White hats, black hats, masks and pencil moustaches – who’s the baddie?

14 10 2013

I don’t write children’s books where, for the very young, an author has to make the baddie obvious. They cackle rather than laugh, they lurk rather than wait, they are sly rather than cunning. And they often wear a black hat.

In the world of adult literature the role of the baddie isn’t so clear cut. Nor should it be. There are bad people out there – people without redeeming characteristics, without a care for the social convention. But they are pretty rare. Most of us live in shades of gray – not 50 necessarily, but quite a few and those shades can lighten or darken depending on what we are doing at any one point in time.
Ask anyone not locked up in my cellar and they see me as a good man, someone with obvious flaws, attractive ones of course, but nothing which would put me on a register or lead to imprisonment. Ask me, and I might give you a bit more background about hidden motives behind good deeds which may cast shadows on your perception. Does that make me a baddie? How would I portray myself as a baddie in the written word to put the reader on notice or should I leave it to them to work out for themselves?

The latter is the obvious answer. Leading my reader by the nose is not how I see the contract between us. Every one of us has had a bad day, most of us succumb to the darker urges to varying degrees at some time in our lives. I think it is my job to show by actions, by written thoughts, by implication that this is the villain of our show. If you, dear reader, are worse than the bad things I illustrate him or her with then I rather imagine you will keep it to yourself!HH Coventry wears many hats but does not have a pencil moustache!





Is too much detail drowning your readers?

24 08 2013

How much imagination do you have? How much should I, as a writer, assume you have? Can you see your way through an allusion to an Egyptian deity or are you stumped by a simple simile or metaphor?

I ask because I am intrigued. I read an action book the other day. Non-stop rollercoaster ride of guns, explosions, capture and miraculous escape, mysteries quickly solved and a handsome, strong, lucky and brilliant hero (with obligatory wise-cracking sidekick). I turned my imagination off and just read and read and read and it was great.

Then I opened the book at random and read a page or two critically. Do I need to know the exact engine specification of the Bentley Continental or just that it is big and black? Does it help me visualise the action? Do I need to exact model of the gun, the specification of the telescopic sight or a comment on the range and capabilities? It was a sniper rifle handled by an expert marksman – they wouldn’t choose a toy cap gun would they?

Perhaps I’m being overly cynical. I don’t tend to give too much detail – just enough, I think, to let readers make their own pictures in their minds. Which is the right way to do it? Are my books too hard to read and put people off or are his too easy to read and … put people off?

Each to their own. Each genre has its own requirements. I didn’t think the nameless action book was a literary masterpiece but I did think it was a cracking read.

But I will only read it once!





Topical fiction – It’s Alive! Alive, I tell you!

21 08 2013

Sometimes an author gets lucky! They’ll be beavering away, writing hard about, say, a dark psychological view of a man’s twisted world. Then they’ll be taking a break and see on the TV news that their anti-hero was real. There was someone out there who’d just been caught doing exactly the same thing. Something that some in the real world would call a crime!

Two things would run through that author’s mind. Firstly – they are not alone in the dark. Second – is this prime publicity for their book?

Is it? Should he quickly finish it off, even if second rate finishing, just to get it out in time to get some fillip from the fourth estate, ride some wave of rich ghoulish publicity? Or should he continue on his way, writing what he wants to write – perhaps taking some elements of reality into fiction – but not letting the world’s priority impact his inner creative urgency?

A third thought comes…

This was a particularly dark tale from suburban American. If he doesn’t get the book out soon, will some pulp fiction author steal his thunder with a piece of reality-based-fiction and leave him with only the dregs and reputation as a coat-tail-hanger, a genre-stealer?

No – if the public want tales from beneath ground level, they’ll get what they want!





Sequel threads – lay the groundwork early

18 08 2013

Unless you are setting out on a saga of such length that you know it will take three tomes to get it finished then you are writing a one-off. You are pouring your heart and soul into this book, this tale. Giving life to the concept which came to you over a bowl of cornflakes or perhaps was years in gestation. It is a story, a one-off.

Now you’ve nearly written it, your mind has to flick forwards to life-after-novel. What next? You’ve spent so long with these characters, this situation, you must start thinking about whether you could write some more about them. The Series is born.

Before you finish your first novel you therefore should be looking for seeds to plant. Loose little threads you can pick up and develop and turn into something new. If you don’t leave these pointers and plan them out, even if not in great detail, then you will find yourself having to scratch around for a sequel.

Why give yourself the angst?

Just add a sentence or two about your hero’s mysterious sister or something deeply significant in the setting’s past. Think about which bits of your story you like most, which people have the most interesting lives you have created. 

