Friday, 4 August 2017

A simple guide to plot - and other bits and pieces . . .

Unless you are writing Experimental Fiction, almost all stories require a plot. A plot is simply the sequence of events that make up the story.

There are usually three stages to a story: the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Simply put:

This can be anything from a chapter to a third or so of the book, and introduces the reader to the main characters and the central defining conflict(s) of the book.
The last phase of the book where the central defining conflict rises to a climax, and is resolved in some way. Usually shorter than the beginning section. A good old adage is to finish quickly. Once the story has reached its climax and the consequences are apparent, don’t hang about.
The sequence of events that takes the main character(s) from the beginning section of the book to the ending section of the book. It’s no more complicated than that.

There are two distinct approaches to writing a book. The first is to plan the book beforehand, to varying degrees. This might involve filling out character sheets, conducting character interviews, writing up a detailed chapter by chapter plan, etc.

The other approach is colloquially termed ‘winging it’. This is where you simply drop your main character with the central defining conflict into the world they inhabit, and let them take you through the story. This method requires you to have a firm working knowledge of both your main character and the world they inhabit. It also requires you to trust your own writing ability, and where it might take you. Plot is still an important ingredient. But in this method, the plot reveals itself as your character moves through the story rather than your character dancing to the tune of a plot you have already devised.

Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. A writer who writes to a pre-drawn up plan perhaps has a better chance of completing a book, but may sacrifice the crackle and freedom that a writer who merely lets the words flow out, one following another. Whereas a winger might have a dozen manuscripts, all half written, not a one amounting to a completed article. But the one they do eventually finish, might be very special indeed.

Most writers gravitate towards one or the other approach. This decision can often echo not only the sort of writer you are, but the sort of person you are. If you lean more towards the cautious end of life, wanting to know what is coming next in a world full of unpredictability, if you are fans of contingency plans, pensions, weather forecasts, and the like, then planning a book might make the most sense to you. If, however, you tend to live life as it unravels, happy to skip along the edge of freedom’s roar, eyes closed, knowing that whatever comes, you’ll embrace it with everything you’ve got, no matter the cost, then winging it might be your thing.

Planning it or winging it? Doesn’t really matter. Do whatever feels right for you.

Knowing your main character
Whether you are planning your book or winging it, you need to have a very firm grasp of who your main character is.
In my work as a counsellor, I ask these three things of my clients:
i)            Who are you?
ii)          What do you want?
iii)        What are you doing to stop yourself from getting it?

These questions are just as important in getting to know your main character(s). In literary terms, however, the questions need to be slightly adjusted:
i)            Who is your main character?
ii)          What does your main character want/what is their goal?
iii)        What is stopping your main character from achieving their goal?

These questions also concern you, the writer. It is impossible to separate yourself, who you are, from what you write. Who you are, what you want, what you are doing in your life to stop yourself from getting what you want, not only define your own personal conflicts, but somewhere, stripped down to the bone, the characters in your books will be struggling with just the same issues.

The Central Defining Issue
Each story/book/plot usually presents a central defining issue (internal) or goal (external) for the main character(s) to grapple with. How this issue originated, perhaps, or how it presents itself, what they do in terms of grappling with it, and how this all turns out, that is basically your beginning, middle, and end.

So what is your story about? I mean, really about. Strip it down to its barest bones story down to the bare bones. If you can say what your story is about in less than fifty words you are going a long way to defining your central defining issue. Once you recognise your own conflicts in those of your characters, then you are really able to grasp what it is you are writing about, you will be writing from the inside-out, from a place of knowledge and pain, a place of deep knowing. This is a place your readers will know from their own lives – that is why they have picked up your book. That is why it behoves you, whatever your story is about, to make it feel real

If your story feels real you, it will feel real to the reader – and that is where the magic of emotional engagement with a complete stranger occurs.

From short story to novel: increasing the wordcount
Writing short stories is a fantastic discipline for experiencing what it is to complete a piece of fiction from beginning to middle to end, replete with characters and conflict and resolution. 

Whether it be a novel you are writing, or a novella, a short story, or piece of flash fiction, they are all are pretty much the same, only differing by degree. The major part of that difference is, of course, word count.

