The challenge of writing a series

‘The Kent Fisher murder mysteries are a long way from the cop with a trauma, which seems to be one of the current trends in crime fiction. They’re traditional murder mysteries, driven by both character and plot to entertain readers.’

If you want to find out more about why I write the Kent Fisher mysteries, you can read the guest post at Between the Lines

My thanks to Cathy at Between the Lines for letting me spread the word.

 

Running Scared

Sometimes you have to throw caution to the wind. Doubt can hold you back as easily as an injury. Self-doubt can cripple you, making it almost impossible to throw anything to the wind.

For most of my life, it’s felt like there are two people inside me.

The first is the dreamer, the person I want to be. This is where the writer lives, creating new worlds filled with intriguing characters and exciting plots. The dreamer is by nature an optimist, believing that nothing’s impossible.

This is the guy who helped me quit smoking. He helped me to eat better, to become a runner and to keep running when injury dragged me down. He helped me pass my driving test on Friday, 13th May, my final exams to become an environmental health officer, and to get the jobs that took me from Manchester to the Sussex Coast.

This is the guy that helped me deal with the many rejection letters I had from publishers and agents, telling me I had the talent and ability to become a published writer. He was right. Back in the early 1990s, I began to publish articles in national and local magazines. Then there was my regular column on technology in Writers’ Monthly, which ran for several years until the magazine closed down.

The second person is the doubter. In a way, he’s the little devil that sits on my shoulder. The doubter sits there because it’s easy to whisper in my ear.

The doubter isn’t interested in me achieving anything. The doubter doesn’t like change. Change means I might not need him any more. Trouble is, he can be incredibly difficult to dislodge. He’s clever. He nips in at the early stages of a dream, when ideas and aspirations are vague, and covers it with a blanket of misgivings.

What if it goes wrong? What if it’s more difficult than you imagined? What if it’s not what you want? Have you stopped to consider the effect on others?

This last one is always a killer. It’s often the last throw of the dice for the doubter. When all else fails, use emotional blackmail.

I was eight when my father died. At the time, I had no idea how to express how I felt. I’m not sure I knew how I felt, but I had this overwhelming sense of unfairness.

Why had he been taken from me?

What did I do to deserve this?

This is when the doubter was born. He told me that this is what life was like – it knocked you back if you started getting ideas, if you wanted more than you deserved. And whenever anything went wrong or I goofed, the doubter was there, giving me a sad shake of the head.

The fact I fought the doubter, strived to be better, owes much to a spirit that came from reading books. Heroes didn’t quit. They didn’t flinch at the obstacles that faced them. They found ways to defeat evil and those who wanted them to fail. They battled on, even when the odds were overwhelming and defeat was certain.

To Kill A MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird taught me that final lesson. It reinforced the dreamer in me at the age of 16. It spurred me to write my first novel, which I sent to a publisher at the age of 17.

The doubter tried to clip my wings, of course. ‘If you tell them you’re 17, they’ll laugh, wondering who the hell you think you are.’

I didn’t mention my age. I received a lovely, encouraging letter from the publisher, praising my characterisation, realistic dialogue and the story, but no offer of publication.

Many times I’ve looked backed, wondering whether the publishers would have reacted differently had they known my age.

This is what the doubter does to you. He likes to remind you of failures because they prove him right.

Fortified by this early victory, the doubter undermined me, quick to remind me how disappointing life could be. Whenever, I had a big decision to make, the doubter was there, pointing out everything that could go wrong and how bad it would make me feel.

When I wrote further novels, I was never sure of my abilities, always afraid to really go for it and to hell with the consequences. The story was never good enough. The plot wasn’t realistic. The characters didn’t jump of the page and into the reader’s heart.

The doubter urged me to focus on real life – marriage, building a home, settling down. You’ll never earn enough from writing to pay the mortgage so why bother?

I did bother. I kept writing. I have to write.

I’m stubborn, see. I’ve read books that live long in the memory. I’ve read books that have the power to change my life.

I’ve also shown I can defeat doubt. I published articles. People wanted my work for their readers. I quit smoking. Okay, giving up smoking may not seem like a big deal, but it was integral to my life, to my writing.

Giving up smoking meant giving up writing. Oh, the doubter thought he was onto a winner with that one.

But my health meant more to me than anything else. I was overweight, unfit and still collecting rejection slips from publishers. It was time to change, to set the remainder of my life on a sensible, healthier course. I didn’t want to wake in the night, coughing and clearing my lungs. I didn’t want to die prematurely when I’d yet to achieve my ambitions.

