Writing From Your Gut – Guest Post For Lori’s Reading Corner

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.

Forget fear.

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.

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The Dry and its amazing claustrophobic openness…

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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!

A Wanted Man – FREE TODAY!

‘A Wanted Man’, is FREE today!

A Wanted Man
‘A fantastic read with brilliant characters… A perfect ending… did not see that coming. 5 stars’

‘one of the best books out the hundred I’ve read this year so far’

‘A great read from start to finish – highly recommended’

To grab your copy, head on over to Amazon – thanks always for your support!

A Wanted Man – published!

It’s with great delight that I can share the news that A Wanted Man, my debut novel, has been published by Endeavour Press. You can grab it here!

A Wanted Man is, simply put, the story of a soldier who was discarded, but still has more to give. I kept asking myself what it would feel like to give everything for your country, only to come back to find everything was different – including yourself. What would happen if you only have training for things that are of no use at all in regular civilian life? What do you do when you’ve grown up while fighting wars abroad, only for the fighting to end and you’re not needed anymore? When I posed these questions to myself, the character of Ben Bracken began to form in my answers.

When I was 17, I wrote a screenplay that was about a criminal gang in Manchester, UK, near where I still live today. It was profoundly formulaic, and followed similar tropes seen in countless movies over the years. I loved a good crime yarn, and wanted to write one – that was my simple motivation. But as I got older, I mulled over this screenplay time and time again, realising that something was missing. It was only when my own friends and acquaintances started to come back from Afghanistan, and I spoke with them about their experiences, did the penny drop. Their collective states, each varied, inspired me hugely, both in terms of my admiration for them, and creatively as well.

And then I thought about dropping an ex-soldier into that old crime screenplay I’d written. The possibilities suddenly seemed endless, and I was away. The creative process organically seemed to turn the project into a novel, as I started from fresh. Before long I was flying and in 8 weeks, I’d written the first draft.

That was late 2013, and since then I have grown immeasurably, both personally and in terms of my writing, and it’s with immense pride that A Wanted Man finds readers today. I really hope you enjoy it. I had a blast writing it, and there’s plenty more to come from Ben Bracken, mark my words.

My Sister’s Grave and where your moral compass lies…

Read this great novel, My Sister’s Grave by Robert Dugoni, and really enjoyed it. I grabbed it after seeing an advert for Dugoni’s latest, and wanted to go back to the start of the series – yep, I’m one of those. Can’t just dive in at any point, have to go right back to the start and see things through as the author intended. So, this is the first book in Dugoni’s Tracy Crosswhite series, and it will certainly not be the last Crosswhite adventure I read – principally because of the grand ethical question posed to the reader as the book reaches its exciting climax.

Without further ado… SPOILERS. Big ones. Don’t read on, if you don’t want to know!

Crosswhite is a Seattle police detective whose sister was kidnapped and murdered 20 years ago, and the whole case comes back to the surface when her sister’s body is finally found and things don’t quite add up. There is a man in jail for the murder, Edmund House, serving life, thanks to a guilty verdict based on circumstantial evidence and a rather inconsistent legal case. Crosswhite doesn’t think he did it,  thinks he was framed as part of a wider conspiracy, and enlists the help of an old friend, now criminal defence lawyer, to start in motion the wheels for a retrial. As the story progresses, the original conviction is unravelled, and it becomes obvious that a conspiracy was the reason House ended up behind bars, the local law enforcement and the victim’s father joining forces to put House away for good.

We as readers are so set up throughout to question exactly the motives of the conspirators, and get us questioning who may really have killed her and why. The motion for a retrial is so successful that House is immediately freed, the Judge appalled at the miscarriage of justice.

Then things start to go wrong. The original conspirators are attacked, and Crosswhite is kidnapped. Edmund House is revealed to have been behind it all along, and Crosswhite has inadvertently fought for the freedom of her sister’s killer.

And here’s the question, and where the tables are turned.

The conspirators reveal that they did frame House for the murder. House confessed to the crimes off the record, but it couldn’t be used in trial because of issues with admissibility. So to make sure that it couldn’t happen to anyone else, that the town could move on again after such a heinous crime had been perpetrated in its midst, the authorities made sure House was convicted.

By the time House was on the run again at the end of the book, and the truth had all come out, my own feelings towards the conspirators had gone 180 degrees, and now a couple of days after finishing it, they might have moved again to rest somewhere in the middle. Truth is, I haven’t a clue where I stand.

Do you go by the book, knowing you did the right thing but also knowing that you can’t stop further bad things from happening?

Or do you break the rules, live with the risks, and know that you ignored the traditional boundaries of right and wrong to make sure that overall good is the result?

I haven’t a clue.

