Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Malicious Intent by Kathryn Fox

Check out my review of Kathryn Fox's first novel in the Dr Anya Crichton series in my Aussie blog over at the Australian Crime Fiction site - here.

The Open Road

Back in early October, I set myself the goal of completing the first draft of my novel by 19 December. That day is under 48 hours away and I am not yet in sight of the end, but I still feel pretty happy with what I've achieved recently:
  • Winner of National Novel Writing Month - joining the thousands who completed 50,000 words in the month of November.

  • Developed a much more structured and disciplined writing practice.

  • Passed 200,000 words on my first draft.

Two hundred thousand words is a hell of a lot of writing (and waffle) and by my calculations, that makes me 80% of the way there. I'm expecting the last twenty percent to be completed quite quickly, anticipating that rush at the end that many authors talk about, when everything starts to come together, when the finish line is in sight and where I will be bounding out of bed in the mornings into my study, eager to keep cracking on with it. I haven't reached that stage yet, but I have caught glimpses of it, especially as I am now thinking a lot more about how to end this book.

Mark Billingham uses the analogy of driving through fog when talking about writing and plotting a book. He knows his destination but doesn't know how he will get there. He can only see into the fog as far as the reach of the headlights. The rest is unknown.

My approach to writing is similar, although, for this first novel, I do have a map. The fog is still there but I know pretty much the route I am taking. However, I still find the writing difficult. To take the analogy one step further, firing myself up to sit down and start typing is like starting a car engine on a cold morning, taking numerous attempts before it roars to life. Even with a map, the first few miles are sluggish, as if I know where I am going but I am stuck in slow moving traffic. I become bored and distracted and wonder whether it's worth making the trip at all. Then I see a gap in the traffic and I take it and end up on an empty freeway, with nothing hindering my progress, not even fog. I step on the accelerator and push the car to its limits, speeding along that empty road. That is the moment I really enjoy and I hope, as I approach the end of my journey, that the speed and exhilaration continues.

In other news, Borders booksellers in America have signed a deal with pubilsher HarperStudio that no longer allows the retailer to return unsold books back to the publisher. My first thought was that retailers would order a lot less books and steer clear from unknown and untested authors in order to reduce the risk of being stuck with unwanted stock. This would be bad news for authors all round. Sandra Ruttan, however, takes a more optimistic and informed view here.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

It's Over But The Writing Continues . . .

Fifty thousand words and thirty days later: NaNoWriMo - done.

It was an immense challenge, but I surprised myself with my commitment and planning, ensuring that I kept up the word count, meeting and exceeding my daily quota of words on a regular basis. I also proved to myself that a regular writing schedule can be squeezed around a full time job, which has always been a big hurdle for me. In addition, not only did I develop some good writing habits, I took a big step forward towards finishing the first draft on my novel.

The writing doesn't stop there, though. I still have my target of finishing this first draft before dawn on the 19 December. The challenge is to keep the momentum going without the fun of a contest or without that feeling of camaraderie with other writers that is experienced during NaNoWriMo.

I'm doing it a little different for December too. I'm not aiming for the same word count each day because I don't want to rush the intricacies of the final quarter of the book. Instead, I have a goal of 90 minutes of writing a day. The first few days of December made me quite proud; despite a busy schedule at work, I met my 90 minute goal and exceeded 2,000 words in each sitting. The rest of the week has been a debacle due to increasing work commitments; no time spent on writing. Some catching up is required but I feel confident that I can do that over the next two weeks.

NaNoWriMo was a very beneficial experience and I learned a lot - as I suspect everybody participating did - so congrats to everyone else who took part - well done! Looking forward to next November.

Elsewhere on the planet, news of the Harrogate 2009 lineup has been published and for me, the highlight is the attendance of George Pelecanos. He would have to be one of my favourite authors, if not the favourite. His novels are a pleasure to read and are super cool. He is such a great guy too. The last time he was at Harrogate, he gave some inspiring words of advice that helped me kick start my novel and get over the fear of tackling such a big project. That advice was given to the general audience, so I hope I'll be able to sneak in a five minute chat with him at the bar next July, one on one. Quite an exciting prospect.

