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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The Blackboard Jungle

imgres“He had never stopped a rape before, except by changing his mind, and he found his role of ‘protector of the virgin’ a difficult one to assume.”

The Blackboard Jungle is set in a vocational high school in the fifties and shows the journey, over the course of a single school year, of a new idealistic teacher, Richard Dadier. He’s a simple man who just wants to teach, and who believes he can reach a class of undisciplined teenagers: all he needs to do, he thinks, is find a way to engage them.

At first it seems as if there’s not much in the way of plot to hold the reader’s attention, but Evan Hunter (better known as crime writer Ed McBain) utilises every skill in his arsenal to grasp the audience and keep them interested throughout, using a number of emotionally gruelling moments to explore his themes of redemption, faith and hopelessness.

Aside from a collection of gripping classroom scenes, there’s a running subplot with a seductive femme fatale (another teacher in his department) who continuously attempts to lure the main character into bed. Richard Dadier, whose wife is pregnant and rarely “in the mood” has to fight his urges and curb the woman’s advances, and Hunter paints the scenario in such an evocative way that we’re able to feel the character’s internal conflict: lusting and wanting, but not wanting at the same time.

There are many more moments like this in the book: scenes that seem inconsequential on the surface, but effectively tug at the reader’s emotions and fill out the picture of Dadier’s life of frustration.

And to wrap it all up, the author doesn’t cop-out with an inspirational ending where all the students learn the error of their ways and turn into A-grade pupils. It’s more like a portrait of what it was like to be a teacher in that time period — and these days too. The book is no less prevalent today as I’m sure it was then. 

It’s raw and real and will bring most readers back to their school days.

In short: this book is essential reading.

For everyone.


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Enough Rope by Lawrence Block

imgres“I’d rather be carried by 6 than judged by 12.”

Enough Rope is a gargantuan collection of one hundred short stories by Lawrence Block, spanning over 40 years’ worth of material. Many have previously been released in magazines or other compilations or online, but near to the end of the book, there are also some unpublished pieces for those who’ve read all of his older work.

In any case, Enough Rope is currently the most complete gathering of his stories, and a must-have for any Block fan. Out of the 100 stories, about ten percent are duds, which is an amazing ratio, giving you nine classics out of ten. Some stories you’ll guess the twist near the beginning; others you won’t see it coming, even if you’re looking for it. Not all of the stories end with a twist, but many do. Either way, each piece pulls the reader in. Block has such an easy, fluid writing style, making his stories a pleasure to read. And each one offers something new.

However, the collection does slow down about halfway through.

This is because Block sections off the book with the “regulars” — short stories based on regular characters from his novels — and although some of them are interesting, the Martin EhrenGraff stories are especially repetitive and predictable, and you’d be forgiven for skipping them. Five or six stories later, the collection picks up pace again.

The creativity and imagination to produce so many unique works is astounding. Block has managed to keep his writing inventive and gripping for over four decades. The man is a writing machine; a well-oiled, productive, over-functioning member of the writing elite. This book is a testament to his hard work, and a celebration of his talent.

If you enjoy the short-story format, or you’re a fan, you’ll love this collection.

Pick it up, read it, and don’t stop until the final twist spins your mind backwards.


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imagesYou Don't Need A Writing Teacher
(But They CAN Help)

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

~ Flannery O’Connor

For many aspiring writers, the allure of a writing course can be hard to resist. It seems perfect: they not only have someone to constantly validate their work, but they also get a certificate at the end which they can wave around, proclaiming they’re writers now because their teacher told them so. But do these courses actually help?

It depends what your intentions are, and what you hope to gain from the course. If you sign up to a creative writing class or seminar in order to be handed a secret get-rich-quick formula, you’ll be wasting your time. They don’t exist. And if someone tells you they do, they’re lying. There are certainly tricks and tips that you can implement to improve your work and make it more saleable, but that doesn’t mean you can write a bestseller based on a four-point process. That might work with a screenplay, but novels are a different animal. There’s no universally accepted blueprint to writing a bestselling book.

