Tracer Giveaway x2

If you follow me on Twitter (here), you might have seen me tweeting about Tracer: an inventive, pulsating, action-packed Sci-Fi thriller written by my good friend, Rob Boffard. Or if you follow this blog, you might have read my interview with Rob about his writing habits (if you haven’t, you can check Part 1 here and Part 2 here). In any case, it’s a great book and this is coming from someone who barely reads Sci-Fi.

Tracer is the first of the Outer Earth trilogy, and each book in the series tops the one before it, which is a rare feat to pull off. And now I’m giving TWO of you lovely lucky readers the chance to win a copy of Tracer, free of charge, direct to your door.

See how nice I am to you guys?


Here’s a quick blurb, ripped straight from Amazon:

Imagine The Bourne Identity meets Gravity and you’ll get TRACER, the most exciting thriller set in space you’ll ever read.

A huge space station orbits the Earth, holding the last of humanity. It’s broken, rusted, falling apart, and what’s more, there’s a madman hiding on the station who’s about to unleash chaos.

And when he does, there’ll be nowhere left to run . . . 


Sound good? Well, here’s the part where YOU come in. In order to win your copy of Tracer, all you need to do is subscribe to the blog using the box at the bottom of this post, and then write DONE or I’M A SERIAL KILLER, or whatever you want, in the comment section so I can find you on my list of subscribers. It’s as simple as that. If you’re already subscribed and you’re receiving this post to your inbox, then you can simply respond to the email saying you want to participate and I’ll enter you into the competition. That’s it. No dancing, singing or circus tricks required.

I’ll pick two names at random from the list of entrants and then I’ll announce the winner by the end of the month. If you’ve won, I’ll contact you for your address so I can send you the book (one per winner).

In the meantime, if you’d like to share this post to give other people a chance to win, I’d greatly appreciate it — but your odds of winning will go down, so I guess you have to decide whether you want to play fair or not? It’s up to you . . .


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Creating Ideas From Nothing

“There’s no one way to be creative.

Any old way will work.” — Ray Bradbury

Trying to find an idea for a short story, or a novel, can be difficult. Each writer captures and cultivates ideas in different ways.

Ray Bradbury used to do word associations: he’d pick a word such as ROCK, or BRICK, and then he’d think of the things he feared the most — whether that be ghouls, goblins, or ending up alone — and then he’d fuse the two together, and build a story from there. Maybe this would lead to a goblin having his brains bashed in with a brick, or maybe the story would be about a ghoul who has a rock for a pet. Either way, he’d use a simple word as his start-off point. His book Fahrenheit 451 came from his fear of people burning books, something he saw as akin to murder. Nothing more, just a small flash of an idea which he then fleshed out.

You can use the technique separately, too. You can use a single word as your starting point, or you can mine your brain for a deep-rooted fear, and go from there. But using them together, both the word and the fear, gives you a strong foundation for your story. Why don’t you try it out? What scares you? What upsets you? What’s your worse nightmare? If the thought of being trapped in a cell full of spiders sends shivers down your spine, then write it, make it happen. Put your protagonist in that situation and show us how terrified she is, just as you would be, drawing from your own emotions.

Remember: your fears are entertainment to your audience.


“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” ― Pablo Picasso


A few years ago my mum (who had moved to France) sent me a set of keys and asked me to stay at her flat in London for a week and babysit the place. She was in the process of transferring the property back to the council, but first wanted me to make sure it was okay.

But when I stepped in the living room I recoiled. The far side of the room was filled with half-dead wasps — hundreds of them: some were on the windowsill, others on the floor, a couple floated up by the curtain and buzzed angrily against the window, bouncing against the glass. I’ve had a fear of wasps ever since being stung as a child, so to see a colony of them made me want to claw my eyes out. But I couldn’t leave; I’d promised my mum I’d stay. And I didn’t know who to call in order to clean them up. In the end I kept my distance from that room, but every time I went to bed I imagined them crawling down the hall, converging outside the room as an army, then creeping under the door to sting me to death in my bed.

Anyway, to keep my sanity in check, I took that fear and spun a story out of it. By using the truth as my starting point (hundreds of dead and half-dead wasps invading the flat), I was able to write a believable and disgusting horror story about an army of murderous wasps and spiders. It’s one of my best and realest stories yet — and it was triggered by fear.

Incidents happen everyday: someone cuts in front of you in a queue, or steps on your trainers, or doesn’t say thank you when you hold the door open for them. At the time you might feel a flash of rage — I wish I could punch you in the face — but most of us are civilised people so we internalise it and then obsess about it, or let the feeling go.

Either way, that’s your fuel.

You need to take that pain, or hurt, or anger, and spin a web. Rewrite that same incident with a new ending. Just because you won’t hit that person, that doesn’t mean your character won’t. He’s a hyper version of you anyway; he’s stronger, bolder, he’ll say the shit you want to but won’t. Next time something happens that bugs you, write the event out from the perspective of someone else and change the outcome. Write what you’d like to happen. Not only will it feel empowering and cathartic, but you might end up with a good story too.


“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events.

Small minds discuss people.” ― Henry Thomas Buckle


Back in my early days of writing, I had an idea that was similar to Ray Bradbury’s technique of taking a random word and turning it into a story. This was before I’d even heard of him. I wanted to write a short story collection but didn’t think I had enough ideas in the tank. Then one day I discovered a non-fiction book titled Clichés, which was a comprehensive guide to every cliché known to man (or at least known to the writer). I began to flick through the pages: He’s not my cup of tea, any port in a storm, two heads are better than one, reading through the explanations and origins, fascinated by the information. Some of them were older and more obscure, but they’d all been marked off as clichés, and this helped me on two levels: one was to know what not to put in a story — the other was that I now had inspiration for a short-story book.

I called the collection Twisted Clichés. The idea behind it was to take a common saying, such as Have your cake and eat it too and create a story from it. With some of the titles, I’d twist them to make it sound cuter. For example Have your cake and eat it too would become Have your cake and beat up Stu or something dumb like that. I wouldn’t even know the story at that point: I’d simply twist the cliché around, then write the story from the title.

For others I left the original title but twisted the story instead. In others still, my story veered so far from the initial idea or cliché, that I had to change the title altogether. The cliché would be something like Actions speak louder than words, and then after a paragraph or so, I’d be writing something that didn’t link in with that idea at all. Sometimes having that first line, or that title, was merely a jump off point to get my imagination cooking; a way to fight past the excuses and lies my mind threw up. I could no longer say I didn’t know what to write about. I had a subject and a title. That’s how powerful it is to have a starting point for your stories.

For instance, you take something simple like Two Heads Are Better Than One, and you brainstorm. That could bring up multiple options. Somebody with two heads perhaps? One head is smart, the other is dumb, and the two heads constantly argue? A two-headed monster maybe? A man who likes to collect heads? A two-headed coin that somebody uses to rip off the mafia in a gambling game? The options are endless, and once you’ve picked one to focus on, you’re good to go. You’ve jumped through that initial painful I-don’t-know-what-to-write hurdle. You can no longer lie to yourself. Pick a title and fight with the consequences.

You don’t have to limit yourself either: you can choose anything as your starting word or phrase. It can be a metaphor, a line from a movie, a famous quote, an existing title, the name of a movie, the name of your first pet — whatever you want: just pick something and run with it, see how far it’ll take you. In some cases you’ll only get a few paragraphs in and realise there’s nothing in the idea. But other times the words will flow quicker than you can type them. Writing crap is just as important as writing great stuff — it teaches you what doesn’t work and why. And because building a story out of thin air on the basis of a word is bound to throw up a few disasters, you’re helping yourself learn and grow as a writer.

Try it out. Even if you’re skeptical, just do it once.

What do you have to lose? A bad story is still better than writing nothing.


“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” ― Albert Einstein


This technique might not work as well for novels as it does for short stories, and yet in the long run it helps both: not only can you adapt it to suit your needs, but by writing loads of short stories and experimenting with style and plotting, you’ll grow so quickly as a writer that you can filter all of these lessons into your novel and scene-building. The more stories you write, the more you’re able to get the blood flowing and practice different styles and experiment scenes from multiple angles, without losing much. If you spend a day writing a scene from a frog’s point of view, it doesn’t matter if it’s terrible or nonsensical — you’ve learned a new lesson. You haven’t wasted a day, you’ve spent a day learning. But you don’t have that luxury with a novel. The time it takes to write 400 pages kind of kills the propensity for experimentation; most people don’t have the patience to experiment on a six-month project just for it to be thrown away, or deleted from your laptop. But shorts are different.

Force yourself to write something from nothing.

