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?

No doubting the doubt

When it comes to 2019, there’s only one thing I’m sure about – uncertainty.

The year began with doubts over No More Lies, the fourth Kent Fisher mystery. Despite numerous revisions and edits, the first half of the book never felt right. Whether I was pushing the characters too far, or whether I simply lacked belief in my writing, I don’t know.

Weary of looking back and analysing, I decided to complete the second half of the novel by the end of January.

While I’m not sure what prompted this, the prospect excited me. Then I paused. What would happen if I didn’t achieve my target?

I ignored the doubts and set a publication date in May. At the end of January, I would book a blog tour for the launch of the novel, as bloggers prefer at least three months’ notice. My editor was available in April, which gave me February and March for my own editing and revising.

At the end of January, I finished the first draft of the novel. It took six months to write the first half and one month to write the second.

Crazy.

(I would add that it took me much longer to edit and revise the second half of the novel, which needed far more work to bring it up to standard.)

I also know how people can write a 50,000 word novel during National Novel Writing Month, usually November each year.

Now all I had to do was take direct action marketing my work.

When I was a manager in my former career as an environmental health officer, I had a couple of mantras. Unlike Danni in my novels, I didn’t post them on a pinboard, but I often quoted them to my team.

Actions are not the same as achievements.

If only I could embrace it in my work as an author.

After completing No More Lies and booking the blog tour, my marketing efforts consisted of research, reading informative articles, and planning. Lots of planning – even a dreaded spreadsheet. (You can’t get more middle management than that.)

Lots of actions, but no achievements until the tweaks in December to improve and simplify my website.

Okay, I posted on Facebook, tweeted occasionally, and wrote a few blog posts, but it was all a bit half-hearted. Trouble is, I feel self-conscious when I write about my writing. I see other authors promote themselves in various Facebook groups with some style, able to talk about themselves without sounding unnatural or boastful.

These authors also spot opportunities to promote themselves, start conversations, share photographs and discuss problems they’ve faced and solved.

I’m always concerned I’ll sound pretentious.

Net result – I did hardly any marketing last year. I read many useful articles. A few ideas popped into my thoughts, but I lacked organisation and plans. I took a short online course, which was informative, but I’ve yet to turn it into actions, or achievements.

Thankfully, there’s nothing wrong with the writing

I completed the fully edited fifth Kent Fisher mystery, No Mercy, by the middle of December. Unlike the previous novel, this one flowed from start to finish. The editing and revising were thorough and everything is now ready to go for publication on 16th January, complete with a launch team to help promote the book.

I’m feeling good.

So good it makes me wonder whether I can repeat the process with the sixth novel. With little more than a scattering of ideas and disparate events, there was nothing urging me to write.

Then yesterday morning, I picked up a pad and my fountain pen, determined to make some sense of these ideas. Within a few minutes, my imagination took over, making connections, raising questions and complications, producing a delicious twist that took my breath away.

Okay, it’s all background detail rather than a synopsis. I don’t have a plot or outline. I prefer to write the story as it happens, discovering and detecting alongside Kent Fisher as he weaves his way along, a chapter at a time, never quite sure what’s coming next.

That’s the positive side of not knowing.

Maybe I should translate that into marketing – simply have a go and see where it leads.

I might even surprise myself in 2020.

Five things I learned from writing No Bodies

No Bodies is the second novel in the Kent Fisher mystery series. It follows hot on the heels of No Accident, the first novel. If you want to read what I learned from writing No Accident, you can check the post here.

Both novels began their uncertain lives just after the millennium under different titles. After No Accident was published in 2016, I revised and rewrote much of No Bodies to bring it up to date and into line with the first.

1. Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten (Michael Crichton)

Okay, the rewrite was carried out over 12 years after the original version was written. Only the plot remained intact. The story was revised into the new style I’d developed. My newfound love of editing reduced the size of the book and sharpened the prose, allowing my characters to ‘leap off the page’ – something a literary agent didn’t find when she read the original version.

The story and treatment were similar to No Accident, but there was more purpose and drive to the investigation and a greater personal threat to Kent and those nearest to him. I also had the chance to expand Columbo’s unique relationship with Kent.

