CategoryAbout writing

QC says author too observant of lawyers

It was a fantastic time at the book launch of the printed copy of Presumed Guilty in Scorpio Bookshop , Christchurch, on a Winter’s Thursday night.

Nigel Hampton QC, an icon of the New Zealand bar, and the South Island’s most eminent and tenacious criminal lawyer for decades, was there to launch my 4th book. And while they weren’t able to be present, I went to the launch fortified with best wishes from Nigel’s colleagues ‘in silk’, local QCs, Pip Hall and Chris McVeigh.

The assembled  jury came from many walks of life: an employment lawyer, a journalist and editor with Fairfax media, a literary editor, a corporate manager, consultants, a nurse, several administrators, an ex prison inspector, a current court officer, a librarian, an HR manager, general managers, a doctor and others from the health system, a couple of accountants, a social worker, people in retail, an interior designer and at least one student, although all had been students of life. Such a jury was the ideal assembly to invest their time in a mystery, and invest, they did.

Nigel Hampton opened his remarks with, “I’ve known Mark over a goodly number of years – mostly when he was a court registrar. It is evident to me now, having read this legal thriller of his, that the registrar’s role was nowhere busy enough – he has obviously spent too much time, far too much time, listening to and observing lawyers, witnesses and judges, how they comport and conduct themselves, how they act and react. Because it is the fruits of those observations which are on display, so well, in his fourth novel, a murder mystery.”

Later, on this same theme, he said, “Mark has set down a convincing replication of the ‘bitchy’, if not malicious, gossip so loved by courtroom lawyers, when not in court – and in the second part of the book, Mark captures the poisonous sotto voce comments stilettoed from one opposing lawyer to another when in court.”

At one point, and I’ve no doubt it’s his common trial tactic to present as a fair and reasonable advocate, Nigel, presented the negative. He said, “It is only a small ‘but’ Mark, none of those conversations and exchanges are quite profane enough to portray accuracy. We lawyers are a foul mouthed lot.’

To which there can be only one answer – sometimes reality is the victim of editing.

Picking up exhibit A, Nigel read a number of passages from the book, one of which he deliberately chose as a ‘tease’ and invited those attending the launch to see “just how much of a teaser I’ve made it.” He went on to describe Presumed Guilty as a book set in and around the environs of courts and a story that plays out “with all its unexpected twists and its suspenseful turns, especially as the pace picks up in the second half of the book leading to its explosive denouement.”

He concluded his address to an attentive jury, an erudite assembly and one much larger than the accustomed dozen, with a truism of trial lawyers. “A trial lawyer’s own belief (of her client’s innocence or guilt) is irrelevant; it is, always will be, an impediment to the lawyer’s role.”

And then , great craftsman and orator that he is, Nigel Hampton QC moved from advocate to judicial officer (he was once Chief Justice of Tonga) and left his attentive jury with compelling questions for their deliberation.

“But then this is the tale. And, was it an impediment here? Is he guilty or not? Is he found guilty, or not? A very different question. And who, in this tale, is truely innocent?”

Many thanks to the good guys at Scorpio for helping me make this possible and to those who gave up the comfort of warm homes to come out and offer their support.

By the way, the Cab Sav with which Nigel is toasting the book, is called The Pugilist. Those who know of his career as an advocate,  will know how fitting that is!


Consultant tells RNZ it’s their CEO’s fault

Here’s an extract of my interview today with RNZ’s internal magazine’ Soundbytes‘.


“I’m the HR Consultant who turned to crime and it’s all the fault of RNZ CEO Paul Thompson. One winter’s night in his Karori home in 2008, we were talking crime books, who our favourite authors were at the time. I clearly remember him saying that Stephen King always started with a question that began with “what if…” which led to other questions. He asked me what my starting ‘what if’ question would be if I wrote a story. I came up with, “what if someone emerged decades after a man was hanged for murder and took revenge on the surviving jurors from that old case.” That was how my story Best Served Cold was developed. I came up with that because I’d worked in courts for many years, helping run criminal jury trials in Christchurch, long before I got into HR Management.

