Q&A with Horror Writer Nic Parker

Nic Parker

Nic Parker (she looks so sweet…)

HAPPY NEW YEAR! (How long are we supposed to keep saying that for?!) Anyway, today I’m pleased to welcome a good friend of mine, Nic Parker, to tell you about her love of horror and her excellent new book, Descent to Hell. I asked Nic a few questions, and she gave me some excellent answers – btw, in case you don’t know Nic already – she’s very funny and she swears. A lot 🙂

So I know you’re a big fan of horror. What is it about it that really attracts you? Monsters? Gore? Psychological chills? Ghosts? Or none of those – you just have an unquenchable bloodlust?

Probably the latter 😉 As long as I can think I was fascinated by all things dark and obscure. While others in my class were taking dance lessons I could only think about how to find an uncut watchable video copy of Evil Dead. Horror is the genre with the widest range – for example, Alien is sci-fi but also horror – and I adore all facets of the genre. I’ve been fed up a bit with vampires and zombies lately and I’d say I wouldn’t want to see the 645th torture porn bullshit with a story as thin as a wafer but other than that horror is the genre that just keeps on giving.

What’s your favourite horror movie? 

If I have to break it down to just one it is definitely John Carpenter’s The Thing. I was lucky enough to see the movie on the big screen for the first time ever this year and I was almost moved to tears. Thirty years after its making it remains pristine with awesome actors, perfectly applied tension and handmade effects that get every horror geek drooling.

What’s your favourite horror novel?

I’d have picked a classic like Stephen King’s It or Clive Barker’s Coldheart Canyon and I said I am fed up with zombies but I read M.R. Carey’s The Girl With All The Gifts this year and the characters and story just blew me away. Carey managed to inject completely original ideas into the genre and a zombie novel that is so poetic without being pathetic and that makes you cry at the perfect ending is worth putting at number one.

Do you think horror works better in books or on screen, or does it depend on the story?

I think horror works on many levels, the obvious, the subliminal and the subconscious. There are monsters that scare you shitless when you see them on screen but two hours after seeing the movie they are cool but not scary anymore. Then there are characters that cling on to you and that keep haunting you for months or years. No matter if it’s written or on the screen, if it’s well done it will scratch at your soul.

What do you really hate about the horror genre?

As I mentioned above, serving the same shit for the umpteenth time, like endless rape and revenge shit. I love gore and violence in movies but not just for the purpose of serving base motives. I am not bothered about sequels as long as they continue the story or tell another story. My absolute pet hate is the goddamned bloody remakes that the coke snorting Hollywood producers come up with.

Who is your favourite horror character? 

My big role model: Dr. Hannibal Lecter. Awesome characterisation of a villain everyone would love as a friend.

He’s my favourite too. With Patrick Bateman coming a close second 🙂 Your debut novel, Descent to Hell, focuses on an important quest – the search for a missing child. What made you want to write about this, in particular?

Well, the main character of the story is Charlie Ward, who will stop at nothing to help his niece because she is more like a daughter to him. My central idea was that he descends to Hell to help a loved one who is trapped down there. I wanted Charlie to be completely unprepared on how to try and find his niece because, honestly, how would you prepare for a trip to Hell? Sunblock 50 and holy water?

So, what did you enjoy most when writing the book?

Conjuring up places in Hell that nobody has read about before, making Hell my own place. Also, being lazy as fuck and doing zero research as you can bend the rules to your own will when you are writing about Hell and demons.

Are you working on something else at the moment?

I’ve got few projects in the pipeline, one is another supernatural story, the other a psychological thriller and I am one third into the sequel to Descent to Hell.

What advice would you give to anyone who’s trying to write a horror novel?

The first advice I’d give to everyone thinking about writing a novel would be: Fucking write it because no one else will do it for you.

Horror is so great because you have so much to choose from, ghosts or ghouls, vampires or monsters, serial killers or aliens – just make them your own creatures and don’t be afraid to add your own ideas – the more fucked up and extraordinary the better!

Writing about fictional characters and the supernatural is a great way to let your mind completely run havoc – anything is possible and the sky – or Hell – is the limit.

And finally… What did you think of Stranger Things? 🙂

There isn’t a love button big enough to express what Stranger Things means to me. I was quite late watching it and this television series captured the essence of the 80s immaculately. Apart from Winona Ryder’s terrible overacting this TV series was an event not to be missed and I wish I had written the story. Watching it meant feeling like being 14 again. The set design, the actors, the awesome soundtrack – a nostalgic blast and beyond brilliant!!

I loved it too! Thanks Nic!

Nic Parker was born in 1971. Her love for the horror genre flourished in early childhood. She enjoyed the opulence of genre productions in the eighties, chasing after forbidden video nasties with friends, and reading mainly Clive Barker and Stephen King. Since her twenties she’s had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing many household names from the horror genre in her role as a journalist for Moviestar magazine. She is an avid book collector, passionate about art and likes to try out new recipes from her many cookbooks. She lives in rural Germany with her husband and six cats. Descent to Hell is the first part in the Hell trilogy with main character Charlie Ward. You can find Nic at her blog and on twitter.

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In case you’re wondering what I’m up to… my latest novel THE DAMSELFLY is out on 2nd Feb (you can pre-order HERE) – and if you sign-up to my website, HERE (or click on the prize image), by the end of January, you can win this very cool bunch of goodies.

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AND for another chance to win a copy of the signed paperback (and a mystery gift) – check out the goodreads giveaway HERE.

THE DAMSELFLY will be launched at branches of Waterstones in Edinburgh and London in February – full details HERE.

