.

Recommend a good example of writing both in your genre and outside it.

In the crime genre, I would urge readers to look up two British novels from several decades ago. They are Jack’s Return Home by Ted Lewis and Hell Is A City by Maurice Procter. In some ways both books have dated. They were both published in the 1960s, but they are seminal crime novels representing British hardboiled thriller writing at its best.

Most crime fans will be familiar with Jack’s Return Home, even if they haven’t read the book, because it was made into the highly successful gangland drama, Get Carter, with Michael Caine. The novel tells the tale of a London racketeer returning to his native Scunthorpe to avenge the death of his brother. It’s very much of its time, but is slick, dark and brutal – a classic noir set against a very different backdrop from the norm: the factories and steel mills of Humberside. The movie version of course was set in Newcastle, but that was because director Mike Hodges was trying to sex it up with a better known location.

The superbly titled Hell Is A City is also set in the industrial north, in this case Manchester. It features a world-weary detective determined to bring a notorious villain to justice after he breaks out of jail to do one last job. This one is particularly close to my heart, given that I too was a Manchester cop. Another classic suspenser, also filled with violent action. This also was made into a movie, with Stanley Baker, though it’s not as famous as Get Carter.

Recommendations from outside the genre would include The Saxon Tapestry by Sile Rice, which is a historical adventure/romance following the fortunes of Hereward the Wake after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. It contains as much myth and mysticism as historical fact, not to mention some of the bloodiest battle scenes ever written, and a whole lot of hauntingly beautiful prose. A true masterpiece, in some parts heartbreakingly sad.

In terms of horror, I’d suggest The Wolfen by Whitley Strieber. Again it was made into a movie which has now become more famous than the book, but unlike Get Carter, this movie fails to deliver the same punch as the novel. It tells the tale of two New York police detectives and their hunt for a werewolf pack that is decimating the city’s hooker and junkie population. This one should be of as much interest to thriller fans as it is to the horror crowd: it is strong on police procedural and the rough tough relationships within that milieu, and is as gritty and realistic a portrayal of the seedy backstreets in Brooklyn and the Bronx as you’re ever likely to encounter.

DAN HOWARTH

If you enjoyed part one of our interview and want to read Paul Finch’s fiction, please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links and purchasing a new book today. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

Paul Finch fiction (UK)
Paul Finch fiction (US)

Speak Your Mind

*