Nature: a writer’s mirror

Black FeathersYes! This is it!

This is the novel; the one that will change everything. It’s the best idea you’ve ever had. The world is rich, the characters fascinating and this tale of the hardships they must overcome will blow every reader’s mind. Your body’s humming with inspiration and the words tumble from you as though from a fathomless spring. And – OMFG – you’re happy. For the first time in as long as you can remember, you’re actually enjoying writing.

You stop mid-sentence. It’s okay, this is a good pause. The logic of what will come next is rich, you can feel it. Seconds pass. A minute. Your eyes defocus. You glance out of the window and then back at your work. The rest of the sentence won’t come. You reread the first part of the sentence. It’s drivel. You scan the previous paragraph and then go back a couple of pages.

Who wrote this rubbish?

Well, you know the answer to that if nothing else.

The Work In Progress becomes the Agony That Will Only Ever Intensify. You’re not holding a huge uncut diamond, you’re staring at a double handful of shit. And that’s it. You’ve stopped. Project stalled.

I wish I could say this never happens to me. I’d be lying, though. It happens all the time. Fortunately, I have strategies in place to help me.

First thing to remember: if you felt that way about a story, it’s because it really does have merit. Don’t stash it with all the other things you haven’t finished.

Do this instead:

Write a question about your project. A big question. The question which, if answered, would bump you out of this rut. Put it in your pocket and go out for a walk, somewhere rural and quiet if possible but even a city park will work. Set yourself a time limit; whatever you can spare but an hour or more is ideal.

Partway through this walk – you’ll know the right moment – sit down for a while and watch the movement of the natural world. Make a few notes. When you’re done sitting, head home, remaining as aware as you can of things going on around you: trees, animals, insects, the weather, colours and smells, any kind of sensation. When you get in, write down the rest of what you saw, any impressions you had and what that might mean for you.

Leave the notes alone until the following day before reading them. When you revisit your question and the details of the short journey you made in nature, you will have your answer and, most importantly, you’ll be able to work again.

I’ve done this many, many times – shows how often I get stuck! – and it works. Always.

The most significant occasion was when I gave up on a novel about 30,000 words in. I quit because the material was giving me such awful horrors and because I’d lost faith in the idea. When a publisher expressed an interest in the unfinished idea, I took a cycle ride and sat in the countryside for a long time. The things I saw and the way I interpreted them got me back to my desk, enabling me to finish. That was my sixth novel. It became my debut, MEAT, kicking off my writing career and winning me a BFS award. Not to mention garnering some lovely praise from Stephen King.

What we discover all around us is in the natural world is simply this: a mirror. This mirror reveals what’s inside us. The land is the writer’s ally. All you need to do is step outside in a spirit of trust. For me, the power of nature, as inspiration and tutor, is boundless. And, as a writer, the reflections of the land are invaluable.

Who knows what nature might show you?

JOSEPH D’LACEY

Joseph D'LaceyJoseph D’Lacey is best known for his shocking eco-horror novel Meat. The book has been widely translated and prompted Stephen King to say “Joseph D’Lacey rocks!”.

His other published works to-date include Garbage Man, Snake Eyes, The Kill Crew, The Failing  Flesh and Splinters – a collection of his best short stories. He won the British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer in 2009.

His forthcoming novel, Black Feathers, is released on 4 April, 2013.

Youth, slang and subculture in writing

Boyz N The HoodI have this friend who works as a script doctor and he told me a story about a screenplay that he had worked on which was to be partly funded by a well known British institution. The story was about a dysfunctional and violent teenager that is involved in gang activity, but manages to turn his life around.

My friend tells me that the film was funded mainly because the writer had real experience in ‘dealing with these kinds of people’ having worked in the council of one of London’s roughest boroughs, and could thus provide an ‘authentic glimpse’ into what it was like to grow-up in a deprived area, to be poor, to be thrust into a life of drugs, crime, and eventually murder – which is a bit like saying, “I’m really interested in the minds of serial killers but I work in Tesco and have no psychology experience but I’m going to be a self-employed detective because I’ve watched every episode of CSI.” Okay, maybe that is a loose and extreme analogy, but the point I was trying to make was the writer of the screenplay probably had no experience in writing or any interest in it, but decided that he would put pen to paper because he felt like he had a story in him. Which is fair enough. But his right to write does not necessarily mean that he has the right to call himself a writer – in my opinion of course.

So my friend goes on to tell me about the script. He says that the story had a copy-and-paste narrative detailing a boy in a gang that tries to turn his life around but is eventually killed in the end, just as he is on the cusp of a better future (for the record, the film was released in 2006 and went straight to DVD, probably sectioned under Boyz n the Hood Clone).

Among the list of problems that led to the film’s dire rating on IMDB, the biggest contributing factor to the film’s aesthetic downfall was the dialogue. Imagine a middle-aged man from a middle class family attempting to write from the perspective of a sixteen year old gang member. There was a lot of “innit man” and ‘words like blood’ (for those of you that are unfamiliar with the term, blood is the colloquial word for pal, friend, buddy etc, often used in greeting) throughout.

Conversely, even amidst the plethora of films that are released in the UK that are written by young urbanites from scary estates whose viewpoint would also be deemed authentic due to their geography, you will find the same awful, forced dialogue and insistence on slang. What happens is that instead of the film or writing having some sort of meaningful social commentary, it becomes a parody that triggers the cringe reflex.

Now I’m not saying that people can’t write from other perspectives that are completely foreign to their own. As a writer, it is my duty to invent characters and explore different viewpoints, people from other races, sexes, religions, cultures, and so on. But you have to know what to use and when to use it otherwise you end up writing a stereotype and a hideous cliché.

For one of my creative writing modules back at university, we had a lesson on being able to identify clichés within genres, the lesson being that it would help you avoid them in your writing. So if I wrote a story now and included “she heard a bloodcurdling scream,” it’s safe to assume that the educational system failed me. (Note: It is not my opinion that a creative writing degree makes you a good writer.)

Anyway, in my opinion, the way to avoid writing dialogue that makes your skin cringe off your body is to avoid slang completely, or use it sparingly. Slang constantly changes and can make your work seem dated extremely quickly if you go to town on it. One could argue that the use of modern slang makes a piece authentic, which I suppose is correct. But who would want to read it? If you were into chick lit but the character continued to use phrases like “OMG that was totes amazeballs, he was such a hottie,” you would probably vomit blood, even if you were just after a mindless read while you lay by a pool on holiday.

Here’s a true story, one of many from my ailing would-be career as a writer. Recently I was working on writing my own screenplay with a friend who happened to be quite connected in the film business. We decided to craft a nice tight treatment and a detailed beat sheet before we actually began working on the bones of the script. The film idea was about a man who gets caught outside during the London riots and battles through the streets to make his way home to his heavily pregnant girlfriend (of course we took liberties with the actual facts of the riots to suit our narrative and make it more exciting). The film was in no way intended to be a ‘street film’ but more of a thriller in the same vein as something like The Warriors (1979) or a low budget Escape from New York (1981). So my friend shows it to a filmmaker she knows and his response was rather than call the film Riot Night, as originally planned, we should call it Riotz. I interpreted this as “Well, if you play it safe and really hype up all the seemingly fashionable elements such as it being set in London and the gang activity, and if we spell the title incorrectly it will emphasise the street credibility of this particular product and thus, be easier to fund.”

Needless to say the project fizzled out. I guess the most important aspect of this piece is, if you can’t spot a cliché, you’re bound to become one.

SAMUEL BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.