Your editor will probably also give you some pointers but one way to help get that editor is to show you are savvy and aware of the benefits of having a customer base already bought in to your characters, already emotionally invested.

So leave a loose thread, weave a flaw in the pattern, knit one, pearl one, drop one.

Then you can enjoy finishing off your book and start to leave hints in your own blogs and on your website about where your heroine is going to next.  Give your readers an inch and they will make up the mile themselves.





Try it before you write it?

12 08 2013

Do you need to try something before you write about it? Ask Arthur C Clarke.

A flippant answer but pertinent. Did Mr C go into space, did he meet aliens, did he redraft the laws of physics. No. But should he therefore not have written about it?

We are fiction writers. It’s made up. Of course there will be elements of truth  in all our stories – human’s breathe, walk, live in houses, have sex. A plan will transport you between cities, countries or continents. But I have faith that Egypt is in North Africa even though I’ve never been there. If I had a guide book to hand and access to t’interweb I could probably write you a rollicking chase through the souks of Alexandria. But I’ve not experienced either the chase or the souk.

Did Mrs James have to try all 50-shades before she wrote about them? Does Dan Brown read latin or just have a phase book? Did A A Milne really have a hunny-loving bear telling him his thoughts?

There are areas, even in fiction, where experience is beneficial. A knowledge of anatomy is useful when writing a murder scene. Understanding of police procedure helps set up a detective story. Your first book will probably have more of your knowledge than any subsequent because you will write what you know before you really get into making everything else.

Do you need to try it before you write it? No. But you should know it. Don’t piss off your readers by putting Birmingham at the end of the M23 motorway – unless of course you’ve made a world where it really is!

Why not just make up the fact that you’ve tried it!





The blurb – sell yourself in a paragraph!

10 08 2013

A novel’s synopsis is typically expected to be one page long – A4, single spacing sometimes allowed. I’ve seen that some agents and publishers are now looking for the one paragraph synopsis. For me that would be a ‘bah humbug’ moment (see previous blog). But should it be? Can you do an elevator pitch, a Dragon’s Den two minutes, some tell-me-why-I-shouldn’t-kill-you-now final words? In other words, can you quickly justify what you have just spent potentially years putting together? Can you?

The synopsis for a publisher is an art to master so practise on your friends. Then take it one step further because you have the chance to influence another biggie as well!  Assume for a moment that your sample chapters impressed, your synopsis was compelling, your face fitted the current publishing want-list. If you want to live the vision, you can even assume you have an advance in the bank. What else can you do? What else do you need?

How about readers?

If you can do a pitch to sell to a publisher how about having a go at the pitch to sell to the public? You have one paragraph and perhaps a tag line. Think about the back of your book or the flyleaf. What would drag someone in to read your book instead of the new Dan Brown or Booker prize winner? One paragraph. Doesn’t have to tell the ending like your synopsis would – this just has to make your book more interesting than anyone else’s.

Go and stand in the best seller section of Waterstones and read them. Spend hours and just read them. Take notes of what catches your eye and try to ape the style of those that attract you the most. Is it the upbeat sentence endings, the tantalising questions, the possibility of something dark or dirty or kinky or fun? The publisher will know what to write but you should have some control and how better to control than to dictate?





The envelope of doom – part 2

7 08 2013

How do they do it? What do they look for? What makes the next big thing? What do they want to see?

If publishers and agents knew what the next big thing was my guess is they would have hired a ghost writer and already thrown it to the reading wolves. The next big thing isn’t based on a recipe. It isn’t, by definition, formulaic. A sequel can be formulaic, a follow-up can continue a story we know people are interested in – whether messrs Langdon, Potter or Grey – but a first novel has to break new ground to win big.

Most don’t.

First novels can be launched to great fanfare and perhaps they are the Great British Novel awaiting only time to bring awards and accolades to your door. Most aren’t.  Most fit a genre, have a bit of a twist or are penned by an author with potential to produce more and the face to fit on a breakfast telly sofa and pull readers in. Most do OK. Only OK. Some a bit better, some a bit worse, but OK.

But back to the point of this blog. What do they look for? They are looking for you. They want you to have written something good, something readable, saleable, promotable and ultimately, just plain interesting. Write your best, edit it to hell and back, then have friends and family do the same.

If you want specifics on what they look for, you’ve come to the wrong place. Speculation is all very well, it has its place, but why not look at the website, look in one of the Writers’ yearbooks/guides etc. Don’t speculate – do some research. They want to waste their time even less than you want to waste it so DON’T. Give them what they ask for in a format they want to see it. The contents, the story, then has a chance to shine through.

And please do a final spell-check before you send it! I’d be disheartened at finding typos on the first page – your target might not even get to the excellent third sequence before it is on the slush pile!