Tell, don’t show and ‘voice’. What I learned from Alex by Pierre Lemaitre

This is the second post in an occasional series (it was supposed to be monthly, but… well, you know… life, etc.) in which I write about crime novels that I have not simply enjoyed, but also learned from and been influenced by. This installment features French ‘literary’ thriller Alex.

Alex is actually part 2 of a trilogy, but its success meant that it was translated into English before the first book. It can be read as a standalone. I hear part one (Irene) is great, though, so you could start with that if you wanted to…

Anyway, what did I learn from ‘Alex’?

Well, first up, let’s talk about that term, ‘literary’ thriller. What does it mean? I could write a very long blog post just about that. But I’ll try and sum it up in one paragraph.

Some people make a division between literary fiction and genre fiction, and thrillers are one of those genres. Literary fiction is usually more focused on character and language, while thrillers are more about plot. In some literary fiction, it feels like nothing is happening, while in some thrillers, the characters are a little flat and the prose is ‘workmanlike’, but a hell of a lot happens. In reality, though, many books are somewhere in the middle. Silence of The Lambs is beautifully written and has some great characters, including one of the most memorable of all time, for example. Which brings me to Alex.

In some respects, Alex is a very conventional crime novel. We have a detective with a tragedy in his past trying to solve a crime in the present. The detective has a distinctive quirk – he is very short – and he is also an investigative genius. We have a kidnapping, clues, red herrings, interviews, all that stuff. And yet, as a whole, the book is anything but conventional. It starts off as a hostage thriller, then morphs into something completely different. I believe great books are those that combine three things: a surprising, entertaining story; compelling, well-drawn characters; and distinctive, effective writing. Alex certainly has the first two covered. There is simply no way that, after the first couple of chapters, you will have any idea how the story is going to progress and eventually end. The book also features chracters who are complicated and human. And the reason it probably gets that ‘literary’ tag is the way it’s written.

I read a pretty aggressive one star review of Alex on a well known book reviewing site (clue: the first part of the name is the opposite of bad, the second is what you do with a book. And there’s an ‘s’ on the end). The reviewer’s issues with the book were numerous, but many of them were concerned with the fact that Lemaitre breaks a lot of the ‘rules’ that are drummed into novice writers: don’t use the passive voice; don’t spend too much time in the characters’ heads; don’t switch POV mid-scene; don’t be too wordy, especially in a thriller; and for God’s sake, avoid TELLING.

Now, I can see why the reviewer said these things. But unfortunately, if you want to not simply be a competent writer, but a great one, you are going to have to break some rules. Well, actually there are no cast iron rules. You can use the passive voice, for example, but you need to understand when it is or isn’t effective. And good et riding is about knowing when to show and when to tell.

If you read Alex, you will probably notice that it’s quite different from some more traditional thrillers. They often feel ‘cinematic’ because they describe a lot of physical action, rather than thoughts and opinions. In fact, this applies to the first chapter of my novel, PsychoAnalysis, which is pretty action packed. Sure, we get a bit of internal monologue here and there, but there aren’t long paragraphs dealing with the characters’ thoughts. If you want to thrill the reader, things need to happen.

But an entire book like that is effectively a screenplay, and one that doesn’t benefit from all the things you can do with images and sounds on film. In a novel, the writer has the ability to put the reader in the characters’ heads. But he also has the ability to talk directly to the reader. (Yes, you can do that with a voiceover in a film, but voiceovers can be a bit clunky because they’re so obviously seperate from the images and dialogue of the film. This isn’t the case for words on a page.)

What stands out about Alex is Lemaitre’s voice. This is a concept that can cause headaches for novice writers. They write stories with twists and turns, they do a lot of showing, rather than telling. They write eventful scenes and the writing is grammatically correct. And yet the feedback they get is that something is missing. Perhaps this quality people often talk about: voice. What does it mean? Well consider the opening sentences from a couple of novels that I’ve plucked from the bookshelf in the holiday apartment I’m staying in:

Eight days ago my life was an up and down affair. Some of it good. Some of it not so good. Most of it uneventful.

As no lady or gentleman, with any claims to polite breeding, can possibly sympathise with the Chuzzlewit Family without being first assured of the extreme antiquity of the race, it is a great satisfaction to know that it undoubtedly descended in a direct line from Adam and Eve; and was, in the very earliest times, closely connected with the agricultural interest.

Lee Child and Charles Dickens, from Personal and Martin Chuzzlewit. It’s obvious that those passages were written by two different writers, isn’t it? Two different voices. Distinctive voices.

Here are two passages from Alex:

Camille Vehoeven never shouts. Or very rarely. He is a man of authority. He may be short, bald and scrwany, but this is something that everyone knows. Camille is a razor blade.

Kidnapping is a singular crime: unlike murder, the victim is not present; you have to imagine them.

It took me a while to unlock what makes Lemaitre’s writing voice distinctive. Then I noticed that he uses lots of short declarative sentences like those above. “He is a man of authority… Camille is a razor blade…Kidnapping is a singular crime.”

Ok, there’s a bit of figurative language, like the use of razor blade, but that isn’t particularly original. The key thing is that Lemaitre writes with authority. The narrator tells you things, he expresses opinions.

If you read books on a Kindle, you can see the sentences that other readers of a book have underlined. And in my experience, there are two types of sentences that are underlined more than others: descriptions that use figurative language, and declarative sentences that contain an opinion. Readers respond to metaphors that describe something familiar in a new way like Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” But they also respond to more straightforward statements like the first line of Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Now, I’m not saying that everyone needs to write like this. I’m simply describing some of the characteristics of Lemaitre’s voice, some of the things that make his writing stand out. And that quality of standing out is vital – it’s one of the things that elevates writers from novice to pro.

Omniscient narration (like Dickens uses above) has become unfashionable – it is much more common for stories, especially thrillers, to be told in the first person or close third person, where we only have access to the thoughts of the POV character. These points of view bring the reader closer to the characters and help create, for example, a real sense of peril when the characters are in danger. Now, a first person narrator can express opinions freely, but in close third POV, declarative sentences like those quoted above raise the question of who is having that thought. Camille Verhoeven is not thinking “Camille is a razor blade.” That comes from the narrator. We’re not in Camille’s head, someone else is describing him.

So what’s better, telling the story from the precise point of view of the characters, or the point of view of a narrator who is one step removed from the characters and therefore creates a degree of distance from those characters? There is of course no right answer. And you don’t actually have to choose. You can start a scene from a distance and then get closer. But Lemaitre doesn’t do that. He maintains some distance all the way through. And yes, for me, it made the story a little less pulse-quickening. However, Alex is a book that I almost enjoyed more after I’d finished it compared with when I read it. There was a depth to it that meant it lingered in my mind for a long time.

