Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Corner: A Year In The Life Of An Inner-City Neighbourhood by David Simon & Ed Burns

David Simon and Ed Burns are currently well known for the creation of their hit television show, The Wire - a drama about drugs, the people that sell them and the people that fight against them, all played out in the streets of Baltimore.

Long before the hit HBO show, David Simon was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. He took time off as a reporter to spend a year with the Homicide unit of the Baltimore Police Department, spawning the excellent Homicide: A Year on the Killing Street, which was subsequently made into a critically acclaimed television series of the same name. Ed Burns was one of the detectives who worked during that year so vividly described in David Simon's book.

Persuaded by his editor, David Simon joined forces with Ed Burn to spend over a year experiencing Baltimore from the other side of the fence - with the dealers in the street and the victims of drug addiction.

What resulted is this intricate and emotional account of a handful of lives living in the heart of the drug problem in West Baltimore. The Corner: A Year In The Life Of An Inner-City Neighbourhood tracks the hopes and dreams, the disappointments and failures, and the addictions and deaths of the everyday people who are slaves to the corner.

Real life characters such as DeAndre, a teenager pulled towards the vice of drug dealing for purposes of money and status, or his mother, Fran, who tries so hard to raise her kids properly while fighting an uphill battle with addiction, or his father, Gary, once an established entrepreneur, reduced to a dribbling drug fiend by the corner, conjuring up capers in order to get his next blast, despite the purity of his heart, or Ella, a mother trying to make a difference on Fayette Street, working hard at the Martin Luther King Jr Recreation Centre, battling to guide those kids who attend towards a better life, knowing in her heart that the pull of the corner is stronger than her resolve.

These are people whose successes and failures have an emotional impact that strikes with greater strength than any well developed fictional character - these are real people going through real hardship on an unforgiving landscape.

Their personal struggles are traumatic and heartbreaking, but the battle of the system on a national level is just as disheartening. The authors tackle both aspects with the utmost care and skill - episodes of individual drama read like a first hand account (which is the case in most instances), bringing the reader into the reality of the character's lives, fears and dreams, written in an intimate and personal way; much more than just a matter-of-fact account of their struggle. Chapters dedicated to the broader issues aren't preachy and do not attempt to find solutions; instead, they are accounts of the state of play, conveying successfully the helplessness of the situation, the relevance of which is referenced back to the real lives of The Corner's many characters.

Reading The Corner is like experiencing a well researched piece of crime fiction, one that creates a strong, emotional connection between reader and character, while highlighting dramatic circumstances in a visceral and thought-provoking way, adding realism to the struggles and outcomes of the downtrodden on Fayette Street.

But this is not fiction, this is reality, and The Corner is more powerful because of it.

Nothing short of an important masterpiece.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Clinging Onto A Sizeable Chunk

I’ve come to a point in the writing process where I’m starting to have concerns about word length. The old adage goes: quality, not quantity, but there are other matters concerning me besides whether or not my novel is a big thick brick of complete dribble.

After many hours toiling away, I am approaching the completion of the first part of the book. This part constitutes, by my estimation, about forty percent of the storyline. So far, I have written just under 270 pages and approximately 70,000 words – that’s a lot of pages and I’m quite proud of the output.

But here’s the thing: doing the quick calculations based on work performed thus far, my trusty calculator suggests that, by the time I’ve completed my first draft of the novel, it will be 675 pages and 175,000 words long.


The average length of a novel is between 80,000 and 120,000 words and even after inevitable cuts on subsequent drafts (using Stuart MacBride’s stated estimate of 25% cut as a guide – it’s in his blog somewhere but god damned if I can find it), I end up with 131,000 words – i.e. over 500 pages.

Even if I wield my pen like a Kurosawa samurai, taking down words with little prejudice, I will still end up with a novel on the high end of the average length scale.

What’s the problem, I pretend to hear you ask?

Well, the decision on length (cough), unfortunately, comes down to marketing. Will agents and publishers look favourably upon an unknown writer who has delivered a tomb of a book, weighing in at 500 plus pages? Will readers, picking up my novel for the first time, think, “I haven’t heard of this guy before, it looks interesting, but it also looks like a bitch to get through, and my arthritis has been acting up lately, I don’t think I will be able to hold this book for the required amount of time without sustaining some serious damage to my wrists” or something like that?

My story isn’t a broad sweeping epic, although it does contain women doing housework. However, it probably needs to be in the upper echelons of the word count scale for the story to be properly told.

So I have a dilemma. What to do about an escalating word count, if anything?

One of the options I have toyed with is to cut out a sizeable chunk from the book. It’s a hard decision to make, not one that rests easily with me. Without this chunk, the story could probably hold its head above water and be a reasonably entertaining read. With it, my novel will have deeper layers and intricate plot lines and will do more than hold its head above water - it will be setting records at the Olympic pool. More importantly, with this section of the book intact, the novel will remain as I originally intended it to be.

The dilemma remains: do I drop out a good portion of my novel to reduce the word count? At this stage, I’m finding it difficult to make this decision, to lose so much of my original vision for the sake of meeting some market determined word length. They say sometimes you have to kill your babies (i.e. cut out some of the best bits or characters that you have written), but I don’t think I have it in me to murder so many innocent children. Not at this stage anyway.

My decision for now is to soldier on with the intention of writing the complete novel in all its original glory, i.e. including Mr Sizeable Chunk. To hell with marketing. After the second and third drafts are complete, after the 25% has been taken out and the book reads like a well oiled machine with pages flying by faster than you can read them, where quantity has been replaced with quality, where Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing have all been adopted, only at that point will I look at the word count and make a decision.

Then, I may well have to start sharpening me knives.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

James Twining's The Gilded Seal Book Launch

There are certain moments that can have a great impact on you as a writer, especially if you are a writer just starting out, who is testing the waters and is susceptible to every positive and negative influence.

I went to a book launch last week for James Twining, author of The Double Eagle, The Black Sun and his most recently published novel, The Gilded Seal. James had very kindly offered readers of his blog to attend his “invitation-only” book launch. Being one of these readers and having met him at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival earlier this year and finding him to be a “top bloke” in Aussie parlance, I took him up on the offer.