 

He Said She Said We Said: simple rules of dialogue attribution

Writing trick: cards

“I love you,” Laura sighed.

Okay, what’s wrong with that sentence? You. Yes, you at the back: you have ten seconds to answer. Come on now, don’t be shy. I’m waiting…

Yes, that’s right. It’s the bit outside the speech marks: the dialogue attribution. I mean, who the hell in the real world ‘sighs’ dialogue? I know I don’t, even if I am in love. Or perhaps Laura has a problem with her lungs?

I see this kind of thing all the time in genre fiction (and also in mainstream or literary fiction, but to a lesser extent). There’s no need for it. What’s wrong with the following?

“I love you,” Laura said.

Nothing. There’s nothing wrong with that. Laura hasn’t sighed the words, or laughed the words, or even (God forbid) breathed the words… she’s said them. Just like I do. Just like you do. We say the words.

So when it comes to dialogue attribution, the worst thing we can do as writers is to insert these pointless melodramatic verbs. Often it’s better if you can leave out the dialogue attribution altogether. Certainly it’s possible to use it sparingly, merely to identify who’s speaking.

This brings us to redundant dialogue attribution.

Here’s an example:

“How are you?” Laura asked.

Do we really need to put “asked” at the end of that sentence? I think not. The question mark at the end of her dialogue tells us that it’s a question, so the attribution is superfluous. It’s just using words for the sake of it rather than using them as tools to convey meaning.

“How are you?” Laura said.

That scans much better. It’s neat and tidy, and it works.

We can go one further with this and use action and dialogue to express what a character means, what they are feeling. The old adage “show not tell” comes into play here.

Laura barged through the crowd, her fists clenched. “I hate you,” she said.

See what I mean? She said. She didn’t shout or yell or snarl or growl. She said. Her actions told us that she was angry. She barged through the crowd. She clenched her fists. That Laura: she’s one angry kid. Her emotions seem to turn on a penny. I’m glad she doesn’t love me. Or hate me.

  • Grumbled
  • Gasped
  • Cautioned
  • Lied

These are all examples of horrible, even silly, dialogue attributions that I’ve seen in books. There’s nothing that can’t be conveyed using other means. If someone’s grumbling, what kind of mood are they in? How can we get that across to the reader without sticking it on the end of a line of dialogue? This sounds like simple stuff – basic stuff – and it is, but it’s amazing how many writers (both established and beginners) forget about the simple rules, the ones we’re first taught at school.

My personal philosophy is that it’s part of my job as a writer to convey complex thoughts, emotions and situations in as simple language as possible. I don’t want to impress a reader with my vocabulary, and I certainly don’t want to jolt them out of the story to go and look for a dictionary. Also, I want my characters to be as believable as I can make them, to speak like real people rather than ciphers. This means that they say words, they don’t sigh them. They speak in a way that’s as close to real speech as I can create.

Writing is like literary sleight of hand. You try to distract the reader so they don’t notice how you do the trick. Simple rules like this one are all part of the craft; they make it easier for a writer to slip one past the reader. Writing isn’t reality, but good, careful writing can echo reality.

Writing is a lie, a cheat that’s used to expose or elucidate some finer truth. And as every good liar knows, you need to make the lie as close as possible to the truth if you want people to believe it.

GARY MCMAHON
PHOTO: KYKNOORD

How to write for the Internet

internet questionThe key to good quality writing for the web is content that is short, simple and direct. Chunky paragraphs, convoluted sentences and excess punctuation marks not only stick out – they can damage the integrity of the channel or brand you’re writing for. To avoid the pitfalls of bad web writing, there are a few basic rules to keep in mind.

Keep it brief

Most online readers want to quickly scan through an article for the information they need. They don’t want to plough through long, rambling sentences and huge blocks of text. Limit your word count by trimming your sentences of superfluous words and check that your paragraphs don’t exceed ten lines. Preferences vary between websites but, generally speaking, if a paragraph runs over fifteen lines it can usually be broken up for better readability.

Avoid excess punctuation

Punctuation when sparingly used allows writers to clearly structure their sentences. However, excessive use of it can make your sentences harder to read, losing impact along the way. Try to avoid more advanced punctuation, such as semi-colons, colons and multiple commas, by rewriting your sentences.

E.g. ‘It is really important to keep three things in mind when buying a new car; practicality, affordability, and maintenance.’

Should be: ‘Practicality, affordability and maintenance should be kept in mind when buying a new car.’

Pick your headlines wisely

Your headline should be a short and accurate description of the following content. Writing a clear and concise headline (e.g. ‘How to write for the Internet’ instead of ‘Ten principles of writing good-quality copy for the Internet’) means your article is more likely to crop up at the fore of search engine results. Also, make sure that your headline isn’t too generic or it’ll get lost amongst the rest. A quick Google check to size up your competition beforehand helps.

Refer to any relevant style guidelines

Many websites will have a house style guide (or at least refer to a popular style guide, such as those used by The Economist or The Guardian). These make sure that all written content is consistent across the site, particularly where style, spelling, punctuation and format are concerned. Following a style guide while writing ensures consistency and therefore maintains the site’s credibility.

Your first paragraph is key

When it comes to attracting an online audience first impressions count; readers will often assess whether or not to read an article based on the first paragraph. To keep your audience hooked, make sure your opening paragraph is unusual, attention grabbing and/or punctuated with keywords or phrases (i.e. if you’re writing an article about ‘extreme winter sports’ make sure you repeat this two to three times).

Use sub-headings to break up your article

Sub-headings help to break text up into easy-to-digest chunks, while giving the reader both a sense of aesthetic order and narrative structure. They also act as handy signposts for the reader, allowing them to quickly pinpoint the information they’re looking for.

Hyperlinks are your friend

Part of the fun of web writing is the level of interactivity that the Internet allows. Hyperlinks can be used to put any obscure references in your article into context. They can also be used to link to other media (e.g. images, videos and previously written articles) and direct traffic towards other areas of the website you’re writing for.

Make sure your writing is of high quality, relevant and interesting

Producing great-quality content should be the first rule of web writing; even so, there are plenty of examples where key words and phrases are crowbarred into an article for the sake of search engine optimisation. Yet even if a site’s content is perfectly optimised, if it isn’t relevant to the reader or engaging in style the likelihood of it attracting repeat visitors is slim.

ALEXANDRA SZYDLOWSKA
PHOTO: MARCO BELLUCCI

Alexandra SzydlowskaAlexandra Szydlowska is a freelance writer and journalist, currently based in London. She is keen on roaming the world while writing about travel, culture, food and women’s issues. She sometimes struggles to stay chained to her desk.

 

 

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

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Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part III

Terror tales of the cotswoldsYour work has spanned the horror, crime and historical fiction genres. Which is your favourite and do you have a different approach for each genre?

I don’t have a real favourite. All three of these genres score equally for me, but purely from a personal perspective each one presents its own unique challenge.

Historical fiction, for example, demands that you be adept at world-building. You can’t assume that every reader will be fully au fait with the time-period you’re writing about, so you need to create a concise picture of the historical era your characters inhabit, especially if it’s something they don’t see very often in the movies. But even if it’s something they do, you want it make it as real for them as possible. Most readers will think they know what the Romans looked like, and will be aware that medieval knights lived in castles. But perhaps they won’t know a lot more than that, and this won’t necessarily serve your purpose. In fact, it may be vital to your narrative that your audience has, or quickly attains, a workable understanding of the period. But by the same token you’ve got to impart this to them in a way that isn’t just info dump; as I say, you’ve got to be concise – you’ve got to weave in into the action so the pace never flags.

