Should Fiction Keep It Real?

I planned to write about the balance between a writer’s life and their inner world, but this piece on the BBC website caught my eye and, frankly, it seemed more interesting to explore than to write about what I know best (me).

It’s well worth reading in full, but in essence author and screenwriter Daisy Goodwin questions whether having lots of strong female roles in prime time series, such as The Bodyguard and Killing Eve, gives girls and young woman false expectations of life even as it inspires them. Daisy refers to ‘airbrushing reality’, which begs the question: What purpose does fiction best serve?

Unsurprisingly, I can see both sides here. In my Thomas Bladen novels, although the focus is primarily on Thomas and Karl at work, and Thomas and Miranda after hours, I have written in a number of what I hope are strong female roles. This isn’t tokenism. Throughout my working life, most of my managers have been women. In addition, I think that writing different characters from the author’s direct experience adds complexity and interest. Television though (and cinema) is more immediate, more visual, more in-your-face because the action all takes place in front of you, rather than inside your own head.

A glance through the news headlines will tell you that sexism and racism are still formidable barriers to greater social change (and classism / social mobility is as well). How accurately should they be portrayed? 

I think that fiction isn’t reportage – it can mirror reality or it can diverge from it. For me, that’s driven by the story. And yes, of course mystories are an expression of my experience, my projections and imagination (which again are inevitably informed by my experience). 

Another point worth considering is that drama in fiction, television and cinema is usually about exception. The tension or conflict comes from something out of the ordinary, whether that’s an event or a realisation (which is really an inner event), and the consequences that follow.

Pixar’s storytelling structure is well known and here’s a great description of it: 

In the end, even if it’s fiction for now, I want to see diversity in roles and characters. Whatever the present situation, the future is unwritten. And fiction can also inspire people to turn fiction into reality.

B is for Brainstorming

Over the years I've heard many writers talk about the difficulty in coming up with ideas. I even attended a writing workshop once, where, during the introductions, someone declared, "Someday I really want to write a book - I just don't have any ideas for it yet." And then I really wanted to murder a wannabe writer - only I had plenty of ideas of how to go about it. But enough about me...

Every waking minute of every day, we are bombarded by stimuli - much of it, but not exclusively, external. TV, radio, magazines, advertising, overheard conversations, things we see, things we thinkwe see - all these and more are constantly feeding the brain with information and interpretation. In parallel, our internal thought processes relate to the external stimuli based on what we have experienced before and our internal values or biases. Unless you're meditating, it doesn't stop. For a second. The only activity that keeps the noise down is focus.

Now, you could cut up some magazines and go arrange some pretty pictures. That's a start; it's true. But why not take the information you've collected and do something else creative with it? Pretend you're a comedy writer.

At first glance, comedy writing and other forms of creative writing are very different. Every genre has its rules and expectations, while comedy seems to be about one rule - being funny - right? Well, wrong actually. Comedy writing, in my experience, often relies on set formulae and techniques, and most of these can be applied to brainstorming.

These include:

·     Exaggeration - Making someone meaner, stronger more dishonest or needier. Or upping the stakes, so that the everyday consequences are magnified x10?

·     Misdirection - Sending the reader in one direction and then pulling out the rug from under them. 

·     Similarity between things / People that are different - the cop and the bad girl have the same attitude to the law and normal social conventions.

·     Difference between things that are similar - Two sisters grow up together (perhaps even twins), but their lives take very different paths.

Intermission - a few jokes to be going on with...

One of the first Disney artists has died in California. Doctors say the colour just drained out of him.

Originally, brides were married in blue. It was a sign of both purity and substandard washing powder.

Scientists have confirmed that pig organs are completely safe for human beings. If only as a breakfast after the transplant operation.

A survey has shown that men pay more attention when they have a woman in the car...telling them how to drive.

OK, where were we?

Brainstorming. So, it isn't just a slew of ideas that gets the brain changing up a gear, there also needs to be a context or a dynamic tension. What is it about two ideas / characters / subplots / ideologies that ignites our interest? I think it's the dynamic between them. Juxtapose two people with conflicting ideas, or strangers locked in a room, and you have the beginnings of something interesting.

