How to tell if you’re a Famous Writer….

First of all, forget becoming a bestseller: who cares about your sales and vast wealth? Your novel was turned into an inferior film by Hollywood, and more people watched it than have ever read your books. The publicity surrounding the movie caused a brief blip in your sales figures, as a few discerning readers sought out your back catalogue, but it didn’t last.

You’re not a household name and those that are often write inferior fiction that briefly satisfies some squalid urge. How many authors could the average dunce-in-the-street name anyway? And, most of those would be dead—classical authors they were made to read at school—putting them off reading for life.

No, what you need to happen to be really famous is to have journalists write about your sex life love life...they’ll gussy it up by pretending it’s about how your romances affected your writing, but what they really want to do is puncture your reputation as an intellectual to show you up as a lascivious beast or a repressed misanthrope or even kinky beyond imagination!

Most of these saucy tales won’t come out until you’ve been dead for a while—after all, there are libel laws—and some editors might have enough conscience left to avoid destroying a marriage or literary reputation.

Still, years later (or even as soon as you’re dead), your horizontal jogging exploits will be revealed. Books such as The Intimate Sex Lives of Famous People will include a few writers’ sexual shenanigans.

Readers will be amazed to learn that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a fetish for feet and that he agonised about the size of his penis, once whipping it out in a restroom to ask Ernest Hemingway what he thought. H.G. Wells was a satyr, rarely without a woman and many were young enough to be his daughter; he was shagging into his last year, dying at 80. James Boswell, famed as the chronicler of Dr Johnson, was always at it, often with prostitutes where he probably caught the gonorrhoea which killed him at 54. Before losing his virginity he used trees as sexual partners!

If thinking about this future exposure bothers you, remain chaste and preferably lead a reclusive lifestyle. That way, you could end up as a symbol for your country when they use your image on banknotes. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare have all adorned British banknotes. Robert Louis Stevenson appeared on a Scottish £1 note, while James Joyce was on an Irish tenner. Denmark chose Hans Christian Anderson for its 10 Kroner note.

I wonder how long it will be before J.K. Rowling appears on a British banknote…perhaps in the next century. As for her sex life, for the moment, we can only ponder who slytherined into her gryffindor and expelliarmussed! 

Storytelling: Education or Entertainment?

I’ve just finished reading Don Winslow’s The ForceIt’s a brilliant portrayal of a corrupt detective’s fall from grace. The book cover has heavyweight endorsements from Stephen King, James Ellroy, Michael Connelly, the Sunday Times, New York Times and Mail on Sunday.

Michael Connelly says:

“There is no higher mark for a storyteller than to both educate and entertain. With Winslow these aspects are entwined like strands of DNA. He’s a master.”

Image result for Don Winslow's The Force.

I can only agree, for Winslow knows his stuff, being a former investigator, anti-terrorist trainer and trial consultant. His previous seventeen novels are all well-researched, gripping and totally believable. Two have been filmed—The Cartel, and Savageswhile The Force has had its film rights bought by Ridley Scott.

It would be impossible for Winslow to write his true-life crime novels without mentioning the facts—reminding the reader of news stories, while they identify with the fictional characters the author has inserted into history. The atmosphere of fear and tension he creates is all the more credible for it.

In my own writing, I do loads of research to get facts correct—a lot of crime fans think they’re experts through watching such television series as the CSI franchise, which is wildly inaccurate a lot of the time. I love passing on knowledge, especially if it’s relevant to the story I’m creating, but there always comes a moment when I pause to think is this too much information? I’m writing a fictional story, not delivering a lecture.

I’ve certainly learned lots from fiction, including, as a boy, how to go poaching for wildlife. I’m a Nature lover, but all the same, was fascinated by how the labouring class defied their lords and masters to take gamekeeper-protected game birds and salmon. I wondered if such stories as ‘tickling fish’ were true. This is where the poacher lays on the bank dangling his hands in the water, waiting for a fish to rest above his palms, gently stroking its belly before scooping it up and out of the river. Years later, as a young man, I worked with a poacher, who took me poaching with him and I found that the tales were true.

Image result for trout tickling

As Margaret Culkin Banning observed

‘Fiction is not a dream. Nor is it guess work. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work of imagining will not stand up.’

Do facts ever cause you to dither as they become obstacles to your narrative?

Have you ever learned anything useful from a novel?

Clothing & the Author

This article in the New York Times made me consider how much I use descriptions of clothing to denote character:

Your Literary Idols and Their Wardrobes

How the writer dresses can all be a part of their brand, which is tackled in the book. I dread to think how I’d present myself, though I guess I could ape how my protagonist detective dresses, which is practically for the sometimes rough landscape where he investigates crimes—hence, he favours supportive walking boots, wax proof coats and leather jackets.

The British actress Beryl Reid said that she found how to play a role through choosing the shoes that the character wore.

Image result for wearing weird shoes cartoons

This approach makes sense, and it’s an oft-given piece of advice on how to judge personality.

Have you ever used clothing to indicate characteristics in your fiction? Do you dress distinctly, hoping to establish an image?

