Hazel McHaffie

thriller writing

Three-a-Penny

Almost exactly 121 years ago to the day, February 1899, Lucy Beatrice Malleson was born in Victorian London. Better known as Anthony Gilbert or Anne Meredith, her two pseudonyms, she was prolific in her literary output but received limited sales and acclaim. It’s a refreshing change to read an autobiography that concentrates on ‘failure’. Even at the height of her success, when she slept with a glowing tribute from her publisher under her pillow, she mourned: ‘I was one of those unhappy authors who can please everyone except the public.’

Her memoir, Three-a-Penny, is like no other. And her motivation seems to be captured in Dorothy Sayers’ comment to her: ‘You must remember, Anthony Gilbert, that although authors are three-a-penny to us, they are quite exciting to other people.‘ Exciting enough, indeed, to justify a factual account of her life and ambition, but the author seemingly apologetic about her ‘mediocrity’.

From an early age Malleson made up stories. She began publishing articles and poems whilst still a teenager, and brought out her first crime novel aged just 28. In all, she went on to produce over 70 novels, as well as a number of plays for the BBC, before she died in 1973 aged 74. And yet, she never achieved the status of others of her generation. Nevertheless, she remained an incorrigible optimist;
‘… if you know in your heart of hearts that Providence intended you for a success and your main desire in life is to assist Providence to this end, why then you will never see a book with your name on the spine without the eager thought, “This may be it. This probably is.” And when the book sells no more copies than its predecessor, well, by that time you’re always neck-deep in another one, and this one, without doubt, will bring you that elusive fame and financial security that glimmer like distant stars on the far, far horizon.’ And I suspect her gritty determination to plough on despite modest sales, will strike a chord with us lesser writers far more than the success stories of the star-studded celebrity authors.

The beginning section of Three-a-Penny is the best, in my view. It might well be another novel! Her vivid snapshots of her childhood precocity and innocence, in particular, are utterly beguiling, not least because she refers to herself quaintly throughout as ‘one’ instead of ‘I’.

For example, she had her own clear and trusted theories about God. He was not above taking care of an unhemmed tablecloth, but he also kept an enormous ledger like the butcher’s. ‘God presented His bill when you died, and if you had done wrong you went to hell for ever. Hell was like a glorified nursery grate on which people lay, always, in imagination’s eye, decorously dressed in outdoor clothes, perpetually burning yet never consumed.’

Where babies came from exercised her for a long time. ‘One knew. They came in a doctor’s bag, each with a label round its neck. The doctor’s house resembled the giants’ larders of nursery days, crowds of infants in long clothes hanging on hooks awaiting delivery.’ When her own baby sister was imminent she was deeply troubled by the huge potential for the family to be given the wrong child.

On one occasion her mother insisted the nurse take her and baby outside to get fresh air in terribly inclement weather. Freezing cold, Lucy cried piteously and remorselessly, attracting the sympathy of ladies in fur. But not Nurse.
‘Nurse pushed the pram as though she were a machine. When we reached the Park she anchored it by some railings and went into a little house marked Ladies. She told me to come in too. My tears momentarily ceased. I had never been inside one of these little houses. But once there Nurse seated herself squarely on the wooden seat, plucked me over her knee, and went through the familiar ritual of lifting clothes and undoing buttons. Smack! Smack! Snack!
‘I’ll give you something to cry for, my lady,’ said Nurse.
I stopped crying in sheer astonishment. I had never realised they built little houses in public parks just for  this. I was so much surprised I made the rest of the journey in awed and crestfallen silence.’

Again and again Grown-Ups let her down. ‘You couldn’t believe them; they had a different truth from yours.’ She was forced to work out her own understanding of the world.

She was a precocious child, reading avidly, and romping home with full marks for her essays – her ‘only distinction‘. There was never any career other than writing in her sights and, aged 14, she applied to her father for £10 for a correspondence course to equip her to write for the press – for money. ‘Write! Under my roof! Never!‘ was his implacable response.

When the war started she was forced to a stark realisation. And by now the whole tone of the memoir changes to something much more prosaic and factual. One’s aunts became nurses; one’s menfolk did important war work. ‘… nobody thought it was proper to write novels and one was a little ashamed of reading them.’ Instead she went off to secretarial college and became an unpopular but diligent student, determined to make something of her life. Her first job was a sobering one, with the Red Cross, dealing with relatives searching for information about their missing sons and fathers. Against the nightmare of such raw emotion, a letter from the Family Herald accepting her poems came like a beacon in a dark world. Together with a postal order for three and sixpence. Success! But … ‘I hadn’t imagined I should ever be paid with anything less than a cheque’.