For once, the dreamer was pragmatic. I gave up smoking with much less effort and will than I ever imagined. The doubter never got much of a look in – he hadn’t reckoned on the running.

I started running before I quit smoking. My wife and I joined the local gym. We began to exercise, to get healthier and fitter. We would come out of the leisure centre, exhausted and dripping with sweat, but invigorated. The first thing I would do was pop a cigarette into my mouth.

Six months later, the cigarettes were gone and have never returned. I learned to write again – short pieces at first.

No AccidentI wrote Fisher’s Fables, a humorous blog of my experiences as an environmental health manager. It gave me the author’s voice the doubter had always denied me. A publisher wanted my first Kent Fisher mystery novel, No Accident.

Then last year, I strained the muscles in my lower back. It was an old injury, more niggle than problem, or so I thought. It took me six weeks to recover.

The doubter saw a chance to return after years in the wilderness.

When I started running once more, I didn’t run too far. I listened to my muscles, aware of the stiffness in my lower back. The doubter told me it was futile. I would never reach the distances and speeds I had before.

I was running scared – worried I’d strain my back once more.

Almost six months have passed. I still run scared, even though my back feels fine. The doubter’s still there. He’s given up attacking my running, casting doubt on my writing instead.

No RemorseI no longer plan or plot in any detail. I started No Remorse, the third in the series, with a line of dialogue, curious to know what would develop. It became my best work at that point, a triumph of confidence and self-belief. I’ve written two more Kent Fisher mysteries without plans, never sure what’s coming next.

The doubter’s on at me from the first page. What if you can’t do it again? What if you write yourself into a blind alley? What will your readers think?

Then I have a moment of insight, when I realise what the story’s about. The dreamer returns, fed by my subconscious, telling me what the story’s about. There are no details – these come when I write – just a skeleton.

Would that happen if I didn’t have a little doubt to spur the dreamer in me? Maybe it’s a ying and yang thing. A little doubt makes me focus, work harder, unwilling to accept anything other than the best I can do.

Maybe I’m better off running scared … and writing scared.

What do you think?

5 things I learned from writing a series

My thanks to Eva at Novel Deelights for posting this to support the release of No Mercy, Kent Fisher Mysteries #5.

Click here to read the post.

Click here to learn more about the books in the series.

27-10-2019. Meet the author interview on Curled Up With A Good Book

Many thanks to Chelle for this interview on her terrific blog, Curled Up With a Good Book. She asked some terrific questions that forced me to think long and hard and delve deep into the past.

Click here to read the full interview.

Here’s a link to Chelle’s review of No More Lies earlier this year.

 

River of Dreams

5th July 2019 – Songs that changed my life

Sometimes you listen to a song and it has a special significance, a deeper resonance. It touches you in a way that makes your spine tingle.

That was my criteria for selecting songs for my appearance on the Martina Mercer show on Hailsham FM recently. We had two hours of conversation, punctuated by my favourite songs. (Click here if you’d like to listen to the show and some great songs).

River of Dreams by Barclay James Harvest is a song about regret, about looking back at what might have been, about hopes and dreams unfulfilled. This was the original band’s last studio album in 1997, so I guess it was inevitable that they would look back on their career.

Ironically, River of Dreams stirred me to look forward, not back.

Up until then, I sometimes wondered if my life had been a series of missed opportunities.

Don’t get me wrong, I was happily married with an interesting and fulfilling job in environmental health, a gorgeous wife and a lovely home on the south coast. But my success as a writer amounted to a few articles published in national magazines and a regular column on technology in Writers Monthly magazine.

When I wrote my first novel at the age of 17, I dreamt of becoming an author like Graham Greene or Harper Lee, writing books that could change people’s lives. The unimaginatively titled book, Survival in the Garden, was written for children as my life experience was mainly the wishful idealism of a teenager.

Publishers, Hamish Hamilton, wrote me a lovely letter, complimenting me on my realistic dialogue and story. It was a shame I’d used anthropomorphic characters as they felt the story would have had more appeal with human characters.

Had I known better, or had anyone to advise me, I would have revised the story and used human characters.

I would also have told them I was 17 years old.

I didn’t mention this because I thought they wouldn’t take me seriously or think I was precocious.

I guess this was my first experience of regret. Every rejection letter took me back to that missed opportunity, which seemed to set the pattern for my life.

rejectionWhen I wrote, I always felt I was a notch below where I needed to be. But what did I need to do to lift my writing a level? What was the secret ingredient that years of searching had failed to uncover?