I also wanted to see what a book launch was all about. I’m sure it differs quite significantly for each author, from location to the guest list, but I assume the structure and purpose is reasonably consistent and that the experience would be quite indicative of this important event in a writer’s life.

James Twining’s Gilded Seal book launch was a warm, social affair held in the pleasant interior of a members-only club off The Strand. When I arrived, pretty much on time, there were not too many people there: small groups talking to each other, a waiter manning a table loaded with free wine and beer and a representative from The Pan Bookshop selling copies of the book in all its hardcover splendour on the other side of the room.

Not being the greatest in the skill of mingling (especially when sober), I took a glass of red wine and wandered around, looking at the lovely paintings on the wall as if I recognised the style or artist, waiting for a moment when I could join a conversation without getting the “who farted” look. Eventually, the ice broke and I got to talking to one of James’s former work buddies. He talked about James’s achievements, seemingly quite proud of his colleague. He also found it interesting to be seeing the guy he used to work with in a different light, as a writer of books. He found it slightly surreal to be taking photos of him and asking for his autograph, a guy whom he had probably worked with in a normal corporate environment. I agreed that it would seem a bit odd.

As the evening continued, more people swarmed into the middle sized room until it was filled with family and friends and hangers on (yep, me), talking and laughing and enjoying themselves. James made his way diligently around the room, making sure he spoke with everyone who attended, almost as if he was at his wedding, thanking everyone for coming. I could see that he was enjoying himself too: here were around fifty people, family, friends, colleagues, all here to show their appreciation and support, to show how happy they were for him for accomplishing the feat of finishing and publishing a new book. And almost everyone was at his elbow at some stage in the evening, watching him sign their copy of The Gilded Seal, purchased on the night. This night was all about him.

After his publisher introduced the new book to the gathering, James gave a speech, talking about what the book meant to him, what he liked about it. He thanked people who had supported him throughout, including a special mention to his wife. The round of applause was heartfelt and as genuine as you can get.

The book launch, to my eyes, is a very personal affair, an intimate presentation of something personal that has taken much time and effort for you to produce. It is a gesture of thanks to all those close to you and all those who have been by your side throughout the process, always encouraging, always interested, always with the belief that you can do it. The book is your little baby and what better start for it then to take its first steps among family and friends, before it heads out into the cruel world. And it’s your moment and no one takes it from you, because the people you have invited are happy for your achievement, no, they are damn excited about it. I hope to experience it first hand, as a writer.

James Twining made it over to my side of the room halfway through the night, signed my book and said he was glad I could come. We chatted for a bit then and again, later, when I was leaving the room with Kathy. He is a great, approachable guy and quite inspiring to me. He is an author who hasn’t given up his day job, still working a full-time career and still managing to find time to write. I began to feel quite positive about my writing after speaking with him, caught up in the possibilities and opportunities ahead of me, but I did not get carried away: the night was solely for James Twining and he deserved the successful book launch that he received.

Check out The Gilded Seal and his other novels at

Friday, September 28, 2007

Gaining Momentum

After two weeks of slim pickings, the momentum is building up again.

I have found over the past month or so that the drive to write, the desire to tell the story, is always there, but it is the momentum that is hard to maintain.

If your situation dictates that writing can only be performed in the few spare hours that you have in a day, a minor event can upset that routine. A major event can almost derail the whole process, and a multitude of events can find you at the point of abandonment, feeling frustrated and anxious, like you have literally lost the plot.

The last month was chaotic. Weddings, presentations, long hours at work, house hunting – it’s been fun, it’s been stressful. And I haven’t managed to string more than a few pages together in one sitting.

Treasured characters became strangers. The storyline felt foreign and incoherent, lacking direction. The finish line was a million miles away. It was all falling apart.

I’ve endured these moments. When I’ve managed to steal an hour here, thirty minutes there, to sit down and write, all I achieved was to fuel my own anxiety. Looking at the words on the screen, the clear vision I had a few weeks ago had fogged over, become opaque, lost forever behind a jumble of words.

I knew, though, that that wasn’t the case. It was all still with me, but in those fleeting moments, it was hard to see this.

As soon as things died down, without stressing, without thinking too much about it, I dived back into the routine. It required a re-read of notes, a quick review of the chapters gone by and a little faith in myself, but the ball started to roll again, albeit slowly at first.

But I can feel the momentum coming back.

It never completely disappears - the spark, the drive, the ideas - but left alone for a while, it can become malnourished and lethargic. But it never dies and its recovery period is very short. Before you know it, not only will the momentum return, you may find yourself struggling to keep up.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

It's Raining Words

Since Harrogate, things have been going full steam ahead on the novel front. After my one on one sesh with Greg Mosse, I fiddled (stop laughing, you in the back there) with the plot and made the opening a little more dramatic. I then decided to hell with procrastination, I'm starting!

Since then, not too many weeks ago, I have almost written 100 pages. Not to say that the words are flying off the tips of my fingers with the utmost of ease; far from it. Some days writing feels like trying to grapple for the end of a strand of hair caught in the bath plug hole - quite difficult and gooey. Other days it just rains words, hallelujah, it's raining words.

Overall, though, the experience thus far has been good. Most of the time I feel like I am writing absolute bollocks, but there are days when I finish by 2 hour stint in the morning feeling pretty chippa about what I've put on the page. And the bits and pieces of the plot are fitting in nicely.

At this stage, the process of creating this novel involves me getting up at 6am every weekday and committing to 2 hours of non-stop writing (except for eating breaks and the breaks that involve the other end). I'm writing to a plot but only as a guide. Many changes have already been made, but none deviate too far away from the original idea. Weekends I try for 5 hours in total, bringing the weekly slog to 15 hours. I did that for the first time last week - hoorah!

As you can see on the left hand side, I've included a little page counter, indicating how many pages I have produced for my first draft so far. It's ticking away quite nicely, almost reaching 100, which is a great personal achievement, especially for someone who has spent a year thinking about writing a novel and who thought that actually sitting down and doing it may never happen (yep, those tyres seem to be at the right pressure).

