Monday, 28 December 2009

A Writer on Holiday

Like my book, I've been on the move again. This week my travels had nothing to do with books, research, signings, sort of promotion, or anything at all to do with books. We were paying some Christmas visits to family and friends. But, as Ionesco said, 'A writer never has a vacation. for a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.' So I took my notebook, and a supply of pens, and wrote two more chapters of my third book while I was away. Once a writer...
(By the way, I've no idea where CUT SHORT was going in this photo. A reader sent it to me.)
Leigh Russell

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Great Christmas For Writers

by Matt Lynn

There is too much doom and gloom around the writing industry. But a glance at the top ten bestsellers for this Christmas should cheer any fiction writer up. The number one book is a thriller (okay, Dan Brown, but still a thriller). Six of the top ten are original works of fiction, compared to only two last year. This year, there are only two celebrity memoirs on the list compared with five last year (and those two take the bottom two slots).

Publishers will notice. They will be less keen to promote ghost-written celebrity books, and investing more in fiction. That surely is good news for writers.

The reason is simple. People love stories, and always have done. And Christmas, certainly the greatest story of all, is always a good time to remember that.

Friday, 18 December 2009


Just heard CUT SHORT is to have its 2nd reprint in 6 months.
My publisher is very pleased (phew). As Matt Lynn says, it's always good to exceed your publisher's expectations... What a wonderful way to end a busy year.
I'm really looking forward to Christmas Day. My children are spending the day with their partners' families so on the 25th December this year we are seeing no one and going nowhere. I can't wait! Reading Matt Lynn's post about fitting in writing with working and book promotion really struck a chord with me. I managed to juggle working and writing, but with promotion thrown into the mix, life is becoming very hectic. Take this week. I visited three schools and colleges to talk to sixth form about CUT SHORT. Then it was up to York for a BBC Radio interview, and book signing at WH Smith's. Back home again and I'm off to Brent Cross tomorrow for another book signing. In the meantime I've been reading Henning Mankell's SIDETRACKED which I need to finish before his appearance on BBC Radio 4's Bookclub with James Naughtie in January when I'm in the invited audience. And of course I'm writing. I've delivered ROAD CLOSED, the second in the Geraldine Steel series, which will be published in 2010. My deadline for the third book isn't looming - yet. But I want to finish the first draft before I start promoting ROAD CLOSED, and the weeks are zipping past.
Still, on Christmas Day I have something very particular to do. I've promised myself. I'm going to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ALL DAY! I can't wait. (Although I'll probably spend the morning writing . . . )


By Richard Jay Parker

Sleuthsink - a North American crime writers' website, asked me to write a blog for them this week so, as I've been in traditional Christmas frenzy, I'm reproducing it here. I answered questions during my live blog so you can check them out and discover more about Sleuthsink by visiting them here:

They're a thoroughly decent bunch. Until 2010 then - Merry Christmas.

As a writer I've always been interested in articles about the process of getting work out there. This isn’t intended as a How-To piece, however. I hope this will encourage writers who are languishing in any of the 'writing a book/rewriting a book/looking for an agent/seeking a publisher' categories and any sub-purgatory categories in between.

There's no doubt about it--getting a book published is one of the hardest tasks anyone can attempt. I began my writing career by submitting comedy sketch scripts on spec to TV companies. I began getting more involved in the production before becoming a head writer, script editor and eventually producer. It was steady progress across years but a book is something different. You're either published or you're not. For a publisher, it's a large investment of faith and money and nowadays they have to be positive of getting a return on that investment before taking the plunge.

It's taken me a drawer full of manuscripts and ten years to get to this point. I don't ever consider that as wasted time though. If I hadn't written all of those manuscripts I wouldn’t have written STOP ME. I also didn't begin by writing thrillers but discovered how much I enjoyed plotting them along the way. I decided that if I were to become pigeonholed as a writer then thrillers were what I’d be comfortable writing until the cows came home. My then agent’s response: 'Great! But I don't represent thriller writers so you'll have to find another agent.'

I won't bore you with the grim details of trying to find alternative representation. Luckily–and lets not forget what a huge factor that is in the journey–an agent who had previously shown interest in my work was poached to another agency and asked me to submit to him there. I was working on STOP ME at the time. I sent him what I'd written so far--about a third--and waited. By the time he’d read it I'd finished writing the whole manuscript. He read the other two thirds, got a positive in-house reader’s report and submitted to publishers.We got positive feedback but no offers.