As a writer you should always be growing and learning, otherwise you’re stagnating and repeating patterns from previous work. If you don’t challenge yourself; if you don’t put yourself in a position to create from an unknown viewpoint, you will always be the same writer. You might as well be a monkey at a typewriter, churning out the same shit over and over, until your audience disconnects from you. At some point, loyal or not, they’ll stop halfway through your book and think: I know how this ends. Same as it always does, and they’ll move on to another writer, someone willing to take risks. You need to surprise your fans as well as yourself, and free-association creation is a way to break into different parts of your mind.

If you can’t write love stories, try to write a list of ten romance words and create a story from them. If you’re bad at horror, do a list of horrible words instead.

The more you do this, and the more you challenge your comfort zone, the more you’ll grow. And even if you throw all those stories away, their lessons will be valuable to you.

It’ll show in your other work and you’ll improve as a writer.

So pick a word and just write whatever comes to mind.

In fact, I’ll pick a word for you: rabbits.

And from that, I’ll give you a title: The Rabbit with the Fur Coat.


“Creativity takes courage. ” ― Henri Matisse


Now go and write and don’t return until you’ve finished your story.

It might turn out to be a classic. You’ll never know until you write it.

Post it in the comments if you want, or post a link to the story on your website. Or email it to me. I’m curious to see what you ended up with. 

I’ll be waiting.


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Don’t Judge Me Yet

(It Gets Better)

“The first draft of anything is shit.” — Ernest Hemingway

Sometimes potentially great novels are rejected by agents because the writer takes too long to start their story. They begin their novel before the action — they waste time meandering around aimlessly, filling in pointless background information and building characters with no conflict or forward momentum, letting the plot slowly simmer under the surface. Then, by the time the plot does kick off, the agent has already tossed their manuscript to the side. Or deleted it from their email.

Either way: your time is up.


“Most of my work consisted of crossing out. Crossing out [is] the secret of all good writing.” — Mark Haddon


To many beginning writers, this slow approach to a novel makes sense: you gradually build the backdrop and the characters, then once that’s done, once your audience has connected with your people, you plunge them into chaos somehow. You set a bomb in the middle of the lives you’ve perfectly detailed, and watch as it all falls apart. Some writers assume — incorrectly — that they need to make the audience care about their characters first before introducing conflict and/or an inciting incident. But the opposite is true.

If you merely paint a picture of a few characters, most readers, whether they engage with the characters or not, will be asking one question: Why do I care?

It’s definitely important to build characters and also illustrate the relationships between them, but all of that can be filtered into the plot as you go along. You can fit plenty of information during slower moments in your book (usually after something big has happened; the aftermath of an explosion is rarely another explosion), or even in the midst of the action. Tie together character with plot. Let your characters’ actions change the plot but also reveal their personality at the same time.

Imagine telling your friend a story about someone you know. This person jumped in front of a train. That’s the story you want to tell. Do you first spend an hour telling them about your friend’s love of Shakespeare, or his collection of Russian Dolls, or his pet goldfish? No. You get to the point. And then AFTER you tell them he jumped in front of a train, your friend is interested. Why did he do that? Was he depressed? Is he crazy? What kind of person does something like that? Now they’re hooked. They’re curious. Now you can tell them the boring shit. Well, he never seemed depressed, but he did spend a lot of time with his collection of Russian Dolls. It’s all about context and timing. Give them the reason to care first, and THEN fill in the rest.

But don’t mistake me. I’m not saying everything needs to be as dramatic as a gunshot, or a suicide, or a murder. It can be subtle, but it needs to be important. Instead of writing four pages with your main character sat in a chair thinking about his life, have him in an active scene where he’s doing something. It could be anything, but it needs to be purposeful and should be connected, at least tenuously, to the plot or to his character. Preferably, it will link in to both.

If your character has a fear of dogs, perhaps, and that plays into the story later on, show us in a meaningful and interesting way. Don’t just tell us John doesn’t like dogs and then explain an incident from his childhood. Have him in a scene where he flinches from a little girl’s puppy, or a harmless golden retriever, and then fill in the background information, weaving it into the scene as it happens. Maybe he walks a longer route to work because there’s a dog on his road. And because of this he’s always late to work. Maybe his wife brings home a dog and he freaks out. Whatever. Just make the scene active. But again, don’t get caught up in having a scene there for the sake of it. Is there a reason we need to know he’s scared of dogs?

If it’s interesting and you can weave it in with your main storyline, then keep it. If it’s short and adds a little spice to his character, then keep it. If it’s funny and builds upon your character or plot, then again, keep it. But if it’s there just for the sake of it, cut it out.


“Give me good writing, and I’ll play it all day.” — Jeff Daniels


Now, look at the beginning section of your novel — how much of it is necessary? If you have a bunch of inactive scenes there just to show the different sides of your main cast, then you should take the relevant information and scatter it throughout the book. Mix it with the plot. Get to the point where you know the novel is gaining momentum and weave it in there. Start your story with the bang that kills everyone and step back again. Reverse, rewind, sidestep it.

Like I said, it doesn’t have to be anything dramatic as a murder or explosion. It can be anything: the spark of a possible love interest, the falling out of a family, whatever. As long as it’s filled with conflict, you’re on the right track. What you shouldn’t do is spend 50 pages showing us how much this family loves each other, and then rip them apart. Most readers, unless you give them a reason to care, won’t stick around to read about your family’s happiness for that long. There needs to be conflict and drama, an issue to solve. If you need to show how much the family loves each other so the bombshell 50 pages in has an impact, then you need to do it in an interesting way. Maybe someone’s trying to destroy the family business. So you show the family working together, as a unit, trying to stop this from happening. That way you have an objective — STOP THESE PEOPLE FROM DESTROYING US — but also can show your loving, bonded family. And then, on page 50, when you rip it all apart, it makes an impact. Most beginning writers tend to just have the characters hanging out, being loving and caring and doing boring shit, hoping that people will connect with their mundane, run of the mill family.

Go over your novel now and read the first three chapters.

They’re your most important if you want to sell your book.


“Suspense arises naturally from good writing — it’s not a spice to be added separately.” — Leigh Michaels


I’ve heard stories of writers sending out a novel to an agent or editor, along with a note that says something like: It starts off pretty slow, but give it a chance. It gets good after that. Or it may say: Stick with it through the first couple chapters. Everything pops off in the third chapter and it’s non-stop from there on out. I promise. Which means one thing: the writer knows there’s a problem with their manuscript, but they can’t be bothered (or don’t know how) to fix the issue. They think they can placate the reader with a pre-warning.

I can’t imagine why someone would send a manuscript to an agent with an apology at the beginning of their cover letter. It belies common sense. No agent will take your warning on board. She’ll probably just delete your work without giving it a chance. Either that, or skim through the first few pages, realise nothing’s happening (as you already knew, hence the warning), and then delete it.

Your job is to entertain the reader. Not bore him for fifty pages, then entertain him. You have a chance, and it’s the first page, followed by the second page, and you’re only as good as the last page. Imagine it like a first date. You’re there to create a good impression. You can’t spit in your date’s face and then expect a second date by telling her you’re actually a nice guy on the inside. And the same goes for your novel. You can’t rely on a masochistic agent wading through your boring pages of swamp water to reach the riveting parts. You also can’t send the middle section of your novel because you think that’s the most interesting section. Make every section interesting.

I understand, though. I used to have the same issue.

I’d tell people that my novel was great —

Once they got past all the parts that weren’t.


“Good writing is good writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t orchestrate it or tweak it.” — John Travolta


Check the first one hundred pages of your book. Is it solid? Or weak?Does it move forward? Or is it static? Do you build character at the same time as advancing the plot? Or is everything too nice and relaxed and free of any conflict?

Make sure your first third is fast-moving. That’s what hooks people in. Again, that doesn’t mean a murder on every page, or a sex scene, or action. But something needs to be happening. Plot needs to be growing, characters moving (metaphorically or literally), and the audience need to know this is heading somewhere important. Give your character an objective to complete, even if it’s something simple like Get the attention of a girl he likes.

Go over it now. Break your story down page by page if you have to. Label every scene with its purpose (introducing character, plot point, etc.) and see how many you repeat. If you have four scenes that are there simply to let us know someone is a horrible person, choose the most powerful one and cut the others. You don’t need to drum it into our heads.

What’s the objective of your character? Why are these people sat around a table talking? If there’s no relevance — if you’re just trying to show us their personalities, then change it. Give the scene a purpose. Your main guy wants something, and the other two don’t want to give it to him. Now you can show their personalities whilst also having some conflict and reason behind the scene. And the scene ends when your character gets what he wants, or, more likely, doesn’t get it, and has to find another way to acquire the information or item he needs.

Look for the slow parts and infuse them with something: conflict, drama, intensity, intelligence, comedy. Make everything ten times smarter and better than it is.

If you feel that nagging at the back of your mind, that knocking which says something isn’t quite right, don’t brush it aside and downplay it. Whether it’s only one page or a major plot slice, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Take it out, redo it, rewrite it, restructure it. Laziness will not get you a career quicker. Only hard work and a good product will get you what you want.

