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Getting to know your characters the Helen Simkin way

I’ve said before, and a lot of people know, that I wanted (and want) to extract myself from Mandrill Press. I’m happy to go on having them publish my books, because someone has to, but I don’t like the close association with two lady writers who write what they call erotica and I can’t help regarding as soft porn. And now Mandrill Press’s rude ladies are to be joined by a third, because we’ve agreed to take on Helen Simkin, who was introduced by Susie Hopkins.
I’ll still do the admin, because that was the original agreement and because I get 10% of everything everybody else sells and, if I’m honest, they usually sell more than me. The main change will be that, as Helen Simkin moves onto the Mandrill Press website, I’ll be moving off it.

How do you get to know your characters?

I wrote a review a day or so ago of Roz Morris’s book, Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated. As I said in that review, it was one of the few books about writing that had such value that I thought I’d be rereading it in the years to come. Roz Morris has a lot to say about making actions and dialogue fit the character. It’s good stuff. Maybe it was reading that book that caused me, when Helen sent her first book in for editing (no link, because it hasn’t been edited yet and it certainly isn’t ready for publication), to ask where she got her characters from.

Pics in the public domain

When she told me the answer, it was one of those “Aha” moments, when you think, “Well, of course. What else?” Helen doesn’t write about people she knows. What she does is to browse through Public Domain picture sites and download pictures of people that capture her attention. Ultimately, she is looking for CCO images – pictures available under Creative Commons to be used for commercial purposes (like a book cover) without payment. Sometimes they need to be attributed to the person who made the picture, and sometimes they don’t. She showed me some examples:

Getting to know a stranger

Having downloaded them, Helen simply stares at them. What she’s trying to do is to get inside the head of the person she’s looking at. See what makes them tick. Imagine how they would react to this event or that remark. These are people she doesn’t know and has never even seen before she downloads the pic, but she says that, after carrying a face around in her head for a few days and imagining interactions with the person whose face it is, she has a fully rounded character that she can do something with.

Your take may vary

I can see the value of this approach, and I might very well use it, but I don’t think I’m going to react to some of those people in the way that Helen Simkin does. Look at this one:

Helen used that to inspire her first book, The Girl Next Door. I don’t know what those words mean to you, but to me they suggest someone wholesome – virginal, I suppose. What Helen Simkin, pornographer of this parish, has going on inside that sweet-looking head is something I’d prefer not to share with you.

Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated by Roz Morris

First, a disclaimer. I’m a member of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and so is Roz Morris. That’s as far as the connection goes; I’ve never met her, though I’ve seen plenty of her posts and know quite a bit about what she has to say about writing. I did not get this book free; I paid to download it, and I downloaded it because I wanted to read it. I have read a number of books by ALLi members; I’ve reviewed some of them and not others. My general rule is that I don’t publish a review unless I can give the book at least three stars (I made an exception last week for the latest Louise Penny book), but for ALLi members I increase that to 4 stars – if I can’t give an ALLi member’s book at least four stars, I don’t review it. (If you are an ALLi member, you know I’ve read your book, and yet I didn’t review it, now you know the reason).
I have read a number of “How To” writing books – I imagine most writers have. Not many stick in the mind. Some were not very good at all, most were reasonably informative but forgotten after a while – and a very small number were absolute winners. This is one of those.
I write about people. I mean, I also write about events, and ideas, but people are what come first. People are what most interests me. (If I weren’t a writer, you might even call me nosy). I think that comes across in my books; a number of people have told me how invested they became in my characters. Nevertheless, I learned an enormous amount from Roz Morris’s book. She’s very good on “show, don’t tell” and she has some great stuff on how you can show things through what your characters do, what they say and how they look. She is also very good on handling minor characters, which is where a lot of people fall down. Her background as a ghost writer and editor has equipped her, first to know how to create the characters she wants to portray and then to tell other writers how to do the same.
This, obviously, is a book for writers. That doesn’t mean non-writers will get nothing out of it – even if you are not a writer, reading about how good writers create and portray characters will probably help you get more from the next book you read. But if you are a writer then, unless you are among that tiny, tiny minority who never get a character portrait wrong, you need to read this book. You need to absorb what it says. And act on it.

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Place and the novelist

What has place to do with the novelist?

There was a discussion at this year’s Hawkesbury Upton Literature Festival about writers and a sense of place. I wasn’t able to listen to it, because I was engaged in something to do with historical fiction in another part of the festival and I’m sorry to have missed it because I understand the importance of place to the novelist.
What triggered this post today was that I read a review of Sharon Wright: Butterfly on Amazon USA by someone whose nom de plume is “Professor.” It isn’t a new review – he wrote it last year – and I’m commenting on it now because of the thinking I’ve been doing about place. What the professor says is:

“a significant element of the story is set in France. a country that I love and holiday in every year. Lynch clearly knows France well. His descriptions are accurate and appealing and I truly enjoyed the enviable canal trip from Auxerre experienced by three of the characters.”

