Monday, 29 August 2011

Things That Go Bump

In the darkest they lurk.
The deepest dark of my woods, where the shadows and the damp keep them quiet hostage to their webs, until the link is broken and they rebuild.
Through determined effort.
Until it is ready at last.
Then they wait.
I hear their victims sometimes, caught, stuck, buzzing desperately for help that will never come.
Is that how we all die?
Ineffectually pleading with a force greater than ourselves, begging them to let us go, struggling to fight off the inevitable.
Desperate for one last day of a life we can barely stand.
Would we wish so hard for our future to come to us if we knew it meant death?
That the time we spend thinking and planning is the only time we will ever have, and are ever likely to have.
Will we come to the end and say, hang on a minute, what happened to all the time I thought I would have?
Ah, they will say, you spent it thinking of other things.
But there was so much I wanted to do.
Then why did you not do it?
I …
But there is no answer.
Would it help if I knew how much longer I had to spend on this life?  Would I organise the hours and the minutes so that I could make the most of it and not feel I had wasted so much of it?
Waiting for something better to come?
My arch-enemy waits because he must, for his next meal.
He keeps a beady eye, well eight in fact, open.
He watches me as I go around the garden, pegging out the clothes on the washing line, planning his next move.
Ready to run across the garden, or fly through the air.
And get me when I am not watching him.
They’re all at it, you know.
I have to be so vigilant in my daily life, keeping an eye out for them, which feels a little unfair as I only have the two.
Any dark marks on the walls, any unexpected movement out the corner of my eye.
They know if I see them, I will take them out.
I will capture them, holding them inside the arm-length prison I bought for just such a purpose, and tip them outside the open window.
To run away and find their way back.
I used to suck them up the hoover.
But, as mum quite rightly pointed out, when the air is not sucking them up the tube and into the bag, they can crawl right back down again.
They don’t like it up the hoover.
I have seen their eyes.
From inside the clear bag-less void, they watch me through the plastic, swearing their revenge.
So now I put them outside.
I try not to hurt them.
Or to kill them.
Mum says its because they have as much right to live on this planet as we do, and deserve a chance.
Utter bullcrap.
I gave them a chance.
I held the shoe over their head and said run.
Was it my fault that they stubbornly refused the option of run or die?
What I didn’t anticipate was the rest of the clan coming to get me after the death of their beloved member.
They crawled inside my hair until I ran away and swore never to kill another.
Still, at least they didn’t impregnate me.
Like a girl I know at work.
She said there was a bump on her arm that was black and she didn’t know what it was, only that it itched.
When she scratched it hard enough, the surface broke and all these tiny spiders came running down her arm.
I hate it every time she tells that story.
It makes me squirm even now.
And its probably not true.
But I dreamt the other night that a spider bit me on the arm.
And now I have a bump just there.
Its probably not true.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Back to Your Woods

Rejection is one of the hardest things to take.
Look who I’m telling!
But when it comes in the form of knocking back something you have put your heart and your very soul into, everything that you believe, all that you know to be true, it makes that stone wall all the harder to bounce off.
And pick yourself up from.
It would appear that the aftermath of Dragons Pen is more profound than I first imagined.
It made me question why I write crime fiction, why I write undercover stories, why in fact I write at all.
No-one’s making me do it.
There’s no gun to my head making sure I put my fingers on the keyboard.
Certainly no hot bullet ready to splatter my brains all over this nice wall behind me if I don’t write something once they are there.
Hmm perhaps there is a reason I write crime after all.
Apart from the obvious, of course.
But they weren’t the first stories I ever read, and certainly not the first stories I ever wrote.
It began in the darkness.
In the woods.
It’s hard to remember exactly which came first, being read the Grimm stories, or being taken to the cinema to see Bambi.
Both had a profound effect.
Both were about fear.
It is no surprise that I went on from these stories to reading the works of Herbert, Barker, King and Poe.
All tied to the unknown.
