Book review: November Road – Lou Berney

Finding the book

I came to Lou Berney’s November Road as a result of Don Winslow’s recommendation. Publishing veteran, Shawn Coyne (who trained me as a Story Grid editor) has worked with Don, an acclaimed writer. All that is to confirm that we can come to read books or writers we’ve never heard of through a circuitous but rewarding route. But having one great writer recommend another, is a sure-fire way to set up a reader to enjoy a genre that they both write in.


For those understanding genre, November Road is a nuanced thriller more than it is a crime story. So don’t think you’ve got a mystery where the core event is the exposure of the criminal. We know who the bad guys are in this story and, arguably, which bad guy heads the table of tyranny. The global value of November Road is Life and Death where the ‘hero’, Frank Guidry, is at the mercy of the villain more than once. Berney makes the love story sub plot work well with the thriller but only Guidry has a true understanding of the stakes at risk in the relationship.

Who’s Frank Guidry

As the story’s protagonist, Frank Guidry, starts out as a bit of a selfish prick wheedling his way into the life of Charlotte Roy and her two girls. In a way, both are on the run, although Charlotte’s choice is a deliberate ‘breakfree’ from her alcoholic husband who is more dependent on her than she is on what little he brings to the family. Frank’s on the run because after JFK’s assassination, he knows things detrimental to his survival. Charlotte and her girls are a useful cover for Frank to buy the time necessary to set up a new life and identity for himself. He has the sense to know that those after him will be looking for a guy on his own. He doesn’t expect to fall in love.

Despite that selfishness and the fact that Frank has a history of using others to get along in life, he has needs that we all identify with – the necessities of life, love and esteem. Berney writes him so well we can all root for him because we know what he wants and what he needs.

Does he change?

On the run across a changing landscape his travels serve as a symbol of his personal change. Even though his physical movement is to ensure survival, his unbidden need is to find a way to be a more human version of himself, something he never thought necessary or possible. In story terms, he begins to understand he has something to offer someone other than himself and something beyond venality. This gives us a third genre – a morality/redemption story. Ironically, it’s that quality of redemption that puts Frank on a collision course greater than those trying to kill him. A course that requires an inevitable ‘best bad choice’ and one that none of us ever want to face.

Who will like this story and why?

To simply classify November Road as historical fiction would be to sell this story short in many ways. It delivers not only a suspenseful, riveting read, but is a powerful and eloquently told story that had me thinking about themes in life that transcend the 1960s period in which it is set: survival, the price of love, self-discovery, the tough decisions in parenting and second chances. For that reason, I believe it appeals to a very broad range of readers. Coping with crime being brought to the page is a requirement for your non crime reader although it’s not overdone. Most of the time, the tension-fuled threat is greater than the reality. Even the most gratuitous act of violence in this story, while a horrific injustice, has an understandable context.

Pick up and read a copy. Amazon link here:

You won’t be disappointed.

Story Grid – am I certifiable or just certified?

Some will think so. Certainly, a certified nerd when it comes to story analysis.

Late February, I went to Nashville, Tennessee for a Story Grid Workshop run by Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl. I stayed here

Actually, a lot better than that inside.

(Norman) Bates Motel??? Actually a lot better inside!

Shawn Coyne and Tim Grahl

Shawn is a twenty-five year book publishing veteran and wrote the book – The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know.

He and Tim put together a regular Story Grid podcast where, according to Tim, he’s the, “struggling writer learning how to write a book that works.”

Tim’s expertise is in marketing and in the post lunch sessions at the week-long workshop he shared that expertise and addressed what it takes to market an online editing business.

The workshop

We got to analyse dozens of scenes, songs, and movies for the various components that constitute scenes that work . Do you remember the song Copacabana sung by Barry Manilow and written by Manilow, Bruce Sussman and Jack Feldman? That was one of the cold scene/song analyses we had to do each day: see it, hear, it, analyse it to answer these questions:

1) What are the characters literally doing?  – Attending the Copacabana.

2) What is the essential action of what the characters are doing in this scene? Lola is a seducer – she titilates to earn her living.