With horror it’s different again. The biggest challenge there is creating a sense of fear. Many years ago, I was interviewed on BBC Radio Manchester when a bunch of my stories were given an audio release by K-Tel with a few eminent actors reading. I came out with one quote which I was rather proud of at the time, describing horror as comedy’s “dark twin” – in that it attempts to provoke an emotional response which for much of the average day is quite elusive. In comedy it’s mirth, in horror it’s fear. I’ve never been a big fan of gore for its own sake. To me, for horror to really work it has to be scary, not revolting. And the only way you can achieve that as an author is to sit down and imagine scenarios that you personally find frightening or disturbing, which isn’t always easy in the humdrum lives we tend to lead these days, and then recreate it on the page but at the same time work it into something seamless. Again, and with horror especially, if something is obviously contrived, it just won’t work.

The crime and thriller medium is probably the most grown-up of the three, in that you’re writing in the real world and the here and now, touching on themes that your audience will already be familiar with and, in some cases, may have been affected by. For which reason, you need to handle the material very differently. Okay, it’s only fiction, but it’s possible to cross the line. The way you get around that, at least in my experience, is by telling a compelling story with suspense and mystery at its heart, and utilising strong, believable and sympathetic characters, and with a pacy narrative that just keeps pulling the readers along – in effect creating a fantasy adventure in the midst of gritty urban realism. David Fincher’s movie Se7en, scripted by Andrew Kevin Walker, would be a good example of this; a story of unrelieved pain and suffering in the heart of drug-addiction, prostitution and poverty, yet it’s a ripping tale filled with intrigue and excitement. Even though it ends on a truly dismal note, you know you’ve watched an exhilarating thriller.

It’s always difficult of course, using violence and torment as a means to entertain, but this isn’t something we need ashamed of. Human society has done this ever since the days of the campfire story. But if it is cast in an acceptable – maybe even an instructive – context, then you could be onto a real winner. How, for example, do you tell the story of a police investigation into the rape of a little girl without it seeming exploitative and voyeuristic?  John Hopkins had the answer with his 1968 stage-play, This Story Of Yours (which in 1972 was made into an astonishing movie, The Offence, with Sean Connery and Trevor Howard). It’s master-class writing, dealing with a shocking crime and all its appalling consequences in a most grown-up and yet dramatic fashion.

After all that, I’m not sure if I’ve really answered the question here. To summarise, you asked me how I approach these different genres. I suppose it’s mainly the case that I bear all these different modes and motivations in mind when writing in them. I suppose, at the end of the day, certain things will always be the same. Most stories, whatever genre they’re in, are about human beings, the jeopardy they face and their struggles to overcome. They are about people and their relationships. Without any of that, as you know, it simply doesn’t work – no matter what the background happens to be.

Your upcoming novel Stalkers features a character called Mark Heckenburg. Can you talk us through his creation?

Like all heroes, Detective Sergeant Mark ‘Heck’ Heckenburg has more good points than bad ones, but I thought it important from the beginning that he wasn’t a white knight. I don’t mean by that that he’s of ambiguous morality. I love tough police characters like Popeye Doyle or Dirty Harry, who exist in such a state of war with the underworld that they often let their guns do the talking, but that’s really a different era from this one. Heck can mix it if he needs to, of course he can – that’s a prerequisite of urban policing (despite the way the job has tried to reinvent itself in the age of political correctness, it often boils down to a simple question – do you want to be able to protect the victims from the victimisers, or don’t you?) – but that isn’t the whole story with Heck. In actual fact he’s an affable guy, who has sympathy and understanding for those creatures inhabiting the fringes of society, and who believes that a discreet, diplomatic approach can pay off where violence and intimidation won’t, but who at the same time despises the really big fish in the criminal pond and will stop at nothing to defeat them, even if that involves bending the rules to breaking point.

This is where Heck’s flaws start to show, because he’s more obsessive than is good for him. His boss and ex-girlfriend, Detective Superintendent Gemma Piper, has a real problem with this aspect of his character. He imposes long hours on himself, working doggedly, often alone, to get results – and this is hugely detrimental to his social life, not to mention his love life.  He is not married – (mainly because he is still in constant proximity to Gemma) – so he has nothing really to go home to, which situation is likely to remain as long as he buries himself in work.

All of this really stems from my observations of detectives in real life. The best one I ever knew, and who I worked with regularly (though I won’t mention his name) always went an extra ten miles to get the job done. He had been totally sucked into the police world at the expense of everything else, and would think nothing of working back-to-back shifts to close cases. He actually was married, but having seen the way he and his wife interacted, I’m not sure that state of affairs would last much longer. She basically never saw him.

This kind of fixation can have other unsavoury side-effect. It creates a ‘grump’ in the cop personality, because though these guys won’t admit it, they are always tired, always on the edge – and as they have no time for anything but work, there is very little in their world for them to look forward to. They also have a firm conviction – or is this an excuse they make to themselves? – that without them, the job will fall apart. There is much of this in Heck too.

But as I say, he is the hero of these stories, so while much of his personality it based on real hard-working detectives I was personally acquainted with, other parts of his character are borrowed freely from hardboiled American crime fiction: he is sharp, witty (verging on a Chandler-esque smartarse) and, if you can get through the rumpled exterior, has a rugged, easy charm that the average person on the street would find attractive.

Another aspect of Heck’s character is his relationship with Gemma Piper, his former lover and full-time boss. These two really are fire and water but deep down there is a very strong bond between them which will nearly always provide the emotional core of the story. I won’t go into too much detail over this as it’s something I want to develop through the books.

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)
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Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part II

Paul Finch, WriterHow does your approach vary when writing for the screen and page?

Well, they both start out the same way, but the nature of the two beasts is essentially different. First of all, in both cases, you have to convince someone – either a producer or a publisher that you’ve got a great premise. In both cases you’ve then got to go off and write an impressive treatment. But from the moment they okay it, the two courses diverge.

If you’re writing a screenplay, you’re in company almost all the way through. Okay, you’ll write your first draft on your own, but after that your script editor, your producer, maybe even your director, will have an awful lot to say about its development, and I won’t pretend that this doesn’t give you problems. Trying to serve more than one master in any walk of like is extraordinarily difficult – and it happens a lot in film and TV, because artistic types differ on what they think will work, and often it’s something that is purely subjective, which can be mind-bogglingly frustrating. You’ll do rewrite after rewrite until everyone is finally satisfied. But when the finance people are brought in, you’ll have to do a whole lot more – because they think that because they are paying for the film, they have a say in its artistic development too. At some stage you may find that another writer gets attached; you may even be replaced. It sounds horrible I know, but that is a hazard of film and TV scripting. Just make sure beforehand that it’s in the contract you’ll still be paid the full fee and still be credited as lead writer.

Of course, that would be unthinkable in terms of a novel. I always say this to people who ask me which is the easiest route – well, neither of them are easy, but can you imagine writing a novel and half way through your editor gives you a call and says: “Thanks for your efforts. Someone else will take it from here.” It just wouldn’t happen. In novel writing, the chain of command is much shorter, and there are far fewer people to try and please. In my novel experience, I’ve dealt with the commissioning editor and the senior editor, and that is about it. Okay, they will always request changes, alterations and sometimes extensive rewrites, but you don’t tend to find yourself in daily telephone conversations about this and receiving reams of notes from various different people, some of which contradict each other. And for that reason, I feel writing a novel is a gentler, more relaxed process.

So when you ask how does my approach vary, I’d have to say that it’s primarily a mental thing. If you’re writing a script you might as well accept from the beginning that it’s going to be much more of a team effort. You can’t afford to be precious or proprietorial about film or TV. Understand from the outset that it isn’t really your project and you won’t end up being disappointed.

