Review: Stay Close by Harlan Coben

1 Jul

cover image

A quick-paced psychological thriller

Megan, a suburban soccer mom, has a secret wild past.  She’s got two kids, a perfect husband and a beautiful house, and a growing sense of dissatisfaction.  Ray was once a talented documentary photographer, now he’s a fake paparazzo taking snaps of spoilt rich kids.  Broome is a detective who just can’t seem to let go of a cold case – the disappearance of a local husband and father seventeen years ago.

Harlan Coben is an international bestselling thriller author.  I’ve read several of his books, and I have to admit I’m a bit of a fan.

This book had me from the first paragraph.  There’s something intimate, yet matter of fact about the way Harlan Coben writes.  This story, predominantly told from the perspectives of Megan, Ray and Broome, pulls you into their world, and takes you along for the ride as they try (in their different ways) to uncover the truth about a secret that’s been hidden for almost twenty years.

You can read the rest of my review over at the awesome Mean Streets Crime Fiction Review blog at:

To Swear (or not to swear)?

23 May

Swear (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Reading an utterly fabulous post over at The Daily Post got me thinking about swearing and, in particular, how my characters do it.

Now I’m on the pro-swearing side, but I must admit, with my first attempt at a novel I steered well clear of swearing.  I didn’t want to upset anyone, after all.  And the story I ended up with was sickly-sweet: with an overload of sugar and not much depth.  And absolutely no swearing.

Of course, I’m not saying swearing is necessary to give characters depth, but since that first attempt at a novel I’ve ignored my inner swearing-sensor and let my characters swear whenever it seems right for them.

And, for me, that’s the key thing: when it’s right for them.

It shouldn’t be forced, or just chucked in like a cheap special effect.  Swearing should be something that shows the character, is true to their way of reacting to the situations they’re in, and the words they choose fit with their use of language.

So as a result some of my characters swear in dialogue, some never swear in dialogue but do think it.  And some don’t swear in any form.

What’s right for your characters:  to swear, or not to swear?


Inspiration: which authors do it for you?

20 May
my books

my books

I’ve always been a reader.  In fact, I can’t remember ever not reading.  As a child I loved anything with ponies in – Silver Snaffles by Primrose Cumming was a particular favourite – and anything with adventure.  I always had at least one Famous Five, Narnia or Secret Seven book on the go.

As I got into my teens, I became addicted to the Bond books (Ian Fleming) and Sherlock Holmes (Arthur Conan Doyle). Of course, whenever I could, I’d also sneak a peak at a Jilly Cooper or two – so wonderfully racy.  But the stories which have always fascinated me have been the ones that are quick-paced, complex, and difficult to solve/predict.

Now, as a writer, I’m inspired by authors who can sweep me up in their story, who keep me up at night (or have me day-dreaming in a day-job meeting) trying to fathom out ‘who done-it’ or, more intriguingly, ‘why done-it’.

And most of all, I’m inspired by those authors who have me thinking: damn, why the hell didn’t I think of that? Or marvelling at the fabulously web-like complexity of their plot.

So, who are these authors?

Well, there’s a range …

For seat-of-your-pants action and intrigue: Jeff Abbott, Lee Child, Dan Brown, Peter James, Michael Cordy, JL Carrell and Michael Crichton.

For beautiful prose and impactful themes: Daphne du Maurier, Rosamund Lupton, Jodie Picoult and Stephen Fry.

For unusual ideas and fascinating exploration: Michael Crichton, SJ Watson, Michael Cordy and Kyle Mills.

For the most amazingly strong POV voice: Jeff Lindsay

But if I had to pick one, the author whose books I can never put down, that get me thinking, and that I return to again and again – it’s Michael Crichton.

I’ve always found the way Crichton takes near-future science and weaves it into the plot of thrillers like Jurassic Park, Timeline, Prey and Next intriguing, interesting, and frankly rather scary.

In thrillers like A Case of Need and Disclosure, he takes the ‘normal’ worlds of Medical and Business and turns the worlds of the characters who inhabit them upside down in a highly believable way.

Then, in stories like A State of Fear he takes current science and shows what could happen if you take opposing sides of the global warming debate and have the characters take it to its farthest, and most dramatic, conclusion.

And that is, I think, why he is my greatest inspiration: whatever the initial idea, the themes of the story, or the unusual setting, he always takes the situation from normal day-to-day all the way to ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’

And it always hooks me, and gets me thinking.

Who inspires you?

This post has been Guest Blogged over at the fabulous Nomad Novelists Writers Group blog

Polishing Up: Dashes, Commas and Colons (oh my!)

19 May
photo of my laptop

photo of my laptop

I seem to be afflicted with RCS – Random Comma Syndrome.

