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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Mastery by Robert Greene

imgres“This is the real secret: the brain we possess is the work of six million years of development, and more than anything else, this evolution of the brain was designed to lead us to mastery . . .” 

In Mastery, Robert Greene (bestselling author of 48 Laws of Power) tackles an interesting subject: the principles of success and intelligence.

There are many people who believe success is down to good fortune, or nepotism, or it’s accidental — a by-product of dumb luck. They also believe geniuses are born that way, as if their intelligence and ingenuity is hardwired into their DNA. But the truth is, although some people start off in life on a higher rung, with greater opportunities, and others have to struggle through their childhood, we’re all designed to succeed; we can all reach a level of mastery. It doesn’t just take talent — not entirely — but instead, success and mastery requires tenacity and determination; and above all, a thirst for knowledge: a deep-rooted desire to chase your dream and acquire all the skills (and more) in your chosen field.

And Robert Greene, with this in mind, delves deep into this theory, drawing from an exhaustive well of past-and-present high-achievers and geniuses, flitting seamlessly between stories of Mozart to Einstein to Edison and Darwin. Writing with depth and conviction, and fusing his own beliefs with examples of success, along with the occasional neuroscience and psychology facts, Greene not only delivers on his premise, but also paints a wonderful picture of historical (and present day) figures, making this both a self-help manual and an entertaining history book.

The continual insights into mastery, gleaned from hundreds of years of past successes, add weight to the words — and the sense of authenticity bolsters Greene’s opinions, giving them an authority and power that another author might have failed to serve. The book is engaging throughout and manages to teach without boring or preaching. And, ultimately, the stories work to inspire the reader with a deep and inarticulate yearning to succeed, whether it be in everyday life or your chosen career.

If you want to excel in a particular vocation, this book will push you on the right path. And if you don’t want to succeed, read it anyway. It’s worth the journey.


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Columbine by Dave Cullen

imgres“A terrifying affliction had infested America’s small towns and suburbs: the school shooter . . .”

Columbine is the in-depth account of the infamous Columbine High School shooting, committed in April 1999 by Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. A decade in the making, Dave Cullen spent an inordinate amount of time researching all the available evidence and poring over thousands of pages of witness testimony, police reports, newspaper articles, diary entries, psychiatric opinions and theories, and any other related literature on the subject of Columbine. He also interviewed a slew of people, including many of the survivors and survivors’ families, along with police officers, FBI agents, teachers, and local pastors. He immersed himself in the tragedy.

And although many people are aware of the obvious details (two armed students killed twelve people and injured many more in a horrific school shooting), they’re unlikely to know the full story; the ins and outs of the case. And what they do know has been gleaned from multiple sources of both reliable and unreliable media. Which is where Dave Cullen comes in.

Referencing multiple sources, Cullen works to debunk many of the rumours, myths, lies, and half-truths that circulate around the tragedy. On top of that, he offers every small and relevant detail about the case; sifting through the minutiae of the killers’ lives, dragging us into their reality. He further draws the reader into the action by painting the victims and survivors as if characters in a novel, taking the reader on a journey, making us care about how it all ends. And even though the main bulk of information could be found in an hour-long documentary on YouTube, it doesn’t make Columbine any less gripping.

It’s a testament to Dave Cullen’s skills as a journalist that we join this story at the beginning and follow it through a fractured past-and-present structure, a seamless puzzle between the murders, the pre-murder, and the aftermath, locked in the entire way, wanting to know how it all ends, even though we already do know. And along this path of destruction, we learn every single detail — important and otherwise; the inside, outside, left side, all side of Columbine and what really happened that day.

The painstaking research lends credence and credulity to the book, and the writing and structure gives it the air and feel of a thriller.

Having said that, it is long, and at times laborious or depressing reading, but it’s worth every second of it. If you didn’t want to know about Columbine before, you soon will.


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The First Five Pages By Noah Lukeman

imgres“This, simply, is the focus of this book: to learn how to identify and avoid bad writing.”

The First Five Pages is a little different than the usual writing guides: it’s written by a successful literary agent and is more about what you shouldn’t do, not what you should do. Noah Lukeman points out the potholes to avoid, the common mistakes that authors make, and the principles of BAD WRITING. He covers everything from dialogue, to characters, to pacing and plotting, to the actual presentation of the manuscript once it’s completed. He also explains the reasons your work may be overlooked by jaded, cynical literary agents such as himself.

