Smart People Talking: Jodi Picoult (Part 2).

Last week, Jodi Picoult was talking cultural appropriation and racism in SPT. In part 2 of her Brisbane talk, the focus is on the art and act of writing.

Ask yourself: why am I creating this voice? Is it an important narrative point? Is it integral?

Though it’s important to have a diverse cast of characters, it’s just as important to have fully formed characters, rather than stereotypes. If you’re writing, say, a poor white man in a rural community, does he have to be racist? Alcoholic? Illiterate? Emotionally repressed?

When a black woman was cast as Hermione Granger, parts of the fandom lost their minds. Nowhere did Rowling state Hermione’s ethnicity, but a large number of people saw the intellectual girl with a literary name and sucessful parents, and made an assumption. Challenging those assumptions in your work isn’t a bad thing.

It’s pointless having a checklist of minority groups to represent in your work- characters need to be there because they fulfill a narrative need, not to try and earn yourself brownie points. But it’s definitely possible to have diversity in fiction that doesn’t feel shoehorned into the story.

How can I bring empathy, and authenticity, and compassion into my writing? Speak to people. A lot. Speak to lots of people, and find a variety of voices.

Not having to be aware of or talk about racism is a type of privilege, as is not having to experience it. But if you’re a writer, ignoring the realities other people face isn’t a great way to go about your work. Learn from other people. Research. Try and understand, even if only a little, what it’s like to be someone else. Because that’s how you write well. That’s how you capture alternate voices and make them realistic. Not by guessing, but by learning.

Your job isn’t to write as an expert, to tell people how to think or feel. It’s to explore ideas with empathy, authenticity, and compassion. You can’t do that while pretending other people’s problems don’t exist, or being defensive about the role you (or your culture) play in those problems.

Find sensitivity readers to challenge what you’ve written to create an authentic voice.

It’s good to have a wide range of beta readers, who can bring different viewpoints and experiences to your work. But when you’re writing about culturally sensitive issues, consider finding sensitivity readers. Their job is to be utterly honest about what works, and what doesn’t, and to point out the places where you’re having issues. It can help strengthen your writing, making it more authentic, and it helps you learn what you can improve in your work.

It’s important to recognise that racism is systemic and messy… it’s about prejudice and power. Even if we don’t talk about it, we’re still a big part of the problem.

Racism is a massive issue, and an issue in ways most white people (myself included) don’t see or fully understand. It’s in the way we shorthand black as bad and white as good, the way we put certain cultures in positions of power in our media, while relegating others to secondary or minimal roles. Think about the way it’s generally white people playing heroes- and the way a big deal is made whenever that’s not the case because it’s so unusual.

Think about the way shows like Luke Cage get accused of racism for having few, if any, white actors involved while there’s rarely any white outcry over the idea that the majority of our most popular shows have either entirely white casts, or one token character of colour. In the same way, studies show that we’re so conditioned to value male voices over female that while we accuse women of being overly chatty, the vast majority of group interactions favour male perspectives. There are power dynamics at play, and while it’s complicated to figure them out, it’s important to at least try.

I don’t think anyone is purely evil. There are always shades of grey. It’s important to have empathy for even the most vile characters. Give vulnerable characters their dignity. They’re all vulnerable.

In life and in writing, the binary character tropes of good and evil don’t really measure up. The trite ‘even Hitler had a mother’ idea kinda has a point: though we see Hitler as the most evil man to have lived, he had a kind side. He cared deeply about people close to him. When you write someone up as just a monster, you’re missing a large piece of the puzzle: what made them.

How can your heroes be flawed, and human? And how can your villains have a softer, kinder side? How can you make readers relate and empathise with both sides of the conflict?

With prejudice, there’s a sense of otherness, a feeling that they’re never really ‘one of us’.

Picoult was quick to mention that race gets no mention in US courts, because the results are too unpredictable. In the Trayvon Martin case, for example, there was a courtroom ban on the phrase ‘racial profiling’. Stop and think about that a moment. The man who killed Trayvon had a habit of calling the police on black men in his community, because he deemed them suspicious, and assumed they were out to do harm. That right there implies a racial bias at play. Though he’d been told by police not to give chase when the teenager ran away from him (after, it must be noted, doing absolutely nothing wrong but being followed by a strange man in a car), the man opted to give chase, end ended up shooting Trayvon in the chest. It’s hard not to see racial profiling, and bias, at play. And yet, it’s an issue that doesn’t get talked about because it’s not a topic juries want to hear about.

How can you ever truly belong in a community where you’re judged without reason, but your murderer walks free? How can you belong when the colour of your skin deems you a threat or a thug, rather than just another person going about their day?

If I write a twist, I know about it before I write page one. It’s my job to leave you a paper trail.

I’ve learned to hang onto the reins and just go along for the ride. Each book starts with a what if that’s been keeping me up at night. Characters pop up, and I follow them a while before a few months of research. It’s like a tornado of information, that touches down into a first line. Once I have that, I’m ready to start writing.

It’s important for readers to be able to follow your train of thought, without them knowing from page one what’s going to happen. Having an idea of where you’re headed helps with that. But even so, you don’t need to have a fully fleshed out summary before you start. Whatever works for you is the best way to create your story.

My books aren’t gendered. When people say ‘you’re a women’s author’, what they mean is that you have lady parts.

And, lo, the problem with gendered genres: while women are expected to read male characters, men aren’t expected to return the favour. There’s too many men saying they don’t read work by women because it’s not as good- without ever having read enough to make that call. Stories about men are considered universal, so why aren’t stories about women? If women can relate to male experiences, why can’t men relate to a woman’s? Men are certainly smart enough to manage it. That we assume the work of women is lesser than the work of their male peers is a deeply troubling element of our society. That we assume the works of minorities are lesser than the work of white, generally male writers?

Just as troubling.

What really matters is what works for you. The key to being a success is finding out what turns that key for you. You’ll find it. Just be brave.

Tell the stories you want to tell, just tell them compassionately and fairly to those involved. Figure out what stories you want to write, and write them. It doesn’t matter what the market trends are- by the time you’ve written the story, those trends will have changed, anyway. So write your story your way, and figure out what works for you.

And never be afraid to talk about difficult subjects. Art of all kinds is an exploration of truths and social ideologies. Stories speak to the fears and issues of the times they’re written in, so why try and pretend otherwise?

Be brave, and go write.

The only way bullies succeed is when the people around them laugh.

There’s a concept in comedy called ‘punching up’. What it means is that comedy, good comedy, isn’t about victimising people who are already being victimised. It’s not funny, say, to laugh at rape victims (unless you’re a rather unpleasant person). But there’s comedy in tearing apart the beliefs that protect rapists from the consequences of their choices.

Tim Minchin got in a bit of trouble for a song to Cardinell Pell, urging him to return to Australia to answer questions about his involvement in the covering up of child abuse within the Catholic Church. He used his privilege as a white, male celebrity to attack an institution that doesn’t generally cop much negativity, even though they’ve done plenty to deserve it. He punched up, attacking a more powerful person in defense of people whose voices weren’t being heard or respected.

Punching down would have been to attack the victims, or to back Pell.

In life, and art, it’s better to punch up than punch down.

