Monday, 28 December 2009

A Writer on Holiday

Like my book, I've been on the move again. This week my travels had nothing to do with books, research, signings, sort of promotion, or anything at all to do with books. We were paying some Christmas visits to family and friends. But, as Ionesco said, 'A writer never has a vacation. for a writer life consists of either writing or thinking about writing.' So I took my notebook, and a supply of pens, and wrote two more chapters of my third book while I was away. Once a writer...
(By the way, I've no idea where CUT SHORT was going in this photo. A reader sent it to me.)
Leigh Russell

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Great Christmas For Writers

by Matt Lynn

There is too much doom and gloom around the writing industry. But a glance at the top ten bestsellers for this Christmas should cheer any fiction writer up. The number one book is a thriller (okay, Dan Brown, but still a thriller). Six of the top ten are original works of fiction, compared to only two last year. This year, there are only two celebrity memoirs on the list compared with five last year (and those two take the bottom two slots).

Publishers will notice. They will be less keen to promote ghost-written celebrity books, and investing more in fiction. That surely is good news for writers.

The reason is simple. People love stories, and always have done. And Christmas, certainly the greatest story of all, is always a good time to remember that.

Friday, 18 December 2009


Just heard CUT SHORT is to have its 2nd reprint in 6 months.
My publisher is very pleased (phew). As Matt Lynn says, it's always good to exceed your publisher's expectations... What a wonderful way to end a busy year.
I'm really looking forward to Christmas Day. My children are spending the day with their partners' families so on the 25th December this year we are seeing no one and going nowhere. I can't wait! Reading Matt Lynn's post about fitting in writing with working and book promotion really struck a chord with me. I managed to juggle working and writing, but with promotion thrown into the mix, life is becoming very hectic. Take this week. I visited three schools and colleges to talk to sixth form about CUT SHORT. Then it was up to York for a BBC Radio interview, and book signing at WH Smith's. Back home again and I'm off to Brent Cross tomorrow for another book signing. In the meantime I've been reading Henning Mankell's SIDETRACKED which I need to finish before his appearance on BBC Radio 4's Bookclub with James Naughtie in January when I'm in the invited audience. And of course I'm writing. I've delivered ROAD CLOSED, the second in the Geraldine Steel series, which will be published in 2010. My deadline for the third book isn't looming - yet. But I want to finish the first draft before I start promoting ROAD CLOSED, and the weeks are zipping past.
Still, on Christmas Day I have something very particular to do. I've promised myself. I'm going to do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING ALL DAY! I can't wait. (Although I'll probably spend the morning writing . . . )


By Richard Jay Parker

Sleuthsink - a North American crime writers' website, asked me to write a blog for them this week so, as I've been in traditional Christmas frenzy, I'm reproducing it here. I answered questions during my live blog so you can check them out and discover more about Sleuthsink by visiting them here:

They're a thoroughly decent bunch. Until 2010 then - Merry Christmas.

As a writer I've always been interested in articles about the process of getting work out there. This isn’t intended as a How-To piece, however. I hope this will encourage writers who are languishing in any of the 'writing a book/rewriting a book/looking for an agent/seeking a publisher' categories and any sub-purgatory categories in between.

There's no doubt about it--getting a book published is one of the hardest tasks anyone can attempt. I began my writing career by submitting comedy sketch scripts on spec to TV companies. I began getting more involved in the production before becoming a head writer, script editor and eventually producer. It was steady progress across years but a book is something different. You're either published or you're not. For a publisher, it's a large investment of faith and money and nowadays they have to be positive of getting a return on that investment before taking the plunge.

It's taken me a drawer full of manuscripts and ten years to get to this point. I don't ever consider that as wasted time though. If I hadn't written all of those manuscripts I wouldn’t have written STOP ME. I also didn't begin by writing thrillers but discovered how much I enjoyed plotting them along the way. I decided that if I were to become pigeonholed as a writer then thrillers were what I’d be comfortable writing until the cows came home. My then agent’s response: 'Great! But I don't represent thriller writers so you'll have to find another agent.'

I won't bore you with the grim details of trying to find alternative representation. Luckily–and lets not forget what a huge factor that is in the journey–an agent who had previously shown interest in my work was poached to another agency and asked me to submit to him there. I was working on STOP ME at the time. I sent him what I'd written so far--about a third--and waited. By the time he’d read it I'd finished writing the whole manuscript. He read the other two thirds, got a positive in-house reader’s report and submitted to publishers.We got positive feedback but no offers.

There was a common criticism of the manuscript which concerned its plot flashing back to the past too often. I quickly rewrote it and made the story more linear. We then got an offer as well as interest from two other publishers. Eventually we settled on my current publisher.

As an editor I'd been pretty brutal re extraneous writing and had fiercely polished the manuscript so there was little story editing to do before it went to print. There were inconsistencies though and I was very glad of the input I had from my editor, Lara. The publisher politely welcomed my suggestions re the cover but I bowed to their superior knowledge and they came up with something much better than anything I could have envisaged–simple but striking.

And there you might think the work is over but that depends on how successful you want your book to be. Most publishers encourage their authors to be proactive re publicity for the book so my next question was--how do I get a book by a new author noticed?

Firstly I pursued some established writers of the genre for blurbs. One of them read my book and was kind enough to give me a great blurb for my cover. It arrived a day before the book went to print. It's difficult to know just how much a blurb can help but, as a newcomer, associating your work with someone that people recognise has got to be a step in the right direction.

I also followed the usual route of setting up a website. I think this is absolutely vital whether you're published or not. You can post all your details there as well as samples of your work, short stories etc. I did try and make my website as quirky and memorable as possible. You can have a look here. I also got a good friend to compose a simple piece of menacing music to unsettle people as they read about my story. Copyright is obviously always an issue but you can get pictures and music that are copyright free.

I'm lucky enough to have great support at Allison & Busby in the form of Chiara Priorelli who organises blogs, signed books and publicity. She’s proved invaluable in terms of promoting me on the publisher's site and is always happy to get involved in a publicity concept.

Twitter is also a great tool for getting the word out about your book and is how I came to be associated with the friendly people who run Sleuthsink. There are lots of avid readers as well as publishing people who use Twitter and I've found that if you tweet your thoughts about writing you can soon connect with many people who share a similar passion. You can follow me on Twitter @Bookwalter. You can also find our other Curzon members there individually and at @CurzonGroup.

The promotional process is ongoing and although it's difficult to measure just how much impact a lot of your efforts have, you can at least be positive that you’re doing everything you can to make people aware of your work. Soup to nuts – the whole process. And likely to drive you nuts in the process as well. But there’s no doubt that actually getting published is indeed the hardest part. It’s not impossible though even if it does feel that way sometimes. To get there, being positive is the most important part of your armoury. It's a lonely business being a writer and the disappointments don't get any easier.Constructive rejection letters only have a use a couple of days after you’ve received them because initially they just mean REJECTION! Once you’ve surfed the disappointment, however, examine them and take the comments on board. Also remember that opinion is subjective. What won't work for one publisher may be perfect for another. If you have genuine faith in your work then chances are somebody else will. Be your own harshest critic. After you’ve finished your book go back and read it a few months later.

Always start thinking about your next project as soon as you've finished your first. If your current project doesn't get the reception you wanted, by the time you've learned that you'll have something else exciting underway.

I'll finish with a story from 1999. I'd become disillusioned with TV and wanted to concentrate on novel writing. I’d left my TV agent and got a literary agent on the back of my first novel. I was invited to a literary party at the agency and was described in Publishing News as 'soon-to-be-published.’ I thought I'd effortlessly jumped ship. It's now 2009 and I have my first book published. It may even be my last but seeing STOP ME on the shelf definitely made it all worth it.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Amazonian narcissism

I love Amazon. It is a cargo cult. I click around the site and a couple of days latter my self-gifts appear over the horizon and are unloaded. Presents appear at Christmas from them via friends unsummoned.

Amazon is a virtual Santa Claus.

What is even more exciting is watching my novel on the Amazon charts. Like a proto-pop star I’m riveted narcissistically to my own rise and fall.

Suddenly I’ve shot up from 300,000 to 1200 and hit 32 overall in Thrillers. As this is my first book, it is a ‘noob’ pleasure to be flanked by John Le Carre, Oscar Wilde, Lee Childs and Dan Brown.

As Miss Piggy might say "Moi!?!"

