Not only long-listed for the 2017 NZ Ngaio Marsh Crime Awards, Presumed Guilty is seen as unique in New Zealand in that it’s a genuine legal thriller with powerful characters in and out of the courtroom.
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. http://www.mcginncrime.com/about-writing/partner-crime/
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 www.storygrid.com 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.
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.
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.”
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.
The resolution in a crime story more often than not bolsters our hope that justice will ultimately prevail. Crime stories are about entertainment and escapism. But the real world never leaves us and the real world continues to challenge our belief that justice will prevail.
Where is there ever justice for the victims and their loved ones in non-fiction terror? Fuelled by a callous disregard for the value of human life, the latest strike is another against the Western World and the people in Paris in particular. It’s another in a long catalogue of terror tactics designed to indiscriminately kill and maim. We focus on the horrible event, as it should. And the horrible event passes. Very much like the authorities who ‘close the stable door after the horse has bolted’ in their increased military and police presence. It looks good, it appeases, but it will never be enough because it cannot be permanent. More and more of these destructive acts are developing throughout the world and will continue.
We shouldn’t be blind to the non-fiction plot. Osama bin Laden is dead, possible Jihadi John. These antagonists will always be replaced by others because the master plot is to polarize the warring factions. They want the West to abhor the Middle East, to provoke overreaction and retaliation against innocent Muslims. In turn, alienated Muslims will counteract and join extremists.
Like the great plots of fiction, this master plot of reality has endured and will continue. If social and traditional media is any indicator, Islamophobia in the West is on the rise. In Europe for example, the radical anti-Muslim right wing is gaining political strength. Prejudice and hate will continue to drive the European narrative.
In light of such a horrible terror attack in Paris, we want to do something because we feel such a sense of loss, pain, and powerlessness. What can we do? It is hard not to become a monster to defeat a monster. That difficulty is part of the great plot. At the moment, terrorists are winning the war against peace and using psychology to their advantage. There is no easy answer but this is a war that won’t be won with prejudice, lies and propaganda and making villains of Muslims. We need to write a creative counterplot. Does the West have this ingenuity? Time will tell.
What’s worse than running over your neighbor’s dog? If you read The Devil’s Wire by Deborah Rogers, you’ll find out! There are surprises aplenty in this rollicking read and you might at the end, look carefully at what you really know about those closest to you. Are they who they really seem?
There’s a small cast of characters in this book but they’re all beautifully drawn by Rogers. Blunt South African antagonist, Lenise Jameson, is a bit of a favourite of mine. She provides endless suffering for protagonist Jennifer, seemingly for the careless killing of her dog who’d somehow gotten on to the road on a dark night at the very time Jennifer was concerned about not having an accident. Jennifer had been trying to rescue a loose mandarin from under foot.
But empathy for the life situation of both women is not difficult. Guilt ridden Jennifer’s relationship with needy husband Hank, is at best, running aground, and at worst, revealing a nightmare. Their only child, 12 year old McKenzie, has hateful rages towards her mother, largely it seems, due to Jennifer’s ignorance of what has been going on in the family home. Rogers is clever in showing us Jennifer’s psychology throughout e.g. sentences that paint a picture of a frantic and unsettled mind.
Meanwhile, Lenise with an adult son who does her no credit, is bereaved by the loss of her beloved pooch and soon finds herself on hard times. Early in the story Lenise is set up by an immoral rival to be fired from her real estate job. But her inability to sustain any meaningful relationship with a human being is not only down to a clumsy penchant for unsolicited advice. Her biggest flaw, one she is blind to, is her obsession about McKenzie, the daughter she wanted and never had. The more she wants that type of love and affection, the more she acts to prevent it.
Jennifer and Lenise, so different in their own way, become an unholy and dangerous alliance. They drive a carefully crafted and twisting plot that will have you on edge wondering how they get out of a horrible mess of their own creation.
When you take the characters, the plot and the liberally infused shades of dark humor, you’ll likely be wondering when you’ll be treated to more of the fine writing craft of Deborah Rogers.
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.
- 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?’
- High concept = almost over the top, slightly outrageous, doesn’t/can’t happen in real life, extraordinary to readers, beyond their life experience.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Getting terminology wrong
- 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!
- Describing what you’ve seen on TV – “morgues are not often how they appear on TV”
- 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.”
- 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’.”
- 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.”
- 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.”
- Circumstantial evidence is not worthy – “It’s the reverse,” Alison said.
- 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.
- 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.