Work in a Government Department, increased her growing awareness that the war had robbed her, as well as the returning soldiers, of youth. She wrote regular columns and articles, subtly concealing political and sociological and economic ‘pills’ in a ‘lot of feminine jam’. She also sold some of her verse to august publications like Punch, the Sunday Times, the Observer, and certain literary weeklies. Buoyed up by this success she progressed to experimenting with novel writing, even taking time out from paid employment to do so.

Early efforts proved unsuccessful but two publishers eventually saw her potential. ‘One day you will write a good novel,  but this is not it.’ ‘You have the makings of a novelist, but you haven’t quite rung the bell this time.’ Those were the days when publishers gave feedback and Malleson benefited from their insights and advice. So, when a crime novel was accepted by Collins, she was wild with excitement. When it proved to be ‘a complete flop‘, failing to earn even the paltry advance offered to an unknown writer, she was devastated. To make matters worse, Collins subsequently declined to publish her next book, leaving her feeling permanently discredited by this double failure. ‘I no longer wanted to talk about books.’

Back to office life she went. The work was way beneath her skills and when she was alone she would cry with humiliation. ‘But I was like a dipsomaniac who cannot forsake his bottle. I began a new detective story …’

This time she decided to use a male pseudonym: Anthony Gilbert, and the book was comparatively well received, helped in some measure by the secrecy and speculation surrounding the author’s true identity.

During the next seven years she published no less than fourteen novels, many short stories, and a few poems. American contracts, second rights, and translation into six different languages followed. She felt sufficiently confident and socially conscious, to allow condemnation of the lack of support for the under-classes, to creep into the underpinnings of her writing: ‘What an opportunity they offered to a novelist!’  But she was not a fulfilled person. I was never more financially secure … but I was lonelier than I had ever been in my life.’ So much so, indeed, that when she found herself invited to join the Hiawatha Club for Women she couldn’t think of a single distinguished name to offer for a reference. ‘The women I know are all pure, home-loving people who don’t seek the limelight.’ 

When The Slump knocked the bottom out of the American market for English novels, Malleson’s agent recommended she concentrate on young romance as the most sure-fire bestseller. ‘That avenue being closed‘, she turned her mind to thriller-writing, naively believing there to be ‘no rules‘ and no need to pay attention to ‘psychology, probability, King’s English or logic‘. She allowed herself three weeks to complete the first one. But she soon realised she was sacrificing art on the altar of filthy lucre and abandoned this supposed shortcut to wealth. Instead she wrote and re-wrote and refined a new manuscript, a crime novel, and submitted it under the name of Anne Meredith. This one eventually appeared in 1933 where it attracted considerable interest and mixed reviews but reignited the interest of the Americans. And it brought her an invitation from Dorothy Sayers herself to join the elite Detection Club. Conditions for entry were exceedingly rigid; in no circumstances could a thriller-writer be admitted for instance! At the swearing-in ceremony, the candidates were reminded of the solemnity of their oaths: ‘… if you fail to keep your promises, may other writers anticipate your plots, may your Publishers do you down in your contracts, may Total Strangers sue you for Libel, may your pages swarm with misprints and your Sales continually Diminish’. Only a writer could, I suspect, feel the full power of such a curse!

Writing was an obsession with Lucy Malleson regardless of her public profile: ‘When I’m not writing, I am not more than half-alive. I am miserable, hopeful and dejected by turns. Then someone slowly emerges out of this mental fog …’ And this new character would quickly assume a full identity and drive her onwards again.

It was The Coward – about a man who accidentally commits a murder, the character with whom Malleson most identified – that precipitated her into the limelight amongst the literati. She had felt writing this story to be pure self-indulgence; no one would want to read it, but she couldn’t bear the thought of dying in an accident next day without finishing the one book she was most desirous of writing. To her utter astonishment it received rave reviews from the critics and fellow authors. But sadly, poor sales. It seemed she simply could not please the public.