At the moment, people seem to love stories featuring an unreliable narrator. Why? Well, perhaps it’s because all humans are unreliable narrators. When we tell a story, it is coloured by our perception and our experience. A story told in close third person POV may lack some of the human quirks that we’re used to when interacting with other people. One of the biggest compliments anyone ever paid me was that reading one of my scenes was like sitting next to somebody in a bar while they told a story. That, for me, is the pinnacle of writing achievement: when my words jump off the page and speak to somebody as though they were actually being spoken by another human being. And yes, sometimes you want the narrator to get out of the way so that you can experience things from the perspective of the characters. But there will also be occassions where it might be more effective for the narrator to talk to the reader, to tell them things, to express their views. Because, as we all know, a part of being human is having an opinion, isn’t it?

The trouble with men…and starting again (Part 2)

Before I wrote PsychoAnalysis, I completed a bad thriller – essentially John Grisham’s The Firm rewritten in the world of hedge funds and featuring a protagonist who slept with every single female character – and spent years playing around with a sci-fi story influenced by a couple of books I’d enjoyed (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Futuretrack 5). I had always been a reader as well as a bit of a film buff. I loved stories and felt an urge to create them. But the urge wasn’t strong enough, and my skills weren’t good enough, to produce a decent novel.

Then I decided to write about a female serial killer and everything clicked. (Ok, I say everything clicked, but I spent two years writing six drafts and many hours in online writing workshops as well as reading books and essays on the craft of writing.)

With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious where my interests lie. And yet, even after writing PsychoAnalysis, I still didn’t take the hint until I’d struggled through the first drafts of three more stories.

I need to write books about tough female characters.

They say that everybody has at least one book in them. But fewer people have the ability to sit their arses down and bash out the words, writing and rewriting until the thing is done. Writing can feel like a real chore, especially when, like me, you spend ten hours a day doing a real job and you have kids. After a few weeks of fitting my writing around my lifestyle I typically feel burned out and need to take a break. I should just enjoy what little free time I have, I tell myself, entertaining thoughts of making enough money from the day job so that I can retire early and write full time. And then I stop writing and feel like something is missing from my life.

Writing is hard and I really don’t want to be doing it just because I feel I should. I want to be in the state I was in while writing PsychoAnalysis: consumed by an idea and obsessed with the person who has taken up residence in my head. I believe that the urge to write, to, as a grown man, spend my free time making up stories, is a kind of psychological flaw: while other people are enjoying each other’s company, I’m spending time with my make believe friends.

But those make believe people need to be worth my time, they need to drag me away from the compelling make believe people in great books and films and TV shows.

Now, a lot of the make believe people created by other writers that I enjoy spending time with are women, usually tough women. When I think about my favourite films and TV shows from the past few years – The Bridge, The Fall, Kill Bill, Spring Breakers (sorry, but I love that film), Under The Skin, Raw, Blue Is The Warmest Colour – they are very much stories about women. Even when I start to lose interest in the plot of The Bridge or The Fall, I will still tune in to watch Saga Noren or Stella Gibson. I felt sick when I witnessed that moment half way through the final episode of The Fall. And by the end of films like Under The Skin or Blue Is the Warmest Colour, I felt truly moved, so invested was I in the emotional state of the female protagonists.

The heart wants what the heart wants. I think a famous writer once wrote that… And my heart just isn’t as interested in men. I remember, before I had children, that I really wanted at least one daughter. It’s not that I don’t love my son – I love him to bits and I’m enjoying the fact that he’s turning into a car nut like his old man – but I’ve been a little boy and a man. I suppose I was looking forward to having a little girl and watching her develop into an adult. She will find herself in situations that I never encountered and face challenges that I never had to worry about.

I think in some ways, though, the way I write about women is cheating. There are endless stories about tough guys in violent situations. Simply put a woman in one of these scenes and you will often get something interesting from that switch. A man behaving in a certain way can seem like an arsehole, but a woman doing the same thing may provoke a more complex reaction: why is she behaving in an unexpected manner? A lot of people who read PsychoAnalysis end up rooting for Sarah Silver, the serial killer. I wonder if that would have happened if she was a man doing the same things?

Now, this is a controversial topic. A number of people criticised the first season of True Detective because it was all about tough guys and the women were just wives and whores. Then season two featured three men who were more vulnerable and a tough, knife-wielding female cop. Season one was, at times, the best thing I’ve ever seen on TV. Season two, which I forced myself to watch was… awful. Now, there were other things going on – the director left after season one, which was disastrous for a show that was all about mood – but I think a big part of the problem was that Nic Pizzolato felt like he had to write something that didn’t come naturally to him. There are people who find tough guys fascinating and people who think they’re dicks. Of course we don’t want all films to feature women as eye candy. But I think it’s wrong to single out a specific TV show for criticism. I loved season one of True Detective, but I also love The Bridge. They’re both great.

I suppose people could criticise my stories because in some ways I make my women more like men. They are cold and tough and violent. But then of course you could ask why should women be portrayed as more emotional and reluctant to use violence? It’s also interesting that a lot of the female characters I respond to were created by men. Is there something that they, and I, are trying to express with these women?

Perhaps. There’s an old saying: write what you know. For me, it’s more a case of writing what you love. And right now, I’m excited and nervous and motivated to write. Because a female detective has taken up residence in my head. And she doesn’t take shit from anyone.

The trouble with men…and starting again

First off, I apologise for using such a clickbaity headline. A more accurate title would be “My problems with male characters… and starting again.” And in fact, it should be the other way round, because this is a two part post and the men bit doesn’t really come until the second installment. But… if you’re reading this, then the trick worked… ha ha, you fools!… I mean thank you, dear reader for indulging me.

Let me begin.

Last week, I hit forty thousand words of the first draft of a novel, which has the working title Who Killed Roger Toomey? That follows the twenty two thousand words of another story, Sleepers, that I wrote at the start of the year, before abandoning it, and the fifty thousand words I wrote for NaNoWriMo in November, which I haven’t so much as looked at since then. So, as I’m not exactly a prolific blogger, but I’m writing this, the big question is: have I abandoned the third novel in a row?

I recently saw a successful debut author tweeting that they had deleted something like twenty thousand words of the first draft of their next book.  And I’ve seen other authors talking about doing the same thing. The experience seems to be traumatic but cathartic, with writers emerging from it hopeful that the new words will be superior to the deleted ones.