Even my modest success writing articles didn’t translate into better novels. I kept trying, though my output was minimal since my first flurry into novel writing – five or six finished novels in 30 years. Many unfinished, I suspect. Plenty of short stories and humorous pieces though.

Life got in the way – marriage, creating a home, my career as an environmental health officer. If I couldn’t make it as a writer, I could succeed at these.

But I couldn’t help looking back, regretting chances I could have taken. I resented the success that others had, wondered why they got all the luck. My writing was as good as theirs, wasn’t it?

Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. I never tried hard enough to improve. I joined writers’ circles on the internet and at home, critiquing while others critiqued me, but I never believed in myself.

I thought success happened to others, that I was fated to feel frustrated and a failure.

failureHadn’t a careers teacher at school destroyed my dreams of becoming a journalist?

Hadn’t I made a childish mistake with my first novel, writing about animals and insects?

And then I listened to River of Dreams. This was me, getting bitter and resentful because I hadn’t had the life I deserved.

Only I had. You get out what you put it, right?

Had I really tried to improve my writing by editing and revising my work when it was rejected?

Had I really learned from the articles I sold to national magazines? I succeeded through hard work and preparation, market research, revising and honing my words.

Couldn’t I do that with novels?

Why not? All I had to do was apply myself, work hard and learn. If I stayed positive and believed in myself, I would find a way. Better that than looking back with regret over what might have been.

I did the market research. Crime was filled with detectives of all kinds, but no one had an environmental health officer solving murders. It sounded ridiculous at first, but it’s not as daft as it may sound.

I created Kent Fisher shortly after listening to River of Dreams. It was a turning point that eventually led to an independent US publisher giving me what I’d always wanted – an offer to publish my novel.

Would I have got there without River of Dreams? We’ll never know.

River of Dreams


No MysteryIf you’d like to find out whether you’d enjoy the Kent Fisher mysteries, this free introduction to the series is free when you sign up to my monthly newsletter, which will keep you up to date news and releases. Click here to continue.

Let’s talk about listening

There’s an adage that says you have two ears and one mouth – use them in those proportions.

WriterSound advice, you might say, but us writers have our pens and word processors. We often have an audience who like our words, which is why we write for them. We talk to them too on social media, through newsletters, and at events.

Writers have something to say, something they want to bring to the world, whether it’s to entertain, raise awareness or change opinions. Who knows where this urge comes from? Maybe we spent too much time alone as children, being ignored or afraid to raise our voices.

I spent my time reading, which is a solitary activity. Like writing, ironically. But both sides of the coin involve imagination, the excitement of exploring new worlds, learning something new – often about ourselves.

It’s difficult to learn without listening. When you read, the author’s words are talking to you, giving you information, laughter, insights. You take them in, listening in your mind. Sometimes these words strike a chord and move you.

“Don’t let your failures define you.”

That gave me a jolt. The words struck deep, tapping into some dark corner of my subconscious where I hid feelings that had the power to unsettle and undermine me.

Is that how I defined my life – by my failures?

Once I’d read those words, there was no going back. I’d listened. I was speechless, aware that I’d made a discovery that could change the way I viewed life and me.

That’s how powerful words can be, whether written or spoken.

I’d like to think the words were significant to the author who wrote them. She couldn’t have realised the effect they would have on me, but she spoke and I listened.

In case you’re wondering, it was Cheryl Bradshaw in Hush Now, Baby, and you can read my review of this terrific novel here.

As an author, you should also listen to the comments readers and reviewers leave about your books. You learn fast that not everyone likes your books. How could they? If you could please everyone on the planet, you’d be a wealthy genius, right?

But you should still listen to those who don’t like your style. They could be pointing up areas you need to improve, mistakes you could avoid in future.

Like my school reports used to say, ‘Could do better.’

That’s why I love editing and revising my novels. When you write, you’re telling a story. When you revise and edit, you’re listening to what you said. If you stumble over a sentence when you read, it needs improving. If something feels wrong, it is wrong.

Sometimes, those little niggles speak so quietly you can miss them.

Listen hard, listen closely.

That’s how I’ve spent the last few weeks in Crouch Corner, revising and polishing my Kent Fisher mystery #4, No More Lies. I cut around 20,000 words to make it sharper, fresher and as smooth as I could. I listened to every sentence, every word almost.

reading KindleThen I put the finished novel on my Kindle and read it as a reader.

I thoroughly enjoyed the story, but still found quite a few areas to improve. Sometimes the rhythm of a sentence or line of dialogue wasn’t right. One minor character underwent a name change.