Armageddon Trade did hit number 8 in Thrillers in the summer and skimmed the top 100 overall in books. But this was only a few days of delight until Amazon went out of stock and I plummeted from A list to non-entity faster than an X-factor finalist.

Now days from Christmas Im back flying high.

Its strange to have this funny little dream of minor bestseller-dom come true. It was the visualisation of future success that kept me going as a forlorn unpublished author slogging up the mountain that is writing a novel.

Like actual mountain climbing, the view from the top lasts for only moments, so Im going to enjoy it.

A Book A Year...

by Matt Lynn

The end of the year is fast approaching, and I've just realised that I won't have finished a book this year. Not quite anyway. I'm on page 470 of 'Shadow Force', and I reckon it will be about 600 pages on Microsoft Word (double-spaced), so unless I skip Christmas completely it won't be done before the 31st. And that's just the first draft. There are still revisions to be made. And facts to be checked.

That doesn't matter greatly in itself. The book isn't due to be handed in until March, so there is plenty of time.

But one of the things I've discovered from visiting bookshops in support of 'Death Force' this year is that writers need to crack out a book a year to establish themselves in the market. Several booksellers have mentioned that a writer gets going, then a year goes by without a book appearing, and they lose momentum. Indeed, one of the reasons I think Headline liked the idea of taking me on as an author is because they knew from the ghost-writing I'd done that I could be relied upon to deliver a book once every twelve months.

I can see why it's important. Readers need to be seeing you regularly in the shops before they will sample you. Publishers need to feel they will have a supply of fresh product to make it worth promoting you. But I can't help feeling it will get harder as I go on. When you start, you just have the manuscript to worry about. As you progress, however, there is more and more promotional work to take care off. And whilst that's important as well, at a certain point it is going to make the book a year cycle harder to keep up with.

So I guess my New Year's Resolation will be to make sure I start work early on the next book in the series - so that I get it finished by the end of 2010.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Hidden Fears

Picking up on the theme of nostalgia from the previous post, I visited a few local schools and colleges this week and a student asked me which book had had the most impact on me when I was a child. That is such a long time ago! Does anyone read Just William these days? Treasure Island, Heidi, Little Women... There are so many new and exciting contemporary authors writing for the youth market nowadays: Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo, Phillip Pullman, to name just a few. It makes it all the more dismal that so few children are reading, and even fewer teenagers. There are many other, easier, opportunities to fill their time.
In a different context, I had another 'trip down memory lane' recently. On one of my school visits this week I tried to impress on my young audience how ground breaking Dr Who was when it was first broadcast in the 1960s. From Andy Pandy to daleks was a qualitative leap for an unsophisticated viewing audience. Dr Who was the first television programme to employ special effects and it succeeded in terrifying a generation.
I was intially entertained when a dalek asked me to sign a copy of CUT SHORT the other week. Of course I agreed. What author will refuse a sale? The top (lid?) of the dalek duly lifted up and . . . a hand emerged . . . a human hand! . . . proffering money. Of course I knew it was just a plastic shell in dalek shape concealing a man inside, but I couldn't bring myself to put my own hand inside the dalek. Instead, I handed the change to someone else to deliver to the man-inside-the-plastic-dalek.
How ridiculous! But our early childhood fears run deep. The child we once were lurks inside us all, (I won't say like the man concealed inside the dalek - it's too obvious!)
When I'm writing crime novels, I play with my readers' fears . . . a character wakes at night, alone in the house, and hears a door closing . . . a woman walking along a dark deserted street hears footsteps . . .
I knowingly draw on my own irrational terrors in my writing - but holding back from touching a plastic dalek - that was a surprise even to a scaredycat like me! Surely at the ripe old age of mumble (OK, I was watching daleks in 1964) I should have outgrown my fear of a plastic inverted bucket waving a sink plunger? Especially one who had just bought a copy of my book! Of course, without my irrational fears, my writing would be less scarey, but I wonder if anyone has been caught out by a more ridiculous irrational childhood fear , or do I win the wimpy prize for this one?
Leigh Russell

Friday, 11 December 2009


By Richard Jay Parker

Usually, at this time of the year, the lists of worst books and best books start circulating and there's always some fun to be had from constructing your own personal versions.

But rather than slagging or praising books I usually aim for a different area of discussion - comfort books. Everything about Christmas is about comfort - comfort eating, comfort viewing, comfort gifts. So, rather than selecting a book for the holidays that I feel I should be reading (ie list of recommendations for contemporary authors I feel compelled to catch up with), my eyes usually alight on something I wouldn't normally read during the other eleven months of the year.

It's very often from my own shelf. Don't get me wrong - my credit card is already bloody and bruised from its Amazon gauntlet and I know there'll be plenty of requested books plumping up my stocking. However, my 'to read' list can go on hold just for a couple of weeks and I'll immerse myself in something as tried and tested as Its' A Wonderful Life.

Last year it was a book of Ghost Stories by M R James. This year it's Dennis Wheatley's The Haunting Of Toby Jugg. Books from my warped childhood! It's an old yellowed copy and there's something deeply satisfying about spending some leisurely time with something that's been patiently waiting on my shelf for the right occasion. It's like time out.

In 2010 I'll look forward to diving into the latest thrillers. A pristine copy of something new and exciting is the best way to start the year. I've been chatting to a lot of great authors in 2009 and have bought their books as a result. My Christmas list has got increasingly longer as well. A lot of them are newbies like me and I can't wait to discover what they're capable of.

So as well as giving much needed support to the up and coming writers this year go to your bookshelf and find something classic, nostalgic and familiar as well - for a lot of us, it's what Christmas is all about.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Role Models....

by Matt Lynn

I've always felt that one of the best ways to approach any endeavor is the choose a role model. Then you don't exactly copy them, but you can let them inspire you. You can figure out what they were getting right, and try and do the same things.

When I started out on the Death Force series, I was planning to use Alistair MacLean as my role model. I used to love his books as a boy. They were robust, manly tales, full of exciting adventures, and not too many girls to slows things down. And MacLean was, of course, a terrific writer, and someone who could spin a plot until you were dizzy.

I was assuming that MacLean was a largely forgotten figure. But it turns out he's having a bit of a revival. In The Observer this weekend, Geoff Dyer wrote a fantastic piece about the film 'Where Eagles Dare' (for which MacLean wrote both the script and the book). And, of course, he's right: it's a terrific slice of action film-making, with a riveting plot, and Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood are both right at the top of their game. It knocks Quentin Tarantino's recent limp attempt at a WWII movie straight out of the park.

Then, according to The Bookseller, Harper Collins are planning to re-issue MacLean's books. They've put quite a few out already, and are planning to re-isssue the rest of the backlist next year. Whcih is great. I won't have to scour second-hand bookshops, or order battered copies of the Amazon second-hand section, to remind myself how good they were.

Anyway, maybe being the new Alistair MacLean is not such an obscure ambition after all. That's if I can ever make my books nearly as good as his.

Monday, 7 December 2009

Thoughts on Writing - Plot vs Character

When I write, I am aware of tension between plot and character. Most of my readers are sophisticated in the genre, and they come to a book with expectations. As an author I can observe conventions, or play with them, by setting up prospects which are fulfilled or confounded. But the unwritten parameters are always present.
Crime thrillers are plot driven. I would like to write a murder story where I do not decide the identity of the killer until the very end, taking the same journey as my readers, trying to establish which of the suspects is the culprit. In practice, the story has to be neatly planned so that every detail leads towards a conclusion that is satisfying yet unpredictable. I have to know where the journey ends in order to take my readers in the right – or the wrong – direction on the way.
Working out plots is fun, involving a lot of problem solving. My main interest, however, lies in my characters. Sometimes a character has to perform a certain action for the sake of the plot but, as any writer will tell you, characters sometimes take off in their own directions. I cannot allow a character to act 'out of character' or the illusion is broken. Readers must never think "I don't believe this character would ever do/say that". So there can be tension between the direction in which a character develops, and the requirements of the plot. My readers should know nothing of this conflict. It is my job as the author to create a believable fictitious world with plausible characters whose behaviour produces an elegant plot.
In the meantime, I am on a journey of my own. For an unknown author on a miniscule budge, Cut Short has been a great success. My reaction to the overwhelmingly positive response is relief. But there is no room for complacency. Like a thoughtless remark, once a book is put out there, it cannot be recalled. The second book in my series will be published in 2010. My manuscript for Road Closed is finished. I can only hope it will be as well received as Cut Short.
Leigh Russell

Friday, 4 December 2009

Prologue to "City of Thieves" by Cyrus Moore

'City of Thieves' by Cyrus Moore
Published by Sphere, July 2009

'What does your gut tell you?'