Capricious Kitty (or “when characters come to life”)

Today I’m delighted to welcome Ava Marsh to the blog to tell us a bit about the heroine of her fantastic second novel EXPOSURE. Ava’s debut UNTOUCHABLE was one of my favourite reads of last year, and her second is every bit as good. if you fancy something a bit different (brilliantly written, engaging, twisty and twisted, dark and sexy!) give them a whirl… plus, there’s a fun competition at the end of the post to win a copy of the book, where you can find out exactly what Kitty Sweet has been up to 🙂

Over to you, Ava.

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I never believed all that guff you often hear authors say about their characters taking over the story. Thought it was just a fanciful way of making the endless slog of writing a novel sound more glamorous and mysterious than it really is. More magical, as if words and ideas sprang from some ineffable external source. Characters, I firmly believed, did exactly what you told them to do because, quite simply, you made them up. You, the author, were the one in control of this whole shebang – though of course, all readers bring their own stuff into the mix, and read between the lines things you never consciously intended to be there.

My author-as-god pragmatic approach remained intact until I met Kitty, the capricious ‘heroine’ of my latest novel, Exposure. I set about getting to know her the way I did most of my characters – deciding on her background, family situation, needs, likes, whatever. I carried out the exact same exercises I always use – a few character prompts, some brainstorming, a lot of thinking and scribbling ideas down on bits of paper. Armed with a rough idea of what I wanted to say via her character, and how the plot would unfold, I set forth into my first draft.

I quickly came unstuck. Kitty, apparently, had other ideas that didn’t seem to have anything to do with my original intentions for the story. It was all very frustrating. Whereas Grace from Untouchable was someone I got to know fairly quickly, someone I innately understood pretty much from the get-go, Kitty point-blank refused to cooperate. Try as I might, I just couldn’t get a sense of what made her tick.

This, needless to say, was all very disconcerting – I blamed myself, my methods, my inability to fully realise her character in my mind. Whatever I did, she remained slightly unknowable, as if I was peering at her obliquely through a pane of glass smeared with dust and dirt – I could delineate certain aspects of her personality, but couldn’t make out the whole. I began to feel genuinely sorry for her prison therapist, Yvonne, who seemed to be having the same trouble getting to the bottom of what was really going on inside Kitty’s pretty little head.

Looking back, I was being impossibly dense, but thankfully Kitty waited for me to catch up. Eventually, after drafting out most of the book, I finally got what she was trying to tell me – that nothing about her was quite what it seemed. As soon as I grasped this, everything fell into place. I had my character, and I had a much stronger grasp of the sort of book she wanted me to write. And Kitty, finally, sprang into life, in all her capricious, enigmatic, inscrutable glory.

The whole experience taught me a lot. Never imagine you’re in complete control of your characters or your world. Never assume that writing one book will be the same as writing the next. And never give up when your story stalls – the solution may be just around the corner.

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I’m a massive fan of both of Ava’s books, and I can tell you that Exposure is currently only £1.99 on Amazon – a bargain! But if you’d prefer a paper copy, I have one signed copy to give to one lucky reader… all you have to do is share this blog post on social media, and answer the question below (in the comments, please) – Ava will choose a winner on 31st October. (UK only, sorry!)

Good luck!

QUESTION: If you could choose a secret identity that meant you could do anything you wanted and no one would ever know it was you, who or what would you choose to be?

**COMPETITION NOW CLOSED: WINNER IS ALISON BARLOW**

A belated start is not a bad start

Happy New Ears

Happy New Ears

Ah… a new year. New plans, new resolutions, new me… these are the things that I think we ALL want to kick off on the 1st January, and yet they are the very things that can hold you back. It’s the usual call to arms: go to the gym, stop eating chocolate for breakfast, give up alcohol for a month, BE MORE PRODUCTIVE!

The start of the new year for me is really that dreaded ‘first day back’ – this year, that was Monday 4th January. All over the Christmas break (which I expected to be difficult, for several reasons (like this), but which actually turned out to be lovely and relaxing), I thought about all the things I want to do in 2016 – they aren’t resolutions, they are just things… and many of them are things that I am always trying to do (with variable success), such as:

  • Write a book (last year saw the publication of Black Wood, and the writing/editing of Willow Walk)
  • Write another book (I have plans for three this year… the third one set in Banktoun, plus two others that I’ll just knock up in my spare time… HA HA)
  • Become re-motivated with the day job (it’s a necessary evil, it’s really not that bad, but a delay with a project has seen me adrift since November, aka, a bit skint…)
  • Do 20 minutes of exercise per day (easy, right? Yeah… some days it is. I need it to be EVERY day, or else with a sedentary job, plus writing, I am likely to have curled into a turtle-like shape before my next birthday)
  • Eat less crap (an ongoing mantra… often this is successful, often it isn’t, but to be honest, life is too short to worry about the odd blow out… as long as it’s not every day)
  • Reduce time spent on social media/internet (tricky, as I use this to communicate with writing friends, readers, bloggers, book clubs and anyone else who feels like a chat… working from home in both the day job and writing can be lonely without this – but I am becoming increasingly worried about repetitive strain injury… and my fingers are my job!!)
  • Also, THIS 🙂

Anyway – I thought I was geared up for all of this on the 4th, but as it turns out, I sunk into a panic of stress and anxiety, worried about not being able to do it all (apparently the ‘first week back’ is the most challenging week of the year for everyone – so really it’s best not to set too high expectations during this period.) It’s been a very up and down week, but I think I’ve finally come out the other side. I’ve got a daily planner to try and stop myself from doing too much and focus on one task at a time… the day job has recommenced… the brilliant Alex Sokoloff has helped me realise what I need to do regarding structuring my current work-in-progress… and as a nice little bit of icing on the cake – I’ve got a flash fiction published today in Litro magazine.