Crime novel readers enjoy the detectives, the lawyers, the private sleuths, all invariably overcoming an antagonistic force. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t keep writing those stories, striving to tell them in unique ways, tweaking and dialing up tension with innovation. Sometimes evil wins, most times not. Some leave us with the main character in our heads long after we’ve finished the story. Jerry Grey, in “Trust No One”, is one of those characters.
Ngaio Marsh Award winner, Paul Cleave’s latest novel is no ordinary crime story. It is a psychological thriller, as far away from something formulaic in the genre as it’s possible to be. And, in my view, also daring. This story doesn’t just show insight into what living with Alzheimer’s might be like. Cleave gives us Jerry Grey’s painfully frustrating life in all its horror – moments of lucidity followed by desperation. In his unique style, Cleave answers the question about what it’s like for someone in the grip of a disease that wipes the brain of the very thing that allows him a living – cognitive function.
Does it work? Big time! Not just because Cleave’s cleverly unfolds a thriller plot, constantly engaging the reader. In embracing a tough theme, he balances incredible empathy for the protagonist (and by implication, others with this disease) and he does so with the dry and dark humor ubiquitous across his other novels.
Cleave says, he struggled to come up with any title by the time he submitted his manuscript. In the end, Trust No one was suggested by publisher Atria (an imprint of Simon and Schuster) and when you read it you’ll agree it’s the right title for the story. Who can you trust when you can’t trust yourself?
As an attendee of the 10th Thrillerfest Conference in New York in early July, I was sent a digital copy of the book – a great marketing idea by the publishers but also a ‘big balls’ display to promote this book as essentially, a thriller for thriller writers – my words, not theirs. So it was particularly interesting to hear D.P Lyle M.D. give Cleave’s book a huge rap in a craft session at that conference. You only need to run Lyle’s name through Google to see his credibility.
I’m not revealing a lot about this great story. It opens with Jerry Grey confessing to killing ‘Susan with a z’ and no one believing him. His audience is convinced Jerry’s recounting a tale from one of his books. In fact people don’t believe Susan with a z, has ever existed. Poor Jerry. A successful crime writer of twelve books whose pen name is Henry Cutter. One day a devoted family man, the next – shipped off to a nursing home 15 miles out of the city. At 49 years of age and with early onset dementia, it can’t get much worse than this, can it? With Cleave at the keyboard, fans of his previous eight books will know that’s a rhetorical question.
Has Jerry really become a killer? Is this appalling disease really driving him to act out Henry Cutter’s tales, rendering him unable to recall details the crime writer inside him knows are vital? Or is he, at heart and head, a clever killer with the ability to deceive. Some characters in the book certainly believe the latter.
If Cleave tormented Jerry Grey, his family, his friend Hans, his neighbors and the police in (mad as) “Batshit County”, he certainly doesn’t spare his readers. I was convinced he was playing with our minds too when he introduced an uncommon way of writing, a way that works beautifully for this story. We see Jerry’s/Henry’s point of view in the first person, second person and third person. Cleave craftily introduces Jerry’s “madness journal” to do so, creating a contemporaneous record in the form of a diary, which Jerry completes across the course of the novel. It begins with the awful realization that ‘Captain A’ is charting ‘Future Jerry’s course.
Here’s a short sample of this journal, written after Jerry woke to see an obscenity spray-painted on a neighbor’s house: Naturally she came over and banged on your door. Of course she did. You’re the go-to guy when people have obscenities painted on their walls. Somebody spray-painted the word asshole on your door? Go see Jerry. Fucktard on your letterbox? Go see Jerry. Shitburger on your car? Go see Jerry.” I won’t spoil the nice twist at the end of that journal’s entry, but despite the humour, I couldn’t help but connect to the distress of uncertainty someone must go through in these circumstances. You’d hope you wouldn’t be guilty, but you can’t rule it out!
As a writer, I enjoyed references to the writing craft: people asking where you get your ideas from, the editor’s concerns, the writer’s self-doubts, getting stuck, getting well through and realizing a significant rewrite is on the cards (yes, I know you outliners claim not to have the last two), last year’s book not that well reviewed. It’s all there, and appropriately so, given Jerry’s living and the fact that it’s all coming to a premature end.
I know this won’t be the end of Cleave’s crime writing, but many will understandably ask how he tops, ‘Trust No one’. Having taken a year to recover from writing this book, he may even ponder that himself. For someone whose business is to entertain, let’s not bother to ask that, but appreciate that we, his readers, are the reason Cleave likes to make bad things happen. Let’s have more bad things!