Still stuck for ideas? Get out your dictionary (remember those?) and use the power of random. For example, the finger of fate has selected professorpuppetand sleep:

A professor who performs sleep deprivation experiments on his students.
A professor obsessed with an antique puppet that he has to possess.
A professor being manipulated by someone else in the faculty.
Teachng people good sleep habits.
A puppet that comes alive in people's dreams.
A puppeteer who calls herself The Professor, but who is she really?
The tale of a disassociated child, whose parents dress him up as a puppet.

Enjoy your brainstorming - observe, play, and juxtapose, and see where it takes you!


A is for Altruism for Authors

Sit down next to me.
I’m a great believer in supporting the writing community wherever possible and whenever practicable. Of course, there is competition for representation, for publication, and for funding, but most of that activity happens in the privacy of one’s outbox and those all-important decisions are beyond our control once we have pressed send.

How can novel writers support one another, I hear you ask? (Don’t worry; I have a very active imagination.)

Several ways come to mind for helping out your fellow authors:
1.   Sharing on social media. It’s not so much that you’re expected to wield great influence, more that you are likely to know people (and communities) that the other writer doesn’t know.
2.   Hosting a blog post. Often the author will provide something for you to host. If not, a simple Q&A format, with one or two quirky questions thrown in, helps the author talk about their work in a fresh way for a fresh audience.
3.   Reading and reviewing. This can be controversial because there may be expectations of a shining review for a less than shiny book. Alternatively, it may not be your genre, or your thing. Sometimes authors will agree to mutual reviews, which can take on the nature of a poker game! Honesty is always the best review policy. Amazon has some baffling rules – which it doesn’t share – about reviews so don’t be surprised if a review suddenly ups and disappears.
4.   Become a beta reader. You get to read the book first, sometimes as a work-in-progress, and other times it’s the pre-launch, basically good-to-go version. Here, the focus for feedback tends to be around grammar, formatting glitches, and consistency. You might even end up in the acknowledgements for services rendered.
5.   Making recommendations to your own readers’ list. And if you’re a published author and you don’t have one, you need to think seriously about creating your own list.

Why you ought to consider it
If the notion of good karma doesn’t light your inner flame, there are more tangible positives to author altruism: 
·     By participating in the community you are raising your profile, both to other authors (and possibly their agents / publishers) and to your own followers and readers.
·     Interacting with other authors can be an education in other people’s creative process, which in turn informs yours.
·     It is an opportunity to see how other authors market themselves and their work, and then consider what youdo.
·     More diverse authors and posts on your blog and social media streams.
·     Frankly, it takes you out of your own ‘magnum opus’ centred universe. Sometimes we need a little perspective and visiting someone else’s universe can be a great way to do just that. It normalises what you might think of as your unique struggles, when you realise everyone goes through the same old crap!
·     Maybe, just maybe, other authors will go the extra mile for you. Who knows, you could start a trend!

I know what you’re thinking (I did say my imagination was active): what about the downsides? Well, as long as you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, and you have realistic expectations…oh, okay then, here goes:
·     Other authors might be doing much better than me! In the words of an old friend from Staten Island, “Deal with it!” There will always be more successful (and with a better reach) and less successful writers than you. That’ the nature of the beast. But the ones ahead of you may have a bigger community for you, while the ones behind you may appreciate you all the more for your kindness.
·     What if people don’t help me back? Well, like the rest of life, sometimes that happens. Altruism is not a payback scheme.
·     Surely I should spend my time on my own writing? Yes, when you need to be writing. Only you know what time you can spare, but why not spare some of it to make a difference to someone else’s book / chances / day?
·     Isn’t altruism unrealistic, nay, self-defeating, in a competitive environment like the arts? If you see supporting others (and let’s face it we’re talking about small ways, not making a sandwich board and marching up and down Oxford Street for hours) as a drain on energy you’d rather devote to your own book, then this is not for you. I think it comes down to personal values. I’m not convinced that 20 minutes spent sharing the load of another author will be the decider between my success and my failure. I’d rather feel good about helping someone than see it as a winner takes all, rat race with pens.  
·     I feel pressured / guilt tripped / manipulated to do something I really don’t want to do. Then it’s not for you. No sale; no drama! But maybe let the other writer know, so they’re not building up false expectations (or a grudge!).

Supporting your fellow authors may not advance your own agenda one iota; that’s not the point. It may, however, make you a more fulfilled human being, a more rounded author, and a much appreciated contributor to the writing community.