'My gut tells me I'm right. The problem is I don't have Larry's support.'

'Larry doesn't know what he's talking about.'

'Maybe. But he's my boss.'

Charlie took a sip of wine and placed his glass down firmly on the table. 'Hold your ground and Larry will respect you. You won't last a minute without his respect.'

'I'm just scared that if I go out on a limb with this one, then I'm fucked.'

‘You’re fucked anyway, kiddo. Look, anyone who tries to predict the future is going to screw up at some point. But right or wrong is not what’s important in this business. If you want to be a winner in this game, you need to follow my three little rules.’

A waitress glided over to take their order. Charlie dismissed her with a wave of his hand. ‘Rule number one: stand up for what you believe in – your reputation is all you’ve got,’ he declared. ‘Rule number two: don’t follow the crowd – if you can’t think of anything original to say, keep your mouth shut. And rule number three …’ He looked furtively right and left, leaned forward and eyed Niccolo with steely precision. ‘… never trust anyone in this business. They’re all a bunch of dirty, lying motherfuckers.’


By Richard Jay Parker

Thought I'd pick up on Matt's blog about writing sex scenes (I couldn't really resist).

There's nothing worse than sex that's shoehorned into a story. I've read some books where it appeared to be cut and pasted onto the plot at precisely calculated intervals. One book had it every twelve pages.

Don't get me wrong, I love reading about sex. It's the one thing that unites most readers. A large percentage of us are interested in it in one form or another. It has an even more illicit thrill here in the UK because even though we're in the 21st Century there's still a large number of readers who still approach reading about it as something furtive.

It's bizarre that we're happy to discuss the most explicit violence but still have a block on something as natural as sex. OK it depends which books you read. If you combine the two we're in a whole different territory.

But when it comes to consenting sex there's certainly an expectation of it in the thriller genre. It's a welcome spice to any holiday read but it has to be relevant.

STOP ME doesn't contain any sex. It didn't occur to me that there should be any because it just didn't figure in the story. The new book that I've just finished does contain sex. It wasn't a directive or a conscious decision - the character dynamic within the story demanded it. The story revolves around a sexual relationship and the question of whether it will be rekindled. Not boy meets girl but boy has already met girl. Their lives have moved on but now they've been thrown back together with all the baggage of their intervening years.

Restraint is often the key, however, even though sex is as subjective as violence. Too much for one person is not enough for another. You can only strive to be true to your story rather than thinking of who you're going to excite or offend. If your story is good it's only part of a much bigger picture.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Intergalactic Sales

Cut Short has boldly gone where no book has gone before, to a far off galaxy (where the inhabitants pay in sterling !)
Here's photographic proof:

Intrepid author Leigh Russell sells Cut Short to a dalek and lives to tell the tale (as writers do.)

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Good Sex, Bad Sex....

Shucks, there's another award I didn't win. Jonathan Littell has collected the bad sex award handed out by the Literary Review. I really don't know how they can have ignored my efforts in 'Death Force'. "Orlena's body felt supple and warm next to him in the bed. Steve was cradling her in his arms, aware of the way their sweat was mingling. Her hair was lying across his chest, and he could feel his breath on his skin, and her nipples squeezed up next to him." I would have thought that stood a chance. Then again, when I read some of Littell's efforts, I suppose I have to concede defeat. "This sex was watching at me, spying on me, like a Gorgon's head," he writes. Cripes. That really is terrible.

For any writer, however, there is an interesting issue here. How do you write well about sex? I've always taken it as a given that a great thriller needs a great sex scene (unless it a police procedural, of course, in which case the hero will be a miserable Scottish bloke with a drink problem who no one would fancy). It is part of the mix of popular escapist fiction, which is what thrillers are all about.

But, of course, it is extraordinarily difficult to write well about sex. Elvis Costello, who's a big hero of mine, once remarked, in the course of taking his usual pot shots at the critics, that "writing about music was like dancing about architecture - it's a really stupid thing to want to do." And as usual the great man is onto something. Sex just doesn't lend itself to description. You either slip into soft porn cliches, in which case you end up coming across like 1970s edition of Penthouse. Or else you start getting ambitious, in which case you end up sounding absurd very quickly.

The key, I think is to keep it brief, and to make it integral to the story. But I'll return another day with the tips for a perfect sex scene. In the meantime, I'm still chuckling over Littell's efforts.

Friday, 27 November 2009


By Richard Jay Parker

Was interested to read this article about TV producers becoming increasingly reliant on published books for their drama source material. It appears it pays to have free in-store book promotion for their shows.

Nothing groundbreakingly new there but having just heard from my agent that ITV have been saying some very positive things about STOP ME and are still considering it obviously makes it all the more interesting.

I've been here before though - from the writing side as well as the other. Having been a BBC/ITV script editor and producer as well as script writer I've been lucky enough to be part of the process that has seen my ideas realised on the small screen. I've also attended a hell of a lot of meetings that have seen the initial enthusiasm about a project gradually abraded until it withers on the vine.

It's all part of the development process and, after a point, not a lot of it has to do with the quality of the writing. There are so many pitfalls that are beyond the creator's control. The TV production process is about filling specific slots, furnishing personalities and answering to a demographic. It's always been an eye-opener for me.

For instance, a series I produced was allotted a larger budget for its trailer than we had to shoot all thirteen episodes. Last year I wrote a script for a short horror movie fully expecting it to languish on a shelf and never see the light of day. The producer found a location, assembled a cast and had it shot within two months. That was August 2008. The score has been added but now we're waiting for an actor to dub one word on the soundtrack. So if it does hit the festivals in the summer of 2010 it will have taken two years to reach the screen.

But I keep going back for more and although I should know better by now I do still get excited when I hear somebody is thinking of my work in terms of the big or small screen. I suppose as a script writer it's always going to be a consideration when I write my books.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

A Battle Worth Fighting

I'm very excited to see CUT SHORT reviewed on the BEST BOOKS OF 2009 list in Publishers Weekly in the US as the only title starred in the Mass Market section. You can read the review here:

On a very sad note, we appear to be losing Borders. I have written about this on my blog but want to reiterate my thanks here to all the staff who have been so friendly and helpful towards me personally in my events at Borders.

People are already asking “whether there is a place for traditional shops selling books on our high streets” (James Thompson in the Independent 24 November 2009)
This seems to me to be a battle worth fighting. We should all be encouraging everyone we know to “Buy a Book for Christmas in a Real Bookshop”. First the independents, now Borders, Waterstones will be the next to fold. By this time next year, it may only be possible to buy books online, other than blockbusters from supermarkets, or a title from a limited range at WH Smith’s. (Remember Woolworths? Who’s next?)
It’s not enough to bleat. “A civilized city without bookshops – or without enough bookshops – struck me as a contradiction in terms. And then I realised why I'd only belatedly discovered that Borders and Waterstone's weren't where they'd once been. I hadn't visited them for months.” (Tom Sutcliffe in the Independent 24 November 2009)
If readers don’t buy at bookshops, there will be no bookshops. Maybe that isn’t important, but if it matters to you – GO AND BUY A BOOK IN A BOOKSHOP. If enough people do, maybe we "ordinary people" can turn this around. At the very least, we will have tried. Those of us who believe bookshops are worth saving, let's not lay down and die just yet.
Leigh Russell

Monday, 23 November 2009

To Fight ... or not to Fight

As anyone who has ever tried to argue with me can testify, I can be as combative, niggly and unrelenting as a pitbull with a migraine. I also like taking the piss, chiefly of myself, but also of others. Sometimes, however, I pick the wrong fight ...

Which is why I've deleted the post I put up earlier today. On reflection, i got the tone wrong and what was meant to be banter was clearly not taken as such. I could waste a great deal of time defending myself and digging a deeper hole, because the fact is i stand by my substantive points about (a) the irony of the Curzon Group being attacked for attacking people, and (b) the effectiveness of controversy and argument as means of generating attention ... but, really, life's too short.

So I'd rather hold my hand up and say, 'Enough already.' I got this post wrong. Let's call it a day and move on ...

BORDERS the bookshop (...the what?)