It’s her very honesty that endears her to me. Her experience resonates.
‘… so many authors admittedly have these overwhelming qualms of self-distrust and a sense of their own futility’.
‘ … one reason why writing is such fun – it’s so chancy. And I wouldn’t exchange my one-chance-in-a-million for anybody else’s security.’
Rejection slips, poor sales figures, challenges to one’s sense of self-worth – these bedevil almost all of us; it’s how you react to them that matters. And Lucy Malleson shines through as humbly aware, doggedly determined, delightfully perceptive, entirely without pretension. The kind of person I should like to be placed next to at a dinner party.

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Stephen King, master thriller-writer

Yep, I’m sure regular followers of this blog will have been wondering, when will she ever get to the king of thrillers!  ‘America’s greatest living novelist‘! ‘When it comes to grabbing an audience by the throat and giving them no choice but to keep reading, King has no equal.

Well, I can confess, in the safety of my own blog pages, that my first experience of Stephen King proved decidedly underwhelming.  Under the Dome simply wasn’t for me. Too far fetched. Too long-winded. A ‘so-what’ kind of book. So I deliberately gave myself time to distance from that before returning to give him a second chance.

Mr Mercedes is a very different kind of tale, billed as an ‘expertly crafted example of the classic race-against-the-clock thriller’. And I’m wanting the very best examples to hone my own skills. So, bring it on. A masterclass would be very helpful.

It starts off with a massacre. A twelve-cylinder Mercedes is driven through thick fog into a concentrated crowd of desperate people all queuing at a job fair. The driver is still at large. But shortly after his retirement, Kermit William Hodges, lead detective on the case, receives a letter from the man responsible, taunting him. And we have the kernel of the story, the cat and mouse chase, each goading the other, a race to prevent another mass killing.

And yes,now I could quite understand what makes Stephen King a giant among thriller writers. It’s the whole package really, but it might be helpful if I single out a few features.

The first stroke of genius is in the first chapter. King introduces three of the victims of the Mercedes massacre in the last few hours of their lives. In a few pages he makes us care about the young cash-strapped mum Janice Cray, and her croupy baby Patti, and the kindly stranger called August who lends them his sleeping bag while they wait for the job fair to open. It puts a human face on the tragedy. We’re shocked when these three lives are obliterated by the grey Mercedes careering into them. We want justice for them.

Then there are his main characters. With simple but deft strokes he fleshes them out, unlikely heroes and psychopathic killer alike, little by little letting us see into their past, follow their present, dread their future. No overload, no long-winded description, but four dimensional.

He’s also a past master at dropping in a sinister or significant fact without padding or fanfare, so the picture builds subtly and contributes exponentially to the spine-tingling tension. He doesn’t even hide the identity of Mr Mercedes from us. In Chapter 11, Brady Hartsfield is exposed in his natural habitat, selling ice-cream to innocent kids, solving computer glitches for naive technophobes.

And amidst all the sordid facts and coarse language and accumulating horror, King even drops occasional pearls of literary delight.

She has the bright, inquisitive gaze of a crow with its eye on a freshly squashed chipmunk.

… an apartment … with rooms as big as a political candidate’s promises

She frowns, transforming her face into a walnut shell with eyes

They’re wondering if I’m riding into the Kingdom of Dementia on the Alzheimer’s Express

… she sits hunched in her bar of sun, a human parenthesis in a fuzzy blue robe

And I love the delicious irony of Retired Detective Hodges considering the possibility that Mr Mercedes is actually a woman. ‘He supposes it’s technically possible, and it would make a neat solution for an Agatha Christie novel, but this is real life.’

Unputdownable indeed. I could never aspire to his heights but I can learn from his skills.

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Death row drama

Fast-paced … action packed … unputdownable … chilling … compelling … well crafted … the reviews give Last Witness by Jillianne Hoffman plenty of hype.

Plus, the author has impeccable credentials for writing a book about criminal trials and police investigations. She was herself an Assistant State Attorney between 1991 and 1996, and a Legal Advisor for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement until 2001, so she knows what she’s talking about. I set out with high hopes. But as I read, a little voice niggled. Is she perhaps rather too anxious to ensure the reader knows how everything works, what everything means. I was personally criticised for letting my academic background show through the mesh early on in my metamorphosis into novelist, so it’s something I’m specially attuned to.

Having said that, the book is centred on a fascinating premise: just how far should a person go to ensure justice is done? Is it ever justifiable to lie in the interests of the greater good, to protect innocent people? My kind of ethical challenges, huh? And Hoffman creates enough bad apples to make one suspicious of everyone in this story! She also challenges the reader to ask, What would I have done in these circumstances?  Could I live with a guilty conscience? OK, I’m listening.