All exploring the depths of darkness, both theirs and mine.
And after the rejection of my crime stories for not being ‘crime’ enough, perhaps it is time to revisit my roots.
And go back to the dark woods.
The undercover stories do of course touch upon the darkness that its officers go through in order to complete their assignments.
They deal with the loneliness.
And the pain.
But there is something more to be discovered and I think that my own forays into ‘crime’ fiction will only allow me to go so far.
The darkness has so much further to go.
So much depth to explore.
I have barely touched upon it, hardly closed my hand upon the doorknob and twisted it to peek through and see what’s inside.
Given the favoured reading material of my youth, the question becomes, why did I not explore this realm before.
Was I afraid?
Well, considering the choice of material, of course I was.  That’s kind of the point!
And yet I always felt I was being pulled in by the author, that their clammy hand was holding onto mine.
Guiding me through the darkness with them.
As a writer, I must explore alone.
And instead of being the one led through the darkness, I must be the one doing the leading, with the flickering torchlight, showing my characters the poorly lit way.
The question is, am I ready to return to the worlds that were opened up to me as a child, to explore them for myself.
Ready to go back to the dark woods.
And see what’s really there.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Sergeant Major

Now look here, you!
Uh-oh, I’m in trouble.
It’s just not good enough, you know.
Yes, I know.
First you said you forgot to get to the library on time.
Yes, I know.
When actually, you forgot about it altogether, didn’t you?
I suppose so, but I was on holiday.
That’s no excuse.
Yes, I know.
So what’s your excuse for last night, then?
You mean you don’t even have an excuse?
Other than having a headache, no.
A headache?  Don’t be such a girl.
But I am a girl.
No you’re not.
Really?  Cos the last time I checked, I could have sworn…
You’re not a girl, you’re a writer.
Oh, I see.  And writers don’t get headaches?
Of course they do, and then they take pills to cure their headaches.
I took pills, quite a few in fact.
Well all right then!  Still didn’t write your blog last night, did you?
No, I kinda spaced out there for a while, dozed on and off.
How many painkillers did you take?
I dunno.  One of each?
Geez louise, no wonder you were on another planet!
It would seem so.  I was even getting random text messages from the twilight zone.
Are there any other kind?
From the twilight zone?  Probably not.
No.  It’s still no excuse, though.
I wasn’t anticipating being a space cadet!
That’s true, but it pays to plan ahead.
I will endeavour to do better.
So, every week without fail then?
Yes, sir.
No excuses?
No, sir.
Are we clear?
Three bags …  I mean, crystal clear, sir!
What was that?
Random message from the twilight zone?
Something to do with ‘bags’ I think!
Hmm.  Don’t forget your deadlines, recruit.
No, sir.
Diligence, determination, discipline.
Yes, sir.
Many get called, few get chosen.
Yes, Mr Updike, sir.
Good girl.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Creating the Future

Is it possible to create the future, as we create stories and characters for our own worlds of fiction?
And we do create it for them.
It’s a strange kind of power to have, a odd kind of control over the lives of characters who start with us, grow from us, separate themselves from us as they evolve and change into real people.
And yet we still have the power to affect their future.
We put them into situations and scenarios that can quite easily kill them, especially when writing inside the crime fiction genre.
What they do when we throw them in determines whether or not they live or die, and how much longer they have within that fictional world.
If they do not die as they are supposed to do, it can mean making the killer stronger than perhaps we had first planned on.
A robotic kind of killer, almost, without feeling or human emotion.
Someone who would happily chop up people just for the sake of it, or for their own twisted ends, their own justifications.
Then, of course, you must have a hero who can defeat such a villain.
But in terms of the characters who end up dead, just how weak do you have to make them in order for them to be drawn into the monster’s lair?
How stupid do they have to be to go where others with any instinct or intuition would never dream of going?
It seems insulting to create such characters, in order for them to serve such a purpose within the realms of the fictional world they are destined to die in.