There was a common criticism of the manuscript which concerned its plot flashing back to the past too often. I quickly rewrote it and made the story more linear. We then got an offer as well as interest from two other publishers. Eventually we settled on my current publisher.

As an editor I'd been pretty brutal re extraneous writing and had fiercely polished the manuscript so there was little story editing to do before it went to print. There were inconsistencies though and I was very glad of the input I had from my editor, Lara. The publisher politely welcomed my suggestions re the cover but I bowed to their superior knowledge and they came up with something much better than anything I could have envisaged–simple but striking.

And there you might think the work is over but that depends on how successful you want your book to be. Most publishers encourage their authors to be proactive re publicity for the book so my next question was--how do I get a book by a new author noticed?

Firstly I pursued some established writers of the genre for blurbs. One of them read my book and was kind enough to give me a great blurb for my cover. It arrived a day before the book went to print. It's difficult to know just how much a blurb can help but, as a newcomer, associating your work with someone that people recognise has got to be a step in the right direction.

I also followed the usual route of setting up a website. I think this is absolutely vital whether you're published or not. You can post all your details there as well as samples of your work, short stories etc. I did try and make my website as quirky and memorable as possible. You can have a look here. I also got a good friend to compose a simple piece of menacing music to unsettle people as they read about my story. Copyright is obviously always an issue but you can get pictures and music that are copyright free.

I'm lucky enough to have great support at Allison & Busby in the form of Chiara Priorelli who organises blogs, signed books and publicity. She’s proved invaluable in terms of promoting me on the publisher's site and is always happy to get involved in a publicity concept.

Twitter is also a great tool for getting the word out about your book and is how I came to be associated with the friendly people who run Sleuthsink. There are lots of avid readers as well as publishing people who use Twitter and I've found that if you tweet your thoughts about writing you can soon connect with many people who share a similar passion. You can follow me on Twitter @Bookwalter. You can also find our other Curzon members there individually and at @CurzonGroup.

The promotional process is ongoing and although it's difficult to measure just how much impact a lot of your efforts have, you can at least be positive that you’re doing everything you can to make people aware of your work. Soup to nuts – the whole process. And likely to drive you nuts in the process as well. But there’s no doubt that actually getting published is indeed the hardest part. It’s not impossible though even if it does feel that way sometimes. To get there, being positive is the most important part of your armoury. It's a lonely business being a writer and the disappointments don't get any easier.Constructive rejection letters only have a use a couple of days after you’ve received them because initially they just mean REJECTION! Once you’ve surfed the disappointment, however, examine them and take the comments on board. Also remember that opinion is subjective. What won't work for one publisher may be perfect for another. If you have genuine faith in your work then chances are somebody else will. Be your own harshest critic. After you’ve finished your book go back and read it a few months later.

Always start thinking about your next project as soon as you've finished your first. If your current project doesn't get the reception you wanted, by the time you've learned that you'll have something else exciting underway.

I'll finish with a story from 1999. I'd become disillusioned with TV and wanted to concentrate on novel writing. I’d left my TV agent and got a literary agent on the back of my first novel. I was invited to a literary party at the agency and was described in Publishing News as 'soon-to-be-published.’ I thought I'd effortlessly jumped ship. It's now 2009 and I have my first book published. It may even be my last but seeing STOP ME on the shelf definitely made it all worth it.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Amazonian narcissism

I love Amazon. It is a cargo cult. I click around the site and a couple of days latter my self-gifts appear over the horizon and are unloaded. Presents appear at Christmas from them via friends unsummoned.

Amazon is a virtual Santa Claus.

What is even more exciting is watching my novel on the Amazon charts. Like a proto-pop star I’m riveted narcissistically to my own rise and fall.

Suddenly I’ve shot up from 300,000 to 1200 and hit 32 overall in Thrillers. As this is my first book, it is a ‘noob’ pleasure to be flanked by John Le Carre, Oscar Wilde, Lee Childs and Dan Brown.

As Miss Piggy might say "Moi!?!"

Armageddon Trade did hit number 8 in Thrillers in the summer and skimmed the top 100 overall in books. But this was only a few days of delight until Amazon went out of stock and I plummeted from A list to non-entity faster than an X-factor finalist.