Failing all that, your book may be good — but it’ll be returned with a note that says: Although we enjoyed your writing, we’re sorry to inform you that it wasn’t quite good enough . . .


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imagesTo Collaborate Or Not To Collaborate
(That’s The Question)

“I used to write with a partner. But then I realised I love the sound of my voice too much to share it with someone else.” — Unknown

Plenty of authors collaborate successfully on joint projects. First they outline their idea, then they work out a schedule in which they bang out a chapter each — or they write half a chapter, or five chapters, whatever — and after that, they edit the other’s segments. For some writers, this can work. If they respect their fellow author, if they have similar ideas about what makes a story work, about where the story should head, about character construction, etc., it can be a powerful combination. Stephen King and Peter Straub are a notable twosome. In The Talisman their styles merged — you can’t tell who wrote what — and the whole effort comes across as seamless. Not every pairing works as well as those two, though.

There are also plenty of possible pitfalls to consider.


“There is no such thing as a self-made man.

You will reach your goals only with the help of others.”George Shinn


When I was younger I wrote comedy skits with a friend. On that occasion it worked. My friend thought I was hilarious (and I tend to agree), so if I suggested a different approach to a joke, nine times out of ten he’d laugh at it and we’d make the change. On the occasion he didn’t agree, I knew he was right. It just didn’t tickle his funny bone. Our personalities and sense of humour were so in sync that collaborating came naturally. We had no problems with it. He’s still my best friend.

However, I’ve found that case to be a rarity, both from my own experiences and from other writers I know. Finding someone you truly mesh with is one in a million.

For a start, unless you’re fully in sync, you’re going to clash. If you enjoy the person’s writing, that doesn’t mean you’ll get along when writing together. You need to have a close friendship with your collaborator and be aware of their likes and dislikes and make sure they’re similar to your own. Working with someone of a different culture, with a different background, intelligence level, and humour, etc., can be a mistake. You both tug and pull in different directions. You want to murder someone halfway through — he wants that person in the sequel. It can cause endless arguments.

On the flip-side, if you work with someone whose ideas are too similar to your own, you won’t challenge each other and your ideas may be flat and too comfortable.

The reason for a collaboration should be to step out of your comfort zone. Push the boundaries and break through into new, unchartered territory.

If not, what’s the point? You might as well just write it by yourself.


“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” ― Helen Keller


My next experience of collaboration didn’t work for me. I connected with a film director (now a friend and mentor of mine) and we cooked up a few ideas together for scripts and began working on them. For the most part I dealt with the writing side and he took on the role of editor — sending back first drafts with notes and further ideas for development. And although, in the long run, he helped my progress as a writer with some insightful comments, I also felt like our ideas were way too opposite. If I  wanted a blue bus, he wanted a red pony. If I wanted planes, he wanted trains. That wasn’t him being difficult, or even him producing bad ideas, we just had two different but valid approaches to the same problem, and that didn’t work for me.

I guess I could have argued my side until he accepted my way of thinking, but there’s no point collaborating if I’m going to do my own thing anyway. You have to compromise, and with every compromise you can lose a little of your art. The more you accept ideas that aren’t yours, the more the story is shaped away from your vision, and that always grated on me. 

When you think about it, a collaboration is double the work, not half. At first it seems like the easier option: you have someone to share the workload, someone to add input to the story and construction, and someone who’ll be at your side to champion your corner and spur you on. But it’s actually harder to maintain control. What starts out as a joint project, may morph into something that is either completely removed from your starting point, or something you don’t recognise as your own. That can be devastating, especially if you’ve worked hard on it. You want to feel like you’ve given birth to something great — not that you’ve compromised your integrity to please someone else.

Otherwise you’re left with an empty feeling at the end of the project.


“Individually, we are one drop.

Together, we are an ocean.” – Ryunosuke Satoro


My problem is that I want to control things; this, I suppose, is why I’m a novelist. I became an author in order to create worlds and manipulate them how I see fit, like a kind of storytelling sociopath. And if someone else is part of that process, I’m relinquishing the control I’d originally sought out.

My collaborator was a director so he was used to compromising. It didn’t bother him. He understood that scripts can go through hundreds of changes before filming. That’s not how I work, though — I have my vision and I like to follow it right to the end, although that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant to suggestions. If, afterwards, I can find a way to strengthen my work through rewrites or restructuring, that’s cool. I’ll pick it apart and make it stronger. But giving a scene more depth is very different from replacing one character with someone else’s invention. 

But maybe you can handle that. Maybe I’m overly precious and difficult. However, if you do decide to follow this route, make sure you find someone you click with — not just on a personal level, but with film and story ideas. Ask him what films or books he likes. If he enjoys everything you hate, you have a problem. You’re not on the same page, and you need to know that up front. You don’t want to butt heads three hundred pages in and realise your minds are turned in different directions.

Two creative minds can be a dangerous thing when you clash on an idea. You both believe your one is superior and there’s no way to settle it unless someone folds.

And the guy who folds will usually regret it in the long run.

So if you decide to collaborate, pick your partner carefully.

It’s the most important decision you’ll make in the whole process.


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downloadQuestion Everything

“Behind every answer is an important question.” 

Nikola Tesla

The greatest lesson my dad ever taught me was: QUESTION EVERYTHING.

And he didn’t mean it hyperbolically.

Question everything, he said. And then when you get the answer, question that too. Which probably isn’t the best piece of advice to tell a curious child. He basically gave me a free rein to pepper him with endless annoying questions. Why’s the sky blue? Why do some buses have one floor and others have two? Did cavemen exist in Australia? How do palaeontologists know they’ve put the dinosaur bones back in the correct order? Do we see colour the same? — question after question. I’m surprised he didn’t blow his brains out. His suicide note would have read: He wouldn’t quit questioning everything.

But it was amazing advice, and I’ve never forgotten it. We are constantly deluged with information — in papers, magazines, on the internet, from friends and family. Everywhere we turn someone is trying to convince us that their truth is the universal one. In this new-age of social networks, it’s even easier to distribute lies and spread propaganda. There are far more idiots out there willing to perpetuate half-truths and false statements, than those who are smart enough to engage their brain and do a little independent research on whatever meme or article they’ve just read. Nowadays someone only needs to post up a picture with a paragraph of lies printed across it and millions of people will share these lies on the internet, fuelling the fire. This is why my dad’s lesson — question everything — should be ingrained into every child from the beginning.

In any case, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to show you how questioning everything, aside from being practical, can help you find new story ideas.


“Don’t just teach your children to read,

teach them to question what they read.

Teach them to question everything.”

George Carlin


Stephen King once asked himself a simple question: “What would happen if a psychotic fan captured her favourite author?” — and from that, Misery was born, a modern-day horror classic (at least in my eyes). And for the most part, that’s how he writes his novels. He starts with an interesting What if scenario and carries on from there.

When you look at so-called high-concept thrillers, these almost always hinge on a question: What would happen if — ? and then you end up with a film like Speed or Panic Room or even Home Alone. It works for other genres, too. Take Pretty Woman for example. The question there is clear. What happens if a hooker with a heart of gold falls in love with one of her clients? And in that nutshell, you have the beginnings of a story.

Many authors do this, but beyond that, let’s go in to the novels themselves.

Pick up one of your favourite books and try to guess what question, if any, sparks off the action — and by action, I don’t mean explosions; I just mean the inciting incident, the thing that grips you and pulls you deeper into the story. For instance, detective novels usually begin with a murder, which instantly poses a question: Who killed the victim? Almost immediately, the reader is invested in finding out; she reads on to see if the detectives will piece everything together and catch the murderer — and sometimes this involves a ticking clock, too: will they catch the murderer before he kills someone else?

Novels, short stories, screenplays — they can all be shrunk down to a question that needs answering. Even a family drama can be as simple as What happens to a family when their father dies? What happens to a relationship when one is caught cheating? What happens if a woman murders her boss for sexually harassing her? All of these are seeds: you plant these questions, then you add more, and you keep asking questions until your plot grows.

You write a scene, then you ask yourself what happens next. You build a character, then you question what is so interesting about him. Why should people care? What is his role in the plot? Is he necessary? The more questions you ask of your story, both to begin it and during the process of writing it, the more clarity of vision it will have. Question every scene, every construction, every twist, every word, every sentence.

But before all that, you need to answer your first question.

What is your novel or short story about?


