Saturday, 28 February 2015

What if...

A question commonly posed to authors is: ‘How do you start writing a novel?’ This is often followed by questions such as: 'Where do you find your inspiration?' and 'How do you develop your characters?' These are questions I am frequently asked. With eight books out in the shops and the ninth one out this May, the source for my ideas hasn't changed. It can be expressed in two short words:  ‘What if?’

Although my narratives are flights of fancy, I present scenarios that could conceivably happen to anyone. What if your flatmate was a serial killer? What if your boss liked to commit murder in his or her spare time? I think the more credible a story is, the more frightening it becomes, so I make my narratives as authentic as possible, while doing my best to maintain the suspense readers expect from the crime genre. This is why I try to keep the police procedure in my books reasonably accurate. My fans in the police force are very forgiving, allowing fiction a little dramatic licence where the story demands it. So my Detective Inspector Geraldine Steel spends less time behind a desk working on budgets and expenses claims than might happen in real life, and more time viewing crime scenes and chasing after criminals.

Killer Plan opens with one of these ‘what if’ scenarios - a seemingly innocuous meeting. Caroline is sitting on a bench in the park watching her young sons play football. Her husband is at home, preparing to mow the grass. It's a quiet scene of everyday life… until Caroline inadvertently invites another character to tear her world apart.

Have you ever unknowingly met a killer in the park…?

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Judging Writing Competitions

Helen M Hunt interviewed me recently about the process of judging short story competitions. 

Tell us about the short story competition you are judging at the moment. How many entries have you had to read, and how did you find the process?

I am currently judging the 2014 Bedford Short Story competition. There were several hundred submissions, but I am not reading them all. A panel of readers chose a short list of ten entries from which I will select a winner. This is not the first short story competition I have been invited to judge. The process is always interesting, because I get to read some brilliant stories! 

For the CWA Debut Dagger Competition, I sit on a panel of judges. We read a shortlist of around a dozen entries chosen from hundreds of submissions by a large panel of readers. Last year's judges were two senior editors from major publishing houses, a leading literary agent, an independent publisher, along with myself as a bestselling author. We compared our opinions over lunch and reached a consensus. The discussion was fascinating, as we approached the reading from different viewpoints.

What appeals to you about the stories you think are worthy of winning, or being short listed? What sort of things are you looking for?
First of all, the writing has to communicate clearly, and have an impact right from the start. That is a prerequisite for consideration. After that, there has to be a hook. This could be an intriguing plot premise, an engaging character, or the lucidity of the prose. Any of these could draw me in and make me want to read on.

Is there anything that really turns you off a story? What should people avoid doing?
As with any reading experience, if the writing is confused, repetitive or poorly expressed, that would put me off. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer, you have to communicate well and engage your readers. Avoid cliches in your style, and stereotypes in characters. Plots should not stretch the reader's credulity too far, but nor should they be too predictable. It is a fine balance, and not easy to achieve.

Do you feel you can tell in the first few paragraphs whether a story will be any good?

What would your main advice be to people entering writing competitions, either for short stories, or any other sort of writing?
Enjoy the writing process for its own sake. If you don't love it, find something else to do. It's great to win a competition, better to be published, and even better to earn a comfortable living from writing fiction, but best of all is the experience of writing itself. 

Have you ever entered any writing competitions yourself, or would you want to?
I have not entered any writing competitions, although my publisher did ask me to write a short story for him to submit to a competition. We are waiting to hear how my story did. Since I am used to writing novels, I found the short story a challenge!