I once read a story about an agent who rejected an author’s work and received a letter back telling the agent he was wrong to disregard it. The writer argued that he’d read and broken down every bestseller on the market and pinpointed the formula — the highs and lows, the fight scenes, the love story, etc. — and constructed his novel to match those moments. His book was practically a carbon copy of those thrillers, so how could his novel possibly fail? But it’s not that simple.

Novels are vast landscapes, and there’s so much that goes on below the surface. Characterisation, theme, prose, subplots, emotion, dialogue, interaction, scene pacing. This can’t be torn down and turned into bullet points. You may build something resembling a bestseller on the surface level, but everything else will be wrong under the hood. That’s where your talent and hard work comes into play.

And teachers can help you with that . . .

Or they can destroy your talent.


“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

~ William Arthur Ward


There are plenty of amazing writing teachers in the world. But for every great teacher, there are thirteen terrible ones whose advice could derail your ambitions and interrupt your learning process. Not purposely: the majority of people who enter the teaching profession have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they’re always correct. Depending on who you get as a teacher, he or she may pass their bad habits on to you. They may stamp out your flourishes of talent (marking those sections of prose as excessive or needless) and gear you toward something more mundane.

Each teacher approaches his job with in-built biases: he or she will have certain likes and dislikes that might go against your own preferences. You may love genre fiction, but your teacher thinks genre writing is trash. Or vice versa. She might be a genre fan and find all classics turgid and boring — which is fine, unless you happen to love them and be planning to write a book in a similar vein. In this instance, the teacher will inhibit you by pushing you away from the style you’re naturally inclined to write in.

Having said that, there are teachers out there who are able to shove their likes to the side and not encroach on a writer’s unique style — these are the great teachers, the ones who nurture and suggest but never enforce their opinion on an author. They steer and guide, but also acknowledge they don’t know everything.

A bad teacher, however, will try to mould your work in their own vision and insist on changes they believe will improve your story. But what’s good and interesting to your teacher might not be so interesting to you. Teachers are fallible; they’re human; they’re learning, just like us. Soak in their advice, but don’t take it as gospel. If it feels right, and sounds right, and you can realise or understand its benefit, then take it on board.

But if you’re skeptical, hold back for a while. Remember it, write it down, then check with other authors. Look online. Read some books. If you keep seeing the same advice crop up, it’s probably useful. If not, that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, but it could simply be an idiosyncrasy of the teacher: an odd like or dislike he’s picked up over the years.

Open your ears and pay attention, but don’t conform for the sake of it. 


“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

~ Aristotle


Do your research before joining a class. If possible, find out who the teacher is and ask a few questions. Does he or she have anything published? If the answer’s yes, ask if you can read it. Then you can make a judgement on their writing. Is it any good? Or do you think the teacher writes with the skill of a fish? Pass it to a few friends to make sure. If everyone thinks he can’t write, maybe he isn’t the best person to teach you. Look beyond the words: does the teacher understand structure? Characterisation? Dialogue? Again, if you’re not sure, ask around and see what the general consensus is.

What if he doesn’t have anything published? That doesn’t automatically make him a hack. Ask him about his favourite books and authors. If they’re writers you hate, you might not get along together. Ask him or her what type of prose they’re inclined to read: lyrical or pared down or fancy or whatever. Again, if their likes don’t jibe with yours, maybe this is the wrong class for you. Express those concerns and see what the teacher says; maybe she’ll allay your fears and explain a little about how she likes to teach. If she’s laid back and prefers to guide you on your own path, to let you make your own mistakes and learn through experience, that’s good. If she’s able to critique your work from a structural point of view without allowing her biases to affect her judgement, that’s good too.

You want a teacher who will say, This scene didn’t have enough tension. Or This scene had no relevance to your plot or This character’s actions contradict his earlier statements. What you don’t want is a teacher who writes This character is unlikable just because he or she doesn’t like the character. Or This dialogue is terrible without explaining why, because he or she isn’t a fan of that type of dialogue. That will only inhibit you.

So pick your teacher or course carefully.