Late last year, Sasha Stace took the opportunity of having me explain myself in terms of subjecting her to nasty circumstances in her life. Her cross examination of me can be found here – http://bit.ly/1zug0cj
What she didn’t reveal to you was that she does have some issues in her life and when these are known, help explain why she can give people a hard time. Not many of you will be familiar with psychological reports so I thought I’d take the opportunity to share a small part of the other part of the world I work in. Here is the report written about Sasha as if it was sent to her employer, including the various legal disclaimers you might want to skip through.
The report examines Sasha’s working style preferences across a range of dimensions as assessed using the Cattell 16PF questionnaire. These are as follows:
Relationships with people (Interaction style).
- Extent of warmth, outgoing and attentive to others
- Extent of liveliness, animation and spontaneity
- Extent of socially venturesome and resilient
- Extent to which private and discreet
Capacity to respond to pressure
- Extent of emotional stability
- Extent to which trusting of others
- Extent to which self-assured
- Extent to which relaxed and patient
Capacity of initiative
- Extent to which preference for assertiveness
- Extent to which conscious of rules/policies
- Extent to which objective/ unsentimental
- Extent to which practical & solution oriented
- Extent to which open to change
- Extent to which organised.
The information contained in our report is based on details supplied to us by candidates and is correct to the best of our knowledge. However, no warranty is given as to the correctness of this information or any statements made therein and PeopleFit Ltd expressly disclaims all liability for any loss or damage which may arise from any person acting on these details or statements. Psychological tests are a useful guide, but do not have sufficient reliability to warrant use on their own as absolute predictors of future performance. If this person is to be re-evaluated for a different purpose, it would be prudent to arrange reconsideration. In respect of the working style information, we have only the candidate’s view of themselves in coming to any conclusions about how these views may predict future behaviours at work. It is useful to consider this information alongside that gleaned from a competency based interview and referee checks.
Relationships with people (Interaction style).
Sasha sits mid range in preference between being reserved and warm and outgoing so is likely to show average levels of attentiveness to others and more warmth towards those in whom she is confident she has the support from others. She cited Mac, her stepfather in all but name, and Clay Tempero as examples of people to whom she would be more supportive and empathic. She appears slightly more socially venturesome than shy and would be expected to have adequate levels of resilience when it comes to coping with the day to day knockbacks that may occur in interpersonal interactions.
In relating to others she is in the mid range between being lively and animated but acknowledges she will also come across as serious and more restrained when the situation requires it. She reports she “pushes herself” to engage in spontaneity except with those she is used to. She describes recent efforts to play in a band extend the boundaries of her comfort zone. Hitherto, music for her has been a solitary experience.
She sees herself as very forthright and this will include some occasional self deprecating comments of what she sees as her inadequacies. She favours putting all her cards on the table as opposed to holding them close to her chest. While this helps others get to know her, she has encountered recent experiences of being ‘let down’ by others who have used information she has provided to further their own ends. Consistent with her high rating of trust in others, she gives loyalty in relationships and expects trust and loyalty to be reciprocated.
Sasha prefers to be self reliant and somewhat individualistic, preferring not to ask for help, even when it would be forthcoming. She enjoys time on her own and prefers to make decisions that way as well.
Overall Sasha rates as a person in the mid range between introverted/less outgoing and extraverted/socially participative but is able to ‘role play’ higher levels of extraversion (e.g. in court) when she sees this as necessary.
Response to pressure
Sasha is more often than not able to manage events and her emotions in a balanced, adaptive way but from time to time feels she has little control over life. Consequently she is likely to feel (and does report) more ups and downs than most people. She acknowledges a long-standing tendency to perceive things going wrong more frequently than is justified. She rates as someone who tends to worry about things and feels insecure about meeting others expectations of her. While having moderate levels of concern can be useful in anticipating the dangers of a situation, it can also lead to less effectiveness in terms of ‘social presence’ or avoidance of those situations when she would otherwise benefit from the company of others. There is a danger that her level of apprehension and self-doubt may lead to unrealistic work goals; in Sasha’s case, to over-compensate and do more, rather than less. When asked about feelings of worry and insecurity, she said that she has had times of feeling like an imposter, i.e. someone who does not truly perform at the level others say she does. She says she started to develop these feelings before she was a teenager, probably as a result of living with a hard working solo mother following the death of her father when she was two years old.
She rated above average with respect to tension and a tendency to be impatient, indicating she is likely to be the sort of person who likes to get on with things and be highly motivated. She sees herself as a competitive person with a need to win but commented that she often competes against herself.
