Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Chinese Burn - the Return of Sam Blackett

I can't promise that this will still be the opening to Chinese Burn when I finish the book, but in the meantime, it's something to be going on with...

Sam Blackett looked up from the People's Pilsner that sat in front of her, beads of perspiration now rolling down the glass. Not a drop had passed her lips. It was a shame that she couldn't claim as much for the four or five that had come and gone before it. And she had started the evening with the very best of intentions... a cheap meal, then back to the hotel for an early night.
So what the hell was she now doing in the lush, white, art deco interior of the top floor restaurant of Shanghai's Peninsula Hotel? She had needed cheering up. And that would explain the first drink. The rest she could blame on Roger -- at least, she thought that his name was Roger. He'd approached her at the bar with a straight-forward, 'hello, can I buy you a drink?' After spending the last few days wandering around the city with only her own company, she had said yes without even thinking. And here they were, an eighty dollar steak and several bottles of People's Pilsner later.
He was staring out across the Huangpu River at the glowing swelter of light from the Bund. The temperature on the restaurant's terrace had dropped to no more than a couple of degrees below the sweat-sodden heat of the day. He turned back to her suddenly. "So, do you wanna go up to my room?" he said, his Midwest accent slightly burred with drink.
"Not particularly," she replied, and smiled.
Roger's shoulders twitched in a snort of laughter that died before it got to his throat.
"Well, I guess that's straight-forward," he said, and rose unsteadily to his feet. A moment later a flicker of alarm crossed his face and he lurched towards the railing.
"Whoa, steady," said Sam as she moved to grab him. They both peered down from the fourteenth floor. "Don't want to fall from here," she added, watching his face as she did so.
Roger harrumphed in a dangerously non-committal way, something dark momentarily crossing his face.
"Let me give you a hand, I think that last Mai-tai might have been too much," she said, a little crease between her eyebrows.
"Not sure it was that one in particular..." said Roger, his words starting to openly slur.
Typical, thought Sam; as soon as sex was off-the-table he let the alcohol steamroller him. The usual disappointment. He'd been such a good listener while she had explained how she came to be alone in a five star restaurant in Shanghai. An explanation that had somehow involved a fairly detailed description of the relationship-crash she had suffered in India with the man she had -- briefly, admittedly -- thought that she might spend the rest of her life with. And then the Esquire article's advice on which questions to ask had run out; or a natural need to talk had resurfaced. Either way, she had then listened to him slurp his way through half a dozen very expensive cocktails while moaning about the money problems his business was suffering back in Detroit.
Roger stumbled the first couple of steps towards the terrace doors, and then lurched to a halt by the next table. She stepped beside him and took a firm grip of his forearm. It looked like she was going to his room after all.
"Which floor are you on?" she asked.
"Four, oh, three. Rooooom four oh, threeee..." he replied. "Shhorryesh..." he added. "It hit when... stood up..." he blinked, very slowly, swaying slightly.
I bet it did, she thought, as she guided him unsteadily around the tables. He bumped into several of them, but there was only one other couple left in the terrace bar, and they were very self-absorbed, away in the far corner. She got Roger into the restaurant, more careful to steer him away from contact now, as all the tables had been cleared and freshly laid. She checked her watch. It was almost three am.
They made it to the elevators. Roger sank against the wall as she pressed the call button.  A moment later, the elevator doors slid silently open and with a huge sigh, he pushed himself back off the wall. They stepped inside, Sam pressed the button for the fourth floor, and again in silence, they began the short descent.
Sam just had time to wonder how easy it would be to find a cab to get back to her hotel at this time of night, when they stopped and the doors slid open. The notice on the wall opposite told her which way they needed to go, and she levered Roger out into the corridor. He was now struggling to stand, and she had to get his arm over her shoulders to help support him the fifty yards to his room.
She propped him back against the wall beside the door, and helped him find his keycard, tucked conveniently into the top pocket of his suit jacket. She opened the door and got him up off the wall. He lurched around the corner into the room. Sam felt that she had done her duty and, anxious not to give him the wrong message, she let him go and stayed on the threshold. He stopped a few paces into the room when he realised that she was no longer with him, and turned.  He was standing there looking at her, very drunk and faintly disappointed, when the man came at him from behind the still open door. There was no time for any reaction to reach Roger's face before the assailant was on him.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Sorry, I’ve Got a Book to Write...

