Rewrite it Until it No Longer Looks Like Writing

Chapter-1I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like the idea that there are “rules” of writing. There are rules to writing in a certain way, sure, but that’s a very different thing.

In this day and age, there are certain traits that you’ll find in most modern popular fiction. And one of those traits is to write in a way that is almost invisible.

The crime fiction master Elmore Leonard was a perfect example of this. He once said: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” A simple concept, summed up in his perfectly brief style.

That doesn’t mean you have to incorporate the brevity of Leonard if you want to write in a way that resonates with a contemporary audience. Nor should you try. (I always thought that his famous “Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing” essay should have been called “Elmore Leonard’s Rules for Writing Like Elmore Leonard”.)

It’s just that these days, readers often want a frictionless experience. Things need to be effortless to read. If I have to stop and look up a word, you’re taking me out of the story for one moment. You’re increasing the odds that you’ll lose me. I worry that there’s some very talented modern upcoming authors out there who read the “canon” of great literature, and are indoctrinated to write like the old masters. These are the best novels of all time, so you should aspire to write like them. That’s what many new writers believe.

The problem with that train of thought is that the likes of Hardy, Dickens, etc., were all products of their time, just like we are now. There was a “canon” during Dickens’ time that, of course, wouldn’t have included Dickens. He didn’t write great works so people could study them. He wrote what people wanted to read back then, even if they didn’t always realise it. Dickens wasn’t the Shakespeare of his day, he was the James Patterson or David Baldacci of his day. It’s almost a sacrilegious thing to say about him in certain circles these days. But it doesn’t stop it being true.

So if you feel your work is only validated by having the fanciest prose, please feel free to stop clinging onto that notion. Write cleanly and easily. If it’s easy to read for a contemporary audience, then 99% of the time, it’ll travel much further.

The problem that often occurs with long “wordy” moments, is that your reader can end up feeling like they’re wasting their time. They might start even skipping long unnecessary bits, as you drag out events, descriptions or other pieces, for no good reason.

A reader’s mind is a powerful thing. They will fill in the blanks themselves. My last book, Succession of Power, contains only one description of the protagonist, Secret Service Agent Mike Stevens. The morning of the main story’s events, he has a shave before going to work.

That’s it. We don’t know his age. We don’t know if he’s black or white, or green with pink polka-dots. We know nothing about him. But the feelings he has, the words he speaks, and the actions he takes help form a picture in your mind of him; even if your picture is radically different the one formed in the mind of another reader.

Anyway, this is just my observation from doing this for some time. It’s not a rule, but if it feels like one to you, then please, tear it up. Trust your gut. What feels right for your story may very well be right.

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In An Age Where Facts Matter, Keep Writing Fiction

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The biggest new phrases in our lexicon are things like ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. It’s easy to say that old adage “you’re entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts”, but it’s a perspective currently lost in the world of news and politics.

Many say – and understandably – that we need to grasp facts now more than ever before. They matter more than they have ever done. Now is not a time of escapism, of hiding from reality by delving into a fictitious world.

I respectfully disagree.

We need fiction now more than ever. We need stories more than ever. Because they’re often the best way of seeing the real truth.

I still can’t quite figure out why the book I wrote last year – Succession of Power – is selling so well. I’m sorry, that sounds like a very arrogant thing to say. I hope you understand that I’m just genuinely curious as to why a book with easily the lowest-key launch of anything I’ve ever written has done such good “business”.

A friend who read it said that she enjoyed that it features a woman president. Someone who was strong enough to stand up for herself when the forces of darkness rise over her. She said she felt that this was a reference to Hillary Clinton – the president that “should have been” (in her eyes) – taking control when all around is out of control.

I certainly don’t think the character Mary Rosalind is the same as Hillary Clinton. It’s pretty clear that Clinton wanted the presidency for most of her life, and spent all of her time trying to achieve that goal. It’s a perfectly respectable aim, but it was never the goal of Rosalind. Mary was quite happy in the position she was given, just a little frustrated that her brilliant achievements weren’t acknowledged.