Have I been holding down my delete key while tears stream down my cheeks?
In a word, no.

Writers put themselves under a lot of pressure. And, as with so many things, modern life makes this situation tougher. Every week, I see social media posts from prolific authors who are publishing their second, third or even fourth novel in a year. I see posts from people who have hit a bestseller list or been nominated for an award. And there are debut authors who were totally unknown a few months ago and are now receiving praise from the Stephen Kings and Lee Childs of this world. It’s natural to want a piece of that.

I planned to write and rewrite a novel that would be ready for people to read by the end of the year. And yet here I am at the end of April and I know for a fact that neither Who Killed Roger Toomey? nor Sleepers nor the NaNoWriMo story will ever be published in anything like their current state.

But I certainly haven’t deleted those stories while sobbing like a baby and pouring myself a glass of Pinot Gringo (admittedly that’s partly because I don’t really drink wine – I’m a lager swilling double hard bastard).

Who Killed Roger Toomey? is essentially a cozy(ish) murder mystery in which jovial detective Bob Knox investigates the murder of famous writer Roger Toomey. Which is weird, because I don’t really enjoy that type of book. I tend to prefer gritty crime fiction. Now, Sleepers was more along those lines, a serial killer story set in a corrupt town.  And the NaNoWriMo book was about a man who regained consciousness at a grisly crime scene and had to work out what he was doing there.

But there was a running theme in those stories: they were all driven by male characters. Toomey features a male detective investigating the murder of a man and delving into his past. Sleepers does have an interesting female character, but she emerges late in the story. The NaNoWriMo novel featured a female psychological profiler, but the narrative was driven by the man who may or may not be a murderer.

All these stories had things going for them. But I didn’t obsess over them. And none of the characters took over my brain in the way that Sarah Silver from PsychoAnalysis did.

And then, last week, a thought popped into my head: what if jovial detective Bob Knox became detective Kerry Knox, a woman with a violent past? And what if the story ceased to be cozy but featured a female detective up against men who want to humiliate and kill her?

And even better than that, Kerry would fit perfectly into Sleepers (book two!). Previously, I had to kill the male detective’s wife and make him a single parent, a clichéd way to create sympathy for him. But Kerry will be a woman taking on powerful men, a much more interesting dynamic.

So I won’t be deleting the hundred and ten thousand words I’ve written in the past few months. I’ll be rewriting what I’ve got, using some of the scenes and characters and basic story line of Who Killed Roger Toomey? but also making some big changes.

Some people would probably be frustrated with this situation, having ‘wasted’ months writing things that will never see print. But I’ve learned a lot while producing all those words. Sometimes you have to find out what doesn’t work before you can create something that does. And one thing I’ve discovered about myself is that I need to write dark stories with strong female characters. That leads me nicely on to part 2, which discusses this very topic and will be published soon…

What I’ve Been Reading – March 2017

Forgive me readers, for it has been over three months since my last blog post. I know the last one was supposed to be the first in a monthly series, but… well, you know, the best laid plans and all that. I will be resuming the ‘What I learned from’ series soon, but in the meantime I wanted to write some quick reviews of the books I’ve been reading lately.

First up…

Alex by Pierre Lemaitre

“Literary thriller” is a label used to describe a wide variety of books. I’ll discuss it in more depth in a future post, but I prefer to define Alex as a “quality” thriller. For me, books are judged on story, character and writing. Alex was certainly a page turner, and a dark, violent one that blended elements of hostage thriller, serial killer story and police procedural. But a number of aspects elevated it above the average book in any of these genres. It was written with a distinctive voice; the characters were well drawn and explored in depth; and the story evolved into something utterly unexpected. As with many thrillers, it’s best to go into this story cold. Just be aware that there will be philosophical musings, a sub plot involving the auction of a picture painted by the detective’s mother, and plenty of violence. It’s French. And dark. And French.

Hollow Man by Oliver Harris

Pretty much all crime fiction – apart from perhaps cozy mysteries – seems to be called ‘noir’ these days. But for me, a noir story has to have an element of moral ambiguity. This is certainly something that features in Hollow Man. Detective Nick Belsey reminded me of an American PI rather than a typical British Detective – he breaks the law as much as he enforces it. The book starts off with a great scene in which Belsey wakes up hungover and bloody on Hampstead Heath, trying to piece together the events of the previous night. And he soon gets caught up in a complex case involving the disappearance of a secretive Russian billionaire. A densely plotted, well-written thriller full of intrigue and atmosphere.

Slow Horses by Mick Herron

This is a very contemporary thriller about MI5 and the kidnapping of a young Pakistani man by a far-right group. But it’s no humble page turner populated by stereotypical secret agents running around at a frantic pace. There is something wonderfully rich about the world that Mick Herron builds and the complex people that he populates it with. Slough House is a home for MI5 rejects, agents who have been put out to pasture after making fatal errors. And at the top of Slough House sits Jackson Lamb, an overweight, cynical genius with an appetite for sausage sandwiches and a lack of respect for authority. There are a lot of characters, and the plot is very dense at times, but then this is a spy thriller. I’ll be returning to Mick Herron’s books.

Rattle by Fiona Cummins

I went in to this with high expectations. A serial killer thriller with a villain to rival Hannibal Lecter? Yes please. But this is really more of a missing child story with a heavy focus on the parents of those children. And while it might draw attention to a book to make the Hannibal comparison, matching one of the great literary creations from one of the great crime writers is a pretty bold claim. Not a bad book, just not what I expected. There are people who enjoy crime stories that focus on ordinary folk in a domestic setting, but I’m not one of them.

The Galton Case by Ross Macdonald

This was an elegantly written piece of American noir from the fifties. PI Lew Archer is asked to locate the missing heir to a huge fortune. What follows is a mystery that twists and turns right to the very end as secrets are uncovered and identities are revealed.  Another writer I’ll be returning to.

Dead Girl Walking by Chris Brookmyre

This started off well, with an entertaining police interview that introduces new readers to journalist Jack Parlabane. And the story was an interesting one, alternating between Parlabane’s search for a missing rock star and the blog written by another band member before the disappearance. I should have loved this book, with its blend of humour and thrills. But it didn’t all fit together for me, partly because I can be very fussy when it comes to the way things are written. I would still urge people to check this out if they’re not familiar with the author. Objectively, I could see it was a good story but subjectively, it just wasn’t to my taste.