I know it's not my turn to post but I want to share a little about my experience as a teacher. The closer my examination classes come to the end of their course, the more spats they have, fussing at one another over petty offences. More accusations of swiped pens, stolen bags, pushing in the lunch queue, and worse. Teachers have to remind them to focus on what is important - the charmingly called 'terminal examinations' that are fast approaching - while the pupils continue to seek to distract themselves with squabbles and scraps.
I've never been involved in a writers' spat before. I'm new to all this. It's fun, and I'm chuffed to be quoted in The Guardian (!) but I can't help wondering why we are devoting so much energy and words to the Curzon 'manifesto' when A MAJOR BOOKSHOP CHAIN IS ABOUT TO VANISH. We have our own terminal event looming. Does point scoring over who said what to whom about what really matter right now? Seems to me we have a REAL battle on our hands - but no one seems to have noticed.
Leigh Russell

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Back to the future?

By Clem Chambers.

Having worked on bleeding edge media since my teens I can't help seeing seismic shifts coming to the book world.

So I have been agonising about the future of books again, as e-readers start there inexorable march.

It has suddenly occurred to me that while the marketing structure of the physical novel will probably implode, there is room for a reversion-ing of the content.
Charles Dickens did not write novels, he wrote part-works that appeared either weekly or monthly. The book publication came later. This was because at the time, best business model for making a living in writing was serialisation, followed by reading tours. In due course the book format superseded that way of doing business and wiped the old distribution model out. Likewise the e-reader will sweep the dead tree novel.

There was plenty of serialisation going on after the novel rose to ascendancy, but the format waned into insignificance.

While music is still dying on the vine, movies are reinventing themselves with 3D and end to end digital distribution. They are cleverly plugging the levees breached by piracy in a drive to keep their industry alive.

With the re-invention underway of movies, that media has a viable business model for at least another decade.

While novels as books might be about to begin a slide into commercial oblivion, the model of part-work, key to Dickens, may make a comeback. Distribution platforms like iTunes give hope that new formats may emerge that can control or at least limit IP theft. Books with a client server element may provide another jump off point for a new model for fiction.

Its comforting to realise that writing is not locked to a single form and that text just might be able to morph itself to a new media format and thereby escape the maw of ubiquitous piracy.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Our Battle With Steve

by Matt Lynn

The Guardian's diary has picked up on our, er, discussion with Steve Mosby over on his blog and ours.

But, hey, before this turns into WWIII, maybe we should call a truce. I'm not sure there is anything left to be said on the subject anyway. And, Steve, we'll buy you a drink at the next thriller festival.


By Richard Jay Parker

Some weeks it’s difficult to know what to blog about. Sure there’s always something in the news to whinge or theorise about but if I need reminding about the real issues in the world I take one of my regular visits to Matt Beynon Rees’s blog HERE.

Matt is the author of the Omar Yussef novels the first of which (THE BETHLEHEM MURDERS) I recently read and greatly enjoyed. If you have a moment, take a look at this week’s blog about novel research and then scroll down to the one about soldier suicides. In fact, if you have more than a few minutes, scroll down and absorb as much as possible. It’s a sobering reading experience.

But as well as controversy and life and death there’s also his thoughts on Stewart Copeland and the perennial struggle to think of original places to kill his fictional characters. Matt lives slap bang in the middle of what he writes about and combining his beleaguered home turf with some engaging detective stories makes for a powerful cocktail. Miss Marple would be dead in the water.

I’m no newcomer to eking a living as a writer but the book arena is pretty new to me and when I made some tentative steps to try and hook up with some fellow authors I wondered if they were going to be as prickly and bitchy as some TV writers proved to be in the past. Even though he didn’t know me from Adam, Matt was the first to encourage me to promote my first book on his site and was unerringly generous when he had no reason to be.

It’s been largely my experience since my book was picked up for publication. There seems to be plenty of negativity in the industry at the moment but whenever I convince myself that I have anything to really worry about I give myself I a cold shower with Matt’s blog. It’s an experience I’d recommend.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Joys of being an Author

I've been going through The Editor's suggestions for ROAD CLOSED, the second in my series of crime thrillers.
Was it hard work? No, not at all.
Has the experience changed me? Of course not. Look at my picture. Do I look any different?
That's about as coherent as I'm able to be right now. I promise to produce a scintillating post next week to make up for it - witty, entertaining and challenging. Right now, I have one more job to do before I go to bed. Where's the corkscrew?!!
Leigh Russell (but you knew that from my picture, didn't you?)

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Our Manifesto....

Even though it is more than six months since we launched, our manifesto is still causing a few ripples. The crime writer Steve Mosby had a pop at us the other day, accusing us of all manner of heinous crimes.

I've already suggested to Steve that if spends that much time thinking about the Curzon Group, he should probably get out more -- and he's a decent enougyh bloke to accept that point.

Still, I thought I should clear up a couple of misconceptions about what this group is all about.

First, we're not telling people what to read, as a few bloggers seem to imagine. Even leaving aside the ridiculousness of imagining anyone would listen (are there people browsing through Waterstone's thinking, nah, I won't buy that book because the Curzon Group won't like it?), it just doesn't follow. If Gary Rhodes writes a book on British cookery, he's not saying don't eat pasta or sushi, and no one would imagine he is. He's just saying here's a tradition of our own cooking you might like to explore.

Neither does promoting British thrillers - and our own in particular - mean we are 'attacking' books from other countries.

For example, if the Malaysia Tourist Board runs ads suggesting you take a holiday in Malaysia, they aren’t having a go at Thailand or Indonesia. They are just suggesting Malaysia is a nice place to visit, and you might like to have a think about it.

Or if the Invest in France Agency promotes building factories in France, they aren’t declaring war on Germany or Spain – just drawing attention to the virtues of their own country.

So it is just bonkers to say we are telling people what to read, or suggesting other thrillers (or indeed books) aren’t good as well. We do think that some of the big American names – Patterson, Brown etc – are over-hyped, over-promoted rubbish. And we do think there needs to be more space for British thrillers. But, of course, there are some great American thrillers out there, as there are from Europe, and elsewhere. There are some great British thrillers as well, although they don’t (in my opinion) come from the same tradition we’re talking about.

I appreciate that some people don’t like the kind of books we like, and obviously that’s fair enough. You may also think we aren’t worthy to polish the boots of the writers we admire, and that’s a fair opinion as well.

But I don't think the Group needs to apologise for promoting a certain style of writing that we all admire.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Who'd be a writer right now?

Is there any future at all in being a professional writer? I've just been thinking about that. Let me explain ...

Like a lot of authors, most of the interview requests I get come from specialist blogs, fanzines, e-zines and so forth, and they usually take the form of emailed Q&As. I actually enjoy doing them because they make me feel like I'm writing without actually sweating on a novel, plus I get to say exactly what i want - for better or worse - and communicate directly with readers. Also, from time to time I get asked a question that really makes me stop, think and re-evaluate.

For example, I was recently sent an interview questionnaire by Joseph O'Donnell, who runs a magazine called The Eerie Digest and had very kindly asked me to appear in the January edition. One of his questions was ... "We have many young writers in a college program that we have created. What words of advice can you share with them?"

This is part of what I answered ...

"Find another way of making a living! No, really, I say the same thing to my daughter, who is an incredibly talented writer, nominated for a national student journalism award (which she may win: at the time of writing it’s yet to be determined) and just about to graduate from college. With the apparently unstoppable tyranny of the internet and free content, and the parallel decline in respect for intellectual copyright or the skills of professional writers, I really wonder how anyone is going to make a living from the professions that have sustained me for the past three decades. I mean, I truly believe that a properly-informed democratic society requires professional news-gathering organizations, trained specialist journalists and paid-for news media. I also note that the bloggers who most loudly proclaim the death of print would have nothing to blog about if old-fashioned journalists weren’t digging up the stories they then comment upon. But that seems to be an opinion which the market is rejecting, as the diminishing salaries, word-rates and job-opportunities for journalists clearly indicate. Likewise, I think it could be very difficult for conventional fiction writers to stay in business as the book trade, and indeed the whole pastime of reading, appear to be in meltdown. Clearly, humans need and want to be told stories. Equally clearly, some people have more of a gift for that than others. But I think it’s going to be harder and harder for authors who are not already celebrities or do not happen to luck into a market phenomenon like the Harry Potter, Twilight or Da Vinci Code franchises to make a decent living. So at the risk of seeming negative, my advice to all but the most talented, most determined and most obsessive young writers would be to get a job that allows you to make a decent income and have time to write on the side. Either that, or head for Hollywood in the last few moments before network TV and the movie studios crumble into dust! Oh … or go write the stories for video-games. That may just be where modern storytelling is actually being regenerated and redfined."