3) What life value has changed for one or more of the characters in this scene? (Life value is an essential component in all stories and is typically dependent on genre so different genre have different life values). In this case, for Tony it is the value of Life-Death. For Lola it is Hope – Despair. All scenes need to ‘turn’ on some emotional value for them to ‘work’.

4) What is the inciting incident of the scene? Lola does the merengue and the cha-cha.

5) What is a progressive complication in the scene? (something that happens following the inciting incident – may be positive or negative). Tony and Lola fall in love.

6) What is the progressive complication that causes a character to address a crisis question? (Also known as the progressive complication turning point). When Lola finished, Rico called her over and went ‘a bit far.’

7) What is the crisis of the scene? Does Lola run from Rico and risk losing her job? If she stays she gets paid but manhandled. A crisis is a question for the character to answer. It’s is called that because the character isn’t choosing between tea or coffee, or between vanilla and chocolate. They are faced with choosing between 2 bad options or irreconcilable goods. They can have the good of one thing but not the other. It’s a question where the character does not immediately know what to do because there’s no single obvious answer.

8) What is the climax of the scene? (the answer to the crisis question) ‘Tony sailed across the bar’ (to intervene), there’s a fight between him and Rico.

9) What is the resolution of the scene? There’s a shot and Tony dies and Lola, thirty years on, never recovers.

It was a hell of a week. I went to Thrillerfest 3 years ago, attended great classes and I still have contact with a couple of people. This was different. Yes, it was smaller (about 30 of us) and more intimate and participative. We had pre course work, and new analysis work to do every day so our work was well structured, unlike Thrillerfest where we could choose what we wanted and attend passively.

Story Grid Questions

In Nashville, we had a common belief –  that we wanted to know for ourselves or to help others, how a story is organised across multiple levels. The answer to this question helps answer how to best mesmerize a reader/viewer/listener  – to transport them into another realm of consciousness from their everyday existence. In simple terms, how do we manipulate the pieces of a story to deliver the most potent form of that story. Become the shaman’s shaman.

Core Story Grid Premise

Although there are twelve forms of global genre that guide the writer to meet a reader’s needs, marketing classifications, i.e. what bookshelf labels might say, are not genre. If you say you write science fiction, epic fantasy, historical fiction, and other words that attempt to describe the nature of the fiction, Story Grid editors will work with that setting. But they will help writers identify what is needed to translate from marketing to story genre. For example, sci-fi is often an Action or a Society global genre. Each of those, like all genre, have elements of story that are unique to contributing whether a story works or not. Genre requirements help writers move from stuck to unstuck, move from big picture requirements to scene requirements and vice versa.

Is Story Grid just a new formula – i.e. if you do this, then you’ll get that?

No. Not even close.

Is it a pathway to master the form of storytelling? Absolutely.

Is it a variation on the old 3 Act structure? You can have as many acts as you want. But all stories that work have a beginning hook, a middle build and an ending payoff. Each of those structures has its own set of requirements to meet before a story will work.

How do I start thinking like a Story Grid editor?

Have a look at questions, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 9 above. These questions are applied to every unit of the story from scene, sequence (of scenes), act and the whole story itself.

Can you be a great editor without Story Grid?

Of course. I have a great editor not versed in Story Grid. Anna Rogers is one of NZ’s best. She has taught me a huge amount about writing. I know of others too who are highly regarded. What makes Story Grid so good, is it makes the implicit learning of skilled editors who’ve built their craft over decades, explicit to others who haven’t.  Once you know how something works, you can work with it and innovate.

In the next post, I’m going to show you a core deliverable of the Story Grid Editor’s work that I’ve completed for certification and apply it to two different masterworks and a lesser known, but superbly written work of a New Zealand literary writer.

Rousing Rotorua Noir

A festival with the X factor.