“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question

than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” — Bruce Lee


With every question comes the potential of a story idea. If you see a tree that’s collapsed on the road, question it. How did it get there? Did it fall? And if so, why? Was it old? Did the wind blow it down? Did somebody chop it down? If somebody did chop it down, why? And don’t pick the obvious answer. Go abstract with it. Maybe somebody chopped it down in order to prevent traffic from moving or going down this lane. That brings you another question: Why would someone do that? Then you can think up more reasons. Maybe he’s planning to kill someone. Maybe he wants to get to a job interview before someone else. It doesn’t matter if the idea is stupid or inconceivable, at least in the early stages. For now you’re merely asking questions, building possible narratives to use. Later on, once you’ve asked and answered all your questions, you can pick and choose.

And don’t just ask questions from one angle, either. If the tree’s collapsed, don’t simply ask who chopped it down. Ask how it affects the people backed up in traffic. Maybe a man is on the way to see his son’s play. Maybe a woman is in labour and on the way to hospital. That would bring you more questions. Does she give birth in the car? Okay, maybe she does. Now ask some questions about delivering a baby by the roadside. Maybe the baby is a devil, or a dog, or whatever. Again, you’re merely asking questions and throwing out scenarios and answers, no matter how unrealistic they may seem.

Within an hour or so you’ll have multiple plot layers to play with. Not only are you finding answers out of thin air, you’re opening up your creative centre. You’re not forcing an idea, you’re allowing your mind to find a suitable option; giving it freedom to invent something interesting. In effect, you’re giving your creativity an outlet to breathe.


“In mathematics the art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.” — Georg Cantor


My short story London Eye Baby (available in issue #17 of The Literary Hatchet) was born from a similar process. My initial question was What would happen if a woman gave birth at the top of the London Eye? And then it became: What if her dickhead of a husband forced her to do it in order to get some cheap fame and notoriety? And I continued that process, asking myself how he could manipulate events to make it happen.

This not only gave me more questions to answer, but as the story went along it raised questions in the audience’s mind as well, which is what you want to do. They should always be questioning what will happen next. Don’t give them their answers right away. Make them work for it. Trickle information in small amounts, giving them just enough to keep up but not enough to solve whatever mystery exists in your story.

And that mystery can be something as simple as Will John ask Amy to the dance? Whatever it is, tease us with it. People like to learn things as they go along; that way, they feel like they’re part of the journey, following in the footsteps of your protagonist.

You want them to invest in your story, not put the book down.


“It is better to debate a question without settling it

than to settle a question without debating it.” — Joseph Joubert


Questions can work for character building too. If you don’t have a criminal record for being a peeping tom, I’d suggest people-watching. I don’t mean for you to hang around someone’s house and stare through their window — that’s not only weird but it’ll probably get you arrested or beaten up. The safest way to people-watch is to do it every day, as a default. You can do it anywhere and everywhere: when you’re walking down the street, or you’re sitting on the bus, or the tube, or driving to work. Look at the people around you and question their motives. Why did they buy that coffee? Was it out of habit or are they stressed out? Night out on the town, perhaps? Once you have that answer, question it deeper. Why are they stressed out? Or what did they do on their night out? Did they get too drunk? Did they accidentally kill someone? That night could be the genesis of your story. Or not. For now you’re just playing with ideas.

The point is, these connections can happen in snap moments. Look at a row of people and they usually all have a different style of dress, different books, different shoes, different bags. But what makes the people themselves different? Why does one prefer trainers and another prefer heels? Why does one laugh when another would cry?

These kinds of exercises work on two levels: one is to give you a greater insight on people in general — all the seemingly inconsequential differences and idiosyncrasies that each of us possess. The other is an ability to build characters and stories based on real-life people around you. You don’t want to write caricatures. You want your characters to be authentic, and analysing those around us can help with how you do that.

Look, learn, listen, absorb, and then later on filter it into your work.

You’ll be surprised about how much you can pick up from the world.


“A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.” John Ciardi 


Don’t simply stop at characters and story ideas, either. Question everything around you. Why is that building there? Why did they create a skyscraper? Why do all newspapers use bold font for their headlines? Etc. Some of the answers will be obvious, others won’t. As children we’re curious: we ask thousands of questions about anything and everything around us. But once we hit adulthood we tend to lose that childlike wonder. We just accept things as they are. We close our eyes to our environment and stop asking ourselves questions. The more you pick apart the world around you, the more observant you’ll become. You’ll start to notice patterns, flaws, issues, other things you’d previously overlooked. This, again, will help you when you get around to write your novel.

If you can micro-analyse the world and view its plethora of faults, constantly questioning and targeting motives, you’ll soon do the same with your characters and plot. On top of that you’ll be gathering more material for your work without realising it.

Imagine you’re a child and pretend you know nothing.

In the case of writing, ignorance really can be bliss.


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JUST A BRIEF UPDATE:

Someone asked me the other day if I’ve given up on my blog. I haven’t posted anything on here in almost four months so I can see where he got that impression. But that’s not the case.

I still have at least a year’s worth of finished articles (mostly writing advice) sitting in a folder on my desktop. On top of that I have numerous book reviews and plenty of ideas and half-sketched outlines for future blogs. All the material is there, waiting to be unleashed upon my subscribers and anyone else unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire.

However, I’m going through a busy writing period, with a stack of editing jobs on the side, so I’ve put the blog on temporary hiatus until I can dedicate a little more time to it. If it was as simple as copying and pasting from my computer, then I’d do it. But usually it takes at least a couple hours (minimum) to put up a blog, mainly due to the malfunctioning-format-fuckery of WordPress, but also in part due to my need to scan every article at least fifty times in case an error or typo gets through unchallenged (and even then, I’m sure it probably still does).

Anyway, so this is just a quick update to let you guys know what I’ve been up to, and what’s in the works. Just keep in mind the blog will be back, and more active, later in the year.

Firstly, before anything: In April I got signed by a literary agent. I was signed to one years ago and in the end nothing came of it (I’ll explain why in a future blog), but I feel quietly confident about this one. My agent seems to get my style and he’s already filled my head with compliments and enough smoke to kill a giraffe, including the line: “You have the ability to take the reader to places that they only drive through at best.” It’s the kind of quote I’d like to see in a paper one day, next to a picture of my bestselling book.

Or on my gravestone . . .

But anyway, we’re now in the process of restructuring my crime novel One Knife Stand, which means I have some extensive rewriting to do, and then, hopefully, my agent will sell it and make me some money. In the meantime, we’re in talks with a celebrity who wants me to ghostwrite his autobiography. I can’t say much about it (I’m meant to be a ghost after all), but if all goes well I should be able to take up writing full-time and jack in all the editing work. 

Secondly (or should this be thirdly?), I’m currently working on a collection of short horror stories, which should be out later in the year. I recently received the artwork from the highly talented Theo Cane.

Check it out below and let me know what you think:

18192481_1668344493180820_2491835963073453666_o
And finally, my short story The London Eye Baby was just published in April’s edition of The Literary Hatchet. You can buy a hard copy of the book or download the free version here (issue #17). And if you do read the story, let me know if you liked it (or hated it) and why. All constructive feedback, positive or otherwise, is welcome. I’m always learning and always open to grow from my mistakes (as you should too, whether you’re an aspiring writer or a serial killer). 18556597_1696248350390434_267256459119504194_oAnd that’s about it for now. Thank you for your patience, and I hope to post some more motivating material soon.

Until then: go and do some writing. Your pad is waiting for you to show up and get to work.


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imgresStepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone
(In order to learn a few lessons)

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.”

— Oscar Wilde

After my agent lost interest in my crime novel City of Blades following a year of back and forth rewrites, it was time to try something else. Starting a new project can be daunting; my writing folder is overloaded with half-sketched ideas and uncooked outlines, just begging for my attention. And there’s no real order to it: I have crime novels, a detective series, a comedy script, novellas, horror stories, sweeping romance epics, and many more. I dabble in everything, and I’m a master of nothing. But amongst all the detritus, rather than going with my safe choice — another adult crime novel — I chose instead to step out of my comfort zone.

Earlier in our talks my agent had shown an interest in Young Adult novels (she had a number of ties to YA publishing houses) and felt I’d be good at writing one — possibly because my first crime novel was stocked with teenagers.

Anyway, once an idea began to blossom I decided to try it out, thinking it wouldn’t be too different than anything else I’d written. All I’d have to do was drop the word fuck and cut out all the violence, drug-taking and murder scenes and I’d be okay.

I figured I had nothing to lose — why not see how it went?


“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” — Neale Donald Walsch


My first task was to instil routine and discipline to my writing. In my early years I used to finish a novel every twelve months or so, which is considered prolific in some quarters and lazy in others. Either way, if I intended to impress the agent who’d lost faith in me I needed to wow her, and the book had to be delivered within the year.

That was my thinking anyway. 

At no point did I worry about passion, or about whether the book or the plot needed time to breathe, I merely jumped in head first and hoped to swim. My plan was simple: I had to write every day, no matter what. It didn’t make a difference if I wrote a sentence or twenty pages. My only stipulation was that I couldn’t go to sleep unless I’d written something in the novel. And I didn’t once break that rule: I wrote every day.

