Saturday, 11 October 2014

On three...

A few weeks ago, I was at Hodder's London office for a meeting. My editor, Francesca, smiled as she handed me a finished copy of Cut Out and said, "Your third book!"

At the time, it didn't really sink in and, with the pressures of work (and the pleasures of two different literary festivals this week) publication day sort of slipped past, without me having time to think about it.

Writing and publication are oddly disconnected events. Cut Out was finished months ago and, since then, I've completed a new DI Harland novella, and started work on a fourth full-length novel. With my head now firmly in a different story, it was like an unexpected meeting with an old friend when I read the first reviews of Cut Out. It made me pause, thinking back to the day my agent called to tell me she'd negotiated a three-book deal. At the time, that third book seemed a long way away... but now the hardback is sitting in front of me as I type this.

It's been a brilliant and challenging journey, thus far... I still can't believe it's happening, and I can't wait to see where the stories go next.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Context

I was genuinely saddened to read that old Tom and Jerry cartoons are being branded with a racism warning. In a world where there is so much equality and injustice happening right now, it seems wrong to demonise a cartoon cat and mouse from the 1940s.

To look at something seventy years out of context, is to see it through eyes that have no understanding of the period. To judge it against modern standards, is to judge it against standards that it had no opportunity or encouragement to embrace.

Of course, this may just be a legal safeguarding issue. We do live in a time where some people seem ready – even eager – to be offended at the slightest thing. But while some people may be uncomfortable with aspects of Tom and Jerry, others may be uncomfortable at the suggestion that a cartoon they like is "racist". After all, what does it say about you, if you enjoy racist entertainment?

Intolerant attitudes must be challenged and changed, but this feels like a well-intentioned shot in the foot. Until we've fixed the present, maybe we should be more tolerant of the past.

Friday, 19 September 2014

10 Favourite Characters from Books

It’s one thing to be asked for your favourite ten books… but your favourite ten characters? That’s not so simple, especially when you have to try and give reasons for your choices. Here’s my attempt at an answer – the fictional people who stuck out and stayed with me. They’re in no particular order, but each one of them meant something to me. Read on, and see if any of these would make it into your top ten…

Inspector Morse from "Last Seen Wearing" by Colin Dexter
It's tempting to think we know Morse from the TV series, but while I love John Thaw's version, the original written character is refreshingly different. In those first books Morse is a driven, seedy man, recklessly embracing one possible theory after another. He makes terrible mistakes, and seems a lot less assured than a heroic detective ought to, but therein lies so much of his charm. A brilliantly flawed man.

Gerald Tarrant from "The Coldfire Trilogy" by C.S. Friedman
There's something wonderfully unsettling about a charismatic villain, and Gerald Tarrant is the perfect example – simultaneously rational and evil, yet absolutely bound by a complex code of ethics that elevate him above being a mere monster. More than any other character, he helped to inspire my own serial killer, and his presence on the page is so compelling that it sends the morale compass spinning.

Biba Capel from "The Poison Tree" by Erin Kelly
Every so often, you meet a character who burns brighter than everyone around them. Biba Capel is the perfect example of this – a captivating young woman, a catalyst for chaos, her presence irrevocably changing the lives of everyone she encounters. As a reader, you find yourself drawn to her, just like the other characters in this story of destructive obsession, and the memory of her resonates long after the final page.

George Smiley from "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" by John le Carré
In many ways, Tinker Tailor is a crime novel, albeit one set in the shadowy world of the cold-war secret services. George Smiley takes on the role of the weary detective, patiently following the clues to uncover a high-ranking double agent. He's a quiet man, gripped by a profound sadness, yet even after retiring he finds himself unable to turn his back on the job that brought him so low. Tenacious, with a deeply buried passion that rarely surfaces, he exhibits extraordinary intelligence and insight about those around him, while remaining endearingly puzzled by his own life.

Arthur Dent from "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" by Douglas Adams
There's something rather reassuring about Arthur Dent. Despite being catapulted through space and time, from one absurd situation to the next, he remains unalterably British, albeit a caricatured, 20th century British, that's fuelled by tea, understatement, and good manners. His resolute determination not to forsake this, even when Britain and the whole of the Earth are mistakenly demolished, is surely an upper-lip stiffener for us all.

Doctor Sheppard from "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by Agatha Christie
A neighbour of the great Hercule Poirot, Doctor James Sheppard is one of the most perfectly written characters I've ever encountered. People often talk about unreliable narrators but, if you know the plot, you'll appreciate how terribly clever his personal telling of the story is. Also, he's such an engaging person to be in the company of – wonderfully witty and considerably more genial than his Belgian detective friend.

Silk from “The Belgariad” by David Eddings
I first read David Eddings’ epic fantasy series as a teenager, and even now, with a more mature eye, I still find a great joy in the books. The reason for their enduring appeal is the wonderful cast of characters, and the best of these has to be Silk. When we meet him, we see a rat-faced little man – a common thief and trickster – with roguish morals and wicked sense of humour. As time goes on, we discover that he is much, much more than this – a complex character, with unexpected depth and vulnerability – yet over the course of five books (ten, if you include Eddings’ subsequent series “The Mallorean”) his character never stops developing. There always seems to be more beneath the surface, and he’s so likeable that you can’t help but want to find out what it is.