“In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”

~ Phil Collins


In my early twenties I joined an amateur writing class. The teacher, an unpublished pensioner, thought he knew everything about writing — he didn’t acknowledge that he was still learning, or that, ultimately, no one can fully know the ins and outs because there are infinite variables. In his world, everything he said or did was right. Admittedly, at the time, I was less likely to listen to advice anyway. I was arrogant and young; a self-proclaimed prodigy who came for the validation, not to be told I was doing it wrong.

Even still, this teacher tried to stamp his own way of doing things onto the students. He tried to shoehorn us all into the same box, so that we’d end up as clones of himself. I suppose that was down to his insecurities: if we wrote like him, and he enjoyed the writing, that would validate his own craft. I don’t know. Either way, I saw a lot of the class taking his ideas to heart — shredding work that I thought was great, just because he’d said otherwise. He clearly had certain preferences. And although he liked my work, I didn’t feel comfortable in his class. I felt like I was being forced to write in a particular style, and I didn’t want to conform to his expectations just to please him.

The one positive aspect, above all else, was that I wrote a lot.

A writing class gives you assignments, and that forces you to get off your lazy rump, stop making excuses, sit down at your computer and actually write some stuff.

And that can only be a good thing. No matter what you’re writing.


“You cannot teach a man anything,

you can only help him find it within himself.”

~ Galileo Galilei


In short, it’s a bit of a crapshoot: you may get a great teacher who transforms your writing from gold to diamond; a lifelong mentor who will steer you down the path of success. Either that, or you’ll be stuck with a bitter, unpublished old hack who hates everything and everyone and just wants to mould an army of clones. It’s a hard choice.

If it gets you writing, though, maybe that’s what you need. Maybe you find it hard to be disciplined without a deadline hanging over your head. In that case, go for it, sign up. Just be aware of what they’re telling you: listen, learn, and adapt — only when necessary. Don’t get defensive or argue, just take it all in. You can always ignore it later.

And most likely, at the beginning, you won’t ignore much.

But as the weeks tick on and your confidence grows, you’ll start to realise what you like and dislike, and what you disagree with. And later still, you’ll begin to master your craft. And that’s great.

But whatever you do: never stop learning. It’s essential.

P.S. If you enjoy these posts, make sure to subscribe below. You’ll get all new posts straight to your inbox (no more than once a week).   


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Allison M. Dickson

STRINGS Front CoverAbout a year ago I started adding writers on Facebook. I didn’t discriminate. I sent a friend request to anyone with “author” in their bio, or anyone who posted on writing forums. I figured it would be nice to have some like-minded people on my news feed. I wanted to see less anger and relationship issues and more posts about books and writing.

Allison M. Dickson was one of the writers I added, and she stood out early on. I could tell from her posts she knew how to write. But even though I looked out for her updates, I didn’t think about purchasing any of her work. I’ve been burned too many times in the past. I usually only pay for authors guaranteed to entertain me, such as Stephen King, Ben Elton, Dennis Lehane, etc.

Then one day Allison offered up her novel, Strings, for free. I downloaded it and left it on my Kindle for another three or four months, thinking I probably wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. Otherwise I would have heard about her, right? She’d be on every bookshelf in every shop or library. Well, that was my mistake. When I finally got around to reading Strings, I realised how wrong I’d been. It had everything I liked in a book: mystery, horror, gruesome murder scenes, a twisted sense of humour, plenty of swearing, and most importantly: great writing. If she hadn’t offered it for free, I might never have read it. But now I’ll definitely be parting money in the future for Allison’s books. And I hope some of you will check out her novels too. 

I recently got in touch with her and she was kind enough to take time from her schedule to answer some questions about Strings, her upcoming projects, and her writing process. Check it out.


GK: I got through Strings pretty quickly. It’s a great book, but probably the most gruesome and twisted thing I’ve ever read (I mean this in the most complimentary way). What’s the response been from people who know you? Were they surprised by the content? Did anyone try to section you?