Now days from Christmas Im back flying high.

Its strange to have this funny little dream of minor bestseller-dom come true. It was the visualisation of future success that kept me going as a forlorn unpublished author slogging up the mountain that is writing a novel.

Like actual mountain climbing, the view from the top lasts for only moments, so Im going to enjoy it.

A Book A Year...

by Matt Lynn

The end of the year is fast approaching, and I've just realised that I won't have finished a book this year. Not quite anyway. I'm on page 470 of 'Shadow Force', and I reckon it will be about 600 pages on Microsoft Word (double-spaced), so unless I skip Christmas completely it won't be done before the 31st. And that's just the first draft. There are still revisions to be made. And facts to be checked.

That doesn't matter greatly in itself. The book isn't due to be handed in until March, so there is plenty of time.

But one of the things I've discovered from visiting bookshops in support of 'Death Force' this year is that writers need to crack out a book a year to establish themselves in the market. Several booksellers have mentioned that a writer gets going, then a year goes by without a book appearing, and they lose momentum. Indeed, one of the reasons I think Headline liked the idea of taking me on as an author is because they knew from the ghost-writing I'd done that I could be relied upon to deliver a book once every twelve months.

I can see why it's important. Readers need to be seeing you regularly in the shops before they will sample you. Publishers need to feel they will have a supply of fresh product to make it worth promoting you. But I can't help feeling it will get harder as I go on. When you start, you just have the manuscript to worry about. As you progress, however, there is more and more promotional work to take care off. And whilst that's important as well, at a certain point it is going to make the book a year cycle harder to keep up with.

So I guess my New Year's Resolation will be to make sure I start work early on the next book in the series - so that I get it finished by the end of 2010.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Hidden Fears

Picking up on the theme of nostalgia from the previous post, I visited a few local schools and colleges this week and a student asked me which book had had the most impact on me when I was a child. That is such a long time ago! Does anyone read Just William these days? Treasure Island, Heidi, Little Women... There are so many new and exciting contemporary authors writing for the youth market nowadays: Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo, Phillip Pullman, to name just a few. It makes it all the more dismal that so few children are reading, and even fewer teenagers. There are many other, easier, opportunities to fill their time.
In a different context, I had another 'trip down memory lane' recently. On one of my school visits this week I tried to impress on my young audience how ground breaking Dr Who was when it was first broadcast in the 1960s. From Andy Pandy to daleks was a qualitative leap for an unsophisticated viewing audience. Dr Who was the first television programme to employ special effects and it succeeded in terrifying a generation.
I was intially entertained when a dalek asked me to sign a copy of CUT SHORT the other week. Of course I agreed. What author will refuse a sale? The top (lid?) of the dalek duly lifted up and . . . a hand emerged . . . a human hand! . . . proffering money. Of course I knew it was just a plastic shell in dalek shape concealing a man inside, but I couldn't bring myself to put my own hand inside the dalek. Instead, I handed the change to someone else to deliver to the man-inside-the-plastic-dalek.
How ridiculous! But our early childhood fears run deep. The child we once were lurks inside us all, (I won't say like the man concealed inside the dalek - it's too obvious!)
When I'm writing crime novels, I play with my readers' fears . . . a character wakes at night, alone in the house, and hears a door closing . . . a woman walking along a dark deserted street hears footsteps . . .
I knowingly draw on my own irrational terrors in my writing - but holding back from touching a plastic dalek - that was a surprise even to a scaredycat like me! Surely at the ripe old age of mumble (OK, I was watching daleks in 1964) I should have outgrown my fear of a plastic inverted bucket waving a sink plunger? Especially one who had just bought a copy of my book! Of course, without my irrational fears, my writing would be less scarey, but I wonder if anyone has been caught out by a more ridiculous irrational childhood fear , or do I win the wimpy prize for this one?
Leigh Russell

Friday, 11 December 2009


By Richard Jay Parker

Usually, at this time of the year, the lists of worst books and best books start circulating and there's always some fun to be had from constructing your own personal versions.

But rather than slagging or praising books I usually aim for a different area of discussion - comfort books. Everything about Christmas is about comfort - comfort eating, comfort viewing, comfort gifts. So, rather than selecting a book for the holidays that I feel I should be reading (ie list of recommendations for contemporary authors I feel compelled to catch up with), my eyes usually alight on something I wouldn't normally read during the other eleven months of the year.