But that’s the trouble with destiny.
You can’t change it.
And our characters mostly can’t, or the whole story about a serial killer kidnapping and killing people would be non-existent if the victims were all strong enough to fight back and live.
It would defeat the story before it got going.
But if you make them too weak, there’s always the danger that their death will not be viewed with anything other than contempt.
I do it myself.
Not kill people, you understand.
Well, none that I would willingly admit to.
No, if I’m reading or watching any crime story, I’m so often telling them not to go somewhere that looks or seems dangerous, because I know they will end up dead.
I suppose it engages me in the story when I find myself scratching my head at their stupidity, or actively shouting at the television screen, then looking away at their inevitable demise.
But it doesn’t have to be so inevitable.
Better to be surprised, to build the suspense on a character we think is for the chop, then turn it around and make it someone else, or better yet make them the killer.
Hmm perhaps I should keep that idea to myself.
We can all see the future for certain characters, and write them the future that we have judged they deserve.
Sometimes they can surprise us - they can live through sheer force of will when we have planned their death.
A character in my recent book was destined for the chop, yet found the strength within to not only fight and save their own life, but actually came out of the situation with themselves still in tact.
I mean, physically they had taken quite the torturous beating, but mentally they had come through so much better than even I could have predicted.
It was a nice surprise, and now I’m looking forward to where I can take that character next.
They have a future I had not planned for.
One to be revealed in time.
As do most of us.
Reading over old work the other day I realised the life I had planned for myself was not the one I was apparently destined for.
I saw through the words I had written so many years ago, and understood at once the path I had set myself on.
It made me wonder just how long I would have to leave current works in order to see the truth inside them, to see the layer beneath the surface.
And wonder if whether finally seeing the truth means that I will accept that truth when it is presented before my eyes.
Is it wrong to hope for a better future, even when the present shows you that the future you want is but a dream?
Even if those around you are doubtful of its realistic chances?
How many naysayers does it take to make the dream only a delusion?
In short, is it possible to create a future for yourself purely through force of will, to make it come into being like the characters do inside their own world?
I suppose only time will tell.
The over-riding character elements have to include not only the force of will necessary to push in the direction of that dream, and the belief that your dream is not just a delusion, but to have the essence of truth inside.
Every character who has ever surprised me within their world has not once stepped out of character to do it.
The element they needed was always there, it just required the spark to light it up, and the insistence to keep it alight.
So the question becomes, in your darkest most doubtful moments, what truth do you see when you look inside your dream?
If like me, however, you are plagued with constant doubts and fears, it becomes harder to separate truth from fantasy.
So what do you do?
Keep the flame alight and hope that everything works out for the best, works out the way it is supposed to?
I wish I knew.
Still, as a writer I am lucky.
I can explore these ideas through my writing to my heart’s content.
They say that writers often write about what is lacking in their lives, and I can see now how true that is.  That, and writing from experience, usually the most effective way of understanding how something really feels.
How else do writers of romantic sub-plots within crime fiction so effectively capture the yearning of someone who cannot be with the one they love?
It’s one thing to write from a place of imagination, to wonder what it would be like if you had to wait what feels like a lifetime in order to meet the one person with whom you would spend the rest of your life.
Or to imagine how it might feel to meet that person, and then be unable to be with them, the source of many a crime novel and crime of passion.
It’s quite another to have to do it.
And fortunately, or unfortunately, we all have experience of being hurt by love.
But not as many have experiences of crime.  Or do they?
It makes me wonder how many crime writers have actually experienced crime, on the right or the wrong side of it.
Perhaps we all do, and that is why we write about it.
Perhaps we have none at all, and like to imagine what we would do if there were no rules and we could do as we liked.
It’s probably a mixture of both, a little experience with a lot of imagination.
Which side was it for me?
I’ll never tell.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Where the Writer is

It’s something I’ve always struggled with.
Anyone who’s read anything of mine will agree.