AD: Overall the response to Strings has been incredibly positive, which has surprised me. Even my mother loved it, and I mean in an effusively praising way, and not the pat response of, “Nice job, dear.” Yeah, a lot of people are surprised by the visceral content, but what I’ve found with this book in particular is that people tend to enjoy it despite the gruesomeness. They surprise themselves by their ability to weather it, and it feels like an achievement for them by the end. That was actually one of my goals when setting out to write a book like this. Could I make people put aside their squeamishness and stick with these frankly awful characters all the way until the end? I think I’ve more or less succeeded there.

GK: Strings started off as a short story. What inspired you to expand it into a novel?

AD: The original short story, “The Good Girls,” ended when Nina had her first encounter with the freak in the Ballas house, with Ramon sitting outside listening to it all go down business as usual. It was intended to be a short tale about how people suffer from inertia. They go into something terrible expecting it to be different, only to find they’re not all that special after all. There were readers who wanted to see what happened after the events of that story. Where does Ramon go? What was the Madam’s story? Does Nina actually survive? These turned out to be really easy questions to expand upon.

GK: And in-line with the last question, what was the original inspiration behind the story? A lot of stories start with a WHAT-IF . . . Were you like: WHAT IF I WROTE THE WORLD’S MOST FUCKED UP BOOK?

AD: Actually, that’s not too far off. One of my main drives, thematically, was to see if I could write an entire book where there are no heroes or good guys, but where you root for them anyway. I love stories that challenge our sympathies. Even the worst people have something relatable. But the initial seed for the story was talking about hermits and social isolation with a friend of mine, and what an experience would be like for a working girl to visit someone like this. The visual elements of the “web” in the Ballas house was inspired by scenes from The Aviator, the biopic about Howard Hughes.

GK: I read somewhere (it might have been your Facebook) about a possible sequel. Do you have that planned out yet, or is it still in the idea stage?

AD: The sequel to Strings is called The Moon Gone Dark, and it’s near completion and scheduled for release in April of 2016! I’m excited to show people what these characters have been up to since the first book wrapped. There are a lot of surprises.

GK: If you found yourself trapped in the Hank Ballas residence and he gave you one last request before he (or his spider-son) skewered you, what would you ask for?

AD: Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.

GK: For some reason, the madam reminded me of Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove. I kept picturing her in every scene. If Strings was turned into a film one day, do you have any actors or actresses in mind for the characters?

AD: I would love to see the madam being played by Frances Fisher or Tilda Swinton. Those were the two I had most in mind while I was writing. Ramon, I always imagined being played by Jimmy Smits. Krysten Ritter would make a smashing Nina.

GK: I noticed a Stephen King influence throughout the book, especially during the inner monologue stuff. Who are your other influences?

AD: You’re definitely spot on with Stephen King. He’s always been a huge influence on my work. Gillian Flynn is also a really big influence of mine. We both seem drawn toward creating dark and difficult characters.

GK: I’ve seen you post a lot recently about a Ted Bundy novel — it’s an interesting concept. Could you explain it for those who don’t know?

AD: I’m very excited about this one (and so is my agent!). Several months back, when Ann Rule passed away, I decided to finally pick up her most famous book, The Stranger Beside Me, which is the definitive Bundy book. In it, she discussed her time working with Bundy at a crisis hotline at the University of Washington. Particularly, she mentioned how great he was on the phones with people and that he might have very well saved a number of lives during his tenure there. I immediately started to think about one of the lives Bundy might have saved, and how dark legacies and unintended consequences tend to be born from seemingly good acts. It bounces across several decades in time and follows three generations of a family in the aftermath of Bundy’s unwitting influence of saving the life of someone who maybe shouldn’t have gone on living. In many ways, it’s darker than Strings, though the gore level is quite low.

GK: Do you have any other novels on the back-burner? I sometimes find I have five or six ideas and I’ll be flipping between them until I finally decide which one to go ahead with next.

AD: Oh yes, there are several irons in the fire at all times. After I finish the Bundy book in January, I have to put the finishing touches on the Strings sequel. After that, I plan to get some more short stories written. I will then have the next book in the Colt Coltrane series to start working on in the spring of 2016. Hopefully in that period of time, my agent will be able to find a publisher for the books of mine she currently has.