Working with RNZ and the leadership and HR teams has been terrific. Yes, it’s got in the way of writing, but sadly, writing doesn’t pay the bills, at least not yet! One of the things I enjoy most about working at RNZ, and it was the same when I consulted to Fairfax, was working with people who were passionate about their craft. It’s like a calling for them and it’s really important to me to be able to help leaders build and maintain the right environments for those folk.

And a wee plug if I may – it was great to see Presumed Guilty on the shelves of Whitcoulls in Lambton Quay.”

Standing Room Only at RNZ


On Sunday I talked with Lynn Freeman at RNZ about courtroom drama in a high-stakes trial, the pressures evident on counsel and the dark side of the world people don’t  typically encounter.

We also discuss how Presumed Guilty is a story that weaves together the powerful forces of the judiciary, the media and the nefarious input of government officials who try and influence Sasha Stace QC and the outcome of the trial.  Enjoy the a sample of the book read on the show and the chat that follows here.


My mistress of seven years

It’s our summer holiday season. I’m in my writing cave at home and can smell the mouth-watering aroma of a banana loaf baking in the oven. The delicious smell  of the fat and sugar alchemy wafts  down the hallway and serves as a distraction to the rain falling steadily as it did for most of the night. It’s falling over the whole of New Zealand. To be fair, we’ve had lots of warm, even hot weather, and this water is needed. The green leaves are relaxing again, grateful for my wife’s work in quenching their thirst every day but appreciative of the long New Year drink, much like I do!

I’m in a reflective mood. It’s coming up to seven years since I started writing fiction. That’s barely a blip compared to some. It may not even register on the Richter scale we’ve all become so familiar with in what’s known as the Shaky Isles. In that time I’ve published three books and a short story, have another (Presumed Guilty) that I’m shopping around literary agents in New York and London and I’m about a third of the way through a new project that both excites and frustrates me. But my best writing seems to do that these days.

Time wise, if I round the numbers up, seven years is close to twelve percent of my life. Again, not much compared to some. But it’s a lot in this household. I think I’m falling back on the, “for better or for worse” part of our vows. As anyone who puts time into a genuine writing pursuit knows, it is an insular process. I think, from my wife’s point of view, she sees I have this invisible mistress floating around the house like a ghost, a mistress that’s not always benign, either. After she read my first book (Best Served Cold) she famously said to others, ‘I didn’t know I’d married a sick fuck.’ One scene!  It was only one short torture scene!! Still, in sickness and in health.

So why do I do it? The challenge is enormous but the simplest explanation is that I do it to entertain. I want to share the escapism I claim for myself. I know I can tell a yarn and thanks to so many people, over those seven years, I know I’ve got better at that.

Part of today’s post is acknowledging, not just my wife, to whom I could dedicate every book, but the help I’ve had along the way. At the top of that list is my editor, Anna Rogers. I’ve previously written about Anna here.

Then there’s this guy – Shawn Coyne.  He hasn’t replaced the work Anna does for me but he helps me make her job easier (if that’s possible). The Story Grid is essentially a compliation of his free blogs at Over a twenty-five year career as an editor, publisher, agent, manager and writer, Shawn has been part of more than 350 books, 97 of which have become national best sellers and books that he has edited or published, have sold over fifteen million copies. This guy knows something about writing! He can tell you not only what needs fixing, but how to fix it. No one teaches editing at the global story level or the microscopic level – not Harvard, not Random House.

story grid

Shawn’s taught me that editing and story analysis are not goodies attached to the end of artful story telling, they are at the heart and soul of story telling. While his techniques and tools are fascinating, (the foolscap method – getting the story on one page and the story grid spreadheet – tracking every scene) I’ve had huge help from his forensic analysis of the “story form” and the five commandments of every scene.

Another great craft book I read in 2015 was this one, actually written for screenplay writers but it’s equally applicable to novel writers.

Power of trans

Dara Marks’s book is a great companion to The Story Grid, in that it reinforces so much of what Shawn Coyne refers to as the “internal content genre”, essentially how the main character changes over the life of the external plot. Marks lays a great foundation for the transformational arc of the main character and then shows us how to construct it. She demonstrates how plot, character, and theme need to move in unity throughout a storyline. In essence, Marks provides clear information about what is required at every stage in a story in order to complete the arc and fulfill a natural dramatic structure.