A summary of the story:
Three years ago a serial rapist, William Bantling, was sent to death row by Florida’s Assistant State Attorney, CJ Townsend, for the torture and murder of eleven young woman.
Now three policemen closely involved in Bantling’s conviction have been brutally murdered in ritualistic killings conveying a powerful message. No gruesome details are spared in the telling! CJ knew all three victims. She also knows the shocking secret they took to their graves. Now she is the last witness to what they all conspired in.
Someone out there knows the truth and will stop at nothing to prevent it being revealed. Will she be the next to die? Who exactly is this second monster and what motive could he possibly have for such barbarity?
As new facts emerge, serious doubts are being raised about the safety of Bantling’s conviction, enough to demand he be brought from death row to the very court that convicted him, to face again the young woman who sent him to his death. A woman he once raped, terrorised and left for dead. He’s a man with scores to settle and allies in dark places. She’s a woman haunted day and night by the past and the future.

It’s a dark barbaric tale scraping the barrel of human depravity and psychological manipulation. Maybe it was because I read it during a ten-hour train journey, but I found it rather weighed down with technical detail which slowed the momentum of the story for someone not familiar with the American judiciary system.

In places too, I found the style of writing rather repetitive, and hampered by the density of the material. For me it needed space to breathe. But I loved the description of criminal defense attorney, Lester Franklin Barquet who ‘was old school himself, dressed to the nines in southern manners and a three-piece suit.’

It’s a thriller and part of my ongoing education in how to achieve suspense and tension, but this one doesn’t make it into my exemplar section.

 

 

 

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Thrills, chills and perils

As you know, I’ve been studying other people’s thrillers to try to pinpoint the magic ingredients; how to maintain suspense and build tension and fulfill expectation.

Part of the secret lies in the hooks offered from the outset – as with any book, I guess, but particularly with a thriller.

So how about this for a scene setter on the first page?
People on the island village understood there was some kind of psychiatric institution on their doorstep. Only a few who worked there knew it housed a handful of the most disturbed female juvenile criminals in the Netherlands.

You just want to know what heinous crimes these girls have committed, don’t you?

Well, orphaned sisters Mia and Kim, two of the Timmers Sisters triplet singing group, from a little fishing town called Volendam in the Netherlands, have been incarcerated there for ten years, forgotten for the most part. They were just eleven years old when they were detained. Why? For killing someone.

OK, what kind of a someone? A musician called Rogier Glas, savagely hacked to death with a kitchen knife, his penis cut off and rammed down his throat. Gee whiz! Can you picture eleven-year-olds this out of control?

And now those girls are twenty-one. Beautiful. Telepathic. Obsessed by the number three.

And that’s just chapter one of David Hewson‘s Little Sister!! Yep, I’m hooked!

Add in Pieter Vos, a ramshackle senior police officer in the serious crimes squad, who lives on a shambolic houseboat on the canal with his diminutive fox terrier Sam and you’re into classic crime-writing territory.

Track back into the history … the girls’ mother, father and sister all murdered … every investigative report into the atrocity – electronic and paper copies – mysteriously shredded. And you’re feeling the chill. The girls, tested and analysed and schooled to the nth degree, and now deemed ‘sufficiently normalized’ to be released under supervision, are freed into ‘a universe without boundaries, real form or substance‘ with no experience or real knowledge of the adult world. Only to vanish. The unsuspecting member of staff designated to drive them to a halfway house, also vanishes; his car, his clothes, discovered in thickly weeded slimy water.

The blood runs cold. We’re only at page 50! And I’m staying up way past my bedtime, transfixed.

A brutally murdered body is found not far from that psychiatric institution, yet no CCTV detected anything suspicious. Another body turns up in a deserted farmhouse. Threats, disappearances, malpractice, hush money … it’s all there, dragging us further and further into the murky depths.

What exactly has been going on at the psychiatric institution? what was the dead nurse doing? where are the girls? what exactly is the last remaining member of The Cupids band afraid of? are the girls a danger to others or are they in danger themselves? – the questions get increasingly convoluted as more and more dirt is dug up. And gradually all the pieces of the macabre and disturbing picture slot into place.