Then a blogger read it and found more things I needed to put right.

That’s an awful lot of listening, which makes me wonder if the old adage is correct.

Writers may have plenty to say, but I suspect we listen more than we realise.

So, tell me what you think. I’d love to hear from you.

And if you’d like to find out more about the Kent Fisher mysteries, click here to visit my website or here to visit my Amazon author page.

 

The next murder mystery novel is only an idea away

Ideas are everywhere.

Sometimes it feels like you can pluck them from the ether. And you can lose them just as quickly if you’re not careful.

Many of my ideas come when I’m drifting off to sleep. Shaving in the morning seems to generate quite a few. Running seems to stimulate the creative juices too.

So why are these bad times for ideas?

Simple, I have no way of recording them at the moment they announce themselves.

Okay, I’ve pulled back the duvet and felt my way in the darkness to my study in Crouch Corner to scribble a note on a Post It. That’s why I use a battery powered electric shaver – it’s easy to scurry back to the study. And I have been known to repeat the idea over and over like a mantra while running to imprint it on my brain.

But sadly, I’ve lost ideas in the blink of an eye.

The idea arrives. I stop what I’m doing and head upstairs to the study. On the way another thought hijacks me. It can be as mundane as ‘I still haven’t filled that small hole beside the loft hatch’. But it’s enough to wipe the idea from my mind.

No amount of coaxing and retracing my steps can bring it back.

That’s the trouble with ideas.

Idea writingWhen they stimulate more ideas, you’re in trouble. Writing down the first idea often sends the second and third out of your head.

That’s when you wish you’d taken the shorthand class you thought you’d never need.

Short of attending a mental Zumba class, I’m not sure how to make my mind and memory fitter and better. Then again, there’s a good chance I’ll have forgotten all about ‘Zumba for the Forgetful’ by the time I’ve returned downstairs for the cup of tea that’s now stone cold.

Ideas solve problems.

“Everything begins with an idea.” – Earl Nightengale.

I wonder if everything begins with a question. Or a problem, if you prefer.

Questions set the mind working. Problems need to be overcome.

The stage is set for ideas, especially when new or better solutions are required.

When readers ask me where I get my ideas for plots and crime novels, it’s as if they believe there’s a mystical well that I dip into when I need inspiration. If it’s a whacky idea or something out of left field, I wonder where it came from.

But thinking about it, the mind is perfectly adapted to solving problems and answering questions. Feed in the information and the mind will process it, consider the alternatives and present you with an answer.

Be warned, you won’t always get the answer when you want it – or the answer you want. It can take weeks, even months. The lag allows you to dress it up as inspiration, but there’s no magic here.

WowIt doesn’t mean the idea can’t be imaginative or take your breath away.

Many times while I’m writing a murder mystery novel, an idea crashes through my concentration, stopping me in my tracks.

Often, it’s an insight into something deeper in the story that I haven’t quite grasped.

When I was struggling with No More Lies, the latest Kent Fisher murder mystery, I had one of those moments. The end of the chapter was almost upon me and I needed a hook to round off everything. Not that I was thinking about that. My thoughts were probably on what I would write in the next chapter.

My fingers simply typed a sentence that left me stunned.

One sentence.

Those few words changed my understanding of the dynamics of the story. Suddenly, the main struggle in the novel became clear. It wasn’t the one I was trying to write. It was something deeper and more fundamental – something that made the rest of the novel easier to write.

That’s when I had the idea for my January Challenge

If you read my posts, you’ll know I challenged myself to complete the first draft of No More Lies before the end of the month. Now I’m in the vacuum between the end of the first draft and the first edit and revision.

Murder sceneBut the ideas keep coming, which means there are still issues that need to be solved.

Top of the list was Kent Fisher #5 – the next murder mystery.

No More Lies has gone through three different titles so far. The first half of the story required a similar number of revisions before the ‘sentence that changed everything.’

No such uncertainty with Kent Fisher #5 –

No Mercy
When there is no justice you create your own.

The idea simply answered the question – what’s the next Kent Fisher murder mystery about?

What do you think? How does it sound?

More ideas have flowed from this. They’re all recorded as a rough story begins to take shape. But I won’t be saying any more. Ideas often lose their shine when you share them. In your mind, ideas sparkle and tantalise. Once verbalised, they often sound far less exciting.

And some should never see the light of day.


If you’d like a free copy of No Mystery, the story behind the Kent Fisher murder mysteries, add your details to the form in the sidebar.


Something for the weekend

This week, some quotes about ideas. It seems like I’m in esteemed company, relatively speaking, of course.

