On Writing


This week, The Guardian newspaper published this: Stop it, Sherlock! Five TV Tropes that need to die.

I wholeheartedly agree. Here’s one I wrote earlier.

(Tune in next week for chick-lit.)

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Only Dead Fish Have Open Mouths by Jed Blood

It’s Friday night in Greensville, Colorado. Apple-cheeked Melanie Mills is pretty tired after school and a volunteer shift at Kitty Corner, the homeless cat charity. But tonight is special. She has a secret. She tells her folks she’s studying with the girls and heads out for her romantic blind date.

I’m neither romantic nor blind, but I’m waiting for you, Melanie. Inside my head is a lonely place. Inside my pocket is a garlic crusher. Tonight is for Daddy.

Lauren Laphroaig (don’t try to pronounce it, honey, you’ll choke) is woken at 3am by the phone. On the other end is Detective O’Malley, wearing a shower cap on each shoe, shouting at civilians to stand back and chain-smoking cheroots. The mutilated body of an apple-cheeked teenage girl just washed up in the creek. Lauren sighs, swears and drags on a leather jacket. En route to the river, she listens to Miles Davis, snacks on a chili dog and regrets her inability to commit to relationships.

Chief Inspector Elmet Bird is at the scene when she arrives; besuited, livid and in urgent need of soundbites for the city council. Lauren rolls her eyes (because she’s feisty) and mimes ‘Bird Brain’ to O’Malley. Bird spots their sniggering and assigns one of his own to assist in the investigation. Travis C. Weed is a law-enforcement-consultant with an apricot tie and a handshake limper than wilted chard.

Pathologist Rita Ferrongut won’t hazard a wild guess as to cause of death, insisting on a full PM first. Lauren and Weed talk to Melanie’s parents (traumatic), her friends (dramatic) and the weird owner of the cat sanctuary (erratic). Weed takes everything in his stride and asks intelligent questions. Lauren notices his long eyelashes and warm smile but still hates his tie.

The morgue. Ferrongut is having lunch (sashimi, sushi and edamame beans) over Melanie’s eviscerated corpse. She offers everyone chopsticks, while demonstrating how the victim’s injuries were caused by kitchen implements, including an oyster shucker. Weed rushes out to puke. Ferrongut belches. Lauren sighs, swears and goes home for a hot shower.

Time to wash off all that death, grief and wasabi. Wraps herself in bathrobe, fills whisky glass, puts on Chet Baker, has bitter phone call with ex-husband. “Married to the job? Maybe. But I’d rather be married to something I care about.” She sighs, swears and sleeps on the sofa.

Detective O’Malley uncovers police records for Barry King, owner of Kitty Corner. The man is dangerous. So Lauren decides to investigate, at night, alone, with no phone. Oh, and it’s raining.

Stumbling blindly through the midnight-black catty-combs beneath the feline refuge, Lauren is whacked on the back of the head. When she comes around, she’s in a cage, gagged and tied with fish scales smeared on her face. Barry (call me Bar) King, with fetid tuna breath, unveils his master plan – the only restaurant in the world to serve human flesh.

Weed, worried, turns up at Lauren’s house. He finds her mobile and listens to the last message. Kitty Corner? That weird guy who smelt of Whiskas? Of course! He tracks them down and calls for back up. But waiting is not an option when Bar King  selects the Hiromoto Hacker from his knife block. Today’s Dish of the Day, with truffle oil and rocket, will be Carpaccio of Inner Thigh.

Weed mans up and bursts in, wrests the cleaver from the madman’s grasp and stabs King with a chopstick. With his last gurgling breaths, King explains he was abused as a child and only allowed to eat tofu.

Beside the corpse, Weed unties Lauren and wipes the scales from her cheek. Relieved, she holds him tight. Confused, he confesses his love.

Lauren sighs, swears and with one regretful lingering kiss, moves on to the sequel.

My fabulous colleagues at Triskele make me sound rather nice.

Thanks, gang!

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This is the third in our series – what each brings to Triskele Books.

http://triskelebooks.blogspot.ch/2017/01/triskele-author-feature-jj-marsh.html

Guest piece for Words with JAM magazine by yours truly, on magic book descriptions that work.
http://www.wordswithjam.co.uk/2017/01/how-to-write-killer-blurb.html

Ten steps.

Five of which happen before you even begin to write.

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Start with bare branches…

This week, I’ve been obsessing over characters’ names and why it’s so important to get them right. Just like plot, setting, research and characters, each requires a depth of understanding from the author which never makes it to the page.

What makes a name work? Here are ten things I’ve learned.