GK: You co-wrote a novel (The Oilman’s Daughter) with Ian Thomas Healy. How did that come about?

AD: Ian and I have been friends for a long time, and we had always wanted to work on a book together. The concept of a steampunk space opera originated in his mind, and we took it from there. We’re really good at bouncing ideas off of one another, so the actual plot and story outline came together really quickly for us.

GK: How did you find the process of co-authoring? And how did you work it between the two of you — a chapter each? A character each?

AD: He took on the role of the dashing young hero, Jonathan Orbital, and I took on the brash and gritty space pirate, Phinneas Greaves. From there, we alternated chapters, following the outline we put together. Once one of us wrote a chapter, the other would edit it and then he would assemble it into a master document. Though we had a number of things come up that forced us to take a hiatus (I moved from Washington to Ohio the year we started it, and so several months went down the tubes), the actual writing time was pretty quick and streamlined.

GK: When you went back to edit it, were there any arguments about what to keep in and what to change, etc.?

AD: That’s one place where I think we had some growing pains. The first finished product went around to some agents and publishers and beta readers, and that’s where we were finally made aware of some flaws in the book. We couldn’t quite agree on what needed to be fixed. Most of it was character development related. In the grander scheme, not that much work, but we agreed to trunk it because we each seemed to be going our own separate paths in our careers. I had Strings coming out and his Just Cause series was finally taking off. But after a couple years we agreed to revisit it and release it ourselves under his Local Hero Press imprint. So the book was a very long time coming, but we’re thrilled with how the book came out and hope people love it.

GK: How long were you writing for and how many books had you written before you had something traditionally published?

AD: Well, I was very lucky in that when I returned to writing fiction in 2008, I had one of my first short stories (“Aria”) accepted into an anthology a few months later. Not long after that, I had a few more short stories published in online magazines. I didn’t actually finish writing my first novel until 2009 or thereabouts. I self-published my first two novels after they’d been rejected by many agents (I don’t recommend doing this, by the way), and eventually took them down from the market. They will likely remain in the trunk for all of eternity. My first traditionally published novel was Strings in 2013, and it was the fifth novel I’d finished. In many ways, it was the right debut for me.

GK: What’s your writing process? Are you a morning person or a night owl?

AD: I’m both, actually. I don’t have a regular day job, so that affords me the ability to get a chunk of writing done in the morning and afternoon. When the kids get home, it’s all about them. I don’t pick things back up until after my husband goes to bed, and I work for a couple hours and call it done. It really depends on the book whether my day sessions or my night sessions are more fruitful. Right now, the Bundy book seems to be a daytime book.

GK: Sometimes I read a book and think — I wish I wrote that. Can you think of any novels you wished you’d written?

AD: Oh so very many. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King. So many.

GK: Finally, what are 5 books you’d recommend?

AD: Some recent favorites of mine have been Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet, A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I am also currently loving a number of the stories in Stephen King’s latest collection, Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

If you enjoyed the interview and would like to find out more about Allison and her upcoming books, you can check out her website here. Also, you can buy her books, including Strings, right here.

She might not be on every bookshelf of every shop and library . . . but she should be.  


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character sitting on the top of book's heapNever Stop Learning
(You Don’t Know Everything)

“The fool doth think he is wise,

but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

William Shakespeare

A lot of writers — both professional and amateur alike — fall into the trap of thinking they know enough. They’ve read numerous books about writing, or they’ve attended multiple seminars, or they’ve written fifteen bestsellers, and so they give up searching for any more education on the subject. They think they know it all.

But, the thing is, they rarely do. Writing is a lifelong apprenticeship — we will never complete it. Lawrence Block once said he learned more from teaching writing, than he ever did at his keyboard. He learned by being open to new ideas; by allowing his ego to step aside and admit to himself he might not know everything, and these students might be able to teach him something new.

