How do you strike the balance between writing something you want to write and writing something that people want to read, in terms of the compromises you make, if any?
There are 3 or 4 genres I enjoy writing in. The trick is homing in on the commercially viable one(s). At the moment I’m adopting a scattergun approach but I hope readers will choose ‘my genre’ in time. During the writing process itself I’ve tried to consider US audiences (setting Slow Burning Lies in the US) and readers who are put off by swearing (Matchbox Memories and my work in progress). I’m not sure whether any of that counts as compromising – I want to write what I want to write, but ultimately I want people to read it too. It’s easy to be precious and forget that storytelling is an arm of the entertainment industry.
What excites, attracts or appeals to you about the genre(s) you write in.
Emotional reaction, hands down. Many genres (such as police procedurals or anything trendy) bore the boxers off me. I like fairly traditional stories that put a smile on my face, or bristle the hairs on the back of my neck, or bring me to tears. Hence I try to write like that too. If readers think ‘ooh, that’s a clever plot twist’ then you’ve lost; they need to be so emotionally involved they can’t think that straight.
Having said that, perhaps subconsciously I want to highlight injustices of one sort or another and that comes through in this, my beginner phase. I’m not sure whether to nurture those thoughts or stamp on them and just ‘get on with the story’.
Do you have a box, drawer, folder etc where you keep thoughts and ideas for future stories? Such as names you have come across, bits of dialogue, ideas, characters - even if you have no idea when you might use them?
I used to do a lot of this when I was writing short stories, and occasionally do now – usually on snotty scraps of paper or voice recordings on my phone. Less so now that I write most days and work on a single novel for months on end.
Getting into this habit is one of the often quoted ‘do’s of writing, but I think there’s a lot in the Stephen King philosophy: forget about the things you forget – it’s the ideas that you simply can’t get out of your head you should concentrate on, because if certain characters and scenes cling to your brain like stalkers to an A-list celeb perhaps there’s a good reason why.
How do you manage plot bunnies (ideas that invade your mind that aren’t usually helpful to the story you’re writing but breed like...er...bunnies)?
The glib answer is ‘I don’t put them into the stories’.
The serious answer is that sometimes ideas that sound unrealistic or even preposterous can be the ones that give your writing that original twist if you can treat them properly.
How much of you is in your characters? Which of your characters is the you that you’d most like to be? Or be with ?
Two answers to this (again – sorry).
1 - Of course, the character I’m obsessed with is usually whichever one I’m writing about at the time – it’s currently Susannah Zuckerman – ‘The Lucky One’. In spite of her ordeal she’s a strong, brave woman who’s led a very full life.
2 - I conform to the cliché of first novels being partly autobiographical. In 2010, like Ian Greefe of Matchbox Memories, I took time off work and went back to my hometown to look after my Mother, who has Alzheimers, while my father went into hospital. I’d already written a short story about a young girl who finds an abandoned baby and is haunted for the rest of her life by what happens next, so I put the two unrelated ideas together (a common writers’ trick). Of course, the experience merely gave me possible plot lines and scenes; most of the finished work is pure fiction.
Hence I still have a soft spot for Ian – the plan was always to write two sequels to Matchbox Memories, but I’ve simply moved on.
Do you become so wrapped up in your writing that your spouse wonders if they're married to you or one of your characters?
This is never really an issue as I don’t externalise my characters. The problem is that my mind is often elsewhere for days on end when I’m in the zone. Fortunately my wife is very understanding about my hobby/affliction.
What type of book do you like reading? Is it the same genre as you write?
People have a job accepting this, but for about 20 years I didn’t read any fiction – not one single word. My education and career has always been science and technology, I hated English Literature at school, and in my twenties I only read a handful of novels (mainly James Herbert, Tom Sharpe, and a few of those ‘Pan Book of Horrors’). I started writing fiction in my late forties (I still don’t really know why I did this – I’d just spent seven years renovating a house and was looking for a new hobby that didn’t involve me getting my hands burnt, cut or mangled), and soon realised I’d have to read fiction to be able to write it properly. I sometimes feel ashamed at my ignorance of fiction and wish I had more time to read. But between a full time job, writing, and all the other things in life I don’t get much time – and being a slow reader doesn’t help. But yes, I largely stick to the same 3 or 4 genres I write in, and I finish less than half the books I start.
What lengths do you go to to convince us readers that your book has the X factor?
None really. I hate self-promotion (as well as not having time for it). I don’t do the website/blog/twitter/facebook things – but I am starting to put more effort into book blurbs and covers.
In spite of often quoted advice to aspiring authors I do think the best form of promotions is to write more good stories – it’s also the most efficient use of my time because I get more product out there and develop my skills more quickly.
My marketing strategy is ‘write lots of stuff, make it as good as I can, and have faith that the reading community will do the publicity’. I know that’s not actually true, but it’s a healthy, honest philosophy for the long term.
How do you feel when a reader points out the spelling mistake(s) you have made?
Warm, because it’s selfless kindness.
What do you like most about visiting KUF/GR/forums?
Writing is one of the most solitary professions – which is ironic because unlike many other solitary professions, knowing and understand humans and their obsessions and power struggles is key.
Cyberspace (What an old-fashioned word that’s starting to be!) is a convenient way of squaring that circle. So, on a practical level KUF is an up-to-the minute knowledgebase for writes and readers, but beneath that is a community spirit. Those two virtues depend on each other so I value both equally.
What is on your near horizon?
I’ve just released ‘Easy Money’, an irreverent comedy that pokes fun at just about everyone who doesn’t like being poked fun at. It’s unlike anything else I’ve written and is a gamble as that sort of comedy isn’t currently fashionable. But that’s out there, so what next?
One of my titles – a short story called ‘The Lucky One’ – seems to have gone bananas in terms of downloads and reviews and I don’t know why. Most of the low reviews (and a few of the 5* ones) say it’s too short and would make a great novel. I’d always resisted this, thinking it would be going backwards and would betray a lack of imagination. However, while Easy Money was at the editors a few weeks ago I was itching to start on something else. I started a thriller about six strangers stranded on Exmoor, but it just didn’t feel exciting, so I thought a bit more about The Lucky One and realised those reviews were correct – that there is a lot more story to tell. I got about half way through a very rough first draft by the time Easy Money came back to me, and I’ve just published that so I’m about to get back to my old friend Susannah Zuckerman. And I’ve missed her – which is a good sign.
And after that?
I take a break after each draft of a novel which I use to toss around ideas for the next project. That might be the six strangers on Exmoor. Or it could be a thriller about a newlywed couple being chased across America by killers where the wife knows why but can’t let on to her husband. It could well be something completely different like sci-fi – I don’t know until I get my teeth into it.
My thoughts were that if Easy Money bombs I’ll stop writing comedy altogether after two attempts, but Matchbox Memories seems to have been discovered after a year out there so we’ll see.
Slow Burning Lies was – word for word – the quickest, easiest thing I’ve ever written, and it’s been by far the best selling, so I’m most likely to concentrate on that genre.
But I probably won’t write any more short stories – which is a shame – because they just don’t sell.
In the future I’d like to write more from a female perspective. I don’t know why – perhaps I’m just at a funny age, perhaps I’m on the turn, who knows?
Where can we find you for more information?
You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s about it.
Like my penname, I’m a bit elusive. Apart from my wife and two friends I never see anymore (and people I’ve met on writing courses), nobody knows I write. I like it that way.
Beyond earning enough to write full time I really, genuinely don’t hanker after riches – and I certainly don’t want fame.
I just want to write stories.