The rest of the answer (yes, there was more!) and the rest of the interview will be available at The Eerie Digest from 1 January 2010. Naturally, I urge everyone to read it! And I'll be making the invitation again - even more forcefully - nearer the time, as well!

Friday, 13 November 2009


By Richard Jay Parker

Allison and Busby have just sent me the electric blue cover for the paperback of STOP ME. You can see it here. I’m very pleased with it because it feels like the paperback will be a different entity to the orange, large cover, trade edition.

This brings me back to last week’s discussion re covers and their importance. As a lot of you agreed, covers certainly aren’t the be all and end all when it comes to purchasing a novel. Covers are only part of the equation. If you’re an established writer I think they become less important because people are responding to a name rather than a catchy image. As a new writer though you need something on the front of the book that will take a curious reader to the next level.

It’s then down to that synopsis on the back. If the story doesn’t appeal or doesn’t raise its shoulders above similar fare then I think even the most discerning reader may pass.

The whole book buying process is amorphous, however. What about word-of-mouth for instance? I have a shelf full of great books with lacklustre covers that I bought because of a recommendation. Similarly there are a lot of books with great covers that stink. Thankfully, it’s the contents of the book itself that are the real test of a book’s durability. Celebrity books aside that is – see last Friday’s blog.

I know many writers are alarmed about file sharing - new e readers robbing authors of valuable income. But people have always passed on books they’ve enjoyed to friends, family and neighbours. And if that second person then enjoys the book it’s likely they’ll purchase another one – a book they wouldn’t have entertained if the first party hadn’t handed it on.

Of course, files are different to physical books and the ease in which this is done will be incomparable. However, people have only so much time to read and with greater numbers of books racking up in their memory does that friend sharing an ephemeral file rather than something as tactile as a book really have the same impact?

It all remains to be seen but one thing is definite – after a certain point, the process by which a book becomes popular is out of the hands of publishers and authors. If it has a great cover, some nice blurb and a good position in Waterstones it’s a good start but after that it’s down to whether the readers respond to the contents. And, as cogs of the publishing machine, it seems we should all be concentrating on getting that right.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Names and pseudonyms

Tom Cain (not his real name) and I had an interesting discussion about names at the last Curzon Group meeting, over a glass of red wine, olives, bread and humous . . . It’s a hard life, this author lark.
“What’s in a name?” Juliet demands. The name, she declaims, does not give the rose its delicate scent. Romeo would still be the same man under a different name. Yes, that’s true. But (always watch out for the ‘but’, I tell my students. It looks insignificant, but changes everything) Romeo is a Montague and that name, coupled with hers, spells tragedy.
One of the most powerful lines in Arthur Miller is John Proctor’s refusal to sign his name to a false confession. His inquisitors cannot understand why Proctor rejects their offer to save his life. All he has to do is sign his name and he will survive. He refuses, at the last minute, “Because it is my name.”
Why are names so important? Most of them are arbitrary and many are, frankly, weird, when you think about them.
As authors, I’m sure Tom and I are not alone in feeling a sense of liberation when using our pseudonyms. It is reminiscent of childhood make believe. It’s fun. When I give talks and sign books, I am not my usual shy, awkward, unprepossessing self. I step into role as The Author. However, this is not an act, any more than when I say I am a wife, or a mother, or a teacher. I am all of these things.
Using a pseudonym is like putting on a mask – not thinking Lord of the Flies here, (although maybe that’s not so far off the mark?) more Venice carnival . . .
As for names of characters in my books – that’s a whole discussion in itself.
As Juliet discovers, names are so unimportant, but they can change everything.
Leigh Russell (not my real name)

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Annoying Things People Say To Writers....

by Matt Lynn

Tom's splendid post yesterday about film rights has prompted me to think some more about the slim volume I'm planning to write one day called 'Annoying Things People Say To Writers'. One of the hazards of this job is that people have no idea how it really works, but of course they think they do.

The result? If you mention that you are a writer at a dinner party, they make really irritating remarks. Such as....

1. 'All you need to do now is sell the film rights'.

What am I meant to say to that? Oh, yeah, thanks, I'd never thought of that. But I'll get it sorted on Monday morning. Thanks for the idea.

2. 'I've been meaning to write a book when I get the time'.

Listen, if I meet a dentist, I don't say, 'Oh, I've been meaning to do some root canal work, I just never get a minute.' Or if I meet an airline pilot, I wouldn't say, 'Oh, I'll take an A330 for a spin when I've got a day off.' I recognise that those jobs require years of dedicatd training and practise. And yet everyone seems to think they could knock off a novel, easy-peasy, if only they could find a spare minute. It is more than a little rude to suggest that what we do is so simple anyone could do it in a few dull weekends.

3. 'Can I have the name of your agent'.

Why do people imagine we want to give out the contact details of our agents to everyone we meet? They can look it up for themselves. I've just given up on this one, and I now hand out my agent's details automatically to everyone I meet. At my wife's parents house in Cardiff a little while ago, I met this 90-year old lady who used to live next door to my wife when she was small. Turns out she's been working on a historical romantic epic of several hundred pages. I humbly gave her my agent's details. I bet he was pleased to get that one.

4. 'I looked in Smith's and they didn't have your book. I just thought you'd like to speak to your publisher about that.'

Listen, an author is psychologically incapable of walking past a bookshop without going inside to check if they have his book, and, if so, how many copies. Even Dan Brown does it - I've seen him, moving the display bin a bit further to the front of Waterstone's. Trust me, if they haven't got my book in stock, I already know -- all you are doing is rubbing it in.

This one will be continued next time someone says something really irritating to me -- which won't be long I'm sure.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Hooray for Hollywood ... or not ...

I woke up on Saturday morning to find an email from my agent in LA waiting on my iPhone ...

OK, all right, he's not MY agent, exactly: he's the sub-agent hired by my real agent who works in a small office just off the North End Road in West London, which isn't quite so glamorous ... but anyway ...

The two scriptwriters who have spent the past few months, in between their other projects, honing The Accident Man into a potential high-concept movie franchise had, the message said, concluded their negotiations with A Major Studio and been given a deal. So now all I have to do is wait to see what I'm offered for the movie rights to my actual book, sign on the dotted line and then the whole project can enter the strange half-life of 'development', in which a script is written (and re-written, and re-re ... etc), a director and stars are sought and the producer does his level best to create a package that will persuade the Major Studio to shell out the mega-money required to go ahead and make a thriller like The Accident Man.

Assuming it's still called The Accident Man ... or has a hero called Samuel Carver ... or bears any resemblance at all to anything I ever wrote. Because I, as the author, am by far the least important person involved in the project and my opinion counts for less than Jack Shit.

This is something that the average punter - quite reasonably - does not understand. People assume that having spent years creating my characters and writing stories about them, I might have some idea about who would be good to play them. They imagine that I would have a say in how they would be portrayed. Above all they think that I have just become very, very rich.

All these presumptions are 100% wrong for any author who does not happen to be Stephen King, Dan Brown or JK Rowling. The major casting will be determined by which actor likes the script, is available, seems marketable to the studio and is prepared to work for the fee they have in the budget. The story will be far, far more influenced by the lowliest, dumbest 'creative' executive at the studio, making notes on the fourteenth draft of the script, than it ever will be me, or what I wrote. And as for the money, forget it. You hear about mega-deals for authors and sometimes the stories are true. More often they're grossly inflated inventions, dreamed-up by agents and PRs. Studios are cutting back savagely on all non-essential spending, and book-rights certainly come into that category, especially when the book isn't already a massive global bestseller. Plus, all you get when the book is first picked up is the 'option' payment: i.e. the studio acquires an option on the right to buy the book outright at some point in the next 18 months. The full value of the contract is only payable on the first day of production, and 99% of all film projects never get to that point. So I expect to get an option in the low tens of thousands of pounds. If the film gets made, I'll get (very) low six figures. Nothing remotely wrong with that, of course: but I won't be retiring on the proceeds just yet.