I can’t possibly say that the police did the right thing… but I can’t also say for sure they did the wrong thing.

And that’s what I love about books like this in particular – books that challenge the reader, and make them confront difficult feelings of their own, make us make difficult choices and make us think about what would be deemed as ‘right’ in the most tragic and disastrous of circumstances. What is the cost of justice? What is the cost of doing the right thing?

It certainly made for a compelling read, and left me asking myself questions long into the night – and in that sense I could only recommend the book very highly. Haven’t a clue where Crosswhite goes from here, but itching to find out.

That rarest beast: a villain that is somehow evil AND sympathetic?

I’ve waxed lyrical on here before about my love of Ace Atkins’ Quinn Colson books, and am working my way steadily through the stories. Each one seems better than the last, which is quite some feat, but there is no doubt this is crime writing of the highest order, with a cast of characters that I now find utterly indispensable. However, while reading The Broken Places, the third in the Quinn Colson series, Atkins managed to do something rare, unexpected and, I would imagine, damn difficult – and that is to create a villain who is so awful yet so pitiable, that you can’t help feeling sorry for him.

There be spoilers ahead, so fair warning….

The book opens with two convicts (Esau and Bones) escaping prison, and heading off for Jericho – the town where our hero, Quinn Colson, is the sheriff. They’ve got business with Dixon, a convict turned preacher, who just so happens to be seeing Quinn’s sister Caddy. In basic terms, Esau and Bones pulled off a bank heist, and told Dixon where the money is hidden while inside. They head off to get their money, but believe Dixon has screwed them and taken the money for himself. So far, so very good indeed.

Esau is a foul, fascinating creation: a stinking, nihilistic hulk who shoots people in cold blood for next to no reason. He’s a user, a man of extreme violence, a thief and a bully… BUT… his character is multi-layered in the darkest of ways. I can’t recall him doing a single ‘nice‘/redemptive thing in the entire book, but I still couldn’t help feeling sorry for him in a way at the end.

He has principles, that in his warped mind he thinks are enough to live by. He’ll kidnap a woman and child, hold them at gunpoint, but apologise for it. He still does the foul deed, but he doesn’t necessarily have to feel good about it.

He repeatedly accuses his ‘woman’ Becky of cheating on him and trying to screw him out of the money too, but soon apologises and shows genuine affection for her.

He looked after Dixon in jail, because he was being worked to death in the fields at the penitentiary, and Dixon got him a job in the cafeteria, thereby saving him. He worked with Dixon in prison while he started to preach, and began to feel close to God himself – all the while planning to bust out to get his money back.

He beats Dixon to a pulp when he thinks he’s holding out on him, even shoots him in the leg, but stops short of killing him, aware of how much Dixon helped him in jail.

He is a myriad of the nastiest contradictions, a man who exists solely on his own jet black terms. He navigates life according to a moral compass that only has the tiniest sliver of morality to it. As a villainous creation he is one of my utter favourites, in that he was wildly unpredictable, yet somehow relatable, on the most base levels possible.

This is no mean feat, and my favourite part about the book. A villain like this, who has conflict, is so much more interesting than a one dimensional ‘baddie‘, and it’s the little things like this that elevate books and crime writers to other levels entirely – not to mention inspiring other writers to try to bring something new to the table, and to challenge themselves and their readers. It has certainly done that to me.

Only almost 30 years late…

One of the problems of days only having 24 hours in them is that it doesn’t possibly give you enough time to get everything done. I’m not talking about the mundane day to day stuff, but more like, well… I thought I’d have mastered at least fifteen languages by now, and be a 7th dan black belt in something obscure and dangerous. And it means that oftentimes things slip the net.

Getting stuck into the works of Ian Rankin is one of them, I’m ashamed to say. A name that is essentially a byword for peak British crime writing, and I haven’t managed to get there yet… but thankfully I’ve managed to put it right.

I’m so glad I did. Rankin’s words have been dissected by hundreds of much worthier voices (and much more on-the-ball voices) but I can easily see Rankin’s work nestling in alongside my all time favourites and biggest influences. There is a bravery, a poeticism, an economical forthright darkness that had me enthralled. One of my favourite descriptions of Adrian McKinty’s work is ‘this is hard boiled crime fiction with a poet’s touch‘ (Peter Blauner), and that felt resonant here too – and it was reading Rankin’s praise of McKinty that reminded me I had to get onto Knots and Crosses, the first of Rankin’s iconic Rebus series.

In doing so I have found another mesmerising literary voice whose work I can’t wait to press right through. I have ordered the next ten Rebus books as a start. It’s not often I’ll be so impetuous but on this occasion I’ve no doubt it’s the right move.

Wait, is that the doorbell? Please be the postman with a sizeable book-shaped parcel…