Robert Crouch Author

Robert with Harvey, aka Columbo

The rewrite proved challenging as the characters had changed but the plot had to stay the same. Times had also moved on, demanding a different approach to several of the issues raised by the story. Both restricted my freedom and new ways of working, drawing me to my next conclusion.

2. Planning was at the heart of my failures

No Bodies was originally planned in great detail. It’s a complex murder mystery with two separate storylines that ultimately crash into each other, helping Kent to solve the murders of several missing women.

My method of writing at the turn of the millennium was based on detailed planning of the plot and main events. I wrote copious notes, which filled a Lever Arch folder. Everything from character profiles, descriptions of settings, time lines and ideas for plot events found its way into the folder.

An outline of the story and main events helped me convert the many notes I’d written into a more detailed synopsis. This became the blueprint I kept beside the PC while I wrote the first draft.

It didn’t take long before I discovered how restricting this was.

My mind continued to produce ideas. Some were so tantalising, I couldn’t resist them. Many couldn’t be easily accommodated in the synopsis. It led to some bloating and diversions from the main plot that took the edge of the pace and momentum.

Looking back, I also believe the constraints of the synopsis smothered my natural creativity and immediacy. Planning dulled the prose. Planning resisted the unexpected moments that often lift a story or send it running in a new, but more exciting direction. Planning took the life out of the story and characters, as the literary agent discovered.

It also made me more determined to breathe the fire back into the story during the rewrites.

3. Nothing’s impossible. The impossible just takes a little longer.

Until the rewrite, I never fully appreciated one of my guiding principles.

Whenever life didn’t meet expectations, I would remind myself of this principle. Most of my writing failures were the result of rushing, impatience and a failure to recognise, or deal with, the shortcomings in my approach.

I hated editing and revising, which meant I often did it badly, if at all. I told myself editing destroyed the immediacy and essence of my narrative. It’s easy to make excuses for the things you don’t want to do. The trouble is, you don’t learn or progress either.

When faced with the challenge of updating a long novel I knew to be less than perfect, I was tempted to leave it and write a new story instead.

Only I couldn’t. I’d written No Accident to dovetail into No Bodies

With my guiding principle in mind, I didn’t rush the rewrite. The impatient and frustrated writer of old was replaced by a calmer, more determined one. Having parted company with the publisher of No Accident, there were no deadlines or pressures from outside.

I could even afford to make the story better and more realistic.

4. Google doesn’t have all the answers

Kent Fisher had to visit Glastonbury to confront a suspect. Naturally, things didn’t go to plan, leading to a chase across town. Having already visited and loved Glastonbury’s unique atmosphere and buildings, I’d written the chase from memory.

 

With the advent of Street View on Google maps, I had the chance to check out the route so I could describe it more fully. Within seconds, I discovered my memory was faulty. Google allowed me to plot a better route using Street View.

A few months later, Carol, Harvey and I went to Glastonbury for a break. We started to walk the Google route, but it soon went in a different direction to the one I thought I’d chosen.

Reverting to traditional shoe leather, written notes and photographs, we recorded the exact route I wanted Kent to take, murals included.

5. Just ask a police officer

The final detail I wanted to check for authenticity was the police interview facilities. The days of small, cold rooms with concrete floors and uncomfortable chairs, squeezed into the basement of the police station, have long gone.

The principles are the same – table, chairs and recording equipment, only the custody suite is more modern and uses video and PCs.

Thanks to a friend, who’s a former police officer, I was given a guided tour of the custody centre by the sergeant in control of the place. He took me from the area where suspects arrive, through the processing point, past the cells to the interview rooms. Along the way, he explained how they worked and used the facilities. He answered my many questions and even suggested how to improve the scene I was setting there.

Apart from the fascinating insights, the visit meant my scene has authenticity and accuracy, even if I had to lose a few of my more dramatic flourishes. To me, this equals credibility and hopefully builds trust between the reader and author.

The details are in No Bodies, as is an encounter I had with someone who walked from the suite into the waiting area where I was seated. She was bouncing along, grinning to herself when she spotted me.

“Just had some brilliant news,” she said, strolling over. “I got bail.”

I had no idea what to say, but I simply had to put her into the scene in No Bodies.


No Bodies is available from Amazon on Kindle and paperback.

Click here to learn more about me and the Kent Fisher mysteries.

 

Would you believe it?