So how do you get from a fifteen hundred word short story to an eighty thousand word novel? A short story requires a tightly written narrative, often not having the room to explore character, conflict and plot in as much detail as you may wish. The longer length of a novel allows you to stretch out, take your time, explore all those hidden motivations, those little foibles of character. Subplots also come into play. Subplots are those side stories driven by characters other than the main character. The thing with subplots is they MUST somehow connect or echo the central defining question of the main character. If there is no connection, the question to be asked is, what are they doing in this particular book? Stick them in another one J.

As the plot unfolds, keep an eye on, and vary, the tension level. Take the reader on a real journey. Ratchet it up, slow it down, then ratchet it up again. And make sure, as the end phase unfolds, ratchet it right up through the roof.

In order to have tension, something needs to be at stake. What are the consequences of the main character not attaining their goal? Make sure it is a consequence that really matters. If it matters to the main character, it will matter to the reader. Doesn’t have to be life or death, but make it something important. So when you ratchet up the tension/stakes towards the end, the reader will be hurtling through the final part of the book, hoping with all he or she is worth that the main character will make it all right.

One way to ratchet up the tension is regarding the nature and importance of the obstacles in the way of the main character’s goal. Have the obstacles increase in size and insurmountability, the character overcoming them all – or not, right until they are faced with the point where all hope is lost. This when your final phase begins, and you take the book into the depths and up out again into the stars, taking your gasping for breath reader along for the ride. 

Obstacles confronted and surmounted, then confronted with again, each time getting bigger and more desperate, also helps a great deal in expanding the word-count. If you find yourself a few thousand words short, throw in another obstacle for the main character(s) to overcome. But don’t make it too blatant.

We will get onto this in greater detail in another lesson. But, basically, ‘showing’ is when you write a scene as it is unfolding whereas ‘telling’ is when you are telling about a scene that has already happened. ‘Telling’ normally requires fewer words than ‘showing’. Have a look at your manuscript. Are there any scenes you have written as ‘telling’ that you could ‘show’. For example, something like ‘They argued for hours’ has four words in it. 

‘Showing’ the argument as it unfolds could last an entire chapter. But balance is the key. You do not need to show the entire four hours. The highlights would suffice J

In terms of a first draft, the only goal is to reach the end. This ‘end’ could be twenty thousand words, or it could be a hundred and twenty thousand words. 

Often, you will not know the entire plot of your book until the third or fourth draft. Even if you are a planner not a winger, do not hold too tight to your plan. Allow the plot to evolve. Allow your characters to speak. Give them air. Let them breathe.

And have fun.

That is what first drafts are for J

See you on the other side.

All the best,

Ian J

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Escape from Hell, by Shervin Jamali - a review

The Blurb
In the sequel to "The Devil's Lieutenant," Michael rides again. He may have discovered a loophole that will allow him to break his allegiance to Satan and finally be reunited with his family. But at what cost? He begins yet another nightmarish journey, perhaps even more heart-breaking than his last, as he seeks redemption and a chance to hold his wife and his son in his arms once again.

Warning: This book contains graphic violence and profanity.

The Review
After reading the first instalment of Shervin Jamali's account of Michael's descent into Hell - The Devil's Lieutenant (review here ), I couldn't wait to get stuck into the sequel. Escape from Hell is written in the same gritty first person narrative of its predecessor, as we enter the head and heart and nightmarish existence of Michael, now resident in Hell doing Satan's bidding. Michael's sole raison d'etre is to one day be reunited with his wife and child in Heaven. Whilst wandering the bowels of Hell as his master sleeps, Michael stumbles upon Raphael, a long term denzien of Hell. From Raphael, Michael learns of a way of escaping his prison, but like everything Michael endures, it is never straightforward.

What raises this series above others of a similar type are the moral ambiguities Michael has to face. There is an old psychology experiment to assess a child's development. Simplified, it goes thus: The assessor offers a child a choice of one doughnut now, or to wait a specified length of time and receive two. To receive two doughnuts, the child has to endure a time without any, with only the promise of satisfaction at the end of it. But, endure he must, if he wants the greater reward.The developmental level of the child dictates the result. Michael faces similar quandries. His sole aim is to find a way to enter Heaven and reunite with his son and his wife. He could give up and resign himself to his fate, or he could do Satan's horrific bidding on the promise he will one day see his loved ones again. But that bidding, the suffering Michael has to impart along the way, mostly to deserving cases, but sometimes not, are agonising to read.

