Double trouble

Still aiming for the middle size L, although that is only the first target. Literature with capital L can come in 30 years after my best selling detective series is complete.

Originally posted 25.04.11

Double blog post today as I took some time off over the Easter weekend to revitalise myself.

Here comes an admission. The previous post about computer games was half-finished on Thursday last week, and could easily have been completed Friday and posted to schedule, but, and here is the shocking admission, I thought who is reading this, does it matter, and went to relax in the sun with friends instead.

This got me thinking today, not about my procrastination, I’ll put that off a bit, but about the point of writing. I am thinking slightly beyond the obvious communication use here. If I write a blog post and no one reads it does it matter?

No, the joy of writing is in the writing, being read is a plus afterwards.

Does this mean we should not care about our readers?

No again, we should obviously care about our target market, which gives us something of a paradox, we should write for our enjoyment and our markets’ enjoyment, but what if that requires two different types of writing?

This discussion in my head eventually, via some tangents, got down to the mass market best seller versus the Literary master piece: Literature with a big L against literature with a little l.

I will not go into the arguments on this as both sides are valid and a decent treatise cannot be fitted into a blog post. I will say where I wish to fit in.

I am more interested in a strong, clever plot than beautiful prose, I will not lie on that matter. I do not consider anything mutually exclusive though. I want to write to the best of my abilities and produce work which people enjoy reading. Will I be upset if people say my writing is not on a par with Amos, Rushdie etc.? No, they are excellent writers and it would be no shame to be viewed as not at that standard. I do aim to write well though, to use correct grammar, syntax, and spelling, which occasionally can be found wanting in some books I have read recently. I would say my aim is more for literature with a middle size L.

The game is afoot!

I hardly play computer games now. I check every so often to see what new releases are coming but nothing really grabs me. GTA V has been announced which is a definite release day purchase, but that is likely to be two to three years in development. Still, it gives me time to read and write.

Originally posted 25.04.11

In under a month now, on 20May, L.A. Noire will be released. No, it’s not a new crime thriller, well, it is in a way, it’s a detective computer game.

I have looked forward to games being released before but none have I desired so much for so long. Ever since I found out about this game three years ago, I have followed its slow development to fruition like a kid looking forward to Christmas.

The reason is the same reason why I write detective crime fiction, read detective crime fiction, and watch detective crime film. I enjoy solving the puzzles.

The problem with previous computer games is that I want a story as well.

The first detective type games on computer were text games, very close to an interactive book. You were given a description of your surroundings then given a text prompt to enter what you wanted to do. The problem with them was recognizing the variance in language, the difference between ‘get’, ‘grab’, ‘pick up, ‘lift’ etc. meaning you could spend ages just trying to do basic things.

The second problem, and in my case a major one, was that you could get stuck. When reading a novel you are a bystander voyeuristically following the action. The protagonist does all that needs to be done; you are just along for the ride. In a computer game, if you need to find a key before you go to the next part, you need to find a key, you. If you can’t, the story stops. This plagued games from the text based adventures to the fancier point ’n’ click games of Sierra and Lucas Arts.

The solution to this problem came not within the games themselves, but in the advent of the Internet. Now if you are stuck you can just google your game name and walkthrough and find out what you need to do to get to the next chapter.

Even so, proper adventure games have been a dying breed as todays gamers seem to prefer FPS’s (first person shooters), driving games or anything with an instant fix. The patience for a long carefully plotted adventure is not in their genes. Heavy Rain last year was a refreshing change in the status quo, an interesting story with twists, engaging characters and multiple endings.

I feel the detective game is suffering in the same way as the detective novel. Readers aren’t patient enough, they want each chapter to be a drug fuelled car chase with guns, sex and aliens. With luck, L.A. Noire’s success may spark something of a cross media revival.

Unhappy due to happy endings

Happy endings still depress me, Especially if the writer has had to cheat to save the hero with deus ex machina. That is why the best Stars Wars film is the Empire Strikes Back.

Originally posted 19.04.11

So the detective has solved the crime and the villain has been unmasked. It’s time to tie up all the subplots and let us know what happens to your characters.