As I reach 100 pages tomorrow, I will stand and raise my bat to the generous crowd who are on their feet, giving me a warm round of applause. I will then mark out my crease, take centre, scan the field and face the next ball.

Long way to go yet but at least I am enjoying it!!

Monday, July 30, 2007

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival - Day 5 - Sunday: The End

All good things must come to an end. It all seemed to go so quick – indicative of the jam packed schedule and the whirlwind ride that is the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival (okay, its official title has Theakstons in there somewhere too).

There were two events left and The Jingo and I attended them with a mixture of excitement and dread. We did not want this weekend to end, yet we were very keen to see what the Festival could muster up on its final day.

First, we had the very entertaining panel discussion about “What Really Gets Me Going” with the brains trust of the festival – Mark Billingham, Val McDermid and Natasha Cooper. Joining them was the very funny Christopher Brookmyre. The panel bantered on about the aspects of writing and reading crime novels that cheeses them off. They also managed to throw in a few jabs at agents, publishers and readers; all tongue in cheek and all very amusing.

After the usual half hour break, where I had three more books signed by the authors, we were into the last session (awwwwww!): an interview with Harlan Coben held by Laura Lippman. It was very interesting and entertaining - Mr Coben is a very amusing guy. The session also gave me more encouragement to get on with writing my novel. The one consistent thing that every author has said during this Festival when giving advice to budding writers has been: get on with it. Take a leap of faith and go for it! Good advice indeed.

The Festival finished with a thank you from Natasha Cooper and a round of applause in her direction for her organisation of the event. Praise was also given to the Festival organisation team who had been toiling away in the lead up to and during this big weekend.

Harlan Coben shook my hand and signed my book and then I was off! We had a rendezvous with Betty's tea rooms. It was definitely worth the twenty minute wait: chicken club sandwich for me, marinated Yorkshire lamb for The Jingo, followed by scones and tea and a lovely brown bread sundae with crushed almond macaroons and pecans. Ooh yeah.

We returned to the Crown Hotel for our bags and said our goodbyes to all that remained. The hotel was eerily quiet, although there were a few people still wandering around, trying to delay the inevitable end of the Festival and the depressing return to reality.

We caught an overcrowded train back to London with Sarah. The trip back drained the life out of us and we all started to feel the effects of the weekend, the excitement of the Harrogate Festival no longer keeping us awake. We ended up having to share floor space near a toilet that wouldn’t flush. A teenager walked around the carriage with toilet paper stuck to his foot after hiding from the ticket inspector in the men's – this kept us amused for a good part of the journey.

Finally, the train pulled into London. The Jingo and I said our goodbyes to Sarah and then headed home, tired, weighed down by books, hungry and thirsty, but with the sights and sounds of the Festival still dancing around in our heads.

Once again, it was a memorable and inspiring event.

See you next year, Harrogate!

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival - Day 4 - Saturday : It's Veally Good

I thought I would be nodding off this morning while watching the “Here Come The Cops” panel, but somehow I managed to keep my eyes open. Once again, a short night of sleep did not bode well for the day’s forthcoming schedule. The intriguing and amusing panel discussion about police procedurals with Alex Gray, Cath Staincliffe, Elena Forbes and Peter James helped keep the sleep fairies away, but I have a theory that there is something else keeping me going: the Festival itself. It’s full of discussions about every aspect of the crime novel told by those who write them and as I love crime fiction and want to be a crime writer, the Festival contains everything that I find interesting. And therefore I am wired, despite the high levels of sleep deprivation.

That said, a decision had to be made. The mind may be willing but the body may eventually throw up its arms and say “I’ve had enough!” So a sacrifice had to be made for some much needed sleep. “Getting It Right”, about ensuring that an historical novel is accurate, was the offering I gave up to the sleep gods. I apologise to all those involved for not attending, but it was the best sleep I had had in ages.

Aptly following my mid-morning snooze was a Q&A session entitled “Getting Vigorous”, chaired by the ever resourceful, imaginative and sometimes zany Stuart MacBride. Using PowerPoint to its full capabilities, Stuart constructed a magical hour filled with questions and discussions about strange facts (such as the best way to dispose of a body and what human flesh tastes like) with the lovely C.J.Carver, the laid back Simon Kernick, the terrifying Zoe Sharp and the terrified Michael Marshall. It was a barrel of laughs.

The rest of the day was filled with more wonderful sessions, including a discussion about examining a crime scene by Helen and Ian Pepper, the former a registered forensic practitioner and the latter an ex-crime scene investigator, and a panel concentrating on the modern day spy thriller, including contributions by one real ex-spy (I won’t tell you his name – sworn to secrecy – these aren’t the droids you’re looking for).

The first (and hopefully only) setback for the Festival was the non-appearance of a big ticket item – Frederick Forsyth. The floods rampaging through Northern England had trapped him at his home, so he was unable to attend. Thankfully, the brains trust came up with something equally entertaining – a debate over whose crime fiction is better – the US or the UK. It was hilarious – Val McDermid and Mark Billingham fought for the UK, Lee Child and Harlan Coben sauntered along for the US. It was a close call in the end, but Mark Lawson declared the UK victors to the sound of cheers and gnashing of teeth.

Rounding off the night was the annual Quiz night. Quiz nights can frequently turn out to be a dog’s breakfast and this one came close to it. The only saving graces were the involvement of all the authors at the Festival, the entertaining duo of Simon Kernick and Natasha Cooper conducting the quiz, and the BTZers table, where I sat. In addition to those BTZers I had already met, there was Kevin, Jane, Jo and Mr K, Helena and Mr H, Derrin, Gungho and Smudge. It was great fun – very loud, lots of laughs, lots of conversations, one person in particular taking the opportunity to get things off her chest, and Mark Billingham being hauled to the back of the room for a photo opp with the Billingham Babes, who were decked out in their fabulously produced T-shirts. Fun had by all. I even managed to get two quiz questions right – who would’ve thought my purchase of The Thing soundtrack many years ago would have paid off.