Overall, Sasha rated above average with respect to anxiety indicating she would generally feel under pressure to do more, or strive to be better than she believes she is in many situations. In this regard, she may benefit from counselling or therapy.
Capacity for initiative
Sasha rates at the 90th to 99th percentile for abstract reasoning which suggests she has significantly higher ability to solve problems and learn more quickly than most of the population. She tends to favour an assertive approach which underpins her sense of competiveness. This means she will attempt to have a positive impact on her work environment and those with whom she engages, but may sometimes look to dominate others. While not conflict avoidant she commented her sense of loyalty and empathy for the plight of others probably prevents her confronting issues in her relationships. She is likely to be moderately rule-conscious, meaning that she will be mindful of how others see her. However, she rates as having the capacity to think beyond a prescribed solution or way of working and not be rule-bound.
Sasha rates as very conscientious and commented that she tends to be more persevering than most people and she wonders where her stubbornness comes from. In her decision making, she favours a mix of sensitivity toward people’s feelings and emotions and objectivity (using facts and data) with a slight bias toward the latter.
Sasha describes herself as not very creative (except for cooking) and prefers to take a practical solution-oriented approach to getting things done as opposed to an imaginative approach. She rated in the mid range with regard to liking what is familiar and traditional but will try new things. This means that although she will engage in a moderate amount of experimentation she is unlikely to drive significant change and if this occurs at the behest of others, her anxiety levels including self doubt will become higher. Sasha rates as highly structured and perfectionistic and this indicates she is likely to be most comfortable in highly organised and predictable situations with routines. Preparing for trial and court processes would be examples. She is unlikely to leave important things to chance or to ‘wing it’. While this trait has advantages, Sasha may appear significantly less flexible than others who have a higher tolerance for disorder.
Overall, Sasha’s levels of capacity for initiative appear to be in the average range. While independent and persuasive, she is sometimes inhibited due to her levels of perfectionism and a preference for the more traditional approach. Given her perfectionism and self-doubting, she will tend to ‘second guess’ herself, (am I good enough? Is it good enough?) then become concerned about what she hasn’t done, leading to a risk of working longer or harder. This internal state, if not corrected, may be injurious to her long-term well-being and I recommend a course of counselling.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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: http://www.mcginncrime.com/best-served-cold-landing-page-mobile/
Hello readers everywhere
If you haven’t already downloaded my free short story Perfect Cover please do by clicking this link:
At the end of this story, you’ll see another link to get a a free full novel, the first in the Sasha Stace series, called Best Served Cold. So jump in and enjoy.
When you pick up a book written by fellow Christchurch crime writer, Paul Cleave, you can be assured of a great read. His thrillers not only give you a terrific ride through the often disturbing life of the characters, they can make you smile on nearly every page, at least for those of us with a slightly dark sense of humour. This is no easy thing to achieve.
At the moment there’s a good debate on the value of restorative justice in New Zealand. RJ conferences put the victim and offender together as a healing experience for the former and an opportunity for redemption for the latter. I over simplify, but you get the drift.
As Cleave’s title suggests, the premise of the book is a little different. It’s about the desire of many victims of crime, to have their five minutes alone with those who have wronged them, in effect to impart a bit of The Old Testament philosophy of an ‘eye for an eye’.
Ngaio Marsh award winner Cleave puts two main characters from former books together. One is Theodore Tate a cop who’s trying to get his life back on track after the death of his daughter and a wife who has seen better mental health. It’s Tate’s job to detect who’s killing the criminals in this story. The other is Carl Schroder an ex cop who was tormented by delusional Joe in The Cleaner and Joe Victim. Schroder is not only psychologically damaged goods, this lone wolf has a bullet lodged in his brain, inoperable and effectively a ticking time bomb on his life. He’ll never know his last seconds until it’s too late. So why not use his knowledge of crime, criminals and victims to give victims the justice so many don’t get from the system? It’s fair to say Carl Schroder’s idea of a restorative justice conference is not quite what the system intends. But good old Carl doesn’t quite get everything right. Death befalls the innocent people – those Carl is trying to help while his old mate Tate is responsible for putting an end to the unknown vigilante.
But in typical Cleave plotting, Tate has, as the cops say, “form” of his own. When the story begins only Tate (and readers of Cleave’s other books) know this secret. But don’t bet too much money on that remaining hidden. As it lurks in the background of Tate’s detection work and motivation, it makes for a fascinating read.
Cleave has written eight internationally best selling crime stories and been a finalist for the prestigous 2014 Edgar Award. Don’t be surprised if Five minutes alone is an award winner. As much as I enjoyed Joe Victim, I thought this one was even better.