I know this because I've done a deal for Accident Man before, the last time it was in development at Another Major Studio. Back then I took a look at the contract, observed how cheaply I was selling my soul and started moaning to my agent (the real one, just off the North End Road) that I was being ripped-off. He pointed out that would only be true IF the film got made and IF it was a huge hit. In that case, yes, the amount I'd be getting was absurdly low. BUT ... if my book had just been the basis of a global mega-movie, then I'd immediately start selling a load more copies, and get a ton of massively-improved publishing deals, and be in with a chance of a far better price when the studio made the sequel. So I'd be laughing.

Plus, I'd get the words TOM CAIN, all by themselves, in big capital letters on the screen smack-bang in the middle of the opening credits, So I'd essentially be giving away my most cherished artistic creation, just so I could sit at my local multiplex and gaze at my (false) name.

Is that a deal worth making? Oh, come on, what do you think? Of course it bloody is!!

PS: It's not always a bad idea for studios to change books, irrespective of the author's wishes or intentions. The only elements of The Bourne Identity that survived from the Ludlum book to the Doug Liman film were the title, the name Jason Bourne and the opening sequence that set up the character and his predicament ... oh, and the idea that Bourne picks up a girl along the way. But since they're the only good - even great - things about the book, that was an entirely sensible decision. The Accident Man, of course, is brilliant from beginning to end, so any deviation from the original would be an aesthetic abomination ... ;)

Friday, 6 November 2009


With everyone’s schedules as busy as they are it sometimes seems like a small miracle to be able to synchronize enough authors for a Curzon Group meeting. Wednesday, however, we mustered a respectable turnout and also had the pleasure of some new company.

Zoe Sharp travelled down from Cumbria with her partner Andy. Zoe is the author of the hugely successful Charlie Fox series of thrillers about a female bodyguard as well as being a real life action woman. She has now joined The Curzon ranks and we're very excited to have her as part of the group.

Elizabeth Corley had just flown in from Germany but miraculously made it in time for the second course. Elizabeth's uncompromising but poignant series of DCI Fenwick books are immensely popular and a firm favourite with fans of eloquently written procedural crime. We're now lucky to count her as a member as well.

Was also great to have the presence of Tom Cain who seemed very happy with the cuisine.

So a very worthwhile evening and one that should have been at least a couple more bottles long. Next time, however, we’re going to overbook by at least two people so nobody has to dunk their elbows in the humous.


By Richard Jay Parker

This week I read an article that predicted that not only would the Christmas non-fiction list be dominated by celebs but the fiction list would be as well.

So that’s fiction written by celebs but not actually written by the celebs but by someone else.

Which means that the only informed judgement a purchaser of this book is making is based purely on the face on the cover. They’re buying the cover and probably few are even glancing at the back to get a taster of the most vital part. It’s the equivalent of buying an album with a different recording artist on the disc. That would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it?

It’s impossible to write a blog like this without coming across as bitter but I’m after something more basic here – sanity. Aren’t books about unique voices? It’s why I have a rack of autobiographies on my own shelf. Aren’t books about being in the expert hands of a storyteller or being enticed by an engaging synopsis on the back cover? Covers are important but ultimately they’re eye-catching, complimentary packaging and not the sole reason a discerning reader takes a gamble on a new name.

Discerning is a very relevant term here. I don’t blame the ghostwriters. Its well-paid work and bizarrely the only way some authors can get their work exposed. I also don’t blame the publishers. People will buy these books – in greater numbers than they will established writers, let alone new writing talent. But it can’t be the readers fault, can it?

Question is, are these readers the sort of individuals who normally go for a Trollope but instead this Christmas decide to plump for a McCutcheon? Any discerning reader will surely grimace as they pull something so manufactured and soulless off the shelf.

Is this a new breed of 'X Factor' reader and do the books actually get read bar the first few pages? And does it matter about this new breed if there are still the same amount of readers buying genuine fiction? The answer is - I really don’t know. The fact that people part with their hard-earned for these ‘books’ beggars belief. Let’s just hope it’s a trend that is as transitory as the careers of the celebs who have agreed to put their names to them (and we can’t blame them for making hay while the sun shines). If it isn’t it means that the careers of talented authors who exist only to write and not monopolise every form of entertainment will probably have as much longevity.

Somebody – other than a real author – has got to step up soon and tell the emperor that he’s butt naked.

Thursday, 5 November 2009


Matt Lynn posted about ghost writing, where books purport to be written by authors who often haven’t even read them. One high profile celebrity expressed surprise on hearing about something included in her autobiography. ‘Oh, did they put that in?’ she asked her interviewer. (Sorry if I’ve mentioned it before – it creases me up every time.)

It is common knowledge that publishers buy places on best seller lists, chalk up ‘sales’ of deliveries to bookstores, even when the books are subsequently returned unsold – the whole industry is, like other industries these days, a charade based on image and appearance. The reality of the substance behind all these shenanigans is very different to the show. We live in an age of appearances.

So it should come as no surprise to learn there is a website offering “honest and heartfelt reviews of your book” on amazon. “The average self published book sells less than two dozen copies in its lifetime, leaving the author in debt, and the millions of potential book buyers oblivious to the valuable information included in the book” this website tells us. Well, OK, part of that is probably true. Not sure about the “millions of potential book buyers” though . . .

“The time has finally come where you, the self published author, can get quality, real life book reviews” the website announces. This claim is substantiated by genuine testimonials. One satisfied customer tells us his book “now sells thirty copies a month”. His amazon page has “no customer reviews” so the reviews he bought are not only effective, they are invisible! It truly is miraculous.
Another author is quoted as saying “I wanted you guys to know that when I read your reviews I cried like a baby. At last someone gets me.” It’s good to know that, finally, someone appreciates her genius - and it only cost her a few dollars.

Not only does one review cost just $15, it will be posted on amazon “within a week”. And all the reviews are “quality, real life, honest and heartfelt.”

Like so many other legal scams, this review service exploits the delusions of the vain. Do these writers actually believe the praise they pay for is genuine? Not only are they fools, they miss the adrenaline rush of stumbling on a review posted on amazon. I’m always thrilled when I see another five star review of CUT SHORT on amazon. Admittedly I’ve never “cried like a baby” when I’ve read my five star reviews, but at least the reviews of CUT SHORT – unsolicited and unpaid for - are genuine.

So can we trust anything as genuine these days? I think I’ll stick to fiction. At least it doesn’t pretend to be true. And you can buy almost three of my books for the cost of one review . . .

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Ghosting for Slebs....

by Matt Lynn

Lynda La Plante created a stir at the recent Specsavers Crime & Thriller Awards with an attack on 'celebrity' fiction by the likes of Katie Price, Martine McCutcheon, and soon, heaven help us, Cheryl Cole.

She chewed up the assembled publishers for spending their money on 'drivel' rather than supporting real authors. "The publishing industry is going to implode. They can't pay the millions to these celebrities," she complained.

In the Telegraph, Nigel Farndale wrote a perceptive piece about her attack, arguing that ghost-writed rubbish for Slebs was as likely to put off young people from reading as encouraging them. And Martin Amis is planning to make Price a character in his next novel (I'm looking forward to that).

One point that people miss however is that ghost-writing is far more common than people realise. And the readers are, essentially, getting ripped off.

In fairness, someone like Katie Price makes no pretence of writing her books. The ghost gets credit, and is well-known.

But, as someone who did a fair bit of ghost-writing before writing 'Death Force', I am well aware that is far more widespread than most people realise. Quite a few of the thrillers on the best-sellers list are ghosted by 'authors' who actually claim to the writers of the books.

That strikes me, looking back on the experience, as far more deceitful.

There is no question that the books are a lot worse than the writer could do if they were working under their own name. The first couple of books I ghosted I took quite a lot of care over. But after doing it for a about five years, I was just churning them out fairly cynically for the money. The 'author' couldn't be bothered with the book, nor could the editor, and, after a while, nor could I. The plots were full of holes, the characters weird, and the typos horrendous: in one of them, even the dedication was mis-spelt, although I was probably the only person who noticed.

So people are gettting a sub-standard, slap-dash book, that no one really cares about.

And it is very hard to see how anyone really benefits from that.

With another hat on, I spend a fair bit of time as a business journalist.

And one thing you notice that really distinguishes good businesses from bad ones is that the they care about making a decent product.

The publishers putting out sleb fiction seem to have forgotten that. I suspect at some point they will pay a fairly heavy price for that.

Friday, 30 October 2009


I wonder how many more people were drawn to this particular blog than usual because of the title?