Smart People Talking: Queenie Chan

Queenie Chan is a name in manga you should probably get to know if you don’t already. She’s worked with some fantastic authors in creating their graphic novels (including ‘Odd’, the prequel to Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas), as well as illustrating and co-authoring the Fabled Kingdom trilogy. Queenie’s art is staggeringly good (not a shocker). While in Brisbane for Oz Comic-Con 2016, Queenie settled in for the Written, Drawn, Edited, and Published panel to chat about the business of writing and illustration with Kylie Chan.

Staring at a blank sheet of paper has never gotten my juices flowing. Go do something outside of your usual, everyday routine. Change your environment.

Routines are great, for a while. But eventually, the same things at the same time stop being helpful and start draining your creativity. You don’t need to only write with that one type of pen, or drink from that one particular cup. Try new things, stretch beyond the comfort zone, and see how quickly ‘writer’s block’ becomes a distant memory.

The publishing landscape changes. What worked for your heroes probably won’t work as well for you. Don’t worry too much about what others are doing, or have done. Instead, keep an eye out for opportunities. Trends can’t be manufactured. Do what you want to do, and do it well.

Everyone always asks writers how they got their big break, but the truth is that an ever-changing industry means it’s unlikely that same approach will still be useful now. That’s okay. There’s no one right way to get your foot in the door.

We talk a lot about writing to trends, but the truth is that those trends come and go, and especially in traditional publishing, by the time your book has hit the market, it’s highly likely that the trend you were chasing is long since over. Instead of trying to gamble on changing trends and audiences, write the stories you want to write, or chase the illustration work that you want to be doing. Don’t settle- do what you love, and do it well. Do it to the absolute best of your ability.

It’s uncommon for people to have one finished book, let alone multiple, when they pitch. Being able to sell your work is important, but if you don’t have anything to back it up with, you’ve just got a sales pitch.

Elevator pitches are great, but have something you can send to the publisher or agent before you start selling them on the project. Be prolific as possible while maintaining the highest quality of work you can. But don’t expect people to take on your unfinished work, and then chase you up for it into perpetuity. That’s not how the industry works anymore.

It’s great to have a sales pitch, but you really need to be able to follow through when the person you’re pitching to says yes.

It used to be true that self publishing had a taint about it. Publishers these days, if they see an author who treats it like it’s a business, they’re interested.

Gone are the days where writers were nurtured and coddled and begged for their work. These days, there’s an ever-growing community of writers waiting in the wings, their work ready to go. With so many people wanting their work published, a really good way to stand out from the crowd is professionalism. They want to know that you’re taking it seriously, and working hard to keep forward momentum. If they think you’re a diva who’ll need constant attention and chasing up for work? They’re far less likely to say yes to you.

Authors are expected to market their own books as well. Publishers are looking for partners now. If a number of people buy that book, they’re vouching for it.

Gone are the days when all an author had to do was focus on writing a good story. These days, authors need to be working to market their wares, rather than leaving it to those around them to do it for them. It’s one of the grey areas in the indie vs trad publishing debate: if a publisher is selling a hundred different titles, how much time and attention can they really give your book? And at what point is it a better financial decision to sell your book yourself, and bypass the red tape of traditional publishing?

Readers are important, because if you want to move from indie to traditional, they’re an invaluable source of street cred. If people are buying and reading your work, if there’s already an audience there, then publishers know they can market the book more easily.

Putting out work for free can be good, but may not translate into sales. Cons are a great way to test the water. Pitching to people and experimenting shows how popular it can be.

It also teaches you how to market to certain people. What a parent wants from a book for their kid is generally quite different to what that kid wants in a book. You have to target your pitch to your audience. Side note: I spoke to a couple of Con goers at Comic-Con this year, asking them what made a great sales pitch from the writers and illustrators.

For the illustrators, it was easy: a good variety of art from a range of fandoms has a better chance of catching a buyer’s eye.

For the writers, there were a few pointers:

Don’t scare the buyers. Bombarding them with conversation and questions, or shoving the book in their faces isn’t helpful. Be polite, and talk, but pay attention to their verbal and non-verbal cues before you launch into a ten minute conversation.

Don’t give away the entire plot. I’ve had a couple of authors do this when trying to sell me their books- and I’ve never felt the need to buy any of them. Why would I? I already know what’s going to happen. Your pitch shouldn’t be everything- give a taste of what’s to come, without the play by play descriptions.

Please let us leave. If someone says they’ve got to go, don’t try and hard-sell them or keep them there. Let them go. They’ll remember you far more fondly later on. A lot of Con goers said they did the rounds, saw what was on offer, then went back to buy what interested them, but if the seller was pushy, they didn’t go back.

Don’t assume girls want romance and boys want action. Some guys really dig the drama over the fight scenes, and quite a few women aren’t that interested in the romance genre. If someone asks whether or not a certain genre is in your book, answer honestly- you will get shitty reviews online if you’ve told them it’s a love story and there’s not a trace of romance to be found. Bad reviews tend to travel faster than good ones, especially if it’s a case of the author behaving badly.

A lot of people go out of their way to do complex outlines. For me, it sucks the energy away from your story. It can drain your capacity to create your main thing. What goes from page to finished product changes, and that’s a good thing.

Whatever works for you is what you need to be doing. But be aware that for some people, those complex world building exercises can be a way to procrastinate on the actual writing or plotting. They can also drain the motivation to write, because you’ve already so thoroughly explored the world your story is a part of.

For some people, too, having a detailed story bible can make it harder to change the direction of the story if it isn’t working- after all, you’ve put a lot of effort into it, and it can be hard for people to let that time and energy go.

There are good sides and bad sides to any planning system- get a feel for what works for you, and how well you cope with the downsides.

Be confident in your idea and your characters and your ability, and go with it.

This doesn’t need clarification, right?

Go through and highlight the important bits in your previous work before starting on its sequel.

If you’re writing a series, try to go back and re-read the earlier book (or books, if you have time). Highlight the important bits- the story arcs, the elements that need resolution, the character development and relationships. You don’t want to have Mary inexplicably married to Tom when she was married to Jonathan in the last story. If there’s going to be a heap of books in the series, you’re not going to have time to do that. So instead, keep track of the important bits you’ve highlighted with each book, and have a flick through those before reading the last book in the series. It’ll give you the overview without you having to read that first novel a thousand times.

Characters with a life of their own, that are well-developed, are the ones that surprise you.

For Queenie, this is one of those reasons not to get too heavily into the story bible and character profiling elements of writing. When we force our notions of what’s right onto a story or character, we often diminish the story we’re trying to tell. We’re rather controlling beasts, prone to forcing our ideologies onto innocent stories without even realising it. Giving the characters and the story space to grow and change can be the most effective way to tell a meaningful, engaging story.

You often get asked to take on a theme and make it yours. I went through my old stories looking for things that met that theme.

Trying to world build and create characters on the fly with a short deadline can be incredibly painful and stressful. Instead, try and look for established ‘verses you’ve played in before, and what minor characters could be useful in a new story arc. This way you still get to play in the sandbox you love, while building it a gradually widening audience.

You need an emotional connection to develop, but it can make it hard to shift into the concepts you’re asked for by publishers.

You need to care about your work to be doing what you love. But doing what you love with an incredibly niche focus isn’t overly great for the mortgage repayments. So you need to find ways to connect to concepts you’re asked to explore, even if they’re not ones you normally work with.