So, HAPPY NEW YEAR! Mine started today 🙂

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Click HERE to join my ‘Book Love Club’ – there will be giveways of lovely bookish things, as well as news and competitions (the emails are very infrequent, so don’t worry about me clogging up your inbox) – in the last competition, one lucky winner won this…

You can find me on twitter and facebook too 🙂

Chatting to Pete Sortwell

SJIH: Hi Pete, thanks for popping in. The kettle’s on. Help yourself to biscuits! Your novel ‘So Low So High’ has just been re-released… how does that feel?

PS: It’s a mixture of feelings really. I’m hopeful that it might find a lot more readers this time, while I’m also a bit nervous that maybe the only people who bought it last time where the only ones who wanted it anyway.

I can say that I’m really pleased to have this back in my stable and under my control. That is the over riding sense I have, which I suppose we’d have to mark down as relief.

I can promote this as I please and not have to worry about running it past anyone or having to put up all the budget myself while still sharing the profits.

SJIH: Can you tell us about it in a couple of sentences? No spoilers please…

PS: So Low So High is a thriller, but not like a normal whodunit, it’s more a Willhelive. It’s written as that but also to put the reader into the eyes of someone with a chronic addiction.

SJIH: You’ve based it around the world of an addict. How ‘real’ is your fictional portrayal? I imagine you had to do a lot of research?

PS: A lot of the situations surrounding the story are true, although not to one person. I’ve worked with people either in or in recovery from addiction for almost nine years now, also being in recovery myself, some of the feelings and thoughts are that of how I felt when I was going through it. So in that sense very real.

SJIH: You’re better known for writing comedy and parodies. What made you want to write this one? What was your favourite thing about writing it? Was it the characters… the setting… the subject matter?

PS: I actually wrote this one first. It took me just under two years from start to finish. The comedy books were a bit of an aside which came about because I’d just lost a close friend who a character in the follow up is based on, and also because I’d just signed SLSH with a publisher and felt that I could now self publish without feeling like a failure. An outlook I no longer hold, and probably never should have, however, that was how I thought in 2012.

The comedy books have just done better than this one, which is one of the things that’s exciting about releasing this again as I can use all the tools I learnt with my other books to get this one out there.

My favourite thing about writing this book was to get to say something of things in the fictional world that I never could at the time (in the small parts that are based on real events).

I think the subject matter was something that motivated me to write this, I just wanted to put out there what it was like to live in that hopeless world of not being able to choose what it was you did that day. I know a lot of people say addiction is a choice. It’s a lot more complex than that, I have never met anyone in Simon’s position who left school thinking ‘I’m going to be injecting in my neck in ten years time’.

SJIH: Was it hard to be inside Simon’s head the whole time?

PS: I think it was actually quite therapeutic to write. It was nice to be able to look at things from the other side and add in the dry humour. I know it’s a tough subject to wonder what there is to laugh about but there is humour to be found in all situations, it’s just a case of how your portray it.

SJIH: So what’s next? What are working on now?

PS: I’m slowly working away on the follow up, Die Happy, Die Smiling. It’s something that is almost four years in the making. I’m committed to finishing it and releasing it next year though and am looking forward to really editing it into a good book.

SJIH: Who (or what) inspired you to start writing?

PS: It was being at school and seeing a book my father wrote in the school library. I thought it was so cool that he had his name on a book. For me there’s still something almost magical about books. Kept well they’ll last a lot longer than us and in a way they are a way of making us, if not immortal, then certainly a lot more memorable than the three score and ten we get if we’re lucky.

SJIH: What’s the most exciting thing about being an author? Are there any downsides? Do you have any advice for anyone just starting out?

PS: I think the most exciting things about being an author are sometimes overlooked (by me) by the amount of rejected or feelings of not being able to pull off the next book, but all in all there are exciting things, one of best that spring to my mind is hearing that my first short story was going to be published. More recently, hearing that an editor at one of the big five liked what she’d read and wanted to meet with me to discuss working together. Finally, and I’m not sure if I’d but this under the ‘exciting’ banner but meeting a lot of crime writers either at festivals or book launches is pretty.

SJIH: What have you enjoyed reading recently? Do you have any favourite authors we might not know about? You listen to a lot of audiobooks, don’t you?

PS: My book of the year is Steve Cavanagh’s The Defence. I met him last year and saw he had an audiobook out so I got it and listened, he has a fantastic way of story telling and the style is just right for me to listen to as I drive to work in the mornings. I do like Audio, mainly because my reading speed isn’t as quick as I’ like it to be, but also because I can listen to the books when I normally wouldn’t be able to read, I.e. driving. I’ve also enjoyed Luca Veste’s books which where recently released on audio and I have yours all lined up ready to go, too.

SJIH: Thanks – hope you like mine! And finally, the question that I ask everyone… What does no one ever ask you that you wish that they would ask you? 

PS: Q: How would you like your payment, gold or platinum? A: Both please.

SJIH: Er… the cheque’s in the post? Thanks, Pete. It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Best of luck with ‘So Low So High’  – I predict exciting times ahead…

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You can find out more about Pete and his books on his Amazon Page, on his Website and on Twitter and Facebook.Pete and Lilly

 

Deadlines: Make ’em and Break ’em

“I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” ~ Douglas Adams

They’re a funny thing, deadlines. In my day job, they really can’t be broken unless there is a very plausible reason… an event outwith your control, preferably a disastrous mistake caused by someone else. There’s no room for whiny excuses of the ‘my dog ate my homework’ type when you’re dealing with pharmaceuticals and clinical trials.