I was pleased to read that, because I know that canal well; I’ve cycled along it and I’ve made the journey River Yonne route de halageby boat in the same way as the characters do. I fell off my bike at one time on a particularly rough part of the route de halage (it was my fault – I was thinking about something else) and when someone asked how I was I remember being ridiculously proud that, despite the mess I was in, I remembered that the past tense of tomber takes être and not avoir.
Be that as it may – I know Accolay, where they pause for Carver to make his arrangements with Monsieur Arbot. In fact, here’s the very inn where that meeting takes place. I know the closed-in nature of the place, how it Hostellerie de Fontaine in Accolaybelongs to “La France profonde,” and the way it led me to say, “In the Nivernais, no-one watches you – but everyone sees what you do.” And after I’d thought about that it occurred to me that I also know the cafe where Carver sits as he watches Stacey, and where Stacey goes when it’s almost all over, and what it’s like on Eurostar, and…
The thing is that, when I write, I’m writing just as much about place as I am about people. When, in A Just and Upright Man, I wrote about “the wild whinscapes of County Durham,” I was writing from memory. (I don’t think whinscapes was even a word before I used it). I’ve had people who have read Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper say to me, “I was surprised that you managed to get it right when you wrote about sink estates in Newcastle.” Well, you shouldn’t be surprised. I’m not. And when, in that same book, Billy finds himself in Coeur d’Alene and says this:

It’s a strange place, Coeur d’Alene. Americans will tell you it didn’t exist much more than a hundred years ago, which rather rudely ignores the Indians. Now it’s a resort and you get lots of normal people, or people who can pass for normal in the northwest USA, and they have malls and restaurants and stuff to amuse themselves in. There’s sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter and golf most of the time when it isn’t actually snowing. Good old friendly USA.
But it started as a frontier trading post and went into mining and logging and gambling, and the people who did those things weren’t clubbable. Coeur d’Alene was where you got off the steamboat to try your luck at prospecting for silver, and where you got back on the boat to go home, or more likely to drift on somewhere else, when you realised this was not the place you were going to make your strike. There was no welfare state and no safety net and if you didn’t look after yourself in whatever way you could, you starved. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in that environment and beneath the tourist polish all that independence and egoism is still there.

I’m writing about what I saw. What I experienced. As I am when he describes an hotel bar in these terms:

Take Dan and Vern in Buffalo, Wyoming. We met in the Occidental Saloon. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane all stayed at the Occidental and when you stand in the bar you can see twenty-three bullet holes in the ceiling. It brings back every Western you ever watched.

I know it’s possible to do a great deal of research on the Internet, and the Internet will certainly tell you (with pictures, thanks – among others – to Google Earth) what a place looks like. But how it feels? There’s only one way if you want to write about that. You have to have been there.
For many writers, that means visiting a place to research the book they’re writing at the time. It doesn’t seem to work that way for me. Somehow, when I write about a place, it’s a place that I already know, and I put my characters into it. It’s like all those places have settled into a sort of mental sediment inside my head, to be drawn on when needed.
I said, for example, that I know that cafe from which Carver watches Stacey, but what I should have said is that I knew it, because the cafe was on the road out of Kingston on Thames and it must be nearly thirty years since I was last there. The cafe may well be gone by now.
All of these thoughts were originally triggered by “Professor’s” review of Sharon Wright: Butterfly. The mind, though, does not stand still and my present work in progress is about growing older. I put these two pictures side-by-side:

Haynes Oval and Ellis Park

The one on the left was taken behind the stand at Haynes Oval in Nassau either in 1964 or 1965. The one on the right was taken in 2010 on the pitch at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. On the left, I’m dressed to play cricket. On the right, I’m dressed to watch rugby (I’m leaning against the goal post because the match – Lions v Western Province – was over. Lions won). The fact that in 1964 I played and in 2010 I only watched is not the only change wrought by 46 years of living. Look at the hair. Look at the face. Look at the waist line.
What’s this got to do with place? Haynes Oval. I’ve never written about the time I spent in Nassau, but I remember the place so well. It’s time I brought it back to life. Now… What characters am I going to set down there?

How Sharon Wright: Butterfly came to be written


Crime fiction Sharon Wright: Butterfly

Writers get lots of questions about their books. Maybe this will answer some of them.
The first and most obvious question is: Where do you get your ideas? I always say the same thing: I have no idea. And sometimes that’s true. And sometimes it isn’t. What is true is that I never know when I start writing a book how it’s going to finish. An idea comes into my head. Maybe it’s a conversation. Maybe it’s just a person. And I put the words down on paper and look at them. Which isn’t actually true – I put them on a screen – but readers like to think about it going on paper. Writers say a lot of things that aren’t true. You might want to remember that while you read this.


Remember when you were young? And you said something that wasn’t true? And your mother told you “Don’t tell stories”? Well, that’s what writers do. We tell stories. Sometimes they’re true. And sometimes they’re not. If you can tell the difference when I do it, let me know. Because I usually can’t.

Anyway. Sharon Wright: Butterfly. I fell in love with Sharon while I was writing the book. Even though I knew that falling in love with Sharon would be a stupid thing to do. Because Sharon is an interesting sort of young woman. When she woos – as she woos Jackie Gough – She does it the way a female mantis might. Knowing that, when he’s served his purpose, he may have to die.

When the book was written, we talked about covers. And I was sent this picture.