Many seasoned authors think that an admission of ignorance about the craft is the same as saying they know nothing, or that they’re a hack. They feel the need to portray this image of an all-knowing omniscient writer-god to those around them. The true greats, however, know that to stay on your throne, you need to keep a constant vigil. Be aware of everything around you: never get comfortable. Never sleep on your craft.

Because someone, somewhere, is waiting for you to slip up so they can take your crown.


“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” 

Mahatma Gandhi


They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, which may be true: but if that dog never quits learning, never curbs his education, he’ll never have to break his bad habits. If you make sure you’re always experimenting and soaking in advice, you’ll be fixing and adapting and growing as a writer as you go along. You’ll be an ever-evolving unpredictable writing machine.

If you aim for perfection, you’ll eventually shake hands with her. You’ll never quite grasp her — perfection is slippery — but you’ll come close.


“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

Benjamin Franklin


One of the arguments some writers put forth is that they don’t need to learn any more. They’ve sold a novel, their writing is widely praised, or they know they’re competent, or whatever, and they feel that taking in even more advice can only hinder their progress. It will ruin their good work, cause them to over-think and change their style. That’s a legitimate worry. There are those who take learning too far: they change their approach and end up writing something so intricate and perfect on every level that it lacks heart. Their sentences become too refined; their stories too contrived. Everything about their work is robotic and lacks passion. That’s a risk for people who take advice literally. You need to know which parts to absorb, and which to say no to. Not every snatch of writer advice will apply to you or your situation.

A perfect example of this from the rap world is Eminem. In the past, at the height of his fame and success, he wrote intricate rhymes that were somehow both simplistic and complex: rhyme patterns that twisted and turned; he constructed sentences that had rhymes spiralling within rhymes, and yet they were also accessible to the average listener. They could rap along to him and feel as if they were part of his music. Now, however, his style has advanced to such a degree of intricacy that his music has lost its flavour. It’s not easy to connect with his songs anymore. The average listener can’t understand him, let alone rhyme along with his words. He took his learning too far. He adapted and changed in order to prove he was the best rapper on the planet: by doing this, he alienated what made him so good — his ability to write rhymes fans could relate to and vibe with.

Some writers are like that: they’ll refine their craft to a point that it comes across as inauthentic. They’re trying too hard. They’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. Every adverb, verb, adjective, is so thoughtfully and wonderfully placed that the words have lost all meaning. The pages feel lifeless; the characters are manicured to an extreme.

Don’t fall into this trap. You can learn without wiping what you already know. This is an insecurity thing. You need to realise and understand your strengths — with every piece of advice you read or hear, take it into consideration alongside what you already know. If it seems like it will aid your writing, or make it stronger, or more complex, then experiment and see how it goes. If, however, it seems ridiculous or goes against how you write, then discard it. Don’t ruin who you are to please someone else.

Remember: your style is what makes you unique. Don’t lose that.


“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”

Albert Einstein


For those who think a writing education is a waste of time, what are your reasons? Write them down and analyse them. Do they seem reasonable? Or are you just being arrogant? Footballers practice almost every day of the week. Do you think Ronaldo or Messi don’t know how to kick a ball by now? You think Ronaldo needs a manager to tell him what angle to aim from when he shoots? Or what runs to make? Or when he should sit back? Surely the best player on the planet would know all of that by now? But even so, he practices every day — he stays behind for shooting practice. He goes to the gym. He harnesses his skill and hones it. And that’s why he’s one of the best.

Plenty of writers reach a level of competency and then arrogantly shrug off further education. Which is how many authors end up running into a brick wall during their career. Their sales flag, their books repeat old patterns, they lose their spark, and they have no idea how to get it back.

Only once they’re forced to, once they’ve crashed and burned, do they consider going back to the drawing board — but by that time, it’s too late. They’re old news.


“There is no end to education. It is not that you read a book, pass an examination, and finish with education. The whole of life, from the moment you are born to the moment you die, is a process of learning.” — Jiddu Krishnamurti


How can you learn? What should you do?