Michael is a broken man. But Michael is a good man. And you can never underestimate the bad a good man will do to achieve justifiable ends.

Escape from Hell is available from Amazon UK  here and from Amazon US here


Sunday, 12 February 2017

Sketches by Boz, by Charles Dickens - a review

The Blurb
 Sketches by Boz is a collection of short pieces published by Charles Dickens in 1836. Dickens' career as a writer of fiction truly began with this collection in 1833, when he started writing humorous sketches for The Morning Chronicle, using the pen-name "Boz". The sketch "Mr. Minns and his Cousin" (originally titled "A Dinner at Poplar Walk") was the first piece of fiction that Dickens ever had published.

The Review
Although not a novel, more a collection of short pieces - as the blurb says - Sketches by Boz - does have a certain continuous narrative. The first section contains a collection of vignettes entitled Our Parish, and describes certain personages inhabiting the parishes of the London of the late Georgian/ early Victorian period. The second part is entitled Scenes and concentrates more on individual scenes, for instance, The Streets - morning, The Streets - night, The River, etc. Part Three is entitled, Characters, and begin to read more like short stories, combining the focus of Part One and Part Two. Part Four - taking up a good half of the book - breaks out entirley into short stories, entitled as it is, Tales.

Dickens was famed as a the sharpest of the political commentators of the time, and his cutting wit is displayed on every line of the book - with many laugh out loud moments. Dickens perenial themes of poverty, social inequality, and the plight of children are present throughout. The writing, of course, is not just insightful and playful, but utterly beautiful.  

The vignettes and tales present scenes and characters in misunderstandings, clashes of class situations and expectations of the male of the species being unflatteringly, and quite rightly, rebutted. All is, more or less, light and fluffy. Until we get to the very final tale in the book, entitled The Drunkard's Death. This story is by far the most powerful piece of writing I have ever read. The tale tells the demise of an unnamed man due to his dependence on alcohol, his children, his wife, his life itself, all falling victim to his addiction. Here is an extract:

'At last, one bitter night, he sank down on a door-step faint and ill. The premature decay of vice and profligacy had worn him to the bone. His cheeks were hollow and livid; his eyes were sunken, and their sight was dim. His legs trembled beneath his weight, and a cold shiver ran through every limb.

And now the long-forgotten scenes of a misspent life crowded thick and fast upon him. He thought of the time when he had a home - a happy, cheerful home - and of those who peopled it, and flocked about him then, until the forms of his elder children seemed to rise from the grave, and stand about him - so plain, so clear, and so distinct they were he could touch and feel them. Looks that he had long forgotten were fixed upon him once more; voices long since hushed in death sounded in his ears like the music of village bells. But it was only for an instant. The rain beat heavily upon him; and cold and hunger were gnawing at his heart again.'

Just so bleak. Of course, the story reaches its inevitable conclusion. And Dickens does not reach for sentiment, even at the last . . .

'A week afterwards the body was washed ashore, some miles down the river, a swollen and disfigured mess. Unrecognised and unpitied. It was borne to the grave; and there it has long since mouldered away.'

Harsh and beautiful, insightful and hilarious. Sketches by Boz is a wonderful collection of Dickens writing. And, as the world knows, just the very beginning . . .

Sketches by Boz is available from Amazon UK here and Amazon US here 

Monday, 6 February 2017

Death Games, by Chris Simms - a review

The Blurb
 Manchester: an injured survivor from a motorway pile-up flees the scene, leaving behind evidence that a terror attack is being planned…

Jon Spicer, newly trained as a Specialist Firearms Officer, has joined Manchester police’s Counter Terrorism Unit. Thrown out of his previous department and demoted to Detective Constable, he is being kept in the force only because he’ll take on the most dangerous of jobs.

Iona Khan is struggling to find respect and recognition in the male-dominated Counter Terrorism Unit. Her mind might be sharp, but many of her colleagues value physical strength above anything else.

As the investigation quickly snowballs, Spicer and Khan are thrown together. The two officers must learn to trust each other – and fast. Because in this chase, any wrong move could be your last.