Do you think you have gained any skills that overlap from screenwriting to prose?

Yes. Screenwriting has improved my other writing no end. It’s taught me to be punchy and succinct, to try and say much more with much less. Many writers of course do that naturally. But I didn’t when I first started out. I had a tendency to overwrite – it was my main weakness. However, when you’re writing a script the only thing you’re putting on paper is the dialogue and the bare minimum stage directions and scene setters the director needs in order to create his vision. In other words, you’re telling a complete story with as little as possible. You are developing characters and unfolding a subtext as stringently as you can.

It’s an intense discipline, not something you can carry over into a novel completely – the average reader would feel very short-changed if that was something you served him, but it’s a great attitude to have when you’re writing a book because it enables you to do the most important job first – lay down the bare bones of a great story – and then add any necessary extra material, the descriptive prose, the steams of consciousness and so on, to create a fuller picture.

I’ve been told that my prose has a very filmic style in that I tend to write in scenes, each one ending with a cliff-hanger. If so, that’s entirely down to my film-writing experience. It’s not to everyone’s taste – I’m well aware of that, but quite a few people seem to like it, and from a personal POV, I find that it helps me produce a tight, linear and very visual narrative.

As well as writing for The Bill on television, you have penned a number of screenplays. What are the major differences between writing for television and film?

There are less these days than there used to be. In the early days of TV, what you basically got were stage-plays on television. Minuscule budgets, restricted studio space and limited camera facility meant that you didn’t very often go beyond the three walls of the main set, and so you had to tell the story primarily through dialogue, and this meant there was lots of it. Anyone watching re-runs of any classic screenplays of the 1980s and earlier, maybe even stuff from as recently as the 1990s, will probably be surprised at how static and talkie they seem. These days TV is very different and much more tightly edited, much more filmic – as exemplified by the modern incarnation of Dr Who, for example, which has lots of short scenes, very little explanatory dialogue and vastly more FX than it used to. This was the way TV had to go in an era when high-energy computer games provide rival entertainment, and all kinds of blockbuster movies are available on download. That said, much present day television is still strongly based around personal drama rather than pretty imagery, so though it tends to look a lot better than it did, it’s not quite as concise a medium as film.

Cinematic movies are still what they have been since their inception in the silent era: mainly a visual experience. It really is all about telling a story through pictures, which is why the directors are so lauded. As the writer, you still have to lay out the narrative and create the drama, but less is more when it comes to dialogue, and exposition has almost no place at all. I’ll give you an example – take a movie like The French Connection (1971): there is very little dialogue in the entire film – many scenes feature none at all, and many feature no more than one or two lines – and yet it’s so well-made, so visually driven a plot, that you barely notice. It doesn’t matter that we have almost no details about the troubled history of Popeye Doyle, or who the other cop is he accidentally killed, or the drugs baron Alain Charnier, or how he got to be France’s number one heroin exporter – we just accept all this because we’re so engrossed in the fast-moving, skin tight narrative.

Writing that way is a discipline that you must acquire if you want to pen movies. And that’s another thing – not only do you have to tell a story with the minimum chat, you have to make the chat count, so quality dialogue tends to be the rule in movies even if it isn’t the kind of dialogue you hear in real life (just because Quentin Tarantino gets away with scripting the kind of meandering, repetitive conversations people have on the street, doesn’t mean every other screen-writer can). The same applies to scene setting and stage-directions. You need to keep those to a minimum. When writing a movie script, rather than fill it with detailed prose, you only need put in what the producer and the director need to know, a) because they will have their own ideas about how it should look anyway, and b) because it will look as good as they ultimately can afford it to look. So for example, ‘a luxuriant tract of jungle, thick with vine and leaf, with a muddy road winding through it, the sort only pack-animals could use’ becomes ‘a thick jungle with a muddy road’, and ‘the two cars roar along the darkened street neck-and-neck like modern-day chariots, striking sparks off each other, the red one veering in front of the blue one, the blue one veering in front of the red’ becomes ‘the cars race dangerously along the darkened street’.

You also have a duty when writing a movie to keep ramping up the tension. People go to the cinema for the same reason they go to fairgrounds – to experience a couple of hours of entertainment. A couple of hours – that’s all they’ve got – so it’s got to be intense. When writing a movie, there’s no room for padding, and I’m not just talking about action and thriller movies here. Even a serious drama must keep the audience on the edge of their seats, so as the writer it’s your job to make sure that every scene ends on some kind of ‘OMG’.

I was quite fortunate when I made my transition from TV to movie-writing as episodes of The Bill were usually about 30% exterior shoots, often entailing action – fighting, chasing and so forth – fast, fluid sequences which required crisp scripting, minimal dialogue and much variation of camera angles – so I had a fairly good grounding in those essential techniques.

 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)

Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part I

Paul FinchPaul Finch, author of fantastic horror, crime and historical novels in addition to numerous screen-writing credits joins us for the first of a five part chat about genre, influences and writing for the page and screen.

When were you inspired to become a writer and who (or what) inspired you to pick up a pen?

There is no question that my late father inspired me to be an author. Brian Finch was a successful television screenwriter for four decades. He covered the entire spectrum from soaps to crime drama, from period pieces to children’s television, from science fiction to comedy and romance. He was the ultimate professional. He could turn his hand to anything and with great aplomb. The high point of his career was probably Goodnight Mr. Tom in 1998 for which he won a BAFTA – that was an adaptation of Michelle Magorion’s famous novel.

Dad’s early life never prepared him for any of this. He grew up in Wigan, Lancashire, a coal-mining town, where the local people, though as good an example of humanity as you could find, had few highfalutin ambitions. Yet my dad had wanted to be a writer since his earliest days. That he achieved this so successfully, with minimal qualifications and no experience to call on – either his own or anyone else’s – is quite remarkable and really should be an inspiration to anybody. I’m sorry if that’s in some ways a boring answer. I have been inspired by other great writers – of  course I have, but growing up with my dad and seeing at close hand how happy he was doing what he did, how much satisfaction he drew from his creativity, and to hear him talk so enthusiastically about his craft are 100% the reasons why I too became a writer.

For those interested, Brian Finch’s own contributions to the crime genre are mainly TV credits but they are plentiful. They include: Softly Softly, Chinese Puzzle, Hunter’s Walk, Public Eye, Shoestring, The Bill, and, on a lighter note, Heartbeat.

You used to be a police officer, was the step into crime writing an easy one or did you find it difficult to detach yourself from what you had learned on the job?

There’s no question that my police experience has helped me enormously in terms of my writing. I know my police procedural pretty well inside-out. It was that, I think, that first got me onto The Bill. I sent them a script on spec – not an episode of the series, but an original screenplay concerning a murder inside a police station. Nothing happened at first, but then, about six months later, I received a phone call from one of the script editors asking me if I’d like to go in and see them. I was very raw in writing terms then, but they were intrigued that I knew the police world and police life so well so when they offered me a shot at the show, I jumped at it. I should add that it was several years before I actually made it through the system onto the TV screen. I might have known my police stuff, but way back then I didn’t know much about writing and had to learn it the hard way.

However, my experience as a police officer gave me an excellent grounding in regard to modern law and order issues and I’ve been able to utilise it many times on the written page.

Does having ‘insider knowledge’ as it were make research for crime writing redundant or do you still have to put the hours in?