That’s not saying you have to say yes to concepts you’re morally opposed to, of course, because that’s not doing what you love, either. But finding ways to stretch your comfort zone little by little is incredibly helpful.

The audience has an idea of what they want, and suspension of disbelief can be broken if they don’t get it.

While playing with certain tropes in a genre is fine, even encouraged, there are certain things that need to happen to have it called, say, a Western. You need lawless spaces, rural settings, cowboy styled heroes. Can it work in, say, urban action? To an extent, sure- how many action flick heroes are called cowboys or mavericks by other characters, after all- but it’s an urban action with Western styling, not a Western. There’s a line between bringing something new, and misnaming something. Try to avoid misnaming.

All reviews, good or bad, are publicity. Never argue with a bad review. Do not react to a bad review!

Seriously, if you haven’t already, Google ‘authors behaving badly’. Don’t do what you read about there. Don’t be the writer terrorising readers who didn’t absolutely adore their work. No one is obligated to love what you write, the same way you clearly don’t like what a reviewer has to say.

Readers are smart enough to give books a chance, regardless of a single bad review. Let it go.

Have a professional, well designed business card. Give it out everywhere. Have them with you always. People are a lot more likely to keep business cards because it feels like a business, rather than personal, encounter. And let your website be your calling card. Have a good website, because people come back to it.

We respect networking more than socialising, because it sounds more productive and official. A professional, friendly demeanour can go a long way, and having the right props is incredibly useful, too.

Having said that, do the best you can with what you can afford. If you can afford fancy, and that’s what you want, go for it. If you can’t, work with what you’ve got. You can upgrade as your finances chance, or after you’ve decided that yeah, you’re sticking with this blogging lark a while longer.

 

Smart People Talking: Kylie Chan

Kylie Chan is a best-selling Aussie author well known for her Dark Heavens, Journey to Wudang, and Celestial Battle trilogies. Known for her captivating ability to blend fantasy, action, and mythology, Kylie has won a legion of loyal fans with her adventure-filled works. While at Brisbane’s Oz Comic-Con this year, Kylie joined forces with Queenie Chan for the ‘Written, Drawn, Edited, and Published’ panel, where they talked about the art and science of writing.

‘Write every day’ is nonsense. The idea has to be ripe and ready to go onto the paper.

Just because you’ve got an idea doesn’t mean it’s ready to be written. Forcing a story onto the page before it’s ready is painful, and generally ends with a bunch of words you’re not too thrilled with. Give it time to percolate and evolve in your mind. The more time you give yourself to understand the story, the more depth you’ll find in the idea.

Sit in a cafe. It’s scientifically proven to really help the words to flow. Go to a place where people are moving around you but not interacting with you.

When the writing isn’t going well, get out of the rut by physically moving to a new space. If you always write in a particular place at a particular time, try changing it up. The new sounds and vibes will help break through the blocks in place, and help get the story flowing again.

As much as we talk about writing as a solitary pursuit, for some people, the best writing space has other people moving freely within it, making noise.

The best way to get your name out is to write short stories. If you get your short stories out enough, your name will start to appear in more places. If they haven’t heard your name before, it’s unlikely you’ll get anywhere.

Write. That’s how to get your writing career started. Write, and submit your work. Find places that are reputable, and that fit the stories you’re writing, and try getting published. Enter competitions as often as you can. Keep writing, and keep sending out your work. Make it a habit. And when the only answer you’re getting is no, write something new and start again. Don’t quit. Keep trying until you’re published, and then keep trying to get more publishing credits under your belt.

If you’ve got just one beautifully crafted novel, they’ll think twice about accepting it. But if they think you’ll be a cash cow, they’ll say yes.

Being prolific isn’t a bad thing. If you can come to a publisher with a series, rather than a stand alone novel, they’re often more likely to say yes because there’s likely not going to be a massive lag between finished projects. You’re only marketable when you have something to market- and while nostalgia and cult fandom can help, the best way to create a sustainable career in writing is to write and publish as often as possible.

Don’t verbal all over people. Use an elevator pitch.

It’s easy to get nervous before you pitch your work, and it’s just as easy to babble when you’re talking to new people about what you’re working on. So write yourself an elevator pitch, and learn it by heart. Stand in front of a mirror and recite it, say it morning or night- whatever it takes for you to get as familiar with the words as possible. Then, whenever someone asks you what you’re writing, or wanting to have published, you have a polished, professional sounding answer rather than a verbal vomit.

It’s also important to remember to ditch the negative terminology. They’re not gatekeepers preventing you from moving forward in your career, they’re people doing their jobs. If someone says no, don’t take it as a personal insult and don’t throw a tantrum. It’s a small industry in Australia, too small for your career to survive making people want to avoid you.

The only real way to sell books is word of mouth.

All the slick social media presences and advertising campaigns in the world can’t trump word of mouth. This ties into the ‘don’t be a dick’ rule- Google ‘authors behaving badly’ and you’ll see that readers have just as long a memory as booksellers, publishers, editors, and agents. Maybe once upon a time authors were able to be egotistical assholes and be forgiven because of their talent. Today, though, there are millions of authors out there, and we’re not so starved for stories that we’ll accept verbal abuse. Be kind, be professional, and be polite. Be generous with your time as much as possible when people want a book signed- but always have limits to what you’ll do and how much time you’ll give. Remember, you’re not owed an audience of readers. Respect them, and they’ll respect you and your work.

Publishers are often looking for self published success stories.

Don’t be afraid to go your own way and self publish. You don’t need one of the big five publishers behind you to make it as an author. Sometimes the best way to get the backing of one of the big publishing houses is to have gone off on your own and proved your mettle without them. It’s more effort in a lot of ways, but it’s certainly something to consider.

Novellas sell well at Cons.

If you’re thinking about scoring some space in writer land at the next Con, think about what will sell, and what you’ll need. Novellas sell well at cons, because they’re a bit lighter and easier to carry around when you’re trying to lug your new merch buys around the area. But novels are always popular, too.

Have a really good plot with interesting characters in an engaging landscape.

That’s it. That’s storytelling. Each element is important. Don’t assume that your characters can hold up a story when there’s no landscape for them to move in, or that characters wandering a beautiful landscape aimlessly will resonate well with readers. You need all three.

Authors are not special little snowflakes.

Writers write, and that’s wonderful and all, but we’re not curing cancer. We’re not building affordable accommodation for the homeless. We’re putting words on the page. It’s important, and at times the words we write have a lot of power to empower or bring change. But get over the idea that we’re special. We’re not.

I have a Moffat list of open threads.When I write a new book, I re-read what I’ve already done.

When you’re working on a series, there’s going to be a lot of plot threads and character arcs for you to keep track of. The quickest way to avoid forgetting an important part of the story is to keep track of the open threads in each successive story. That way, you can go back and see what you’ve resolved, and what still needs to be resolved, and you can add the new elements as they arise.

I’ve written out plot lines, but it’s never been more than half a page. They’re there to remind me.

The best way to plot is whatever way works for you. That’s it. If it’s massively detailed, that’s great. If it’s not, that’s great, too. Whatever works for you.

I am the writer. I am the creator, and they still do things that surprise me. That’s good. If it surprises me, it’ll surprise the reader.

Stories grow and evolve, and characters tend to develop a life of their own as their personalities become more fully formed. Don’t stress when your stories move away from the original idea- they’re meant to.

