Pull the Other One - Adventures with Cracker Jokes

A ghost of Christmas past.
This is the second year I've entered the Gold Channel cracker joke competition. The fact that I'm mentioning it at all should alert you to the prospect of a happy or unhappy ending. In this case, both!

The brief was for something topical and festive, perhaps with a twist on a traditional Christmas cracker groaner. I posted 15 on Twitter and my favourite is neither topical nor festive. Maybe that's why it failed to impress the audience.

Who is Rudolf's favourite singer? Elkie Brooks!

Anyway, one of my little crackers made the cut for the top 20. Sadly for me, only the top ten get a writer's mention and mine came in at number 11. 

My winning entry.

Here are the others:

What do you give the man who has everything for Christmas? Amnesia.

Which Triumph model did Gabriel and Michael prefer?
Hark the Herald, angels sing

Which monarch drinks too much at Christmas? Good King Senseless.

How do Royal Mail staff run a strike ballot? First past the post.

What do you get if you use power tools to make the house more festive? Double-decorations.

Where does Father Christmas go to the toilet? In an igloo.

What is the Christmas gift that money can't buy? Money, unless it's foreign currency.

How do Santa's elves decide what to wear? They suit themselves.

Where do armies fear to tread at Christmas? Snowman's Land.

What is Rudolf's favourite dessert? Chocolate moose.

Where does Father Christmas go for his holidays? Easter Island.

Why did the elves give Santa cranberry sauce and mustard? They wanted to pass on the condiments of the season.

What do Santa's midnight feasts and London drivers have in common? They both pay a heavy congestion charge.

What does Father Christmas eat on Boxing Day? Quiche la reindeer.

Merry Christmas, one and all – that’s my festive motto!

Today's Subject is Subjectivity

Sir Isaac Newton stated that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For authors that gets translated into 'for everyone who likes your work, someone else will hate it'. There doesn't have to be any rhyme or reason about it; it's just a thing. 

This state of affairs was brought back to me recently when I decided to seek out a publisher for superhero club, my mid-grade children's book about bullying, friendship, self-acceptance and transformation. Originally, it was published by Musa Publishing and when they folded I self-dubbed it to try and get a wider audience. It was also considered for use in a therapeutic / workshop setting for young people who may have experienced one or more of the issues touched upon in the book.

The first publisher I contacted was quite enthusiastic and promised me a response within eight weeks. However, their actual response consisted of 'thanks, but we rarely take on new books right now'. And yes, of course I sent them a query first before submitting the manuscript.

The next publisher felt the book was... 'a little unfocused and didn't necessarily know which age group it was being aimed at. We need to make sure that we're directing the content specifically at a certain age group. Otherwise, the book simply doesn't work.'

Having had it previously published (and edited and focused by Musa), I found this a tad surprising. Not that the other publisher is wrong, from their perspective, just that it differs from Musa's and the readers who were kind enough to leave reviews. 

Interestingly, despite having four of my Spy Chaser novels published since 2005 by Joffe Books, the first part of the above feedback that caught my eye was the book simply doesn't work. All of which goes to show that:

1. Opinions vary (informed and otherwise). It's important to really believe in your work, even if other people do not, and use any feedback to improve your manuscript or perhaps your pitch. 

2. Having your work published will not change you. Sure, there might be some money in the bank, and yes, you can see your work for sale. But any nagging insecurities will stick around like unwelcome guests unless change your perspective. See item 1 above for details!

3. Sometimes it's time for new stories, not just on the page but also the ones we tell ourselves. Our fixed ideas about what a writer is and is not are, in fact, mere acts of imagination. And if you're going to start imagining, why not imagine some positive things!

4. All writers have to start somewhere and are capable of developing their craft.

Authors & Books - Being Krystyna

Most authors will tell you that the fictional world of their books comes from a real world inspiration. - a news item, an overheard conversation, or perhaps a personal experience that sparks off a chain of inspiration. There is another purpose of storytelling - to memorialise a true story so that friends, family and future generations can see history through the eyes of those who lived through it (and often those who did not).

I'm grateful to Carol Browne for making time to discuss her work on Being Krystyna - A Story of Survival in WWII.