Source: metro.co.uk

Source: metro.co.uk

In the writing world, however, it seems that they’re made to be broken. There’s some wiggle room. It’s not the end of the world if you deliver your manuscript a few days late. No one will die. Apparently. Although I suppose there could be knock-on effects that won’t earn you many brownie points with your publisher. I wouldn’t actually know, as I set my own deadline for my first novel, Black Wood and I don’t have one at the moment – hence why I am earning a first class degree in procrastination.

I like deadlines. They work for me. Having no deadline makes me lazy and restless. My mind flitters and flutters from one place to the next, hence why I haven’t actually written another book yet… I’ve got an endless number of ideas and I have written lots of words. They’re just not all in the same book.

On 28th June, 2013 – the day I met my agent in his office and signed up with him – I had written 40,000 words. He asked when I could deliver the full manuscript. Edited, of course (so a third draft, in practical terms). I said I’d have it to him on 31st July… a mere 4.5 weeks. I don’t know how, but I did it. I even had a long weekend in Harrogate in the middle of it. In fact, I sent it to him a day early. Then he told me he was off on holiday for two weeks and would read it when he got back! Aaargh!

So here I am with Book 2 (it does have a title, I’m just not quite ready to share it yet)… I haven’t got a deadline, so I am setting my own. Today is the 1st April, and, no – this is not an April Fool’s joke… I have 10,834 words. I’m setting myself a deadline of 6 weeks to finish some form of readable draft.That’s 13th May. An average of 12,000 words per week, with a week spare for a first-edit. I’m basing all this on me having a little bit of time off work… as yet, unconfirmed. Let’s see how I get on 🙂

In the words of Dr Pepper… “what’s the worst that could happen?”

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P.S. Did I mention I’m also planning to sketch out some words of another book at the same time? No? I think I might have officially lost the plot 😉

Character or Plot?

So, I’ve just finished reading The Telling Error by Sophie Hannah. This is not a book review, as such – just some thoughts that struck me during/after reading. That said, I highly recommend you read this book if you like a good, puzzling mystery and you love quirky characters…

Here’s the blurb:

All she wanted to do was take her son’s forgotten sports kit to school.

So why does Nicki Clements drive past the home of controversial newspaper columnist Damon Blundy eight times in one day? Blundy has been murdered, and the words ‘HE IS NO LESS DEAD’ daubed on his wall – in red paint, not blood. And, though Blundy was killed with a knife, he was not stabbed. Why?

Nicki, called in for questioning, doesn’t have any of the answers police are looking for. Nor can she tell them the truth, because although she is not guilty of murder, she is far from innocent. And the words on the wall are disturbingly familiar to her, if only she could remember where she has heard them before…

First off, this is number 9 in a series. I didn’t know that before I started it – I was hooked by the premise and decided to read it. It’s always good to read a series in order, but to be honest it didn’t matter much as the focus was far more on the main characters than it was on the police involved in the investigation (note to self: DC Simon Waterhouse is very intriguing – might need to read some of the others now).

What struck me right from the start, was the character of Nicki Clements. From the minute she opened her mouth/mind to the reader, it was clear that this was a woman with a tangled web of secrets. Why does she have to take a massive detour to get to the school? What’s the story with her ex-best friend? Her family? Why is she so damn jumpy?

Turns out, she’s a compulsive liar. I won’t say more, for fear of spoilers. What I realised though, that as puzzling as the plot was (one of Hannah’s trademarks, hence why she was the perfect choice to write the next Poirot…), I was far more interested in finding out as much as I could about Nicki.

So, this brings me to my own writing… Like many authors, (I assume) I start out with a central premise, the ‘what if’ scenario that drives the story. Then I build on that by writing more notes about the plot, the subplots, any scenes that pop into my head, locations etc. The last thing I think about is the characters. In my first novel, Black Wood, the premise was sparked by a true event. The characters seemed to come from nowhere, and more of them appeared the more I wrote. I didn’t plan any of them out, and to be honest I couldn’t tell you what any of their eye colours are and whether they prefer cats or dogs, wine or beer or if they’ve ever watched X-Factor or Newsnight.

As a reader, I don’t care much about these things… I like to picture them my own way. So as a writer, even though I’ve tried the ‘character questionnaire’ approach, I’ve found it doesn’t work for me. I like my characters to be drawn through their actions and their dialogue, not their dress size or the length of their hair. I want them to have quirks and foibles – and I want them to be fluid, in that different readers can interpret them in their own ways. It’s always exciting when someone reads one of your stories and says ‘I thought X was… blah’ and you think, ‘Oh, I didn’t think that at all…’

However – I’ve read articles by authors who’ve said the exact opposite. ‘The character of X spoke to me,’ ‘I just had to tell their story,’ etc. Sometimes I wish one of those characters would pop into my head.

I think Nicki Clements was one of those characters…

From both a reader’s and writer’s point of view, I’d be interested to hear what you think…

Setting the Tone

I’ve been a bit quiet on the blog and twitter lately (I’ve been posting lots of photos on facebook, but that’s mainly because we’ve been away from home, staying in a caravan, and the beach and country scenery is really quite lovely and must be shared :))

There’s pretty much no internet where we are staying… so my work (both day job and writing) must be done in snatches of time in cafes and the library – and not having the access in the afternoons and evenings means there is much time for thought. Especially when rain is battering off the roof!