The kiwi no 8 fencing wire and oily rag didn’t get in the way of Rotorua Noir delivering a well- planned and staged event, the first of its type in New Zealand, (Kia Ora Grant Nicol and Craig Sisterson). It was a huge success and our international author guests were excited to support us. From the hugely popular creative writing classes delivered by NZ’s modern-day Queen of Crime, to the fantastic welcome on

Paul Cleave’s comedic attempt at asking questions

Te Papaiouru Marae, to the panels and interviews where authors talked about their writing lives and their books, to the literary quiz on Saturday night to the Haere Ra/farewell on Sunday, this event had the X factor.

Many of the attending authors had been to a lot of similar events around the world but all concluded this one at Rotorua was special for them. Perhaps because it was limited to eighty people (sold out 3 months before the day) perhaps it was the tenth anniversary of the Ngaio Marsh crime awards, perhaps it was because people were able to meet up or reconnect with Craig Sisterson – founder of New Zealand’s crime award, or talk to other writers they admired, or the willingness of people to generously share their time. Perhaps it was all of those reasons, and more, that made the event special. To quote from Denis the erudite legal luminary in the great movie The Castle, ‘There’s no one section. It’s just the vibe of the thing.’

International author panel

I was given the honour of chairing the last panel, a panel of international best-selling crime authors: Alex Gray, Michael Robothom, Paul Cleave and Kati Hekkapelto.

Paul Cleave, Michael Robotham,Alex Gray, Kati Hekkapelto and Mark McGinn

Naturally, I’d done a bit of prep for this, but I had a bit of an “all is lost moment” when I realised that with all the panels and interviews before me, a lot of the material I intended to use had been discussed. And because those events had been well attended, more of the same may not have been a fitting finale. I had to quickly rethink my approach.


Authors put on trial

After introducing myself I told the audience I wanted to involve them differently -they would be a jury and the four accused with me on stage faced two criminal counts. First, they were charged with the wilful infliction of psychological torture of readers, causing said readers to disassociate from their normal world of reality. Second, they were charged with the prolonged and unreasonable detention of readers, holding them in suspense before allowing cathartic release.

I continued my opening address for the prosecution to alert them that they were not the only people to be accused of these crimes and that at an appropriate time, His Honour Justice Sisterson would try the co-offending publishers at a later date. I acknowledged that in respect of the normal order of trial events, this one was unusual in that they’d already heard character evidence given for three of the accused. About that evidence, I said, ‘You may well think that the witness Jackie Collins on behalf of Gray and Hekkapelto and the witness JP Pomare on behalf of Robotham were sincere in the praise and encouraging testimonies of the accused. But I submit they were naive and misguided as will be demonstrated when the accused answer my questions.’

I administered an oath to the collective accused that they would tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I proceeded to cross examine each of them, drawing out the following behaviours, all of which they had admitted to on different occasions to give credibility to the charges:

Some confessions from the witness box

Alex Gray – when she was a former Scotland employee of the Department of Health and Social Services, Alex helped (in her words) “wide boys, chancers, and parents who drank their kids’ school uniform money.” She admitted this and the fact she was scoping for writing material and victim hunting. After 16 books she was clearly the ringleader of this gang of writing reprobates.


Michael Robothom – admitted trying to muscle in on an IRA money launderer but claimed he was only doing his job at the time, as a journalist. He admitted it was unusual for a journo to be abducted by men in balaclavas, and dumped at an airport and instructed to go home. Robotham also admitted consorting with a convicted murderer and at the time, one of Australia’s most wanted men. His plea in mitigation was that he identified the man to police and gave evidence against him. He was unable to say whether Joe O’Loughlin, the protagonist in a series of JO’L books had forgiven him for inflicting him Parkinson’s Disease.

Paul Cleave – claimed not to remember his past due to writing a character with Alzheimer’s Disease. His book Trust No One featured a crime writer struggling with the disease trying to determine whether he’d committed crimes or just written about them). And although Cleave confessed to being a cat lover, he identified Santa Claus as a drug addict who shot himself up with heroin, killed his elves, and shredded them in a machine that made toys out of them. In his defence, he claimed to be 15 years-old when he wrote that.