Not so long ago, a reader asked me a question I couldn’t answer. We’re not talking University Challenge type questions that require a degree in quantum mechanics, if that exists of course.

I don’t know.

That’s the answer I gave to the reader’s question. What I should have said was, ‘I’ve never really given it any thought.’ At least that was true. ‘Let me think about it for a moment,’ I said.

My expression worked its way through several thoughtful grimaces. ‘How do I write a novel?’ I asked, repeating the question to buy more time. ‘I get an idea, make some notes and then open a Word document. I type Chapter One, and start writing.’

The questioner didn’t seem too enamoured with the response. Maybe it sounded glib, condensing a journey that can take months, years or even decades to complete. Many people never complete the journey from idea to finished novel.

My answer was an honest attempt to explain something I’d never given much thought to. I have ideas, I turn them into stories. Or the ideas sit in a file on my PC for future consideration. They’re insurance for the day when no ideas clamour to be heard.

Most questions readers ask me cause a temporary mental block.

I’m a writer so I write. I don’t generally think about being a writer. I still hesitate to call myself an author because I wonder if it sounds pretentious to others. It’s crazy, I know. It’s what I do, what I am.

I’m not ashamed of writing novels – quite the opposite. I had a long apprenticeship and decades of disappointment and rejection, like many authors. When finally I found my author voice, by accident, I would add, my confidence grew. I believed in myself. There was still a way to go, along with help from those who had made it already, but I made it.

Yes, you’ve guessed it – I didn’t believe it.

Not at first anyway. A publisher wanted my first novel.

Okay, it was not my first novel. It was about my tenth, I think. It was the first Kent Fisher novel in a series. Being the maverick I am in my imagination, I wrote the second Kent Fisher novel first. Then I wrote a prequel to explain a lot of what happens in the second story.

See, that’s how much I knew about novel writing.

So, I had a publisher who wanted my novel. Would you believe me if I said it was nowhere near ready, being too long, ponderous and unfinished? When I say unfinished, the story had a climax and a resolution. An exciting climax, if I say so myself. That I knew.

Unfortunately, as a classic whodunit, it lacked one small key feature – my hero, Kent Fisher, couldn’t solve the murder.

Can you believe it?

I couldn’t. I knew who the murderer was and why. I wrote the story, after all.

I couldn’t work out how he could unearth the clues that would allow him to solve the murder. In many ways, it was the perfect murder. That’s what I set out to write. I never expected it to defeat me.

So, what did I do?

Did I own up to the publisher? Of course not. He’d offered me a contract.

I asked for six months to ‘knock the story into shape’, hoping he wouldn’t lose interest. He didn’t and I managed to find the clues to solve the murder.

It’s surprising how the lure of a publishing contract can sharpen the mind.

When it was finally published on Amazon, I still struggled to believe it. I knew it was my book, yet it seemed to belong to someone else.

No Accident

It was the same with my first talk to promote the book. I was sitting in front of a reasonable gathering, all waiting to hear about my journey. My journey was one of struggle, lack of self-belief and more failures than I wanted to think about.

I never thought anyone would be interested. I was surprised to find people were. Worse than that, they proceeded to ask me questions I’d never considered before.

How do you create your characters?

Where do you get your ideas?

Did you always want to write crime fiction?

Honestly, I’d never considered any of these questions before. I didn’t think anyone would be interested in such details, even though I’d asked similar questions to authors at events. The trouble is, when you’re an aspiring author talking to a successful one, you’re hoping for the magic bullet that will transform you into the next Stephen King. In my case I wanted to be a modern Agatha Christie, but you know what I mean.

Agatha Christie

I quickly learned that you can’t answer, ‘I don’t know’ to every question until someone asks you something you can answer. Equally, you can spend too long thinking about an answer. Readers believe you’re an expert now you’re published.

Sorry to disappoint you, but some days I struggle to believe I’ve written five Kent Fisher murder mysteries. I’m better at answering questions, having been interviewed a few times. I’ve had the time to work out the answers.

Of course, there’s a whole raft of new questions to replace those I can answer.

‘How do I get more people to buy and read my books?’

How can I convince them I’m a modern Agatha Christie when no one’s heard of me?

If you know the answers, please let me know.

Friday Feedback- 29th November 2019

There’s not much to report as I’ve spent this week fitting new doors inside the house. However, Wednesday turned out to be interesting.

