The Napoleon of Crime

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Lionel Atwill as Moriarty in ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon’ (1943)

Yesterday I discovered that my story, Rosenlaui, will be included in Constable & Robinson‘s forthcoming The Mammoth Book of Professor Moriarty Adventures, edited by the venerable Maxim Jakubowski. The story concerns events in Meiringen, Switzerland, on the eve of that momentous confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls.

This is only the second time I’ve ever written a story containing someone else’s creation (I had a story in Stephen Jones’ Dracula anthology – another ‘Mammoth’ book – back in 1997), and I had enormous fun with it. I would certainly consider doing something similar in future (are you listening, Ian Fleming Publications?).

Ghosts and Deadlines

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I’ve been working on a novel with the working title HOUSE OF SLOW ROOMS for the best part of three years. I’ve not been writing it every day, but I’ve certainly been thinking about it every day (which is, some would say, the same thing, or at least part of the job). It has had to take a back seat to a number of more urgent, time-sensitive projects (for ‘urgent, time-sensitive’ read ‘paid’) and because it isn’t part of any publishing contract, it has no deadline, other than those I pin to it. And then reschedule, with depressing regularity.

I like deadlines. I like the sound they make when I meet them. I imagine the sound as the wet splat you hear when Andrew Lincoln kicks a zombie’s head in. I’m pretty good at meeting deadlines and I do love to have a date set in stone that I can work towards. A July 2015 deadline for something else I’ve got to write has provided me with an unofficial kick up the pants for HOSR, otherwise it will go on the back burner for another six months. So I’ve given myself until the end of February to at least knock it into some kind of shape. To at least wrestle an ending out of it, so I can call it a first draft. I’m at the 80,000 word mark and it feels as though there’s not much more to go (although I am retro-fitting a new character and sub-plot, so the word count could swing up into six-figure territory).

Progress Check

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I worry (just a little bit) when the writing seems free and easy, when the next scene shapes itself and solidifies before me as I’m about to wrap up the scene-in-progress. I fret (a tad) when I know what everyone is going to do and say, just before they do or say it. The words fly by; the pages stack up. It’s a nice feeling, and one that happens so rarely. So why would I warn against it? If it writes quick and easy then it will read quick and easy, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

I don’t want to come across as the tortured scribe, extolling the virtues of agonising over every phoneme; polishing each word, phrase and clause until it all shines with the self-righteous glow of punishing labour (I certainly don’t work that way). And I definitely don’t yank on the reins when I’m at a canter. But I do tend to cast a more critical eye over what I’ve produced. Writing at speed (usually) means a falling back on the cliché crutch, in idiom as well as location or character trait or behavioural tic.

In the same way that the Beatles, say, produced simple, apparently conventional songs that sometimes pulled the rug from under your feet with the appearance of an unusual couplet, or unexpected chord changes, so a piece of writing can be lifted to a rarefied plane thanks to the inclusion of a plot thrust out of left field, or sparkling dialogue, or idiosyncratic characters who behave like human beings, i.e. spontaneous, random, odd.

I love unpredictable writers and writing, and crave them even though novels and short stories contain their own conventions and formulae. Within that fixed trinity of beginning, middle and end there is an infinity of possibilities. An easy path from A-Z might get you to your destination more quickly, and more safely, but it might make for an uninspiring journey.

The Art of Writing

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I was privileged to be a part of The Art of Writing, Lisa Clifford‘s excellent Tuscany-based writing masterclass last year, and I’m delighted that I will be involved again this coming September.

From Lisa’s website:

Our Tuscan retreat is moving into 2015 with a raft of new ideas and teachers to help writers reach their goals and make their dreams a reality. Our 2014 retreats were so special, with beginner, emerging and established writers joining us from all over the world that we’ve decided to run two Art of Writing retreats this year. In June and September we’re excited to announce we have new guest appraisers, writers and teachers from the USA and UK.