Sebastian Flyte from "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh
Brideshead Revisited contains both one of my favourite characters, Sebastian Flyte, and also one of my least favourites, Charles Ryder. Although he is weak in many ways, Sebastian is wonderfully honest and entertaining, ultimately remaining true to himself despite the chaotic life he leads. His presence lights up the chapters that include him, providing a wonderful contrast to the more cynical Charles.

Miss Marple from "A Murder Is Announced" by Agatha Christie
I've always had a soft spot for Jane Marple, ever since I saw Joan Hickson's portrayal in the BBC series. Reading her as originally written, she's even better – a dignified, yet ruthless inquisitor who calmly uses her insight to lay mysteries bare. Save for occasional flashes of sharp, deadpan humour, there are few outward clues to the keen mind behind the shawl, but she certainly deserves the nickname bestowed by one of her acquaintances: "nemesis".

Frodo Baggins from "The Lord Of The Rings" by J R R Tolkien
On the surface, Frodo may seem an odd choice, but he underpins so many of the key values in the book. At the start, he volunteers to do what is right, for the sake of others, no matter what the risk to himself. He continues his quest even when he is sure there is no hope of success or survival. After terrible suffering and wrongdoings, he still shows mercy, even sparing the evil Saruman, who has sought to destroy his home. Above all though, Frodo's character embodies Sacrifice. When speaking to his friend Sam, he says of their idyllic land, "It has been saved. But not for me," and he says it without regret. I absolutely love this quality – that one person would gladly give everything to protect a way of life for others.

This piece was originally written for The Festival Of Book Clubs.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Eventful

One of the best things about being a writer is having the chance to meet readers and chat about books. Literary festivals are great for this, and I'm very lucky to have several exciting events coming up in the next month or so.

Festival of Book Clubs
Wed 17 September, 2pm - Lord Wandsworth College, Hampshire
- with Nicola Beauman (owner of Persephone Books), Fanny Blake (book editor of ‘Woman and Home’ magazine), Katherine Webb (author of ‘The Misbegotten’), Christopher Radmann (author of ‘Held Up’), and hosted by Tim O’Kelly.

Frinton Literary Festival
Thu 9 October, 7:30pm – Frinton Lawn Tennis Club, Essex
- with Sophie Hannah (author of the new Hercule Poirot novel, 'The Monogram Murders').
Click here for info.

Havant Literary Festival
Fri 10 October, 6:15pm – The Spring Arts & Heritage Centre, Hampshire
- talking about the Detective Harland novels, including the latest in the series, 'Cut Out'.
Click here for info.

Off The Shelf Festival of Words
Fri 17 October, 8:00pm – Showroom Cinema, Sheffield
- with Sabine Durrant (author of 'Under Your Skin') and Kate Rhodes (author of 'Crossbones yard').
Click here for info.

The New Forest Readers Day
Sat 22 November, 10am – Forest Arts Centre, Hampshire
- with Erin Kelly (author of 'The Poison Tree') and Judith Kinghorn (author of 'The Last Summer').
Click here for info.

If one of these is near you, do please come along. Writing is a solitary pursuit, and hearing from readers is important in so many ways. Also, many events have cake or biscuits laid on, so there's really no excuse not to attend. Hopefully see you there!

Thursday, 4 September 2014

#AmWriting

It's been a while since I updated the blog, so I thought I'd do a brief round-up on where things are with my writing.

My third novel, CUT OUT, is published by Hodder & Stoughton on the 9th of October (hardback and eBook – paperback to follow next year). This will be the third Detective Inspector Harland novel, following EYE CONTACT and KNIFE EDGE. For more information, click here.

I've also written another Harland story entitled BROKEN FALL. This is a novella (about a quarter of the length of a full novel) and will be published by Hodder (eBook only) on the 15th of January 2015. It's my first proper "whodunit" and it's priced at just 99p – click here for more info.

Currently, I'm busy working on an untitled psychological thriller set in North London. This will be a standalone story, with a cast of new characters, but I'm confident that DI Harland will return soon enough.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Generation War - Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter

I found the recent TV series Generation War both moving, and surprising. From a British perspective, it was compelling to follow a wartime story that invited me to care about a group of young Germans, rather than simply seeing them as "the enemy".

Predictably, there's been a lot of protest about it. The events of World War II are still too close, and too terrible, for anyone to be entirely neutral, and the BBC was forced to air a debate between several dissatisfied parties and the show's producer. There were several key issues:
  • The series was too sympathetic to Germans
  • The unsympathetic portrayal of East European partisans
  • The unlikely friendship between non-Jews and a Jew
Over and over again, the commentators argued that this or that wasn’t typical, and therefore it gave the wrong impression; that it was wrong to show partisans mistreating Jews, because not all partisans mistreated Jews; that it was inaccurate to show Germans disagreeing with the war, because not all Germans disagreed with the war. All too often, we heard people objecting to something because it didn't align with their particular point of view. They implied that the series was somehow "wrong" because it didn't include the things that they wanted it to include.

