Post originally published on Literarily Speaking on 13th November 2017 (link).
The Book That Changed Everything
I grew up in Croft, a small village in the north west of the UK, a stone’s throw from Manchester. Only 3,000 people lived there, and it was a sleepy community bordered on all sides by farms. Once a year, they had a village carnival that the whole calendar seemed to revolve around, and the village sports field was covered in small tents of bricabrac sellers, tombola stands, coconut shies, donkey rides, candy floss machines and a beer tent. When I was 12, I had two pounds pocket money from my Mum and Dad, and after gorging on sweets and pop, I ended up at a charity book stand, where stacks of tattered paperbacks sat, each stickered with a price tag.
I saw a copy of Peter Benchley’s ‘Jaws’ for 25p, and having seen the film, I grabbed it (along with a copy of Tom Clancy’s ‘Patriot Games’, which I hadn’t seen and still haven’t got round to reading). Two years previously, Jurassic Park had come out and had blown my mind to smithereens, and I’d watched all the Spielberg movies I could get my hands on. Jaws was one I’d re-watched fairly recently, so the chance to read that same story was one I was not going to miss. I remember that same Saturday night, reading it in bed.
It changed everything, for all sorts of reasons. It was so apparent from the opening paragraphs that this was a different kettle of fish to what I’d been reading previously (no pun intended but I’ll take it). This was an honest-to-God grown up book, for adults. Not for kids. And at twelve I was reading it – I felt like an utter king. I had never read an adult fiction book before, but I knew my thirst for reading had taken me almost to the limits of what kids fiction at the time had to offer.
Two pages in, and it had gone hugely visceral. There was an unapologetic openness to the blood, the matter-of-factness to the carnage that had me reading it three or four times in sheer disbelief. ‘You can actually write that?!’ I kept asking myself. My eyes were opening.
The story was going off in a different direction to the film too, and the characters were changed. The story was fundamentally the same, and again I was asking questions, knowing that the book had come before the film: ‘was Stephen Spielberg allowed to change things!? Can you do that?!’ My expectations of the fiction world was being blasted to bits.
And then, in the book, Ellen Brody had an adulterous moment with Hooper. I almost dropped the book – that was not in the film at all, but the way that the characters and their relationships had been drawn to this point actually had me feeling a tad sympathetic towards her. I was reading and learning about marital strife and alcoholism, and the darker corners of people’s characters that seldom see light. I am blessed to have had a very peaceful, very reliable and love-filled childhood, and this was eye-opening in the grandest of ways. It’s like the blinds to the rest of the world were slowly peeling back, and I could see certain things for the first time.
And then there was a sex scene. An actual sex scene, with the description of anatomy and actions and good Lord all the rest. As a late bloomer, this was pretty watershed. I hadn’t a clue what I was reading, the quaint images of what I’d learned in the rather stuffy sex education classes at school rendered utterly obsolete by Hooper’s frantic tryst with Chief Brody’s wife. I still shake my head with laughter thinking about reading that for the first time, reading the page with my jaw hanging and my eyes widescreen.
By the end of the story, and Quint had used a dead dolphin foetus as bait for the great white (again, way way more than what I had bargained for), all bets were off in terms of what fiction could give me. I could never go back to reading kids books, never. A new world was
opened to me, a world where darkness was explored and talked about, where happy endings weren’t a given, and the physical, bare reality of life was given voice. I was writing a lot myself at the time, but I know that nothing was ever the same after that. I still have that book, the one that means everything to me, and I’m sure every reader does too.
And you never know – if I had bought an extra stick of rock or bag of penny mix, I might not have had enough coins to take to the book stand in the first place, and may never have even written a book at all.
Writing From Your Gut – originally published at Lori’s Reading Corner on 27th July 2017
You need to have guts to be a writer, even right from the start. When you first sit down to write a story, it can be quite daunting. There are millions of books out there, telling you exactly how you should do it, ranging from how you should lay things out, to what pens you should be using, to what word processor is the best. You end up with a bucket-full of decisions to make before you even get to the actual important bit – the story.
But then comes more decisions, more and more books about what story decisions to make, what structures your story should adhere to, what direction your character needs to go. You can be so bogged down in the whole fear of the thing that you can forget the sheer joy of what you are doing. You are creating. You are making something. You are letting your mind build something that only you can decide how it will end.
But how can you make the right decisions and just enjoy the moment? Well, chances are, you’ve already got a fair idea.
Every single day we inhale fiction of some kind, whether it be in the books we love so dearly, the TV shows we binge on Netflix, or even that daft little story behind Candy Crush Saga. And the end result of this is, whether we like it or not, that we get a sort of schooling in drama, in terms of what works and what doesn’t. We develop an ear for it, just through immersing ourselves in it.
So, when you sit down to write your story, just go for it. Don’t be bound by formula or fear of doing something different. Write what feels right to you, and more often than not, if it feels right it usually is right.