Harvesting your writing projects

I like 'em a great deal.
Creativity means different things to different people. For writers, that can include doing one thing brilliantly, or doing lots of different things to varying degrees of success. I tend to fall into the latter category, unless there’s a deadline on the horizon. Thus it is that I have two novels in the early stages of development, a whole range (literally) of greetings cards hopefully under consideration, a daily visit to to top up my gag writing skills, a standalone completed novel on submission to a handful of agents and publishers, and the beginnings of an ebook anthology predominantly of short fiction that I gathered together from previous publications. It all looks great on paper – pardon the pun – but is this shotgun approach to creative writing a way of avoiding focus? Can less be more? And can my questions seem a little less like Carrie Bradshaw’s in Sex and the City?

We bought a water filter at home to improve the taste of eau de tap. For longer than a care to remember you had to have a knack to fill the kettle without rinsing the work surface and the back of the kettle at the same time. This week, for no reason at all, I finally realised you can pop the lid on the spout, reducing the field of flow and also making it more controllable. Who knew?! Of course, that epiphany lasted for a couple of days before I got lazy and thought I could wing it. Rinse it, more like.

Maybe it’s not laziness as such, just an expectation that we can get away with stuff if it doesn’t seem to matter. And yet, if Dr Lister took that approach he’d never have discovered Yakult. Did I mention that science isn’t one of my strong suits? Unlike the Kevlar one.

The one area of writing where I buck my own trend is in editing a novel once it’s complete. Standpoint, my debut spy thriller, went through seven complete edits. I knew the tone I wanted and kept going back to make minor adjustments. Actually, there came a point where I had to force myself to stand back from it. Fortunately, Joffe Books ‘got it’ and helped refine the text so that it kept the Raymond Chandler and Len Deighton inspirations, but also elevated my emerging voice. 

We sometimes confuse the rush of inspiration with actual creativity because it issuch a rush. When the Muse comes to call she usually brings a suitcase filled with presents, and it seems rude to ignore any in preference of any others. But, in the same way that our parents ‘made’ us play with a new Christmas present for a while before we opened the next one (my brother remembered it as an hour, but I’m not so sure), it is important to focus your time and attention so that you make real progress. Too much inspiration, in too many directions, is a distraction and the enemy of productivity.

In practice, I like to prioritise what needs to be done to meet the long-term objectives (e.g. I can realistically only write one novel at a time so something has to take second place) and balance that up with a few quick wins for when things seem so difficult that they grind to a halt. There is also a lot to be said for applying your bum to the seat and making yourself do something even if it runs the risk of becoming tomorrow’s chip paper.

For me, this all plays out as:

1.   Complete first draft of crime novel by the end of the year.
2.   Work on second batch of greeting card content. (This is more fun than work.)
3.   Collect plot ideas for separate Thomas Bladen novel.
4.   Identify half a dozen agents / publishers for Scars & Stripes.

5.   Work on Into the Void anthology.

Stewart Giles - The Backpacker

Every writer hopes that their characters take on a life of their own, adding depth to the dialogue and plot as a book progresses. That old chestnut about characters answering back in the writing process, and sometimes even altering the course of the entire book, is true. So what happens if a successful author comes up with another compelling character, who then needs an entirely new book series?

Best-selling author, Stewart Giles, has overcome that challenge, and recently saw the publication of The Backpacker, his third DC Harriet Taylor novel in a series that still has a way to go to match his 8.5 novel series about DS Jason Smith. 

Book 1
The Beekeeper
Book 2
The Perfect Murder
Book 3
The Backpacker

Book 0.5
Book 1
Book 2
Book 3
Book 4
Occam’s Razor
Book 5
Book 6
Book 7
Book 8

Stewart has opted to self-publish The Backpacker and has set up a Reader Club to engage directly with his audience. You can join the club by completing this form:

The Backpacker


A girl’s body is found hidden in a remote spot of a Cornish Farm. The same farm that a young girl ran towards to escape her pursuer many years before.  Detective Harriet Taylor has to abandon her day out to investigate.
As Littlemore and the forensics team get to work they uncover another mystery hidden among the rocks.
Who would kill a young backpacker who hurt nobody?  Is there a link between this and a mystery from many years ago?
As Harriet and the team get to work they find more questions than answers. What secrets is the sleepy Cornish village hiding?