Carol finished reading No Mercy on Wednesday morning. “Loved it,” she said. “Even better than the last one.”

Around lunchtime, my editor, Liz, emailed me her report on the novel. “It’s a cracker!” she said. “Not much to adjust.”

Not bad, I thought, before picking up the mallet and chisel. I can move on with the final edit and proof reading this coming week and get the book ready for pre-order and publication. I’m hoping the cover should be available soon, so it’s all coming together.

I’m also looking to relaunch my Robservations blog soon, prompted by Agatha Christie, no less. I’m currently reading and loving The 4.50 from Paddington, one of Miss Marple’s adventures. It’s interesting to see how the BBC and ITV have tinkered with the story for television. I’m not sure why they did as the story’s excellent. I also began to realise what I’d learned from her over the years.

 

 

Friday Feedback – 22nd November 2019

This is the updated Saturday version, delayed in the spirit of Brexit.

Like most the weeks this month, it’s been non-stop editing to ensure No Mercy, the fifth Kent Fisher murder mystery, is as good as I can make it. It’s now in the hands of my editor, Liz, for an objective evaluation. I’m working with my cover designer at the moment and hope to bring you a preview of the finished result before too long.

The story starts at the point No More Lies finished and will take readers deeper into the lives of Kent and some of those close to him, with some surprising revelations. Alongside the murders, the plot has a strong environmental health thread to it, which includes the restaurateur from hell.

No Mercy will be available on Amazon from Thursday, 16th January 2020, and it should be available for preorder before Christmas.

Friday Feedback – 15th November 2019

Five things I love about editing and revising –

  1. finding better ways to say things. Usually, this means being more succinct,cutting out the dead wood and trimming away the excesses and repetitions
  2. improving the flow. Adding detail here and there to improve the flow and smooth transitions can improve both reading and understanding. My mind often races faster than my fingers and some of the subtleties and nuances can be lost in the rush. This is a chance to put them back
  3. simplifying the plot. I didn’t realise how complex the plot to No Mercy was until I started editing. I love throwing in complications at the ends of chapters as I write, but it’s not until you reach the end that you know what’s necessary and what’s not.
  4. removing repetition. Removing repetition avoids repeating the obvious. I can easily forget what I wrote in the previous chapter, so repetition is inevitable in a first draft. It can be anything from repeating a simple fact to overusing a name.
  5. discovering if the story works. This might seem a strange thing to say, but when you’re writing, you’re discovering all the time. Characters misbehave, I’m delighted to say, but they can cause problems earlier in the story. There are also loose ends that get forgotten, scenes that don’t work and sometimes you can read and not have a clue what you were trying to say first time around.

 

If you haven’t worked it out yet, I’m enjoying the editing. I’m about two-thirds of the way through on the second edit. I plan a third revision, based on a quick read through to ensure there’s nothing obvious I’ve missed. Then it’s off to my professional editor for an independent, objective view. After that, it’s more tidying up than editing.

I’ve also had the first glimpse of the new cover this week, which means I’ll have to write the blurb before too long.

Now that’s something I don’t enjoy.

Friday Feedback – 1st November 2019

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as an author is listening to my inner voice.

This isn’t the little devil on my shoulder, whose sole aim is to cast doubt and undermine confidence. He shouts in my ear from time to time, usually when the writing’s not going as well as I would like. In the past, he used to tell me I’d never write anything worth publishing. He would urge me not to send manuscripts to publishers because they were bound to send rejection letters, which would undermine my confidence. And so on …

These days, the little devil doesn’t get much of a look in. It’s not because I’ve become a great writer or found a magic success formula.

No, he doesn’t get a look in because I prefer to listen to my inner voice. It knows when something is as good as I can make it. It knows when I need to make improvements. It encourages me to keep going until I’ve produced the best I can. That’s why I can spend hours on a paragraph.

editing

This afternoon, I rewrote the ending of a chapter several times, even though it was only a couple of lines of dialogue. The first attempt was fine, but I knew I could do better.

Multiply this up to several chapters, which have challenged me for the past week or so, and you’ll understand why writing a novel can be a struggle at times. But my inner voice is now happy with the results and I’m starting to feel excited as I move onto the final quarter of the novel.

I’ve also settled on the title and strapline.

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

What do you think?

 

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.