I’ll be typing away, happily transcribing my story, when for no reason at all I’m seized with the overwhelming desire to throw in a comma!

And that’s fine, perhaps, when writing a first draft.  It’s even okay, I guess, to allow a few random blighters to remain in the second draft.  But now, on my fifth (and hopefully final) draft, I really must eliminate all the superfluous commas lurking in my manuscript.

But how?  They’ve survived this long, what makes me think I’ll spot them now?

Well, I’ve decided draft five is a ‘three read draft’.  Basically, this means I’m going to comb through the draft three times, each time hunting out a set of specific misdemeanours.

And that’s right, you’ve guessed it.  My first read through is all about Dashes, Commas and Colons.

Specifically, I’m working on:

  • Hunting down and removing all the random commas (and, of course, adding a comma or two in places that really need them)
  • Editing out the dashes wherever possible.  I have a strange love of those little horizontal lines, and as a result some paragraphs can look mighty strange!
  • Checking that when I’ve used a semi-colon I really do need one.  As with dashes, above.  I seem to have a strange fondness for the semi-colon!

I’ve been working on this read through a couple of weeks now, and have given myself the deadline of 24th May to have it finished.  Then, with draft 5.1 complete, it’ll be on to my next read through.

In draft 5.2 I’ll be focusing on  Dialogue and Thought, but more about that later …

Structural Work: paragraphs in progress

21 Apr
Extensive scaffolding on a building in downtow...

Extensive scaffolding on a building in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m reading J.L. Carrell’s ‘The Shakespeare Secret’ at the moment and am totally in awe.  Every paragraph is like a mini work of art.  They flow perfectly.  Each one has a specific (and eloquent) purpose.

So with this observation in mind, I had a flick through my WIP.

Oh dear.  I could see some major reconstruction was needed for certain paragraphs.

The problem?

Well, the thing is, a paragraph isn’t just a load of random sentences clipped together so they look neat.  It should be like a miniature story in its own right.  Logically ordered.  Making a point.

So having spotted the problem, I had to fix it … I rolled my sleeves up and got on with the job.

Here’s an example:  I changed this:

Patrick hesitated in the doorway of the Biological Science office.  The usually vacant atrium was crammed full with people.  It looked so unnatural, thought Patrick. Watching the semi-drunk scientists swaying out of time to the dance music reminded him of the Sci-Fi Fan Convention disco he’d visited as a teenager.  Only worse.

To this:

God, it’s hot, Patrick thought.  There had to be over a hundred people in here, most of them drunk. It reminded him of the Sci-Fi Convention discos he’d attended in his youth: the smell of alcohol, a sticky carpet underfoot, and the sight of adults swaying out-of-time with the music.   He turned to Leo.  ‘Maybe we should just-’

I think the second version gives a better sense of how Patrick feels and what he’s seeing – first through his physical response, then through his observation linked to memory, then to his attempt to persuade his friend that they go.  Better I think.

Of course, then I had to check the other 332 pages …

De-wooding my Dialogue

15 Apr
Aspen trees near Aspen, Colorado

Aspen trees near Aspen, Colorado (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So here’s the thing.

My plot’s sorted, the pacing seems about right, and the characters all seem fairly ‘real’.  But what about the dialogue?

Well, it’s okay … but.  I’ve recently shared a few scenes with some fellow writers and the combination of reading them out loud, and getting feedback from others, has made me realise I’ve been seeing my dialogue through rose-tinted glasses.

Because now, when I go back and re-read bits of it, I can see there is a woodish air to it. Like it’s standing up straight with its shoulders back, and trying just that little bit too much.

What it needs, I thought, is a quick shot of tequila, or to be told a dirty joke.  Anything to loosen it up a bit!

So in the fourth draft I’ve dusted off my wood-o-metre (used so easily when critiquing the work of others!) and applied it to my own.  And I think it’s working.  There are some of the changes I’ve made:

“It was totally impractical.”

Has become … “It’d never work out.”

“Maybe.  But, given your situation, there’s no time for caution.  If you’re going to go for it, it has to be now.” [I’m desperate to add ‘old chap’ on the end of that one!].

Has been shortened to … “Maybe, but you’re out of time.  Just go for it.”

And (my personal favorite) “It doesn’t feel right.”

Is now … “It’s shit.”

So, what have I learnt?

Well, firstly, real people don’t talk like they’re on a public service broadcast from the fifties (at least not in the setting of my novel).  And, secondly, always read your dialogue out loud, preferably in front of people.  It makes you more conscious of what works and what doesn’t – and is great practice for (hopefully, fingers crossed) those author reading you’ll do in the future.

Editing: are we nearly there yet?

5 Apr

How many drafts make a novel?  One, three, six or more?