Firstly, read a shitload of writing manuals. Some will be informative, some will be smart, and others will be brainless and harmful if you take their advice on board. Those written by established authors are the best to start with — who knows better than the pros? — but even they tend to have advice that could be counterproductive to your writing career. Just because it works for them, doesn’t mean it works for you. Make sure you remember that. You don’t want to emulate or copy their rhythms. Just learn about them. That way you can pick and choose and accumulate a list of good ideas.

Many of the writing manuals offer similar advice: write what you know, show don’t tell, etc. It’s the stuff all of us know, and for the most part you won’t learn anything new reading these sections, although I’d suggest you go over them anyway. In some manuals they’ll approach these subjects from an angle you’ve never considered before, illuminating an otherwise dark corner. Further still, they may explain it in a way that unlocks something inside your creative brain. It might make you realise a mistake in one of your novels, or a way that can help with your future writing projects. Sometimes a small line from a writing book can trigger something and you’ll think: You’re right, I forgot about the motivation of my main character, and then you can fix it. 

Don’t think because you know that stuff, that you actually know it. Check with someone who has a master’s degree in English. Ask him what he knows four or five years on. If he hasn’t been practicing, the likelihood is that he doesn’t know much. Memory is constantly changing and recording over itself. Try to think back to school: can you remember everything you learned? Probably not. School was a long time ago.

And what you know today, you may very well forget tomorrow. So keep learning, keep soaking it in, and keep it at the forefront of your brain — simmering in hot water.

How can you forget something if you’re constantly reminding yourself?


“He who learns but does not think, is lost!

He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.”

Confucius 


Read plenty of interviews with authors. You’ll find that in most of these interviews, they’re questioned about their writing habits and practices. Every now and then they’ll drop a gem of advice that changes the way you view your writing. Pick your favourite authors, go online, and binge on their interviews. Get inside their head, see what makes them tick. Learn how they write, what brought them to the stage they’re at. Do they write in the morning? The evening? Do they have a particular ritual? Read it and learn from it.

And read lots of novels, too. And when you’re reading them — analyse the writing. If you keep your analytical mind open, you’ll always be learning. If you close it off, your mind dulls. Even with practice, you can slip into bad habits. Picking apart another writer’s style can help to keep your mind sharp. Look at what works and question why it works. Look at what doesn’t and do the same.

The more flaws you find, the more you’ll stamp out in your own work.

And this works vice versa too: if your mind loses that sharp edge, if you begin to see all writing as flawless, you’ll view your own work in this way too, and that’s bad.

In order to write well, you must hate everything.

And then love it again.

Hate it, love it, pick it apart.

Reading’s like a puzzle: it’s no fun unless it’s smashed to pieces first.


For more on critical reading, click on this link: READING WITH A CRITICAL EYE


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Kill Their Family
(But Only If You Have To)

“On the night of the murder I was at home, asleep.

The characters in my dream can vouch for me.” 

Jarod Kintz 

In my early days as a writer I couldn’t work out how to give my characters depth. On the surface they’d seem funny or interesting, but they generally lacked anything intriguing other than their witty dialogue. At the time I was so influenced by Elmore Leonard’s writing style that I tried to mimic him with these ultra-cool criminal types. What I ended up with was cardboard characters spouting one-liners with nothing else under the hood — just a row of unrealistic too-cool generic cutouts. 

Then one day I sketched out a protagonist with a dead dad and this piece of information seemed to give him a real emotional weight. It changed my dialogue, too. Not every line was a witty trying-too-hard punchline. My hero interacted like a human. I thought I’d finally unlocked the secret to writing believable characters. 

So I did the same thing with my next character: I gave him a dead mother. And I gave the next one after that a dead sister, and it got to a point where every character I created had a dead family member, or two dead family members, or a dead wife. In many instances their death was incidental to the plot; it had no relevance to anything. I just automatically killed fictional parents for the sake of giving my characters emotional depth.

And it was stupid. Not only did my protagonists soon become stale and repetitive, but it rarely added anything fresh to the story.


“I care more about the people in books than the people I see every day.”