The quiz finished and drinks moved into the now familiar Crown Hotel bar. There had been a wedding reception held in the hotel today (how they managed to double book has me beat) but they had moved on, so we had the bar to ourselves. My fuel tank was low, so after a few bevies and at the stroke of 2, I said goodnight to the remaining BTZers and authors and hello to the sweet, sweet sleep fairies.

One more day to go!

P.S. To the man who I had many discussions with about Theakston’s beer and the portability of a half dozen free bottles – I apologise that I have forgotten your name – but kudos to you – I hope you clinked your way back home safely.

P.P.S Update: I've been informed that his name is Dean! Hope to catch up with you next year, Dean.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival - Day 3 - Friday : Obi Wan at Harrogate

Five hours sleep is not enough. This morning my heard hurt, my throat was parched and my eyes were bugging out of their sockets. I didn’t want to get up, not even for breakfast. But then something moved inside me, something kicked me out of bed and sent me to the showers – it was Val McDermid. She was on at 9am. The Festival was about to begin.

The Jingo and I hurried through breakfast, worried that we were going to miss the start. Then we spotted Val, sitting down at her table, eating cereal, taking her time. We relaxed then; as long as Val was still at breakfast, we wouldn’t miss anything.

Val McDermid’s interview was one of the highlights of the day – she is a very funny person and has many great tales to tell. She spoke about her new book, Beneath the Bleeding, and the new series of Wire In The Blood, based on her Tony Hill series. It was all very interesting.

As were most of the sessions today. The format of the Festival contains hourly panel discussions or interviews with half hour breaks in between. This is a great way of doing it – you never miss anything and you always have time to stretch your legs, have a bite to eat or get your favourite authors to sign your books. It also gave us a chance to catch up with the BTZers and see what they thought of each session.

The day was jam packed: Val McDermid’s interview was followed by a panel discussion about crime novels set in the countryside, an introduction to four “new” authors, an hilarious hour on class in crime fiction (upper class David Roberts against the rest of the world), a discussion about the psychology of violent crime and a special hour celebrating the works of Daphne Du Maurier.

Throughout the day, I bought the books of New Blood authors, Nick Stone, Tom Cain, Caro Ramsey and Nicola Monaghan (for The Jingo) as well as ex-head of Florence flying squad, Michele Giuttari, who has the kindest face for someone who must have seen the aftermath of the most heinous crimes. All of these authors kindly signed my copies too.

The Jingo and I had dinner at one of Harrogate’s many fine seafood restaurants and then it was a mad rush to see the sold out appearance of Lee Child. He was magnificent to watch – a very serious man with a dry sense of humour who had plenty of stories to tell. It was a great session.

Following that was a regular feature of the Festival – the Foul Play performance hosted by Simon Brett – a whodunit acted out by Mark Billingham and Stella Duffy with Stuart MacBride and Laura Lippman trying to solve the crime. It was a barrel of laughs – especially when Mark’s impersonation of Alec Guinness included the line: “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” I pissed myself laughing, although no one else near me got the reference.

After Foul Play concluded, we were off to the bar. I mingled once again with the BTZers, enjoying a few drinks here and there and catching the occasional author for a quick chat. I spoke to James Twining about Asian action flicks and restoring old cinema houses and listened with great interest as Nick Stone recounted his run in with a dodgy fella earlier in the day, who had a quite relaxed stance about profiting from other people’s hard work with the use of EBay. Stuart MacBride’s agent did a monkey dance and a Scandinavian tried to dry hump every woman in the bar. Sheila Quigley was in pain from a swollen finger and had to be whisked away to the hospital for painkillers. I spoke to Simon Kernick, Kevin Wignall and John Rickards but the conversations were far too fleeting. The need for sleep took hold, dragging me kicking and screaming to bed. I will hopefully catch them tomorrow night.

In between all this, during the afternoon, I managed to squeeze in my one-on-one session with Greg Mosse to talk about the treatment to my novel. This was the moment I had been waiting for for some time and I was a little nervous. I met him in a hotel room across from The Crown and we spoke for 20 minutes about my novel. He was very easy to talk to and quite encouraging. In summary, he was very excited about my novel’s potential, although he said that I had taken on something that would be difficult to pull off even for an established writer. Not like me to complicate things. Greg also gave me sound advice which I will take on quite happily.

This was a milestone moment – now I can crack on with it!!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival - Day 2 - Creative Thursday

Excitement kicked in as I walked down to the breakfast room. The sleep last night wasn’t the best – someone above me thought it was a good idea to do little laps around their room at 4 in the morning, every step creating a god awful creak from the old floorboards. Despite that, I was pretty wired.

I scanned the breakfast area looking for either authors I would be able to recognise or Mark Billingham forum members (BTZers) who I knew were here and vaguely knew what they looked like. I didn’t have much success on either front, although I did see the lovely Ann Cleeves lining up for a sausage and/or grilled mushrooms.

Today is the first day of the Festival. As is the tradition, this day is reserved for The Creative Thursday workshop: a run through the main aspects of writing presented by those in the know. We started off with an introduction by the Programming Chair of the Festival, Natasha Cooper. A different author chairs the Festival every year and Natasha has organised a very good line up this year.

Following Natasha Cooper was Simon Kernick. His hour and a half allotment was spent talking about Plot. It was a very funny session with loads of anecdotes and jokes but plenty of good stuff for any budding writer to go away with and think about.

Setting with Greg Mosse followed soon after – a more structured session talking about setting and how it can be used to propel a story along and the dos and don’ts when describing your location. Greg is a teacher in his own right as well as an author and his hour or so session gave me a glimpse at how beneficial my one on one session with him tomorrow will be.

Laura Wilson talked about Inventing People, including how to come up with character names (my pet hate / struggle), Natasha Cooper returned with advice on how to sit down and just write your novel and Jane Gregory and Hilary Hale rounded off the day with sound advice from the agent’s and publisher’s perspective. They were encouraging, although the statistics telling us how many people actually get published each year were quite depressing.