“Why is it I always get my best ideas while shaving?” – Albert Einstein

And one for the crime fiction writers –

“You can kill a man, but you can’t kill an idea.” – Medgar Evers

The hole after the whole

Maybe I should have been a copywriter. After all, I love words and I love playing with words.

No, I’m not in search of an alternative career. It’s another of those random thoughts that flit through my head now I’ve completed the latest novel, No More Lies. It’s the recovery after the sprint finish, the gin and tonic after the performance.

Writing a novel can be exhilarating, especially when you write crime fiction and there are murders to solve and killers to be arrested after a hectic climax where the hero almost becomes the final victim.

Then it’s all over.

It’s time for Mr Logic and Mr Rational to regain control of your head. And never forgetting that little devil on your shoulder, reminding you of all the loose ends you forgot to tie up.

So much for writing, ‘The End’.

Did the story make sense? Did the characters feel real? Did they behave credibly … or at least in character? Did everything hang together or fall apart?

For months you’ve immersed yourself in your story, living the lives of the characters, facing the drams they face, anxious as they start making up their own stories and lead you in an unplanned direction.

Now you’re sitting at your desk, desperate to dive straight back in and deal with all the questions you keep asking yourself.

Maybe desperate is too strong a word. Tempted perhaps.

Nah!

Experience has taught me that when I write ‘The End’, it means the book goes away for a few weeks. While I don’t physically pack it off on a cruise of the Caribbean, that’s the sort of distance I’m trying to put between it and me. I need the space so my mind can recover and relax, so I can get on with more mundane, but necessary tasks like reading and return to my story refreshed.

The story doesn’t completely disappear from my thoughts. From time to time, my subconscious will intrude to remind me about a certain detail. Or it tells me more loose ends are fraying. I make notes and forget about it until the cruise ship, Editing and Revision, arrives back in port.

That leaves a few weeks to catch up on all the jobs I set aside while I wrote the novel. Pruning the apple trees takes less time than anticipated so maybe I should plan the promotion for the new book. I need a cover, a blog tour or launch team perhaps.

What about the website? It doesn’t quite cut it the way it used to. Is that me raising my standards? Or is it a while since I took a good look at it? What made me think that selfie looked cool?

Then again, it could be time to venture into the garage and clear away the stuff I’ve collected since I finished the last novel? And those prunings are now strewn across the floor since the refuse sack toppled over.

Somehow, none of it seems appealing.

My January challenge forced me to remain disciplined, so with more logic than enthusiasm, I did a stock take. Within minutes, I morphed into the manager I used to be, identifying priorities, creating project plans and task, allocating resources.

Okay, I wrote a list, but you get the idea.

Fisher's Fables coverIt was like Fisher’s Fables all over again.

For those who haven’t read them, Fisher’s Fables was a humorous blog about my time as the manager of a team of environmental health officers, who mainly inspected restaurant kitchens, that kind of thing.

The blog allowed me to send up management in general and local government management in particular. The characters I created to deliver these send-ups migrated into my crime fiction and the Kent Fisher murder mystery novels.

But as I sat at my desk in Crouch Corner, assessing how I would prioritise which priorities to performance monitor, I found myself looking back, reliving those blogs and the early Kent Fisher stories that went before them.

I opened up the draft of No Mystery, which is the story behind the Kent Fisher mysteries, charting the events and decisions that led to me creating the character and trying my hand at writing crime fiction.

It’s amazing what you forget. And what you remember.

I’d forgotten that I needed to complete No Mystery, having set it to one side while I completed my novel.

The idea’s simple enough – show readers and those who might want to learn more about the characters and books how it all began and developed into the series it is today.

All I had to do was finish the edit, format the paperback and eBook versions, write a back cover blurb so Jane at String Design could complete the cover.

It’s taken a few days, but what fun I’ve had reliving some of the memories – until I realised how many years it’s been since I first conceived Kent Fisher.

Anyway, I’m delighted to say there’s now a paperback version of No Mystery on Amazon for anyone who might be interested. I had planned to put up an electronic version, but I thought it would be good to offer it free to anyone who subscribes to my email list, the Kent Fisher Readers Group.

Just click the ‘Yes, add me to your mailing list’ option below if you’d like a free copy of No Mystery.

Alternatively, you can sign up on my Facebook author page, or use the form in the sidebar on the right.

And in case you’re wondering, I didn’t spend all week working on No Mystery. I updated my website and started planning a book launch for No More Lies. The garage still looks like a holding station for the rag and bone man, but as it isn’t on my list of priorities …