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

What? Literary fiction. Why would I want to read that? Well, this does have a plot featuring the theft of some very valuable celebrity memorabilia. But it’s also a description heavy book about a writer struggling to finish a mammoth novel. And like some literary fiction, it has parts that seem a little self indulgent – for me the section where Grady spends Passover at his wife’s house is unneccessary (and was cut from the film version). But Michael Chabon is a great writer who makes you love a philandering stoner by writing with so much humour and warmth. And he is the World heavyweight champion of figurative language. “As I came up the front walk I heard the racy laughter of a saxophone, and the glass in the windows hummed a walking bass line.” Racy laughter – what a perfect description of the sound a saxophone makes. A different kind of read for me, but an enjoyable one nontheless.

What I learned from…”Daisy in Chains” by Sharon Bolton

Thanks to an army of dedicated book bloggers, there’s never a shortage of reviews for any new book of note. You can find reviewers who share your tastes and function almost like a personal recommendation service. But what I haven’t seen much of is reviews of recent crime novels, geared towards writers who want to improve their craft. Why do I think that’s important? Well, if you want to be a great writer, you need to understand what makes a great book. And if you want to be successful, you need to know what kind of book today’s reader enjoys. So I’ve decided to start a monthly series on recent crime novels and what I’ve learned from them.

This month’s book – the first ever in this series – is “Daisy in Chains” by Sharon Bolton. Why have I chosen it? Well, I’ve just finished reading it. And I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a book this year more than Daisy in Chains.

It’s a mystery (not a thriller – the distinction is important) and tells the story of convicted serial killer Hamish Wolfe, and Maggie Rose, a defence lawyer with a track record of overturning convictions for violent men and writing bestselling books about the cases.

This is not your standard mystery, which is one of the things that makes it a great story. We already have a killer. But has the wrong man been convicted? That’s the mystery. Throw in beautiful writing that is descriptive, but not excessively so, as well as plenty of red herrings and a cast of well-drawn characters, who may or may not be hiding things, and you have a very satisfying and original serial killer story.

I love serial killers. I love no-nonsense female investigators. And I love well-written but pacy crime novels.

I was in heaven.

But what did I learn?

Lesson 1: You can start fast without a body.

There are two standard ways to start stories in this genre: a murder or, introduce your characters, then have a murder. Broadly, you could seperate those into ‘fast’ and ‘slow’.

Daisy in Chains doesn’t start with a murder, but it also doesn’t start slow. In fact, if you haven’t already bought the book (did you not hear what I said about it?!) I suggest you go straight to Amazon and read the first few pages.

The cover of Daisy in Chains actually didn’t do it for me. I thought it would be like a lot of thrillers: interesting plot but written in a ‘workmanlike’ manner.

But then I read the sample pages and realised that I could not have been more wrong.

The opening of Daisy in Chains is a masterclass in using suspense to introduce a character. There is a tense situation in which Maggie reveals what kind of person she is. And the events on the beach segue into a car journey and then the main plot.

Did I use the word masterclass already? But you know exactly what I’m talking about, because you’ve read it. Wait… you still haven’t read it? READ IT.

Lesson 2: Using setting and language to create a feeling of menace

There’s a scene in which Maggie is in a cave. She’s not in immediate danger, she’s just doing a bit of investigative work. But the cave is described like this:

She might almost imagine herself in the belly of some giant creature, that were she to reach out and touch the walls they would be warm, would yield to her fingers, be pulsating with blood.

Figurative language, in general, should be used more sparingly in crime novels, and certainly thrillers, than it would be in literary fiction. Too much description can slow the story down, while you run the risk, when describing something in terms of something else, of pulling the reader out of the story. But used in the right way, a good metaphor or simile can evoke feelings in the reader that heighten tension. In this example, a reference to blood and the belly of a giant creature add a sense of menace. It’s also a great example of showing rather than telling. We’re shown images from Maggie’s imagination and they make us feel what she feels, rather than being told how she feels.

Lesson 3: A new variation on something very old

If I had a dollar for every time a genre writer had written about pounding hearts and racing pulses, I would probably have more money than James Patterson, Lee Child and Harlan Coben combined. But human beings do tend to experience very specific physical responses when confronted with threats. Of course hummingbirds, bumblebees and butterflies have been done to death. So what’s the solution?

In Daisy in Chains, when one of the characters feels anxious, we get this:

The telltale symptoms of excitement are kicking in. Elevated heartbeat? Check. Damp underarms? Check. Tight feeling in his chest? All present and correct.

Sharon Bolton could have just written: “Pete’s heartbeart races, his armpits are sweaty and his chest is tight.” But by taking a little more care and using a rhythmic combination of short sentences, she better conveys a feeling of anxiety. And because Pete is a police officer, the use of “Check. Check. All present and correct.” is a good way to describe these sensations from the perspective of a man who is in the business of following procedures.

Lesson 4: Expand your horizons

Many books, as well as TV programmes and even some films, have a stage-show like quality. They contain small casts of characters in confined, specific locations. The most obvious example of this is soap operas, which can seem very artificial with their multiple linkages between characters, but no linkages with the outside world. (In contrast, TV series Mad Men, which you could argue is an upmarket soap opera, has: external characters, like clients and Don Draper’s girlfriends, drifting in and out; more varied locations, like the trips to California; an occasional focus on historical events like the JFK and Martin Luther King assasinations). Stories can be a bit thin without the added dimension of that outside world. One of the reasons Gone Girl (the film, I haven’t actually read the book) is so enjoyable is that, even though it’s a story about a married couple, the media plays a big part. There may be only two people at its core, but the whole country is watching them and interfering in their lives. So what about Daisy in Chains? This is a story that predominantly takes place in South West England and is told from the points of view of only two characters. But not only do we have the “Wolfe Pack” – a bunch of oddballs campaigning for Hamish’s release – we also have blog posts and news articles about the case. We have multiple external viewpoints and at times quite a novel way of dumping information about the case on to the reader. I actually didn’t like these at first. I’d bought the book because I thought it was going to be a beautifully written story; I liked the way Sharon Bolton’s prose kept the story moving along while also creating plenty of atmosphere. But in the middle of the book, when the news stories and blog posts disappeared, I actually missed them. Acknowledging that there is a world outside the immediate lives of your characters can add a sense of depth and realism to a story.

Lesson 5: Be consistent

However, when the news stories disappeared for a while in the middle of the book, my brain definitely noticed the change. Now, it’s entirely possible that I would have loved Daisy in Chains without them featuring at all. But when I’d had them for a while, then they were taken away, I noticed. It’s something to think about. Readers will pick up on inconsistencies in tone, structure, pace… pretty much anything.