The monthly diary reminder just popped up to tell me that the next time I get a few spare minutes, I really should write a blog. The trouble is that I’ve just about reached a stage in the new novel (Chinese Burn) where it’s got some momentum and a life of its own. I can see the end. So, much as I’d like to give you my thoughts on the first ever Jack Reacher novel (which I'm about half way through)… it’ll have to wait till I’ve finished my own.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Homeland – Season Four Finale

It’s been a couple of weeks since Season Four of Homeland finished, and I posted on Facebook at the time that I thought this Guardian review was generous.

I posted that the final episode was botched together after they learned that they had got the money for Season 5… and perhaps I should explain that a little more with some wild and completely unsubstantiated speculation...

So let’s imagine it’s early in the first US transmission, and the writing team are meeting to agree the trajectory of the final episodes of Season Four which still have to be shot. The ratings aren’t going particularly well, and it looks like they won’t get the money for Season Five. So they say to hell with it, let’s finish it with a bang…

Let’s kill Saul off before he can get out of Pakistan. Then Quinn kills Haqqani with a pipe bomb attack, and goes down in a hail of bullets. Carrie watches him die helplessly, goes home to mourn him and her father both, but takes on the role of mother to her child after leaving the CIA.

Brilliant! Action packed to the finale, all tied up in a tragic-but-happy ending that makes complete sense with what’s gone before, with Carrie finally out of the self-destructive job. The End.

Then they start showing the episodes with the attack on the embassy, and suddenly there’s a huge surge in ratings. The cash tills ring and the studio execs demand more… suddenly the money is on the table for Season Five. Uh-oh, but everybody dies, or retires! Quick! Rewrite! Reshoot!

So they fudge the last episode and the final couple of minutes of the penultimate one with completely new material. Saul doesn’t die. Quinn is persuaded by Carrie not to blow up Haqqani (really?), and lo and behold – deux ex machina grinding audibly in the background – it’s all ok, the CIA have it covered after all! Dar Adal is in the car with Haqqani!

Implausible. Unlikely. Improbable… and lots of other synonyms.

Then they have to shoot a new final episode, back in the US with none of the locations they have used for the rest of the season. So they come up with the ridiculous mechanic of the mother turning up.

“Good drama tends to let characterisation guide the plot, so to have such a significant figure turn up merely to help Carrie learn a couple of life lessons was very weak indeed,” said the Guardian. No s##t.

I rest my case. And on to the Game of Thrones, which I got for Christmas…

Friday, 12 December 2014

Never Go Back

One of those questions that you get asked pretty regularly as a writer is... what do you read? The short answer is not as much as I’d like these days, while the slightly longer answer is the same stuff that I write. I’ve always been a big thriller reader, ever since I discovered that there were James Bond books as well as movies...

I’ve just finished Never Go Back, the latest but one of the Jack Reacher series from Lee Child, one of the top thriller writers of this generation. There are now 19 of these books, one a year from when he started. While Child maintains a very even level of quality in the books that I have read, I have to say that this wasn’t the strongest ending I’ve ever seen.

In fact, it was pretty feeble – I’m not going to spoil it for you, but it led me to start thinking… what is it about writers that people keep going back to them even when they have just delivered a bad book? Not that Never Go Back is a bad book, it’s just a poor ending – but I’m already cue-ing up the new one, regardless of my disappointment. Never Go Back is prophetic, I will, even if I shouldn't...

It’s simply not true to say that you are only as good as your last book.

I think the willingness to stay with an author has something to do with the amount of time we invest in a book. If a movie’s rubbish, it’s a couple of hours you aren’t going to get back. If a book’s rubbish, or has a disappointing ending, it’s the best part of a day that we’ve wasted.

Now – if we take into account that the vast majority of readers only read a couple of books a year – we start to see why they are so conservative. If you were only going to have two cups of coffee in 2015, you’d make damn sure that they were good ones.

It’s not surprising that breaking down this conservativeness in book selection is nigh on impossible. The only chink is to appeal to the much smaller proportion of people who read a lot – they are the only ones who will take a risk on the new. And to do that, I’m starting to think that you really have to write for a niche. And then market hard to that niche. Everyone else just wants to read the same stuff as everyone else. Bad endings or not.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Back on the Blog

I just checked the date of the last post on this blog and it’s the 28th March 2014. It’s just over six months ago, and it happens to be the day when my wife and I moved with our eight month old son to our new house.

It wasn’t far. The new house is in the same village as the old house. It’s probably no more than a hundred metres as the crow flies. That didn’t make it any less stressful. It was pouring with rain. The sellers were late moving out. The boy was tired and grumpy.