From September 13-19 we welcome another new member of The Art of Writing team. Conrad Williams is the author of seven novels, four novellas and more than one hundred short stories. Conrad writes horror novels and thrillers, fast paced novels that will keep you up way past your bedtime. His classes discuss drama, character change and growth as well as dialogue and authentic- sounding speech. Over five days Conrad will cover the need for drama and obstacles plus much more.

Author of twenty-one novels (and still counting), Emma Fraser will join us from Scotland to discuss the importance of writing for your readers and her own personal publishing journey. Each afternoon Emma will work privately with writers on their structures and plot lines. Both retreats include classes from me, Lisa Clifford, long time Tuscany resident and author of four books and countless articles on Italy. I’ll focus on writing from a sense of place and how to put together your memoir.

The Art of Writing continues to host live Skype chats with agents and publishers all over the world during sunset aperitivo hour (the drinks are on me!).  Goals include getting to know and understand the publishing industry. What are the major holes in submitted manuscripts? What are US agents looking for? What is HarperCollins looking for? Our guests Skypers are Acquisitions Editors and Agents and they’ll let you know.

Check out our website or write to me, Lisa Clifford, at info@the-art-of-writing.com.

I look forward to help you move your project from idea to novel!

 

Kindle surprise

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Two recent short stories, originally published by the good people at This is Horror and Nightjar Press, are available to buy online. The Fox was shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award and was well received by Starburst: “As events unfold, a knot appears in your stomach, twisting tighter and tighter until you reach the denouement.” Adam Nevill said of The Jungle: “In a Conrad Williams story you always see the very texture of the world’s simplest wonders and sudden horrors, but through eyes you thought had closed in your past.”

Priced at £1.99 each ($2.99 in the States). Cheap as chips. Or fries.

Fancy meeting you here…

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Getting certain characters together in fiction without any hint of contrivance is a challenge for any writer. In Sonata of the Dead, my WIP, I’ve got my lead character, a PI named Joel Sorrell, who needs to link up with another character, a woman with whom he will develop a strong working relationship (and maybe more besides). I don’t want them to meet during some arranged get-together because there are many such incidents where Joel has to talk to a number of different people in a formal setting. I want this one to feel random. But what is good random, and what is bad random? I suppose the bad random is cliché. So out goes the collision in a corridor (especially if she’s carrying a mountain of papers), or the mild flirtation in a lift, or an argument over the last taxi in the rank.

I suppose to a certain degree all genre fiction is contrived (perhaps crime fiction above all) which is where suspension of disbelief in readers becomes important, but writers can smooth the path to some extent by clearing out the obvious moments of coincidence, and any laboured or far-fetched sequences. A scene that is hard to swallow will yank the reader out of the well-oiled, absorbing story you’re striving to create.

Getting characters away from each other is equally important, especially if you’re writing a horror novel, but again, you have to manage it credibly… Okay guys, there’s an axe-wielding psychopath out there somewhere… let’s split up!

Next stop… Shudehill

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I have a July deadline. But due to various commitments, my writing time has been cut to two days a week. Luxury, I hear you cry, and you’re right. I’m not complaining. I’m not moaning. But it means I’m having to be a bit more proactive in terms of what I get done and when.

The first two days of each week I spend in an office on the Oldham Road working on a Secret Project™. Initially I enjoyed the reading time I was getting – 40 minutes there and back on the Metrolink tram – but since the start of the year, and that summer deadline sharpening its claws on the strop of my paranoia, I’ve used that time to write instead.

A subtle little Moleskine won’t cut it, however. Great for notes, not so great for full-on composition. So I’ve given in to my inner writing fetishist and now I take a leather document wallet around with me, filled with good quality paper and – why not, Goddammit? – a lovely fountain pen loaded with an exotically-coloured ink.

Once I bested the self-consciousness that came with scribbling away on an A4 pad in a packed tram carriage, I was fine. I’m averaging a good three-to-four pages a day. It’s worth the occasional funny look.