Sometimes you write a scene or place and you make it really authentic but it doesn’t ring true- it feels like a stereotype. Often, you have to go a bit out there.

The way we think reality is and the way reality is aren’t always the same thing. You can research the hell out of a subject, event, or location, and people who were there may not even see that it’s accurate. Our idea of these things is shaped by our perspective- whether we were in a good mood or not, what was happening in our lives at that point- not just what happened. Sometimes the most out there, factually inaccurate representation is the one that rings true for readers.

Don’t cluster bomb your work. If you don’t follow submission guidelines, it’ll be binned. Do it again and you’ll be blacklisted. Give them what they want- not just what you want to give them. And if you don’t deliver, it’s bad.

There’s only so many times people will give you their time and attention when you’re dismissing their boundaries and making them work harder then they need to. Agents and publishers don’t owe you their time, and doing things that make their job harder is the quickest way to make sure they’re not going to be interested in working with you. First timer exuberance only buys you so much lenience here- so be professional and courteous, and abide by the submission guides.

It should go without saying that if you promise to deliver a manuscript by a set date, you need to have it there by that date. From time to time, things will crop up, but for the most part, no one is going to chase you up for your work into perpetuity. They’ll just give up on it and move on. Don’t give them the chance to do that.

Our books are our babies. Anything less than a glowing review can make us cry for half a day.

Writers can be rather precious about their work. You’ve put your heart and soul into it, it’s only natural that criticism (constructive or otherwise) can be an incredibly emotional experience. If it’s going to destroy you to read the reviews, don’t read them. If you really want to know, consider asking someone you trust (and who won’t flame negative reviewers) to read them for you, and pass on any relevant information.Relevant being the constructive feedback that can help you be a better writer (and compliments, too, because let’s be honest, it’s nice to hear people appreciate your efforts).

Don’t flame negative reviewers. Don’t troll, or buy into trolling. Be professional. If you’re tempted to go on the defensive, Google ‘authors behaving badly’ and have a look at how it’s gone for others (spoiler: it’s gone badly, and cost them a hell of a lot of potential readers). There’s no take-backs on the internet, and no way to buy back reader goodwill once it’s gone.

 

 

Smart People Talking: David Farland

David Farland is an American sci-fi and fantasy author best known for his works ‘Runelords’ and ‘Of Mice and Magic’. David was in Brisbane for the 2016 Oz Comic-Con weekend, signing autographs and presenting talks on the writing life. In ‘In Conversation with David Farland’, David spoke about writing processes, research, and finding your voice in a world already crowded with voices.

Be aware of the logic of magic systems.

All magical systems have limitations, and those limitations are important because they literally make the story possible. If magic can do anything and everything, then it could be used to solve the story’s crisis in a few seconds flat. Knowing that someone could wave a wand and solve the problem in a heartbeat takes the tension out of the story. If there’s an easy fix, why isn’t it being taken?

How do they make the magic happen? Is there a ritual? If so, how does it work in an action filled moment? Think about non-darkside Willow’s magic in ‘Buffy’, for example: she needs to be sitting down, doing the ritual outside of the firing line because she can’t multitask this stuff. It’s not something she can do while, say, running away from an explosion or kicking someone in the balls. She also needs certain items for certain types of magic. The same is true in ‘Supernatural’- rituals to get rid of certain demigods or supernatural beings tend to involve specific ritual elements that can’t be easily ad-libbed. There’s rules and limitations, and usually some kind of sacrifice by the caster (to banish angels in ‘Supernatural’, for example, requires fresh blood).

Which is another important point: there’s almost always an exchange, or sacrifice, for the magic being made. You don’t generally get something for nothing just by lighting some incense. So what will your character have to sacrifice to get what they want?

Einstein taught himself math by staying on the toilet until he solved three problems. Every day.

Because Einsten had a timetable he liked to stick to (bathroom at a certain time of day included), putting himself in the position to have to stay, and throw out that timetable gave him incentive to get the work done. You get better by doing, not by thinking about doing. So how can you add time to your day- every day- to improve your writing? What can you be doing to make yourself a better writer?

The creative side of the brain is awake all night, solving our problems. But it can’t talk to us, so it shows us in vision.

A lot of writers talk about dreaming their stories, or those wonderful flashes of inspiration that seem to strike out of the blue. We’ve got an unlimited amount of creative firepower (at least, when we get out of our own way), we just need to find ways to let the creative side of our brains show us what its got. Being aware of how your brain works, and how your creative side sends you ideas and information. If you get your best ideas in dreams, keep a notebook by your bed, or figure out how to record onto your phone so you can blearily mumble the idea instead. If you get your best ideas in the shower, or while out walking, find ways to make sure you’re recording the ideas that interest you.

Your brain is a supercomputer moving faster than we know. You’re only aware of about 0.004% of what goes on in your own brain. Learning how to use your brain well is very important for a writer.

This is why people say to acknowledge a problem, gather together the information you have about the problem, and then stop consciously thinking about it.Letting problems be contemplated in the background tends to help bring new perspectives to the plot tangle. Consciously thinking tends to add emotion and ego, which slows the process down. Once you start polluting the problem with shoulds (‘oh no, I’ve lost my keys again! I should have put them away! I should be better than this!’), it takes longer to find a solution because you’re brainstorming, but you’re also dealing with trying to calm the frazzled nerves. The emotional stuff, especially the negative kind, tends to be dramatic and attention seeking, which doesn’t leave a lot of time or energy for the actual problem.

You need to figure out what works for you. Pay attention to when your right brain is most active and schedule your writing around it.

David, for example, writes better in the morning, while the logical part of his brain is only just waking up. But by about 1-3pm, the creative, problem solving part of his brain needs a nap. We all have different rhythms, and learning when we work best makes it easier to be productive. It’s no use scheduling writing time at 2pm if that’s when your creativity is having some downtime. But maybe it’s a great time to get some editing done. Doing what works for you is 100% more effective than trying to work within a system that doesn’t.

There are hundreds, probably thousands of formulas out there for getting the writing done. The internet is packed with them. But if it doesn’t work for you, ditch it. It’s not bad, just not for you. Don’t waste time trying to fit someone else’s idea of how it should be done, and save your energy for your writing.

If you’re struggling with writer’s block, look at what you wrote the day before to see where you went astray.

Sometimes, you’re just not in the mood to write. But sometimes, you’ve wandered off track, and fixing the problem is much harder than sitting on Netflix for the day. Watch an ep if you must, but figure out where you went wrong and do a quick and dirty rewrite to get back on track.

Truth is truth, wherever it comes from.

People can get precious about where they find their words of wisdom, but the truth is that truth is everywhere. In researching facts, certain sources will always be more reputable than others, but in the search for emotional truth, all sources are equal. Don’t dismiss an idea because the source isn’t literary enough. And don’t for a second believe that only certain people hold control over the truth.

Read what you find interesting.

Don’t feel like you need to love the classics because they’re the classics. If you can’t stand Shakespeare, Tom Hiddleston isn’t going to attack from the shadows one night and beat you to death with a book of sonnets. We all have different tastes- that’s a good thing. It means that there’s a wider variety of authors who can write their stories and tell them to the world.