If your novel is a one shot, you can effectively do what you like, you are not bound by the restraints of the beginning and middle of the novel anymore, this is it, everyone can die, the villains can get away or be caught. The hero could get the girl or she could die in his arms.

If you want to write a series about your main character, their survival is important, although this does make putting them in peril awkward. If we know there are or will be later books, it is a pretty safe bet they will escape the molten lead/acid/strawberry jam that is about to engulf them.

Does the villain get away? Again, if you want to use them in a later book it useful for them to escape. They could of course break out of prison, but coming back from the dead is a bit too much to swallow, especially if they have died in a spectacular fashion. No amount of ‘it was a double’, ‘they were in a coma’, etc. will convince us if you resurrect them later.

But why do we almost always get a happy ending? Because that is apparently what the reader wants and expects. Hokum, I want the bad guys to win occasionally. Why? For the very reason I read mystery crime writing; because I wouldn’t see it coming, I would not guess that is what would happen.

Should you do this all the time? No, mix it up, keep the reader on their toes. Then they won’t be able to guess what you are going to do and will be drawn into the story all the more.

Who couldn’t do it but did!

Although plot holes still bug me, they have been supplanted at the top of my list of irritations by clumsy exposition. It might be because of the amount of mystery dramas I have read and watched that I know now what to look out for, but sometimes it is just so obvious who the murderer is. Unlike the real world where anyone could have done it, we are limited to the suspects in the novel. By dropping into conversation for no need (the characters would already know) someone was an Olympic standard penthalon competitor it gives a big hint they might be the person who swam the river, killed Mr Black with a sword then rode off on a horse. I exaggerate, but you know what I mean. It is a hard balance between giving the reader enough information so they don’t feel cheated that they couldn’t have solved it (new characters appearing in the last five pages, deus ex machina) and not signposting the person so blatantly that there is no mystery.

Originally posted 15.04.11

On Saturday before my injury woes, I finally went to see Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. The play was excellently performed, well written and thoroughly enjoyable, and yet a week later I am bothered, not because of the solution, but because of the loose ends and plot holes.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Agatha Christie, she is one of the best whodunit writers ever and I can’t normally fault her works on analysis afterwards, but three or four points bother me about The Mousetrap. As requested at the end of each performance, I will not reveal the solution so cannot elaborate.

In the whodunit genre, tying up the plot so that it is believable is vital. Suspension of disbelief goes a long way but, ironically, you can’t get away with murder. There are over six billion people in the world so some crazy stuff has happened. A brother and sister separated when young have married later in life unaware of their relationship. There have been serial killers of pretty much every colour, creed, gender, class etc. Children have killed their parents, parents have killed their children, someone has even been killed by a falling icicle which has then melted leading police to believe the victim was stabbed to death. All these things can happen, but people cannot physically be in two places at once, they cannot walk through walls, professional hitmen do not cover all their tracks then forget to wear gloves.

The rise of the Internet and mobile phones has made whodunits much harder to write. Information is much more freely available and communicating between places far easier. DNA analysis, amongst many new police procedures, makes catching criminals easier so the modern whodunit needs to cover off many more potential plot holes.

Is this why the crime thriller has taken over from the whodunit? Because it is easier to write four gun fights and car chases than work out how the murder got into the fourth floor bathroom and left no clues for the police but enough for your detective? Maybe, but I know which type I prefer: a plot which has had a little thought put into it.

Sofa, so bad

Definitely going to the London book fair this year and I will be avoiding all physical activities for the two weeks beforehand to be on the safe side.

Still can’t write whilst drunk as well, so have given up trying. I do occasionally get a good idea though.

Originally posted 14.04.11

Typical! After stating I intend to post every Monday and Friday things go wrong. On Monday I built two self assembly sofas and in the process pulled every muscle in my back (at least it felt like every one) and knackered my knee.