In his foreward to Story Trumps Structure written by Steven James,  (quite a different take on the two books above) Donald Maas says, “Master the ceiling fan principle and you will have a foundation for novel writing that will save you years of trial and error.” With regard to creating tension in a story, Maas says, “ Steven smashes through the fog and reduces all disagreements to rubble. What for many novelists is intuitive, he makes concrete.”

story stumps

James says that if we are courageous enough to ditch formulas and templates and instead, step into the heart of the narrrative, we can become better storytellers. He has a great line that explains the ceiling fan principle where a boy tried to jump off a bed further than  his cousin and got caught in the fan and thrown against the wall. It was an entertaining account from which the principle articulated is, “you do not have a story until something goes wrong”. So to uncover the plot of your story, don’t ask what should happen, but what should go wrong. To uncover the meaning of your story, don’t ask what the theme is, but rather, what is discovered. Characters making choices to resolve tension  – that’s your plot.

I have a bunch of other writing craft references as this photo shows.


And I’m still managing to read other crime and thriller stories some of which I’ve reviewed. Somehow, I still find time to earn an income but just now, I am submitting to temptation. My wife has beaten my mistress. Banana loaf calls.

Happy reading in 2016.

Warm regards


Mastercraft at Thrillerfest

Thrillerfest banner

A couple of months now have allowed me time to reflect on this great conference – probably the best and most well-organised event I’ve been to.  It was a hell of a long way to go from Christchurch so I wasn’t surprised to find I was the only Kiwi there among 500+ attendees. I did find a couple of Aussie ‘cousies’ though.

A definite highlight was being hosted by the FBI for a day at their NYC headquarters. A range of highly skilled but personable special agents had 40 minutes presenting case studies within their portfolios: organised crime, terrorism, drugs, kidnapping, piracy. It was all covered – how the crime came to notice, gathering intel, planning and executing the arrest. It was interesting to learn they don’t just take cops into the agency. One guy was an expert in jewellery. He told us of a lawyer who cross examined him in the witness box.

Q. “You call yourself a special agent.”

A “The FBI has given me that designation.”

Q “Do you agree with them that you’re special?”

A “I simply accept the title. If it helps to know if anyone thinks I’m special, I can say with reasonable certainty that my mother does.”

Counsel wisely changed tack.

The second day was Mastercraft. My cohort had 8 writers rapt with Grant Blackwood who delivered his class with his trusty i-pad. He has had 16 books published, 9 NYT Best sellers. He said he spent 12 years getting published. Not only has he had his own books published but he’s co written with /for Tom Clancy and Clive Cussler. Having read extensively about writing it was great to get many important principles reinforced and demonstrated in an intensive day and to learn what the US publishing industry considers the 5 elements of “big” books, i.e. commercially successful with wide appeal.

  1. They must be extraordinary and appropriate to the genre (sub text = you need to read widely in the genre in which you write). “Readers want to know why the character puts up with shit.” The motive has to be personal yet universal. Play the “why”, “why”, “why” game, brainstorming reasons about a character’s view, starting with, e.g. ‘X hates people, – why?’ The triple why “drills for motivation” . “Note,” Grant says, “That personal history is not character. The broken nose, the scar – these are placeholder descriptions, but what is the story behind them?’
  2. High concept = almost over the top, slightly outrageous, doesn’t/can’t happen in real life, extraordinary to readers, beyond their life experience.
  3. Extraordinary stakes – the reader has to care. They can be global,  bad guy trying to do terrible things, or personal, a life’s scarring after the death of a beloved family or friend and where the failure to achieve the story goal will deeply haunt the protagonist.
  4. Roller coaster ride – “The nucleus of the roller coaster is the hanging question, the essence of suspense with both large and small questions where the reader is looking for answers. The small – what did she mean by that? The large – will he survive this? Will she discover she’s been betrayed? How?” Examples: a new piece of information, new insights into or changed attitudes of characters, a resolve to take action, startling statements, realization of flaws, fears or incompetency.
  5. Extraordinary setting -immersing the reader in a world so that they feel they are there. “Done right, nothing is mundane, not just the little details of description but the click that tells them they are in an authentic place – factual or at least plausibly authentic. Put the reader as a fly on the wall, help them acquire vicarious expertise.” On description, Grant says,”Recognize when you’ve described someone or some place well enough, don’t overdo it (my ed – Anna Rogers’s refrain of less is more) it slows down pace and pulls the reader out of the story.