One of the things I hoped to achieve during our time here (two months, from mid-August to mid-October) is to complete the first draft of my second novel (a standalone story that after a few false starts, feels like the one I *have* to write now…) And although the physical setting is working well for prolific writing, I am struggling with something more technical…

I can’t get the tone right.

I wrote almost 6,000 words – and when I read it back, I felt that my main character’s voice was too ‘light’ for what was going on, and for what was about to happen… so then I wrote on past the 6k, changing to first person POV and a darker mood, trying to see if I could dig deeper and get the creepy feeling I was hoping for… now she just sounds miserable! So I am going back to the end of the 6k, and I’m going to re-write the the next bit in the original way… I’m hoping that once the bad stuff starts to happen, the sunny disposition of my main character will disappear quick sharp… and as I keep writing on, these things will sort themselves out (when I am further into the story – which I have outlined, and have many notes for, but still leaving plenty of room for manoeuvre…)

Does anyone else suffer like this when starting out on a new piece of work? Would love to hear your thoughts!

My Writing Process

Big thanks to my writing friend and FlashFlood editing buddy, Shirley Golden, for inviting me to join this blog tour. It made me think a lot about my writing habits! So if you’re interested in what I’m up to and how I do what I do, here are my responses to the questions… 🙂

You can read Shirley’s responses from last week HERE.

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What am I working on?

I am working on my debut – a psychological suspense novel called BLACK WOOD. I recently received comments (all good – whew!) from my agent after a bit of a rewrite and we are now brainstorming the final part of the puzzle before it gets submitted to publishers (again). Fingers crossed!

I have plans for another two books set in the same town – not quite a series, but sharing a setting and with some overlapping characters – a bit like Belinda Bauer‘s Shipcott novels (Blacklands, Dark Side and Finders Keepers), which are not really a series as such, but all set in the same place.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

This is an interesting question, as I have recently been trying to formulate a short pitch for my novel that describes it in one sentence. After some discussion on facebook and twitter, it currently reads like this:

“Amidst the claustrophobia of a small Scottish town, Black Wood spins a tale of dark secrets and fractured friendships, where past meets present with devastating consequences…”

How does this differ from other novels in my genre? Well, I’m not really sure… the book focuses on the lives of the characters and how they interconnect in a place where gossip is rife, everyone knows your business, and secrets never remain buried forever. The ‘crime’ element is almost secondary to the main thread of the story. Black Wood does contain various elements that could place it in different genres according to taste…

Also, as I have written outlines for several standalones, which are all completely different and possibly more in the realm of horror/weird fiction – think: ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ – I don’t think I’m in danger of being labelled predictable 😉

Why do I write what I do?

I’ve always read a lot of crime and horror fiction, and am particularly interested in the psychological aspects of bad things happening to ordinary people and how they react. I particularly like dark secrets and the exploration of relationships – the idea that people are rarely what they seem. I’m writing the kind of things that I like to read. I think I would struggle to write for any other reason. Like many writers, I am fascinated by the concept of ‘what if..?’ and this is a scenario that seems to work well in most good genre fiction.

How does my writing process work?

  • Ideas come to me all the time. Something on the news, something I overhear. Sometimes it’s a tiny snippet, other times I can picture a whole scenario. I email notes to myself and add to them with each new thought until I have enough to work with.
  • It will probably change later, but I always know I’m ready to go when I have an opening scene to start me off. It can take a while to get to this place, with a lot of note-taking and brainstorming ideas, but I can’t get anywhere without this – if it doesn’t feel right at the start, I stall after the first page, and if I try to push on regardless it never feels right.
  • I work quicker when I start with a title. Sometimes these change later, but usually I spend a lot of time getting them right in my head before I start the story. A good title is essential for me as it frames the whole story.
  • I always worry about not having my characters fully formed. I tend to be led by plot and their personalities then come together from the actions that surround them. Once they exist, and the story is in full flow, I tweak them and their backstories and eventually their secrets start to come to me. I don’t plan them in that way where you ask them questions like what they eat for breakfast and where they’d like to go on holiday. I’ve tried, but it doesn’t work for me.
  • As far as planning goes, there’s a whole big debate about ‘plotters vs pantsers’ and having tried both, I’d have to say that I am a plotter by nature. I would love to just have a rough idea and wing it – in fact, I have tried that many times, with little success. After several failed attempts at writing a full-length novel, I finally completed one when I outlined in as much detail as I could. Things changed along the way, of course, as characters developed and caused the original ideas to shift, but without a plan I know I would never had made it to the end.
  • I struggle to write without editing as I go. I like to read over the day’s work and fix it where I can. Saying that though, there have been times when a scene or a chapter has come to me at an inappropriate time, such as while just about asleep (the usual) or while on a train, or more regularly, while driving. In those cases, I write as fast as I can and email the mess to myself, fixing it when next back at the computer. Because of this, my first draft of Black Wood was in quite good shape, and I only went through making a few tweaks before I sent to my agent. I then made further tweaks based on his feedback – then I made some more significant changes and that is where it currently stands. I’ll definitely be using what I’ve learned from writing this book to help me write the next.
  • I’m not in the ‘write X number of words every day’ camp, preferring to write in splurges as and when I can. When I was in the thick of the novel, I was writing in several chunks every day, early mornings and late nights – but before that, when I was working on shorts and flash, I definitely didn’t write every day. I always think I’ll write more on my days off work, or at weekends, but that rarely happens. Snatching time before or after work tends to be far more productive, and in those short bursts I can usually write about 1000 words an hour, if I’m focused and know what I’m writing. That’s probably the most important thing for me – knowing what it is I plan to write before I sit down to write it – otherwise I just end up staring at a blank page, or more likely, refreshing my facebook and twitter feeds to find something to do other than write.