No, I still have to put the hours in. I finished in the police some time ago, and my knowledge could easily become outdated if I didn’t keep on refreshing it. Police protocols and procedures change all the time. The law itself changes. When I started as a copper the Police and Criminal Evidence Act hadn’t even been introduced and that made phenomenal changes across the board in terms of methods and processes. So I have to try and stay on the ball. In addition, there was never a time when I knew everything anyway. Law enforcement is a vast arena in which to be employed – there are so many different aspects to it and it’s rare that you can experience and become familiar with all of them.

I have to do my research like everyone else. Though I still have lots of friends and contacts in the police, so I suppose that helps.

Which crime writers do you currently admire in the genre?

There are quite a few. From the States, James Ellroy, James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Elmore Leonard. From the UK, Stuart MacBride, Ian Rankin, Peter Robinson, Mark Billingham. I also love Mo Hayder’s amazing blend of crime and horror.

You’ve written crime for both the screen and the page, which do you prefer?

For me they’re both pretty satisfying but unless you’re writing a screenplay for a major Hollywood studio, you can let rip a lot more in prose than you can in a script.

I don’t mean to say that bigger is always better. Far from it. But when I’m writing a novel, I get a great deal of pleasure from pushing the envelope in a way that I wouldn’t be able to on television. I’m partly talking about sex, violence and profanity here, which inevitably come into it if you’re dealing with gritty crime scenarios. For example, when I was writing for The Bill, it was a pre-watershed TV show, so you had to create material that dealt with modern policing issues but was also family friendly. But in addition to all that, and this would apply whether The Bill was on TV before nine o’clock or after it, there was no point developing anything that would be too complex or expensive to produce. Budgetary constraints didn’t just disappear because you had a great idea. For instance, if your plot required an action sequence, you first had to ponder how expensive it would be to show cars chasing and crashing, how many stunt doubles you would need, how expensive the FX if you were to ask for gunfire, explosions and so forth. You don’t have any of that when you’re writing a novel, which is really very liberating.

At the risk of having given you a rather shallow response, that’s about it really. Otherwise, I get the same kick from writing both forms. If you’ve told a rattling good story, and people are talking about it afterwards and are basically energised and enthused by it, then you’ve done your job as an author, whether they saw it on the screen or read it on the page. Either way, it’s very satisfying.

 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)

Playing Nicely With Others – Writing in The Shared Worlds of Abaddon Books

Arrowhead by Paul KaneIt was, from the outside, admittedly, an odd proposal: take the model used by publishers of tie-in fiction, and use it to create original worlds without any link to a game, film, TV series etc etc. Abaddon Books was established in 2006 by myself (in the role of Editor-in-Chief) and Jason and Chris Kingsley at Rebellion. Before I joined, Rebellion had been known principally for two things – video games and 2000 AD. However, the Kingsleys were keen to extend the remit of the company and go into publishing genre fiction. Jason and Chris are also very much interested in generating new Intellectual Properties that can then go on to be used in a variety of different media. Abaddon Books, then, was created to be an ideas factory.

The first stage in setting up the imprint was deciding what flavours of fiction we wanted to publish; what worlds we thought genre fans would like to see. The first four series created for Abaddon were Pax Britannia (a steampunk adventure series, principally written by Jonathan Green), Dreams of Inan (a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy), Tomes of The Dead (a long-running collection of zombie novels) and The Afterblight Chronicles (a series set in a post-apocalyptic world). The challenge then was to get in the authors and make sure they all sung from the same hymn-sheet, whichever of our worlds they were working in. To some this may sounds like a logistical nightmare – visions of huge, weighty world bibles come to mind, and painstakingly-checked continuity – but that really wasn’t where the challenges lay. What Abaddon is for, is telling lots of different types of stories, within several different ‘flavours’ of fiction. So, while we have certain story arcs within our series (the St Mark’s trilogy in The Afterblight Chronicles springs to mind, and Ulysses’ Quicksilver’s adventure in Pax Britannia), it’s been much more important to us that our authors stay true to the spirit of a series, rather than feel tied-down by any perceived rules and regulations.

I know that rather than feeling this to be a limiting influence on their writing,  most of our authors find this a liberating experience. Al Ewing, for example, whose first novel I was very lucky to have published, really used the series he wrote in to run wild with his imagination. His novel I, Zombie for the Tomes of the Dead, for example, took a zombie story and within three or so chapters had totally turned it on its head, introducing aliens, the royal family, a Buckingham Palace that turned into a walking battle droid and all sorts of… madness. In Scott Andrew’s St Mark’s trilogy, the author used the themes of apocalypse and a small community to explore some weighty issues and themes.

Of course, Abaddon is a work-for-hire publisher, meaning that our authors assign the copyright in their stories to us, and naturally this isn’t going to be for everybody. However, we have provided a terrific opportunity for new writers, or those authors wanting to try their hand at something different. I’ve been very encouraged to see some of the authors we’ve introduced to the world, go on to wider acclaim. I’ve always been very proud that we published the first mass market paperbacks of such brilliant writers as Gary McMahon, Chuck Wendig and Simon Bestwick.

And what this really comes down to, and hence the title of this article, is sharing the experience of the act of creation with our authors. Both myself and my co-editor David Moore take great delight in working alongside our writers to create new series of fun, brilliantly written and innovative genre fiction. I believe that this collaborative effort has produced some startling works of genre fiction, and I know that our readers will be delighted by some of the surprises we have coming their way in 2013.

JONATHAN OLIVER

Jonathan OliverJonathan Oliver is the Editor-in-Chief of Solaris and Abaddon Books. He is the author of two novels in the Twilight of Kerberos series, The Call of Kerberos and The Wrath of Kerberos, as well as a bunch of short stories that have appeared in a variety of places.

If you enjoyed Jonathan’s article why not buy one of his books? Please consider clicking through to our Amazon Affiliate links. If you do you’ll help keep the Armed With Pens ship afloat with some very welcome remuneration.

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Interview: Lil Chase on language, editing and routine

Sam Bonner recently caught up with Lil Chase, a fellow Creative Writing classmate of his from London Metropolitan University, to talk about writing and editing. Since leaving university, she has gone on to publish two books for teens with Quercus, Boys For Beginners and Secrets, Lies & Locker 62.

Lil ChaseWhat is your writing routine and do you have a set amount of words to write or time to spend per session?

Sticking to the writing routine is the hardest thing about being a writer. I have a part-time day job so on the days that I’m working I come home from work, walk the dog, eat dinner, then head up to my desk at 9pm. I tell myself that I only have to write for twenty minutes, but when I get there I usually write for an hour or two. I also spend one day of the weekend working. I have heard that some people aim for word count targets, but I find that too intimidating. I accept that there are some days when the words won’t come, but if I stick to a routine no matter what, I’ll be back again writing the next day, when hopefully the words will be back too.

Explain how the use of language affects the pace of a YA book. What are some of the genre trappings you try and avoid when writing?

Language affects pace in all books: every word choice is crucial. It’s hard with YA because teens use so much slang in their speech, and slang is always changing. I try to use slang that is unlikely to date, and also invent new slang; that way it will never date. Inventing slang is also a good way to avoid swearing. So Gwynnie, in Boys For Beginners, says ‘What the flan [am I going to do?]’ quite a lot. Maya in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62 uses variations of the word ‘hideous’ and makes that her thing that she says.

How much do you edit after you have finished the first draft? And how much do you have once a new editor comes aboard?

I have said many a time, “I’m not a very good writer, but I am a very good editor.” The writing is done quickly, over a few months, and I overwrite like mad: the first draft of Secrets, Lies and Locker 62 was 74,501 words. The final draft was 49,396 words(!). By cutting back that much you can make sure that every word is a good one.