It's very often from my own shelf. Don't get me wrong - my credit card is already bloody and bruised from its Amazon gauntlet and I know there'll be plenty of requested books plumping up my stocking. However, my 'to read' list can go on hold just for a couple of weeks and I'll immerse myself in something as tried and tested as Its' A Wonderful Life.

Last year it was a book of Ghost Stories by M R James. This year it's Dennis Wheatley's The Haunting Of Toby Jugg. Books from my warped childhood! It's an old yellowed copy and there's something deeply satisfying about spending some leisurely time with something that's been patiently waiting on my shelf for the right occasion. It's like time out.

In 2010 I'll look forward to diving into the latest thrillers. A pristine copy of something new and exciting is the best way to start the year. I've been chatting to a lot of great authors in 2009 and have bought their books as a result. My Christmas list has got increasingly longer as well. A lot of them are newbies like me and I can't wait to discover what they're capable of.

So as well as giving much needed support to the up and coming writers this year go to your bookshelf and find something classic, nostalgic and familiar as well - for a lot of us, it's what Christmas is all about.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Role Models....

by Matt Lynn

I've always felt that one of the best ways to approach any endeavor is the choose a role model. Then you don't exactly copy them, but you can let them inspire you. You can figure out what they were getting right, and try and do the same things.

When I started out on the Death Force series, I was planning to use Alistair MacLean as my role model. I used to love his books as a boy. They were robust, manly tales, full of exciting adventures, and not too many girls to slows things down. And MacLean was, of course, a terrific writer, and someone who could spin a plot until you were dizzy.

I was assuming that MacLean was a largely forgotten figure. But it turns out he's having a bit of a revival. In The Observer this weekend, Geoff Dyer wrote a fantastic piece about the film 'Where Eagles Dare' (for which MacLean wrote both the script and the book). And, of course, he's right: it's a terrific slice of action film-making, with a riveting plot, and Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood are both right at the top of their game. It knocks Quentin Tarantino's recent limp attempt at a WWII movie straight out of the park.

Then, according to The Bookseller, Harper Collins are planning to re-issue MacLean's books. They've put quite a few out already, and are planning to re-isssue the rest of the backlist next year. Whcih is great. I won't have to scour second-hand bookshops, or order battered copies of the Amazon second-hand section, to remind myself how good they were.

Anyway, maybe being the new Alistair MacLean is not such an obscure ambition after all. That's if I can ever make my books nearly as good as his.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Thoughts on Writing - Plot vs Character

When I write, I am aware of tension between plot and character. Most of my readers are sophisticated in the genre, and they come to a book with expectations. As an author I can observe conventions, or play with them, by setting up prospects which are fulfilled or confounded. But the unwritten parameters are always present.
Crime thrillers are plot driven. I would like to write a murder story where I do not decide the identity of the killer until the very end, taking the same journey as my readers, trying to establish which of the suspects is the culprit. In practice, the story has to be neatly planned so that every detail leads towards a conclusion that is satisfying yet unpredictable. I have to know where the journey ends in order to take my readers in the right – or the wrong – direction on the way.
Working out plots is fun, involving a lot of problem solving. My main interest, however, lies in my characters. Sometimes a character has to perform a certain action for the sake of the plot but, as any writer will tell you, characters sometimes take off in their own directions. I cannot allow a character to act 'out of character' or the illusion is broken. Readers must never think "I don't believe this character would ever do/say that". So there can be tension between the direction in which a character develops, and the requirements of the plot. My readers should know nothing of this conflict. It is my job as the author to create a believable fictitious world with plausible characters whose behaviour produces an elegant plot.
In the meantime, I am on a journey of my own. For an unknown author on a miniscule budge, Cut Short has been a great success. My reaction to the overwhelmingly positive response is relief. But there is no room for complacency. Like a thoughtless remark, once a book is put out there, it cannot be recalled. The second book in my series will be published in 2010. My manuscript for Road Closed is finished. I can only hope it will be as well received as Cut Short.
Leigh Russell

Friday, 4 December 2009

Prologue to "City of Thieves" by Cyrus Moore

'City of Thieves' by Cyrus Moore
Published by Sphere, July 2009

'What does your gut tell you?'