And if I mutter at the same time it means I get a seat all to myself…

Interstellar (Warning: SPOILERS)

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I’m a Christopher Nolan fan and I’ve enjoyed everything he’s produced up until now. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy Interstellar. I did. I just couldn’t quite understand what kind of film it was. A love story? An apocalyptic race against (within?) time? A meditation on what it means to get old? A balls-to-the-wall SF thriller? It’s all of these, as well as a mind-bending maths lesson and an homage to Stanley Kubrick.

As a result, my loyalties were skewed. Were we supposed to be rooting for romance, hoping that he and Anne Hathaway would get it together? I couldn’t care less. Were we supposed to be shocked by the revelation that the baddie was not a HAL-style ship’s computer (in this case, Minecraft-style robots given the best lines) but a nasty little cameo from an actor not listed in the credits? I couldn’t care less. Humanity is ending! Reach for the Kleenex. Not here.

I didn’t care for the clumsy, unlikely, expositional dialogue (explaining a wormhole to a brilliant NASA pilot? Yeah, right. Hey, Anne, what is love, anyway?) or the tortuous routes taken to plot locations that could have used a simpler map (dust co-ordinates leading to NASA HQ… where suddenly MM is the pilot they need). The whole tesseract bit recalled 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s coda in which Dave Bowman finds himself face-to-face with his deathbed self. Nolan’s version serves only to invite comparisons and Interstellar can only fail. Kubrick’s classic, though experimental, cold and uncomfortable nevertheless has its roots in a story that is focused and intractable. Alongside it, Interstellar comes across as a wild, beautiful mess.

At times you get the feeling Nolan remembered he was directing a thriller and so had to jemmy in a fight scene, or a chase, or an explosion. In 2001, such moments are tense, natural extensions of the story. Here they seem bolted on.

It looked gorgeous and some of the acting was, um, out of this world (MM and Mackenzie Foy especially). But there was too much going on, and the climactic reuniting of MM and his daughter, now old and dying, was wasted, underwhelming. We see MM jet off in pursuit of Anne Hathaway, whose opinion of him, like the robots’ empathy and humour settings, was never quite 100 per cent.

I found myself curiously unmoved regarding the fate of the human race. All of my emotion was invested in the agonising time-shear keeping Matthew McConaughey away from his daughter. That was the most fascinating facet of this story, and was enough to underpin the film without all the other bells and whistles.

There was much to admire in this film, and I will watch it again, but it was a frustrating near-miss for me. Nolan, a fascinating director with ambition, seems to be incapable of reining it in. He’s an epic director but it seems to me he doesn’t, yet, have the shoulders to carry an epic, reality-driven film.

Tram: 13.11.14.

That man on the tram. The one who catches your eye. There’s usually someone. Don’t you find that? An anomaly. A jarring presence. Or maybe not. Maybe just someone other. An against-the-flow type. A grit in the grease. This girl with the tattoo. A heart on her hand. For some reason. This guy with headphones. Smiling, tapping his foot. An older chap, all po-faced. Folded crossword puzzle. A glance, then tucked away. A photocopy. Him or it? Your guess is as good as.

You know. That music he’s listening to. You know. It isn’t music. Take the headphones off. Black oil pours from his ears. Or a swarm of flies. Or a nightmare made solid. That tattoo. Does it hide another? Was there an initial once? A previous life. Skin palimpsest. A tattoo always visible to her. A reminder. A threat. Would the replacement remind you too? Would it help you forget? Spare cuts of carpet on stains. A photograph concealing a crack. The razored remains of journal pages.

One across. One down. Cryptic or quick? Prize or just for fun? That face suggests the latter. Or maybe not. The tram stops. Some get off. Some get on. These three remain. Crossword, tattoo and grinning nightmare. You might follow one home. If you had the time. If you burned to know. An address. Some door. An inkling. The way they tend the garden. The colour of the curtains.