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Actors often quote a snippet of advice. Memorable names follow a syllable pattern. Three in the first name, one in the second. Jeremy Irons. Emily Blunt. Harrison Ford. Virginia Woolf. Cormoran Strike. Rosamund Pike. Atticus Finch. Orlando Bloom. Vivien Leigh. Beatrice Stubbs.

Names carry all kinds of coded messages and subconscious associations which can make a name become an essential part of the character. They must feel right, for the writer and the reader. Colours, animals, professions all trigger feelings of trust, affection or suspicion we may not even realise. Sirius Black. Scarlett O’Hara. Cat Baloo. Mike Butcher. Dickens was a master of character encapsulation within a name.

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Class, age and type can be encapsulated in the right nomenclature. Florence Flannel, aged retainer in a Cornish murder mystery, conjures the gnarly-knuckled old maid with no need to resort to comic West Country accents. Whereas Elizabeth Abernethy, lady of the house, carries a whiff of crinoline, corsetry and conspiracy.

Similarly, choose names to fit era and genre. Fantasy identities require as much creativity as historical fiction requires research. Slatibartfast meets Hrothgar. Chick lit heroes tend to be one-syllabled: Dan, Tom, Sam, Rhett, Mark and Will whereas heroines generally need two: Bridget, Sophie, Katy, Lucy, Vianne or Sally will do nicely.

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Two characters or more who begin with the same initial make the reader’s life harder. Marianne asked Madeleine why Mary Jane was at Michelle’s funeral because Michael had promised Martin he’d keep her away. *flicks back to dramatis personae*

Technicalities matter. When you have a character whose name ends in S, what happens with the possessive? James’s gun, Nicholas’ trousers, the urinal of Degas. If a first name ends in a vowel and the surname with a consonant, how does it sound? Mara Bellena, Mar Abelena, Marabelle Ena?

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Sounds matter. Read the names aloud. If the name is tricky, but you need it to be so, offer the reader an insight as to how it sounds. When my detective encounters an Angolan DNA expert called Conceição, she notes the pronunciation with a mental bridge – ‘cats say miaow’.

Characters rarely need to remind themselves of their own relationships. Hence using terms such as ‘sis’, ‘boss’, ‘cuz’ are an irritating authorial effort to remind the reader what s/he already knows.

Cultural resonance must be accommodated. I got on marvellously with my local doctor until we crossed the first name bridge. ‘You can call me Adolf’.

Collect names. Curious name crop up everywhere: signposts, streets, shops, election posters, newspaper stories and even in junk mail. Watch and write down those that trigger your own imagination. You may not use them for years, but when you do, they’ll have the same effect on the reader.

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And how they make a difference to art and life.
(I hereby win most portentous subtitle of 2016)

Today I finished the manuscript and immediately started over.
As we’re amongst friends, I can call the manuscript by its real name.

Lone Wolf

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That is not a wolf

The big things are in place. Now to add all those itty-bitty small things. The mention, the letter, the look, the number, the detail, the time, the tiny pieces of the whole which keep the reader puzzled.
Crime and thriller writers have many ways of keeping track of all the consistent clues and references within a novel.

This is my sixth in a series and I’ve tried pretty much every system there is. Yet I still go back to my pencil grid. Before you make assumptions, it has highlights, Post-Its, maps, characters, research detail and an entire coded asterisk system. Colour and class. And I need that grid. For a mind better suited to character, dialogue and even scenic description, lining up endless details is like herding a thousand kittens.

Small things are important. Pebbles, jewels or jigsaw pieces, the reader collects and pockets every one. Each texture, colour and shape must be pleasing in itself and fit perfectly into the whole.

Small things make a big difference in stories.
Small things make a difference in lives.

It’s been a tough year – in both the personal and political arena.
Small gestures such as cards, letters, messages, posts, hugs, calls, visits and opinions have eased the sense of loss. A package of mince pies made me cry.

If you read this blog, I’m assuming you’re not a git and therefore it’s been a tough year for you too. Here’s a hug and a virtual mince pie.

I’m going back to the book and adding all the elements it needs to make it work. It will take a lot of effort, daily diligence and self-criticism. My own harshest critic will be me. Because lazy creates nothing.

I’m going to engage with this strange new world and do small things. It will take a lot of effort, every day, which may involve swearing, giving, supporting, calling-out, protesting, refusing or applauding. Because lazy achieves nothing.

A recent rash of reviews delighted, surprised and puzzled me.

People from Germany, the USA, Australia and Brazil not only recommend the Beatrice Stubbs series as crime novels but also appreciate the sense of humour.