It’s a comprehensive, fresh twist on the usual, and the writing is strong enough to hold the reader’s interest. However, it’s not without flaws. The hyperbolic examples of bad writing, for instance, detract from some of the points the author was making. It would have been more beneficial if he deconstructed true-life examples of bad writing, rather than concoct his own ostentatious version of something terribly written. The examples might help amateurs to notice poor writing, but were useless for the more competent writers. If Noah Lukeman picked apart a piece of work that was less obviously badly written — something that, on the surface, seems fine — it would have added more value to his advice. 

Aside from that, there’s still enough insight offered for even the mediocre (or great) writer to gain something from.

And it’s especially helpful to see things from a literary agent’s point of view; to see what common problems an agent looks out for as soon as he or she picks up a manuscript. So if you’re a writer trying to break in the door, or smash through the window of the literary world, check this one out.

On top of that, check out Noah Lukeman’s free downloads:

How To Land (And Keep) A Literary Agent 

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How To Write A Great Query Letter 

th-2Ask A Literary Agent (Year One)

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Write Good Or Die by Scott Nicholson

th-1“Each writer only knows one set of truths, and those things are only true for that particular writer . . .”

Write Good Or Die is a collection of writing articles from a selection of published and unknown authors. The advice and subjects vary, as does their relevance. There’s no structure to the book: no unifying themes or thoughts or overarching point. It’s merely a mass of articles — some good, some bad — much like Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies but without the consistency, intelligence and wit of that book.

Much of the advice is obvious or clichéd, and most aspiring authors will have already read or learned it elsewhere. However, a few pieces of gold can be found amongst all the rubble. Plus it’s free and a quick read, so it’s worth checking out. Just don’t expect for it to change your outlook on writing, or unlock a secret key to success.

Download it, skim it, then delete it and move on to something better.


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Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies For Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark

imgresThis book invites you to imagine the act of writing less as a special talent and more as a purposeful craft . . .”

I’ve read numerous writing manuals and how-to guides over the years and this is one of the most comprehensive I’ve come across. Many books of this ilk promise to delve into a wide variety of issues but tend to scrimp on information in order to examine a few main areas, such as plot, or characterisation or the mechanics of writing — whereas Writing Tools covers almost everything in equal depth.

Broken up into fifty sections, each chapter focuses on a different aspect of writing: from structure to procrastination to internal cliff-hangers — using, for the most part, examples from previously published works (primarily other journalists, but also novelists and poets) to solidify, explain or elaborate on the initial point. At first it appears as if the book’s aimed solely towards journalistic writing rather than novels or scripts, but there’s a clear overlap of ideas and techniques, which can be beneficial for both authors and journalists alike. And although the chapters are quite short — probably about seven or eight pages each — the book never feels stingy on information, and Roy Peter Clark dives into each subject thoroughly and with an apparent wealth of knowledge and personal experience.

This isn’t merely a quick how-to guide; it’s more like a long, informative, insightful lesson, with an engaging, clear-minded teacher.

Whether you’re a journalist, a short story writer, a novelist, or a screenwriter, I highly recommend this book. It has a little something for everybody.


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250 Things You Should Know About Writing by Chuck Wendig

th-1“The Internet is 55% porn, and 45% writers. You are not alone, and that’s a thing both good and bad . . .” 

Chuck Wendig, author of The Blue Blazes (and other novels that I’ve never heard of), dishes out 250 tips/opinions about writing. Each piece of advice (or rant, or comment) is written in a concise, humorous paragraph or two, and is littered with swear words. The advice, for the most part, is good, but there’s a chance some people will lose it amongst the rubble of Chuck’s twisted (and entertaining) sense of humour.

Also, due to the length of each section, Chuck rarely elaborates on his points, which works for someone who already understands the mechanics of writing but might be annoying or frustrating to amateurs hoping to learn the fundamentals.

In essence, it’s a refresher guide: a quick, funny reminder of all the writing techniques and tips you probably already know. If you’re a beginner, however, it might not be the best teaching tool — but it’s worth a read anyway.

Unless you’re easily offended.

Then — stay away. Stay far, far away.


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