Overall, though, this was a terrific book. An original take on the serial killer murder mystery that was intricately plotted and beautifully written. Definitely a book to enjoy as well as learn from.

Like what you’ve read? Sign up to subscibe to my blog at the top right of this page if you’re on a PC or tablet. Otherwise, come back in a month’s time. I’m currently reading Tall Oaks by Chris Whittaker, with Steph Broadribb’s Deep Down Dead and Little Deaths by Emma Flint on my radar. But I am a flightly little magpie, so I could get distracted and read something else for the next installment…

If you want to see if I can walk the walk as well as talk the talk, and you like serial killer thrillers, you might enjoy my novel PsychoAnalysis. Click HERE to view it on Amazon.


What I leaned from writing 50,000 words in one month

In November, I participated in NaNoWriMo, in which people all over the world attempt to write 50,000 words and produce the first draft of a novel. In a month. Yeah, a book in a month.


I started keeping a diary, but it quickly became clear that the last thing I needed to do was commit to writing even more words. In hindsight, it was a bit like winning a bet that involves eating 20 boiled eggs and celebrating with an omelette.

So, now that it’s all over, and I’ve had some time away from the keyboard, I thought it might be interesting to share what I learned.

Firstly, trying to write fast without a plan is tough. I’m a pantser – that means I don’t plan stories before I start writing them. I write “by the seat of my pants”. In fact, I’m an ultra-panster. I don’t make notes about characters, keep a notebook, anything like that. I keep all my ideas in my head and I believe that if they’re good enough, they’ll survive up there in the old noggin, competing for space with the shopping list of things I’ll buy when I’ve sold fifty million novels and had my work turned into a hugely successful HBO series. There are a lot of cars on that list. And a robot that looks like Christina Aguilera, but enjoys talking about crime novels, crime shows and crime films.

Well, I used to believe all that until I tried to write a book in 30 days, which means cranking out 1,667 words a day, every day.

When you know what you need to write, you can write it. It might not be a good scene, but that doesn’t matter for a first draft – get the words down. Someone’s found a body? Describe where it’s been found, the injuries, what the detective’s feeling. If I said to you “Go and write 1,667 words about a murder scene”, you could do it, right?

But what happens next? And after that?

Now, in the past, this wasn’t a problem for me, for two reasons. One, I didn’t have any deadlines. I could pause and think about my options. And two, I was possessed. Not by demons, or anything like that. But I had one of those stories that occupied my thoughts all day long, so when I arrived at the keyboard, I had a huge amount of material that I wanted to get down on the page.

This time, though, it wasn’t quite like that. I’ve had a few ideas floating around in the story swamp for a while. But at the end of October, a shiny new one surfaced. Now, those old ideas were like relationships. We’d spent some time together and the honeymoon period was over. Plot holes had been identified. They’d farted in bed. This new one had none of that baggage. No farting had occurred. (That was at the beginning of November. Now, a month and 50,000 words later, it’s a Swiss Cheese of plot holes filled with farts).

A man is at a murder scene, cleaning up. But he has no idea how he got there, as though he’s just woken up. “It’s like he was somewhere else, but now he’s here” says the first sentence. And there’s a female psychological profiler. She’s tough (Saga Noren and Stella Gibson are personal favourites – if you don’t know who I’m talking about then you have some serious gaps in your knowledge of fictional female detectives that need to be filled), and she has a mysterious past, which I keep the reader guessing about to create a little suspense. That gave me plenty to work with, but occasionally I would still arrive at the keyboard without knowing what I was going to write. That really matters when time is tight – when I was in the zone, I could get 800 words in 35-40 minutes. When I was struggling, it was more like 300.

Is that important? Well, a lot of people complain that they’d like to write but they just don’t have the time. (A lot of these ‘aspiring’ writers also spend many hours a week watching TV, posting on social media, reading blogs about writing… but let’s not give them too hard a time. Even though I really want to.) Anyway, 800 words in 40 minutes, 5 days a week, 48 weeks a year (so you get weekends and holidays off) is 192,000 words a year!

Who doesn’t have forty minutes to spare five times a week? I start work at 7.30am and finish at 5.30pm. I have two small children who, if I’m being charitable, I will merely call ‘active’. And I have a wife who rather selfishly expects me to spend time with her occasionally as well as contributing to the care of the children. (Yeah, I know. Sometimes I wish it was the 1950s and I could spend the evenings in my study, the children only entering to say “Goodnight father” before going upstairs to cry themselves to sleep.) So I write on the train, I write when I can take a lunch break and I’m writing this on a Saturday night.

I learned something during NaNo though: if you have a limited amount of time to write, make every minute count. And having a plan, even a loose one, will help.

But, some people might ask, won’t planning a story rob it of its energy, won’t it make it more likely that you’ll end up with a drab, formulaic, plot-heavy story?

As a natural pantser, I hear you. During NaNo, I wrote a conversation between my amnesiac main character and a secondary character. It was a bit of a strange scene and didn’t really fit into a thriller. But two days later the lightening bolt struck. I realised that conversation held the key to why the amnesiac was behaving the way he was. It set up a fantastic twist later in the book. Pantser heaven. So I ploughed on.

But as things progressed, problems developed with the plot. My psychological profiler, who was supposed to be really tough, couldn’t discover a way to trace the killer with her skills. She ended up just following the police around, becoming quite passive. And once I had my big revelation for the amnesiac, it raised a lot of questions. So… I just had him trying to escape from the police and the story lapsed into exactly the kind of plot-heavy sequence of chase scenes that my “I’m a unique and beautiful snowflake creative genius pantser” approach was supposed to avoid. Because sometimes, if you’re going fast and you haven’t given enough thought to things, you end up with “this happened and then this and then this”.

It’s possible (and my god, as a despiser of plans and to-do lists and organisation it pains me to say this) that, if I’d spent October writing an outline of my plot, asking questions, connecting dots, well… I might have uncovered some of the problems I would run into in the final days of November. I could have forced myself to come up with alternative scenarios there and then, rather than having to do that in the second draft. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of interesting stuff in “Serial Killer Novel #2”. I’ve spent a month living with my characters, listening to them talk to each other, observing how they react in certain situations. And by living in that story for a month, I’ve discovered the problems that need to be fixed. I can fill in the holes and make the story stronger. But I suspect that, if I return to the novel next year, I’ll be approaching it with a chainsaw rather than a scalpel.