I'm not alone here: the ladies, especially those on Mark Billingham's forum, have their own reasons for getting excited about Mr Pelecanos's attendance:

Saturday, November 01, 2008

NaNoWriMo 2008

It's National Novel Writing Month this month and it all starts today!!

The month of November, over the past nine years, has been the month where thousands of people around the world write a 50,000 word novel. Plot, synopsis and planning go out the window - it's all about getting words onto paper or screen, committing yourself to thirty days of solid writing, finishing or at least making a good headway into that novel that you've always said you were gonna write.

A month full of tears, triumph, late nights, early mornings and loads of coffee giving birth to thousands of novels and novel writers. Sure, the output will be drivel at best, but what's a first draft supposed to be but a scattered plotline hastily put together that makes no sense and contains flat characters and clich├ęd dialogue. That's what rewrites are for, to fix all that stuff up.

But that's for December and beyond, for now, over 15,000 writers will be doing what so many people say they will do, try to do and frequently fail to do - they are writing a novel.

Today, thousands will be hunkered over computers or notebooks, churning out their first draft, keeping an eye on the word count even at this very early stage, calculating how many to go before they reach the big 50k. It's going to be a long month, a painful month, but ultimately, a rewarding month.

I signed up at the last moment. It wasn't even on my radar even though I've always wanted to participate. A colleague at work said that she was doing it this year for the first time and encouraged me to get involved. My mind buzzed around with the status of my own novel, thinking, can I really ditch my recently set goals and start something new? I'd already planned to write 52,000 words this month as it is; could I go back on this?

And then it hit me - something about two birds and a big effing stone.

So I'm on board. I've buddied up with eleven other participants, mainly from the BTZ forum, and we are all going to knock this 50k on the head, and write a novel in the process.

So, good luck to Jo, Tamren, Nethers, RockChick, Sammo, Smudge, Iain, Betty, Chel, Roger and Maria and everyone else!!

Heads down, bums up, people!

Friday, October 03, 2008

Goal Related Anxiety

One of the blogs I religiously follow is written by Jo, a budding writer, who has developed her writing skills over the past year or so through consistent blogging. Recently she has been writing elsewhere on a daily basis, working on developing story ideas and to that end, she has completed her first short story. She also has many other ideas bouncing around her head, characters begging her for life, stories ready to be put to paper.

However, her latest blog entry suggests that she has gone even further and has walked blindly into the realm of the "serious" writer by committing a god awful act: she has set some goals.

Of course, I'm only joking; this is great news, an important step, and it indicates that she is thinking about doing more with her writing ability. However, now she is suffernig from some goal related anxiety.

Let me reassure Jo and any other anxious writers out there - it happens to us all. It's just part of the process. All writers feel that pressure building when they have writing goals to meet, whether they are self induced targets or those created by the signing of a multi-million pound contract. The anxiety manifests itself through the verbal or written commitment and what goes with it: worrying about whether you can come up with ideas, whether you can write something worth reading and whether you can deliver the final product on time.

As you may well know from reading my blog, I have a history of setting goals and not meeting them. Many blog entries have detailed my "new" approach to completing my novel. From all of these experiences, I have discovered that there are two key elements to dealing with goal anxiety: set realistic goals, and do the work!

Setting the goals is quite exciting, but you can get carried away, promise yourself the world and set unrealistic goals (e.g. watch 100 movies in a year). Unrealistic goals just adds to the anxiety - aiming too high can be disheartening if you constantly miss your targets; the more you fall behind, the bigger you see the challenge to get back on track. You may even give up or just set a whole bunch of new unrealistic goals - maybe even aim higher to make up for lost ground. This, obviously, won't help you.

Short term targets need to be achievable; you need to consider the time you have, the sacrifices you can make and what level of necessary pressure you need to exist. Short term targets form manageable stepping stones towards your ultimate goal and, in my opinion, your ultimate goal should be as over the top and as ambitious as possible. If the realistic stepping stones take you there, anything is possible.