In the end, I completed the novel (Crimson Sky) in the space of three months.

And it was a steaming pile of dog shit.


“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” — Brian Tracy


In all these years I’ve probably read about three Young Adult books.

To my small mind, a YA book was no different than an adult one, just slightly watered-down. I didn’t realise they had certain conventions and rules. Not once did I consider researching the field or reading the current top authors to understand the subject matter and how they put the message across. Instead I arrogantly blundered my way into their world, wearing a blindfold and hacking away at everything with a rusty machete — dogs, children, families. 

My story centred around schoolboy Oliver Crown, a nerdy Tin-Tin like wannabe journalist who vows to uncover the truth behind a murder committed on school grounds. The premise wasn’t groundbreaking but it had enough legs to stretch into a decent 70,000-word novel, as long as I properly cultivated the idea. Instead, desperate to produce a new novel and send it off to my agent, I rushed into it without thought, penning an essentially linear murder plot with not much in the way of depth or intelligence. In my ignorance I assumed Young Adult books didn’t require brains to their novels. I treated it like a conversation with a child: I spoke down to my audience. The main character was likeable, but everyone else was a cardboard cutout with no personality. The dialogue was okay but mawkish. The novel, in essence, lacked bite.

And I know why: I’d written the novel for the sake of it. Not because I connected with the plot or the characters; not because it was bursting inside of my head and I needed to let it free for fear it would eat my brain. I wrote it merely as a means to an end. And it reads that way — like a lifeless shitty project. I might as well have ghostwritten it.

Not only that, but I wrote the final showdown of the book when drunk, slamming away at the keys as fast as possible while downing shots with my friends. I couldn’t wait to finish it so we could go out and have fun and I could forget it ever existed. My mind wasn’t on the task at hand, but on the final line ahead. And in my drunkenness, I lost any kind of discipline with the story. The book ended with me killing the majority of the cast in a gruesome way, while at the same time uncovering a shocking paedophile subplot which for some reason I’d weaved into the narrative early on, once again forgetting it was a Young Adult novel.

Then, after finishing it, I sent it off to my agent without so much as a rewrite or a second draft. Predictably, she turned the book down and practically turned me away too.

But what did I expect? No one likes having flaming shit sent to their door.

Especially not literary agents. They read enough of it day-to-day.


“The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity; moving beyond it necessitates intuition, which in turn configures new perspectives and conquers fears.” — Dan Stevens


However, the ordeal wasn’t a total loss. I look back on the whole fiasco as a learning process. Next time, if I try to step out of what I know I’ll be more aware of the pitfalls. For a start, I’ll read heavily within the genre I’m choosing — not to copy what’s already there, but to get an idea of the current conventions and trends, even if I plan to buck them. It’s important to know the rules, especially if you’re planning to break them.

Also, I learned a few tricks about disciplining myself with my writing schedule. Up until that point I’d been inconsistent for almost ten years. Some weeks I’d write thousands of words, other times I’d write ten words, or a page, or nothing. Some days I’d sit down at the computer, tell myself to write, and if I found enough excuses not to do it, then I wouldn’t. That was naïve. Anyone who’s ever had an office job knows that sitting in front of the screen isn’t enough to make you productive. You need to force yourself to work — whether it’s because your boss is breathing down your neck or because you have a deadline you need to fulfil. Either way, during the writing of this terrible YA novel I managed to sit down at my computer and write every day without fail.

And although my execution of the book was slipshod, I still wrote a novel in three months — which at the time was a record (I’ve since written an equally long novel in three weeks, and a much better one too). Regardless of anything else, I’d completed the project and was free to move on to something new. And in the future I’d know to plan ahead with my writing. Maybe jot down notes the day before, or outline the next chapter in advance, or just going into it with a clearer idea of what I’m doing. 

For so long I’d been convinced that I didn’t need a plot as long as I had the barebones outline. I figured in the end everything would fall into place, which sometimes it does; but sometimes it doesn’t. We can’t all be Stephen King, and it’s the reason why some of his books are amazing and some are just big colourful doorstoppers.

Anyway, my point is this: no finished project is a total failure.

It’s all a lesson for the future. And sometimes it’s good to step out of your comfort zone and try something new, even if it’s just so you know not to do that again.

So go back to your novel and finish it off. Even if you know it’s terrible.

I promise, if you keep hacking away at the weeds, eventually you’ll discover the house you’re looking for. The haunted one with all the dead bodies in the basement.

You just gotta keep working at it.


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imgres
Putting The Fun Back Into Boring Books

“Many books are longer than they seem. They have indeed no end. The boredom that they cause is truly absolute and infinite.” — Novalis 

Books can be tedious at times.

As someone who loves and values reading more than almost anything (other than my family), there are some books that feel like a chore to get through — novels that would be better suited as a doorstop, or being slipped under the wonky fourth leg on a table. For the most part, we can choose to either throw these books away, set them on fire, or pass them along to a friend (or an enemy) so we don’t have to suffer them any longer.

But what about a novel that’s part of a series? You can’t skip Book Three and expect to understand four and five — you’ll be missing out on vital information. You could give up on the series altogether, but after loving the first two books, why would you want to? Or what about a book someone’s bought you for Christmas or your birthday? It would be rude to toss their present aside after twenty pages, even if it is filled with terrible prose and unbelievable characters. Also, what about the times when your writer friends want you to read their latest self-published tome about aliens, pyramids and murder? Or when you need to finish a novel in time for your bi-weekly book club? Under those circumstances, you have to force yourself through the boredom.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can still have fun during the torture.

Here are a few ways to enliven your experience . . .


“I picked up one of the books and flipped through it. Don’t get me wrong, I like reading. But some books should come with warning labels: Caution: contains characters and plots guaranteed to induce sleepiness. Do not attempt to operate heavy machinery after ingesting more than one chapter. Has been known to cause blindness, seizures and a terminal loathing of literature.” — Laurie Halse Anderson, Twisted. 


Notes

Whenever my wife buys me a book, she litters the pages with thoughtful handwritten notes. On page 19, I’ll stumble across a message that says, “Remember our last holiday? I love you,” or on page 36 she’ll write: “Knock knock, who’s there? Me. Keep reading,” or something else that’s cute to me and probably nauseating to anyone else. If you have a partner (or even a family member or good friend who doesn’t mind doing this), notes can be a great way to keep you pushing through those pages. It’s no longer about finishing the chapter to get closer to the end, but finishing to reach the next note. Also, these positive messages will make you feel good, which may trick your brain into thinking the novel is causing these happy feelings — meaning you end up liking it.

Try it out. If not for yourself, do it for someone else.

Fill their book with notes.

Just make sure you do it with their permission. If you end up scribbling all over their first edition Harry Potter, they may just end up throwing the book at your head.


“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

― G.K. Chesterton 


Rewards

When I don’t feel like doing something — such as writing, or breathing, or cleaning the dishes — I usually give myself an incentive: for every page of writing, I get to eat a cookie. If I complete the washing up, I can watch a film. If I continue to breathe all day long, I get to sleep. You can do the same with your reading tasks. Instead of expecting to gain some kind of pleasure from the boring words, you have to use the words as a path to your happiness. For every chapter you read, you get a reward. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant or ridiculous like a car, or a new dress. It can be something as simple as a snack, or a nap, or a TV show you’ve been meaning to watch.

By setting up your reading time as a task, you’ll be more inclined to finish it. You’ll know that if you can push your way through the next three pages, you can finally get around to starting season 2 of Orange Is The New Black or House of Cards maybe.

This again links pleasure (albeit delayed) to your reading experience. 


“Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves?” 

Friedrich Nietzsche


Rewrite It

This one is aimed more at the writers among you, but it can be just as enjoyable for the non-writers too. If the book you’re reading is tiresome, why not try and rewrite it? Not fully — unless you want to invest a year of your life rewriting someone else’s material so you can then delete it, or get sued by the author — but a few scenes here and there. If you’re reading a series, you can pick out one of your favourite characters and write a short story about him or her. Or you can reimagine the scene in your own way. If you didn’t like how it went, this is your chance to change that. If a character you liked died, why not bring her back to life? Afterwards, you can post your fan fiction online for others to read. Or you can keep it to yourself.

But at least the book will seem better.

Well — your version anyway. Which is a start . . .


“The truth is that everyone is bored,

and devotes himself to cultivating habits.”

― Albert Camus


Anyway, that’s it for now.

I’m sure there are plenty more ways to make reading fun, so if you have any tricks of your own, let me know in the comments. Until then: keep pushing through.

You’ll finish that 900-page book eventually.


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At the beginning of 2016 I gave myself a target to read 75 books by the end of the year.

I managed to surpass that and read 85, although that included a few novellas and short story collections too.