1. What was it that drew you to the project?

I volunteered to write the life story of local woman Krystyna Porsz after a chance meeting with her son in a Polish restaurant in 2011; but I was a very reluctant biographer. I did it because no-one else could be found who was either able or willing to take it on and that was my only reason. I thought, “If I don’t do it, no-one will.” It seemed far too big a responsibility to me but I told Krystyna’s son I’d give it a go, even though I was convinced I wasn’t up to the job. I write fiction. I make stuff up. I assumed non-fiction would be completely different.

2. Did your approach differ from writing fiction?

I discovered that non-fiction and fiction aren’t so different after all because the author still needs to provide the reader with a compelling read. It can’t be written as a chronological series of events or it will be very dull. In the case of Being Krystyna - A Story of Survival in WWII, although I had the facts of Krystyna’s life, they amounted to a few sheets of A4 paper, hardly enough material for a book. So I had to build a structure to hang those facts on, very much like creating a plot for a work of fiction. A young Polish friend of mine had visited Krystyna on two occasions and I used her as a narrative device, so we see the story unfold through her eyes. This gave me much more opportunity to expand the text while still being true to the available facts. It also added another dimension to the story, comparing the very different life experiences of two Polish women.

Additional challenges, however, present themselves when you remember you are dealing with someone’s actual life. Writers of fiction know that characters are apt to take on a life of their own. They seem real to their creators and as authors we want to portray them in their best light. When you are writing a real person’s story, this becomes vitally important. The sense of responsibility the author feels is magnified. For me, writing about Krystyna, it was off the scale; here was a very old lady whose ability to communicate was seriously hampered by dementia. There wouldn’t be any chance of being able to discuss the book with her. There wouldn’t be any feedback. While I was writing the book, I kept thinking, “If this were my life story, would I be happy with how it’s being handled?” That was my benchmark all the time and I’m confident I kept to it.

3. How did the experience change you?

Writing a real person’s story is a challenge. It’s hard work. But I recommend it, especially if that person’s life is drastically different from your own. It’s an enlightening experience. It will broaden your mind and test your ability as a writer. It will give you the opportunity to write something that really deserves to be written. I only met Krystyna once but I made a point of shaking her hand before I left. I needed to physically touch someone who had survived the Holocaust, who had lived a history I had only read about or seen on black and white newsreels. Krystyna Porsz is a truly brave person. A survivor. I’m grateful not only to have met her, but to have had the honour of telling her story.

4. Where can we find out more about Being Krystyna?

Being Krystyna is available in Kindle format on Amazon.
Being Krystyna (UK): http://tinyurl.com/hanoycg
Being Krystyna (US): https://tinyurl.com/ya6gn7c5

You can visit the website of my publisher, Dilliebooks:  https://www.dilliebooks.com/ 
I also write other books and you can find my blog at https://authorcarolbrowne.wordpress.com

This Old Thing - why writers shouldn't hide their light

I'm fortunate to know many writers, each at different stages of their craft, and I've yet to find one who really celebrates their talent. True, there is the social media 'woot' when a chapter is completed or a word count is reached, but ask them to take a bow and you can practically hear footsteps receding into the distance. 

I think our US cousins have a more expensive approach to their moment in the spotlight, although even there I've seen proud pen smiths become shrinking violets. So this is pep talk for all writers, only with a difference. I'd like to remind them - and readers - about the perils, pitfalls, and dark clouds we weather as part of our literary obsession.

1. Writing is an amazing, imaginative and, on occasions, transformative process, but it is not without its shadow side.  Despite the tropes of a four-hour typing flourish with words streaming perfectly on to the page, entire and cohesive book plots arriving in your consciousness like the morning post, and characters introducing themselves fully formed with back story (although this one has happened to me a few times), the elephant in the writing room is that it’s bloody hard work. 

2. Maybe it’s changed now but when I was at school, creative writing was simply about telling a story and playing with ideas. Nuance, style and technique were prizes of serendipity and not hard-won achievements. Now, when you write to be read you can’t help but be aware that someone will (hopefully) sit down with your book and a cup of tea (other beverages are available), eager to get their entertainment quotient for the cover price. When you disappoint them you also feel that you've disappointed yourself and your craft. (Sometimes you can also hear the muse crying or ranting in a corner!)