Now this analysis of the validity of writing goals is in no means a reflection of Jo's chosen targets. The goals she has set are to complete a couple of short stories and to participate in this year's NaNoWriMo, a month long writing frenzy aimed at completing that one novel that's alludes so many people due to other commitments, excuses, etc. Jo's goals are very sensible and attainable - a few short stories will help develop her style, and NaNoWriMo is the perfect forum to develop a regular writing routine and practice writing under tight deadlines. Both goals are realistic and form the first few steps towards her dreams.

As for me, I need to practice what I preach. I've set another new goal: to complete the first draft of my novel by 19 December. It's a realistic goal given the circumstances and I am happy with it, but it's the last time I'm setting writing goals this year. No more moving targets - I either make it or not.

It's time to fulfill the second key element of dealing with goal anxiety - doing the work!!

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Down To The Wire

Apologies for this break in transmission but I have to interupt my long drawn out summary of the festival to announce that I have secured my ticket to an event that rivals Harrogate as Event Of The Year.

The Wire Weekender - check out the details here. If you are a fan, this is a "not-to-be-missed" event.

Mos Def.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Crown of Crime - Part 2 - The Auditorium and The Bookstore

It's relatively hot in most parts of The Crown Hotel, but none more so than in the main auditorium. Huge stand alone fans were situated at each corner of the room, blowing air towards the ceiling, yet it was still hot. People complained, puffed out their cheeks, and fanned themselves with their Crime Writing Festival programmes. Yet more often than not, the place was packed.

The high level of attendance was due to the quality panels and interviews that took place in the auditorium over the three days. There was something for everyone, from cosy crime to Bloody Women to James Bond. What had the punters returning, using their Weekend Rover tickets, despite the heat, was their urge to see top quality authors from the crime genre talking about their books, the process of writing and their views on the industry. More often than not the personalities of the crime authors came shining through, leading to many humorous moments, usually involving Mark Billingham, Val McDermid, Stuart MacBride and Martyn Waites.

There were a number of special events in the programme too that warrant a mention:

- The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Award presentation, with the majority of the reasonably long short list up on stage, discussing their nominated books with Natasha Cooper, was very interesting. The tension was mounting until the eventual winner was announced: Stef Penney! She was obviously not expecting the award, her second for her debut novel, "The Tenderness of Wolves". Her eyes weren't as wide as last year's winner, Allan Guthrie, when she accepted the award, but she was equally surprised and delighted.

- Foul Play this year was replaced by The Balloon Game, where six authors represented six famous authors from yesteryear, defending their place in the balloon while the audience voted one of them off at a time, the progress of which was kept on track by Mark Lawson. Some of the authors embraced the characters they were portraying (most notably Stuart MacBride with his squeaky voice and hand puppet raven, no doubt channeling Edgar Allen Poe from beyond the grave) and others dispelled with political correctness to make their point while sticking true to their character (case in point: John Rickards and his "darky" comment, expressed in a very poor approximation of Mickey Spillane). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was ultimately voted as the winner of The Balloon Game, although I suspect this was mainly due to the popularity of Mark Billingham, who was representing him, rather than the man himself.

- The annual Late Night Quiz Show took place on the Saturday night to much whooping, snickering and drinking. The questions were a lot easier this year but that didn't make it any less competitive. The ultimate winning team included Mark Lawson, Robert Crais, Kevin Wignall and Mark Billingham, some might say a team heavily weighted with ring-ins. As usual, it was a cracker of a party!

Another drawcard of the festival are the guest appearances. This year, interviews were conducted, in the same sweltering auditorium, with the likes of Peter Robinson, Robert Crais, Sam Bourne, and Andy McNab (he of the shadowed face). The place was packed to the rafters during these interviews with fans of the author and genre alike. In addition, there were two very interesting solo presentations by Jeffrey Deaver and Tess Gerritsen, offering up a fresh take on the standard interview and panel style event.

At the end of each of the guest interviews, panels and events, amidst a rousing round of applause, all of the attendees are invited to head towards the Waterstones book store (on location) for signings with all the authors involved. This is where most people head, with their dog eared copies of the author's back catalogue or with credit cards clutched in hand, ready to buy the latest release. Off they rush, back down the long corridor to a large room set up with shelves and shelves of books and a long table for signings.