The sentences are oddly constructed and staccato at times, and occasionally I got lost in the Dutch names, but it was worth persevering. and I defy anyone to preempt the truth when it finally emerges, or to better the ending.

So, the verdict? For me, it’s a successful technique. A real thriller. And I’ve learned a lot in the process of reading/analysing it. Thank you, Mr Hewson.

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I Saw a Man

Well, it just goes to show – reading is such a subjective experience.

I turned to I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers because it’s billed as ‘the most stylish thriller’ … ‘taut’ … ‘suspense almost physically frustrating’ … ‘exemplary thriller, clever, classy, slick’ … ‘extraordinarily tense and powerful’ …all the kinds of accolades we’d all like to receive about our writing, huh? And just the masterclass to help me make my own current writing more taut and unputdownable.

Or not.

What a let down. OK, the essential thread of suspense is there – a bereaved man, a writer, Michael Turner, walking into his neighbours’ house because he sees the back door open and worries that intruders have entered it. Once inside, he’s distracted by a sense of his late wife’s presence which lures him upstairs into hitherto unknown territory. Up there, he unwittingly causes and witnesses a terrible accident, but can’t do anything about it without revealing his own trespass. The knowledge haunts him. Meanwhile his neighbour is also harbouring a massive burden of guilt, lying about his activities. Who will do or say what? Whose secrets will come to light first? What will the repercussions be? And hovering in the background, is the man who pressed the button that resulted in the collateral death of Michael’s wife.

So far, so I-want-to-know-what-happened. But for me, it felt hollow. Far too much description and backstory slowing the pace. The characters spineless and selfish. The ‘crimes’ unworthy of so much weight. Some of the main threads going nowhere. I’m sure these criticisms are in large part a measure of how much I’m currently agonising over the balance in my own domestic thriller, but authors are always critical readers, and I make no apology.

Although I’d personally take issue with some of the simplistic sentence construction, there are, however, a number of beautifully lyrical passages, commensurate with Sheer’s reputation as a poet.

‘London was blistered under a heatwave. All along South Hill Drive windows hung open, the cars parked on either side hot to the touch, their seams ticking in the sun.’

‘Their flasks of coffee, two hours cold, stood on a shelf …’

 And he weaves in some occasional surprisingly insightful wisdom. Not surprising maybe in a book about how men cope with grief.

On the effect of sudden brutal loss:
‘Caroline was dead and he’d been left holding the shell of the truth, bereft not only of her, but also the man she’d been making him.’

On the symbiosis of reading and writing:
‘Is a story half-cooked,’ he asked her, ‘if it’s only been written but not read?’
‘Absolutely!’
He laughed, thinking she was joking, but then saw that she wasn’t.
‘Without the reader it’s just thoughts on a page,’ she said. ‘Imagination in ink. A printed tautology.’
‘Tautology? How?’
‘Well, a repetition, then. Of what was in the writer’s mind when they wrote it. But when it’s read …’
‘Yes?’
‘Well, then the words gather a new imagery, don’t they? The meaning gathers new association. It’s like a chemical reaction. It all depends on how they react with the reader, their life, their mind.’

And that’s where I part company from the gushing critics. My chemical reaction with this book fizzled rapidly like a damp squib. Sorry, Mr Sheers. Your credentials may put you way beyond my reach, but your idea of tension and suspense is vastly different from mine.

One of the things agents often say to writers is, “I didn’t love your story enough to fight for it.’ Would an agent have loved I Saw a Man enough if an unknown author had submitted it? Hmmm, I doubt it very much. But I’m not reading it as an agent, and it’s given me a different and helpful perspective and yardstick for my own book, so that’s a bonus. No reading is wasted on a writer.

Back to my own novel. And I am relishing the terrific help of my experts. A lead paediatrician in Child Protection, and two accountants, and one of my long-suffering literary critics, have all given me invaluable guidance and feedback. I’m galloping along surrounded by all this evidence of their support and friendship and life experience.

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Thrillers and master storytellers

The Times once said of Harlan Coben‘s writing that it had ‘lighthearted lessons for life sprinkled throughout‘ but that it wasn’t ‘about preaching, it is about catching you by those short hairs on the back of your neck.

And that’s what makes a thriller. That elusive something that I’m struggling to identify and capture for my own current novel.