Then he guided us through the key points of a 20 word premise, something we should have before we  write our first words on the page, before we outline (for those of us who do – 50-50 in our class). The idea of a 20 word limit is focus on the heart of the story quickly.  A premise must answer these questions: who is the protagonist, what incites the protagonist to get into the story, what must the protagonist do to fulfill the overarching story goal and who will oppose the protagonist and why.

On these questions there are other points to consider:  pinpoint the exact place of inciting incident that draws the protagonist into the story. This incident must be incapable of being ignored, i.e. there must be some harm to self or others if the protagonist fails to act.  Why is it important to them, what is the cost of failure, what must (s)he achieve, how far will (s)he go.

By the time we got to Pitchfest, My premise for Presumed Guilty had grown to a pitch of an “acceptable” 24 words: “Attorney Sasha Stace risks her career to get justice for an ex-lover charged with murder, and uncovers a powerful mix of corruption and revenge.”

It’s not easy! Especially when you know so much good meaty stuff has to be left out but that is the essence of the story.

In Craftfest, Alison Leotta, an ex Washington DC prosecutor, now writer of legal thrillers, enumerated the top 10 mistakes in crime stories:

  1. Getting terminology wrong
  2. Gun toting cops – the majority use their verbal skills before pulling guns. She also made the comment that in DC, 10% of cops make 90% of the arrests!
  3. Describing what you’ve seen on TV – “morgues are not often how they appear on TV”
  4. Fingerprints on guns – “More often than not, they’re not there. You need the smooth flat surface combined with oils. A lot of guns are made to repel prints.”
  5. Using the lack of vaginal injuries to assume consent. “It’s the majority of cases where there are no intimate injuries – more likely to have injuries in forced anal intercourse, an area ‘not as stretchy’.”
  6. A confession with an attorney present.  “Very rare indeed for an attorney to say nothing. Much more common is a reverse proffer – where the evidence is outlined and the attorney suggests a deal.”
  7. Prosecutors and cops in stilettos  – “You don’t want to break a toe in court which you’d have every chance of doing towing big “lit” bags (law literature) and giant charts of a human vagina blocking your vision.You can’t lug all that stuff in stilettos.”
  8. Circumstantial evidence is not worthy – “It’s the reverse,” Alison said.
  9. Rapists lurk in bushes – “You’re far more likely to be assaulted by that trusted male friend. Pedophiles purposely put themselves in positions of trust so if you worry about this stuff, worry about who to open the door to.
  10. Stomach contents can be tied to an organic farm – too much reliance on the good stories spun by CSI.

Next up, tips and insights from Greg Isles and others, and the manic experience of Pitchfest.

Overcoming obstacles to writing: what it takes.

When I pick up a novel, or open a reading device, I want to be entertained, to enter worlds that I’m interested in, to provide escapism from the mundane or tortuous elements of life. Or simply for the opportunity to rest and relax.  I suspect I’m not much different to you.

Readers often become writers because they’ve been inspired by their experience as a reader. I’ve been inspired by Jeffery Deaver, PD James, Michael Connolly, JK Rowling,  Peter Temple, Lynda La Plante, Neil Cross and so many others.

But when you think about it, it’s a wonder there are fiction writers at all and if wasn’t possible to be an indie author, there would not be the choice there is today. Let’s look at what’s involved:

  1. It’s an exclusive experience. Writers might appear to lead ‘normal’ lives when engaging with non writers, but until my current project is finished, it’s sometimes hard to work out in which world I have a disassociative disorder.
  2. Unless you’re a best seller fiction author there is no serious money to be made. According to Forbes magazine the top ten authors earn between $US 19 Million  (Dean Koontz) and $US 84 Million (James Paterson). However, in more sobering news from The Guardian, we learn almost a third of published authors make less than $500 (£350) a year from their writing, according to a new survey, with around a half of writers dissatisfied with their writing income. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m in this group – at least for now! So I’m certainly not writing for the money.
  3. There is one hell of a lot of art and craft in what transpires as a labour of love to entertain.  I had no idea how much until I wrote Best Served Cold which went through eight revisions.  That number of revisions is by no means uncommon.
  4. When I started, I didn’t know much about a story arc, much less what was required to pace the novels for the genre I write in. I knew what I liked to read and intuitively thought, it can’t be that hard. It is! You hear people say, they’d love to write a book and will do so “one day.” Most won’t! In fact it’s thought, 99% won’t.  But I can identify with the desire.
  5. There is conflicting advice about the writing process. It’s all passionately given, well-intentioned and coming from people including successful authors. Some argue the importance of outlining a book. Jeffery Deaver is the best example I know of someone who does this. He says when he outlines (the actions, the revelations, the twists and turning points in a story) the outline itself will easily exceed 200 pages.  But Stephen King in his book, On Writing,  says he doesn’t outline at all. He and others say that if they don’t know where the story is taking them, the reader should be kept guessing. Two famous thriller writers with different approaches.  Who should I follow? I just do what’s right for me.  I’ll say this much – I wish I knew when I started, what I know today about how to make the process easier and have some story milestones.
  6. It’s an expensive hobby. I pay for my editing. Mostly this is a two if not three read and revision project.  Paying for covers, paying for self learning, software, attending courses and conferences, it all adds up.
  7. So, I don’t write for money. I write to entertain others. But here’s the kicker. People tend to be shy in giving feedback. And reviews are almost unheard of. It’s very hard for Indie authors to get reviews. I hope most people who read my books get something out of them, even if it’s only a single smile at a well chosen phrase or pointed character description. But who’d know? I don’t.

Am I complaining? No. And here’s why.

Despite all the barriers, I get a buzz out of the words that somehow magically appear on the screen. I enjoy the journey and when I start, I don’t always know the exact destination but it’s great when I get there. (Note the big clue about whether I outline of not). And I especially enjoy the editing and honing the work to make it the best I can make it. In fact I probably like this to an abnormal degree, such is the difficulty I have following universal advice to “just get your first draft finished”.  I love working with an editor who pushes me the ‘extra mile’ to tease out something more in the setting, the emotion or whatever. Or to let me have my style but also reign me in when she thinks I’ve been over the top. I think with every book we’ve done together she’s said at some point, “Less is more.”

The justice/injustice/tyranny element of the crime and thriller genre has been motivated by a large part of my paid working life in courts. I don’t write pages full of blood, guts, horrors and nightmares. I do render to the page some ugly personalities. My editor describes an antagonist in my latest project, Presumed Guilty, as ‘grotesque’. For me that’s high praise although even the grotesque character needs to have a motivation that a reader can understand if not agree with.

I’m sometimes asked if my stories are plot or character driven. I think the distinction is artificial. My lead character’s actions and the force(s) opposing his or her goals  are what determines the plot and the plot is the sum total of the main character’s actions. This one’s a bit like the argument about whether the chicken or the egg came first. I like to think I write stories where some form of justice prevails in the end and my main character repels or impacts on a tyrannic force. The modern thriller seems to mash up action, horror, and crime where the life/death value is at stake. But for me, it might not always be life or death as the terms are commonly understood.  Life and death might, in my stories, be  psychological or professional life or death.

I enjoy writing thrillers that explore the horrors of real life, real monsters who live in our every day world, rather than the ones we imagined might hide somewhere in our childhood bedrooms. An example of a real life monster in everyday life is the psychopath in the workplace. The workplaces I write about are courtrooms, police stations, law and corporate offices and when you think of all the possible roles in those workplaces, psychopaths are bound to be known. Perhaps just not openly discussed. But nowhere are the stakes of life higher than when people are pitted against forces that might deprive them of their liberty. If you don’t believe that, ask someone compelled to be caged up for many years. Whether guilty or not, that person’s life will never be the same as before they entered prison.

I love to write character ‘points of view’ including writing through the eyes of the ‘bad guys’. I think that’s a throw back to year 7 at school when I played the baddie in J B Priestley’s play called, The Inspector Calls. Or perhaps simply because I started working at courts before I was 17 years old and was deprived some of rebellious teenage years that seem to be a rite of passage when growing up.

I hope that how I feel about writing, comes through.  Here’s wishing you enjoyable and stimulating reading experiences, whoever you follow.