I looked at it and I thought, “I don’t believe it! That’s HER! That’s my Shazzer!” Now, I am to graphics what Wayne Rooney is to the violin. So I left the cover design to someone who designs covers. I’m the writer; she’s the designer. It’s a good idea always to remember what you’re good at. And what you’re not.

And what Sharon Wright is good at is getting her own way. The tagline of the book is: “Nobody gives Sharon a chance. Except Sharon.” Shazzer comes from a very unfortunate background. Men think… Well. Let Shazzer tell you in her own words. This is an extract from the book:

She moved forward and smoothed the collar of his shirt. She kissed him gently on the lips. ‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
Gough shook his head. ‘You’re not, are you?’

As I said, while I was writing the book, I fell in love with Sharon. I hope you will, too. You can find out more about her here. And you can buy the book at any newsagent (ISBN: 978-1-910194-10-2). Or, of course, from Amazon.


Film to Book & Book to Film

How do you turn a film script into a novel?

We hear a lot from writers about their experience when someone turns their novel into a film. In this post, I’m focusing on something I’ve developed a little niche interest in: turning a film script into a novel. Typically, this happens when a filmmaker has a fully developed script, has begun the casting process, and decides that it would be good to launch a novel at the same time as the film. They need a ghostwriter; if you are asked to do this, you may like some answers to the question: how do you turn a film script into a novel?
It’s often said that film and novels are two aspects of the same thing and there’s a sense in which they are – they are both ways of telling a story. Making too much of the similarities, though, can blind us to the differences, and those differences tend to be in the way the script is written and not in the way the film is directed and acted. A novel can tell the same story as a film, but it cannot do it in precisely the same way as it is written in the script. There are many differences in technique, but the two most important are:

  • Show, don’t tell; and
  • Presentation of location and physical appearance (including clothes).

“Show, don’t tell”

The first of those two main differences may not seem like a difference at all, because “show, don’t tell” is as vitally important to film as it is to a novel. It is not, though, always in the film script, because it doesn’t need to be. Now, some scripts could pass straight into a novel without amendment. Take this, from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (NOT one I worked on):

An old gas guzzling, dirty, white 1974 Chevy Nova BARRELS down
        a homeless-ridden street in Hollywood.  In the front seat are
        two young fellas — one white, one black — both wearing cheap
        black suits with thin black ties under long green dusters.
        Their names are VINCENT VEGA (white) and JULES WINNFIELD
        (black).  Jules is behind the wheel.
That will take its place just fine in a novel. But that’s about setting up the scene. It’s a little different when the scriptwriter is advising actors on how they should speak.  Like this:
“He says this matter-of-factly, not cruelly, but she seems put off anyway, as if he’s being overly defensive.”
In the film, viewers will see the male character apparently stating something in a straightforward way without any underlying intention, but they will also see a negative reaction from the female character. It takes the screenwriter 18 words to make that clear, and the action on the screen – another 23 words, this time of dialogue – will take only seconds; the screenwriter relies on the skill of the people on screen, and of the director who has to get the required performance out of them, to convey the two characters’ emotions. That’s not how it works for the novelist.
“Show, don’t tell” is second nature to good novelists. You don’t describe what is in someone’s mind by spelling it out, because readers don’t want that – they want to see what the character is thinking from the way the character acts. Imagine the above script writer’s instruction popping up in a novel as dialogue:
“Look, I said that in a matter-of-fact sort of way. I wasn’t being cruel.”
“Well, I’m put off in any case. I think you are being too defensive.”
Okay, that gets the message across, and in the hands of some novelists (not very good novelists, is what I’m trying to say), you might actually find it on the page, but I think most readers would sniff at it, and good writers would stop reading at that point and not pick the book up again.
One of the things that novelists do so that the reader can understand what is happening is to enter the head of one of the characters and describe what’s going on there. My novel, Sharon Wright: Butterfly, starts like this:
The outside tables would have given a better view, but sitting outside in the growing dark would attract attention, and not attracting attention was one of the things that kept Carver out of jail. He watched the girl as she walked down the road. Tart. Look at the length of that skirt. Asking for it.
She turned between the stone pillars. There would have been a gate once, a handsome gate for this had been a moneyed people’s street in the days before they turned the houses into flats. She fumbled for her keys.  Carver hadn’t needed a key to get into her flat. A tart’s flat. Cupboards full of drink. It wasn’t womanly. Carver’s mother had drunk Cyprus sherry, and that only on special occasions.
Carver’s mother hadn’t lived alone, either. Not at that age. It wouldn’t have been proper. She’d lived with her family, been a wife and mother, enduring. She’d stayed with her husband till he died, and she’d gone on looking after Carver until he went south, looking for a place where people would pay for good service, properly executed. Properly executed! It still made him smile. There were people who thought he wasn’t the full shilling, he knew that, but he’d dreamed up his own slogan, good as FCUK any day.