Siverstone at the start-finish line

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m on “that tricky fourth draft”.  That’s the one you start (feeling a tad unmotivated) after you thought you’d cracked it, then had another look and realised it wasn’t ready yet.

So what’s this edit about then?  Well mainly two things:

1. De-wooding the dialogue

2. Refining the paragraph structure

It’s important stuff, highly necessary, and not particularly fun.

So I chucked every mental roadblock I could at it.  Instead of using my writing time productively, I’d be checking Facebook, or thinking I was too tired, or frittering my time away on Twitter, or thinking about a new exciting story, and did I mention Facebook? [repeat to fade].

And then, just over a week ago, I realised I’d spent two months revising 100 pages.  Only 100 pages?  Rubbish!  I was only a third through when I should have done well over half.

So I gave myself a stern talking to, turned off the internet when I was editing, and got on with it!

And so far, so good.  I’m three-quarters through and aiming for a sprint finish over the Easter weekend.

So wish me luck … finish line here I come 🙂

Time to Plot

4 Feb

So I’ve got this idea for a story …

… isn’t that how it always starts?

I used to be a ‘pantser’.  You know, one of those writers who writes by the seat of their pants; minimal plotting, exploring as they go. But with my current WIP I knew I couldn’t do that.  The story was just too big, too complex, for me to start writing and find out what happened.

So I became a ‘planner’.  For my WIP I wrote a one line synopsis, a one page synopsis and a synopsis from each of the three main characters’ point of view.  From there I planned the scenes, chapter by chapter, until I had a pretty firm idea of who did what when and with whom.  Then and only then did I actually start to write the thing.

But now, with my WIP at completed third draft stage and sent off to my mentor for critique,  I’m feeling rather bored.  I’m actually missing all my early morning writing sessions.

And I’ve got this fizz of an idea.  A wispy, floaty essence of a story that flits across my mind’s eye when I’m not expecting it.  Plus two main characters – one male, one female – who are becoming noisier and clearer by the day.  And there’s a third character, still cloaked by shadows, who I can’t see properly yet.

So I find myself back at the beginning.  Ready to plot out a new novel with a new set of characters and a new set of dilemmas.

I’m going to make a start today.  One line synopsis here I come …

Just add Ninjas

24 Jan
Spout as the result of a water drop and surfac...

Image via Wikipedia

A while back, me and a few online writing buddies were chatting on The Word Cloud (free writers online forum at xxx) about how to increase tension in a scene and make it more dramatic.

A can’t remember the majority of our ideas, but one guys suggestion continues to stick in my mind:  If you’ve got a boring scene, he said, just add some ninjas!

We laughed (LOL-ed).  Then asked, okay, but seriously, how?

Well, recently I stumbled across the fabulous blog.  Entertaining and enlightening (with a good splattering of colourful language) this site is a fantastic writers resource.  One posts in particular leapt out at me:

That’s right – 25 ways to increase suspense and tension in your story.  I recognise a whole bunch of these in my current WIP, but the ones that leap out are Number 5 (Bear under the Table), Number 9 (Save the Date) and Number 14 (Personal Suspense above Global Suspense).

When I’m thinking about adding friction in a scene I often return to this blog for a quick mind-jolt.

And there’s not a ninja in sight!


American Horror Story: a lesson

22 Jan
House used in "American Horror Story"

Image by Loren Javier via Flickr

The other night I watched the first part of the American Horror Story Halloween special.  The episode stars Zachary Quinto as one of the ‘Murder House’s’ previous owners.

In the opening scene Quinto’s character “Chad” is arguing with his partner “Patrick” (played by Teddy Sears).  It’s brilliantly scripted and artfully acted.  And watching it got me to ponder how we, as novelists, can convey the depth of emotion.

I’m the kind of writer who ‘watches’ the scene unfolding in their mind’s eye as they write.  In my mind, my characters are masters of subtle gestures and slight overemphasis on words.  But getting that across on paper often seems clumsy – after all, too much deep breathing, eye rolling and sighing makes my character seem farcical.  It takes several edits before I’ve got the prose cleaned up enough to convey the imagery I’m after – the twitch of an eyebrow, the trembling of a lower lip, the downward glance.  And even then, I’m not entirely satisfied.

I guess that’s why I love to convey my PoV character’s inner thoughts along with the dialogue – especially if what they’re thinking isn’t what they’re saying or doing.  My characters can be screaming inside, but calmly pouring a cup of tea on the outside.  And, unless using voice over (as used to brilliant effect in the fantastic TV show DEXTER) it’s the added bonus novel-writing has over screenplay.

But, whatever media I’m writing for, watching great actors at work in TV series and film is a wonderfully rich learning experience and inspiration.