'My gut tells me I'm right. The problem is I don't have Larry's support.'

'Larry doesn't know what he's talking about.'

'Maybe. But he's my boss.'

Charlie took a sip of wine and placed his glass down firmly on the table. 'Hold your ground and Larry will respect you. You won't last a minute without his respect.'

'I'm just scared that if I go out on a limb with this one, then I'm fucked.'

‘You’re fucked anyway, kiddo. Look, anyone who tries to predict the future is going to screw up at some point. But right or wrong is not what’s important in this business. If you want to be a winner in this game, you need to follow my three little rules.’

A waitress glided over to take their order. Charlie dismissed her with a wave of his hand. ‘Rule number one: stand up for what you believe in – your reputation is all you’ve got,’ he declared. ‘Rule number two: don’t follow the crowd – if you can’t think of anything original to say, keep your mouth shut. And rule number three …’ He looked furtively right and left, leaned forward and eyed Niccolo with steely precision. ‘… never trust anyone in this business. They’re all a bunch of dirty, lying motherfuckers.’


By Richard Jay Parker

Thought I'd pick up on Matt's blog about writing sex scenes (I couldn't really resist).

There's nothing worse than sex that's shoehorned into a story. I've read some books where it appeared to be cut and pasted onto the plot at precisely calculated intervals. One book had it every twelve pages.

Don't get me wrong, I love reading about sex. It's the one thing that unites most readers. A large percentage of us are interested in it in one form or another. It has an even more illicit thrill here in the UK because even though we're in the 21st Century there's still a large number of readers who still approach reading about it as something furtive.

It's bizarre that we're happy to discuss the most explicit violence but still have a block on something as natural as sex. OK it depends which books you read. If you combine the two we're in a whole different territory.

But when it comes to consenting sex there's certainly an expectation of it in the thriller genre. It's a welcome spice to any holiday read but it has to be relevant.

STOP ME doesn't contain any sex. It didn't occur to me that there should be any because it just didn't figure in the story. The new book that I've just finished does contain sex. It wasn't a directive or a conscious decision - the character dynamic within the story demanded it. The story revolves around a sexual relationship and the question of whether it will be rekindled. Not boy meets girl but boy has already met girl. Their lives have moved on but now they've been thrown back together with all the baggage of their intervening years.

Restraint is often the key, however, even though sex is as subjective as violence. Too much for one person is not enough for another. You can only strive to be true to your story rather than thinking of who you're going to excite or offend. If your story is good it's only part of a much bigger picture.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Intergalactic Sales

Cut Short has boldly gone where no book has gone before, to a far off galaxy (where the inhabitants pay in sterling !)
Here's photographic proof:

Intrepid author Leigh Russell sells Cut Short to a dalek and lives to tell the tale (as writers do.)

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Good Sex, Bad Sex....

Shucks, there's another award I didn't win. Jonathan Littell has collected the bad sex award handed out by the Literary Review. I really don't know how they can have ignored my efforts in 'Death Force'. "Orlena's body felt supple and warm next to him in the bed. Steve was cradling her in his arms, aware of the way their sweat was mingling. Her hair was lying across his chest, and he could feel his breath on his skin, and her nipples squeezed up next to him." I would have thought that stood a chance. Then again, when I read some of Littell's efforts, I suppose I have to concede defeat. "This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon's head," he writes. Cripes. That really is terrible.

For any writer, however, there is an interesting issue here. How do you write well about sex? I've always taken it as a given that a great thriller needs a great sex scene (unless it a police procedural, of course, in which case the hero will be a miserable Scottish bloke with a drink problem who no one would fancy). It is part of the mix of popular escapist fiction, which is what thrillers are all about.

But, of course, it is extraordinarily difficult to write well about sex. Elvis Costello, who's a big hero of mine, once remarked, in the course of taking his usual pot shots at the critics, that "writing about music was like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do." And as usual the great man is onto something. Sex just doesn't lend itself to description. You either slip into soft porn cliches, in which case you end up coming across like 1970s edition of Penthouse. Or else you start getting ambitious, in which case you end up sounding absurd very quickly.

The key, I think is to keep it brief, and to make it integral to the story. But I'll return another day with the tips for a perfect sex scene. In the meantime, I'm still chuckling over Littell's efforts.