In a media-savvy age, where everything needs to be a metaphor, it seems there is no room for a story about five wartime friends, unless that story is a perfect microcosm of everyone’s wartime experiences.

That, of course, would have been impossible to achieve. Even the dissenting experts broadly agreed that Generation War was a brilliant and moving drama series. But clearly it wouldn't have been if it had tried to be all things to all people.

Perhaps, when we look at something like this, we need to be a little more generous, and a little less prejudiced. After all, if we can't be patient with someone else expressing a subjective account, there's no reason to expect a patient response to personal views of our own.

Friday, 4 April 2014

If App Developers made Books

After spending millions of dollars training a generation NOT to pay for content, the app industry has discovered that it really needs to understand (and adapt to) its audience if it wants to get any more money from them. In less than six years, a global media sector has been turned on its head – pivoting from Paid to Free, in one irreversible step.
The new business models rely on in-app-purchases (IAP) and adverts for their revenue, but this means they need a much deeper, much longer engagement with their audience if they want to break even. There are many innovative methods employed to achieve this… but what if these approaches were applied to other digital media? What if app developers made ebooks?

Advertising
It might start simply – a banner ad across the bottom of your Kindle screen, plus a few seconds of streaming video ads, every other chapter. At first, these ads would be fairly generic, but after a while you'd start to notice things. You're enjoying an Inspector Morse novel and the banner ads just happen to include one for London Pride beer and another for a new recording of Wagner's Ring Cycle. You might also find that ads were being delayed, so they'd be less obvious. After all, if you read The Silence Of The Lambs, it's reasonable to expect a few ads for L`Air du Temps… but not today.
From midway through any novel, eerily accurate recommendations for other books would start popping up. Reading on, the ad frequency would steadily increase as you approached the pivotal chapters, culminating in a blizzard of banners and a timely [Pay to Remove Ads] button.

In-Book Purchases (IBP)
Removing Ads has always been a popular in-app purchase and its applicability to all kinds of content ensures its inclusion here. But what else might readers pay for?
Paywalls certainly aren't new – and you could argue that Amazon's "Try a sample" button is effectively just that: giving a few pages for free followed by the option to purchase the rest. But imagine if the book's publisher could set multiple paywalls, wherever they wanted in the text. Rather than appearing after an arbitrary number of pages, the paywalls would be exquisitely placed at twists and cliff-hangers, creating the strongest possible emotional need in the audience before asking them for their money.
If the above seems a bit… well, manipulative, then how about a Pay Per Chapter (PPC) model instead? Readers would be able to audition new books and, effectively, pay an amount commensurate with their enjoyment. If they finish the book, they pay full price; if they can't get into the story, they pay a tiny fraction.
Of course, this approach relies on the book chiming with as many readers as possible. Are there perhaps ways to broaden a book's appeal?

Adaptive Content
Again, it could begin with something simple. You might think it's just a coincidence that it's raining outside while you read the opening chapter with the hero trudging through a sudden downpour… but is it? Context sensitive narrative might easily cross-reference the Kindle's location with weather services, modifying the displayed text to build resonance between the reader and the protagonist. But that's not the only thing that could adapt.
If a book contained multiple versions of the text, then subtle cues (quietly mined from social data) could shift the protagonist's age, gender, religion or ethnicity, to be more compatible with that of the reader.
Authors and editors could watch the behaviour of early readers – identifying where people seemed to lose interest and stop reading. The problem chapters could be tweaked or replaced, with updated versions of the book downloaded automatically. But why stop there?
Using a process called A/B Testing, it's possible to split an audience and measure how each segment responds to something. So at any given time, 10% of readers reading the same book might be presented with a slightly different plot – and whichever version showed the highest completion ratio, or received the best reviews, would become the new "standard edition" of the book.

Social Reach
Last but not least, it's worth considering how a book's social reach might be extended through digital techniques. There was a time when audiences went looking for content but now, increasingly, content has to go looking for an audience. We're seeing more and more innovative methods of publicising titles and it's not hard to predict a time when the amount you pay for a book could be reduced by the number of friends you tell about it. After all, everyone knows the importance of studying the algorithms that drive the digital stores and recommendation pages. But app developers also know that people are busy, that people are forgetful. So perhaps ebooks will start reaching out to readers if they've been gone for a while – a friendly nudge via push-notifications or social media, complete with a one-page reminder of the story so far. Re-engaging the audience is so important… especially if there's a Pay Per Chapter model on the horizon.


Thankfully, the fact that you can do something doesn't always mean that you should do it. True, the above ideas are all based on real techniques from the apps business, but there's no reason to assume that this is the future for ebooks. Although, now that I think about it, the Pay Per Chapter approach might just work, especially for a series crime author like myself. Perhaps even digital clouds have silver linings.