This leads me nicely on to another lesson I learned, though: I would rather write 50,000 bad words than no words. It’s possible that the story I wrote will never become a finished novel. But I’m ok with that. Before NaNo, I’d gotten out of the habit of writing. Now, I know that if I neglect other areas of my life, I can write 50,000 words in a month. So, if I dial things back, I can easily write 20,000 words a month and I will still have time to read, watch TV, see friends, pay overdue bills and actually be a half decent parent. (That last one is important, because I don’t want my kids, who will of course have a genetic predisposition to be great writers, to grow up and write a best-selling memoir all about how much of a dick I am. Although, if they turned into the kind of teenagers who hated their father and would rather die than spend time with him, it would leave me more time to write…)

I’m off topic again. I promise my novels aren’t like this.

So, even though it might seem like a huge waste to write that many words without turning them into a polished story, it absolutely isn’t. A lot of people fall in to the trap of thinking that what they produce early in their writing life is really important and they spend a huge amount of time on a flawed project.

There is an old saying about writing, though: kill your darlings. And that doesn’t just apply to superfluous sentences or beautiful metaphors that don’t fit into the story. It can apply to everything: scenes, chapters, characters and even entire novel-length works. If you feel like you have spent a long time on something so you just have to keep on at it until it’s fixed, then you could well be wasting your time. Let that kitten drown, because there might be an even cuter one just waiting to be discovered. (That is a metaphor. Please don’t ever let a kitten drown.)

I started writing a science fiction story about 15 years ago. I returned to it, throughout my early twenties, re-writing the first 100 or so pages before eventually giving up. Then in my late twenties I wrote a thriller. It was pretty much a copy of John Grisham’s ‘The Firm’, transposed on to the world of hedge funds, with more sex and some Russian gangsters. Neither of those stories will ever be published. So was writing them a waste of time? Hell no! I learned a lot, especially about things that don’t work, so I could avoid them in the future.

How does this fit in to NaNo? Well, there is a tendency for people to focus too much on ‘talent’. They think there have been all these great writers who were simply born great. That Agatha Christie or Charles Dickens or Elmore Leonard just started producing great work from the very first sentence they wrote. But here are some questions for you: How many great composers just sat down at a piano, or with a quill and some paper and started producing concertos and operas? Why do you need to study for five years and then complete two years of professional training to qualify as an architect? If I asked you to play Macbeth in a stage production, with no previous acting experience, do you think you’d win many awards?

Practice. That is what’s required to become competent in any creative pursuit. The first novel or five or twenty that you write might be equivalent to Beethoven’s first piano lessons, or coursework that Frank Gehry completed in the 1950s when studying architecture, or Steve Guttenberg’s first acting lesson. (Actually forget that last one. He probably was born great.)

Maybe that idea you have is fantastic. But here’s the thing: you might not have the writing skills to do it justice. Or you might have a better idea in five years time. And it’s possible that the better idea will come because you’ve spent the previous five years writing stories, getting feedback on them and improving your writing. Your brain in five years will know more about plot, pacing, character development and description. But only if you train it to.

So make time, every week to write stories. Lots of them.

You have to finish some of them, but you also need to develop the ability to decide which ones have potential. Consider doing some planning first. Then switch off your inner critic and let the story pour out of you. And then switch the critic back on to decide whether your story works or not, and what needs changing. In between drafts, it’s probably a good idea to work on other stories. If you have more than one thing on the go, you’re less likely to over-invest in the wrong idea. But you also have to make sure they don’t function as distractions that prevent you from completing anything. Nobody said this was going to be easy.

I’m starting work on another novel this week. Because this happened.

I’m excited, though, because it’s an idea that plays to my strengths, but also has a strong sense of place, which is something that can be missing from my work. At its core, it’s a very simple idea with less potential for plot holes: there’s a killer who has a very good reason for killing and an ingenious way of doing it. I’m as excited as I was the first time I thought about writing a story featuring a female serial killer.

Look out for ‘Sleepers’ in bookstore windows, bestseller charts and book of the year lists some time during 2018.

That’s all for today. Now I shall retire to my study, where I will discuss the latest crime fiction releases with… Christina-Bot! Have you farted?

Damn, I knew it was too good to be true.

COMING SOON: I’ll be starting a regular series of posts called “What I learned”, where I read successful crime novels and er… tell you what I learned from them. It will be a must for any fans and writers of crime fiction. Sign up to subscibe to my blog at the top right of this page if you’re on a PC or tablet. Otherwise, come back and check at the end of the week.

If you want to see if I can walk the walk as well as talk the talk, and you like serial killer thrillers, you might enjoy my novel PsychoAnalysis.

NaNoWriMo Diary – Week 1

When you’re driving yourself nuts, trying to grind out 1,667 words every day for 30 days, what kind of really dumb commitment could you make? How about keeping a diary – i.e. writing even more words – to document the experience…

For those of you who know what NaNoWriMo is, I suggest you skip to the next paragraph. For those of you who don’t, it’s National Novel Writing Month, in which people attempt to write 50,000 words during November, hopefully leaving them with the first draft of a novel at the end of the month.

Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month.

I have a dirty secret. The novel I published in October – I started writing it about 3 years ago. I wrote draft after draft until I was happy with the end result. This year, I’ve done some minor rewrites, but the book was pretty much finished at the beginning of 2016. So lately, I haven’t really been doing much of the thing that makes you a writer.


I started a couple of stories, but lost interest. And the last few months have been taken up with editing, formatting and marketing.

Now, a lot of the people who read PsychoAnalysis enjoyed it. But they kept asking a question:

When’s the next book coming?

The short answer to that was: I have no idea.

And then I started seeing posts about NaNoWriMo and realised that I had to participate. I am a writer. I need to write.

So, here’s what’s happened so far.

Monday – Day minus 1 (or NaNoWriMoEve)

I am seriously psyched up. I have a great idea for a story. I have a psychological profiler and I have a serial killer. Why exactly is he killing people? I don’t know yet. That’s what I’ll find out over the next thirty days (or more likely the next year as I rewrite and rewrite). But I do have some interesting scenes in my head, some themes I want to explore, and a strong urge to write.

Time to prepare. So I take out the Bluetooth keyboard I use with my tablet and… the charger port appears to have been crushed.

I have no f***ing keyboard. How am I going to write 1,667 words tomorrow?

But wait, there’s still some juice in the battery. I order a new keyboard, which will arrive on Wednesday, and pray to the gods of battery life.