Below is a list of my favourite 25 books from this year (in no particular order):

imgresThe Killing Room by Richard Montanari

Homicide Detectives Kevin Byrne and Jessica Balzano are back for their seventh inning of the series, and this time they’re investigating a series of brutal murders in churches around the city.

If you like smart and creepy serial killer novels, this is one to check out. Its style is reminiscent of the film Se7en. And even though it’s midway through the series, you don’t need to have read the others to appreciate it (although I recommend the others too).


imgres-2Impact by Rob Boffard

Impact is the last in the Outer Earth trilogy and my personal favourite of the three. The first book opens on a huge but claustrophobic space station that orbits earth and carries the last of humanity. A group of Tracers (couriers who deliver packages around the station) stumble across the plot of a madman intent on destroying the space station, and our hero Riley and her team do their best to foil the plans and protect everyone on board.

But with each entry in the series, their problems get bigger and darker and seemingly more insurmountable. And Impact ties it all together with the best and most explosive in the series. And on top of all the action, the books are filled with humour to cut the tension every now and then.

Check out my interview with Rob for more information: click here


imgres-3Riding in Cars with Boys: Confessions of a Bad Girl Who Makes Good by Beverly Donofrio

This is a true and heartwarming coming-of-age story about an intelligent but occasionally self-destructive teenaged mother and her attempts to find direction and meaning in her otherwise chaotic life.

I’m not usually into memoirs (or any type of autobiographical work), but this one is well written, relatable and at times hilarious.


imgres-4Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Nick Dunne’s wife disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary and no one can find her. She might be dead. In fact, most people think she is dead and that Nick killed her. The police think it too, and before long everyone else in town seems to think it.

But did he kill her or not? And if he did, how and why did he do it?

Gone Girl is a twisty psychological crime thriller with literary ambitions. It starts off slow, but after the first couple chapters it kicks in to high gear and the mystery holds you through until the end.


imgres-5The Martian by Andy Weir

Mark Watney is stranded on Mars with no way to communicate with NASA (who think he’s dead), and he’s living in a hub designed to last a month with about half a year’s worth of food to sustain him. That doesn’t seem too bad except the next scheduled visit to Mars is years away, so unless Watney can figure out how to create his own food, protect his shelter, and contact earth, he’s going to die on Mars, all alone, in the freezing cold.

Written for the most part as a series of diary entries from Mars, the genius in this book lies in its premise and our hero’s constant feeling of peril. For everything Watney does right, something else goes wrong and another problem arises, and the novel carries on like that the whole way through, with Watney having to put out fire after fire after fire, both figuratively and literally. It’s the kind of book that doesn’t allow you to put it down because you want to know how he’ll escape.

Or if he’ll escape.


imgres-6Strings by Allison M. Dickson

Technically I read this at the end of 2015 but I thought I’d sneak it in anyway.

Strings is the story of Nina, a hooker at a mob-run brothel who has one final trick to turn before her Madam will set her free and allow her to return to a quiet life in Iowa. But her final customer is not the usual; there’s something disturbing with him (or it?) and she just wants to get out of there. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long before she’s tied to the bed and looking death in the face. But can she survive through the torture and find a way to escape? That’s the main gist, although there’s some interesting subplots going on too with the Madam of Nina’s brothel and a driver, Ramon, who’s trying to run off with a suitcase of Mafia money.

Overall it’s a gruesome and disturbing horror with enough to satisfy the most depraved fans of the genre.

If you’re easily offended or squeamish, don’t waste your time.

On a side note, it’s not available to buy on Kindle at the moment but the author has assured me it will be back later in 2017, so mark it on your Amazon wish list and check back in a few months . . .

(You can read my interview with author Allison M. Dickson here.) 


imgres-7The Grid by Philip Kerr

First published in 1995 before iPhones were invented, this techno thriller is about a “smart” building run by computers.

But when a virus compromises the main system just before the building’s grand opening, the computer locks a group of people inside and begins killing the characters one by one in a series of inventive and gruesome ways.

It’s kind of like Die Hard mixed with The Towering Inferno. Fun, dumb and fast.


imgres-8The Crime of our Lives by Lawrence Block

The Crime of our Lives is a collection of Lawrence Block’s best non-fiction work.

It includes: introductions he’s written for other books, published essays, tributes to some of the best-loved crime authors from the last few decades, anecdotes from his career, insights into his journey as a writer, and much more. And as always with Block, every piece of writing sounds like your best friend telling you a story you never want to end.

Worth checking out if you’re a fan of Block or crime books in general.


blinkBlink by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink is a psychology book about intuition: about how we make snap judgements and why a lot of the time it’s more effective than taking time to reach an informed decision.

As with all of Gladwell’s books, he takes us through an interesting subject without getting too complex with the information. This can sometimes be his downfall — he tends to skate over the surface of his theories and present them as unbreakable truths rather than delving too deeply into the alternatives that could show his ideas in a different light. But in spite of that, I always enjoy reading his work and I usually learn something along the way.

Just make sure, after you’re done, you do some independent research and come to your own conclusions.


imgresThe Psychopath Test & So You’ve Been Publically Shamed by Jon Ronson

I’ve lumped these two in together because I read them back-to-back and they’re by the same author — Jon Ronson — a journalist with an eye for the absurd.

The first book, The Psychopath Test, sees Ronson go on a journey to discover the roots of psychopathy, which, although a dark subject matter, is treated in Ronson’s typically light and humorous way, even as he’s face to face with genuine psychopaths (both the murderous and non-violent kind) and as he ambles his way through the world of psychopathology. And not only does he talk to prominent psychologists to get a better idea about the mindset of a psychopath, he also tracks down the man who created the original Psychopath Test — a list of indicators to help anyone spot a psychopath in your midst.

Overall it’s a quick read, full of comedic and dark insight, and offers a brief but interesting psychology course to its readers without the complexity of the issue bogging it down.


imgres-1The second book, So You’ve Been Publically Shamed is more of the same.

Ronson, after realising a Twitter bot is using his identity, is soon sucked into the world of public shaming, in which he interviews people who’ve had their lives ruined after posting offensive, insensitive or just plain stupid tweets or Facebook statuses. He examines the social media world of wolves and discusses the cycle of online outrage and “white-knighting” from certain sections of the internet. He manages to treat his subjects like three-dimensional people — broken, sad, apologetic — whilst never quite excusing their dumb actions either.

If you like Malcolm Gladwell, Ronson’s similar but with more of a comical edge.


imgres-2The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships by Neil Strauss

Neil Strauss is the infamous author of The Game, a book that lifted the lid on the pick-up artist community and helped teach millions of horny men about “negging” and “peacocking”. Since then, Strauss has picked up a sex addiction and admits at the beginning of this book that he finds it impossible (and almost illogical) to stay faithful to the love of his life, which leads him down a path of salvation through rehab, denial, and eventually plenty of orgies, porn star parties and a brief stint living as a polyamorous bachelor.

But when you look beyond the salacious and the provocative angle of the book, Strauss has a lot to say here about relationships and sexual dysfunction. I wouldn’t say I agree with everything, but a few sections gave me pause and had me re-evaluating the kind of husband and father I am, and if I could be doing better. It’s by no means groundbreaking, yet Strauss writes in such an engaging and honest way, that you’re sure to get something out of this book, even if it’s just entertainment or an inside look into a different, darker and more depraved world than you’re used to.


41+UM1gCZ7L._AC_UL320_SR226,320_The Writers and Artists Guide to How to Write by Harry Bingham

As someone who reads a lot of writing manuals, I feel this has way more in the tank than the usual. Harry Bingham runs through every major facet of writing and manages to offer enough advice and insight to please and teach both the laymen and the experts. I rarely find advice I haven’t read before. However, Bingham, who’s not only an author himself but also the owner of a writing consultancy firm, does well to offer up plenty of well-known and often-touted advice (such as Write what you know) but with extra depth than the usual.

Anyone looking to make it in this deadly publishing game should check this out and heed the advice given.


9781408128954The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook Guide to Getting Published by Harry Bingham

This book is a companion to the one above.

If that one helps you master your craft, this one helps you learn about the publishing industry as a whole and how to sell your novel. Not only does Bingham go through the process from start to finish, he also pulls back the curtain on the behind-the-scenes stuff and, in an unbiased way, reviews both the negatives and positives of mainstream publishing and the possible pitfalls that can flatline a career before it takes off.

If you’re searching for an agent or publisher, this is has enough advice to help level the playing field when you finally get into a position to negotiate with the higher-ups about your career and future income.


imgres-3Resume Speed by Lawrence Block

Resume Speed is a quick-paced novella about a man who, whilst on the run from something (or someone), drifts into a new town and restarts his life as a short-order cook.