― Jo Walton


What gave them depth wasn’t the death of their loved ones — it was the fact I’d given them a back story. I knew where they’d come from; I could talk about their childhood, why they’d become the person they’d grown into. By killing someone close to them and delving into their emotions, I was able to paint a broader picture about their needs and likes; their desires and motivations. I accidentally filled in their history when I should have been doing it anyway. And underneath all of this was something my previous characters lacked: truth.

I’m not saying you need a five-page dossier on your protagonist. But you should know them like you’d know a friend. They should seem real to you. They should be more than just The-Girl-With-The-Dead-Fish

Or else why bother writing about them in the first place?


“The only characters I ever don’t like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me.”

― Lauren DeStefano 


If you must kill someone’s family member — if it has some relevance to the story and isn’t merely a fix-on — then do it. In those days my killings were senseless. At least give the death a motive. If it’s to infuse your main character with a deadly desire to hunt down the killers, that’s okay. If it’s to portray the character’s torturous background and showcase his brutal upbringing, or even the sadness at the loss of his parents, then sure, go with it.

But don’t think a death in the family automatically makes someone interesting. And that goes for other things, too: giving him or her tattoos, or a drug problem, or a fetish for shark porn, or a nervous tic, or anything else you tack on for the sake of it. Gimmicks and tics and verbal repetitions don’t make a character. Telling your audience that Bob only ever drinks chocolate milk is not a way to portray a fully formed human being — it’s just showcasing a personality trait. Go below the surface.

People aren’t interesting simply because they have tortured pasts, or because they know a few party tricks, or because they walk with a limp due to a bullet fragment caught in their knee. All of that is dressing. Many character add-ons are dragged straight from the cliché factory. Sometimes they work (clichés exist for a reason), but look around you: there are millions of fascinating people on this planet. Learn about them.

Talk to people in bars, in queues at the supermarket. Do you find them funny? Arrogant? Smart? What do you like about them? What do you dislike about them? If you look hard enough, you’ll see that the most interesting people aren’t just those who’ve suffered personal loss or pain. 

Ultimately we’re drawn to those who reflect our own beliefs and morals. Which can be dangerous for your creativity. 


“I’d like my readers to feel they want to follow my characters off the page at the end of the book.” ― Vanessa Couchman


In order to grow as writers we must seek out those whose principles clash with our own. Those who believe in the opposite to us ― politically, emotionally, mentally. Seek them out and study them. Why do they think so differently? What makes them stand out? Why would other people find them interesting? The more answers you have for these questions the more you’ll be able to write likeable three-dimensional characters, and they won’t all be manifestations of yourself. They may, to an extent, have a piece of you in them — but they’ll also have a piece of Fred, Sally, Dave, and anyone else you’ve been in contact with. 

And that’s important if you want to build a diverse range of characters.

Even if you hate people, make it your goal to engage with them. Don’t talk about yourself. Your story isn’t important. You’re not trying to impress anyone. Talk about them. Ask about who they are, what job they have; find out what their passion is, what drives them in life. You might meet a raging racist or homophobe who’s also an animal activist/charity worker and a loving father. Those kinds of dichotomies are compelling to learn about, and they’ll give your work an extra layer if you portray them in a relatable way. Good and bad is never black and white. It’s important to seek out the grey area in people’s twisted thought processes and transfer that to your work. 

If you’re shy, join up to classes, get into a book club or a dance class or something similar. Make sure the next time you’re invited to a barbecue, you say yes. Get out of your comfort zone. This will not only help with your character writing, but your writing in general.

A good writer lives a varied and plentiful life. Soak in experience.

Then drain all of that into your ink and write your masterpiece.


“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” William Faulkner 


A word of warning: don’t get too caught up on the same people, the same areas, the same places. The moment you begin to gravitate to a certain section of people, or of character design, you’ll be destined to repeat patterns. Always make sure you’re challenging what you know and who you know. Let your characters change and grow. And the way to do that is to actively change and grow yourself. 

Even if it means confronting your greatest fears head-on.

Why be a timid sheep when you can be ferocious wolf?


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