Tuesday – Day 1. I’m a writer again

The words flow like water.

My routine involves writing on the 30 minute train journeys to and from work, and grabbing lunch in a café where I can bash away at my keyboard (as long as it stays alive) for up to an hour. I get over 500 words each way on the train and more than 1,000 in my lunch break. For those of you who aren’t numbers people, that’s over 2,000 words.

The beginning comes easily. I don’t have a great opening sentence or anything like that – I can agonise over the minor details sometime next year. But I have a character waking up (yes, I know that’s a lousy start to a story, but this is the first draft) and she interests me. I start to get a sense of who she is, some things from her past, and she’s going to visit a serial killer in prison. I’m interested.

Wednesday – Day 2. Going well until…

Things are still going great, until I leave my tablet in the office, so I can’t write on the way home or on the way to work the next day. No biggie, you say? Just catch up that evening, yeah? Well, bear in mind that I get up early and leave home at 6.25am, returning at 6.15pm. I have two small children, so between 6.15pm and 7.45pm, I spend my time shouting, “Drink your milk”, “Stop hitting your brother”, and “Keep your penis away from your sister.” Then I have to help tidy up, eat and think about paying some bills. But the first rule of NaNoWriMo (well, it’s not so much a rule as the entire point of the whole thing) is that you have to keep writing. So I bang out my last 500 words on my laptop and get an early night.

Thursday – Day 3. Slump

No matter how many times you repeat the Hemingway quote “All first drafts are shit”, at some point you will start to feel discouraged. Today I notice that I have been writing almost nothing but dialogue, and my characters keep having conversations in which they talk about things that happened in a previous scene. They are telling me stuff I already know. Not particularly thrilling. It’s a bit like those ‘reality’ TV shows where beautiful people who are supposedly friends sleep with each other’s partners and then talk about it endlessly. And there are no beautiful people or big houses to look at in my book. But I encourage myself to just keep wading through this lake of raw, untreated sewage, because there could be something fantastic floating in it (protected by a watertight container, obviously).

Friday – Day 4. Gold

It happens. A couple of days ago I wrote a conversation between two characters, which felt a little out of place. But today, I realise that the relationship between those two characters holds the key to the whole story, explaining why the killer is killing people yet has no memory of doing it. I won’t tell you what that reason is, because I hope the many thousands of people (ahem) reading this will go on to buy the book. All that matters is that I’ve done what every ‘pantser’ (someone who writes by the seat of their pants rather than being one of those tedious folk who plan and outline) dreams of – I was meandering along and then BAM!, I had a great twist for my story.

Saturday – Day 5. It’s the weekend!

So far, it’s been easy to carve out some time in the day to write. But weekends mean time at home with the family. No train journeys, no lunch breaks. Lunch with the kids is an hour, but that time is spent cooking something that a pair of fussy eaters will eat and then chasing a 16 month old girl around the room, trying to feed a moving target because she refuses to sit down at the table for more than 2 minutes. It’s a little like hunting an amphetamine-fueled Care Bear, but instead of a gun you have a spoonful of yoghurt, or a chicken nugget. Thankfully, though, these creatures get tired. And that means they have to take a nap. Now, usually nap times are where I recover from the morning’s exertions. But this is NaNoWriMo, so I have to write as many words as I can while praying that the little buggers angels stay asleep.

Sunday – Day 6. Happy birthday to you

My son’s fourth birthday is tomorrow. So we’re having the party today. It’s also my birthday tomorrow, but when you share your special day with a child, there is only one person who is going to get the attention. And because he’s having a party, he’s skipping his nap. Someone also needs to entertain him while the party is being set up… that would be me. Then there’s the actual party, followed by cleaning up. So when do I write? I suppose, because I’m ahead on my word count (I knew weekends were going to be tough), and today has been, let’s say, a teeny bit tiring, I could take a break. But no, if I skip one day, there’s a danger the spell will be broken. So I sit down at around 8.30pm and write until I go to bed.

Monday – Day 7. Uh-oh

So far, I’ve been targeting 2,000+ words every weekday, because I have less time to write at the weekends. But I realise there’s another problem. On Mondays I play football (or ‘soccer’ as my American readers would call it) at lunchtime. I obviously can’t write and play ‘soccer’ at the same time, so I’m going to lose fifty percent of my writing time every Monday….AARGH! More of those evenings where I write before bedtime. Unless…

I write for an extra twenty minutes before catching the train in the morning and then I somehow manage to pound out over eight hundred words on the journey home by typing without interruption. Word count achieved. Just.

And when I get home, I discover that my wife is taking me out for a surprise birthday dinner while her parents babysit. The cocktail menu at the restaurant includes a Hemingway Martini, so I obviously order one of those. I don’t actually like it, but who cares, I’m not writing and I don’t have to shovel food into my mouth while my children scream at me. Happy birthday.

First week target: 11,667. Words written: about 13,000 (yeah, yeah, I know I should have the exact number, but I don’t, ok?)

Next week: The difficult week two (or ‘week poo’ as I call it), the curse of the pantsers, and some stuff that hasn’t happened yet so I can’t tell you about it.

If you like serial killer thrillers, you might enjoy my novel PsychoAnalysis.

The Fall of “The Fall”

This post contains spoilers, so anyone who hasn’t watched the first 4 episodes of season 4, and hasn’t read the news about which actors are leaving at the end of the season should look away now…

It’s a great feeling.

You’ve got the TV on, but you’re not really paying attention. And then you see it: a new series of your favourite show is ‘Coming Soon.’ The characters that you love are returning. They’ll be staying for a few weeks. It will be just like old times.

That’s how I felt when I found out that The Fall was returning to our screens. Well, kind of. I mean, it had a little wobble at the end of season 2 didn’t it? But they could fix things, couldn’t they?

I was busy launching a book when the first episodes aired, so I’ve only just caught up. I couldn’t avoid the comments on social media, though, some of them from crime writers. ‘It’s so slow,’ they said. ‘Nothing’s happening.’ And: ‘What is this, an episode of Casualty?’

But that didn’t bother me. There are plenty of crime stories where too much happens. All plot, no character. I want something that engages the brain, as well as the sphincter. And The Fall has a couple of truly great characters in Stella Gibson and Paul Spector. Especially Stella. The only way to describe her is a total badass. That first episode, where she calmly tells a reporter to fuck right off and gives another detective her hotel room number? I knew I was going to be mesmerised from that night onwards.