Outside editorial feedback is essential, and my editor at Quercus is amazing at picking out the parts to change to make the book more cohesive. I’m always amazed at how each round of edits improves the manuscript and I have never disagreed with a suggestion she’s made…even if it hurts to hear it at first.

What literary tools do you employ to engage with a reader?

I took a BA in Creative Writing and some of the most helpful modules were the poetry modules (there is a little poetry in Secrets, Lies & Locker 62, but that’s not really what I mean). Poetry is a really good way to learn how to use language effectively: how an image can convey so much more than a statement (essentially, show, don’t tell). How the last word of a sentence should be the word with the most punch. How ‘less is more’ is always the best policy. I wouldn’t ever advocate ‘flowery prose’ in novels, especially not for teens, but being aware of the power of each one of your words is terribly important.

What, in your opinion, distinguishes your writing from your peers in your genre?

Hmm, this is a tricky one. I write in the first person – which many YA authors do – but I really work hard to make that young teen voice authentic. When I write a sentence I ask myself, “can I imagine a 13 year old saying that?” When was the last time you heard a 13 year old use the word, ‘exclaim’ or ‘retort’ or ‘pondered’. Actually, when did you hear anyone use those words outside of a book?

But there are plenty of writers who get this spot on: Louise Rennison is an obvious choice. Chris Higgins is another. Melvin Burges for slightly older readers. Their writing feels 100% authentic, and teens love it.

Explain how you learned the craft of writing, and what you believe have been the most integral areas of this learning process.

Practice, practice, practice. Keep reading – to learn what styles you’d like to emulate and what styles you don’t want to emulate. Keep writing – to develop your voice, and to get in the habit of the writing routine. Keep listening to criticism – it’s always useful, even if you ignore it. If you are not able to take a degree in Creative Writing as I did, then read Story by Robert McKee. It’s about screenwriting, but it works for novel writing too. It is, in my opinion, the most useful book on storytelling available. His focus is on moving your story forward so as not to bore your readers. And he gives you the techniques on how to do just that.

What books would you say you learnt the most from with regards to your own writing style?

Before writing my first teen book – Boys For Beginners – I read Louise Rennison’s Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging. It is unbelievably funny. As an adult, you read it with such nostalgia thinking “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what it was like.” I genuinely did not know that books for teens were allowed to be that good, that kind of no-holds-barred funny. It was an inspiration.

SAM BONNER

Learn more about Lil Chase.

If you enjoyed our interview and want to read Lil Chase’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.

Lil Chase fiction (UK)
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What can I do to become a better writer?

writing notepadAll artists want to become better at their craft – writers are no exception. One of the most frequently asked questions within the business is, “what can I do to become a better writer?” Unfortunately there is no magic formula or quick fix that will ensure you’re a better writer, but reading and listening to those that are already better than you and understand the craft is absolutely invaluable. With that said, here are a few words from some of the best writers and professionals in the business.

“Be clear, be concise and always, always follow your heart, not the money. Explore what genuinely excites you on the deepest possible level. Interrogate and challenge yourself, because if it feels safe, you are doing something wrong.”

Stephen Volk

“Read widely across a variety of genres because you can always find different writing techniques that can be used in your own work. It can add texture to your prose that might not otherwise be there if you stick to just one genre.

Write something every day even if it’s just a micro-fiction or a paragraph about anything at all – just keep in practice. Grow a thick skin and learn how to distinguish the helpful advice from the unhelpful, and always remember that the first draft is never, ever the last draft…”

Angela Slatter

“Like Stephen King and everybody says, just read. And read and read and read. Read things you don’t expect to like. Read stuff off the best-seller list. Read stuff that’s fifty years old and has stains all over it. Read read read. But hopefully this goes without saying, too. So — but this is just as obvious — write. A whole lot. With me, twenty or thirty stories in, I felt like I had a handle on the craft. Some good suspicions anyway. But then I got to sixty or so stories and it was like a little distant bell chimed in some dark recess of my head, and I recognised that, oh, yeah, this is how you do it. This is how you write. Which, you forget it all after each story, have to learn it all again every time. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, but you get more confidence, kind of. That, if you have one line, one scene, one chapter, then the next is going to be there waiting. Also, a big trick is not miring down in just one story for months. I like Bradbury’s model, of a story a week. You learn a lot that way, and produce a lot. And, I guess the easy answer to this, and I maybe should have started there, it’s ‘Have talent.’ But, talent or not, you still need to hone it. And you can’t do that without setting pen to paper over and over, every chance you get.”

Stephen Graham Jones

“I am presuming that, as a writer, you have an extensive vocabulary and a reasonable knowledge of grammar and sentence structure. After that, the secret is to live whatever you are writing as if you were really there. Forget about the page or the screen in front of you. Be there. Feel the wind. Hear the voices of people talking behind you. No matter how much research you have done, tell the story as if you are living it. Your research will come over without you lecturing your readers. Cut out any fancy words that people won’t understand. Get the rhythm of your sentences right so that they don’t jar when people read them. Write lots of poetry and very short fiction for practise. If you can’t write a poem you can’t write a novel. This is a very abbreviated version of my words about writing. You can check out more at the Fiction section of my website under the heading Rules of Writing.”

Graham Masterton

“Writers first begin to sell consistently when they find their own particular way of writing complete, satisfying stories. And once you find your own particular way that works it’s tempting to stay in that mode your entire career. But to improve as a writer you have to step away from that, writing stories about subjects and emotions which make you feel uncomfortable, using unfamiliar approaches and structures, sometimes pushing aside what you know about genre or even what constitutes a story in order to discover a new ‘way’ with each piece you write. Most importantly, you have to start writing stories you may believe you’re not yet good enough to write. Don’t be afraid of writing a ‘bad’ story–sometimes you will–it’s the price you pay for risk.”

Steve Rasnic Tem

“READ.”

Conrad Williams

To become a better writer I must continue to be vigilant with each line of prose, omitting unnecessary words. I’ve now got into the habit of challenging every sentence by asking myself whether it could work as well with fewer words. Often I find that a phrase consisting of two words can be replaced with just one. Other words like ‘now’, ‘then’ and ‘well’ can often be removed altogether. The finished product – leaner, zippier – gets closer to the way experienced professionals write. The reader perceives no ‘slack’. Incidentally, that second sentence above – the one that starts, ‘I’ve now got into the habit . . .’ – well, we can lose that ‘now’ easily enough. That’s how fussy you have to be.”

Gary Fry

“I’m always wary of any kind of writing advice, so let me answer this question in terms of myself. It’s my belief that everyone can become a better writer. We all strive towards the kind of perfection that we will never reach. For me, I believe that practice is the key. I write all the time, and nothing is wasted. I write and I write and I write, and then I write some more. I also read the best to see how they do it. Reading crap is a waste of time. It teaches you nothing but how not to write. By doing these things, I hope that each new writing project is better than the last, and that I understand the mechanics better through repetition. Hopefully before I die I’ll have become the best writer that I can be – because I’m not in competition with my peers. I’m in competition with myself.”

Gary McMahon

PHOTO BY JENNY AUDRING

Can you really scare your reader? (And how to avoid a flimsy manuscript)

The Exorcist ScaryWhen I began writing my first published novel, Playground, I knew the best way to gain any sort of critical success with it would be to provoke a reaction from the reader. A book that doesn’t engage the reader is rarely worth reading; just my opinion of course, but perfectly valid for the sake of this article.