And don’t forget Best Served Cold is free for you to download  here:

Amazon vs Book Depository

Interesting to see these guys go head to head on pricing my books as paperbacks. I’ve done the comparisons for you below and revealed the winner in terms of best price.

amazon logo

Link to the books here:

First book – Best Served Cold, from $US 15.20 plus $3.99 shipping

Second book – Trust No one from, $US 15.21 plus $3.99 shipping

Third book –  Deceit, from $ US15.24 plus $3.99 shipping


Book depository

Link to the books here:

First book – Best Served Cold, from $NZ 35.14, (US$27.31) = $US 8.02 more expensive

Second book – Trust No one from, $NZ 35.14, (US$ 27.45) = $US $8.25 more expensive

Third book –  Deceit, from $ NZ 31.70, (US$24.64) = US$5.51 more expensive

Of course Book Depository offers “free shipping” but I’d suggest they include the shipping cost shown above in their prices leaving them an addition small mark up over Amazon of (in this case $1.52 and $4,26).  Therefore Amazon wins.

But the margin is bigger when you consider that Amazon offers free shipping, when you spend $35 or more. They are cunning because on these books, you’d have to buy all three to benefit from that saving of $11.97 US. The total for all three would be $US 45.65 whereas all three from Book Depository would cost $NZ 101.98.

If we take Book Depository hack to $US dollars as above, their total, with supposedly free shipping comes to $US79.40 an even bigger win to Amazon.


CEO’s and bad guys. Is there a difference?


Antagonist black_hoodIn the crime genre, a hero (protagonist) needs to encounter a worthy bad arse (antagonist) for the story to be a page turner. Whether this person’s identity is known (thriller) or unknown (mystery) or the story is a combination of both, the good guy and the bad guy have goals in opposition to each other. But for an antagonist to be effective, to have a reasonable chance of winning, they need the skill set of a high performing Chief Executive. Let’s see how – using Daniel Goleman’s framework for emotional intelligence. Goleman has written extensively on this subject including ways to discern the most effective executives from the rest in the world of work.

Self-awareness: The most calculating antagonist needs to know their own feelings and how these influence their own behaviour. They also need to know their strengths and weaknesses, know if and when to recruit assistance to help them be at the top of their game – to defeat the hero. Every win the hero has is a set back to the antagonist. An effective bad guy needs the capability to reflect and learn from their experience. Without self-awareness, the antagonist can’t manage themselves, much less their desires.

Self-management: The antagonist musters the control to prevent their immediate emotional response from hijacking their longer term goal. They will be self-defeating if they emotionally explode when the hero gains ground. A good antagonist will remain calm in the most trying of moments and any display of emotion will be part of their calculated plan, at least throughout the plot, until the finale. An effective self managing bad arse will plan the details necessary for them to prevail. They’ll take tough, principled stands just as any CEO would when faced with adversity. To an antagonist, their rationale for action is just as strong as the hero’s. To be calculating, they’ll be organised and careful in their work and be able to adapt to change forced on them, especially from the mid stages of the novel when the protagonist becomes more proactive. To adapt, you could expect an antagonist to find ways to do better, to try new things to improve their chances of defeating the hero.

Social awareness: This is where an antagonist comes into their own with their skills of manipulation. We often see this in psychological thrillers.  They will be attentive to others’ emotions and needs, and will frequently offer help to project they are a Good Samaritan. If they are genuine sociopaths, incapable of empathy, they will have the intelligence to know its importance and learn empathic statements or lines (dialogue) for situations they’ll be in.  A savvy bad arse will be effective at reading and understanding power relationships in situations that they cannot control themselves and use what they learn to their own advantage.

Relationship management: Expect the antagonist to be skilled at seeking relationships beneficial to them but persuading others that they will be the primary beneficiary of their causes or contributors to a cause bigger than all of them. They win people over where they cannot manage every strategy on their own, even if it’s as simple as arranging an alibi, or the more difficult task of disposing of a body. Bad arses are often very effective communicators manipulating others to win support for their cause, e.g. Jax Teller, (Sons of Anarchy) or Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), both projected as loving fathers, protective of their families but devious, dangerous and murderous.