If you’d rather read about World War II than Elizabeth Bennett, that’s perfectly okay. Don’t let other people shame you into reading books you hate because they’re popular. And don’t shame yourself for liking the things you do, either! When you look at the genres people tell you should be guilty pleasures, it’s amazing how often you’ll see there’s a lot of other people being told to feel guilty for their reading matter, too. Don’t feel guilty. Your life, your choice in how it’s spent.

Try to bring something into the genre. If you start trying to write like someone else, it’s nostalgia, not original.

J.K. Rowling already exists. Those authors that you want to be like? We’ve already read them. Write your story your way, rather than trying to write it the way your literary hero would or could. It’ll make the process a lot easier, for a start, but you’ll also find that readers enjoy your work more. If they wanted to read that author’s work, they’d have done so. They chose yours. Give them what they want: your voice.

Find original thinkers to teach you how to write.

There’s an argument that an increasing number of writing teachers are just parroting the same ‘rules’ in slightly different ways, or just parroting their own ideas of what writing should be and calling it a universal belief. Whether you believe it to be true or not, finding the right teacher is important. Don’t just find someone who loves your work- that’s what your grandmother is for. Find someone who challenges you, and who is happy to work outside of those little boxes around how things should be done. It’s not always an easy way to learn and grow, but it’s infinitely preferable to only ever hearing what you want to hear.

There’s 10,000 right ways to write a particular story, and a million ways to stuff it up.

The rules of writing aren’t perfect.In fact, for pretty much every rule about writing, there’s some pretty compelling evidence that it can work, and really well, in certain circumstances.For David, whenever he’s told a student not to do something, it’s led to him having an idea that requires that rule being broken. After telling a student never to write second person future tense, for example, he ended up writing a horror story that used it. Ask yourself:

Is it wrong always, or just wrong for this particular story?

Chances are, there’s going to be a story that will benefit from that thing you’re never supposed to do.

And that’s why finding the right mentor is important: you need someone who won’t just dismiss an idea out of hand. You need someone who will challenge your idea with more than just saying ‘that’s not how this is usually done’. You’re not here to do it the same way as everyone else. You’re here to put your stamp on the stories you tell.

‘Write what you know’ is bullshit. Learn about it before you try to write it. Do your research. Write it in a convincing way.

You don’t have to be an expert in Norse dialects of the middle ages to write a Norse character in that time frame. You don’t need a degree in psychology to write crime, though it might be fun. Research is really important, because there’s generally people out there who do know a lot, and who’ll be rather unimpressed if you’ve gotten something wrong that five minutes on Google would have solved.

Challenge yourself to learn new things. There’s free courses online for a range of subjects- try one. And learn not just because it might be useful in a story, but because you’re curious or it sounds interesting as well. Look outside genre-specific ideas. Look for fun topics, or challenging ones. You’ll be amazed how many tiny, random facts become the basis for stories.

Write about experiences we all share.

We don’t all know what it’s like to be a refugee struggling to survive a boat trip in wild weather on an old, rusting boat. But we all know fear, and desperation, and hope. Most of us know what it’s like to feel out of control and powerless, even though it’s in a vastly different way. The emotional experiences are universal. The physical experiences? Not so much.

Oftentimes, the really good, compelling, emotionally devastating stories are the ones that find the universal thread in an individual’s experience, so that even though the reader hasn’t known those exact problems or events, they can relate and empathise deeply to the characters and their experiences.

Hemmingway said to wait six months before revising. Bullshit. Do what works for you. Whatever works for you is a great way to write.

Just because someone famous says to do it a certain way doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. Besides, if you do twenty edits to a story, and you wait six months before each edit, you’re going to be spending an obscenely long time on any one piece of work.

In truth, the majority of writing advice comes down to doing what works for you and your story. Whatever anyone else is doing is irrelevant. Your process needs to serve you, not someone else’s ego. Let go of writing the way someone else says should be done. That energy is much better spent actually writing.

When you start writing, you start making changes. Your outlines become garbage.

David’s solution is to plan his story, write the first third, and then revisit and edit the plan. Write another third, and revisit and edit the plan again. Stories evolve, and that’s a good thing. But you’ll drive yourself crazy trying to force your evolving story to stay confined in the original plan.

I feel my more successful books were planned. Once you know your plot, it frees up your creative juices for details, and character growth.

Some people can just sit at the page and create a story from nothing. Some people need every detail and scene mapped out fully in advance. Many of us fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. But knowing some of the key story beats gives you a direction to wander in when the writing gets tough.

For David, knowing the basics of the plot means that he can focus on the details of the story, letting him explore them more deeply because he can better see how they interact with the plot.

 

 

Smart People Talking: Isobelle Carmody

If you’ve never been to Comic-Con or Supanova, you may not be aware that even though they’re generally seen as a place to meet movie and TV stars and buy a heap of merch, they’re actually also literary events.

holtzmann-what
I know. I was shocked, too.

There are writers. And they talk about stuff. And you can buy their books, and go the selfie-with-hero route if that floats your particular boat. But, yes. Writers at Cons are wonderful, and they spend a fair bit of time talking craft and business.

At this year’s Brisbane Oz Comic-Con, Isobelle Carmody absolutely rocked it on stage and off. Isobelle is Aussie writing royalty- a fantasy writer with a knack for visceral imagery and edge of your seat storytelling. While at Oz Comic-Con, Isobelle participated in a panel called ‘Writing as a Day Job’, alongside C.S. Pacat, and Marianne de Pierres. This is me unashamedly pointing out her wisdom from that talk.

For anyone new to this series of posts, for the most part, they’re notes from Cons and events with me frantically explaining the wider context of the teensy snippet I managed to grab. The quoted bits are, unsurprisingly, quotes from the author or creative, the rest is me roughly sketching out the larger conversation that was happening. Most of these events don’t allow recording devices, so these are all the quotes I could scrawl into a notebook in a bizarre blend of text speak, hieroglyphs, and illegible chicken scratch.

You have been warned.

 

You should always be striving up. You should always be your own worst critic, in a way. If you can see the gap in your ability, you can overcome it.

The people who go into writing thinking that it’s easy and they’ve got nothing whatsoever to learn or improve? More often than not, their writing isn’t actually what you’d call an enjoyable read. Like any skill, there’s always going to be room for improvement. It’s the people who see their weaknesses objectively (not bemoaning their eternal suckitude, but acknowledging there can be improvement) who are able to minimise and challenge those weaknesses. The things we ignore don’t tend to improve.

I only wrote for myself to begin with. I was writing to save my life, to find solace. I was yearning for something, for community and hope and wonder, and people aligned with that striving. There was a truth I was pinning down, and people aligned to it. If you write deeply and truthfully enough, it’ll touch others.

There’s a reason ‘write what you want to read’ is such popular advice. Though there are countless stories of a work of art saving a life or helping someone through a difficult moment, that’s not something you can try to manufacture deliberately.  You can’t write to save someone else’s life, not really, because it’s too much pressure to put on yourself and on your writing. It’s incredibly hard to write characters with a strong moral message without them annoying readers.

It’s not about shoving a moral message down a reader’s throat- it won’t work and they’ll hate you for it. But if you write from a place of vulnerability and honesty, people tend to respond.

If a series lasts long enough, it begins to weave into the lives of readers.