But I see what my friend means. A lot of people look at the big political decisions of the past year, and are depressed. I’m personally not depressed about the politics of 2016 (or at least, not any more than any other year), and I don’t think that’s just my natural optimistic comportment. There’s a lot of things to be objectively happy about if you’re lucky enough to live in the West today. Arguably we’ve never had it better. Who cares who resides in the White House? And when it’s someone awful, then let’s take the positives out of that: it means more people are concentrating on the nuances of the Constitution than they’ve done before. That’s actually quite refreshing, if you’re more libertarian-minded. Welcome back to the fold, anti-war, anti-government overreach protestors. Where have you been for the last eight years?

And here’s the funny thing about writing fiction. Though the stories can be larger than life, they only really resonate when they speak a truth. When they tell us something about human nature.

That’s all Succession of Power has tried to do. In the middle of a crisis, a president – and a small band of allies – do all they can to stand strong for the moral principles of a republic, when everyone around is losing their heads. It’s about how not doing something is often more noble and brave than doing something.

But heck, if you’re just looking for a story where there’s a woman president who knows what the hell she’s doing, despite being surrounded by stupid, solipsistic men, then I hope you enjoy the book. And it’s available for less than a few bucks on Amazon right now.

Succession of Power and Very Annoying Coincidences

succession-of-power-on-tableIt’s out. My new book. My first thriller. Succession of Power is out now on amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, and Kindle versions in both America, the United Kingdom, and everywhere else as well. In time, it’ll be available on the iBooks store and for Barnes & Noble’s Nook too.

This story is a labour of love. I haven’t done anything like it before, so it’s been a real journey.

But another story has emerged from writing this book that if you wrote it up as a fiction short, people would consider it unbelievable and preposterous.

So back in 2010/2011, I had the idea for the book. The 1947 Presidential Succession Act details the order of cabinet positions that would take over the presidency in the event of a catastrophe. Under the 25th Amendment, if the president can’t discharge his or her duty any more, (either due to impeachment, a medical issue, getting killed, etc.) the vice-president takes over. If they’re both out of the picture at the same time, it’s the Speaker of the House. If the Speaker is out of the equation, then it’s the President pro tempore of the US Senate. Then it goes down to the cabinet positions, starting with the Secretary of State, all the way down to the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

I thought about this back in 2010/2011. And an idea dawned upon me: when would this act ever really need to be applied? The only time I could think of (call it a lack of imagination), when all these people would be in the same room at the same time, is the night of the president’s State of the Union speech in the House of Representative’s chamber. My idea was, what happens if a bomb went off in that room? Who is left?

The answer, as it happens, is the ‘designated survivor’, that is to say the one (usually quite junior) cabinet secretary that stays behind in the White House, and watches the State of the Union on TV. He or she would have to become the president in the event of an horrific attack on Capitol Hill at that moment.

So that’s the premise of my story: A junior cabinet secretary is flung into the president’s chair after a bomb detonates in Capitol Hill, wiping out the rest of the government. The new president takes on the role during the worst possible moment. She is an unknown, with few allies, and is aided by the one Secret Service Agent who, with a dubious informant, was the only one who saw it coming.

I loved the idea. But I figured that it surely must have been done before. So I didn’t think much more about it.

I don’t write down these ideas. I don’t have a “writer’s notepad” in that sense. I think a notepad that you use to write down ideas as you get them is like a repository for bad ideas. An idea has to earn its merit. It has to stay with me. It has to get under my skin. It was to be an intellectual irritant. Only then do I know I might have something.

And this story kept on at me, like the good stories did. So In August of 2015, I decided to write the rough ideas down. I also scoured the annals of time. Surely there was already a novel that covered this idea? No. A TV show? No. A movie? No.

Incredibly, the brilliant idea I had, that I assumed must have been done before, hadn’t been done before. I couldn’t believe it.

Then something happened with my regular working life. I’m a radio guy. I’ve been a presenter/broadcast journalist/media hack for my whole working life. I switched from broadcasting with the biggest commercial radio broadcaster in Europe, to the biggest broadcaster in the world (by employee-count), the BBC.

I moved house, and got settled in my new job, which I love. Then, at the end of February 2016, I started writing Succession of Power. It was done by August. It was published, and came out on Tuesday September 20th, 2016.

Then, on Wednesday September 21st, 2016, unbeknownst to me, a new TV show went on the air on Disney’s ABC channel in the US, starring Keifer Sutherland, called Designated Survivor. The very next day – Thursday September 22nd, 2016 – it aired around the world on Netflix.