Given that over 70 million of Coben’s books are in print worldwide and the last ten consecutive novels all debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, I think it’s fair to say this is one author who definitely knows how to get a message across!

it’s actually weirdly appropriate that I’ve been reading The Innocent at the moment. It’s about somebody waiting nine years to exact revenge. I’ve been waiting rather a lot myself recently – for appointments, for test results, in hospitals, in GP waiting rooms, for advice – not nine years certainly, but long enough to make an absorbing book a godsend. And long enough to know that a brilliant reputation and a sustained plot-line that keeps you turning the pages, can compensate for a lot.

OK, Coben’s relentlessly staccato sentences, his use of the second person POV, in-house American police jargon, mile-long list of characters, don’t exactly float my boat. And I’m not going for mass shootings and exotic dancers and police corruption. But what does grab me is this author’s ability to create suspense, to plant cliff hangers at the end of most chapters, weave an intensely complex but authentic series of connections, (the inside of his brain must be like an immense circuit board!) and make me really really want to know why someone is sending ex-con paralegal Matt Hunter incriminating video clips … what his beautiful wife is really up to … why a dead nun, Sister Mary Rose, is found to have breast implants … why the FBI are involved … and who is going to come out of this whole mess alive.

Yep, this is thriller writing. I can quite see how and why it works. Question is: can I do it myself? Only time will tell. But I’m going to persevere. And keep studying the experts. Six Cobens down, five to go.

And the way things are going right now I might be doing more reading than planned! Here in Central Scotland we’ve been on red alert (the highest level which includes danger to life) for the last two days. Siberian winds and snow, unbelievably low temperatures, air and land traffic at a standstill. It’s causing major disruption to millions (no exaggeration) but looks stunningly beautiful to those of us who aren’t stuck on motorways for thirteen hours, or skidding to work in a care home, or battling through drifts to reach an ill or vulnerable person. I dare not venture out on a photo-shoot to capture just how deep the snow is, so this snap of one protected corner of the garden must suffice.

Stay safe, folks.

 

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Thrillers – lessons learned

OK, with a pile of thrillers of various kinds now read and analysed, I’m a bit closer to refining my own choices for the current novel. What have I decided so far?

Main narrative thread
The issue must be one I personally care about. And I need to be clear who I’m trying to appeal to. A tale of individuals seeking personal justice or dealing with their own family dramas holds my interest more than stories about money laundering or righting organisational wrongs.

Main protagonist(s)
The lead doesn’t have to be likeable but the reader must care about his/her fate so the character needs to be carefully drawn and handled, with a plausible and intriguing backstory.
His/her motivation must be worthy so readers will root for him/her.
He/she must be up against tremendous odds.

Secondary characters
Too many tangential stories and secondary characters run the risk of losing narrative tension and interest. (Or am I a wimp when it comes to holding umpteen names and storylines in my head?)

Style
Short sentences and staccato prose can help build tension but lose impact if used too often. Sentence structure, length and complexity need to be varied.
Grammatically incomplete sentences also need to be used with caution; they can hold up the pace of a story.

Action
The psychology of the characters must be authentic and plausible. (See writers like Jonathan Kellerman who’s a psychologist himself and uses a psychologist to help solve crimes, or Linda Fairstein who was a prosecutor focusing on crimes of violence against women and children and really understands police procedure.)

Accuracy
If the story includes historical reality or geographical locations, the facts must be spot on accurate.

So, with that foundation, I’m now concentrating on fleshing out the profiles of my own characters.

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Blue sky thinking

Ten days of wall-to-wall visitors staying chez nous effectively put paid to focused writing, but happily the brain has still been ticking over in the region of the back-burner.

As I strolled in beautiful gardens …

and wandered through castles and mansions …

the plot thickened for my current novel (working title Killing me Softly).

Summary of non-spoiler points to weave in
* The reader doesn’t know who to trust
* More than one character doesn’t get what he/she wants and their situations just get worse and worse
* Authority figures are confused
* Conflict between the good guys further muddies the water

All elements of storytelling that increase tension and keep the reader gripped. Ahhah, itemising them reinforces one salient conclusion: the book is still on track for being a thriller then! Good to clarify that.

I anticipated this book would take some time to write, since I’m researching technique as well as specific subject matter, but maybe not as long as Archie Cotterell‘s novel which came out this month. As his wife said: ‘Everyone says they want to leave the City and write a novel … but I married the idiot who did.’ It has taken 17 years for him to get What Alice Knew published – as long as James Joyce took to write Finnegan’s Wake. I’m devoutly hoping I don’t have to struggle that long! Time will tell.