I don’t believe in a strict set of rules for writing. Everyone is different and works in different ways. I’ve bought loads of books on the craft of writing, and most have a few good tips and tricks, but the only way I can see it working is to find your own way. Anyone who tells you it’s easy is lying. Writing is hard work, but the feeling you get when someone tells you they’ve enjoyed something you’ve written makes it all worthwhile.

Comments welcome, as always 🙂

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NEXT WEEK:

Jane Isaac‘s first novel, An Unfamiliar Murder, was nominated as best mystery in the ‘eFestival of Words Best of the Independent eBook awards 2013.’ The sequel, The Truth Will Out will be released on 1st April 2014. Jane lives with her husband, daughter and dog, Bollo, in rural Northamptonshire.

Miranda Kate is a British expat living in Holland, who by day is a freelance editor, and by night a writer of dark, disturbing ‘real-life’ fiction. Primarily a novel writer, Miranda enjoys exploring her writing through flash fiction, finding a certain satisfaction in the end result.

Laura Jamez, a mother of two from Dunfermline, has been obsessed with horror stories from a very young age. She is currently working on a new collection exploring the worlds of a Vampires and Werewolves, due for release late Spring 2014.

 

The Return of the Artful Dodger

James Benmore

James Benmore

As I revealed recently on my post about my reading habits, I often find myself reading several books at once… currently, one of these is Dodger by James Benmore – where we find Benmore’s incarnation of Dickens’ Artful Dodger back in London after his time in the Australian penal colony, on a special pardon with a secret mission to carry out…

I’m really enjoying the book so far and I’ll be posting a review soon, but in the meantime, I am very pleased to have a lovely guest post from the author on who influences his writing. Take it away, James…

Who influences your writing?

About a month ago I was invited to a book club evening where my own novel Dodger was being discussed. Obviously I was thrilled to have been asked because I’ve not been a published author for very long so its still a rare pleasure to meet anyone who has read it through until the end let alone a whole roomful of them. That said, I was still a bit perturbed about the whole thing because we writers are a sensitive, solitary bunch who are unused to sitting still while people tell us what they think of our stuff even if they are all being very nice about it. So I went along to meet the group excited about the occasion but also preparing myself for a bloody good squirm.

Anyway, the whole evening turned out to be very painless, pleasurable and Prosecco-sodden so I don’t know what I was worrying about really. I should admit, in the interests of transparency, that some of the members of this particular group are friends of mine so I sort of knew that they weren’t going to start booing and throwing rotten eggs at me – at least not about the book. Instead, they just told me what they enjoyed – (sweet of them)neglected to tell me what they didn’t like – (even more sweet!)and asked me for a short reading (with the emphasis placed upon short.)

At one point though there was a question and answer session for which I was completely unprepared. As I say, I’ve not been at this author game for very long and haven’t done many interviews so I don’t have a stock of ready-made answers for the simple perennials that your more seasoned scribes might have accumulated over the years. And so, with two empty bottles of the Prosecco already in the bin, I answered each question in a rambling, unfocused manner until whoever had asked it politely nodded and changed the subject.

One of the many questions that I recall failing to answer in a satisfactory manner was the old favourite – “who influenced you?” That should have been an easy under-arm throw for me – considering that Dodger continues the story of a famous Dickensian character – but still my swing was off. I remember having largesse enough to credit Charles Dickens which I’m sure was a great comfort to his omni-present ghost but, beyond that, I can’t remember if I had any interesting answers to hand. And so, now that I’ve given it a bit more sober thought, I have decided that I would use this post to list just a few of the many novels that had an influence on Dodger and its upcoming sequel Dodger of the Dials.

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

It’s hard to think of a more iconic and brilliant array of seedy underworld characters than the criminal contingent of Oliver Twist. Even before I had read the book I had seen countless adaptations and so the whole rotten gang loomed as large to me as if they were from some disreputable branch of my own family. Burglar Bill and Fagin the fence dominate this story of an innocent boy lost in the city like two dark parent figures and the whole tale hinges on whether or not they will seize control of the eponymous orphan’s soul. And yet for me the real star of the book is Jack Dawkins, the street-wise Artful Dodger, who instigates the London drama by plucking Oliver from the cold steps of the pavement and delivering him up to his criminal master. Everything about Dodger captures the imagination. His flash name and appearance, his amusing manner of speech, his sheer craftiness and skill at the tail-coat pocket. Oliver Twist isn’t actually my favourite Dickens novel – that would be the superb Great Expectations – but young Artful is far and away my favourite Dickens character.

But one of the things I found to be a little disappointing when finally I read the novel was that the Dodger isn’t as central to the books plot as the adaptations had led me to believe. He barely registers in the final act having been transported to Australia for stealing a silver snuff-box long before the climax. So Dodger couldn’t have known about Nancy’s betrayal, Bill’s bloody vengeance or Fagin’s hanging. One of the most famous characters from Oliver Twist, it occurred to me, doesn’t even know how Oliver Twist ends.

This thought was the seed that inspired Dodger. Long before I had any sort of plot developed, or had even decided if I wanted to write a historical novel, I found myself imagining the scene when he returns to London some years later and learns about the horrible fate that befell his criminal family after his departure. I imagined that if he were to narrate the story then Oliver would be presented not as his usual angelic self but as rather a more destructive and insidious presence – a boy who betrays his own class so that he could move upwards in society.  In Dodger’s eyes Oliver is the real villain of the piece and I relished the chance to explore this warped perspective.