On the plus side, I had booked this week off work. The downside is that I was going to go to the London book fair on Tuesday, but woke in a great deal of pain and with even greater difficulty walking. This, as you can imagine, was annoying. I have found out something interesting however due to my misadventures: I can’t write whilst drunk or on pain killers.

My image of the creative genius when growing up was of the man with quill in one hand and a glass of wine/brandy/absinthe in the other: an author relaxing and unlocking inspiration through the use of alcohol. In On Writing, Stephen King admits he can’t remember writing Cujo due to being under the influence. How on earth did/do they manage it?

I used alcohol to alleviate some of my discomfort as well as some Ibruprofen (not that Bohemian, I know) and, instead of wasting the time, tried to do some writing.  I produced a large amount, which, other than one interesting idea for a take on the locked room plot, was total garbage.

A romantic view of writing of the tormented genius throwing perfect prose to page is just that, romantic. Like any job you need to approach it in a professional manner. Working in front of the telly after two cans of lager would not produce much in any other profession, so why expect it to as an author.

The other thing I learnt was if a company offers to build something you have purchased for £40, it is worth letting them!

Words don’t come easily

 I still struggle to think of suitable blog posts. I have gone for the route of posting nothing rather than waffle as otherwise my faithful readers will soon get fed up.

Originally posted 08.04.11

What to write when your mind goes blank.

In this blog, I am trying to post regularly on a Monday and a Friday to give it structure. It also gives me time to compose the next post. However, as I start to type this at 10am Friday morning, my mind is blank. What should today’s post be about?

Some writing books recommend just sitting down and writing, forcing yourself to type and letting the words come. This works to a certain extent, but what if you need to be writing on a certain subject, or with certain nuances, can I guarantee these words will come?

Putting a piece of random writing on here will not fit in with the tone I am trying to create in this blog. I could put a nice poem on here, or just a picture of a lolcat, but that seems something of a cop out. I have to face the fact that inspiration is not available on tap.

Is this writer’s block? I don’t think so. I have successfully written two other pieces this week. It is more of an appropriate idea block.

For some journalists, this problem must be more pronounced. What if you are a sports feature writer and nothing of consequence happens in a week? You still have your 500 words and a deadline, but no source material. What I expect happens at these times is we get a ‘do you remember?’ piece of nostalgia, a top ten list or a ‘where are they now?’ I wouldn’t be surprised if many writers who have to produce regular pieces don’t have an emergency go to folder, with prewritten articles that can be updated in moments to fill these awkward silences. I must get myself one.

Is this a blog post about nothing? Have I cunningly turned that nothing into something? Maybe, but I will need to think long and hard to find something to post on Monday, or it may have to be a nostalgia post? Now there is an idea!

Reading error #£”*&

Thankfully this was a one off error and my Kindle has been working fine, if not overworked, in the last year.

Originally posted 04.04.11

In what appears to be a backlash against my screen free days, my Kindle account has developed a problem. I can no longer open half of the books I own, including my latest purchase, The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. Annoying, as I was looking forward to reading on my lunch break.

When technology is working it is good, useful and labour saving. When it doesn’t, it is bad, unhelpful and labour halting.

I have never had a problem opening a standard book, this problem being a stark reminder that the more technology in a product the greater the chance of something going wrong.

Right now, if my computer monitor, or my computer, or, to a lesser extent, my Internet connection broke (I use online storage), I would not be able to write. Whilst you run the risk of your pen running out of ink, or a pencil needing sharpening, these problems are much easier to surmount.

I have rung the helpline for Kindle and they tried re-sending my books, this hasn’t worked. So instead I will need to respond to an email tonight when I wanted to be focusing on writing. I hope that this will be an easy problem to identify rather than a long email chain.

Again, nothing I have ever had to do with honest paper and ink!

Second computer free day

My pen is still going strong. I do all my planning with pen and paper now. It is much easier to do spider diagrams, link ideas and get thoughts down quickly. I then back them up to my Writeway software. Weirdly though, I never actually write any prose with pen and paper anymore, all that is done on my PC.

Originally posted 01.04.11

Yesterday was my lovely wife Kate’s birthday. I had booked the day off of work to pamper her and it also served as my second no computer day.