3. The creative process is a solitary one and it has to be. You can’t enter fully into your own inner world if you’re still being pulled by the outer one. To misquote from my yet-to-be-contracted US novel, it’s a little like building castles in the air and then choosing the furniture.

4. Once you have written your book and gone through the seven levels of hell that are editing, deciding along the way that you love / hate / love / hate / are indifferent to your opus, you then put your baby on the stage and start contacting agents and publishers or prepare for self-publication (where you are responsible for everything). If you are successful you will attract the praise, wonder and ire of your peers - most of whom you’re never likely to meet except online. But hey, you’ve climbed a rung and those who have not are entitled to their own take on the situation. Well, as long as your editor or agent isn’t a family friend or a member of your family. That state of affairs is never going to win you friends and will dog you like a bad smell – irrespective of the actual artistic merit of your book. There is no entitlement in writing, but heaven help any writer who appears to have been given a side door into the magical world of publishing!

5. Let’s move the calendar forward. You are officially a published writer. Now you can call yourself an author and everyone will want to know what you write (insert genre prejudices here!), who is publishing you (and who has heard of them), whether it’s going to be out in paperback or ebook (e-sniffiness is an allergy affecting many writers), and the $64,000 question – will you be receiving $64,000? The question is a strange one since, in my limited experience, no answer is a happy one. Explaining that there was no advance will earn you the pitying look one gives an old Labrador Retriever that’s in its dotage, while a modest advance merits a nod of condolence. A large advance, meanwhile, earns you an enthusiastic response that translates as ‘you lucky (and probably undeserving) bastard’. 

6. The calendar skips along and your book is out there for all the world to see. Your greatest challenges are now, in no particular order:

a) Promoting your book without abusing the hospitality of your fellow writers, sounding like a cracked record, and spending so long on social media that you stop doing any further writing.

b) Not checking for book reviews like an addict. 

c) Finding new angles to promote your work.

d) Not  oversharing your happiness about your success, or – worse in my opinion – underplaying your success. I’ve seen it several times where writers have really gone through the mill and put their lives on hold to finish a book and then take on an attitude of ‘what, this old thing – it’s just a story really’. No. Bad writer. You jolly well stand there and take the credit for your efforts. 

To do otherwise is disingenuous at best and self-sabotage at worst. And it absolutely won’t help you sell books, which is part and parcel of your role as an author.

7. As bright at your star is, and as well received as your book will hopefully be, you will meet critics along the way. Some will have valid observations, some will have chosen your book unwisely, some will feel their expectations have not been met, and some…well…some people enjoy finding fault. 

Your star will usually fade – I won’t say inevitably as some authors buck the trend. Often though, sales decrease, other writers come along to steal your thunder and friends of yours who were behind you on the trail catch up and may surpass you. Celebrate their success with them and give them all the support you can because you know, from experience, the rocky path they’ve travelled.​


Amazon UK https://www.amazon.co.uk/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

Amazon UK https://www.amazon.com/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

To write or not to write?

The hidden ingredient in every piece of writing.
Ask most writers, whether they are starting out, seasoned, or overcooked, and they all tell you the same thing - they write because it's a compulsion. It's the nagging internal voice when you read someone else's below par writing that whispers, "You could do better than this." It's that same voice when you're amongst other people that nudges you and mutters, "Write that line down." It's also the barely heard wraith of a voice through the fog of your self-doubt that reminds you to keep going.

It can be so, so easy to fall out of love with writing. There are more challenges thrown at you than Romeo and Juliet had to contend with. They could have simply eloped, although it would have made for a much shorter play.

Reasons to doubt yourself as a writer:

1. The first draft is awful. On a par with a two-month old piece of cheese left at the back of  the fridge.

2. Unlike a rather lovely 1945 film, you frequently have no idea where you're going. And sometimes you'll need to turn back or head off through the thicket.

3. Countless writers do it better than you and are doing better than you. And you can read about them online, in newspapers or in bookshops.