If a book is supposed to be comical, it should make the reader laugh. If the book is a thriller, it should have them on the edge of their seat (pardon the cliché). If it is erotic, the reaction should surely be arousal; fantasy, should induce escapism. This particular ideology of mine was problematic for me as a horror writer because it proposed the following questions:

(a)   Can a person be physically frightened by reading?

(b)  How do you write something that will scare your reader?

I used to think that although books can be creepy, you would have to be short on nerve if a novel actually frightened you. I’d read a lot of Lovecraft, and there was certainly an ominous quality to the work, and Stephen King’s books were darkly entertaining, sometimes even disturbing, but had never read any anything that actually frightened me. I’d read many horror novels by numerous authors, most of them exceptional, and while I was immensely entertained by them, I had never received the feeling it was supposed to evoke: Fear.

This changed a few years back when I read The Exorcist. I’d been extremely frightened having just seen pictures of the film as a child, and when I eventually saw the film in my early twenties, I must admit, I was pretty damn shaken. But when I read the book, that fear was somehow amplified. I’d never encountered anything like it. 90 pages in and not much has happened, and then Regan goes into her mother’s room and says something as simple as “I can’t sleep. My bed keeps shaking,” and I was covered in gooseflesh. I was reading the book alone in the house, and I suddenly needed to piss real bad. And, for the first time since seeing An American Werewolf in London at the age of about 6, I was scared at the prospect of making the walk to the toilet in the dark. I even had a nightmare about the possessed Regan being in my bed when I finished the book and swiftly reached for my rosary!

This, to me, was a marvellous read and the perfect example of how an author can engage completely with the reader. Obviously we all know what happened after William Blatty’s book was released, and I’m pretty sure it was his ingenious way of terrifying his readership that did it.

I believe that the way for a book to be critically and commercially successful, is to provoke a reaction out of the reader, no matter what genre you write. I doubted that I had the originality in me to frighten any of my readers, but I could damn sure try and disturb them. I also read a lot of Jack Ketchum, who if you’re unfamiliar with his work, writes about very real horrors that could happen in your average neighbourhood; rape, torture, murder and so on. It was his unflinching style that disturbed critics and readers alike and made him a well-known name in the horror arena.

The way I saw it, I had to be fearless. I couldn’t worry about what my mother or grandmother might think of a detailed rape scene, or how people might react to racial slurs or graphic details of violence. If the book demanded it, I would provide it, and I would do my best to make the reader see it and feel every disgusting word of it.

A friend of mine used the term shock-jockey to describe someone the other day, and although I can’t remember who he was talking about, he was referring to their approach of saying something lewd in order to provoke a reaction from the public. All publicity is good publicity, that sort of thing. While I wasn’t necessarily trying to be shocking for the novelty of it, I wanted to prove that I wasn’t intimidated by the prospect of any fictional topic. I would explore every dark, swampy corner of my imagination. For this reason, Playground features a crack addict being raped and later self-harming, a child molesting policeman impersonator, animal abuse, and much more.

When I was working for a small publishing house a few years back, a woman sent in a manuscript about a group of middle class women that start an agency to murder paedophiles worldwide. I thought the idea was pretty novel and was looking forward to it. And, while the idea was in fact a decent one, the execution was not. The author was timid of using the word ‘Fuck’ and completely appalled at the prospect of, God forbid, actually detailing a horrific scene involving a paedophile – which happened to be the core subject matter of her book. No, the author didn’t want to seem to touch that at all. She was far happier with us knowing that there was simply a paedophile somewhere, and then a woman would be assigned to kill him. No emotional involvement on the reader’s behalf, no edginess to keep a reader gripped, but more importantly, no author-reader engagement. It was a flimsy, cowardly manuscript, and I told the publisher as much.

An author needs to abandon all fear of what people may think of them at the typewriter and do what is best for the story. If they hold back, they do their novel and anyone who buys it a disservice, and more often than not, the reader can tell when they’ve been mollycoddled.

At all times one should strive to write a good, faithful and interesting story that people will want to read. If you have any commercial hope for your book, you should write for your audience as much as yourself.

SAM BONNER

Samuel BonnerSam works as a marketing manager for Indepenpress and has written novels such as Playground and Someone’s in the House.

Lawrence Block Interview

Lawrence BlockLawrence Block is a best-selling novelist and multi-award winner including the Edgar Grand Master Award, Best Short Story Collection Anthony Award and Best Character Award for Matt Scudder in the 2009 Shamus Awards. In addition to this he has written a number of ‘how to’ books on the craft of writing including Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Write For Your Life and The Liar’s Bible.

Many of your novels are set in New York, a city where you have lived most of your life. Can you elaborate on how the changing atmosphere of New York has affected your writing?

LB: I don’t really know that it has. I suppose the books reflect the city, or at least my perception of it, at the time of the writing.

You have won numerous awards for your writing, how highly do you regard them and are they something you aspire to?

LB: Awards are certainly gratifying, but I don’t know that they’re important.  It’s the same book whether or not one gets a little statue for it.

In terms of your books about writing, what inspired you to write the first one? Was there a particularly terrible novel that served as a catalyst?

LB: No, nothing like that. I started writing a column for a magazine, and one thing led to another.

You have had an incredibly prolific career, how have you been able to keep your writing discipline over the years?

LB: I’m lazy. This leads me to do things efficiently and finish them as quickly as possible.

What is your writing routine, do you treat it like a day job and work core hours or do you work to a word limit?

LB: I don’t have a routine. The pattern varies from book to book.

Some authors have books that they really toil over, was there a particular book that you struggled to write or enjoyed writing less than the others?

LB: Not that I can think of.

At the risk of sounding cliché your books are often described as ‘gritty’, what parts of them do you enjoy writing the most and is there anything that you purposefully shy away from?

LB: I’ve never quite understood what “gritty” means, so I won’t address that. I enjoy writing when it’s going well and I’m pleased with what I’m doing; that’s pretty much irrespective of content.

Having produced various books for writers do you ever hear any success stories from people that have read them?

LB: In the past couple of years, Open Road brought out The Liar’s Bible, The Liar’s Companion, and Afterthoughts, all as eRiginals. And I’m frequently heartened when a newly successful writer lets me know that something I wrote played a role. I still hear from people who took my seminar, Write For Your Life, a quarter of a century ago, and am glad the seminar’s now available in book form under that title.

You have written under the pseudonym Jill Emerson, how did writing under a female name change your approach to books such as Getting Off?

LB: I don’t know that it did. A third or more of the book was written, and several of the chapters published as short stories under my own name, before I made the decision to put Jill’s by-line on the book.

You have written huge numbers of novels and short story collections, you also wrote the screenplay for the adaptation of My Blueberry Nights, which form of writing do you prefer and how different is your approach to each one?

LB: My Blueberry Nights wasn’t my story, it was Wong Kar-wai’s. I’ve adapted a couple of books of mine for the screen, but they never got filmed. Screenwriting is interesting and demanding, and has its own satisfactions, but I don’t care if I never do any more of it.

Do you think it is important for a writer to have at least some first-hand experience of what they are writing about?

LB: No, of course not. All a writer needs is imagination.

Over the years you have repeatedly said that you try to get things right first time rather than editing later. Does this cause conflicts with your publishers?

LB: No.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers, apart from to buy one of your books on writing?

LB: I don’t know that I’d steer anyone toward one of my books. They’ll find their way to them if they’re supposed to. And my advice to any writer would be to write to please yourself. Period.

 DAN HOWARTH

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Writing about place and setting in genre fiction

Newcastle settingAs always, this article isn’t meant to be a “How to” piece. It’s simply a personal reflection on an element of writing that I think it’s important to focus on. Take it or leave it; read it or ignore it. There’s no right way and no wrong way in writing; there’s only the way that suits you as an individual.