Kati Hiekkapelto

Kati Hiekkapelto – from Finland, worked the jury for sympathy, repeatedly asking for an interpreter. But she could not deny attending the Frankfurt Book Fair, proceeding to a public sauna dressed only in a towel and studded belt and disguised with a beard. She objected to my characterisation that the hair was false but admitted to testing her punk lyrics on fifty sweaty, naked men and women at the time. She confessed to occasionally searching the inside of her car for serial killers.

The verdict

I warned the jury not to be swayed by Grey’s Scottish accent and her grandmotherly persona, that she could be considered the ring-leader of the group, and after writing 16 books admitted to working on another. I concluded with asking the jury to find all the accused guilty of being seriously good crime writers and to deliver their verdict accordingly. They did so without even retiring to the jury room.

Craig Sisterson

Honouring ‘His Honour’

I then asked ‘His Honour Justice’ Craig Sisterson and ‘Associate’ Grant Nicol on to the stage. The judge had no idea what was happening next. In another unorthodox trial procedure, I delivered one final address.

‘Fantastic though this inaugural festival has been and acknowledging the idea and great mahi of Grant and Craig to make it work, we cannot say Haere Ra without acknowledging the 10th anniversary of the Ngaio Marsh founded by our Craig. Craig describes himself as a lapsed lawyer and a wandering writer but whether those descriptions are just cause for the peculiarity of not owning a cell phone is a moot point. Tonight, we recognise a lion-hearted man in every sense of the word.

‘Craig, generous with your time, your support of us as crime writers and in other charitable causes, your generosity seems to know no bounds. I’m sure it hasn’t always been easy for you living in the UK when a huge part of your heart is often tugging at you from Aotearoa, a place you love deeply. We’re all so grateful to Helen and Maddie for helping keep you strong.

‘You’re the best networker I’ve ever met and the greatest promoter of and ambassador for NZ crime writers around the world. You have an indomitable spirit: you are a taonga and our Rangatira and tonight we honour you and say, Kia ora, mate.’

Justice was done

An emotional moment between the organisers, Grant Nicol and Craig.

Grant presented Craig with a greenstone adze pendant, and he responded in typical form, acknowledging and thanking Grant for making the event happen and for everyone attending and making Rotorua Noir a very special event. Then it was time for drinks and kai and a very happy group of authors invaded a Thai restaurant.

Rotorua Noir

The crime festival

This weekend 25 – 27  January 2019, New Zealand will host its first ever crime writers & readers festival in Rotorua.  It’s an event that sold out well before kick off. I’m very excited to be meeting some of my favourite crime writers and hearing about their current projects, having a few laughs and just kick around with great people , some with slightly warped minds and some more warped than others.


Chairing a panel

Craig Sisterson, founder of New Zealand’s Ngaio Marsh Crime Awards has asked me to chair the last panel of the festival. It will include the big names below, including New Zealand’s own Paul Cleave, perhaps the most warped mind in NZ.   It’s an  honour and privilege for me to do this. Many thanks to Grant Nicol and Craig, for all the work they’ve put into organising the festival.

The author’s titles in poems

In order of output, here are the first three authors on that panel. They’ve written enough novels for me to put each of their titles into a slightly creepy poem.

Alex Gray – 16 crime stories

As The Riverman counted Five ways to kill a man, he heard a Small weeping, Shadows of sound in the Still dark.

It was The darkest Goodbye when he carved  A pound of flesh from The Stalker, delivering a Glasgow Kiss and a warning to Keep the midnight out.

In Pitch black, he crept to the Swedish girl, The bird that did not sing  whispering, Sleep like the dead, as Only the dead can tell youNever be somewhere else.


Michael Robotham – 13 crime stories

Don’t close your eyes
The other wife said
I know The secrets she keeps.
You think your marriage is Bombproof
But it’s The Wreckage of us all.

Say you’re sorry my love, or, when I’m Lost off The night ferry, you will Bleed for me and she will be Watching  you. Your life will Shatter in a Life or death struggle when you become The suspect in her death.


Paul Cleave – ten crime stories

Trust No one The cleaner thought.

But The Blood Men were Collecting Cooper and they would take him to  The Laughterhouse on Cemetery Lake.

So  Joe Victim knew The killing hour was near and he’d have his Five minutes alone 

Before The killer harvest began.