Depending on the author, the queue often coils within the bookstore and out the entrance, sometimes taking up to an hour before the final person arrives at the table. It is worth it though, as you get a chance to not only have a personalised message scribbled in your book, but a chance to verbally trip over yourself when faced with an ever friendly face willing to spend a couple of minutes talking to you. All the authors are accessible over the weekend and the signing table is a prime example of that.

I spent a bit of time lining up for signatures but it was worth it: I spoke to and had my book signed by Kathryn Fox (an Aussie writer and a very pleasant lady), Chris Simms (a great bloke) and Jeffrey Deaver (another nice fella who shook my hand twice). No matter how successful I happen to get, I think I will always be in awe of established writers and will always seek them out to sign my book - the signings are a special part of the festival.

Another familiar sight in the Waterstones book store was my fellow BTZ members, Betty and Maria, more often than not found with their heads peaking over a large pile of books in their arms as they made their way to the cash register and then the signing queue. Just like me, they can not resist the feel of a new book in their hands!!

Now, it's getting late, and with the majority of people heading upstairs to bed to either get some sleep or snatch a quick read of their recently signed novel, the rest of us move to the most important room in the hotel.

The bar.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Crown of Crime - Part 1 - The Sofas, The Place and The Champagne Room

Walking into the lobby of The Crown Hotel in Harrogate is like greeting an old friend. The handshake is warm and familiar, the time since you last saw each other folds in on itself, and you can't wait to retire to the bar for a few quiet ones and a catch up.

Last Wednesday, as I entered The Crown and walked past the sofas in the middle of the lobby, heading to reception to check into my room, I was overcome with a sense of kinship with the old hotel, which, in only its second year, has become synonymous with The Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival.

The layout of the hotel is overly familiar even though I've only been here once before. During the festival last year, I covered almost every inch of its hallowed ground in different states of euphoria, awe and sobriety. I know it like the back of my hand.

The sofas in the middle of The Crown’s lobby, reduced to two this year in order to make room for the Festival Reception area, are akin to home base. It is the location for long nights of chatting with fellow BTZ forum members, authors and the occasional party crasher. The bar is where it all happens in the early hours of the morning, but the sofas are your saving grace, where you get a chance to recharge.

Facing the hotel reception desk with the sofas on your right, there is a long corridor to the left, leading down half the length of the hotel and ending at the hotel's restaurant "The Place". This is the location for pre and post festival meals and the occasional brewskie if the other bar isn't open.

There is a side door within the restaurant leading outside to numerous chairs and tables set up along the pavement, large umbrellas shielding aspiring writers from the pouring rain. More often than not, this is where Sarah, Dean and I, amongst other authors in the making, retired to between events, if the bar area wasn't humming with fans and authors. It was freezing outside, but Sarah was beaming enough with excitement to keep us warm. Her little "baby" was in the hands of an agent and things were looking good. Dean and I listened intently; we were there alongside her, going through the ups and downs, absolutely stoked for her and her potential career launch.

Back inside, through The Place and back along the corridor, there is a large room to your right, where Creative Thursday took place. A day of discussions and workshops about honing the craft of writing, with such teachers as Greg Mosse, Val McDermid and Hilary Hale passing on their wealth of knowledge. Iain was there too, an already successful writer from the BTZ forum, who had popped in for a couple of events and Creative Thursday. He was the first in a number of cases of a catch up way too brief.

This room also held the book launch of Simon Kernick's Deadline and the celebration of Peter Robinson's 21 Years of DI Alan Banks. Holding a glass of champagne in one hand during the Deadline launch, I was pleased to speak briefly with the likes of Chris Simms (who was looking forward to participating in the upcoming Damaged Heroes panel), Stuart MacBride and the man himself, Simon Kernick, who also brilliantly chaired the festival this year.

Leaving this room, you turn right back towards the lobby, passing a small room where the Festival team were often spotted working feverishly to ensure the weekend ran smoothly in all its aspects, Erica leading them through the trenches, delivering the goods and solving problems with the customer’s satisfaction and enjoyment of the festival always in mind.