The Review
Death Games is Book 8 in the Jon Spicer series, which makes its freshness all the more impressive. The novel starts with a bang - literally - a motorway pile-up just outside Manchester - and the pace doesn't let up for a single second. Simms eye for detail is astounding. The level of detail in the book is of such a high level, I was convinced he must have served in Northern Ireland at one point, had surely been employed as a member of the Counter Terrorism Unit at another stage in his career, and most likely had spent many years in North Wales due to his intimate knowledge of the geography. But no. Reading up about Chris Simms, it seems none of these are true. This book shows what a writer can do with diligent research, intelligently implemented.

As one must expect from a character leading the line in his eighth outing, Spicer is very well drawn. I love his humanity, and the enigmatic way in which Simms alludes to his history. In fact every character in this book is as solid as can be, and every character has a role to play. The sign of a writer in full control of his craft.

The writing itself fits the genre superbly. It is muscular, and has real energy. The interactions between the characters are fully realised within a plot that is tight and realistic.

Chris Simms is a writer of genuine pedigree. In 2007, he was selected as a Waterstones Author for the Future’ and his novel Savage Moon was shortlisted for the 2009 Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award. Simms has also been described as "one of the best of the new generation" by The Guardian.

In Death Games, Simms has penned a hugely enjoyable, contemporary thriller that I cannot recommend highly enough.

Death Games is available from Amazon UK here and from Amazon US here 

 Chris Simms was born in 1969 and grew up in rural Sussex. After graduating from Newcastle University, he worked in a variety of jobs before landing his first publishing contract with Random House for OUTSIDE THE WHITE LINES. This was followed by another dark psychological thriller, PECKING ORDER. Chris then moved to Orion where he commenced the DI Jon Spicer series with KILLING THE BEASTS. This was followed by SHIFTING SKIN, SAVAGE MOON and then HELL'S FIRE. In 2007 Chris was selected by Waterstone’s as one of their, "25 Authors for the Future"; one of twenty five writers tipped by publishers, editors and agents, "to produce the most impressive body of work over the next quarter century".

For all things Chris Simms, pop over to the official website at

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Lad, by Andrew Webber - a review

 Danny Small loves life just the way it is...

It's a cheeky Nando's. It's a big sesh down the gym. It's double shots of Sambuca. It's a scrap at closing time. It's a few Stellas before kick off. It's larging it in Marbella. It's not being tied down. It's working hard and playing harder. It's a relentless cycle of booze, birds and banter. It's the lad's life.

...but when everyone else is growing up and moving on, life in the fast lane gets pretty lonely.

Danny's mates are settling down. Girls are demanding commitment. His boss is onto his schemes. Even his mum's on his case. Does the banter finally have to stop, or does a real lad just crank it up a notch?

I read and reviewed Andrew Webber's novella - Today - earlier last year, so to speak. When I heard he'd released  - Lad - his debut novel, I knew it was going to be good. And I wasn't wrong.

Danny Small is a real Jack-the-Lad of a character. Estate agent by day, self-obsessed, self-preening Lothario every other minute he is a awake. He treats women as sex objects to fill his diary, women who, according to Danny, should be grateful for the opportunity. Danny is the definition of hedonism, liking nothing better than going to the gym, getting smashed with the lads, and trawling the night clubs for another notch on his huge bedpost . . .

I tell my writing students if they want to tackle the writing of a novel in the first person narrative, the narrator needs to be strong enough to, literally, carry the entire novel. It needs to feel as if the narrator is sitting in front of you, telling you his tale. Webber achieves this wonderfully well. It is an even greater achievement, considering how odious Danny can be at times. This, make no mistake, is fine, fine writing.

As the novel unfolds, we begin to get a different sense of Danny. We get the feeling there is more to him that meets the eye. There is a sense Danny has a story, that he wasn't always this way. We gain a deeper understanding of Danny, we realise his behaviour is merely a symptom of a deeper loss.

Do we exonerate Danny? It's a challenge, I must admit. But when even Danny realises enough is enough, it becomes easier.

But can one such as Danny ever really change?

Lad is a first rate novel, told by a writer in full command of his craft. I can't wait to see what Webber comes up with next . . . 

Lad is available on Kindle from Amazon UK here and in paperback here

Also available on Kindle from Amazon US here and in paperback here

You can find my review of Webber's Today here

Friday, 6 January 2017

The Devil's Lieutenant, by Shervin Jamil - a review

In the blink of an eye, Michael loses his family. As his life spirals out of control with grief, he is presented with the possibility that their souls might be trapped in Hell.