4. It can be a hard slog to grab the attention of an agent or a publisher, and even then there is no guarantee of a contract. And even a contract is no guarantee of sales.

5. Everyone is a critic, and those who are the most critical are not shy about it. They will vilify your paper / electronic children and in so doing humiliate you. They will insist that they have 'found you out' and unmasked you as a pretend writer. In fact, they are often so busy doing this that they have no time to write their own masterpieces. Now that's what I call sacrifice and public service.

6. Talent, plaudits and sales are not the same thing. Let's not forget that even Jane Austen was a slow burner

7. You rarely feel your final version is the final version. However, over-edit at your peril.

Reasons to stick with it:

1. You have absolute freedom to write absolutely anything. How brilliant is that?!

2. You and your writing develop simultaneously. The more you understand about yourself and life, the more you can pour that into your writing. Conversely, reading other people's work and examining your own creative process can enrich your life. [The one non-writers jokingly refer to as 'the real world' (whatever that is).]

3. Sometimes, when you write there can be moments of magic - unexpected insights, characters talking back to you and guiding the pen, or the threads of a book converging like the final note in The Beatles' A Day in the Life. Who wouldn't welcome a little magic into their lives?

4. You could finish a book. A book. By you. That book can then be read by other people, giving them a visitor's ticket to your inner world.

5. You can connect with a worldwide community of writers who understand your challenges on the page and can sometimes help you through them. 

6. Your writing can lead you to interesting and unimaginable places. Not just publication, but opportunities you've never even dreamed of. I wrote 100 funny slogans about socks, co-wrote a magazine for a while, and also scripted a short comedy film script because I stuck with writing and gained the confidence to put myself out there. 

7. Your stories are unique to you. An individual perspective that no one else can replicate. Think about that. Little me or little you, staring at our screens and creating something from our own experience and imaginings. Giving form to ideas and emotions that the people can then experience for themselves.

Now, what are you waiting for?

My books live here. Not everyone likes them and that's okay too!

Give Your Freelancing a Reboot

Are you worn down by the well-travelled path?
How many times have you found yourself following a familiar working pattern, even though it no longer delivers the same level of positive results?

The routine runs like clockwork – set-up, prospecting, emails, social media, yadda yadda. If you’re not paying careful attention to your business you can fail to spot the trends for a gradual decline in individual revenue streams, the increase in wasted time, and a lack of meaningful growth (more one-off gigs that took an hour to prospect are not growth unless they lead directly to a significantly better rate or a better class of referral).

The first challenge is to stop. Shut down the monkey mind that equates multiple activities with progress, switch off the self-doubting monologue about your limitations (education, location, time constraints, take your pick…) and take a breath.

Einstein nailed it in 1951* when he wrote: Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

As readers of this blog will know, I rely on my trusty spreadsheet – not the graphs, but I could if I wanted to. I can see what work I’ve completed for which clients, when, and the value to my business. It's one of the means I use to prioritise my time. There is an interesting correlation between that value and my enjoyment of the work, but this may just be a quirk of mine. 

A few tips

  • If you use freelance sites such as People Per Hour, regularly review your profile. Look for best practice by checking out the profiles of freelancers who won the jobs that you didn’t. Perhaps they are presenting similar skills in a better way or targeting their clients better?
  • If you’ve been writing regularly for a client, check whether the way you present your business aligns with their business.
  • Go back through your profile / business resume and weed out any information or links that are no longer relevant. This can include dead links (for dead websites), content that - for whatever reason - doesn’t convey the impression you need to attract the clients you want, and vague terminology. For example, a seasoned writer of what?
  • Experiment with different styles of communication. Try on different personalities for your business and see which ones fit, and whether you might benefit from varying your style according to which businesses you approach. 
  • Mix things up. Try varying your start and break times (you have breaks, right?). Disrupt your working pattern and introduce more creativity into your thinking and your approach. New ideas are the lifeblood of writing and you are more likely to encounter them if you’re not fixated on the familiar.

What can you do today to make a difference to your freelancing business?

Freelancer and author

* Albeit not definitely attributed to him as the author, despite the power of the Internet!