Arriving in the reception area, you are able to give another longing look towards the sofas where, more often than not, you found Jo, Stuart and Helena, hobnobbing it with fans and authors alike. Another reason why those sofas are considered home base - Jo (another aspiring writer and a blogging good one too) has exuberance that is contagious, Stuart has plenty of stories to tell, including his run in with a Sat Nav, and Helena has entertainment value, which increases as the night goes on.

Pulling yourself away from the sofas, running parallel to the bar, you'll find yourself at the beginning of a well tread corridor . . .

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Writing to The Chiefs

Nothing like a looming deadline to get the writing juices going. Self imposed targets are nice, but the repercussions from missing one never really has much impact. Am I going to forbid myself from a reward, such as buying a CD or watching a movie, because I missed my self imposed deadline? No, not really. So a deadline with a little more weight to it is always a good thing.

It’s festival time again and no, I’m not talking about the music variety where you watch big name bands in the rain or find nice little nuggets on the seat of the portaloo or try to sleep in a tent with a rock digging into your back through your sleeping bag. No, I’m talking about The Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival (formerly known and more commonly referred to as the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival). Yes, it’s on again – three days of seminars, readings, panels and entertainment from some of the big names in UK and ROW crime writing.

Creative Thursday is on again too – one day (before the official festivities begin) of informal talks about all things crime writery, delivered by authors, publishers and agents in the field. Very entertaining and full of little nuggets of information and advice (and I’m not talking about the music festival type nuggets).

And, as with last year, I’ve signed up for a One-on-One session with Greg Mosse, another opportunity to present my work in front of the experts and get some free advice.

This is where the deadline comes into it: 3,000 words by July 7. Not self-imposed at all; if I don't hit this one, I miss out on a great opportunity for constructive advice and I'm sure to receive a raised eyebrow from Mr Mosse himself.

What to submit? Well, last time, I submitted a 3,000 word synopsis of the novel I am working on and spent a very worthwhile 20 minutes going through it with Mr Mosse. This time around, I am submitting 3,000 words of prose. The first time, it was about seeing whether my idea for a novel would be worth pursuing. This time, it’s about whether I have the skill to write it.

I plan to submit the first two chapters of my novel, restricted by the word count. At this stage, this involves re-writing the first chapter and writing another from scratch. The novel has been written slightly out of sequence so far, but coincidentally, I have reached the stage where I need to write that second chapter. Good timing indeed.

This type of feedback is gold, especially when you are a first time writer halfway through a novel. Greg Mosse is very enthusiastic but gives good critical advice: encouragement and guidance, two things any good writer can do with from time to time.

The deadline is approaching and I will get more than just a CD as a reward if I meet it.

That said, I am thinking about Kaiser Chiefs.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Best Laid Plans

You would be forgiven for thinking that my lack of activity on this blog over the past six months is due to an extraordinary amount of progress on my novel: hours and hours of sitting at my desk, churning out brilliantly written prose, hurtling through the chapters and finally finishing the first draft.

My total dedication to finishing the novel would definitely explain my lack of presence on the web, both here and on the numerous forums and communities that I usually gravitate to.

If only that were so. Unfortunately, there are a few other reasons why I have been a little bit “quiet” lately and none of them revolve around completing my novel (and none of them are all that exciting either).

At the start of the year, I listed my intentions for the first six months, identifying my priorities and putting together a battle plan. Completing the first draft of my novel was the first priority.

It was my intention to have a completed first draft and three polished chapters to take with me to Harrogate Crime Festival 2008. There was no expectation that anyone would be asking for them at the festival, but I hoped to make contact with agents and / or publishers, grab a business card or two. Then, as the battle plan dictated, I would make a submission to these nice people, while my face and name were still fresh in their mind. I would have three chapters ready to go and a completed draft behind me, not only for the off chance that someone would like to see a partial or full manuscript but for confidence and practicality. Consensus says that it is best to approach agents and publishers when you’ve got a completed novel to hand over if so requested to do so. Nothing worse than being asked for something you don’t have.

Sound battle plan.

Then came reality. The goal with the lowest priority, performing well in my temporary promotion at work, took over and monopolised my time. The new position equated to long hours and mountains of frustration. Sure the experience was worth a lot, I don’t begrudge that, but ultimately, my true calling suffered.