Just picking up on Matt’s blog below – the Bookseller debate about violence in fiction is a fascinating one that, of course, has no definitive answer. Violent content is a thorny discussion because it’s always a matter of subjective taste. Nobody can realistically judge or regulate this – although certain people and organisations have tried.

Everyone has a different threshold but everyone has enjoyed violence on some level. So whether it’s the satisfaction derived from watching James Bond’s evil nemesis get obliterated along with his secret base, Jerry smashing a plank with a nail through it onto Tom's head or watching Leatherface chasing a victim with a chainsaw there’s no right or wrong about what is and isn’t permissible. It’s a personal choice.

Human beings have been enjoying violence since the days of the gladiators. We’ve come a long way since then and now most of us can do it within the confines of books, TV and computer games…a lot less messier in terms of cleaning up.

It’s been said that certain individuals have perpetrated acts of violence because of what they saw on TV. I could get into whether or not such disturbed individuals would have been triggered regardless and should we censor everything because of a tiny minority but that’s a whole different blog.

In such a censored country as the UK I’ve always thought it odd that books don’t carry certificates – after all there is some incredibly graphic literature out there and this isn’t limited to crime and horror fiction. Don’t for a moment think I’m advocating this though.

Maybe it’s because the sort of people who would want to enforce such a thing have no imagination and therefore wouldn’t see them as a threat.

But anybody with a potent imagination might agree that filling in the gaps deliberately left by a skilful author is a sure fire formula for creating scenes more unspeakable than anything on celluloid. It’s because the reader makes the material personal to them and this is something that can’t be done on the screen with any amount of special fx or explicit choreography.

There is an argument for viewer imagination. Take ‘Psycho’ and the original ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre.’ These were two of the most bloodless movies ever released but everyone at the time was convinced they saw the gore.

But books are a permanently creative form of entertainment. The reader is constantly creating a picture of the character, the backdrop…and the violence in their head and this is what a skilled writer can use to their advantage.

Some writers don’t use it well, however, and this is where the real question lies. Is the violence in context or is it a cheap shot to boost an otherwise lacklustre plot? It’s incredible what some people will find permissible when the story is intelligently written. Just ask Thomas Harris. He’s a respected writer who has ingrained some deeply disturbing scenarios with readers and moviegoers alike and I’m one of many who are thankful for it. Anybody who reads that sort of material doesn’t want to feel safe. And if it’s not for you – leave it on the shelf.

However, there is a trend in books and movies of late that tends towards graphic torture and frequently of women. It’s not my cup of tea but I don’t object to it on the grounds of taste. I object to it because it insults my intelligence – one of the worst offences in terms of literature or the silver screen. It’s facile and usually devoid of humour – the one sure way you can make some of the most outrageous ideas palatable.

When I wrote STOP ME I wanted to highlight society’s worrying fixation with serial killers and the insidious make believe world of the Internet that masks some deeply disturbed individuals. Ultimately I ended up writing a serial killer book and extracting entertainment value from it.

The cover of STOP ME depicts a woman tied to a chair. I've been told by more women than men that they like it (the cover - not being tied up. Although who am I to judge). Women die in it but not in excruciatingly graphic detail. Men die in it as well. I'm not going to apologise because it's part of what I hope is an entertaining story.

It could easily be pigeonholed as just another serial killer book but I sincerely hope other readers will enjoy it as a commentary as well as an accessible, twisty thriller (and from feedback sources this appears to be the case).

One of the most constructive pieces of feedback I’ve had about it was what one reader called my ‘restraint.’ On the other side of the coin, I had another reader who felt they wanted to read more about the victims’ jawbones being sent through the post. Both of these comments came from women.

Honestly, it's almost as if people (of both sexes) have minds of their own...

Horses for courses but as a writer you have to make a judgement about the balance of plot and violence in your book. If you strip away the violence, however creative, and find you have little left then it’s probably not going to significantly reward the reader. That’s not saying that nobody’s going to buy and enjoy it though.

But if you do decide to create subject matter that can be interpreted as violent, subversive or misogynistic then I think you need to be even more creative and intelligent. It’s the only way it will rise above the glut of material created by writers looking for an easy meal ticket.

Incidentally, blood on breasts was one of the biggest no-nos at the BBFC. Who the hell decided that?

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Is Crime Fiction Too Sadistic?

by Matt Lynn

There's an interesting debate going on over at The Bookseller. The reviewer Jessica Mann was reported as saying she was giving up reviewing the genre because she was fed up with "outpourings of sadistic misogyny" that now characterises so many crime thrillers - although, in fairness, Jessica points out out later on that she is only giving up on those kinds of books, not the entire category.

Still, it's a debate worth having, and one that authors should take seriously. At some point in the last decade, the crime genre seems to have transformed itself into a 'serial killer' genre. A lot of the poster campaigns you see for books these days appear to be designed to be as gruesome as possible, and may well be putting off as many people from the genre as they attract.

I don't have anything against violence in books myself - and I don't suppose that someone who has written a book called 'Death Force' is in any position to complain about it. It has always been a big part of the crime and thriller genre, and there are good reasons for that. We are all fascinated by death. And, of course, it is only life and death situations that really create the necessary drama and tension that writers are seeking to create.

There are two problems, however.

Much of the crime genre appears to have slipped into a kind of torture porn. The crimes get more and more horrific, much of it dircted against women and children. I'm not convinced that is either healthy or wise.

Next, it isn't really very realistic either. Unless I've missed something, this country has hardly any serial killlers. The US has a few more, but not that many. At yet the bookshelves are groaning with serial killer stories. They aren't reflecting the world around them.

I wouldn't want to dictate what people should write about. But I can't help feeling that Mann is onto something when she complains that the genre is disappearing into a ghetto which, while it may do something for a minority of readres, alienates the mainstream audience.

Friday, 23 October 2009


There’s one common emotion that a lot of writers experience when they’ve finished a manuscript – anticlimax.

Never quite the streamer and champagne affair that they anticipated, they then immediately begin to consider how it’s going to be received and, if it is met with a positive response, how many more drafts are going to be needed.

I do try to celebrate the moment. After all, it’s the place you fantasised about being at months previously. It’s also the hardest part of the work done…isn’t it?

I’ve just finished the second draft of my new, stand alone thriller and it necessitated a lot of new work. Some the agent requested, a lot of it self-imposed. The deed is done so a triple gin martini will be forthcoming. But as I’m spiking the olives, I’m already thinking about the final polish that I’ll give it before emailing it.

But every draft is an improvement and if I can get everyone as fired up about this one as I did STOP ME then I’m looking forward to an opportunity to enhance it. I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have read my first novel – via MY WEBSITE and Twitter - and I’m starting to get a feel for what pops their corn. Now I’m asking: Are there enough twists and turns as my previous novel? Is it as contemporary? Is it as dark? Does it move fast enough? My agent and publisher will have myriad responses to these questions over the next few months I’m sure.

And after it’s been edited, polished and proofread and if/when it’s published there’ll be a lot of readers with a different take on whether I have actually ticked all the right boxes. But at some point in all this there’s got to be a celebration. So why the hell not now? Cheers!

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Author's Websites.

by Matt Lynn

I've just been getting the Matt Lynn website re-designed. Fire Force is out next February in hardback, then in paperback in May, and I wanted it to be re-done to reflect the fact there were now two books in the series to promote. And, of course, is has to be flexible enough to incorporate the two more books in the series that are scheduled for 2011 and 2012.

But it set me thinking to what author's websites should be trying to do.

I don't really share the general gloom about the books business. People have loved stories for thousands of years and aren't going to stop now. Unlike newspapers, which are in serious trouble because the internet has taken apart their whole way of delivering news, electronic books don't offer any real advantages over the traditional printed sort. But that doesn't mean we don't need to change.

The web is changing the relationships writers have with readers, and our websites need to reflect that.

We need to be a lot closer to our readers, and allow them to talk to us. We need to provide more details of the story, extra information such as research materials, background on the characters, maybe free short stories. We also need to unpeel what we are doing, so that readers can take a look at how the books gets put together, and comment or criticise if they want to.

What we don't want to do is just put up marketing blub, or expect people to download and read extracts. The web is all about conversations, not broadcasting.