A slice of homily pie

You write...WHAT?
There is a school of thought that business blogs equate to online marketing, and that all information should be carefully managed to 'champion the brand'. If your eyes are rolling at this point you're not alone. 

I'm all for promoting one's business - this blog has worked well for me on that score over the years - but if you're not careful it can all get a little ...corporate. Again, if that is your brand, all well and good, but I suspect a lot of niche businesses lose their way and end up trying to be something they're not. I should know - I write for some of them.

It matters because any customer engagement, be it on social media or outside of it, tells people more than what your business does. It also gives them cues about the way you do business, how you communicate, and a flavour of your business's personality.

You might think that could potentially drive away business rather than find / secure it, and in both cases you'd be right. The alternative is to try to be all things to all people, and risk setting yourself and your customer up for disappointment.

True story time.

Recently, a client approached me, based upon geography, around teatime, with an urgent online job that involved proofreading, editing and rewriting. The document arrived around 21.30 that night with an agreed turnaround over the weekend. The only issuette being that the client wouldn't not be available until after the weekend. No biggie, these things happen and I was willing to work for the rate offered. 

Those of you with better spider senses than I employed might have already spotted a few pitfalls. For example...
1. I wasn't selected on the basis of my portfolio or experience with that particular business.
2. A tight deadline and no client availability does not allow for expectations to be managed on either side of the arrangement.
3. Anyone with a thinking head on might have surmised that a rush job for an important document with financial implications might have required closer collaboration not less.

Anyhow, I took the job and I worked on the document over the weekend, marking up only the key changes and adding comments and queries for feedback for subsequent changes (based upon client feedback).

Readers, it did not go well. And let me state for the record that the client was - and is - a good client. Just, perhaps, not the best client for me and vice versa. He felt I hadn't delivered to his requirements or met his needs, and after some soul-searching I felt that too to some extent. We were like a blind date that hadn't quite worked out. The upshot is that I've invited him to review and consider my weekend work and come up with a partial payment. It's not ideal and no one goes away entirely happy, but I think it represents our best chance of an equitable resolution.

My key learning points from this?

1. Know your business's strengths (both skills and subjects), and where you add value. 
2. It's great to work with great clients - and I maintain, for someone who already understood this client's business, he could have been one.
3. Respect your own time and expertise, and price accordingly. And know when to say so.
4. Be the writer you are and manage your business in line with your vision. Or, as a friend of mine put it: A giraffe does not apologise to a jellyfish for having a long neck. Each is perfectly adapted to its own environment and thrives there.
5. Always get a detailed brief and plan for contingencies. Our old friends Time Cost, Quality and Scope are the cornerstones of any project. Squeeze one or more and you affect the others too.

Interestingly, not that long afterwards I was approached by a previous client to do some  branding work. It called for a mix of creativity, humour, quirkiness and non-directed research. It won't surprise you to learn that the work was completed over fewer hours, to a delighted client (her words, honest), and for a higher rate. 

Here endeth my lesson.

But before I go, have you had any freelance lessons recently? I'd love to hear about them below.


When Words Collide

No sense sitting on the offence.
As I progress with my fifth thriller and tie myself in knots with middle class angst about some my working class characters' attitudes, I'm quite attuned to our propensity to get things wrong. Getting it wrong doesn't mean you're necessarily prejudiced or bigoted. You could just be thoughtless. On the one hand, your characters need to speak and act freely to fulfil their literary destiny. You could even argue that the point where you cringe as you're writing is also the cut-off point where you step outside your boundaries and start to inhabit their perspective. On the other hand, frankly, you may need to think about where you're being authentic or just trying to be clever. 

I write jokes that occasionally find their way into live performance (and even less occasionally - like almost never - onto radio). It's so easy to offend a section of the populace without even meaning to. Not just bucking the trend or subverting the form but out and out pissing people off.

And speaking of 'out', something really interesting happened recently that illustrates not only how easy it is to get it wrong, but how that misfortune can occur even when it's a cause that matters dearly to you.