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Spinning out of control …

Eebie jeebie! Life’s on a steep slope and gathering frightening momentum this week. Where are the brakes …? Anyone seen the safety nets?

Path to Straiton Pond

Outside, hard frosts have made works of incredible beauty out of ordinary spiders’ webs around here, and I couldn’t help but feel an affinity with them. Unbelievably strong, amazingly intricate, yet so fragile if touched carelessly. A bit like the ideas the brain conjures up in creative mode. So, why is the writing life more than usually frenetic at the moment?

Well, to begin with it’s Book Week Scotland; I’m doing a couple of author events locally for that. Lovely to go out there and meet real live people who read my books, and want to know about why and how I do what I do, and wonderful librarians who are so enthusiastic and dedicated to their task of encouraging reading, but space needs to be found to prepare mentally for each one.

Web wrapped around finialI’m also writing not one, not two, but three books simultaneously right now. Three, do I hear you shriek? Yep, three. Completely unprecedented, as regular followers will know. Madness, probably. So why break my own rules?

Well, Christmas is fast approaching, so I absolutely MUST complete the grandchildren’s annual story/play due to be enacted on 28 December to a full house. I need to order props and make costumes before then, and allow for postal hiatuses, so first I have to finalise the text to be sure about what I still need/want. In spare moments, and by way of light relief, I’m also making monster heads – details are top secret (suffice to say that hair and glitter and strange white particles linger stubbornly in the warp and weft of certain carpets). And one whole room is definitely off limits to all, no exceptions.

Frosted cobwebThen my ongoing novel, Killing me Gently, mustn’t be allowed to lose momentum. Pleased to say I’m still with the thriller genre on that one. However, as a safety valve, I’m letting the back burner dictate the pace of this book at the moment, only sitting down to actually commit words to the document when they’re too insistent to ignore, or jotting down thoughts that wake me in the night.

Web tailored to fence postAnd the third book? It’s brand spanking new, jostling for attention at crazy o’clock, keeping me at the desk long past the witching hour. It’s got a working title of Listen and is designed as a shorter story in my usual vein (contemporary fiction set in the world of medical ethics) which can be offered as a free download to give potential new readers a window into my books. I’m having a ball writing this! It’s about a Professor of Medical Ethics who goes on a train journey from Aberdeen to Penzance where a crisis awaits her … I now know some amazing statistics about high speed trains! And about atrocious experiments performed on black people in the 50s in America. Intrigued? Watch this space.

I keep reminding myself … this is all entirely self inflicted!

 

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Discombobulated thinking

Coimbra University LibraryIt was enough of a shock coming from 28 degrees in Portugal last week (and yes, the sky really was this blue) to snow on the Pentlands here this week (currently in the minuses).

First snow on the Pentland HillsThen, as if the Brexit vote wasn’t bad enough back in June, this week the unthinkable, the unbelievable, has happened on the other side of the Atlantic. A staggeringly unqualified, openly racist, xenophobic, mysogynist has been chosen as the next president – yes, chosen! – to lead the world’s most powerful nation. I felt so despairing yesterday morning when I woke to this news I had to tramp the streets and divert my attention to doing something practical to help the aged and lonely and disadvantaged amongst us. No mood for writing anything more exacting than the annual Christmas story for the grandchildren.

So nothing erudite today. I’ll just share with you something I came across during the week. As you know, I’m still considering writing a thriller this time around, so my attention was instantly caught by Doug Johnstone’s five tips for writing an unputdownable novel.

In essence they are:

  1. Start the novel in the thick of the action with your central character. No preamble, no prologue.
  2. Cut all the extraneous detail to make the language crisp and sparse. No gentle musing or scene setting.
  3. Give the reader breathing space, a moment of respite from the fast action, to give the story emotional punch. Allow the characters to reflect on their experiences occasionally, but keep it brief.
  4. Vary sentence length. Mix staccato statements with longer poetic flowing passages.
  5. Use dialogue but sparingly. Arrive as late as possible to the conversation and leave as early as you decently can.

Hmmm. Interesting, and slightly different from other advice I’ve read. Sounds good, though, and lots of food for thought in my case. As soon as I’ve recovered my equilibrium I’ll be testing out the wisdom of these tips.

In the meantime, let’s just pray for the American people and world peace, huh?

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