We all have those stories that we wander back to, those characters we adore. Most of us have stories about that defining moment, and the book that shaped it. Stories have power, and the longer a series lasts, the more it becomes a part of our life and our world. An entire generation grew up with Harry Potter, for example, and those stories helped shape a lot of lives. Hermione Granger taught a generation of children that intelligence wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but a trait to be proud of. Severus Snape taught us to look beyond the superficial and remember that there’s a lot we don’t know about the people around us, so never assume that bitter equals evil.

We are shaped by what we read, so give people the best reading material you possibly can.

If you’re bored, you’re gonna bore the reader.

We don’t need to hear about the everyday stuff. We know they brush their teeth and hair and wander off to work or school. We don’t need to watch it happening. Things that don’t push the story forward are typically boring- if it’s not building tension or conflict, if it’s not forcing a character towards a certain path or event- then it’s not necessary. If it’s just setting the scene for ‘Bob went to work and that’s where interesting things happened’, skip it.

Having said that, sometimes there’s a good reason for it to be there. If, say, you’re writing from the POV of a character who focuses on that stuff and it’s included for a damn good reason? Sure. But there needs to be a reason. If it’s just there because you don’t know what else to write, it’s a problem.

It doesn’t get easier. A new book has a new problem.

We like to pretend that every book you write gets easier, because you’ve done it before. But each book brings its own issues- you have to learn new things, and figure out new problems. Each book is a unique set of issues to be resolved, rather than a quick and easy jaunt with a keyboard.

You’ve gotta get from big event or moment to another. People fall down in those transitions. What could be happening while I move from space to space? Even something as simple as hurting an ankle and walking with a limp can help the story. Small issues and details create realism.

The things you include in a story have to serve the story. Otherwise, it’s like listening to a small child tell you about their day- there’s no rhyme or reason to the information you’re getting, and it starts to feel like you’re never getting out of that conversation alive. If a story is made up of key moments with transitions from one to the next, you’ve got to make those transitions work.

‘She caught the bus to work and decided to become a vigilante’ is boring. ‘She caught the bus, and was trapped in a long metal box for an hour with a drunk man who only stopped hitting on her so he could yell about what an uppity bitch she clearly was. She decided to murder him, and everyone like him’ is more realistic (depending on where you live), but also a lot more interesting.

Even though I wasn’t writing an Australian landscape, the voice was Australian.

In the same way that our accents are impacted by where we live, and how long we live there, our writing voice carries hints of geography, too. There are Australianisms and Americanisms (and every-other-country-isms, too) that influence the story being told even if it’s not set in that particular place.

Don’t try and force your voice to be something it’s not in hopes that overseas markets will like you more. Write your story your way, with your voice, and people will respond better than they will to a flat, by-the-numbers read.

Ask yourself: how does the landscape feel to readers?

Your landscape should be a sensory experience. Readers should be able to imagine the places you’re writing about. If they’re seeing nothing more than white space behind the action, or if it feels like a hastily thrown together junkyard of landscape looking stuff, it’s not going to be as enjoyable for them.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ve figured out every type of rock or soil or plant on the entire planet (though if that floats your boat, have fun). You don’t need a history of the plants and animals that became extinct in the thousand years leading up to the start of the story, or anything like that. Just a few details that help the reader believe that this landscape could actually exist.

Are you creating a compelling landscape that readers can easily imagine? Does the landscape feel real?

I’m in this character, blundering around in a world I have no idea about.

People approach writing in vastly different ways, and that’s a good thing. C.S. Pacat plans the hell out of her work. Isobelle doesn’t. She doesn’t have it all mapped out, so the journey is as much a surprise to her as it is to the readers.

Whatever works for you. Never feel guilty that you don’t write the way someone else does. You’re not meant to be like them, you’re meant to be you.

All the work you do beneath the eye line happens while you’re living your normal life.

Everyone thinks that quitting your day job and becoming a full time writer makes life easier, but it brings its own problems to the mix. A lot of the time, our brains problem-solve and idea generate while we’re busy doing other stuff, and it’s in those stolen moments of time where we do our best work. Mostly, it’s because we know we have ten minutes to write, and that’s it, so there’s a momentum there to achieve something. Meanwhile, when you have all day to write, it’s a lot easier to get distracted because there’s so much time available it stops feeling quite so desperate.

If you’re working full time as a writer, make sure you’re getting out of the house and away from the writing. Make sure you’re doing stuff outside of writing- you still need a work/life balance. And if writing was your hobby, you’re going to need to find yourself a new hobby. Writing might be a dream job, but it can’t be your whole life, or you’ll burn out. You need that time doing other things to give your brain time to problem solve, and to refresh and find inspiration.

Life is Weird, Y’all.

When I was a girl, I was constantly told to smile. Boys don’t like frowning girls! So I smiled, and I obeyed. I didn’t show off my intelligence (boys don’t like that), played housekeeper rather than assassin (boys don’t like girls that seem stronger than they are), and tried not to ask why on earth it was so important that the idiots that pulled hair and sprayed water onto our white shirts should like me. Tried not to ask why some mythical person’s dislike should matter.

As a freelance writer, I’m constantly left with the feeling that the worst thing you can do is be yourself. There’s an idea of professionalism that goes with the territory, and it feels safer to hold to that and bury those unprofessional bits of myself for the duration of a job, and hopefully into perpetuity so that no one ever realises that I’m, well, me. You ask the set questions, you treat it like just another job.

It has an impact. I find myself far too often hesitating, scared to take that final step that might insult or offend, or not suit that pre-approved idea of who I should be. I look at my creative writing projects with a mind of keeping everyone happy, which of course is the death of creativity. I linger in that shadowland of purgatory rather than waging the war I want to. We’re such social creatures, and the quickest way to assert control is to promise isolation. Smile, or the boys won’t like you. Be professional, or no one will want to work with you.

In some places in the world, it’s said that the wild, seasonal winds bring change. And it’s a still day, but I like the imagery, so screw it. There’s a reason the winds of change is a common trope. Life is heading in new, brilliant directions, against the grain of the best laid plans of mice and men.

I got to interview one of my childhood heroes recently. Always a terrifying prospect. How can anyone live up to the image in your head of them? What if they’re mean, what if it destroys your ability to look fondly at those memories you’ve cherished?

The first time I heard DAAS, it was a revelation. I realised that I didn’t have to smile, and I didn’t have to care so much about what other people thought. I could be angry (and gods, was I an angry teenager), and it was okay. I could be crass, or sarcastic, or not suffer fools, and it would be fine. There were other people out there who were angry and sarcastic and who didn’t want to be liked by the people we’re constantly told need to like us.

It stole my breath, that realisation. Those three comedians shaped my personality in a fundamental way. They taught me the value of stepping through that hesitation, of choosing to be me instead of being that cookie-cutter idea of who people might like. I don’t always live up to it, I still hesitate far too often, but there’s power in accepting that the world probably won’t love you, and you’ll survive it.

Once upon a time, I’d have turned down the interview, too scared of pretending I could match wits with a comedy genius. If I’d somehow agreed, I’d have done the standard questions, and hidden away from the risk of making an idiot of myself by deviating from the tried and true. I’d go the professional option because that’s what’s expected. A while back, I talked about trickster energies, and it dawned on me that this was a total trickster moment. I could build a pillow fortress of professionalism around myself and pretend it would protect me from being an anxious little penmonkey. Or I could shrug, and see what happened when I approached it as a game rather than a deeply serious experience.