The Creative Thursday was great – I really enjoyed it – lots of good advice and encouragement. Throughout it all, I was keeping my eye out for Sarah. She is a fellow BTZer and writer (and artist) and I knew she was in the workshop. I did spot her but at the time, I wasn’t 100% sure – but with the help of Natasha Cooper, Sarah’s identity was confirmed and we introduced ourselves. It was like we had known each other for years – clichéd I know, but, as with all the other BTZers I met today, it was true.

The Jingo arrived from London and straight away we joined the crowds for the first event – the announcement of the winner of the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year. The winner was Allan Guthrie. The look on his face when he accepted the coveted Theakston’s barrel and generous cheque told it all – he hadn’t expected to win. It was a special moment - not a dry eye in the house! The fact that this award is voted by the readers made the win even more rewarding. I don’t think Allan let go of that barrel for the remainder of the night – he may have even slept with it – I know I would have!

Next was the Festival Opening Party which was reasonably low key – free wine and Theakston’s beer for all. The Jingo and I spoke with William, a 17 year old who has written three novels already and was scoping the crowd for agents and publishers. He had the determination and drive to become an author that I wish I had had at his age. He even had business cards printed off. Look out for him in the future.

We rubbed shoulders with the elite, spotting faces in the crowds, whispering names to each other – “Isn’t that so and so?” “There’s Mr whathisname.” – unashamed in our fan boy frenzy. Then we met more BTZers – Betty, Tzara, Chelbel and Ravenscross – all great people who I hope to catch up with again during the festival.

After the final event of the day finished, it was off to the bar where fans, authors, publishers, agents and the occasional sleazy playboy mingle and dross about anything and everything. I spent most of the time talking to the BTZers – catching up, giving each other encouragement with our own writing, talking about any conversations we may have had with the big names of the Festival. It was a grand night, tapering off into the early hours where only a handful of people, mainly authors, remained. I was so tired, I was in danger of slipping into a coma, so I decided it was time to head off. I would have liked to have talked to more authors but my bed was calling me and there is plenty of time left in this Festival to chat with these accessible, generous and good natured people.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival - Day 1 - Wednesday : Chorizos and Melted Cheese

When I walked into the lobby of The Crown Hotel this afternoon, I was struck with a sense of anticipation. The place was quiet: one or two drinkers at the bar, a white haired old couple pulling luggage up a corridor, a smiling lady behind the reception counter. But in less than 24 hours, the place would be swarming with authors, agents, publishers and fans of the crime writing genre.

As I made my way up to the counter, struggling with a large backpack and my computer bag, a few guests passed by, looking at me with restrained curiosity. I thought to myself, hmmm, maybe they think I am an author, arriving for the Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival. It felt pretty good and I milked it for what it was worth (stopping short of soliciting requests for autographs).

My façade dropped, however, as I searched, with similar excitement, the faces of other patrons of the hotel, hoping to recognise a genuine crime writer. Alas, there were none; but I was patient: tomorrow would bring forth a plethora of authors for me to see and chat with.

It’s hard not to have dreams of discovery when attending the Harrogate festival. It's a major crime writing festival, the best going around, and it attracts everyone from the industry. As a budding writer working on his first novel, I would be lying if I didn’t fantasise about wooing authors and agents alike with my witty banter, charming personality and ultimately, excellent, heart stopping, ground breaking prose. But I made a pact with myself – this Festival was about learning from those in the industry, through panels, interviews and the occasional chat at the bar. But it was also about making new friends and having fun.

The Jingo is arriving tomorrow so I went Han Solo for dinner to a nice Mexican restaurant at the end of Station street; had a nachos with chorizo. Probably a bad move as the stomach feels a bit unsettled. Probably just nerves (and the diarrhoea is probably just due to my healthy fruit rich diet). I walked around town afterwards, admiring the city of Harrogate. The buildings look amazing here and the gardens are beautiful – a nice relaxing place with loads of restaurants and nightlife too. I checked out the restaurants in the area, picking out a few for when Jingo arrives. Betty’s tea room is one we will definitely not miss.

The sunny afternoon moved on into a cool evening and I decided to retire to my room. The room is nice, nothing too flash but has all the necessary amenities. The bed is pretty small for two people and the floorboards creak, but otherwise, it’s suitable. I set up the computer but instead of writing, I decided to watch a couple of DVDs – Homicide: Life on the Street, just to get me in the mood for tomorrow.

Not that I need any help with that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Harrogate Crime Writing Festival - Preview

As I write this, I am 15 minutes away from catching the tube to Kings Cross station where I will hop on an overland to Harrogate. It's hard to believe a year has gone by but its that time again - time for the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival.

When The Jingo and I went to the festival last year, we didn't know what to expect. What we got was two full days of seminars, interviews and discussions with some of the UK's leading crime writers including Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham and John Harvey. This year, we are going for the full festival and there are just as many, if not more, big names to entertain us.

I am travelling there today in preparation for tomorrow's Creative Thursday - a full day of tutorials covering such topics as Plot, Setting, Inventing People, Writing and Selling - a kind of prelude to the actual festival. The tutorials are presented by big names in the industry including Simon Kernick, Natasha Cooper and Greg Mosse. I am really looking forward to this day, especially given I have started my novel and any extra help is well received. I think the highlight will be listening to real publishers and editors speak about how to sell your work.

The Jingo arrives on Thursday evening, just in time for the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year presentation and the Festival's Opening Party. A few beverages will be consumed, no doubt.

The next three days after that are filled with interviews and discussions covering all aspects of crime writing, held and participated by the big names in the industry, including Stuart MacBride, Val McDermid, Lee Child, Frederick Forsyth, Harlan Coben and lots, lots more. The ever approachable Mark Billingham will be there, as well as the Festival Programming Chair, the lovely Natasha Cooper. Many, many stories to be told and talked about over four magnificent days.

During the hectic schedule, I will also be having my 20 minute one-on-one session with Greg Mosse, discussing my treatment and my novel. Something I am really looking forward to.