This is straightforward enough, except Block weaves the paranoia and tension throughout, leaving the audience to ask what exactly our hero has done, and, more importantly: will it catch up with him? And the way Block writes his main character, you don’t want it to; you want everyone to leave this man alone to live his life, and that’s down to Block’s genius. He does a beautiful job of showing our hero integrating into a new town and improving the lives and love of those around him, with the slow-boil tension of who-knows-what creeping along under the surface; a deadly promise of things to come.

The ending, in some ways, lets it down; it’s a little abrupt, especially as I didn’t want to leave the characters just yet. I happily would have read another four-hundred-plus pages. But it’s the type of ending that makes you think, too, and long after the book’s closed.


91nYoKiAndLMy Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh

My Sunshine Away is a disturbing coming-of-age love story mixed in with a rape mystery, which the narrator (unreliable and suspicious as he is) decides he’s going to solve on behalf of the victim. That’s if he didn’t do it himself.

He was clearly in love with the victim and had the opportunity and motive, along with sexualised pictures he’d drawn of her, and many of the people in town think he’s guilty. But he’s adamant he didn’t do it.

And that sense of uncertainty around the narrator carries the mystery for most of the book — more so, in fact, than his half-hearted investigation — but underneath all of that, there’s a lot more going on than just a horrifying rape story: there’s drama and love and teenage confusion and the characters are fully-formed people you could imagine knowing in real life, all written in a forthright and yet at times lyrical prose that takes this a step above your usual mystery. It’s more of a literary exploration of teenage despair, unrequited love, and the darkness that resides in us all. 

Either way, it’s worth reading: not so much for the mystery, but for the writing itself.


109494The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell by Neil Strauss and Marilyn Manson

This is a well-written and informative memoir, even for someone who’s not a fan of Marilyn Manson’s music. As I mentioned earlier, I’m not really into memoirs; also, I’ve probably only heard one or two of Marilyn Manson’s songs before and know him more based on how he looks than his musical genius. But I still found the book interesting and read it in a day or two.

It chronicles Manson’s uprising to stardom and shows his rock-and-roll/punk-anarchist lifestyle in vivid detail, without censoring the disgusting parts. And although some of it feels a little repetitive at times (alcohol, drugs, fights and copious unprotected sex), Strauss does a good job of balancing it out with incisive details and a narrative that feels, at times, as if it’s a novel; a portrait of a character heading towards destruction.


41cY4UXisyL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Mini Habits: Smaller Habits, Bigger Results by Stephen Guise

If you’re trying to build better habits in your life — such as writing more often, or going to the gym, or smoking less — this book has an easy way to make it happen.

The premise is simple: start your habits stupidly small, like doing one press-up a day, and gradually build from there over the weeks and months until the habit is fully solidified in your brain. After all, it’s more beneficial to do three sit-ups a day, every day, for an entire year, than it is to do 50 sit-ups every now and then, at random moments throughout each month. And that’s the beauty of mini-habits: they work to make the habit permanent, so that the act of doing a sit-up (regardless of how many) is ingrained in you.

Once you go beyond that, you’re able to do 50 or 60 sit-ups a day, if that’s the goal, and you won’t feel any different than when you only did one or two a day.

Anyway, the book is only a short one but Guise goes into detail about his mini-habit theory and explains how and why it works, and the many aspects of daily life it can be applied to. I’ve used mini-habits for a long time now and it’s helped me integrate so many new positive habits into my life. 

So check out the book and start building better habits immediately.


imgresMe and Hitch by Evan Hunter

This is a short book (about 70 pages or so) in which author Evan Hunter (also known as Ed McBain, writer of the infamous 87th Precinct series) recounts his time working under Alfred Hitchcock and penning the film The Birds.

It’s written in Hunter’s typically honest and humorous way, and whether or not you’re a fan of Hitchcock is irrelevant. Hunter manages to keep you interested with funny anecdotes, and also offers plenty of commentary into the process of making a film, especially explaining the mutual respect as well as the constant battles on set between screenwriter and director.

I’m sure many of you have seen a film before and thought, What was the writer thinking? not realising, as in Hunter’s case with The Birds, that the writer had a completely different idea how to end the film, or open it, or work in the twist, but the director, who, as we know, is the main man in charge, took it upon himself to change everything, even to the detriment of the film; even if it meant carving out a large portion of logic and leaving loopholes everywhere. In Hunter’s experience with Hitchcock, a lot of the issues with the final version of The Birds came down to the director’s choices, and yet ultimately, as the writer, he’s the one who got all the blame for the stupid stuff.

Anyway, it’s a quick read and worth checking if you’re interested in films.


imgresMe & Earl & The Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews

A humorous “teen” comedy about two best friends and a girl dying of cancer. It’s not as bleak as the title might suggest — nor is it a clichéd romcom that ends with Happily Ever After. If anything, the story is about friendship and love on a platonic level.

It isn’t your traditional YA, but it has plenty of laughs scattered throughout and enough edge and cleverness to appeal to both teenagers and adults alike.


imgres-1How NOT To Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them — A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

There are plenty (nigh: infinite) manuals on how to write well. Or, at the very least, how to write competently. But most of these follow a similar pattern. They repeat a lot of the same information from book to book with just a tweak here and there.

This manual, however, has a slight twist. Instead of lecturing for pages about writing description, or about how to construct a great sentence or how to properly evoke emotion and fill in the landscape through colourful descriptions, it shows what you shouldn’t do. But not just that: the authors have written in a bunch of deliberately terrible scenes as a way to illustrate their points, and although it’s over the top at times, the authors do a good job of portraying the mistakes that a lot of amateur and even seasoned novelists make. It’s easy for other books to say Don’t overuse description, but that means little to the person reading it if they don’t know how much is too much. One man’s too much is five pages; another man’s is five sentences. Whereas, in this book, the authors start with the rule, then follow it up with a badly written piece of overdone description to drive home their point.

It’s a must-read for writers of all talents and abilities.


imgres-2The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton

This suspense thriller is what you might call faction.

Based on a true-life train robbery committed in 19th century England, Crichton has taken the facts of that case and occasionally weaved them into the story — and at times outright thrown them away — in order to craft a taut, tense and plausible thriller centred around a train heist.

If you’re looking for historical accuracy, you’ll be disappointed. But as a thriller, it hits all the right notes. It’s the type of quick-paced book you can finish in one sitting.


imgres-4The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp

Jack Sparks, an egotistical former drug-addict and much-loathed journalist, is dead.

That’s not a spoiler. He’s dead from the start, and The Last Days of Jack Sparks is “found material” showing what happened leading up to his death, ostensibly taken from a book Jack Sparks was writing about the supernatural: most notably, whether or not ghosts exist, which is what sends him down a disturbing and horrifying path towards his death.

I’m not usually into ghost stories, but the central mystery (whether or not a chilling YouTube clip is real or not) drew me in, and the rest of the spooky supernatural stuff is portrayed in a plausible way, without attempting to scare with shock tactics or cheap thrills. There’s a genuine sense of uneasiness which creeps through the pages and gets more ominous as the story progresses.

There are some who’ll find Jack Sparks truly unlikeable (and in places that seems to be the point), but if you can get past Sparks’ arrogance and apparent lack of care for anyone but himself, you’ll be rewarded with a humorous and clever book that alternates between mocking the self-indulgence of celebrities, and scaring the shit out of the readers.


imgres-5Into The Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into The Wild is the true story of Chris McCandless, a young man with a seemingly comfortable and content life, who decided one day to get rid of his possessions and live off the land, which meant camping out in sub-zero temperatures and hunting for food. McCandless wasn’t scared to embrace the harsh environmental realities of a nomad.

Unfortunately, McCandless was soon found dead in the Alaskan wilderness, apparently too weak to summon help or catch any prey to keep him going, and with just an SOS note left behind to explain his situation. However, after conducting a series of interviews and compiling evidence through McCandless’s diary entries and other clippings, author Jon Krakauer has been able to authentically recreate the journey of McCandless from start to finish, along with showing a deep understanding into his mindset and what might cause someone to go off-grid like that.

It’s a tragic story, but an interesting one too. I’m sure plenty of people have considered just packing it all in and wandering off to a life of peace, but few have dared to try it.

This book will either frustrate you (when you consider McCandless’ naivety), or it will inspire you to make a change in your life. Either way, you should give it a shot.


imgres-6The Fireman by Joe Hill

The Fireman is the story of pregnant school nurse Harper Grayson, and her attempts to survive a virus called Dragonscale in the midst of an apocalypse. People are spontaneously combusting everywhere, and the ones who don’t go into flames are shot dead by the roving murderous street crews.