But although Oliver Twist was the primary influence on both books – and scarcely a page of either was written without me referring to the Dickens classic – it was not the only novel that shaped the way that the book was written.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

The plot of Dodger – which actually came to me quite late into the planning stages – revolves around a missing Indian jewel called the Jakkapoor stone that has been hidden somewhere deep inside London that Dodger needs to locate. This fictional jewel was originally looted many years earlier in the aftermath of the real-life siege of Seringapatam by an officer in the British East India Company from an ancient temple and is said to be cursed.

Fans of the nineteenth century sensation novel will recognise this plot set-up from the prologue of one of English literatures earliest detective novels The Moonstone written in 1868 by Wilkie Collins. Collins was a friend of Dickens and also my second favourite novelist of that period. His work is surprisingly modern, fast-paced, funny and suspenseful and these were exactly the qualities that I hoped that Dodger would have. So The Moonstone was a perfect book to pilfer from although the plots of both unfold in very different ways and reveal contrasting secrets at their centres.

Jack Sheppard by William Harrison Ainsworth

This 1839 historical crime saga was based upon the exploits of the real life C18th criminal Jack Sheppard and was serialised in Bentleys Miscellany, the same monthly magazine in which Oliver Twist appeared. The two stories ran at the same time as each other so would have been linked in the public mind and there is evidence to suggest that Sheppard might have even been more popular than Twist in many circles. Because they both featured crooks, murderers and scenes of condemned men awaiting their executions, they were labelled with the term Newgate Novels.

Dickens, however, hated the genre association because works such as Jack Sheppard and the similarly themed Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton were clumsily written and did not enjoy a respectable reputation. They were seen as controversial and scandalous because they glamourised criminality and Dickens felt – rightly – that Oliver Twist was much more than that. But Jack Sheppard still is a rollicking and irreverent read despite being the low-brow twin of Twist and it always occurred to me that a Jack Dawkins book would have a lot in common with it. The plot of Dodger of the Dials owes as much to this book as Dodger owes to The Moonstone.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

This might seem a peculiar novel to credit with influencing Dodger because its a science-fiction classic rather a Victorian tale. But I remember reaching for it on the day that I began to write the first page four years ago because I wanted to soak up the unrepentant voice of teenage rebellion that we hear from the narrator Alex. The first chapter of Dodger shows Jack and his young gang prowling the streets of Covent Garden looking for pickings and getting into trouble while employing the slang of his day so although the events of both books are worlds away from each other there is a sort of echo. I called one of the boys Georgie after one of the Droog’s and the thickest member of the Dawkins gang – the moronic Horrie Belltower – was very much inspired by the aptly-named Dim. 

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I read this wonderful novel a few years before I wrote Dodger and although I don’t think it has any direct influence over the story I know that Waters was a big inspiration when I was first considering making a go of it as a novelist. Until Fingersmith I don’t think I had any intention of writing a historical novel and imagined myself writing something more contemporary. But I was so taken with how brilliantly she had created her own vision of Victorian England that when I eventually struck upon the idea of writing Dodger I was perhaps a bit keener to take the plunge into the nineteenth century than I would have been otherwise. I also loved her equally impressive previous novel Affinity. 

The Observations by Jane Harris

Another novel that I read soon before I began Dodger was this terrific historical piece set in 1863 Scotland which is told by a 15 year old Irish maid called Bessy. I had read a review of this book which had praised the use of an archaic and lower-class dialect and, because I knew I wanted Jack Dawkins to speak in his particular cockney voice, I wanted to see how successful Harris had been with her own unlikely narrator. Looking back on that early stage in my novels development there was a chance that if I had read The Observations and hated the way it was written then I would have considered abandoning my plan to write the book in the first-person and therefore perhaps the whole book itself. But Bessy turned out to be such a lively and compelling narrator that she only strengthened my resolve to let Jack Dawkins tell his own story himself.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Kevin O’Neill

Finally I have to give credit to a writer I have loved ever since I noticed his name recurring on all the best stories in the weekly sci-fi comic 2000 AD when I was a child. There are few living writers I admire more than Alan Moore and this graphic novel – in which a number of characters from different Victorian novels all interact as some sort of literary Justice League – gave me the confidence to not just to try writing the further adventures of a famous fictional creation but also to have him brush shoulders with characters from other Charles Dickens novels. Jack Dawkins steals from the pockets of a number of Dickensian cameos throughout Dodger, including Mr Pickwick, Betsey Trotwood and a few others, and I’m not sure I would have been so bold to throw those characters into the mix without the League’s precedent. Moore’s irreverent attitude towards the characters he was playing with in his series assured me that what I was doing with the Artful Dodger was not actually illegal and that the book police wouldn’t come and arrest me for crimes against literary posterity if I was eventually lucky enough to get published.

So those are just a small collection of the countless novels that helped me inspire me to write my own effort. Because Dodger is so directly about a character from Oliver Twist it can be easy for me to forget that there were many other novels that helped to forge it and this exercise of writing a list of just six more has been very helpful in reminding me how indebted I am to all the many great writers I have enjoyed over the years. And if I’m ever lucky enough to be invited to a book group again in the future I hope to have slightly more interesting answers ready to the question of  “who influenced you?”

 * * *

James Benmore has written two novels based upon the continuing exploits of the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist. The first, Dodger, is available to buy in hardback and ebook now, while the second, Dodger of the Dials,  will be released in April 2014. They are both published by Heron books, an imprint of Quercus.

His short story `Jaggers & Crown’ was published by The Fiction Desk in 2011 and he is also currently writer in residence at Gad’s Hill School, the former home of Charles Dickens.

You can find James on twitter.