Harrogate also has lots to offer in terms of food - The Jingo and I will definitely be partaking of the local delicacies - especially tea at Betty's!

I will be offline over the Festival, but look out for my day by day summaries that I will prepare on location and post retrospectively here.

For those who will be there, I look forward to meeting you "off-line" for the first time, knocking back a few beers and talking about all things criminal.

This is the highlight of my year and I can't wait to get there!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Day Has Come

Status on day 106: countless hours of researching, plotting and procrastinating under the belt; a 3,000 word treatment sent off to a professional writer for review, ahead of a one-on-one session at Harrogate; and a working title that will do for now.

Day 107: it started like any other weekday. My alarm went off at 6 a.m. and it took me fifteen minutes of groaning and swearing before I got up. Once up, I showered, shaved and had some breakfast. Powered up the computer and sat at my desk.

And began.

First, I opened Word and created a master document. Then I created another file, a template file. I then saved this template file as another document, entitled “One”.

I opened “One”, looked at the blank page before me, took a deep breath and began typing.

It had been a long time coming. It had been over five years since I started my writing course by correspondence, learning the skills of writing. During that period - writing articles for magazines I didn’t even subscribe to, trying to cram short stories into imposed word count restrictions for competitions, walking through bookstores and jealously scanning all the published authors on the shelves – through all that, I had been waiting for this day to come.

Day 107: the day I started writing my novel.

DAY: 107 PAGES: 4

Friday, June 29, 2007

Day 100

It's hard to believe that I have worked on my novel for 100 days! Of course, that sounds longer than it actually is. I haven't worked 24,000 hours if that's what you are thinking.

A day represents any period of time, be it 30 minutes or four hours, in one particular day, spent on my book. I was going to add up all the hours but I couldn't be fagged at this stage - maybe I will post it later.

How has the experience been so far? It has had its ups and downs, depression and excitement. Overall, I feel like I am heading in the right direction and that, so far, it has been worth the effort. My only major gripe is, given that I have a full time job, progress is slow. I would probably average one hour a day of writing which isn't great. This is evidenced by the fact that it is Day 100 and I haven't even started on Chapter 1 yet!!!

There is definitely something to show for my 100 days of work though. I've researched and written copious notes. I've completed a detailed outline of the story. I have prepared character profiles. And I am a few hours off finishing my 3,000 word treatment, ready for submission to Greg Mosse for his thoughts and views.

So all in all, not a bad first 100 days. I've stuck with it; that's the main thing, and at the moment, I believe I have a pretty entertaining book in development.

Here's to the next 100 (chink, chink) - that's the sound of champagne glasses, if you were wondering.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Mr Mosse's Deadline


I haven’t even started writing my first novel yet and already I am at the mercy of an imposing deadline. Not self-imposed either; this is a fair dinkum submission deadline that could affect the outcome of my proposed writing career. Always the drama queen, aren’t I?

In July, The Jingo and I are heading to the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival in, well, Harrogate. Three days of fun filled seminars, interviews and drinking sessions with some of the best known UK crime writers as well as a few US authors thrown in for good luck. I’ll write up a prelude soon.

In addition, the organisers are putting on a full creative workshop day on the Thursday, which I have signed up for. It includes sessions on writing and publishing by those who know what they are talking about.

On top of all that, there were limited spaces available to have a free critique of continuous text or treatment/synopsis by the author and creative writing teacher, Greg Mosse (husband of Kate Mosse – no not that one, this one) and a one-on-one session with Mr Mosse for twenty minutes at the festival.

Well of course I fell over myself to sign up for this one! Great opportunity for a critique by an expert!

After much deliberation, I opted to submit a 3,000 word treatment for my first novel, instead of the first chapter. My theory was that feedback on my plot is more important than on my style (and my style will feed through the treatment anyway). Whether that theory is wrong or not, I’ve gone too far down the track to turn back now.

Deadline is 7th July – a week before Harrogate. I’m aiming to finish the week before the deadline, just in case things go teats up.

The good news is: I’ve finished the first draft of my treatment. It clocks in at 3,227 words and therefore a bit of culling is required. However, this is a far cry from the 5,885 words I was faced with at the start of the week. Subplots had to be solemnly removed; minor characters wiped off the face of the screen amidst much protestation, and the use of semi colons was stepped up a level; really cuts out the excess words; you know what I mean; I’m sure you do.

All in all, despite the fact that the plot looks nothing like what I started with, I’m happy with the first draft and I believe it will serve its purpose. I just need to do a bit more trimming, move a few things around and come up with some character names and it will be done.

Side note: Character names! The bane of my existence! Ideas are welcome.

What I want out of my session with Mr Mosse is his advice on whether my novel’s plot will work or not, whether it is exciting enough, whether it is saleable or whether it just sucks the root. Be it expressed with thumbs up or thumbs down (or even a slap to the face), his opinion will be quite invaluable. Better to find out how crap it really is now, then when I’m trying to flog off the finished product to a bunch of unforgiving agents.

Whatever comes out of the session and the creative writing day, I am going to take it all on board – its all going to help, no matter how harsh the criticism. Looking forward to it!

Well wish me luck; I’m off to eliminate 227 words off the face of this planet we call Earth.

Help me semi-colon, you’re my only hope.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Dat Library Thang

You may have noticed an addition to the blog on the left hand side. It is a visual representation of the last five books that I have read; a more whizz bang version of my list that I included in a previous blog.

This list comes courtesy of the Library Thing website - a website that helps you catalogue the books that you own. Quite an ingenious thing, a nice central place to list the books in your extensive library.

I'm in the process of completing my list, but you can check it out as it currently stands by clicking on the "my library" link to the left.

Monday, May 14, 2007

On Assignment


The moment has arrived where I can finally get cracking on with writing my novel. Well almost.

Way back when I started planning and researching, I knew that one of my writing course assignments required a 750 word synopsis and four character profiles. I incorporated this assignment into my approach, hoping for expert advice and feedback from my tutor on the synopsis for my first novel. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

And now that time has come, and over the next few weeks, I will be focusing on that particular assignment.