Pride in London went for 'humour' in its Love Happens Here marketing for London's Pride Festival (now running until 9th July). It missed the target by a wide margin and managed to offend the LGBTI community. In particular, the use of the word 'gay' as irony (that's my take on their motive) was subsequently considered misjudged after being interpreted as a pejorative term. 

You can read about it here:


It's a reminder that words have power. Forget all that 'sticks and stones' nonsense. As an example, ask any child or adult who has been bullied and they will be able to vividly recount what was said and how it made them feel. 

We all have a responsibility for what we communicate and how we do it. Writers can and do walk that line between expression and censorship, and sometimes we cross it. It's our freedom to do that, but we have to accept that others may see that as a step too far. Unlike fiction, life can be messy and remain unresolved. In the above case, there's an added dimension, which is the impact on other people who might go on to use the words.

Have any writers out there ever misread the mood with a piece of writing? And if so how did you recover the situation, or did you let it stand?


Author of the Spy Chaser series, which so far has only managed to offend a few readers.*

UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

US: https://www.amazon.com/Derek-Thompson/e/B0034ORY08

* Swearing, a shower scene, violence, and - bizarrely - a lead character expressing too much emotion. 

Music for Writing

I can hear music. Not just a brilliant track by The Beach Boys (and also nicely covered by The Ronettes), but also a statement of fact. Why? Because generally I write fiction to a musical backdrop. 

When I work on a novel I use different types of music to get into the mood of a scene. Classical music and jazz (especially Chet Baker) are favourites but sometimes an individual track will capture the essence of a moment, or complement a section of dialogue. As my Spy Chaser owes a debt to Raymond Chandler, I find anything with a noir feel to it opens that magic door to the active imagination. 

A haze of smoke lingers and I see shadows beyond it where Thomas Bladen is waiting for me, leant against a faded brick wall, looking at his watch. He glances over and nods to Karl McNeill who is standing by the opposite wall and eating a bag of crisps. A haunting bassoon lends a melancholy tone to the steamy night air... And then Miranda Wright strolls along the alleyway, doing her slinky walk for Thomas's benefit even though her eyes are fixed on that doorway where I listen to her approaching steps. She pauses, just ahead of Thomas and Karl, facing me down. Her lips part, breaking the streetlight glint, and then she takes a breath. I hold mine in anticipation  and she smiles momentarily before bestowing her wisdom. "Maybe if you stopped pissing about so much you'd get the book finished?" She raises an eyebrow and then turns, her heels tapping out a sensuous beat that recedes into the night. Thomas and Karl follow in her wake.

Miranda has a point.

It's been a funny old year. An illness and then a death in the family, bloodshed on Britain's streets and a seemingly never-ending conveyor belt of tragedy, politics and other bad news. Oh yeah, and I took a short holiday for the first time in two years. Sometimes the page reflects with near perfect clarity, even if no one else can see it.

But the thing is, writing doesn't always have to change the world, or make things better - even for ourselves. Writing is about the story - the characters, the dialogue and the pulsing heart of it. So I'm back now, cocooned by music to dissuade me from leaving the confines of my writing desk. Well, I say confines but really it's the stepping off point. 

And speaking of music...

Before Standpoint was published I put together a soundtrack of the book, selecting music to accompany the film. Now that it is published, I'm still rather fond of those original choices.

I'll keep this as spoiler-free as possible!

I'd open with I Specialise by Christine Collister & Clive Gregson. Who couldn't love Christine's powerful voice, conveying cynicism and indifference. Another option would be Someone's Looking At You by the Boomtown Rats.

I have several tunes for Thomas and Miranda, depending on how things are between them: 
I Can Hear Music by The Beach Boys, Will You by Hazel O'Connor, Here with Me by Dido
and Kiss the Rain by Billie Myers.

One song always make me think of Thomas and his trips to Whitehall is The Queen and the Soldier by Suzanne Vega. 

When it comes to Thomas being back amongst his family in Yorkshire (and confronting his father) it has to be The Story of the Blues Pt 1 byThe Mighty Wah. 

It's Bridge of Spies by T'Pau when Thomas is alone, on the North Yorkshire moors, heading off to confront the bad guys.