Thus begins an unimaginable and nightmarish journey to rescue his family from the depths of Hell, with the Devil as the puppet master pulling his strings.

The Devil's Lieutenant is the debut novella from writer, Shervin Jamali. And, blimey, it packs a punch. Here is a sense of what I mean - from the very opening page:

     I walk into the apartment with my standard greeting.

    'Daddy's home.'

    The scene that greets me would forever be etched into my brain: my five year old son, dead on the floor, laying in a pool of blood; my wife kneeling beside him with a gun in her hands, still smoking, my gun, the one I keep in the bedroom safe.

    'What have you done?'

    She looks up at me, tears streaming down her cheeks. I draw my gun from my holster, and aim for her head, just as she lifts the one she is holding to her mouth. I fire, but so does she, and her bullet accomplishes what mine was intended for. She falls backwards, as my shot blasts through her throat senselessly. I rush to my son, pick him up in my arms, crushing him against my chest, sobbing uncontrollably.

    That was five years ago. I used to be a cop.

Bang. And on it goes. Relentless. But just as you think this is going to be just another one of those noir descents into self-destruction, it all goes supernatural - in a fantasically brilliant way. The Devil turns up. And the Devil wants something from Michael. Oh, Michael will get something in return, so the Devil says, but, you know, this is the Devil talking, offering you something, the only thing, you want. Michael signs up, and bang, bang, bang . . . the pages turn and the Devil gets his way.

As a writer, Jamali puts me in mind of the brilliant Josh Stallings and his incredible Moses McGuire trilogy in terms of writing with such courage, such brutality, yet such humanity. Yes, this book is violent, and Michael does some violent things, but this is a man that has seen everyone he loves die before him. When the ending comes, the twist that turns the dagger in your gut, you will be floored. As I was.

The Devil's Lieutenant is available from Amazon UK on Kindle here and in paperback here 
Amazon US has the Kindle version here and the paperback edition here

Friday, 30 December 2016

The Gaia Effect, by Claire Buss - a review

The Blurb
In City 42 Corporation look after you from cradle to grave. They protect you from the radiation outside the wall. They control the food, the water, the technology and most important of all, the continuation of the human race. Kira and Jed Jenkins were lucky enough to win Collection but when their friends start falling pregnant naturally, everything changes. How long has Corporation been lying to them? Is it really toxic outside the wall? As the group comes to terms with the changes in their lives they discover there is a much more powerful and ancient force at work, trying to bridge the gap between man and nature.

The Review
The Gaia Effect is not my normal kind of reading, but a thoroughly enjoyable read, nonetheless. Set in a dystopian future where the surviving population live in domed cities protecting them from the radiation outside, a company called Corporation exists to provide the people with everything they desire. Arguably the most important contribution from Corporation is providing a population made sterile by the radiation in the water with lab-grown babies (Corporation provides the people with clean water too). The creativity Buss shows in this regard is brilliant, and terrifying at the same time - a sort of modern day Brave New World. 

Now, no business likes competition. Corporation are no different. So, when three friends all become pregnant by natural means, they are in immediate danger. When the friends begin to speak together of their fears and wonder how this natural conception occurred when everyone is supposed to be sterile, they discover all of them have recently seen a vision of a shimmering blue lady. Once the identity of this blue lady is confirmed, it becomes clear something is happening far more profound than any of them realise.

The Gaia Effect is Buss’ first novel, and speaks of the ancient and the modern, what it is to be dependent upon an overarching, largely anonymous, overseer, and, most of all, what it is to be a woman. The novel chimes with many modern day concerns, and is, I believe, a fascinating debut from an author to look out for in the years to come.

The Gaia Effect is available from Amazon UK on Kindle here and in paperback here, and from Amazon US on Kindle here

Claire Buss is a science fiction/fantasy writer currently based in Barking, Essex. She wanted to be Lois Lane when she grew up but work experience at her local paper was eye-opening. Instead Claire went on to work in a variety of admin roles for over a decade but never felt quite at home. An avid reader, baker and Pinterest addict Claire won second place in the Barking and Dagenham Pen to Print writing competition in 2015 with The Gaia Effect and set her writing career in motion.