In short, the first draft isn’t complete. Not by a long shot. And to tell you the truth, as I sit and type this, I am at my most frustrated and lowest point as a writer thus far. And what’s even more frustrating is that my disappointment doesn’t come from producing a piece of writing I’m not happy with or finding out that I’m not much of a writer after all, but it’s the fact that I haven’t had the chance to do what I set out to do. I haven’t had the time and the consistency that I believe I need to get this novel completed. Writing a few thousand words one day and then nothing for a week is not an efficient or effective writing approach. For one whole month in March/April, I hardly sat in front of the computer at all.


But I must look forward and I must stay focused and positive. I won’t be able to do what I had planned for Harrogate and I don’t propose to take short cuts like submitting chapters without a full draft backing it up – that’s not the approach I want to take. So, instead, I have to regroup and get back into a routine of writing and not worry about a potential wasted opportunity.

And really, it won’t be wasted at all. Harrogate will be a blast no matter what – it is such a great experience for any budding writer. You talk to people, listen to what they have to say, soak up information and advice from the best in the business; and you have a bit of fun. It all makes a difference. I might even take a few chapters along with me; just in case.

You never know.

Friday, May 16, 2008

John Connolly - A Top Bloke

Last night, I attended a book signing at Borders Oxford Street for John Connolly’s new book, The Reapers. From my readings of blogs and websites and after seeing him at Harrogate a few years ago, I knew him to be the type of author who is admired by his fans and respected by his peers. I had also read two of his books, Every Dead Thing and The Book of Lost Things, both very entertaining novels. When I saw posters advertising his bookstore appearance, I penned it in my diary to attend, expecting an entertaining hour of readings, questions and signings. What I got was a lot more.

Borders had set up a section on the first floor for about 20-30 people in front of a podium with a microphone and numerous stands displaying John Connolly’s books. John arrived and spent a good twenty minutes talking through aspects and elements of his new novel, The Reapers, in a quite informal, informative and entertaining fashion. The next 20 was taken up by Q&A. I really enjoyed it all and took away many good pointers about writing. John also talked about some of the elements contained in his new book, including male heterosexual relationships and what drives someone to kill. We were also treated to a reading from loose sheets of paper constituting an extract from Draft 1 of John’s novel in progress, The Lovers. All very good stuff.

As I was lining up to have my copy of The Reapers signed by John, he announced to the audience that if they were so inclined, we could all head to a local bar for a beer and a more informal chat. This sounded wonderful, a great chance to meet John and a handful of his many fans (including Sarah Higgins, a fellow Harrogate attendee and BTZ forum member). It was an invitation I wasn’t expecting and something I had never encountered before. I was pleasantly surprised.

After the books were signed, nice of us, including John and his publisher, headed to a reserved area in a pub off Oxford Street and John most generously shouted us some drinks. We chatted and mingled, talking about anything and everything, not just centred on his novels and had a great laugh. It was a very informal get together that I thoroughly enjoyed.

I was floored again by John’s generosity when he invited us all to dinner. How about that? I couldn’t believe it! It was a nice gesture to his devout fans and something, I could tell, he really wanted to do for them.

The seven of us who had dinner with John included three fans who had travelled from Iceland, Belgium and Spain just to be at this book signing. Everyone was known to John through the forum on his website and through meetings at crime writing festivals and previous readings; they were all very dedicated followers of his work. Ultimately, though, his invitation was open to everyone who had turned up at the signing and I was lucky enough to be able to tag along.

It was a lovely evening, very entertaining and informative and a great experience. I also got to know more about John Connolly, who proved himself to be a real generous and nice guy.

Or in Aussie parlance – a top bloke.

Thanks John!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

London Marathon 2008

Here's one of the reasons why blog activity has been at an all time low: I'm running the London Marathon.

Yes, this weekend, I will be joining many thousands running 26.2 miles through the streets of London.

And yes, I will be doing it for a good cause: raising money for Sense, the national voluntary organisation working with and supporting people of all ages who are deafblind or have associated disabilities.

Please use the website below if you would like to make a donation:

I will let you know how I went and then return the blog to its normal content and the long wait for an update will be over!!!

Sorry? An update. On my novel. The one that I'm writing.

Yeah, that one.