In business, many organisations have their share of the Dark Triad: the narcissist, the Machiavellian and the psychopath. Sadly, because these folk are adept in their craft, they have the skills to rise to the top of their organisations. Heroes are often buried in teams well down the food chain. It’s probably why crime is such great escapism for people in the world of work – the good guys win more often than not!

Partner in crime

Here’s a nice piece on my editor, put together by other NZ writers who attended the recent WORD festival in Christchurch.


I thought I’d add my two cents worth.  Anna writes occasional book reviews for the Weekend magazine (inserted into Fairfax’s weekend papers) and readers won’t necessarily know that she brings the same thought and incisiveness to my manuscripts as she does to those reviews.


I will always remember the experience of getting feedback from Anna in her tidy but galley like room she once occupied in the old stone buildings at the Arts Centre  – before the force of nature, now known as the ‘Christchurch Earthquakes’ wrecked havoc on much of the city.


As a busy editor, and doubtless a little wary of working with a novice, she asked, ‘How long is the manuscript, Mark?’


For a second, I tried to remember the exact number. I knew the first two digits were 1 and 8. ‘I think it’s 188,000, give or take,’ I said, proud.


Anna’s eyes widened and she almost recoiled in her chair. She did well not to bring her hand to her mouth. ‘Oh Gosh,’ she said. ‘That’s very, very long for a crime novel.’


‘Is there a right length?’ I asked.


‘Well it depends on the story but it’s pretty unlikely that a publisher would look at anything over 90,000.’


‘As few as 90?’


‘Less.’ Hope in her voice. ‘Do you think you could work on it some more, get it down a bit?’


We agreed I’d do that and the version I gave her, after enormous effort, was 144,000. At that point I was too close to it be any more effective. Now, between us, we have the published work less than 80,000 and ideas I crammed into the original tome have percolated away and some have seen the light in my next novel, “Greed”. The difference is, those ideas get the treatment they deserve today as befits a protagonist who evolves over a series.


Looking back, I simply tried to do too much and more than halving the size of that first effort means Best Served Cold and all the subsequent stories now work to a tighter structure.


Apart from improvements in structure and style, Anna’s great at questioning when something doesn’t make sense to her. Neither of us want a reader faltering and rereading due to lack of clarity. But perhaps the most powerful tool my partner in crime brings me outside the mechanics,  is guidance on emotional tone, especially when writing a female character.  In draft stage, I’m sometimes guilty of over-relying on Sasha’s stunted emotional relationship with her mother and bringing this to bear in other relationships when circumstances warrant something different. And it is guidance – never an instruction what to write.


I totally endorse what the other authors have said about working with Anna – that it’s a team effort. I often hear myself using the term ‘we’ when discussing options for change or ideas. Being part of a team is much more rewarding than responding to a critic, no matter how good that critic is.”

True crime less ‘believable’ than fiction


We’ve had a remarkable story in New Zealand in recent days involving the Corrections department (prisons) and a convicted murderer and pedophile, Phillip Smith.  Despite his ghastly crimes and being recalled to prison after offending on parole and still being widely known as manipulative and devious, Corrections thought he was worth a try at living in the community. They set him up with a family ‘sponsor’ and without any electronic bracelet. This is after spending the best part of 13 years behind bars and reports describing him as a significant risk. Surprise, surprise, he had no intention of seizing the opportunity to reform and rehabilitate. He fled to South America and many say he should stay there.

But what’s even more bizarre is that in the lead up to being driven from behind bars to the airport, then  departing for Chile, Smith managed to acquire whilst in his cell, a passport under a former legal name. This name was also well-known to the authorities. Not only that, he put together $10K in cash from a business he ran in prison.

In my novel, Best Served Cold, (pictured above) there’s a scene when a final act of revenge is played out against an inmate. It involves the killer obtaining the cooperation of a prison manager who’d earlier been duped into believing he might regain financial losses, sustained at the hands of his prisoner. Realistic? Well that’s the nature of fiction – a series of events crafted so they lead to a plausible action. But in the case of Phillip Smith, if I’d had his series of events as a plot line  in one of my books, I’d have been criticised for a complete lack of realism and an over demanding requirement of readers for suspension of disbelief.   Who’d have thought that Corrections would not only be a source of derision but a source of the bizarre plot line.

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