So I asked questions, but not always the ones he’s used to. I jumped in and asked for information when I didn’t understand something (rather than pretending to be on his level and freaking out researching it later), and I sassed back rather than nodding along. I gave him space to go on tangents, rather than trying to control where the conversation went. I approached the interview as me- flawed, fucked up sense of humour me, not the professional me I spend a lot of time pretending to be- and let it be whatever the hell is became.

I felt that hesitation, of course I did. It’s a scary thought to consider that someone you respect won’t like you as you really, truly are. But you know what? Comedians are really, really good at rolling with deviations from the routine. They kinda thrive on it. That twenty minute span of time ended up going for just shy of an hour, and it was fun.  And instead of a dry, boring Q&A, we had a conversation. It was weird, it was surreal, and yeah, I couldn’t keep up (and why should a non comedian be able to hold her ground against someone who has been rocking the scene since before she was born?)

And here’s the part that still baffles me: he gave me homework. Read ‘The Man In The Ring’ by Teddy Roosevelt. Which, fyi, is this:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

The interview ended with some fatherly advice, which was desperately needed: it’s time to stop idly watching and commenting on other people’s work, and to get my work out there. It’s time to stop waiting, and start dream chasing.

 

The truth is that I’m part way there- I love writing work, I love reading as my job. But, I know I can do more. So when one of the foundational figures of your life tells you to get your shit together and get the novel written (and try stand up comedy, but that’s a story for another day), really? How do you argue against that?

So, yeah. This is me, stepping up and getting shit happening. Wish me luck, and an overabundance of coffee. And if you see me IRL, pester me about the MS, will you?

Smart People Talking: Michael Robotham

Michael Robotham
Image courtesy of Michael’s social media.

Sometimes, life is beautiful, and you get to interview writing heroes, and pick their brains about how they go about creating their fictional worlds. I really, really love those moments.

Michael Robotham was kind enough to let me interview him For Hush Hush Biz while he was in town on his Close Your Eyes book tour, just days before he beat Stephen King and J.K Rowling to the ultimate crime writing award: the Golden Dagger. I was very, very awed.

So without further ado, it’s Robotham time:

 

What drew you to crime writing?

I’m very much an accidental crime writer. When I wrote my first novel, I wrote 117 pages which became the subject of a bidding war at the London Book Fair, and I had no idea it was a crime novel, I had no idea how it ended. I was as surprised as anyone. I knew it was going to be one of those Hitchcock-ian, suspenseful, wrong man, wrong time, wrong place stories, but I didn’t think I was becoming a crime writer. When it came out, I got asked all the time, everywhere I went ‘why crime’, and I guess going back over a long career as a journalist, I could see there were seeds there. The fascination was sort of why things happened. Not so much the what, the when, but why. I was always more interested in the why than anything else.

 

There’s an idea that certain people write certain genres for certain reasons. So, crime writers are all about making things ordered, and horror writers are about working through their fears. Do you think it’s quite as psychological as that?

To me, maybe, I’m probably more on the horror side than the ordered side. It’s often said that one of the great appeals of crime novels are the sense of order that they have, that order is restored: the bad guys get their comeuppance, the good guys triumph, and in the real world that doesn’t always happen. People gain comfort from that, and that’s one of the reasons they read crime. I fall more into that area with psychological thrillers, the fact that people like being scared. It’s the reason ghost stories have been told around campfires since we were cave painting.

All my fears, all my nightmares involve my wife and daughters being in jeopardy. Maybe I’ve put fears like that on the page in some way to ward them off. I’ve never tried to analyse it too much, for obvious reasons.

I think they’re more psychological than procedural. Police procedural ones, they very much rely on the layering of clues and putting things in order, and working things out. My books tend to be the sort that make you want to check the doors are locked.

 

Close Your Eyes is a really unsettling book, especially in terms of the menace and threat toward the female characters. Given how often in the media violence against women is being explored, did that influence your writing?

It didn’t, although you’re absolutely right.

The book is dedicated to victims of domestic violence. I felt quite uncomfortable about the fact that in so many of my books, the people in jeopardy tend to be women or teenage girls. Even though we’ve had this terrible, terrible spate, and domestic violence is an absolute scourge, in reality, the group of people most likely to be murdered in this country are young men. And yet, very few crime novels write about the victims as young men.

The only person I’ve ever heard explain that to me was Tess Gerritsen, who is an American crime writer. All her victims are women, as well as her heroes. The heroes are strong women- it’s not as though they’re all just women tripping over tree roots and screaming for help from some man. They’re strong female characters, but the victims tend to be female. And she believes it’s because the majority of readers of crime fiction are women, and that those readers relate more closely when a woman is in danger then when a man is in danger.

She said that the one time in her books where she decided to have a man as the victim, she got feedback from her readers saying ‘we didn’t like that so much. We liked it when we could put ourselves in that position of running and trying to get away. We wanted that.’

I don’t imagine the world is a dangerous place. I know exactly that there are no more child murders now than there were 40 or 50 or 60 years ago. There are no more murders per head of population than there were that long ago. The world is no more dangerous now. The only thing that’s probably more dangerous is riding a bike on the streets ‘cause there’s more cars. In reality, it’s the 24 hour news cycle that has created this fear that we imagine that there are men in vans trying to pull children off every street corner, and that everything’s more dangerous. And it’s not true, but that doesn’t stop us still having fears. All I think I do is I tap into those everyday fears.

Every parent has been in been in the situation that at some point they have lost sight of their child in a busy supermarket or on the street. They’ve turned around, and they’re just not there. And it might only be 30 seconds, but it’s the most terrifying 30 seconds of their life. Or you’ve been in a situation where someone you love or care for has promised to be home at a certain hour and they’re late, and you can’t raise them, and all the gremlins creep in. I just tap into the age old fear.

 

Other than your fears, what inspires your novels?

I’ll never use the word ‘inspire’, because most of them are seeded. I don’t like to think that another crime would inspire me to write, ‘cause no one should be inspired by crime. But they’re all seeded in real life events. Close your Eyes was seeded in a true story from 1995, the murder of a woman called Janet Brown, in a farmhouse in Buckinghamshire. It’s an unsolved murder. She was found lying at the bottom of the stairs, naked, handcuffed. Savagely beaten. It’s never been solved, although really interestingly, the new techniques in DNA mean that they’ve now got a DNA sample, and the police are more confident that they might finally solve that crime after this long.

But that interested me, that case. Because there were so many elements of it that the police couldn’t understand in terms of… nothing was taken, she wasn’t sexually abused. But the way the person broke in and what he did in the house didn’t make any sense. So they called in a psychologist to help them. And the interesting thing the psychologist pointed out was that the mother lived with her teenage daughter. The teenage daughter would normally have been home that night, and the teenage daughter’s car was parked out front next to the mother’s car, but the daughter wasn’t home. So the thing the psychologist posed to the police: did he come for the mother, or did he come for the daughter? That was the question that stuck with me. And that’s when I created the murders in Close Your Eyes. As you know, both mother and daughter die, but they both die in very different ways. One left almost tenderly or reverentially, and the other shockingly violated. But how do you work that out? Because one crime contains such anger, and the other crime contained, it’s not so much love, but there’s something there, tenderness almost. That’s what I was interested in exploring.