Thursday, 8 January 2015

On being a Late Bloomer

I've never discussed bloomers online before, but I suppose there's a first time for everything. An article in praise of 'late bloomers' set me thinking, being a 'late bloomer' myself. Here's the link
Our age is obsessed with the concept of age. Just about everyone in the public eye seems determined to resist or conceal the ageing process. Why? What are a few wrinkles weighed against life experience, maturity and the understanding that hopefully accompanies 'old age'. 
Shakespeare wrote of 'that which should accompany old age' which he described as 'honour, love, obedience, troops of friends'. Instead, our society regards the elderly with disgust and derision. Our young people show an unprecedented lack of deference or respect to their elders, and we are all expected to emulate youth. It is part of a wider issue. We no longer want to use obsolete technology. Youngsters insist on having the latest model of everything. Kids using last year's phone are ridiculed. Who ever tries to get a broken toaster fixed any more? Chuck it out and replace it. As Neil LaBute wrote, 'We live in a disposable society. It's easier to throw things out than to fix them. We even give it a name - we call it recycling.' And of course he goes on to say that we apply the same principle to our relationships. As soon as they stop 'working' for us, we quit. Separation, estrangement, divorce... what has happened to loyalty and commitment, seeing things through 'for better or worse'?
Because there always will be 'worse', along with the 'better'. Yes, it's better to be young and fit and healthy than old and physically weak. It's better for us as individuals, but why do we judge others for ageing? Because we do. Why does it matter? Why do we all have to meet some image of youthful perfection? Our teeth must be perfectly straight. Our hair can't go grey. We must strive to be popular and rich. What's wrong with crooked teeth? What's wrong with being shy? Why is it despicable to be ugly? Who makes up these rules and decides whose face is ugly anyway? 
I couldn't have written my books when I was younger. I hadn't lived enough or read enough. We all come to writing at different times in our lives. It doesn't matter. Unlike almost everything else in life, creative endeavour in any artistic field is a great leveller. When we read a book, we often don't know anything about the writer. We might gain an impression from the prose, but we could be wrong. It doesn't matter. When we write a book for others to read, or read a book someone else has written, we are human beings engaged in significant communication. That is all. And that is everything. 
I would have been proud to be a 'wunderkind', publishing great books before the age of 25, but I'm equally proud to be a 'late bloomer.' Age is immaterial. How we live, and what we do with our time is what counts. 

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Girl Online

There has been what we might call a little literary scandal over the publication of a new book for teenagers, Girl Online. To many of us - all right, us oldies - it seems fairly missable, dismissed in the Telegraph as a book that "even Winnie the Pooh might regard as a bit twee". But hang on - a young author's fluffy debut novel published by Penguin and reviewed in a national newspaper? 
To preempt any accusation of sour grapes, I should point out that I've had my fair share of media reviews. My latest book was number 1 in The Times crime review last month. So I am not griping about the success of Girl Online out of any sense of personal entitlement, or jealousy. As it happens, I am thrilled by the huge success my own books have enjoyed. I'm certainly not jealous of the public humiliation Zoe Suggs has suffered. 
I'm just slightly bothered about the issues it raises.
Girl Online has attracted attention from the media that many hard working genuine authors can never hope to receive. I use the work 'genuine' advisedly, because of course we all know that Zoe Suggs did not write Girl Online herself. When Penguin decided to put her name on the cover, they also decided not to disclose the fact that the book had been ghost written by a 'real' author. Their duplicity backfired, angering a lot of people. 
What on earth prompted Penguin to behave in such a cavalier and disrespectful fashion towards authors, books and readers? 
The truth is, Penguin probably don't care about the criticism, because Zoe Suggs has 6 million followers on her vlog, where she chats about fashion and girly issues. Enough of these young girls are buying Girl Online for it to be number 1 on the bestseller list on amazon, admittedly only in hardcover. Penguin expect it to be the number 1 bestseller for Christmas, and I daresay it will be. Teenage girls don't care if Zoe Suggs wrote the book or just put her picture on the cover of a book someone else wrote. They are fans, devoted in the way that only teenage girls can be. Penguin know what they are doing, and it's all about sales. They have come a long way from their original raison d'etre in the 1930s, publishing cheap paperbacks to ensure literature would be accessible to everyone, regardless of income. These days they are running a business, struggling to survive in the competitive world of publishing. Regardless of any rights or wrongs, Girl Online is a profitable project.
The cult of celebrity meets the cult of youth. It's a winning formula. It's nothing new. Shakespeare complained in 1601 about unskilled child actors taking work from experienced professionals. For "there is, sir, an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapped for ’t. These are now the fashion." Fashion, by definition, is ephemeral. Does anyone today know who those child actors were?
Instead of putting their efforts into promoting a transient fad, for a short term financial gain, Penguin would be better off supporting their many genuinely talented authors. Is Zoe Suggs (who isn't actually Zoe Suggs at all) really the best they can pull out of the bag as their Number 1 book for Christmas? They should be embarrassed. Publishers need to be working hard to introduce readers to talented new authors. If they don't, what is their role other than to make a quick buck?
If publishers simply try to cash in on current fads, they risk hastening their own demise. That is the real issue.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Evening at Waterstones Piccadilly

My name is on the list
Signing one of my books for David Mitchell
With authors Barry Forshaw and Howard Linskey
With my agent Annette Crossland

We all had a fabulous evening - really busy - with plenty of wine and mince pies! Thanks to Waterstones for looking after us so well. 