Sutherland plays a junior cabinet secretary, who becomes the president under the Succession of Power laws, after a bomb wipes out the rest of the succession line during the president’s State of the Union speech. And an FBI agent (rather than Secret Service Agent), investigates the bombing, convinced that there’s more to come.

It was my plot. My story. It came out exactly 24 hours after my book did.

You cannot make that up.

I had spent so much time in that August of 2015 looking way back to see if the story had been done, that it didn’t occur to me to see if the story was already in production somewhere. I mean, why on earth would it? What would the odds be?

I was gutted. I just couldn’t believe it. I’m genuinely really proud of this story, but now I think that it’ll just be seen as a rip-off of a (what looks like a really great) TV show.

I can’t quite bring myself to watch the show just yet, but I will. It looks fantastic, and while there’s part of me that hopes it’s awful and dies in the ratings and goes away quickly, there’s another part of me that hopes it’s really successful as that almost kinda vindicates the idea I had in the first place. Doesn’t it? I don’t really know.

There’s some thematic differences. My “emergency president” is a gay women. In a Republican administration. One of the themes in the story is how we can all be very politically correct and socially accepting of things like a female president (the polls say we’re getting one very soon), but how tolerant are we in a time of crisis, when the rubber really hits the road? And I’m sure there’s more twists and turns that make them different. But the log-line of the TV show and my book are pretty much identical.

So it’s been a pretty upsetting few days if I’m honest. I only found out about the show by accident this week. I know, I know. Talk about a ‘first world problem’. I’m probably being very silly. But for now, it really stings.

Either way, if you fancy the idea behind the book, and can drag yourself away from the (probably fantastic TV show) Designated Survivor for a few hours, I hope you’ll take the time to read Succession of Power. I think it’s possibly the best thing I’ve ever written. The paperback version is well priced (just £8.99 in the UK), and the Kindle editions are just a few bucks/a couple of quid.

I really hope you enjoy it. I’ll get out of my grumpy cloud very soon, I promise.

Plus, I’ve got a really awesome idea for a new story I’m going to start working on. After this week’s crazy events probably sooner than later.

I just need to spend some time making sure no one’s done it before. And that there’s not a similar TV show in the pipeline…

Coming Soon: Succession of Power

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Just wanted to give you the heads-up about a brand new book that I’ve written that’ll make its way to a book store (online and brick-based) near you soon.

Succession of Power.

You will be able to buy it for Amazon Kindle, on the iBooks Store and for the Nook, as well as the good ol’ dead tree version. All at pretty competitive prices. I’ll post up more information on that as soon as it’s available.

If you like your thrillers to pack a real punch, then I definitely think you’re going to enjoy Succession of Power.

It’s a political action thriller set in Washington D.C. on the day of the president’s State of the Union speech.

Here’s the blurb:

A bomb detonates inside Capitol Hill during the president‘s State of the Union speech, bringing America to its knees.

Left behind to lead the country under the presidential ‘Succession of Power’ laws is an inexperienced junior cabinet member, aided by the only Secret Service agent who foresaw the horrific act.

Together, they must calm a shaken nation and bring the terrorists to justice before they strike again, while fighting even more sinister forces at the very heart of government.

It’s been a heck of a ride putting this book together, and I really can’t wait for you to read it.

I started writing it during the last week of February this year, and finished it in the last week of August, so it’s been a six-month project, though being swamped at work has stopped me being able to finish it quite a bit sooner.

I had the idea in September last year. I’ve always wondered what it must feel like to be the one member of the president’s cabinet who has to stay behind when the president goes to Capitol Hill to deliver the SOTU. They need someone stay behind in case something terrible happens on the Hill, so that someone in the presidential succession line can take over right away (hence the title).

I really wanted to write a page-turner. It’ll be for you to judge if I’ve succeeded. But one thing that did happen, is the last 45% of the story was written in about the last month. It just came out of me, at 100 miles-an-hour. I was writing it fast, and I hope you read it just as fast. It’s a fun, exciting, pacy high-concept story that hopefully fits in well with the expectations of the genre.

I’ve got a lot of cool stuff in the pipeline, but you’ll excuse me for taking a week or so off before I get back on it again!

I hope this ends up being as fun to read as it was to write. Stay tuned, I’ll have more once it goes live. And of course, it’ll be available on the store here too.