Whilst making endless cups of tea for my poppet I, relaxed with a book, tried out my nice new Parker Urban Rollerball (a treat to myself, I have never had a ‘proper’ pen before), watched a film and plotted a novel.

Working with pen and paper frees my writing, I can scribble a note, draw arrows linking ideas, do a spider diagram, thought clouds. It feels more satisfying as well. I will type up all my notes at some point, having access to them on any computer is far too useful not to, but I am leaning towards plotting purely on paper in future.

I can write in the bath with pen and paper, I can spread pages out and let my eyes flick from idea to idea, sparking new ideas. When I then type my notes up I re-read my ideas and also get new ones again.

Therefore the first thing I did on the computer today was order some refills for my pen from Amazon, it will be getting plenty of use.

I have an office!

I still have this office. The desk is covered in review sections of newspapers I am saving and the chair is covered in jackets I started sorting through four months ago. While it worked initially and will probably again in the future, I started getting cabin fever using it and found the pressure of having to write sat there was actually less than helpful. I now write where ever I feel comfortable at the time, a much better solution.

Originally posted 28.03.11

Recently, I have been experiencing the first signs of trouble with my writing. The rest of my life is no longer happily staying on the backburner, so finding time to write becomes harder. This was exacerbated by not having anywhere fixed to write. Using a laptop in bed, or on the sofa watching TV worked initially, but the distractions of TV, cats, and computer games meant my writing was slipping.

Not anymore though. A desk from Argos, a separate work computer and a chair liberated from my wife’s office means I now have an area dedicated to only writing. It also means I have a space to keep all my course books, dictionaries, etc. Printed copies of my writing can be filed away in the same area and will be to hand immediately when needed instead of being in a different room.

The only potential problem now will be not totally neglecting other areas of my life as I intend to spend as much time as possible in my new hideaway.

How to choose what to read?

Not much to add here except due to the plethora of free or 99p books available on kindle I have spent quite some time reading the first 10 pages of novels before deleting them in disgust. I have found one or two excellent reads this way though and the price is right in the current climate.

Originally posted 25.03.11

If we say I can manage to read 100 books in a year, how do I select what is worth reading?

Currently, I am prioritising books which have stood the test of time, but I have not yet got round to reading. If, after a hundred or more years, a book is still highly rated, that is a pretty strong endorsement.

When choosing between more recent works, I tend to use the following:

Prize winners, Booker or Orange. The trouble here is that whilst the nominees are always excellently written, some are not exactly relaxing night time reading. Sometimes all you want to read is a good murder mystery, slushy romance or frightening horror.

While some people frown on adults reading children’s books, I have read all the winners of the Carnegie medal of the last fifteen years, all I would recommend as worth reading.

Reviews in the press. These will at least give you a synopsis of what a novel is about and the opinion of the reviewer. After a while, you will find some reviewers who like books in a similar vein to you, so you can assume their opinions are reasonably reliable. Likewise, you will find some reviewers who recommend books you don’t like. Simply don’t read these reviews any more once you have identified them.

Reviews of books on Amazon by the general public. This is hit and miss. Not wishing to name names, but with a bit of investigation it is easy enough to find books with five star reviews from people who have not reviewed any other books, and occasionally have reviewed before the book has been published. Even ignoring the possible ‘friends’ reviews, I found my tastes not in keeping with 257 people who reviewed a book as five star. I was foolish enough to purchase this book on the basis of the reviews. Said book was given to charity the next day in case it contaminated any of the others on the shelf. I now will browse the highly recommended books on Amazon and then try and find supporting reviews in the press. If I can’t, I give the book a miss; I only have so much time.

Recommendations of friends. I treat these as I would press reviews. If someone regularly recommends me good books I trust their opinion. If they keep recommending tripe I will smile politely and say I will try to get round to it.

I ignore TV book club recommendations, but will not disqualify a book from consideration because it has appeared on one. The amount of publicity these books receive guarantees them best seller status no matter how good they are. On this basis I think the recommendation is flawed.