This is a fast-paced page-turner that has so many twists and turns it keeps the reader guessing right up to the shocking end.

Stewart Giles - in his own words

After reading English & Drama at three different English Universities and graduating from none of them, I set off travelling and finally ended up in South Africa, where I still live. I enjoy the serene life running a boat shop on the banks of the Vaal Dam. I came up with the DS Jason Smith idea after my wife dropped a rather large speaker on my head. Whether it was intentional still remains a mystery. Smith, the first in the series was finished in September 2013 and was closely followed by Boomerang and Ladybird. Occam's Razor, Harlequin and Phobia (a series of short stories detailing Smith's early life) were all completed in one hazy 365 days and Selene was done and dusted a few months later. 

Twitter: @stewartgiles

Credibility Counts

If you're writing content that matters, it's always personal - not only to you; also to the client and to the audience. The subject may not rock your world initially, but you'll find a way in and suddenly 'Forgotten cleaning products of the 1950s' takes on a life of its own. However, if there's no part of you that's fired up by the premise or your angle, put down your pen my friend. Life is too short to create content that doesn't count for something (which is not to say that sometimes people won't want to burn your lovely words and then flush the ash down the toilet). 

I maintain that without a connection to your own words, the chances are they'll be drier than ancient parchment. Or worse, you'll churn out something you think the client will care about that is hollow inside. You may even get away with it for a while but believe me, cleverness will only get you so far.

Starting out with a new subject can be daunting. Most writers suffer from 'imposter syndrome' from time to time, and convincing an editor that you're the best person to write about AI when, to date, the sum of your experience has been watching 2001 A Space Odyssey and playing computer chess is going to be a tall order. Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to help yourself.

Sit and Think
I'm a great fan of sitting and thinking. I like to think the think of no-thinking and see what my free-associating comes up with. I'm essentially walking around the topic - a stage that's crucial to the way I work best. 

Pen and Paper
Some people jump straight to playing with ideas on the page. AI, for example, means different things to different people. Robots from Boston Dynamics, the threat of job losses, understanding algorithms and how they underpin online advertising, the Internet of Things, the Internet of Everything, autonomous vehicles, machine learning, surveillance - just some of the random sparks in my brain while I'm typing this out. Any one of those ideas can be metaphorically lifted into the air and rotated to create a new perspective.

Refine your Research 
Before you rush off to a ubiquitous internet search engine or perhaps a more obscure one, give some thought to where you'll get expert testimony. Typing in AI will produce a plethora of results that can eat up your time and your enthusiasm. Try narrowing your search parameters to AI magazines, or AI news, or AI scandal. With a refined focus you are more likely to identify expert and more relevant sources of information.

Make it Personal
Having thought and played with ideas and scoured the web, remember to put yourself in the piece. And what I mean by that is think about - in the instance - what AI means to you and what it might mean to your client or readers. Are you optimistic, fearful, cynical or just plain confused when it comes to the impact of AI on your life now and in the future? Whatever the case, good - write it down.

Make it Relevant
Not so long ago I found myself in 'strange conversation' territory when someone asked me what I was doing for the weekend. 
"Writing content for a grief counsellor," I replied. As you do. 
She peered at me for a moment. "And what do you know about grief?"
I hadn't expected to be challenged, so I went with my gut. "My brother and I lost both our parents in our 20s, and I lost my brother in my early 40s."
"So what?" she said. 
I was a bit gobsmacked to be honest. I added, "I've been writing about the funeral industry and bereavement for three years, and one of my friends is a bereavement counsellor."
She nodded and half-apologised for being abrupt. 

Although it wasn't a work conversation as such, it could easily have been. I've written on a whole range of topics from ageism to matchmaking to high-end property development. Establishing your credibility in your own mind is half the battle. need to join the dots for clients so that they understand why your experience and expertise (whether it's personal or professional) is relevant to the job. Sometimes it can look a little like a simple formula:

"I haven't written about (A) but I know a lot / have written about (B) and that's relevant to (A) because of (C)."

Understanding (C) may also give you a fresh perspective on the whole topic. 

Derek Thompson
Freelance Columnist, Copywriter, Blogger, and Author.