I will be looking forward to reading any feedback my tutor will have on the synopsis, hoping that she will provide tips on improving the novel's content and give me a little more confidence in the story and my ability to write it.

It won't be my only chance to receive feedback mind you, I also have something else in the pipeline which will also definitely help me and which I am extremely excited about; more on that later.

Looking ahead, once my assignment is submitted, I will commence writing the FIRST CHAPTER! How exciting! It seems like it has been ages since the germ of an idea formed in my head for this novel (in fact, it was July last year!), so to finally be at the point of starting it, is both exciting and scary.

And things are always changing.

In a major revelation, I have decided that a detailed plot line / synopsis is required. Originally,
if you recall, I was going for a hybrid of approaches: mapping out the majority of the plot but leaving enough holes (and in particular, one big chasm called The Ending) unfilled to keep the writing fresh and exciting for me.

But reading through my notes again, I happened across a bit of advice from George Pelecanos: "For your first novel, remove all obstacles". Not having any idea of the ending to my novel comes under "Obstacles" in my opinion, so I plan to deal with that. Of course, the ending can always change (like everything else) but I think it will be beneficial to have something in place, albeit temporary.

So, the end of the planning and researching is upon me; all that is left is two to three weeks worth of synopses and character development for my assignment.

Then on to Chapter One.


Read: Lazybones by Mark Billingham
Watched: Dead Man's Shoes by Shane Meadows
Heard: Black Holes and Revelations by Muse

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Waiting for Something to Happen


I can almost see them. I can certainly feel them.

Standing at their positions, waiting for their cue. Primed ready for action, anxious to be getting on with it.

They're talking amongst themselves, shuffling their feet and smoking cheap cigarettes. They are nervous and impatient despite the feeling that once it all kicks off, things are not going to go well for them. They are still keen to start. Whatever mayhem and destruction awaits them, it must be better than this, standing around, waiting. Or so they think.

They are the characters in my head, waiting for me to start my novel, waiting to explode into life and get things under way. They are impatient and are ready to kick my head in if I don't get on with it.

But, the research must continue . . .

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Three Fillings and The Truth


Research continues at a steady pace. After studying two true crime books and getting a "feel" for my subject matter, I returned to revise one of my plot lines. This proved to be quite satisfying.

While reading the true crime books, I realised that my original plot contained a few errors and misconceptions. My preconceived notions of my subject matter were incorrect. This is why research is important. You may think you know what you are talking about but with a bit of research, you can prove yourself right. Or wrong as the case may be.

Finding out that some aspects of my plot were utter rubbish was not such a bad thing. In fact, incorporating my new found knowledge improved it ten fold; opened up new avenues, new storylines and created more beliveable characters.

Refining your fictional storyline with the aid of your research notes is excellent stuff - your novel starts to take shape, you start to believe in it a bit more, you start to see the characters, hear them talk, fall asleep with them running around in your head (well, I do anyway). The characters and the plot now seem more three dimensional because they have some basis in truth.

It's quite a refreshing experience.

After researching those two books, I returned to my A3 plot and revised it. This was very satisfying. In fact, as I reached the climax (in the plot), I became very excited (not in that way) about the development of my novel thus far. I couldn't wait to start writing.

I have one storyline roughly mapped out from start to finish, albeit with lots of questions to be answered, and I have done some research as noted above. But, no, not yet; I can't start yet. There are still some aspects of the novel that I am completely clueless about - more research needed.

Next on the research list: Location, location, location.

P.S. Saw Pan's Labyrinth (and The Devil's Backbone) last Sunday at the Riverside Studios double bill - excellent stuff - but that's all I'll say as this blog is turning into one steady stream of movie reviews.

P.P.S Had three fillings done today - mouth numb and jaw hurts. Three more next week!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Re: Search


Over the last two weeks I've really knuckled down and put in some hours researching my novel. It's been quite interesting and not at all laborious thankfully, but it has raised a few questions.

For example: how much research should one do? when do you determine that you have researched enough in order to produce a realistic and reasonably accurate piece of writing? what do you put in? what do you leave out?

I am writing a work of fiction, but these days, readers demand a higher level of believability and accuracy from novels. In the modern day, the crime reading community have an increased knowledge about police procedurals, criminal activities and forensic science than ever before thanks to films, TV and literature. Therefore, even if you are writing fiction, there is a necessary amount of research to be done to satisfy hard core crime fiction fans and keep them reading your work. Added to that, I am sure it is every crime writer's dream to have someone in the know, be it a policeman, detective, or even a criminal, comment that the writer's novel is realistic and believable.

So how much is enough? To tell you the truth, I have no idea. Do too little and even if you have written a good story, it can be let down by errors and implausibilities that turn the reader off. However, do too much and you run the risk of spending too much time researching and not enough time writing. And there is also the risk of including information from your research that might not be relevant in order to justify the time (and money) spent. Information overload can also get up a reader's nose, especially if it fails to move the plot along.

So how much is enough? For me, I've decided that I will research as much as is necessary in order to give myself the confidence and the knowledge to write the story I want to write. And write a cracking good one too!

I also think that when I take off my writing hat and put on my reading cap, I will be able to identify those areas in my work that need further research to increase the believability factor or double check the detail. That's the theory anyway.

And I keep thinking back to what George Pelecanos said - for your first novel, remove all barriers. Make the first attempt as easy as you can. In terms of research, this means, in my opinion, to scale down the scope of your research; do enough to fill in those big holes in your knowledge; use it to refine your plot and character profiles and then get on with the writing.

In the end, you DO NOT want to use research as an excuse to delay sitting down in front of that blank page and starting your novel. And don't worry, I plan to practice what I preach.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A3 Plotting


The first draft of my novel's plot is complete. Well, not 100% complete - I don't actually know how it's going to end yet - but complete enough to begin some research.

Despite what Stephen King says about plotting (i.e. don't do it), I thought it was best for me to have a go at drafting up a plot. Being my first novel, I think I need at least a basic story blueprint laid out before me. I don't think I am at the stage where I can just take a concept and write down whatever comes to mind (although, that does sound appealing). I probably could, but it would be rubbish. So call me "Plot Boy". For now.