Tom Wolfe (keeping his local dry cleaning shop in business!)


Stories with a Message

In 2017, I wrote a 6,000-word story to enter in the Galley Beggar Press Short Story Competition. As with several short stories I’ve written, it started out as a poem.

Image result for galley beggar press

Based on a real-life murder, that happened while I lived in Atlanta, it was one of several pointless slayings that haunted me. A middle-aged family man, a hard worker without a criminal record and with no known enemies, was found sitting dead at the steering wheel of his pickup truck at a set of traffic lights on a remote industrial estate at 3:00 am. He’d finished work an hour before, and someone had drawn alongside and fired a bullet through his window and into his head. The engine was still running, the radio playing.

Responding to an anonymous phone call, a police patrol car discovered him. No attempt had been made to rob the victim, and with no witnesses, his murderer was never caught. Police theorised that he’d simply been killed because he was vulnerable. Perhaps a gang member was testing out his new gun for the first time. The slaying may have been incited by the 9/11 terrorist atrocities, which happened the year before, as there’d been many racially motivated attacks against innocent Muslims nationwide. But, the dead man was a light-skinned Mexican—simply in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people.

I wrote the story as a three-hander, from the point of view of the victim, the police patrol officers and the gang member who pulls the trigger. As I made notes for the story, sketching out a plot, I had the unsettling thought that this gloomy tale was just that—a depressing narrative with no redemption and no moral message. 

Then, I recalled a short story by my favourite writer of this form. Guy de Maupassant worked at the end of the 19th-century, and his stories are brilliant vignettes of avarice, cruelty, envy, suspicion and lust among the peasants and the gentry, Two Friends is set at the time of the war between France and Prussia, and is without mercy, simply describing what would likely have happened at the time. It’s worth a read:

Image result for guy de maupassant two friends

Inspired by de Maupassant, I went for a similar atmosphere with my short story. A matter of fact fait accompli recitation of a tragic event, without making a moral message.

My dilemma over what to do with Bullet At The Lights made me reflect on how I’d handled the tone of previous short stories and novels. It’s easier to take liberties in the short form, as novels are more hidebound by convention, especially when writing about crime. Sometimes, I’ve made oblique moralistic comments via my characters, but I haven’t been heavy-handed and preachy. Then again, the goodies, my police detectives, usually triumph over the baddies, though one committed suicide and another, a serial killer, may have escaped as his body was never found.

Amazingly enough, there was once a time with the BBC, back in the 1960s and early ’70s, when it was a stipulated regulation that in any crime drama the police always had to win—the villains had to be caught, punished and regretful. This led to some unsatisfactory tacked-on endings to scripts that had been believably well-rounded up until the point where the coppers made some miraculous breakthrough.

Sam Goldwyn, the Hollywood film producer, once said that “If you’ve got a message send a telegram.”

How do you handle the morality of your stories? Do sinners have to be punished, or do they get away with it? Writing bad guys is always more fun than portraying fine upstanding heroes—which is why so many have character flaws to make them feel more human.

Do you censor yourself, for fear of leading your readers into misfortune? I’ve done so a couple of times, with my crime novels, when I decided that I’d given too explicit instructions on how to throttle someone with a garotte, and how to make an improvised explosive device,

Artists of all types, but especially film directors, refuse to accept responsibility for what they’ve shown, taking the stance that it’s up to individuals to behave in a humane and legal manner. Have you ever worried that you were leading your readers astray?

What makes a story ‘literary’?

I’ve just finished reading Helen Cadbury’s first crime novel, To Catch A Rabbit, which was enjoyable. I’m looking forward to reading the follow-up, Bones In The Nest.

She’s been through a rollercoaster journey in recent years, with two books published and optioned for television series, but brought down by a fight with cancer:

Cancer, crime and turning 50 – author Helen Cadbury on the year which changed her life forever

Image result for cadbury To Catch A Rabbit

There’s an endorsement quote by Lesley Glaister on the cover. She’s a highly experienced novelist, and knows her stuff:

A rare find—a literary crime novel that you can’t put down.”

This made me wonder what makes a novel ‘literary’. There’s snobbishness about what one reads, with various interpretations made about the difference between genre writing and literature:

Literary Fiction vs. Genre Fiction | HuffPost

I write crime novels and enjoy reading within the crime genre. Some of the more literary authors I favour include Dennis Lehane, John Connolly, Michael Connelly and James Lee Burke. They’re literary because of their use of stylish language and willingness to unravel the emotions of their characters. To my mind, genre writing is more simplistic, with the action taking precedence over character development.

Helen Cadbury’s writing is literary because she tackles the thought processes of her protagonist, but it’s not that challenging to read.

Does that mean that literature has to be difficult to get through, but it has a density of meaning that genre writing lacks?

How do you define literary writing?

Posh words?

A preachy delivery by the author?

No great thrills in sight?


Free Proofreading Tool

Many writers use Grammarly to catch mistakes in their manuscripts.

This morning, I found another free online tool that hunts out dubious grammar and spelling. works well and catches glitches that Grammarly misses, offering more of an explanation as to why there’s an error.