Sometimes a story can be made or broken by how the writer chooses to describe the place or location where the action is taking place. This sense of place often seems particularly important in genre fiction, because of the need to generate a certain atmosphere. To take an obvious example, Stephen King’s novel It wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if he hadn’t conjured the fictional geography of Derry, Maine so skilfully and vividly.

As a writer, I’m always trying to convey a sense of place in my work, especially in my novels. Even if the location is a fictional place, it needs to feel genuine. In terms of the horror genre, one of the most effective methods of disturbing a reader is by creating atmosphere. Place and atmosphere are linked; you can use the setting of a story to convey emotions like dread, terror, or isolation. It’s also possible to show the reader how the characters are feeling by their responses to their surroundings.

Ramsey Campbell uses his native Liverpool to superb effect in his work. Stephen King does it with Main. Ian Rankin utilises the distinct geography of Edinburgh to give many of his Rebus novels an almost supernatural edge. In her collection “Close Range”, Annie Proulx evokes the desolate landscape of rural Wyoming with such an unerring eye that the place becomes a character in the stories, haunting the human characters like a ghost.

Recently I read a short ghost novel called Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. In this book the Arctic setting is so beautifully and vividly described that I became immersed in the world of the story. I was right there, with the members of the Polar expedition, and once the supernatural elements kicked in I was genuinely unsettled. I’d invested completely in what was going on, because I believed it. And I believed it because it all seemed so real – the sea, the ice, the cold, the vast Arctic wastes. It was real to me.

But sense of place isn’t necessarily all about the panorama of geography. Sometimes it’s essential to narrow the focus and concentrate on a smaller setting: a warehouse, a bar, an office, a small room. It’s the same thing, only compressed, microscopic rather than macroscopic.

A writing exercise I used to employ many years ago always helped me in my efforts to use surroundings in a story. I’d sit in a room and try to describe a character’s emotional state by using only what was around me: the furniture, the radiators, the windows, the view outside; the sounds, the smells, the feel of the wood grain on the desk…by limiting myself to describing the location I was forced to hone my skills in terms of characterisation.

Describing a location isn’t as easy as it seems. A writer needs to pick out which details are necessary to flesh out the place and which ones to ignore; we need to utilise those unique traits that bring a specific place alive in terms of the prose. As with most aspects of writing, it’s all about making the right choices. This can only hope to be achieved with constant practice – there are no short cuts, there’s no easy way to create the magic.

Read the best, study how they do it. Carry a notebook with you everywhere and write down what it’s like to stand in a certain place: what’s the light doing, what’s around you, how does the earth feel beneath your feet, what can you smell, what does the air taste like? Then find your own way to imbue your story with that essential sense of place.

GARY MCMAHON

Interview: Pat Cadigan on Writing

Pat CadiganPat Cadigan is the author of fifteen books, including two non-fiction books, a young-adult novel, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award winners Synners and Fools. She lives in North London with her husband, the Original Chris Fowler. Most of her work is available electronically as part of SF Gateway, the ambitious electronic publishing program from Orion/Gollancz.

Who and what inspired you to become a writer?

I’m one of those lucky people who always knew what she wanted to do–I don’t remember not writing. It runs in the family. When my mother – known to anyone acquainted with me on Facebook as Old Unkillable – graduated from high school, her teachers tried to talk her into going to university to become a journalist. This was during the Great Depression, however, and her family had lost everything; her oldest brother offered to put her through school but she didn’t feel she could. Anyway, she started reading aloud to me before I was a year old and I learned to read by osmosis. I got my first library card before I was three.

Reading made the world – the universe – bigger for me. I read everything I could get my hands on and if I didn’t understand it, I kept reading anyway because sooner or later it would become clear to me in some way. As soon as I understood that books didn’t simply appear by magic, that they were written by human beings, I knew that I was going to be one of those human beings.

What attracted you to the genres you write in?

Once again, that was something that just happened. Every story I started to write, even as a little kid (Old Unkillable gave me her ancient Underwood typewriter), had a fantastic element. I had no interest in writing slice-of-day-to-day-life.

When I finally got my adult library card, I discovered Judith Merrill’s best SF of the year anthologies. In those days, the genre wasn’t as stratified as it is now – SF meant SF, fantasy, what we now call Magic Realism, and even horror. Good old nuts-and-bolts SF by people like Ward Moore was side-by-side with odd little pieces by Bernard Malamud and even John Cheever and Tuli Kupferberg. I thought this was wonderful. So when I started a story, I never thought, I’m going to write a science fiction story or a fantasy story–I let the story tell me what it was.

Who do you most admire in the literary world?

The thing about the literary world is, there are plenty of admirable people in it. I admire every editor I’ve ever worked with – Gardner Dozois, Ellen Datlow, Jonathan Strahan, Nick Mamatas, Ian Whates to name the ones I’ve most recently done original work for (I’d name everyone but I know I’d have a senior moment and leave someone out and the guilt would eat my liver till the day I die). I admire George RR Martin for hanging in all those years and never giving up, and I admire his wife Parris for hanging in there with him–there were a lot of lean years when she worked to keep them afloat. In fact, I admire all the spouses/partners, especially mine. Without my husband Chris, I’m not sure I’d be able to get anything done.

I admire William Gibson. Every time I read a new book by Bill, I fall in love with his work all over again. And he’s a truly lovely person.

I admire J.K. Rowling for persevering with Harry Potter. Her success blossomed directly from her readers–she wasn’t an insider, her first manuscript was rejected at least a dozen times and it was plucked out of the slush-pile. It tickles me to death that the richest woman in the UK is not just a writer, she’s a fantasy writer–a YA fantasy writer. Yeah, I know she’s just written her first book for adult readers–I have no idea whether it’s fantasy or not but I’ve pre-ordered it. I want to read it.

And finally, I admire Stephen King more than I can say. I love his work and he’s given a great deal to his community in Maine. I’ve met him several times and interviewed him twice, once just before The Stand came out and again after he’d gotten so big he could barely go anywhere without being mobbed. He’s the same guy.

What, in your opinion, is the most pertinent attribute of a good writer?

Perseverance. Over the years, when I was in school, and when I was first starting out, I met a number of people who were more talented, who wrote far better as beginners than I did. But I can’t tell you their names because I don’t remember them – they gave up or they just weren’t interested enough to continue. Talent can be developed, it can be improved, but only by hard work.

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

See above. Don’t give up, don’t let anyone tell you what you can’t do, and listen to your editors.

What is the worst aspect of writing?

I don’t know…I never thought about it. Seriously.

Recommend a good example of writing.

I’m currently re-reading John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar. It’s fascinating to compare the future as seen from 1968 with the present that came to pass.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is wonderful – go read it!

I’m glad Lauren Beukes’s Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke Award – it’s great.

Tricia Sullivan’s Maul and Lightborn will bitch-smack you – I mean that in the best possible way.

Mike Carey’s Felix Castor books are a great example of how to write a series without letting any tedium creep in.

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King is the definitive modern-day vampire story. With vampires that are frightening monsters, not just misunderstood and too beautiful for the common people.

If you can find any of Judith Merrill’s best of the year anthologies in used bookstores – mail order or online is probably your best source – grab them and read some of the finest short fiction ever. I mean, EVER.

And while I’m at it, short fiction readers and writers should be reading Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine taught me a lot about the structure of good short fiction.

And if that still isn’t enough, go read my stuff. It’s a thankless job, but somebody’s got to do it. *chuckle*

MICHAEL WILSON