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!

The Last Cut, But A Great New Series

20170613_205420One of my formative memories in my fledgling writing career was at Bloody Scotland in September 2014, when, bumbling and in awe, I asked Danielle Ramsay to sign a paperback for me. I proceeded to go beetroot red as I pulled out more and more dog-eared books for her to sign, while she was a pillar of patience. She asked me what I did, and when I replied sheepishly that I had just got a literary agent, she was so bubbly and encouraging that long after the book festival was over, I would seek her out for advice and direction whenever I needed some.

Proving once again the now-ironclad adage that people in crime literature are just lovely, she was so effusive, thoughtful and helpful, and westill drop each other a line readily. She is one of the nicest people in the book world I’ve met, and one of the most important voices in my career so far. Her words meant the world to me at the time, and the books she signed for me are treasured. She was one of the first people I told when I signed my own book deal at the end of 2016.

And… she’s got a new book out! The Last Cut is the start of a brand new series (segueing from the brilliant Jack Brady series – check them out pronto too), and is her best and bravest book to date. I urge anyone who even has a passing interest in crime novels to check it out without delay. She tackles and analyses all manner of issues surrounding abuse and its effects, drawn remarkably from her own experiences – which makes the book for me even more of a triumph. It’s a breaking of chains, a catharsis, a confrontation – and Danielle explains it far better here than I could ever paraphrase:

http://wwwshotsmagcouk.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/danielle-ramsay-says-write-what-you-know.html

The book follows DS Harri Jacobs, recently transferred from the Met police to Newcastle. She is still piecing her life together after a terrible assault a year ago, the after effects of which threaten to bubble to the surface – as bodies start to appear around Newcastle, and it becomes clear that a new dangerous killer is stalking the young women of the city and is subjecting them to abysmal horrors. Harri’s past and present intertwine in a constantly surprising plot that will have your skin crawling and your fingers peeling the pages.

My gratitude to and admiration of Danielle is a constant given – it just so happens that she writes great books too! The Last Cut comes hugely recommended, and you can grab it here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01LZUGJTW/

 

Two hauntings, two very different deliveries… two great reads

Every now and then a thirst for a scary story rears its ugly head, and I take a break from my usual crime novel inhaling to satisfy it. The last two I’ve read have both been so good, yet so markedly different, in the way that the authors have decided to set up their fictional world, and deliver the hauntings themselves. Sometimes when I read ghost stories etc, I feel a little deflated that the same old tropes have been fallen upon again, and rarely am I surprised. Both of these books elevated way beyond this, were original, fresh, beautifully written and very unsettling, and were the best two ghost stories I’ve read in quite some time.

Dark Matter is set in the 1930s and the period vibe provides an authentic, antiquated setup to proceedings. It’s a very real world, muddling along in between World Wars, the class divides as pointed as they have ever been, before the action moves from London to Norway, up in the arctic circle, where the light is fading fast and months of darkness approach. The haunting itself is gradual, teased, suggested, and ultimately beautifully told by Michelle Paver.

This is the story of a man so gripped by the desire to prove himself to his peers that he’d rather encounter the worst in order to do so, and before long, the worst indeed comes to find him. The spirit or force is a wonderful creation, and the story behind it genuinely affecting. The descriptions of the apparition itself are a wonderful mix of vivid and suggestive, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks around a few very unsettling details. Between a genuinely interesting force of evil, and a unique setting and time period that creates its own set of problems and parameters for our protagonist to overcome. The overall impression I was left with was of an expert, economical, unique ghost story that was unlike anything I’ve come across, told with a near hypnotic control of the reader. I couldn’t look away, nor did I want to. Superb.

On the other hand Hex, by Thomas Olde Heuvelt, takes a tried and tested formula (or at least the formula that worked so well for The Blair Witch Project) and throws the reader a monumental curve ball. Yes, the ghost witch exists. Yes, the protagonists know. Yes, the town of Black Spring is haunted.But they all have to get on with their lives somehow, and eke out a modern existence in a small town with a giant haunting secret. The witch could show up at any time, ruining your dinner. If the witch appears in an inconvenient spot, just put a sheet over her and go about your business. It’s a setup that I’ve not come across – one where the characters are almost jaded/bored by being haunted. This isn’t the world of ‘is there anything out there?’ – it’s more the world of ‘we know there is something out there but we just have to carry on’.

As a story set in the modern era, Heuvelt brings a laterally thought approach to how an acknowledged legitimate haunting might work, if people had to accept it and carry on with their lives. It’s the secret of the town and it always has been. If the rest of the world were to find out, all hell would break loose. But the town needs trade – it needs visitors and commerce in the area, and that involves outsiders. So the council of Black Spring have created a thoroughly believable smartphone app, managed by an in-town security setup, that lets residents log witch sightings/behaviour so that the town can plan their lives appropriately. It’s nothing short of genius, and exactly what you can picture happening if this were to actually happen in the real world. In that sense, it’s wonderful to see the story play out in such a well-thought out setting, because everything from there feels real and believable – something not always achieved in ghost stories. The motivations of the witch, and the behaviour of the witch, is as unsettling as anything I’ve ever read I think, yet Heuvelt still manages to make her a sympathetic figure. In doing so, he creates a fable about acceptance, social responsibility, love and bullying. It was another storming read, one which I couldn’t recommend high enough.

So you’ve got Dark Matter which takes a more traditional approach of creating a normal world that has elements of the supernatural invading it, then Hex which takes an all new (at least that I’ve come across) approach by having the supernatural elements very much a part of the world we live in (while it being delivered not remotely like a fantasy novel). Both were enthralling, both hugely believable on their own terms (with the help of a little imagination) and both just what I wanted when it came to scratching that ghost story itch. Recommend them both highly, and would love to hear about more fresh ghost story novels out there.