There are two extremes to plotting - the detailed method and the "back of a napkin" method. The former involves sitting down and mapping out every little event that occurs in the novel, every conversation, every disaster or tragedy, falling just short of writing out the prose. The latter is a scratchy, incomplete scribble that barely rises above an idea - maybe it just describes a situation - and you go from there and see where it takes you. They both have pros and cons - mainly being: the former gives you direction, while the latter is much more fun.

Bearing in mind that this is my first novel and that I want to inject some fun into the process, I decided to go for an in-between approach with slight leanings towards the detailed method.

I grabbed a blank page of A3 photocopy paper from work and got started, writing every weekday morning for a week and a bit. I decided to write down everything that came to mind, leaving out the detail, but making sure things made sense, fitted together and did not contradict. At least the same amount of ideas came out of my head during those eight days as compared to the previous eight months when the story was banging around in my head.

So after eight days: both sides of the A3 paper were filled with a general chronological plot and notes on motivations, side plots, questions to be answered, etc, etc. It's detailed, quite detailed, but there is also plenty of room left (in the plot, not on the page) to go off on a tangent if I so wish to. And there is the fact that the final fifth of the novel is nowhere to be seen. I'm leaving that until later. How much later will depend on how confident I become.

The whole experience was very satisfying and of course, fun. I recommend plotting on A3 paper, it helps capture the whole plot on one page - a kind of snapshot - that you can return to for adjustments or just to refresh your memory. I used little boxes - like a basic flow chart - to chart the progression of the story. Writing in pencil is obviously preferable as there will be plenty of changes to be made when better ideas form in your mind.

I suppose my original concern was that a detailed plot would soak up all the fun and excitement of writing the actual novel (hence where the napkin approach works better). However, after finishing my first draft, I can tell you that not only was the exercise exciting, a plot is such a dynamic thing that no one knows what will actually happen when I start typing away at Chapter One.

Now, I must change hats - Plot Boy becomes Research Boy (and I don't mean a lad from Victoria's north eastern suburbs).

Friday, January 12, 2007

And It Begins!!

Ominously, I typed up this blog last Friday, but it would not "publish". Not that I'm superstitious or anything. (whimper)


A momentous day like today deserves more blog time, but unfortunately I'm running late for some panto.

Today was momentous because today I began my novel. With teeth gritted and buttocks clenched, I arose from bed this morning as the alarm went off and without pause, discarded my misgivings and fears, and headed for my desk and computer.

There was no fanfare or cutting of the ribbon; I just sat down, turned my computer on and let the fingers do the talking.

I was pretty excited though.

First, I came up with a provisional title for my novel. Every novel should have a title from the very beginning - it gives it an identity. I mean, after all, this is my baby and you can't have a baby without naming it. I'll change its name by deed poll later on - the natural course in the life of a novel.

Next, I wrote up a very brief synopsis. This is handy so as to keep the "thrust" (panto style) of the novel in focus. Of course, this can change too, as the novel evolves.

I must say it was fun writing the synopsis: it was like drafting up the blurb that may appear on the final product – very exciting indeed.

So I’ve started; I’ve broken the seal. Now let the words come flooding out.

Oh, I suppose you would like to know what the provisional title of the novel is. Okay, fair enough. It’s – oh damn, look at the time – I’m late for panto!!!

(sniggers off into the distance).

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Yesterday: Sick; Today: Scared

I'm back! Did you miss me? No? Fine, don't worry about it then.

Nevertheless, I'm back from a one-day forced sickie (and yes, I was sick). A bout of the local flu had me in all sorts on Tuesday and yesterday, I woke feeling horrid. So I stayed home and didn't get up to much at all. Except a bit of thinking.

This morning, the alarm went off at 6.30. It was time to get back into my (ir)regular writing routine. And this morning, it was time to do that one thing I've been wanting to start for over two years. Yes! My novel!!

But I didn't get up. Yes, I still wasn't 100% healthy and yes, I was more than a little bit tired and yes, the bed was sooo warm and toasty. But there was also a part of me that didn't get up because I was just a little bit scared.

This confirmed my thinking from the previous day. It had been in the afternoon. I was lying there on the couch with my runny nose, sore throat and head full of phlegm and I was thinking about my novel. As mentioned above, I have made the decision to start my first novel ASAP. My rationale is that I would like to be published in the U.K. and I'm not sure how much longer we will be staying here.

So, I thought to myself, I better get cracking! To hell with the preamble and preparation and all that rubbish; let's get started!

Then I thought - what I will do first is re-read Stephen King's On Writing and my course notes on novel writing and make a few more notes, some kind of guidance or crib sheets to keep me on track.

And then it hit me: I was dancing around my handbag. I was procrastinating. I was delaying that moment when I would have to sit down and start the novel.

Because I am scared.

The same thing happened this morning. I planned to get up and get started, but part of me was frightened.

Frightened that I won't know where to start. Frightened that I won't be able to write a single coherent word. Frightened that my novel is going to be rubbish. Frightened that it will become all too clear that I can't cut the mustard when it comes to writing novels. Frightened that I will be forced to live out my days as a lowly accountant.

Frightened of failure when it all boils down to it.

I know the remedy for this "Novelophobia" is to just get on with it and start writing (tonight, damn you!) but it's making me very anxious indeed.

Obviously all authors go through it, either on their first novel, their second (due to the expectation attached to it) or every novel they write. But that doesn't make me feel better.

How do I overcome it?!

One idea is to just have fun with it. One of things that I wanted to ensure when writing this novel is to enjoy it; enjoy the process of writing. If I don't have at least some fun writing a novel then, well, it ain't worth it.

So, maybe, that's where I should start - drop the pressure, discard all the self imposed rules and just enjoy it. That should be easy, as I am such a carefree, easy going kinda guy whose troubles are like water off a duck's back. Yeah, just have fun with it. No need to be scared at all.

Not . . . scared . . . at . . . all.


Mummy!!! I want my mummy!!!