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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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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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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Joshua_coyne_violinThe Violin Prodigy 
(A Lesson In Rejection)

Originally appearing in Lawrence Block’s writing guide Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, the fable below of a violin prodigy who throws away his dreams based on the harsh words of a famous music teacher is both inspirational and reassuring. Every aspiring writer (or musician, or actor, or whatever) should pin this above their bed and read it every night, just to remind them that rejection is necessary and shouldn’t deter them on their journey to success. 

The Fire Within

A young violin prodigy was walking down the street one day trying to decide whether or not to pursue a life in music when he came upon the most famous violin teacher in the world. Scarcely believing his luck, he stopped the great teacher and asked if he could play for him, thinking he would abandon his dream of a career in music if the great teacher told him he was wasting his time.

The great teacher nodded silently for him to begin. So he played, beads of sweat soon appearing on his forehead, and when he finished, he was certain he’d given his finest performance.

But the great maestro only shook his head sadly and said, “You lack the fire.”

The young musician was devastated. He returned home and announced his intention to abandon the violin. Instead, he entered the world of business and turned out to have such a talent for it that in a few short years he found himself richer than he’d ever imagined possible.

Almost a decade later he found himself walking down another street in another city when he happened to spot the great teacher again. He rushed over to him.

“I’m so sorry to bother you,” he said, “and I’m sure you don’t remember me, but I stopped you on the street years ago to play my violin for you, and I just want to thank you. Because of your advice I abandoned my greatest love, the violin, painful as it was, and became a businessman, and today enjoy great success, which I owe all to you. But one thing you must tell me: how did you know I didn’t have what it takes? How did you know all those years ago I lacked the fire?”

The great teacher shook his head sadly and said only, “You don’t understand. I tell everyone who plays for me they lack the fire. If you had the fire, you wouldn’t have listened.”


There you have it. Short and sweet. Just remember: your opinion is the only one that matters. Believe in yourself regardless of whoever else tries to tear you down. A thousand people can call you talentless or a hack, but only you can turn off that fire from within. So pursue your dreams, claw your way to the top of that slippery icy mountain, and slam your flag into the summit.

Then use all of that fire in your belly to set the world ablaze.


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