So far my website is pretty standard. But over time I want to expand it and develop it, so that it fits in as part of whole experience of reading the Death Force books. Our websites will be the main way we get closer to our readers, and make them part of a community, and that is the way we'll stay in business.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Sex, guns and inspiration

One of the great joys of writing thrillers is the astonishing generosity with which people share their time and expertise. Over the past few years of writing the Carver novels, I've asked pilots to tell me how to sabotage their own planes and helicopters. I've had professors tell me how to make an atomic bomb. An ex-Marine who now runs a Nordic ski centre enabled me to send Carver off to the frozen wastes of Northern Norway without ever leaving the comfort of my cozy study. The enthusiasm with which people contribute ideas and information never ceases to amaze and delight me.

Last Friday it happened again. I'd had an idea for a scene in the next book in which Carver goes shooting on an English country estate. I have never done this. I have not even fired a shotgun in my life. I was chatting about the scene, and my technical shortcomings in writing it, to my landlord Jamie Allday, from whom I rent my office-space.

'I know just the chap to help you,' Jamie said, explaining that his cousin was married to a man called Jonathan Irby, who is not only a superb shot but also the General Manager of the West London Shooting School. Founded in 1931, the school is based at what must once have been a rural retreat, right next to Northolt airfield, in the outer suburbs of London. The school offers private tuition at £101 an hour, as well as a series of outdoor ranges which replicate pretty much every form of game shooting you're ever likely to encounter in Britain. Needless to say it's incredibly popular with the corporate-event crowd: makes a change from all the lapdancing clubs.

Anyway, I explained my idea for the scene to Jonathan Irby. My aim was to describe a very traditional, upper-class and (supposedly) civilized event in such a way that it became as exciting and tension-filled as one of Carver's usual violent action sequences ... with a strong dash of sex added to the mix as well.

Jonathan totally got what I was after. For starters, he explained all the basic technicalities: the different types of guns involved; the various targets; the significance of terrain and weather conditions, etc. But as well as that, he came up with specific incidents, likely to happen on a shoot, that would increase tension, or reveal aspects of people's character and state-of-mind. So he was just as inspirational in terms of the actual narrative as he was with all the backdrop to it.

After a fascinating morning, which was a pleasure in itself, I came away buzzing with ideas for the sequence. I could see exactly how it would play out over several thousand words. In fact, I can't wait to stop writing this post and get on with my new scene.

The times when the well seems to have run dry for a writer are utterly miserable. But day like Friday remind me why it is that, despite all it many drawbacks, I do still love this job.

Thursday, 15 October 2009


The Internet is a pretty unquantifiable entity and it’s difficult to gauge how much of an author’s efforts to promote their book online actually translate into worthwhile results. There are so many cracks for your hard work to fall down and it’s very time consuming. A little like writing the book in the first place.

The accepted wisdom is that Internet publicity is good even though there are plenty of pitfalls and horror stories. A writer friend of mine went on a virtual tour to promote his book, launched a competition and ticked every conceivable cyber promo box only to watch his sales plummet lower than they had before.

But every now and again it can surprise you. In the last week I’ve been sent links to two pages that featured my book. This one (second one down) was a review of STOP ME that I was more than pleased with and this one materialised last night.

To use a rather laboured Frankenstein analogy – the Internet is an uncontrollable monster that seldom does your bidding but occasionally comes home with an armful of something sexy.

The real trick is balancing your time between feeding the monster and attending to more important surgery. I’ll stop using the Frankenstein analogy now.

I would say that writing is the most important thing, however, and if you don’t have time for writing and promo I would always plump for writing. After all, if your work’s not finished what is there to sell to (I’m hoping that’s not a real website but what the hell – click the link)

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

bargain books

I have heard readers boast that they never buy books from bookshops, and never spend more than fifty pence buying from amazon or charity shops. I have nothing against shopping in charity shops – I do so myself – or against online suppliers who are efficient and cheap. But for every book that is sold for 50 pence or less, a publisher loses their profit. There’s nothing wrong with publishers making a profit. There is a great deal wrong if they don’t.
3 for 2, buy one get one free, brand new books half price . . . we all love a bargain, but our gain is someone else’s loss. If publishers lose too much, there will be no publishers. Already the market is swamped with self published books. I don’t claim that all self published books are poor quality, or that all traditionally published books are superior. But, like the proliferation of television channels, more quantity inevitably dilutes quality. And publishers do set some standards. At the very least, they are hoping to make back the money they’ve spent producing the book.
We are moving towards a world where everyone can produce their own books, downloadable free. As for professional authors, they won’t have time to write, they’ll be busy working to pay their bills. There’s precious little money to be made from writing now. With no advances or royalties, the cupboard will be completely bare.
If you never spend more than 50 pence on a book – or even one penny as a reader boasted recently – bear in mind that you may be approaching the point of no return. Like lemmings, many readers are rushing over the precipice to a Brave New World where the book as we know it will cease to exist, lost in a morass of blog-like semi-autobiographical works of flaccid fiction whose prose has never heard the scissor snap of an editor’s keys . . .
We all like to feel we are getting something for nothing. Let's hope we don't end up paying a higher price than any of us bargained for.
Let's hope our careers as writers aren't...

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Fact and Fiction

by Matt Lynn

I was interested to read this story in the Telegraph this morning, about how well-financed the Taliban is from the opium trade in Afghanistan, because it touches on the plot of my thriller Death Force, which is about the attempt by some Army officers and mercenaries to make the Taliban a bit poorer by robbing their money.

But it also started me thinking about the lines between fact and fiction and how thriller writers should handle them.

One of the things that I've also liked about the genre is the way it draws on real-life, taking stories from the military, from science, from finance or from politics. Of all the fictional genres, it is the most 'newsy'. Indeed, the best thrillers give you the same sense of immediacy and being close to the action that you get from reading a newspaper.

But, of course, it also creates problems.

A newspaper or website is real-time. A book is on a two to four year time cycle. If I start thinking about a plot right now, it will take a year for me to write it, and another year for it to come out, then a few more months before it comes out in paperback. Then you hope it survives on the shelves for at least two or three years. So someone could be reading it five years after you thought about it, and it has to still seem bang up to date and relevant.

Right now, I'm writing the third in the 'Death Force' series. It's called 'Shadow Force' and involves the unit of mercenaries taking on the pirates in Somalia. I had a discussion with my editor at Headline about whether pirates would still be in the news in 2011 when the book comes out. I reckon they will be, and I talked to a few experts to find out. The pirates, I reckon, will be in and out of the news for years to come (and it would be great if they could take a really big boat the month the book comes out).

But, of course, I can't be sure of that. People might have lost interest by then.

It's really a matter of guesswork - and also trying to figure out what conflicts or stories will be topical for several years, and which are just transitory.

Friday, 9 October 2009


Was chatting recently online about editors asking writers to change their work for publication and how far a writer should or shouldn't go.

Juggling a desire to be faithful to your work and a desire to be published is an exceedingly tricky act. Obviously it’s down to individual scenarios but I think writers always have to bear in mind that having a book published is a commercial enterprise and that the publisher’s first priority is maximising the return on their investment. This means giving readers what they want – or what the publishers believe they want. If they are an established market force then it’s likely they have the sort of experience that can bring your work to the attention of a wider readership and you have to trust them at the editing stage.

However, the last thing any writer wants is for their work to be compromised so ultimately it’s a gut thing. You’ll know if what you’re being asked to change will alter your message or story so don’t be afraid to diplomatically debate anything that you feel conflicted about. Balance that with a healthy spirit of compromise, however. Every work benefits from an experienced editor and you should welcome the opportunity to improve the text and to give your book the best possible chance in such a heavily saturated market.

Fortunately, the changes I had to make to my dark thriller STOP ME were very small. It was more a case of making the facts as clear as possible to the reader and thankfully I wasn’t required to change the plot. The deadly spam email sent around the world by the Vacation Killer was an unusual way to start a book but the publisher was happy to go with it. There was a request for me to up the ante with the gore in the book – not necessarily to write more scenes but to amplify what was already there. The publisher felt that the reader would expect more of this from a serial killer book. I didn’t feel the story necessitated too much and added a sprinkling more as a compromise. My editor seemed happy with this.

On a lighter note, I used the names of restaurants I’d eaten at in New Orleans for authenticity but had to change them to fictional ones because the publishers were concerned about making the real businesses synonymous with serial killers!

Don't get tied up in knots like the Vacation Killer victim above. To win a signed copy of Richard Jay Parker’s breakneck thriller STOP ME just spot three headlines on his website and email them to him via the address there.

Just go HERE