 

Quite a few writers have boundaries that they set around what they will or will not write about. Do you have any taboos that you avoid, or are reluctant to explore?

I’ve never harmed a child. Peter Temple and I were once interviewed about if there was a taboo area, and Peter said that, ‘we could boil a baby and eat it with truffles and that would be fine. But heaven help you if you harm a family dog.’ And I did test that theory out in a book called Bleed For Me where the family pet dies horribly. And I’ve never had so much hate mail from readers. Even my own mother, you know. I found it quite perverse, that people would come to me and say, ‘I was enjoying the book up until then.’ So they enjoyed the grooming of the schoolgirl by the teacher, they enjoyed the shocking murder she was blamed for, they enjoyed this, but the dog scene was beyond the pale. I’m an animal lover, but I still thought that was perverse.

As dark as the books are, the violence is always off camera. I’ve never, and I would never, describe a particularly violent rape or a torture scene. I would never describe it. And I know that in a book called Say You’re Sorry, which is about two teenage girls that go missing, and it turns out they’ve been abducted, I know some people thought that I had put this terrible scene in this book. I had them argue with me, and they said, ‘That was a horrendous scene that you wrote.’ And I said, ‘What scene?’ and they said ‘Well, you wrote this.’ I said, ‘No I didn’t. Go back and look at it again.’ I didn’t describe it- in their imagination, they imagined this, but all I described was people’s reactions after the event. And in their mind, they had painted the whole thing in their head. That’s what I will do. It’s like classic Hitchcock, where you never see it. Even in that famous scene in Psycho, the shower scene, you never see the knife going into the person, you just hear music and the curtain. And yet people, their imaginations describe that as one of the most frightening scenes ever put on film, and you see virtually nothing.

 

Do you think that’s the stronger way to go about writing violent scenes?

I think it is. I think there is no greater tool for the writer than the reader’s imagination. That is the greatest tool we have. We are in a sense manipulators. We manipulate your emotions. Hopefully we make you laugh, cry, scare you. Whatever. Sometimes we want you to look at our right hand while our left hand is planting a clue, so that later you go back going, ‘Why didn’t I see that?’ All writing is about manipulating your reader. That’s the great power of the book. That’s why so many famous books struggle to be filmed- because people have this picture already in their head about what the characters look like, and the imagination is the most vibrant technicolour 3D adventure playground that we have.

 

Clearly, you’ve spent a lot of time researching the crime that seeded Close Your Eyes. How do you go about researching, and making your books so realistic?

I was very fortunate to work in the UK many years ago with a guy called Paul Britton. He’s the forensic psychologist that Cracker was based upon.

Paul Britton worked on that Janet Brown case I mentioned, the unsolved case. So my knowledge, a lot of it comes from working closely with him.

I mean, I do walk the streets, to the point where it is so accurate that the lawyers come to me and say, ‘That farm house, where the mother and daughter are murdered, does it exist?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Is it where you describe it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Does it look the way you describe it?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Someone lives there, and you’ve just put two bodies in their house. You have to change the location.’ So I will have to go back and alter it to make sure I don’t upset someone. But I will try to be as accurate as possible.

The psychology, I try to get right. All the villains I write, there’s a reason that they become the person they become. They’re not just born from nothing. There’s a reason that they become twisted and do certain things. There’s a family background of abuse. In his case, losing his mother, and then the brutal father and all those things that feed into it.

 

That’s one of the things I really love about your books. It’s never just about a diagnosis. Shows like Criminal Minds are all about the label they can give the criminal- ‘Oh, he’s a psychopath. Oh, he’s a sociopath.’ You actually make it real, and it’s scarier because it’s not just a title, it’s a person, and it’s someone any of us could become.

It’s not a science, psychology. It’s not exact, so you can make mistakes. In the end, if someone got murdered in this room now, and a psychologist came in, he could only deal with what he could see. And at times, and the classic was with Paul Britton, when he was working, and he worked on the cases like Fred and Rosemary West, and Jamie Bollinger, and a lot of celebrated cases. If he looked and couldn’t see a psychological print, almost, of the person that did it, he’d just say ‘I can’t help you. There’s not enough information here for me.’

It’s only when he could walk into a crime scene and could see things that tell him something about the person that did it. The way they’ve done something. The way they’ve broken in, the way they’ve tied the knot. Whether they’ve got an organised mind or a disorganised mind. How well they plan for their escape. All of this says something about their level of intelligence, what their level of education would be, what sort of relationships they would have. How quickly they disappeared, so how well they knew the area…

But if you come upon a scene where there’s no clues, the psychologist simply says to the police, ‘I can’t help you. I’d just be guessing.’ That’s why I don’t really watch those shows like Criminal Minds. ‘Cause oftentimes, yeah. And it’s also, the Americans do it differently. They use empirical data. They profile differently to the UK.

The reason Paul Britton has this knowledge is he spent 30 years working with the criminally insane in Broadmoor in secure psychiatric hospitals. He knows their deepest, darkest fantasies. He’s coming from the basis that he knows the way they think. In America, they come from the basis of having 100 years of every detail of every rape and every murder put into a computer, and you can pump the new details of each new crime and almost spit out a profile based on computer modelling as opposed to what Paul Britton does.

 

It sounds like the UK version would be somewhat more accurate.

It depends on the skill of the profiler, and it’s interesting, as it’s shown in this book, where I’ve introduced the character of The Mindhunter, Milo Coleman. A man that thinks he’s a profiler, who thinks he can do what Joe does. That’s the difference between the good profiler and the bad one. I make a point about that. There’s a line very early on where Joe says he can’t understand how some of these psychologists and profilers get excited about it. Joe hates doing this. How can you get excited about a murder? Someone’s dead. He calls them glory hounds.

 

How important is setting in your work?

Not as important as it is for a lot of writers. I think I could have written that same story in another part of England. I could have chosen to set it somewhere else other than Cleveland in North Somerset. So in that sense, the setting, it didn’t dictate where the story was. The story wasn’t dictated by the setting in any way.

I think it’s important to get it right, though, because there are a lot of people reading my books live in that area.

 

It’s common for protagonists in crime and thrillers to have some fatal flaw- it used to be alcoholism for private eyes. You’ve given Joe Parkinson’s, and it’s fantastic to see a character having to learn to live around his illness and not being shown as just a victim. But how hard is it for you to write his character?

I never intended Joe to be in any more than one book. When I gave him early onset Parkinson’s, I did it for two reasons. One was because I wanted this guy with a brilliant mind and a crumbling body. He wasn’t going to be Jack Reacher, or Jason Bourne, Or James Bond. He was going to have to out-think his way. But secondly, because I never thought I would use him again. I never thought he would be in another book. And I didn’t bring him back, really, until Shatter. Oh, he had a little role in Lost. But if I could go back, I would change it. Because he’s got a use-by date. It’s 11 years now since that first book. And he’s 11 years older. That’s 11 years with Parkinson’s. There’s a limit to how long he can go on. And as much as readers love the character, I do say to them, ‘There will come a time, and it’s not far away, where there won’t be any more Joe books.’ But it does mean that I have to do a lot of research into Parkinson’s.

I’m going to reach a time soon where he mentally cannot do what he’s doing. Eventually his mind will start to go. Because it happens with Parkinson’s, the body first, and then the mind. So I can’t keep him going forever.