Let’s look at all of the things that that short passage tells the reader:

  1. This character’s name is Carver, and he has some reason for being aware that he could end up in jail, which means that he is involved in villainy of some description – and the reader will expect the nature of that villainy to become clear as the story unfolds in the novel.
  2. Carver disapproves of women in short skirts, which tells us something about him and his view of life. Also, Carver thinks alcohol in a young woman’s apartment is not womanly – another clue to his thought processes.
  3. The girl he is watching lives in a house that has once seen better days but has now been broken down into apartments.
  4. Carver has been in her apartment, almost certainly illicitly, and he let himself in without a key, which tells us something else about the kind of person he is and the things he does.
  5. Carver’s mother’s life is described as “enduring,” a clue to the relationship she had with Carver’s late father.
  6. The reference to, “a good job, properly executed,” when added to the other hints, makes us almost certain from the beginning that Carver is someone who kills people for money.

Novelists can’t, however, show us everything we need to say by putting us inside the character’s head. More often, there will be a combination of action and thought, as in this description from my novel, Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, of the first time a rather innocent 14-year-old boy makes love – actually, he doesn’t, he has sex – with an experienced girl a year older:
The first time was a disaster, because it was over before it started and I was really embarrassed and I wanted to cry but Kylie wiped the mess off her stomach with my Y-fronts and then she hugged me and said we’d be able to do it again in a minute and it would be fine the second time, I’d see.
And it was.
And sometimes it’s pure description, with almost no addition of anyone’s thoughts (I have highlighted the two exceptions in black) (this comes later on in Sharon Wright: Butterfly):
Jackie arrived at Ealing with thirty minutes to spare. He went into Waitrose and bought a bottle of water and a sandwich for the journey. Before he reached the checkout, he went back and bought another bottle of water and another sandwich. There was no certainty Sharon, in her current state of excitement, would remember to provide for herself.
He walked to the station. Here a problem presented itself.
‘The Penzance train doesn’t stop here,’ said the ticket seller.
‘It must do.’
‘Well, it doesn’t. The 12.05 from Paddington gets to Penzance at five past five. But it doesn’t stop here. If you want to go from here, you need the 12.33, change at Reading, arrive seven oh two. You want a ticket?’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘You want me to say it again? Is that man looking for you?’
Gough turned round. Five yards behind him, grinning obscenely through a mostly toothless mouth, was the biggest, nastiest, craziest person of Gough’s acquaintance.
‘Jackie. Jackie Gough. Fancy seeing you here.’
‘Dan. How…how are you?’
Ablett stepped forward and grabbed Gough’s arm. Without apparent effort, he wheeled him away from the ticket office and towards the platform. ‘I’m fine, Jackie boy. Considering. Considering I done five years I hadn’t needed to do if some little shit hadn’t grassed me up.’
They were now on the edge of the platform.
‘How could you do that, you little shit? How could you grass me up? What harm did I ever do you?’
‘I…me? Dan, I don’t know who’s been talking to you, but…’
‘No-one’s been talking to me, Gough.’ He pulled a tape from his pocket and waved it under Gough’s nose. ‘I’ve been listening to this.’
‘I…oh, God. Oh, no. Dan, I…I didn’t…I couldn’t…Dan!’
‘So why tell the bloody Bill you did? Eh?’
The track approaching Ealing station is straight for some distance. Trains that have eased and edged their way through the inner and outer reaches of west London hit their stride as they gather pace for the run to Reading. Fast trains to Wales and the west country, in particular, are closing on their top speed as they streak through Ealing. The 12.05 from Paddington to Penzance is a fast train to the west country. Gough had his back to it, but Ablett could see it clearly, still half a mile away but approaching rapidly.
‘Dan, I swear to you. I said those things because that bloody Prutton woman told me to.’
At that speed, it takes a train less than forty seconds to cover half a mile. The train was now two hundred yards away—a distance that would occupy it for nine seconds. Ablett leaned forward, heaved Gough’s body over one shoulder, took his arm in one huge hand and his leg in the other. He swung the helpless graduate and failed criminal in a huge circle. At the top of the arc, he hurled Gough up and out into the path of the onrushing locomotive.
Gough screamed. He fell onto the tracks, turned, saw the train all but on top of him. He gathered all the strength he had for a desperate leap to safety before three hundred tonnes of accelerating steel hit him in the chest and threw him sideways. He fell on the track under the unforgiving wheels. As the train hurtled over him, his severed head and one hand were flung to one side. The rest disappeared below the speeding train.
There was silence on the platform. Then began a screaming that those who heard it swore they would never forget. The ticket seller rattled down the blind across his window and locked his door.
Mad Dan Ablett turned, grinned at his stunned audience and wandered forth into the street.
No-one made any attempt to stop him.
There are 634 words in that passage. It would be less than half of that in a film script, because significant parts of it (The track approaching Ealing station…) would not appear in the script at all, and other parts would be reduced to a fraction of the number of words they have in the novel, not least because of:

Clothes and locations

Very brief descriptions of where the action takes place are all a script needs, because the director will make her/his own decisions about locations. Nor does the script need to describe the people, because what they look like will depend on who is cast. And there’s no need to describe the clothes beyond saying that his suit is cheap and worn out, or that she is wearing a black T-shirt, because all of that will be settled between director and cast.
That won’t work in the book of the film. Readers like pointers on what the characters look like. They like to have some idea of what sort of place the action is happening in. So the novelist writes:
They had food, wine, cigarettes and coffee. The boat travelled slowly and the locks arrived only after long stretches of nothing to do but smoke, eat, drink and watch the passing woods and farmland. Once in a while, a cyclist passed on the route de halage, outpacing the boat and leaving it behind. Sometimes, the canal bent far enough to the west to be in earshot of cars on the N5 or, more rarely, a passing train. Mostly it was quiet.
Buggy was content.