 

 

How to Survive as a Writer

AJ Waines

AJ Waines

This week, I’m delighted to share a guest post from author AJ Waines, where she talks about the three big things that all writers need…

RESOLVE
PATIENCE
& RESILIENCE

* * *

I’ve been reflecting recently on the essential personality traits needed  not only to be a writer, but one who is in it for the long haul. I don’t mean the obvious qualities, like creativity, invention, originality of style, thinking outside the box, observation skills, flair for language and probably also, in my case, a slightly twisted mind! I mean the qualities you need to survive as a writer.

I started writing fiction only five years ago, but my learning curve on so many levels has been steep and at times, almost emotionally crippling! Here are just a few of the qualities I’ve identified as crucial to my own writing journey. I know, on a personal level, they could do with a serious overhaul!

Resolve – the need to stay self-assured and determined.

In the beginning, allowing another soul to read my work was a big step. My brother-in-law, Mike, an avid and pull-no-punches reader, offered to read my manuscript and I couldn’t afford to turn him down. Dredging up the courage to make that next move to submit to agents was a further push beyond my comfort zone. I needed some serious nudging from Mike, before I decided it might not be a complete waste of everybody’s time. I’d done no creative writing training whatsoever, I’d even failed my English literature ‘O’ level  – so what on earth made me think anyone would regard my writing as publishable?

Patience

This isn’t one of my strong points in life, generally! I’m a ‘think about it’, then ‘get up and sort it out’ kind of person. I’ve found patience one of the hardest aspects of being a writer and it crops up time after time. Take getting an agent. You send an initial enquiry letter and have to wait. Days slide past and you hear nothing. Days become weeks and you’ve not heard a thing. If you’re lucky someone requests three chapters – you send them and wait. If you’re luckier, they might request the whole manuscript. You send it – and guess what? You’re really, really excited now, but there’s more waiting. Agents rarely respond sooner than four or five weeks, some not until after twelve weeks – others say if they’re not interested, they don’t reply at all. In those cases, you don’t even get a ‘no, thank you’. Even when you go to see an Agent and finally sign that contract – it’s still no guarantee of anything. My first agent was terribly enthusiastic about my book,  but it didn’t sell and they dropped me…

Resilience to Uncertainty

Agents are busy and don’t have time to give individual writers a blow by blow account of what they’re up to. I hate uncertainty; I like everything to be clear and organised with dates and deadlines, but there’s a lot of ‘not knowing what’s going on’ in publishing. It’s purgatory for me! There are long gaps as material goes back and forth for polishing and re-writes and there seems to be a great deal of mystery about the submission process itself. I have found it difficult (I’ve had two agents, to date) to get information about ‘when’, ‘who’, ‘why’ and ‘what’ in this area. Has it gone out yet? Who has it gone to? Why those publishers? Why only twelve? What replies have we had? I spent almost a whole year thinking one agent had sent out a new novel, only to find it was ‘on hold’.

Resilience to Powerlessness

There is a lot of powerlessness involved in the publishing business – perhaps this is why so many writers are turning to self-publishing. Many aspects of the process are out of sight and not under the writer’s control. Take the book cover and jacket blurb. The author chooses, right? No – the marketing department has the final say. Even the book title can be out of our hands. In my earlier career as a Psychotherapist, I wrote a self-help book entitled ‘The Self-Esteem Journal’, a book about building self-esteem through personal diary-writing. My second book was a direct follow-on from the first, but the chosen title ‘Making Relationships Work’, made it sound like a generic ‘relationship’ book and it subsequently got lost in piles of other relationship titles. My objections had no impact whatsoever and the book is now about to go out of print.

And finally, the Biggie – Resilience to Rejection

Being an author is one big Competition and with every round you get through, there’s another tougher challenge lurking ahead. My agent found a publisher for my first two books in Germany, got deals in France, but there have been plenty of rejections closer to home. So far we haven’t had enough interest from the UK. Top publishers have said wonderful things: ‘fantastic set-up… terrific concept… rare talent’, but then turned the books down, saying they had just taken on other writers who were too similar in style or subject matter. It’s not enough to be a cracking writer with a great story – you have to fit in with other titles and writers at the right time. The reason given for one of my rejections was that the publisher had just taken on a murder mystery set alongside The Thames, just like my novel.

Even after the books are published, there are stacks of worries about promotion, book sales and bad reviews. Writers have to develop thick skins and need to keep bouncing back at every turn – even when they’ve got over several hurdles.

Add to these qualities all the other ones you need just to complete a novel, such as focus, dedication, single-mindedness, diligence and attention to detail. Are you exhausted yet?! Thankfully, I have a 100% commitment to writing – I have to be pried away from my PC every day – and the writing process (which goes hand in hand with reading and learning the craft of writing) has mushroomed from a passion into a gripping obsession. I love it. I have never worked so hard in my life or found anything as challenging in the long-term – but it’s all worth it, because I feel ALIVE. Being a writer leaves me knowing that all the strife and heart-ache is ultimately enriching my life, giving me new adventures and fresh targets to aim for.

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A J Waines writes Psychological Thrillers. Her debut novel, The Evil Beneath, is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon and is about a serial killer who attaches corpses to London bridges and leaves messages and personal mementos for psychotherapist, Juliet Grey.

Alison draws on over fifteen years of experience as a Psychotherapist, including work with clients from high security prisons. This exclusive and privileged role has given her a rare insight into abnormal psychology. She is interested in writing about the extraordinary dilemmas and traumas ordinary people often have to face – particularly ‘crimes of passion’, hidden motives, family secrets and moral dilemmas. She lives in Southampton with her husband.

A J Waines’ website is www.ajwaines.co.uk