Then we got the keys, walked inside, and had one of those oh my god moments. We  had a lot of work to do. In comparison to replacing the leaking conservatory and the ancient boiler, fixing dodgy taps and dripping cisterns, changing carpets, painting outside and inside… In comparison to this, blogging didn’t seem that important. Nor did writing books. Or even reading them. Even my beloved twitter account lay dormant for a long, long while…

Sometimes life just gets in the way, but I’m pleased to say that this particular slice of life is now over. The house is cosy and functional and ready for the winter storms that already seem to be whistling around my new office in the attic. I got the new novel out again today, dusted it off, and started writing. I’m half-way through reading a cracking Jack Reacher and I might even have restarted twittering... and next month, I’m going to blog about writing again.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Last Lines…

I blogged about opening lines of novels a while back, but the endings are just as interesting, if not more so. The Huffington Post recently gathered together some of their favourites, and it’s an article worth a look. There are some fantastic last lines, I think my favourites from this list would have to be either from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Or from George Orwell’s Big Brother; "He loved Big Brother". The latter is so wonderfully bleak – something that contemporary film studios could learn from – whatever happened to the brutal, unhappy endings?

Another that pushes those two close is this one; “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” Where else could that come from but The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad?

What about you, any favourite last lines?

This is also a good moment to fess up to a guilty secret. I lifted the last line of my first novel, The Defector, from my favourite book. It fitted perfectly - ‘Sometimes you just know these things’ - and it seemed like a suitable tribute to pay to a book that kinda changed the path of my life. So can anyone out there guess which book it comes from, and does anyone have a copy on their real or virtual shelf?

Friday, 28 February 2014

Cool Gus and the Existential Crisis

They say that having children changes your life and they are right – but the bald statement does nothing to prepare you for the moment when that gurgling, crying bundle is in your arms for the first time. It would take a book to communicate just what that means and how your life changes over the ensuing weeks and months, and I’m sure there are lots of good ones... but don’t hold your breath waiting for mine.

Some of the consequences of Aiden’s arrival became clear very quickly; the regular trips to the gym, the surfing and paddle-boarding, movie nights and bike rides all went immediately. Eating out with my wonderful wife survived a bit longer, at least until regular child bedtimes became a necessity. Reading and watching tv struggle on in the gaps in the household routine, at least when I don’t just keel over with the sheer overwhelming exhaustion of it all.

Babies absorb the time and energy of their parents like black holes absorb light. Get over it. All of the above were luxuries and I know that one day those things will be back in my life. Meanwhile, I have the joy of the smiles, laughter and astonishing growth and development of my little boy to weigh against what’s gone.

Other consequences have been slower to emerge. For a while now I’ve pursued a career as a novelist around the edges of a career as a journalist and non-fiction writer. Followers of this blog will have watched my thrillers transition from big trade publishing houses to independent- or self-publication. I’ve charted the process of commissioning covers and editors, of formatting, finding translators, booking adverts and writing blurbs.

It’s been a blast and before Aiden, I had time to do all this and to write the books. But suddenly time has become a lot more precious and I now find myself making choices that I don’t want to make. Should I reformat the backlist to include links to the newly published book, or write another 500 words on the work-in-progress? Should I book an advert and run a price promotion, or write another 500 words on the work-in-progress?

I’ve been choosing the  former (and the short-term gain) far too often. The consequence has been that the work-in-progress just isn’t progressing. I’m a lot less philosophical about that than I am about the surfing and movies; writing fiction isn’t so much a luxury as a fundamental part of who I think I am… cue a minor existential crisis.

All this was in my mind when I was flicking through my blogroll over the Xmas holidays, and I found Bob Mayer talking about expanding his Cool Gus publishing list in 2014. I’ve been a regular follower of the work of Bob and his partner Jen Talty for a couple of years now, and I very much like what they do, how they operate and their strategic view of the fast-changing publishing world.

So I emailed them the same day, we chatted a bit on email and then on Skype, and to cut a long story short, I’m very pleased to say that Cool Gus will be taking over the publication of all my novels, old and new, starting right now. Jen is already working on new covers (the first of which you can see here, a stunning new cover for Powder Burn), and you will soon start to see the changes roll out on Amazon, in the iBookstore and on the Nook.

There will be so many advantages to this that I barely know where to start - editorial support and help, new energy and ideas for marketing, great production facilities... and of course - although we still have a lot of work to do to get the new editions out - it will soon leave me much more time to write new fiction. I can’t wait to get back to it... :-)