The stone houses turned in on each other. The few men they saw were dressed in thick woollen check shirts and woollen trousers belted high on the stomach, the women in black dresses and headscarves. Closed, weather-beaten faces glanced away as they passed.


Doyle stared hard at the magnified view of his mark. His heart began to beat with the excitement of an impending kill. The man looked to be in his late fifties, solidly built, a face reddened by the wind and good living but without fat or puffiness. Well-groomed grey hair. An air of authority. A hard man, probably—not in the scrapper’s sense, though Doyle felt he could probably hold his own, but the hardness of the man accustomed to being obeyed. Given another birth, another upbringing, a successful captain of industry. Beneath the unzipped yellow jacket, a white shirt covered a flat stomach. Doyle focused hard on pockets and armpits. He was prepared to bet the man wasn’t carrying.

Practical steps

For those reasons and some others, the “book of the film” will always be longer than the “film of the book.” When the script is in your hands, you need to rough out a chapter by chapter outline of the way that – at present – you think the book might be likely to go. That outline will always change as the book is written. If you’re signing a contract, and the filmmaker is in a hurry, don’t agree to write the outline in less than three days – not because you’ll be working at it for that many hours, but because it needs to sit in the back of your mind while your subconscious works on it.
It’s a large market, and an attractive one, but it doesn’t seem to be one that most freelancers think about. If you decide that you want to get involved, I strongly recommend contacting agents in the film business. They know who is looking. Which means they know where the deals are.

Interview for the American University in Amman

A student at the American University in Amman asked if she could interview me as part of her course work. Of course I said yes – young women in the Middle East need all the help they can get (Etihad Airways emailed its customers in the run-up to International Women’s Day. The email had a lovely picture of a spa in which women could be pampered – no doubt while their menfolk got on with the serious business of running the world. I don’t think they’d quite grasped the purpose of International Women’s Day). Anyway, here’s the interview.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
I’m a man, old enough to have been born during the Second World War, and British. As a child, all I wanted to do was travel and I’ve lived and worked on every continent except Antarctica. I put those things first because they have had a profound effect on who I turned out to be. My family gave me a respect for education. Most of them were coal miners and I was showered with books as soon as they realised I liked to read. The message was clear: work hard at school, learn as much as you can and you’ll never have to go down a mine. The one thing no miner wanted was for his son to go down the pit. I knew I was going to be a writer from the age of ten, when I stood on stage at my primary school and read a story I had written to the assembled pupils and their parents.

What books have you written?
The first book I published was 30 years ago: Managing The High Tech Salesforce. It’s out of print now. The books I have out at present are:

Historical Fiction
A Just and Upright Man, the first in the five-book James Blakiston series set in northeast England during the 1760s

Contemporary Fiction
Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper
Sharon Wright: Butterfly

The International Sales Handbook

What are your ambitions for your writing career?
My writing will go in whatever direction it goes in. What I hope is that I will continue to write books that people want to read. But – let’s be frank – I’d like to see my books made into films.

Who or what is your inspiration?
There are so many. Writers build on those who have gone before and my influences include Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Julian Barnes, Hemingway and so many more. Cormac McCarthy taught me the value of a moral frame of reference and Elmore Leonard taught me to write simply. From TS Eliot and WH Auden, though of course they were poets and not novelists, I learned what value rhythm can add.

Have you ever used real life experiences in your book?
Yes. But please don’t ask what they were because I won’t tell you.

How many books have you written? Which is your favourite?
12 in total, and I wish I hadn’t written some of them. My favourite is Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper because it says what I wanted to say about the importance of taking responsibility for yourself.

Give us an insight into your main character of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. What does he do that is so special?
Billy McErlane is born into an appalling family in the northeast of England – in fact, to an appalling mother because he never knows who his father is. Surrounded by temptation, he falls and in fact spends time in jail, but he knows there’s a better life out there and he works to win it for himself. I suppose you’d call it a coming of age novel. Billy has an IQ of 147, but it is his gift for photography (and the help of other people) that allows him to remake his life.

How did you come up with the title?
Oh, that was easy. When Billy is born his mother registers his name as Zappa McErlane which causes him all sorts of trouble as a child – his peers at school make up rhymes like “Zappa’s on the Crapper” and “Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper”. When he’s ten years old he changes his name to Billy.

Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Yes, and I’ve already touched on it, but it’s summed up best in an extract from the book. An American priest, the Reverend Humphrey Catalan, is talking to Billy about his past:

There was a cultural thing here. I’d been born with a few serious handicaps and, yes, I’d overcome them but there was still part of me that was ready to accept them as a crutch and what the Reverend Catalan wanted me to know was that that was not the American way. ‘Other people were dealt shittier hands than you, son, and some of them did okay. Come to that, a lot of people got much better cards than you did and some of them are in jail, or bankrupt, or dead. Or maybe a combination of those things. When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. And what about that maths teacher? What about Regus? He believed you when he didn’t have to. What about those teachers who gave up their time for you and didn’t charge a cent for it? Where do you get off holding grudges?’

It isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. That’s the message of the book.

What genre of books do you like to read? Do you limit yourself to only the genre that you write yourself?
I read most things. Genres that I don’t and won’t read include erotica, books about vampires and the paranormal. Other than that I read anything that looks good – though I do have a weakness for detective fiction, as long as it deals with personalities and motivations and not with police procedures.

Who are your target readers?
Human beings. Yes, I know, that’s an easy out – but I want to get into a reader’s heart and I don’t care who s/he is.

What compels you to write?
I wish I knew; I’d do my best to get rid of it. I have to write. I can’t not write. And that’s been true since I was a young boy. I still spend a lot of my time travelling and I usually wake up at about four in the morning and start writing. Life would be easier without this compulsion, but what can you do?

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
Getting inside the head of female characters is tough for me. When I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly I had to work very hard to understand what motivated her. I think that’s normal – I hear about women writers who write authentic male characters and male writers who do the reverse to perfection, but when I read what they write I find that I don’t agree.

Are you currently working on something new?
Poor Law, the second in the James Blakiston historical series, is due out in August and I’m working on the final revision right now. I’m 50,000 words into another novel – I’m superstitious about saying too much about it till it’s ready to go. And there’s a book called When the Darkness Comes which has occupied me on and off for five years; I simply don’t know when I’ll be satisfied with it.

Do you read much? And if so, who are your favourite authors?
I read in the evenings – two novels a week on average. I have a large number of writers whose work I love; right now anything by Charles Cumming, Julian Barnes, JJ Marsh or Margaret Atwood will get my undivided attention. I just read Unravelling Oliver by a new Irish writer, Liz Nugent, and it may turn out to be the best book I read this year. If you haven’t already discovered it I recommend it without reservation.

What is your favourite motivational phrase or quote?
P J O’Rourke: “The only inalienable human right is the right to do as you damn well please. And the only inalienable human obligation is to damn well take the consequences.”

Where can you see yourself in 5 years time?
Oh, Lord. There have been so many changes in my life I just can’t answer that. But, wherever it is, I’d like to be among friends. And I’d like to be smiling. I’ve told my family that I want my gravestone to read, “He had a lot of laughs”.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write. Write. Write. Follow your own star. Never give up.

Which actor/actress would you like to see playing the lead character from your most recent book?
I know this is disgraceful, but I only watch television if there’s rugby on, and I only watch movies made by either the Coen Brothers or Woody Allen. So I just don’t know – I don’t see enough actors, male or female, to have a view.

Do you start with an idea and see where it leads you or do you plot out the complete book before you start?
The currently fashionable division is between planners and pantsters and I’m a pantster (I fly by the seat of my pants). I never know where the story is going till half of it is written. I’ve had some surprises, I can tell you.

How long does it take you to write a novel? Do you work for a set period each day?
Eighteen months. Yes – 4.00 a.m. till 12.00 a.m. if I’m at home; 4.00 a.m. till 7.00 a.m. if I’m on the road.

Most writers have some other thing they’re passionate about, what’s yours?
History. I’m fascinated by the way people lived, and how life was for them.

If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Not a sausage. The book went through five revisions and that’s enough.

What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Sometimes my heart ached for poor Billy and what he went through. And I wasn’t alone. An American reader emailed me to say, “You bastard, how could you do that? Hadn’t the poor kid suffered enough?” All through the last third of the book I was thinking about the reader and what I was thinking was, “You think you know where this is going. Don’t you? You think this is a standard boy meets girl/boy loses girl/boy gets girl back story. Don’t you? Boy, do you have a surprise coming”.

Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
That only a complete damn fool would be a writer :-). But I also honed my understanding of point of view, how to say what you want to say – and how to do it in the minimum possible number of words.

Offcuts (5)

Zappa's Mam's a Slapper Cover for Web

This is one of those passages (see Offcuts and Offcuts (2) (3) and (4)) that didn’t make it into the finished, published book but that I think had some value – or, at least, some interest. This one was originally part of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and dates from the time when Billy was beginning to establish himself as a photographer.