So I sat down and watched episode one… and episode two… and… yes, I watched the first four episodes. And nothing bloody happened. Ok, things did actually happen. People talked. Paul Spector’s life was saved. But… there was no tension, no threat, no violence.

Now, as a writer who has just published their first book, I’m naturally a little wary of criticising the work of others. Because that’s a bad review. And bad reviews suck.

But I think there are lessons to be learned from The Fall of The Fall:

1) You can play with genre conventions, but you also need to respect them. I do not watch medical dramas. Legal dramas no longer interest me. If I’m watching a serial killer story, then I expect murders. Yes, it’s interesting to examine the impact that the crimes have on the family of the killer and the victims and the investigating officers. But those crimes were in a previous series. I need to see dead people. Now.

2) Crime dramas need threats. If Paul Spector was fighting for his life (and actually, I never got the sense that he was – he’s one half of the show, they’re not going to kill him off) and there was another victim somewhere, and they would die unless Paul regained consciousness and revealed their whereabouts, that might have created some real tension. But no, nobody’s life was really in danger. Apart from Spector’s kids. And that was sad, not exciting.

3) Don’t exploit your audience’s goodwill. If you’re an unknown writer, you feel like you need to grab the reader by the throat on page one. Chuck in a dead body or a chase. But once you’re established, you know you have a captive audience. They trust you, they’ll let you build up to things because you’ve entertained them before. But that only goes so far. Yes, Paul Spector killed people while Stella chased him. And yes, it’s kind of cool when they’re in a room together. It’s also a bit creepy (but unbelievable) when Paul is alone with a nurse who is so obviously his type. And now Paul is giving off some evil vibes. But that’s after four hours of fourplay. I’m sore, I’m thinking about lubricants and skin grafts. ‘I left the kettle on and the back door unlocked and I forgot to feed the goat,’ I say, rolling out of bed and pulling my trousers on. ‘I’ll call you,’ I say. ‘I promise.’

4) Situations create character. One of the things that made Stella a badass was that she was hunting Spector down. While he was recovering from surgery and his lawyers were looking for loopholes she seemed a lot less tough. Yeah, she said that thing about the patriarchy that spawned a load of GIFs, but she was also a bit powerless what with the internal investigation and Spector’s amnesia and his lawyer and that Swedish psychiatrist who will no doubt do something to facilitate Spector’s release or escape. And Spector was menacing when he was killing people. Less so when he was in a hospital bed and being told he’d have to take antibiotics for the rest of his life.

5) A serial killer thriller needs pace. Why? To keep the brain occupied, jumping over hurdles and dodging projectiles. Most fictional serial killers are totally unrealistic. Hannibal Lecter is one of the biggest offenders, a modern day Dracula with superhuman strength. But that doesn’t matter because The Silence of the Lambs is so bloody exciting. In season 3 of The Fall, though, things slow down and that gives the brain time to ask questions. Why is Spector on the same ward as one of his victims? Are there special NHS regulations for serial killers, entitling them to a private nurse? How did that emotional jelly with the beard become a senior police officer in Belfast?

Can The Fall rise again? I think it could, by going back to basics for season 4 (which apparently will not feature Jamie Dornan). We need a new killer, who keeps killing people, and Stella will pursue him relentlessly, only pausing to sleep with her colleagues. Eventually she’ll have him cornered, she’ll make a speech and then shoot him in the head. Then she’ll celebrate by returning to her hotel where a handsome detective will go down on her while she writes a feminist pamphlet.

I’d pay to see that.

If you like serial killers and badass female characters, you might enjoy my novel PsychoAnalysis. Out now!

What kind of grown man sits alone in a room, making up stories about serial killers?

I’ve got a guest post up at damppebbles to kick off the PsychoAnalysis blog tour.

Here’s a snippet:

My earliest childhood memories involve a chase: hurrying out of my parents’ restaurant and down an alleyway; abandoning my den-building at a friend’s house when my father discovered our whereabouts; watching cartoons in a women’s hostel; and my mother screaming “he wants to take my children” as Dad caught up with us.

Head over to damppebbles to read the whole post.

I like my good guys bad and my bad guys… good?

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.”

Ah, Hannibal. You’re so refined; intelligent; charismatic. And of course in the book, your choices are even more impressive. Amarone is a much better match for liver than chianti is. But us dumb movie-watching schmucks wouldn’t know an amarone from an abalone…

And therein lies the appeal. Hannibal is a bad guy. But he has qualities that we consider desirable in a human being: he’s well educated; he’s eloquent; and he knows a lot about wine.

Crime thrillers need bad guys. Thomas Harris’s stories are great because they feature a terrific bad guy. In fact Red Dragon has two of them. Not only do we have Hannibal playing a secondary role, but there’s Francis Dolarhyde front and centre. He’s a brutal murderer. But he had a difficult childhood, living with his grandmother. He’s facially disfigured. He’s also a sensitive soul, who treats his blind colleague with respect.

So what am I getting at?

The crucial word is “But”.

Tony Soprano is a mob boss, but he has panic attacks. He’s a murderer, but his own mother tries to have him murdered. He’s a womaniser, but – and I think this is perhaps the most important factor – he’s a father, a family man. We spend a lot of time in Tony’s home. He eats cereal from a bowl in his pyjamas. He struggles to keep his kids under control. He hosts barbecues.

Characters are compelling when they’re a big bundle of contradictions. Hannibal eats people. And yet, as Silence of the Lambs hurtles to its climax, we’re willing him to escape. Tony Soprano is a murderous thug. His enemies, though, are also murderous thugs, but we care less about them.

It works the other way, too. Detectives are good guys, right? But Sherlock Holmes is.. well, he’s a bit of an arsehole. And how many of the sleuths we love have problems with alcohol, relationships and authority?

Stories need tension, conflict and uncertainty. A one dimensional hero is always going to go straight for the dragon’s throat. But if he’s shown us earlier in the story that he doubts himself or he lacks the killer instinct, we’re more likely to be on the edge of our seats, waiting to see whether he can overcome his weaknesses. And what if the terrorist, rather than being an angry, ranting lunatic, is charming and persuasive? Could he make the hero hesitate at the crucial moment?

So… if you’re writing a story and it’s lacking something, or you’re watching a film that’s sending you to sleep, ask yourself: where’s the ‘but’? Can you say, she’s bad but…; he’s the hero but…?

Because sometimes the good guys need to be bad and the bad guys need to be good.

If you like complicated, flawed characters you might enjoy my novel ‘PsychoAnalysis’. The ebook is available for pre-order ahead of the October 14th release. The paperback is out now!