And I’m the first to admit that it isn’t one of my strengths as a writer, and that it is something I should do better.
When I’m reading books, however, it is so often the descriptive sections that will put me off reading either the section itself, or if it's really too much, the book as a whole.
I suppose it's like anything.
Good, evocative description will create a sense of place, and even create that place into a character in its own right, making you want to know more.
Whereas if you find yourself in the midst of a bad and lengthy description, it can make you lose the will to read.
I try to keep my descriptions short.
Therefore if they are not particularly good ones, at least the reader only has short way to traverse before they can be returned to the action and dialogue.
It’s worked so far to good effect.
But there is more.
To one of the events in Harrogate came a panel of writers who all use their home as the setting for their writing, and create those places to very successful and evocative effect.
I wanted to know more.
As they talked I realised it wasn’t about depicting every detail from the place, it was about evoking an atmosphere that communicated what it felt like to be there.
Particularly when seen through the eyes of the main character.
And how it feels to them.
Because how they feel about their surroundings directly mirrors how they are feeling about themselves, and brings out additional aspects of their character.
It’s their relationship with the place they are in.
And for them to have a relationship with the place they are in, they must be able to relate to it in a similar way to another character.
So every place is a character.
And in order to evoke it properly, you have to know how it feels.
Therefore, a writer using their home as a setting is a good choice because you know that place better than any other, and how it feels to be there.
All of the writers on the panel no longer lived in the home setting they were using as their location, saying it gave them a certain amount of distance, to look at the place with a little perspective.
I realised that I too no longer live in the place I still call home, as I moved away a number of years ago.
And that having moved house a lot during that period, it affected the way I depict a sense of place in my writing.
As in, there really isn’t one.
All of the locations are temporary, and all the main characters in the undercover team move around a lot, never staying anywhere for more than a year, much the same as it has been for me.
When I stood up to present my pitch to the Dragon’s Pen, I was terrified that they were going to ask me where the book was set because I had no answer to that question. 
If I’d said they were set in numerous locations, or ‘here and there’ it would have sounded so vague.
Of course, they said no anyway, but at least I didn’t have to explain the lack of a solid location in my work.
But it was another thing that made me think about a sense of place.
And my avoidance of it as a writer.
So as I am visiting my ‘home’ for a couple of weeks, perhaps now is the time to reacquaint myself with this old friend, and see what kind of relationship we have.
And how I feel about it. 
So I can evoke it.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Into the Dragon's Lair

It started off quite well.
Or so they told me.
In terms of standing up, walking to the place they wanted me to go, positioning myself in a very strange surrounding, and doing so without tripping, falling, or otherwise embarrassing myself, I had done exceptionally well.
Now I was standing in a room full of my fellow writers, my peers, and a panel of professionals all looking directly at me, and the thought occurs to me.
What in God’s name have I done?
What on earth possessed me to think that this was a good idea?
“Where are you from?”
The question brings me back to where I am and I find myself staring at a writer, whose books I love, staring back at me.  He’s expecting an answer.
Hand to my forehead as I try to remember where I am from.
Hope he doesn’t ask my name, or it’s game over.
“Er…” I stammer, “Scottish Borders.”
He tries to engage me in a little light banter, “You don’t have much of an accent.”
“Don’t I?” I try to joke back, doing all that I can to sound as English as possible and make the most of this.
He smiles and I think he’s doing his best to help me relax and not feel like the ground is about to open up beneath me.
God bless Mark Billingham.
He asks me if I have completed the book I am pitching and I say yes, I finished it last year and I’ve just finished book two. 
He smiles and nods, introductory part over.
It’s time for the pitch.
I try to smile and mutter “Hello” at the panel before me.
I lift the cards up and hope that my voice doesn’t shake as I begin to read from them, glad that I decided on cards over paper.
They shake a lot less.
About halfway through I am very awake that my legs are shaking, and not just a little tremble around about the knee.
Oh dear me no.