I used to get so hung up on whether my characters and situations were too hokey, too contrived, too silly. I used to worry about making decisions for my characters, and whether their dialogue was corny. But then I learned to trust my gut and see what came out at the other end.
When I sit to write, I have the barest skeleton of where I’m going, but absolutely no roadmap. I set up a scenario, and usually have an idea for a scene I want to get to – but no initial thought of how to bridge the two. Then I start writing, let the words flow and the characters develop, and before long the story is making decisions for me, the characters are deciding what they should be doing organically, and you’re away. So much of the time, if you write from your heart and gut, I’m convinced that:
1. you will have a great time.
2. you will write something that in some sense works.
The important thing is to do it. Just let the shackles go, trust your instincts, write your story and go for it.
Once you’ve got those words on the page, those chapters all done, nobody can take that from you. You did it! Chances are, it won’t be perfect – but you’ve still got your story. You can change things any time you like, but what you can’t change is a story that doesn’t exist. You can’t polish something that just plain isn’t there. But you do have something you can work with.
It’s OK to have a detailed plan, but’s also OK to not have one, and it’s OK to wing it. But whatever way you approach it, just go for it. Write, have fun, enjoy the sheer happiness of creating something and be proud of what you’ve achieved when you’ve written it. And when you look back at what you did, I bet you sit there and say ‘you know, some of this ain’t half bad’. And that’s a start. You can work with that.
Trust yourself. Deep down, even though you might not feel it, you’ve got a fair idea of what you’re doing. Those guts you showed to write in the first place? Listen to them.
I think, when discussing the origins of A Wanted Man, it is important to establish a timeline. I’m now 34, and I first put pen to paper on a crime story set in Manchester when I was 17. I was a cinema nut, a real action movie junkie, and I loved to write. My English teacher at the time told me that my prose was too description heavy, and my writing was suffering because of it. That got me thinking about screenplays, and the economical style in which screenplays are written – I felt that the best way for me to tell stories, given my problems with over-description, was to go down that avenue. So age 17 I wrote a screenplay called Murder In The Name, which was a crime caper set in Manchester, with a family at war within itself.
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Let me preface this little brain-squeeze by saying that I can’t recall reading any satire before, so the finer nuances of the genre may be a little lost on me. I came by The Breaking Of Liam Glass through my wonderful publicist Linda MacFadyen, and liked the sound of what the pre-publication soundbites were saying – hinting at a crime story that is both very topical and darkly funny.
Having now read the book, I can agree with that assessment in abundance, and must point out happily that such comments only scratch the surface here.
The book is as biting as it is harrowing, as funny as it is dark, as prescient and on point as it is a parable for the modern human condition. I really, really enjoyed it.
I realise it might sound a bit grandiose to say ‘a parable for the modern human condition‘ but I found it a very engaging autopsy of the public’s various relationships with the media, the law and government, not to mention the public’s obsession with celebrity, fame and all the trappings associated.
It was also one of the tensest books I’ve read in some time, something which I wasn’t expecting at all – but as the story of Liam Glass unfolds, and the race to get the story out there begins, I found myself swept up in that same urgency. I loved it.
I think my favourite aspect of the book, is that it never once treats the reader as an idiot. We are in on the joke, lamenting and laughing at the sheer ballsy hopelessness of it all. We are encouraged to make our own mind up and rarely is anything black and white – for example, despite the actions of some of the characters being utterly despicable at times, I found myself simultaneously genuinely sympathetic. And, as someone in myself who has his own views of the responsibility of the media, this is no mean feat!
In summary, The Breaking of Liam Glass by Charles Harris challenged me in all sorts of ways I didn’t expect, but throughout I was constantly engaged, educated and entertained. If you want to try something different, I’d completely recommend this – and even if you don’t, there’s so much to enjoy here, that I’d heartily recommend it anyway.
I grabbed The Dry by Jane Harper on a whim, having seen that beautiful jacket and read half a line of the synopsis. I think I’d clicked BUY NOW before I’d even realised I’d done so. I’m a huge sucker for atmospherics, mysteries, fascinating locations and dark backstories. So me and The Dry hit it off immediately.
What I didn’t know however, was that the book has been lauded internationally for some time – I actually only found out that it was very popular indeed when I was in my local Waterstones and there were stacks of them all over the place. And immediately on opening the book, I could see what the fuss was about.
It was enthralling from the very first line, demanding to be read further. It is an expert example of the sort of thriller I love. The town of Kiewarra is as much a character as any human in the book, and I’ve never read something that is so wide open, so barren, so vast and subject to the elements, yet feels so darn claustrophobic. It’s somehow a choking void, a massive suffocating vacuum. It is a marvellous feat, and this atmosphere infuses the tragic, serpentine tale of what really happened to the Hadler family with such wrought tension and urgency that it was genuinely hard not to read it in a single, equally urgent, sitting.
Hugely recommended, and delighted to hear there’s a follow-up incoming!