One of the tabloids was doing an exposé of the escort business and they hired me to do the pics. The reporter was also freelance (I was a beginner in those days. Were they looking for deniability? I don’t know. Seems unlikely, but who can fathom an editor’s mind?) and she and I went round together. Some of the places and girls she found on the Net, or advertising in Yellow Pages, and some were more hidden. These were the high class call girls, mostly, and when I asked how she found them she said her SO was a crime reporter and he’d asked his friends in the Police for phone numbers. I had to ask what an SO was, I thought it must be some rank or office title in journalism I hadn’t found out about yet, but it turned out to mean Significant Other. ‘My Chap,’ she said. ‘The man who gets to remove my drawers.’
When I knew her better I discovered she’d been leading me down the path of misinformation and the person who got to remove her drawers was not a man but a woman but she hadn’t wanted to hold her hand up to that until she knew where I might stand on the matter. Apparently when she’d come out to her parents it hadn’t gone well and now she was cautious. She went by Teddy (the reporter, not the drawers-remover) and she insisted she’d adopted it when Edwina Currie said she’d had an affair with John Major and she knew she couldn’t allow herself to be known by the same name as a woman who would shag such a grey nonentity, but I don’t know. It’s smoke and mirrors all the time, the journalism business. You can’t believe a word anyone tells you.
My job was to take the pics but I listened to the interviews. Obviously.
An astounding number of women sex workers, as Teddy insisted on calling them though the red-top rewrote every one of those references with a less flattering term, had their own website. Someone must have specialised in producing websites for female escorts and I bet they made a mint. (If you don’t believe me, google “escorts” and the name of your county or local town. You’ll be amazed). (I’m also reminded of one of the first dirty jokes I ever heard. I must have been about nine at the time and I didn’t really understand it. “Did you hear about Polo the Prostitute? She made a mint with her hole.” Yes. Well. I did say I’d been nine).
There was a certain sameness about these websites. A lot of the girls had been to “a very good school” and then graduated from Cambridge. I’ve no idea why Cambridge was so popular a part of the fantasy. As opposed to Oxford, for example. They claimed interests like horse riding and theatre and dining out and said that although they had a good sense of humour and were witty and good conversationalists, they were even better listeners. The typical charge for a date was between fifty and seventy-five pounds.
Teddy eyed the clothes one of these girls had on. Carla, her name was supposed to be. ‘You don’t buy those on fifty quid a date,’ she said.
Carla laughed. ‘No. For these you need the extras.’
More laughter, which they both joined in. There was a woman’s thing going on and I was excluded. ‘They know what they want but they can be hopeless at asking for it. They pick me up and we go to dinner and they bore me to death but I keep smiling. You can see them thinking, “Am I going to get my end away?”‘
Teddy said, ‘Does no-one have the gumption to ask outright?’
‘Oh, sure. But those are usually the ones who’ve taken you to a club and kept you rocking with laughter all night. Then they take you back to their hotel and when you get there the guy kisses you on the throat and says “How much?” and you tell him. Simple. But with most, you struggle. I’ve done a menu to make it simpler.’
Teddy said, ‘A menu?’ and Carla handed her a pink card with fancy lettering on it. Twenty-six point Bickley Script Bold on 180 gramme paper, if you want to get technical. It had a list of services Carla was prepared to supply, and how much she charged for each.
Teddy went down the list. She didn’t know what some of the things were and I was ludicrously pleased that I did. Marcie and I had done most of them together.
When we left, Carla took the menu back. She said she didn’t want it falling into the wrong hands. She was a lot quicker on the uptake about Teddy than I’d been. At the door, she said, ‘There’s always a demand for a bit of voyeurism? Girl on girl action?’ Teddy said that was awfully kind but no thank you and Carla said Teddy knew where she was if she changed her mind. To me, she said, ‘You know where I am, too.’ I smiled and she said, ‘Don’t just grin at me. Remember. You don’t pay a professional girl for sex. You pay her to go home and leave you alone afterwards. Which is a little different from marriage.’

The Beatrice Stubbs Bacon Sandwich

It’s 6.30 and I’m relaxing in my Heliopolis hotel room after a day showing Egypt’s largest road contractor how to make better, longer lasting bridge joints for less money. Relaxing in this case means reading the second book in the Beatrice Stubbs Boxed Set, which is turning out to be every bit as good as the first, while wondering which of the Fairmont restaurants I should grace for dinner. I am so glad to have discovered JJ Marsh; she’s taken her place at my writers’ top table. But I just came across this:
Beatrice allowed herself a small celebration. Exotic fruit, miso soup or a salmon bagel may well do wonders for the mind but on certain occasions nothing in the world can beat a bacon sandwich.
Yes. YES! No question about it. A bacon sandwich ­– yum, yum, pig’s bum. But wait – what’s this?
Large streaky rashers curling and spitting away in the pan. Two thick white slices warming in the toaster, a bottle of HP and the papers waiting on the table.
Thick white slices? No. No, woman, no. What are you thinking of? Two slices of Poilâne rye – the only thing. (If you really must, you can substitute Poilâne sourdough, in which case yes you will need to toast it, but ordinary white bread? Never!) (You don’t need to go to Paris for the bread; if you’re in Britain, will deliver it right to your door). No butter. Spread one slice with mustard if that’s all you have (English – none of your foreign muck) but Bim’s Kitchen African Baobab Pepper Jam is better and then slather both slices with home made mayo. Sprinkle a small amount of celery salt on one side, lay the fried bacon (if you grill bacon you can bugger off right now) on one side, lay on top of it slices of ripe tomato you have already scattered with salt and black pepper, press the other slice on top, cut in half and eat.
That is a bacon sandwich. A bacon sandwich fit for the incomparable Beatrice Stubbs.
I pah on your white bread.