So when Harper contracts the deadly virus, she knows she doesn’t have long left. But, with the help of a man known as The Fireman, she’s soon swept up into a secret society of the infected that have learned how to channel their Dragonscale through prayer and singing, thereby stopping the suicidal fireball effects. The group are holed up in an abandoned summer camp, but with Harper new on the scene it’s not long before the relationship dynamics are tested and the outside world tracks them down to their spot, and that’s when sparks fly and no one’s safe from death. It’s coming after them all.

The book, for a start, is gargantuan. In scope and size, it’s along the lines of Stephen King’s novel, The Stand. And just like that book, there are moments where it drags, or parts that slow down the read, but overall it’s worth the slog. The characters are all likeable and well rounded, and the concept behind the virus is fleshed out in a believable and interesting manner.

Anyway, put aside a few weeks for this one and push your way through it.

No doubt it will be a major Hollywood movie in years to come.


imgres-7The Lock Artist by Steve Hamilton

Earlier in the year, after seeing Don Winslow tweet on numerous occasions about The Second Life of Nick Manson, I took the plunge and bought it. It didn’t blow me away but I enjoyed it enough to check out more of Hamilton’s work, and I’m glad I did. The Lock Artist was in my top 5 reads of 2016.

It’s the story of Michael, the Miracle Boy, who suffers through a tragic series of events, which culminates in him never speaking again. He’s a mute with a dark past. But one day he learns how to crack locks and soon masters it, practicing his newfound skill on every lock he can find, until, through a chance connection, he becomes embroiled in the world of crime as a safecracker. He becomes one of the best in the business. He just doesn’t talk.

The story alternates between a present-day heist and the past that led up to his current situation. It’s essentially a coming-of-age love story wrapped in a heist novel. It’s full of heart and scope and drama, but with enough thriller elements to please the most ardent crime fan.

In short: check this one out. It’s up there with some of my favourites.


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fakeI’ve Always Wanted To Write A Novel
(Says The Pretender) 

“Lips and tongues lie. But actions never do. No matter what words are spoken, actions betray the truth of everyone’s heart.”

Sherrilyn Kenyon

Writing is one of the few professions that is both revered and underestimated by the general public. For every person who calls an author a genius, there are twenty others who say they can do the same, or better, with next to no effort. And this isn’t just bravado or posturing — these arrogant detractors genuinely believe they can pick up a pen (or open their laptop) and write a novel as good as anything currently on the shelves. Which, invariably, they can’t.

The issue arises from ignorance, but it’s easy to see why this belief is so prevalent amongst non-writers. Because even the nons indulge in writing from time to time. It’s not like athletics or skydiving; people write every day: emails, Facebook statuses, letters, text messages, tweets, etc. — a novel probably just seems the same but longer. They don’t consider how much skill and talent and craft and hard work is required in constructing a serious piece of work. They merely assume, based on their ability to write a coherent letter to their local council, that they’ve already mastered the craft. If they only had the “time”, they’d do it; they’d buckle down and tap out a bestseller in the space of a few months. No revision, no edits, just blim, blam, here it is, give me my money.

In contrast, no one watches a gymnast execute a perfect triple backflip and says, “I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ll probably do it next month when I get some free time.” But where writing is concerned, these people suddenly they think they have what it takes to pen a masterpiece, which I suppose is why some people look down on the writing profession — they don’t respect us because it seems like all we do is sit at a laptop and type words for fun.

In some ways, that is all we do. But they discount the hours of pain and stress and pressure and headaches. They don’t realise we sometimes agonise over the same sentence fifty times. They don’t think about how we have to tear our plot to pieces and reconstruct it from the ground up, trying desperately to weave the broken parts together into something that still makes sense. They rarely see our hard work. Instead they see laziness.

And that’s why so many PRETENDERS exist. Watch out for these people.

They’re the worst, and they’ll only depress you in the long run.


“Life is too short to be around someone

that says they love you but doesn’t show it.”

Elizabeth Bourgeret


One of my closest friends (let’s call him Dennis) typifies this type of person. He’s The Pretender — or, his other names: the talker, the dreamer, the delusional fantasist. I’ve known him for over fifteen years now, and since the beginning he’s told me of his plans to be a writer (he’s also mentioned being a director, an actor, a rapper, and any other number of artistic endeavours which he’s never bothered to pursue past his initial spoken dream).

In the last decade or so he’s written a few short stories and completed a short movie script. At the moment he’s about thirty pages through a feature-length screenplay (he’s been lazing his way through it for the past year or so), and he won’t stop talking about the novel he’s going to write, or the new scripts he’s planning to jot down, although he never actually does any of it. He’s a never-ending fountain of film and book ideas. Every time I see him he has another twenty or thirty or fifty ideas to run by me. Some of them are terrible, and some are actually pretty good. He has an eye for a story, and if he were to empty all the ideas in his mind on to a page, after a while, once he’d learned his craft, he could be an accomplished novelist. But if is just a pipe dream. I know he’ll never do it. I’ve heard years worth of his talking and his dreaming without ever seeing the work. One short script does not make a writer. It might be the foundation on which to grow, but without any follow-up work, it’s merely a fluke.

Writing, in Dennis’s world, is something luxurious and fun and cool; it’s something he wants to do, but the reality doesn’t match up to his dream. It’s hard work, it’s stressful, and he doesn’t love doing it. When he writes anything, it’s with an eye to sell it and become rich so he can pursue his other dreams (director, actor, porn star, whatever). His heart and soul isn’t in his work; he doesn’t bleed on the page.

It’s nothing in his life. If I offer him a book to read on characterisation or plotting or anything that could be useful to his dream, he finds an excuse not to read it. He’s busy, or he’s tired, or his leg has fallen off. If I invite him to writing seminars, he won’t come. If I tell him he needs to read more novels, he claims he doesn’t have the time. And yet he’ll watch season 5 of 24 for the seventh time. He believes he doesn’t need that stuff, he can wing the whole process. 

And that’s why a lot of these PRETENDERS churn out buckets of shit.


“I never listen to what a person says. I look at what a person does because what they do tells me who they really are.”

Everything Dennis writes is trash, but he won’t accept criticism or advice because it all looks great to his untrained, unlearned eyes.

Partly this is a defence mechanism: if he doesn’t try too hard, he can’t fail. Later on he can tell himself he didn’t have the time, or the education, to make a real go of it. He’s living in a world of plastic dreams, surrounded by a bubble of ignorance, and no one can pop that bubble, not even him. He feeds into his own lies.

He has no portfolio of writing, doesn’t read, doesn’t want to learn, doesn’t take criticism, doesn’t try to improve, and rarely actually writes, but he calls himself a writer.

These people need to be put in their place. They’re no more than leaches. They want to receive the praise and adulation without putting in the effort.

People like this clog up writing pages and short story websites with their inferior efforts and their uninformed opinions. They may talk a lot about writing — some of them even read all the literature involved and speak a good game — but they have no idea what they’re on about. They’re not speaking from experience. They’re reciting from a book.

These types of PRETENDERS are the worst. They’re so enamoured by the thought of being a writer, they’ve learned to cultivate an author’s outlook. They say all the right things, they seem to know the struggle you’re going through, and yet they rarely ever do anything productive.

Avoid these people at all costs. Avoid all PRETENDERS no matter what.

They’re a tumour and will distract you from your goals.


“I pay ZERO attention to what you say.

But your actions have my undivided attention.”

Sotero M Lopez II


With Dennis, I don’t have much of a choice — he’s my best friend of almost two decades. I can’t kick him out of my life for being a plastic writer. However, if you meet people like this, you have the choice not to invite them into your world. It’s not worth it. They’ll suck away your energy. You’ll take time out of your day trying to guide them and encourage them. You’ll listen to their story ideas and their million-and-one excuses of why they haven’t found time to write recently. You’ll attempt to teach them about the craft. You’ll offer to read their stories and give them feedback. On the rare occasions they actually write something, your feedback will be discarded like an old cup of coffee.

Not only will you pump endless energy and time into a black hole, their attitude may rub off on you too. Because they don’t care about their own writing, they won’t care about yours either. If you say you need to stay home and finish up a chapter, they’ll pressure you to leave it until another time. They don’t understand the hard work it takes. They’ll discredit what you’re doing and make you feel guilty. They’ll do all of this under the guise of understanding your writerly pain.

After all, they’re just like you — they’re writers too. Right?

No. Push these people out of a window and get back to work.

Surround yourself by people who want to achieve, who are writing and fighting every day. Join writers groups if you have to. Seek out like-minded people on Facebook or Twitter. The more you surround yourself by winners, by people trudging up the same mountain, the more you’ll be inspired. Every time you see them post about their 10,000 words before breakfast, that will spur you on to up your own game and write even more.

People don’t improve by practicing with the dregs. They improve by aiming for those above them: by pushing themselves to be better, smarter, funnier, more efficient.

Rise above the PRETENDERS and mingle only with the real McCoy.

Anything less is bad for your career. And bad for your health.

But mostly . . . it’s bad for your writing.


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