Other tools can be found in the article How To Easily Proofread and Edit Your Own eBook, from the Digital Reader website, whose free newsletter is worth subscribing to:

How To Easily Proofread And Edit Your Own eBook | The Digital Reader

Write it like you stole it!

I’ve previously mentioned how plots, characters and whole stories get stolen. There are unimaginative dolts, plagiarists and organised fraudsters out there, happy to rip you off.

Even if you’re an honest writer, it’s still possible, indeed likely, that what you’ve created has been done before.

As it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9—

What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Where we get our ideas from is a mixture of memory, observation, imagination and sometimes appropriation. Even famous writers have filched storylines.

I’ve just read Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artistwhich I recommend, as it’s full of common-sense wisdom and has lots of thought-provoking quotes, such as this one from film director Francis Ford Coppola: 

We want you to take from us. We want you, at first, to steal from us, because you can’t steal. You will take what we give you and you will put it in your own voice and that’s how you will find your voice. And that’s how you begin. And then one day someone will steal from you.”

Austin Kleon’s website is worth a look: AUSTIN KLEON is a writer who draws.

Image result for austin kleon

I haven’t deliberately stolen plots for my five novels, but who knows where I got my ideas from? After all, I’ve read thousands of books in my 65 years, so I’m sure there’ll be similarities between my work and previous authors.

Subconscious plagiarism happens, even to a member of The Beatles:

40 Years Ago: George Harrison Found Guilty of ‘My Sweet Lord’ Plagiarism

Image result for stealing ideas cartoon

When Technology Intrudes

I’ve been writing crime novels for the last three years, set in dozy 21st-century Cornwall, but where modern technology constantly intrudes. Mobile phones, computers, CCTV surveillance cameras can certainly be used as key elements of the plot, but they also slow the action down, for I feel that I have to mention them, (or I’ll sound like I don’t know my subject), but I’d prefer to move things along with face-to-face questioning of suspects.

The same applies to forensic pathology and psychiatry, with offender profiling, all of which are crucial, but which involve masses of research for the writer. Thanks to series like CSI, everyone thinks they’re an expert.

I well understand why many crime writers choose to base their stories in olden times before everyone was connected. My second novel, The Perfect Murderer, was so stuffed with technology, that I set the third, An Elegant Murder, on untamed moorland, with no security cameras and where mobile phone reception is patchy. This returned my story to basic policing skills for my protagonist detective and was more enjoyable to write.

Image result for bodmin moor

I’ve been reading local crime writers’ novels, to see how they tackle the county and plot layout. Thankfully, for my future prospects, most of the best-known are long gone. It was reading one of the most popular, W. J. Burley, that emphasised how much things have changed in the last forty years. Burley wrote a series of stories featuring Inspector Wycliffe, which were turned into popular television crime dramas that are still shown on British television.

The novel I read, ‘Wycliffe and The Pea-Green Boat’ was set in 1975, and the detectives did their work without computers, mobile phones or security cameras. Most documentary evidence came through the post, or by police courier, if it was really urgent. In one hilarious scene, Wycliffe had to wait for twenty minutes outside the only phone box in the village, while a young man flirted with his girlfriend!

Image result for burley 'The Pea Green Boat' 

These were simpler times, and, it seems to me that it’s easier to tell a human story without gadgets constantly interfering. For one thing, explaining evidence gained from phone, computer and CCTV records means a lot of ‘telling’ rather than ‘showing’—something we’re discouraged from doing in writing.

Do any of you resent the interference of technology? Did you move your story to a bygone era to get away from it?

Imagine Pride and Prejudice set in modern times, with texting, Skype and social media! 

Inventing Words

I always send a message to my subconscious before going to sleep, asking my grey cells about what to write next, or how to tackle a plot problem. Sometimes, my brain makes useful suggestions to me in the night, as I turn over in bed. Other times, I attempt to access nocturnal ideas in the transition state between sleep and full wakefulness.

This morning, my mischievous noddle spat out one word—Thyssingness.

Puzzled as to what the hell this archaic-sounding word could possibly mean, I roused myself and went online to check. You won’t be surprised to learn that it doesn’t exist, though there’s a Thyssing Industrial Supplies in Victoria, Australia.

I think that my brain’s thesaurus got scrambled, but there have been plenty of authors who invented words that have since entered the English language. Charles Dickens coined dozens of words, such as the creeps, devil-may-care and flummox.

William Shakespeare: supposedly invented 1,700 words, including advertising, torture and summit.

Children’s authors have free rein to play with language. Lewis Carroll and Doctor Seuss invented plenty of nonsense words, as well as others that are commonly used. Dr Seuss is credited with inventing the word nerd, while Caroll thought of chortle for quietly laughing.

Science-Fiction and Fantasy authors often create whole languages for their worlds.

My Cornish Detective novels contain local expressions and words delivered in the local patois, which many readers won’t be familiar with, but they’re real words. For instance, holidaymakers who invade the county in summer, swarming around, are referred to as Emmets, which is Cornish for ants.

Have any of you invented words?