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Cover 2

Before sending a book to be typeset, if you know what’s good for you, you give it to a proof-reader to find all the things wrong with it – the repetitions, incongruities, inconsistencies and plain incorrect style. Before it goes to the proof-reader though, sensible writers use either a developmental editor or (and this amounts to the same thing) reliable beta readers. I had two developmental editors on Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and the book as finally published was a lot better than it might have been without them. Always, though, there are going to be some changes that you make at a developmental editor’s behest that you regret. One of my editors told me to remove almost everything that might seem to be a reflection of my own views. In some cases I have no regrets but I miss one or two things that are not in the final book. I’ve decided, therefore, to publish these outtakes as “offcuts”. This is the first. My editor persuaded me that the book was better off without it. I’d be interested to know whether you think she was right.

Here’s the passage that did not get into the published version:

Melanie bought a digital camera of her own. She already had a computer and now she loaded Photoshop onto it. She must have spent a few hundred quid, all told, although she got the educational rate for the software which is a lot cheaper than ordinary punters have to pay.
I was shocked when I found out what sort of pictures she wanted me to take.
Shocked and excited.
You just can’t tell about people, can you? I was talking to a guy, an Artistic Director on a magazine I’ve done work for who went through the Sixties, he was one of the ones they mean when they say, “If you can remember it you weren’t there” but he remembered it and I’d say he was there all right. Probably didn’t do the drugs some people did, which is how he kept hold of his memories. Anyway, he and I were having a coffee, talking through what I’d already shot and what he wanted out of me that day and I was listening fairly closely because by that time I was billing a few grand for a day’s shooting which is top dollar, believe me, big money for anyone and I never got so blasé I’d think that sort of money was nothing. And there was a girl passing on the pavement outside with the most beautiful long legs you ever saw and she was wearing a really short skirt, a micro-mini you could call it, to show them off. And Zak, the Artistic Director (I found out when he signed a contract that his name was George, but there you go), Zak was in reminiscent mood. He talked about mini skirts and what made them possible, how until the beginning of the sixties women wore suspender belts and they couldn’t wear really short skirts because there had to be room to cover the suspenders but then Pretty Polly Holdups came in, stockings that didn’t need suspenders because they kept themselves up but you still had the patch of bare leg at the top which was lovely to get your hand on, apparently, but then came tights and now a skirt could be as short as the girl or woman wanted it to be. And he said older people, those who were already adults before the Sixties started, if they saw a girl in a mini skirt they thought she was immoral, which is how they saw it then if an unmarried girl had sex, and they assumed anyone dressed like that would go to bed with anyone who asked her. But Zak said it wasn’t the skirts, they had nothing to do with it, it was the Pill, that’s what made the difference, and if you wanted to know whether a particular girl would or wouldn’t it was no good eyeing the length of her skirt, you had to ask her, which you might do with or without using actual words. ‘But it wasn’t the length of the skirt. That was a red herring. She might have a mini or she might have one trailing on the ground like her grandmother would have worn and it told you nothing. Except maybe whether she thought her legs were attractive. Mini or no mini, she’d either fuck you or she wouldn’t. ‘
We both agreed, though, that miniskirts were a Good Thing.
While I’m talking about Zak, something else he said that surprised me was that there was far less sex around in the Sixties than people imagine there was and certainly less than there is now. ‘People were still most likely to live in families. There was still shame attached to a girl having a baby when she wasn’t married. Some people had trial marriages, where you lived together for a while before you married to make sure you really were compatible. But they were considered very daring, most people didn’t do it and those who did still intended to get married in the end. And certainly before they had a child. You never hear the words “trial marriage” now. Do you?’
I said it sounded as though people were happier now, but Zak said I was confusing freedom with happiness, a mistake they’d been prone to make at the time. The people I’d grown up with, would I say most of them were happy? And of course when I thought about Chantal and my mother I had to say no. Zak said back then they hadn’t really known what they were doing. He said it was like Pandora’s Box, except that people were so ignorant now, so uneducated, that if you mentioned Pandora’s Box they’d think you were talking about the genitalia of some tart with a posh name. He talked like that a lot, long words like genitalia mixed in with what he called the demotic. And he said opening the box was one thing but shoving everything back in, that was something else again.
‘We thought the family, marriage, chastity, all that stuff was the morality the ruling classes imposed on the people but not on themselves. Because, let’s face it, the nobs didn’t follow the rules. Didn’t then, don’t now. Prince Charles told Diana if he did what she wanted he’d be the first Prince of Wales in history not to have a mistress. And he was right. So if they didn’t, why should we? You know what they say. If work was so wonderful, the rich would have stolen it. Everything was organised to keep power where power had always been and we were going to change that. Starting with sex. We were going to have sexual freedom. Restraint was harmful. Families damaged people. Jealousy destroyed lives, and if everyone was free to sleep with anyone, jealousy would disappear. The sexes would become equal. Contentment would reign. That’s what we thought. We were wrong. Look around you if you want proof. Fathering children and expecting someone else to take responsibility for them is the route to disaster.’ He looked closely at me. ‘It’s none of my business but, if I were guessing, I’d say you know all about that.’
I said, ‘Are you married, Zak?’
‘Certainly am. For the third time. But I’ve been with this one for twenty years.’
‘Would you call yourself happy?’
‘Happier than you, mate. That’s for dead sure. I’ve seen your pictures. I mean, you’re a great photographer, one of the best, don’t get me wrong. But happy? You? I think not.’

You can read more about Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper here.