And the final tracking shot, as the dead are counted along with the cost? I Saved the World Today by Eurythmics.

Readers of the sequel, Line of Sight, will know that Karl has a theme song, sort of, which is another story altogether!

Do you write books and what importance does music play in the process?

Do writers need boundaries?

Vive la difference!
I'm at a really interesting point in the novel I'm writing. And I know that because it's making me uncomfortable. It's not violence or sex or swearing; no, it's more subtle than that. It's about religion and culture. More specifically, religion and culture that aren't mine. 

I've recently had some brilliant email conversations with Lynn Michell, founder of Linen Press, and it's been fascinating to see where our thinking aligns and where it diverges, when it comes to books. We've chatted about the tropes in genre fiction and how, for example, some of the archetypal characters in noir don't play so well out of context, or in a more modern one. It all got me thinking about the boundaries writers place upon themselves and how that can either be a blessing or a curse.

Sometimes when you create a character with a walk on role there is something about them that makes you want to spend more time with them. In Line of Sight that spotlight fell on Thurston Leon, a West Indian private detective based in Dalston. Then (same book) there's Stuart Fraser, the Scottish bloke working for Special Branch over in Belfast. And let's not forget the two cops from Shadow State, Karen Edwards and Jun Wen - a black Brummie and a British Born Chinese detective. You see where I'm going with this now?

The BBC website ran a piece recently about how prolific author and TV writer, Anthony Horowittz, was cautioned to not create a black lead character because he is white. I don't anticipate having a profile that high any time soon (!) so it's a moot point for me, but one that I have considered anyway. Sometimes ethnicity, religion and culture are entirely secondary to a character because they either aren't relevant to the story (and let's face it, I'm talking about my stories here), and sometimes there isn't space for that secondary character to get more than her five minutes on the page. And sometimes, for a whole heap of reasons, I don't feel I have the skill to do it well enough.

But when a fear of being labelled patronising or concerns of allegations of tokenism prevent literature (or any aspect of the arts) being diverse and, well...imaginative...I think we have a problem.

My fifth book in the Thomas Bladen Spy Chaser series stumbles into that maze because it takes place during the 2005 London Bombings. There are a few changes to the team and an assignment that forces people to confront their values and prejudices. 

As writers we're so used to Mark Twain's 'write what you know' advice. (Or Hemingway's, if you prefer.) And you've probably heard my own updated version, which is 'know what you're writing about'. When it comes to diversity and inclusivity, I think it's more important to just get out of the village of our own experience. We need to be able to write about people we don't know, so that some of our readers can meet new people too. And not merely perfect, politically correct and sanitised stereotypes, but real, flawed and surprising people. 

Anyone who has read the series so far will know that I like to bring characters back from other books - Jack Langton, Sheryl, Sir Peter, and even Bob Peterson (I have a soft spot for Uncle Bob!). This time, MI5 operative Rupee Tagore also returns to Thomas and Karl's world. She was always there, on the floor below.

Writers need boundaries to see how far we've come and then how far we're willing or able to go. Beyond that, we're into the wastelands of taste and the quicksand of appropriateness.

It's a sad fact of our interconnected world that whatever you write, pretty much, someone will take issue or offence with. That's lesson one from social media! I believe, as writers, we have to be true to the muse and to how faithfully we can express our imagination on the page. It's a process, a continual momentum against that formless boundary made up of our own preconceptions and society's mores. When we lose that momentum we become static, trapped in the confines of our own experience, culture and identity. It's not that we have to continually push and risk offending or challenging; it's that we need to feel free to explore the other when the muse takes us. 

Is Social Media the Writer's Friend?

Recently, The Guardian carried a piece about author Joanna Trollope's criticism of fellow author JK Rowling. Specifically, JT thinks JKR spends far too much time being far too vocal on social media. 

You can read about it here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/may/05/jk-rowling-driven-by-ego-like-kim-kardashian-joanna-trollope

The part that really piqued my interest was JT's suggestion that aspiring authors will look at JKR's interactions online, with her legions of fans, and assume that's what authors need to do these days.

Firstly, of course, getting even half a legion of fans online that aren't bots, retweeter services or purveyors of webcams is quite an achievement. Perhaps a few cohorts is more realistic.