Kati Hiekkapelto – 3 crime stories

Kati has written three  highly acclaimed novels. Her Anne Fekete series, including The Hummingbird, The Defenceless and The Exiled have been translated into eighteen languages and two were shortlisted for the Petrona Award in the UK. The Defenceless won Best Finnish Crime Novel of the Year, and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Glass Key.

I look forward to reporting back on the festival soon.

Happy reading.






Book Review: Shatter by Michael Robotham

From page one, Shatter (2008) is in the mind of a disturbed and vengeful psychopath and it’s not long before we see the outcomes of his thinking. Professor Joseph O’Loughlin, coming to terms with Parkinson’s disease, finishes teaching a class in behavioural psychology at Bath University. Discussing the lesson with his boss the men are approached by police with a request that Joe’s boss deftly sidesteps. From here, Joe is dropped into something that will be terrifying for him, and I suggest, for some readers.

A woman in her forties, naked except for a pair of red Jimmy Choo shoes, holds a mobile phone to her ear, about to jump to her death from a bridge. Joe tries unsuccessfully to talk her off. It transpires that the woman has a sixteen-year-old daughter, Darcy, who turns up at the at O’Loughlin household a couple of days later. Darcy does her best to convince Joe that her mother wouldn’t have committed suicide – for one thing, she was terrified of heights, and another, Darcy knew her mother wouldn’t leave her alone.

As Joe tries to find the reason for Christine’s death, the police are sceptical that there’s anything more in the case than suicide. Joe ropes in a retired Detective who once suspected Joe of murdering a patient, but it seems the two men have put that behind them. Former DI Vincent Ruiz, is a necessary character in this book, not just for the humour Robotham injects into the story (the two men have become friends) but Joe takes on an investigatory role as he searches for the truth behind the mother’s death.

About Ruiz, Joe says, “Men who take too much care of themselves and their clothes can appear vain and over-ambitious but Ruiz had long ago stopped caring about what other people thought about him. He was like a big dark vague piece of furniture, smelling of tobacco and wet tweed.”

I thought to myself, ‘ah – Peter Temple lives on in another guise.’ (Temple, an Australian Rockstar of crime writing caused many people heart-felt sorrow when he died this year, and if that wasn’t bad enough, with an uncompleted manuscript).

And before people ‘get up in arms’ and complain about a psychologist becoming a policeman and the need to suspend disbelief, this is not a police procedural story. It’s a psychological thriller. Joe’s skills as a psychologist are to the fore but he does need some help. All protagonists need help, regardless of genre.

As is always the way with crime thrillers, things get progressively worse before they get better. While Joe applies his innate understanding of humans and communication skills to help others, at home, he is like the plumber whose house is full of leaking taps. He has a sense that his marriage is not what it should be, but at the same time, lacks the insight that his dedication to helping others might come at a cost.

Shatter (the title speaks to the theme of shattered minds, including the antagonist’s) is a taut, powerful psychological thriller that meets all the expectations of the genre and is brilliantly written – a style that appealed to me with descriptive power that captured place and time. “It’s eleven o’clock in the morning, late September, and outside it’s raining so hard that cows are floating down rivers and birds are resting on their bloated bodies.”

“I go to the bar, where half a dozen flushed and lumpy regulars fill the stools ….
I nod. They nod back. This passes as a long conversation in this part of Somerset.”

Robotham has crafted a story with a flawed character immersed in a plot that in equal parts, is both chilling and powerful. This is number 3 in the Joe O’Loughlin series, so I’ll be going back in time and in catch up mode before I read his latest acclaimed work. Highly-recommended.

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.”

Book show host loves Presumed Guilty

It was great to be on Terry Toner’s, Radio Southland Book show program. He interviewed me on a range of topics from how I came to write the book, the setting and characters, the potholes of self publishing, editing and NZ crime writers. I’ll say here, what I said on his show: NZ writers are as good as any in the world and well worth a read.

Check out the discussion here and please share with others you think might be interested. The interview starts 3 minutes in.


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.


Mark McGinn talks to Booklovers

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