Despite the horrors of the case involved, there is always a dash of humor throughout the story, with credible characters and dialogue. Whilst Beatrice is the central character, there is a great ensemble cast of personalities that I felt brought this novel vividly to life. More than once I found myself giggling along at the team members’ interactions as they worked and socialized together.

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For me, a sense of humour is fundamental to every aspect of life, love and creativity. Whether writing an epitaph or falling in love or creating a crime series, there must be room for laughter.

it is the characters that made this a truly enjoyable, original read. Their banter and interactions, their quirks and the inimitable sense of humor had me laughing out loud. I particularly loved Beatrice’s odd turns of phrase and her love-hate relationship with Herr Kälin, who ended up growing on me.

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Is there room for comedy in crime in today’s environment of darker and grimmer noir, or does one instantly get labelled as ‘cosy’?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from Human Rites by J.J. Marsh when I first started the book.  For some reason, I was afraid it was going to be a cozy mystery.

Advice on book marketing says ‘know your shelf’. What are you like? Dan Brown stalks Lara Croft? Agatha Christie snuggles Alexander McCall Smith? Karin Slaughter splatters Tess Gerritsen?

Beatrice Stubbs isn’t cosy. But neither will she make you gag on your macaroni cheese (apart from one scene in Raw Material – apparently it turned one reader vegetarian).

The books address politics, culture, society and morality, but keep plot and character on centre stage.

Certain bits might raise a laugh, especially if you are of the black-humoured sort.

One reviewer put it best.

The easiest comparisons to make with Marsh’s writing are Golden Age detective writers like Dorothy L Sayers and Margery Allingham. Don’t run away with the idea that this means cosy crimes solved by some old dear in between knitting a bed jacket and planting out her spring bulbs… if you like your crime fiction propelled by wit and intelligence rather than by violence, you will love this book.

So where to find Beatrice Stubbs? Turn left after cosy.Beatrice Stubbs Box Set One_KINDLE KOBO

Colin Bateman on wit and balls. It’s No Crime to Be Funny.

A rant-ette.

On patronising readers.

This summer, I read a lot of crime and ‘psychological drama’. Some good, some not so much. But something bugged me. Like summer flip-flops, one minor irritation rubbed a soft spot and grew into a big fat blister.

Here is where it bursts.

Surely…

Author: Surely she wouldn’t have walked out on him without even leaving a note?

Reader: Well, that’s what it looks like.

Author: Surely he’s just being friendly and has no designs on my nubile body?

Reader: Are you really that naïve?

Author: Surely these teethmarks can’t possibly mean he bit the victims?

Reader: Yawn. What’s on telly?

DO NOT TELL THE READER WHAT QUESTIONS TO ASK!!!

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Look! Can it really be? Not a mini snail? Surely?

Readers actually like trying to work things out for themselves. Those who enjoy crime (and this year’s irritating umbrella term ‘psychological’ drama) read such things to analyse the information given and come to their own conclusions.

‘Surely’ has the same effect of someone behind you in the cinema saying, ‘Did you see that bangle/photograph/cricket box? That will be significant later’ or ‘I hope you noticed Simon’s unhealthy interest in hedgehogs’. All in an annoyingly smug voice.

Variants on Surely…

Had he really emptied their joint account and fled the country?

How could she lie to her sister, our mother and her own children?

If they really had killed before, what was to stop it happening again?

Did three brutal and spookily similar murders indicate a serial killer?

Deduction allows your reader to take all the clues and knot them into an explanation, theory or wild goose chase. Then after the author’s cunning denouement, compare their map-reading, character-comprehension and familiarity with the genre to see how your theories (mis)matched.

Induction beats them around the head and face with blunt signposts until they accept the fact your naïve protagonist would accompany the psychopath to a deserted castle to be sacrificed to the God of Unlikely Coincidence, who happens to be called Shirley.

When we (and here I speak for readers) put the book down and do something which allows cogitative thought, such as dog-walking, lawn-mowing or glass-blowing, we are perfectly capable of conjuring questions of our own.

Why did s/he do that? I reckon it’s because…

Just as you leave a party and reflect on your new acquaintances, you add all the signifiers together and form a subjective opinion. That person is funny/needy/weird/sexy/dodgy/sociopathic. This game becomes far less fun if each party guest has a Post-It on their forehead saying, ‘Slimy Womaniser’, ‘Gold-digging Divorcee’, or ‘I Hurt Gerbils’.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably a reader, writer, or someone like my mum, who does both. So here’s some knuckle-bloodied advice for free.

Write your first draft as a writer, then change in a phonebox and read it as a reader.

If Reader You wants to punch Writer You in the face and shout ‘Don’t patronise me. Who do you think you are?’ something may need to change.

Surely.

 

 

 

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