Monday, 10 November 2014

Criminal Masterminds!

It's official. I'm a criminal mastermind! Well, that's what the programme said, when I was booked to appear on a panel at St Albans Literary Festival. Fellow speakers James Runcie (ITV's Grantchester) and Ben Aaronovitch (Rivers of Blood and Dr Who) and I were kept deftly in line by BBC presenter Martine Croxall who controlled us criminals with admirable aplomb. I was very well behaved, following Martine's instructions to the letter, talking and giving a short reading. Ben Aaronovitch dived straight off the script and declined to read from one of his books. Of course we all forgave him, not only because he explained that he could not pronounce his characters' accents, but because he kept us amused with his account of his progress from bookseller to bestselling author. James told us why he set his Grantchester series in the 1950s. Along with some hilarious anecdotes, he discussed the moral dimension of his crime novels and offered some insights into the world of television from behind the scenes. As my own series are currently In preproduction, I wanted to take notes under the table.
After a lovely opening with live jazz as the audience packed the large auditorium, we each spoke about our work for around twenty minutes. Following another short musical interlude, Martine chaired a Q and A session, after which there was a different kind of queue as people lined up to have books signed. 
It was a real privilege to share the podium with three such luminaries of page and screen. I can confide from the green room that they are all three not only witty and highly intelligent, but charming and modest too. It was great fun, and the sense of camaraderie that sprang up between us felt very special. I could have chatted in the green room all night! 
All in all it was a wonderful evening - and the audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves too! 

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Browsing the web

A writer's (worrying) browsing history - all in the name of research

Whenever possible, I prefer to conduct my research by talking to real people. Whether I'm seeking guidance from a professor of forensic medicine, a police detective, or someone working in WH Smith's, so far everyone I have approached has been really helpful. Many of the details included in  my books are barely noticeable. Nevertheless, they are important, because they help create an illusion of reality. 

A market trader in one of my books has a stack of banana boxes in her front room. Only someone working in a market would know that these are the boxes favoured by stallholders, because they are strong. Although readers might not be conscious of that tiny detail, yet the scene would seem authentic to any market trader reading the book. This is just one example of the care I take to create the illusion that the world of my books is real. 

Like anyone involved in writing, I also research on the internet. It never ceases to amaze me how much detailed information is readily available online. In fifteen easy steps, with pictures, you can learn how to handle a gun. You can find out how to blow up a car, or rob a safe, or how to obtain fake documents.

Browsing the internet feels safe, but in reality the activity is a two-way process.  Recently a man was, quite rightly, prosecuted for posting a racist comment on twitter. If the comment had been made in a pub the speaker might well have been punched in the face, but he certainly wouldn't have ended up in court. We've probably all said something offensive, in private, but posting an offensive comment online is very different. It's out there in the public domain and you can't take it back, or claim to have been misunderstood.

So what is the position with browsing histories on computers? What I do at home is my own affair. It's no one else's business. My browsing history is private, and hidden from other people. At least that's how it seems. But it remains accessible to anyone who wants to look for it. Even if it's deleted, the information can be retrieved. Like leaving invisible traces of your DNA just by breathing when you enter a room, every search you make on a computer leaves a footprint, some of which might, potentially, land you in trouble. 

Of course it's possible to click on an unsavoury website by mistake. Although it may not be not easy, it's possible. But what about a browsing history that shows its user has regularly searched for questionable material? From poison to paedophilia, guns to gambling, torture to terror, homicide and horror, murder and misery, drugs trafficking, people trafficking, my browsing history includes research into many seedy and illegal activities. 

Writing  this post has started me wondering... What if someone put a writer in the frame for a crime that involved material the writer was researching? The police might reasonably treat the writer as a suspect. Perhaps, on balance, it's safer to carry out research by speaking to real people! 

And now I'm off to delete my browsing history on my computer, as far as I can... 

Links to all my books - the results of my research - can be found on Leigh Russell website

Leigh Russell website