I mean the kind of shaking that can lead to stumbling, collapsing, and sitting on the floor.
Probably not the kind of professional image I am attempting to portray.
I shift a little in my stance, hoping it doesn’t show how much the shaking is affecting most of my legs now, and carry on reading.
I don’t look up at them.
It’s the kind of thing that is usually encouraged in pitches but it is all I can do to recall how to look at words, understand those words, read them out loud, and make them sound  a little like a story.
I am almost at the end when the bell goes and I stop.
“Oh dear,” Mark says kindly, “Did you have much left.”
I raise a shaking hand to indicate a gap of two inches, “About this much.”
Then he asks the panel to make their comments.
And one-by-one they do.
It's not at all what I was hoping for.
The general consensus of opinion seems to boil down to one thing.
They don’t get it.
My pitch confused them.
Which confuses me no end, because I am hardly known for writing complicated stories, and will always choose to err on the side of simplicity.
Or so I thought.
What didn’t they get?
Well, this is where it does in fact get complicated.
Because the more I tried to explain what it was all about, the more I seemed to get tangled up in my own words.
The words mix around inside my mind as I try to answer questions, and I seem to get even more caught up.
And she becomes the Tangled Writer at last.
The truth of the matter, which I managed to figure out later after many, many glasses of red wine and a very good friend, is that I wasn’t properly prepared.
All the questions that a writer must answer within the realms of her own work, the world she must know backwards, every detail and nuance, must be absolutely nailed down.
Without question.
Every piece of research must be done, and no stone left unturned in seeking the truth about this world and its characters.
Plus, obviously, writing a great pitch.
Would I do it again?
The thought alone makes me stop and smile, taking a pause to consider, but I think with enough preparation then, yes, I would.
I can see now how it could have all been so much simpler.
How squeezing an entire novel’s synopsis into a hundred or so words was probably not the right way to express the story, but rather gave them far more than they wanted to hear.
I’ll tell you this much, though.
It will make future rejections by email and letter so much milder by comparison.
I’m almost looking forward to them.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Reaching The End

It’s the end of an era.
Over seven months in the making, but it had to come to an end sometime.
Yes, I know that it doesn’t seem like a long time in the grand scheme of things, but when you spend that much of your time, of your life, writing a book, it feels like that when you come to the end.
I’ve heard about writers who love it.
They get to the end of the first draft, they type those two final words THE END, and they celebrate with the happiness of getting that first full version completed.
I’m not there yet.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s better than it was last year.
Last year when I typed those two words, I cried, I wandered aimlessly around the house, not really sure where I was, what I was doing, or what I could possibly do next.  It was weeks before I could pick up and write again.
So clearly this year I am doing better.
I typed those final two words three hours ago and already I’m back writing again.
The time before that was worse.
I got to the end, wrote those two words (yes, I was doing everything on pen and paper then) and had no idea what I would do next.  I couldn’t face even thinking about a new book, or re-writing the one I had just completed.
When it finally came time to rewrite that book, I pulled it all apart, I saw how it could go back together, and put it in a file.
It is still there.
The time before that was much worse.
I never got around to typing THE END because I couldn’t face finishing it.  I still haven’t finished that book.  Unlikely now that I ever will.
Not even sure I know where it is.
So by that comparison, today was a relative success.  No tears, no aimless wandering, no huge gaps before reaching for the keyboard again.   
It helps that I have some experience of this now.
It also helps to have wonderful friends who are also writers, who understand so much better than anyone else on this planet what happens when you reach the end of writing a book, and are there for you when you need them.
I have good one.
I don’t think you really need more than one good friend who is a writer, though it can’t hurt to have more, but as long as you have one good friend, you have the world entire.
Can’t remember who said that, but I am sure they are right.
It also helps to have more books planned, more series of books planned, so much in fact that taking more than three hours off between finishing one piece of work and beginning a new one feels like a luxury.
Too much to do.
Not enough time.
And too many people to meet in between.