Secondly, social media and online interaction is part of the game now, especially for anyone who is self-published, independently published, or who just wants to engage with their audience outside of their books.

Thirdly, and this is the thing that struck me most, there is no single (or proper) way for writers to behave. Surely that's part of what being a writer is all about? You make it up! Why would it be any different off the page than on it?

There will never be another JK Rowling. Aspire as we may, that ship has sailed. All writers need to balance time spent online with actual writing, which can be problematic because social media activity can feel a bit like writing in that it's creative and engaging. It's also often more fun - a never-ending source of inspiration, validation and connection. It won't get your books written though and may actually cloud your judgment by overloading you with shiny examples of how other people do it. But that too is part of the game. You have to figure out who you are as a writer and how you plan to go about your writing business.

I've seen many people reach overload and declare on line that they're taking a break, as if they have a relationship with social media or the people they're connected with online. Maybe there's some truth in that. I have also spoken with writers who allocate specific time to Retweet, Share, Like and all the other satisfying button clicks. That can work too.

Personally, I think social media can be useful, especially when you are reaching out to discover your audience, and also to interact with other authors. The same goes for writing blogposts (I couldn't not mention them) or your own tweets and posts. Social media plugs us into what's going on, even if that happens to be a bunch of cat videos from time to time.

But please don't mistake it for creative writing. 

What is your relationship with social media?


Who Owns Your Books?

Now you see me.
When it comes to books, the word 'ownership' can mean different things at different times.

Who owns an idea?
Nobody. Try copyrighting an idea and be prepared for laughter and disdain.

Who owns a completed manuscript?
Unless you've been paid to ghostwrite a novel, ownership rests with the author. The laws on copyright different between the UK and US, so as this is a mixed audience I will simply say that in the UK copyright exists (but would still require proof if there was a legal challenge) from the act of writing it. The Society of Authors has some brilliant information here:

Who owns your book once it's contracted?
You own the manuscript and you enter into a contract with an agent or a publisher. They own their edited version of your original manuscript. No matter how many drafts you've gone through, an objective editor will find more gold and cut away more. Their contract permits them to do certain things with your manuscript and specifies which of those actions requires your prior approval.

Who owns your book once it's published?
You and the agent / publisher retain the same proprietary interest in the book, but the reader owns their copy. Now, here's the thing, they may also have an emotional investment in your characters and their adventures, which - I would argue - is every bit as important as the nuts-and-bolts ownership principle. If you disappoint them during that book or in any subsequent book, they will vent their frustration online or by word of mouth. Once you become aware of this factor it can be a challenge to balance what you want to write, what your characters want you to write, and what your audience expects. 

I have spoken on this blog before about the principle of 'the same but different'. However, different can mean different things to different people.

The BBC website recently reported that JK Rowling  tweeted her apologies for killing off Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series. Some would argue that the plot demanded it and that there's a certain logic in his demise. Others were so attached to Snape (and, of course, Alan Rickman who portrayed him) that it felt like an act of literary cruelty. 

I ponder all of this as I write my fifth book in the Thomas Bladen Spy Chaser series, and I'm mindful of the feedback I've received, including:
- Isn't it about time that Thomas and Miranda settled down?
- Is there an ultimate revelation at the conclusion of the series?
- Is Book 5 the end of the series?
- Why isn't Thomas more macho?
- I hope you don't kill someone off just for the sake of it.

Without giving away any spoilers, my statement to the imaginary panel is:
Someone dies in each book. I won't name the dead but I make it a body count of at least eight so far. Thomas has shot five people, been wounded by one, and restrained himself from shooting someone on at least one occasion (not counting a familial near-miss!). How much more macho do you want him? Thomas and Miranda's relationship has its own carousel of baggage, but it has also evolved through the series. Book 5 continues that journey. Is it the end for Thomas and Miranda and Karl? That depends on the readers and what they want. Of course, a TV deal would certainly help bring Thomas Bladen to a wider audience! And yes, there is a revelation of sorts in Book 5. It's subtle, but it is there.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have gun battle to conduct. Or do I?