A pint of the black stuff…

The Sean Duffy series became a favourite long before this sixth instalment, but this could be the best yet. Now a firm calendar highlight, the release of a new Duffy book guarantees a darkly funny, gripping ride with a cast of characters that I now find indispensable.

For me personally, Adrian McKinty is a close to literary royalty as it gets, and he consistently delivers the kind of prose, plots, twists and dialogue that have me in awe every single time. Whenever I am asked for my list of authors who inspire me, his is the first name out every time.

I took Police At The Station And They Don’t Look Friendly with me on a little trip away to Copenhagen with my wife – our first just the two of us since our first daughter was born seven years ago. I don’t think my wife got more than two words out of me on the flight over, and I think they were ‘coffee, please’ (she’s a good ‘un, she really is). Entranced is the word.

I finished it sometime in the wee hours of our second night there – and was immediately gutted it was over. Duffy now in his late 30s, wrestling with fatherhood and his career, not to mention all the parties whose feathers he has ruffled in the previous five books, is a stone cold hero of modern crime literature – an ace, layered, caustic, witty protagonist that you’d just love a pint of the black stuff with. I can’t wait to see Duffy shell-suited to the max in the nineties, tackling banking corruption and financial collapse in the noughties and doing, well, who in the merry hell knows what with Brexit and Trump when he eventually gets to this decade.

If you haven’t found McKinty and the Duffy books yet, please get your act together sharpish. You will not be disappointed.

From Bloody Scotland to Deep Down Dead…

When Deep Down Dead was first published as an ebook in October, I managed to convince myself to wait for the paperback in early January. I was very excited to read it, and had been for years – so I thought a couple more months couldn’t hurt.

Then the reviews started coming in – five stars upon five stars, with some of the biggest names in crime writing on both sides of the Atlantic weighing in with heavy praise and before I knew it, I was bursting to read it even more. The paperback couldn’t arrive quickly enough.

The reason I was so excited is because I was actually present when the book was pitched as part of the Pitch Perfect contest at Bloody Scotland 2014 (a hell an event, by the way). I sat there (having just signed with my own literary agent, tentatively dipping my little toe into the literary waters) and listened in awe as Steph Broadribb span a fascinating yarn about a female bounty hunter in Florida, drawing from her own experiences training as a bounty hunter in California – I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was a book I wanted to read immediately.

Prior to that event, and for a good year after, I never once made the link that Steph was in fact Crime Thriller Girl, the popular crime blogger whose reviews, articles and recommendations I had always followed and enjoyed. It was only when word started to get out about ‘the book with the female bounty hunter in Florida’ that the penny began to drop. I was thrilled and delighted to hear that I was actually going to get to read that exciting story, that Steph was going to be published, and that that same story that got me hooked in that pitching contest was going to be her debut.

Regarding the book itself, there are far more eminent crime writers out there whose words carry far more weight than my own – but I just love what Steph has done, how she has delivered it, and what a great series (I hope!) she has set up. I’m fully invested in Lori Anderson, JT and Dakota, and am so excited to see what happens next. If you like your thrillers fast, urgent and gripping, with a great, fresh, relatable protagonist, in a setting that drips with intrigue and genuine authenticity, then Deep Down Dead will be right up your street.

As I’m learning, in crime publishing you tend to find just the nicest people – and Steph is no exception. She has been so kind, generous and encouraging towards myself, in ways that I never expected or assumed.  Make no mistake, Crime Thriller Girl is one of the good guys… and to see this book go from beginning to such a spectacularly successful end is so very pleasing.

Arrival, and how sometimes the little things are even more important…

I’m pretty sure that, on Friday, I saw one of my favourite sci-fi films of all time, and in no way was I prepared for it.

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Arrival has leap-frogged so many classic films to get to the head of the queue (or almost – I can’t quite decide if it’s top spot or not).

For a start, regardless of genre, it is streets ahead of your average Hollywood filmmaking, in pretty much every category:

It is beautiful – the sight of the alien crafts just hovering above a shroud of mist, so matter-of-fact, yet so full of gosh-darn-it wonder, gets you every time.

The scale – it somehow manages to be both a global epic and a keen micro-drama, balancing both with a deft nuance. The world was at stake, but I’m caring about the little things. It’s a grand feet pulled off with aplomb.

The acting – universally superb, real and personable, with much more accurate-feeling portrayals of scientists than in other films of the genre.

The detail – nothing has been fudged here. The filmmakers have taken something that seems more of an inevitability in some ways (the discovery of alien life) and adopted a real world approach  to how it just might go down. It lends the film a level of authenticity that again the genre seems to struggle to usually provide. For an in-depth look at just how far the filmmakers went to make sure things were as realistic and well-thought out as possible, do watch this great piece by Science Vs Cinema:

It’s fresh – in sci-fi, aliens usually only ever visit to dole out bad things to us poor humans. I won’t spoil a thing, but everything about the aliens, their motivations and how we perceive them, is almost entirely new to me as a viewer. I loved it.

It’s hugely affecting – I think this represents the biggest departure from the usual reach of films of this type. I found not just the story, but its delivery and revelations, to be hugely affecting in ways that you have to discover for yourself. It will live with me for weeks. Desperate to expand on this, but so much of the joy to this film is about going in unprepared and unknowing – but the film poses questions that I find myself asking myself repeatedly. It isn’t trite, it isn’t cheap – this is real provocative, thoughtful filmmaking that pushes the audience into uncomfortable corners, through sheer force of reason and authenticity.

It was completely excellent. It is elegant, unexpected, affecting and challenging, and is definitely worth your time.