The Hero's Journey

I’ve been a fan of the thriller in all its forms since my Dad took me to see Diamonds are Forever at the local Odeon cinema. I subsequently inhaled the collected works of Ian Fleming, Alistair MacLean, John le Carre and many others as I was growing up. And more often than not, I would see the movies as well as reading the book.

I suspect that this is the reason that I tend to lean on films just as heavily as books when it comes to inspiration for my writing – flick through the reviews on my Amazon pages and you’ll find ‘filmic’ and ‘visual’ more often than ‘literary’. I’m fine with that, and I wanted to make the link even more explicit in this blog by talking about a fantastic tool for screenwriting that I use when plotting my books.

If you haven’t come across it before, then the Hero's Journey is probably the single most useful aid a writer can have when it comes to plot. Whenever I’m stuck, unsure about what might happen, or where the story should go next, I flick through the stages of the Hero's Journey and then go for a walk or do some washing up (my wife is a big fan of writer’s block). I can pretty much guarantee that the plotting problem will have been solved by the time I’m done with the exercise or the chore.

The Hero's Journey stems from the work of the American mythologist, Joseph Campbell whose essential notion was that many of the world’s great stories and myths share important patterns and structures. He pared these down into what he called a ‘monomyth’ and in 1949 published the idea in a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

The elevator pitch for the Hero's Journey is that an ordinary person ventures from ordinary life into a more dangerous world, where many threats and obstacles are overcome before a decisive victory is won. The ordinary person returns home a hero, changed in ways that benefit the society she originally left.

The book was already an influential work when a gentleman by the name of George Lucas used it to inject plot and structure into a sci-fi movie called Star Wars – and from then on the Hero's Journey has never looked back as an inspiration for Hollywood screenwriters.

Its place in the pantheon was probably sealed by Christopher Vogler who, while working for Disney, wrote a seven page memo called ‘A Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces’. It distilled Campbell’s work into a twelve-stage structure. The memo was such hot property that Vogler subsequently turned it into a book – The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers and more recently a website.

If you want to see how deeply the Hero's Journey is embedded in our modern movie culture, then check out this fantastic video in which Vogler explains the ‘monomyth’ with the help of some of the many films that have been inspired by it.

And next time you watch a film - or read a thriller, mystery or action adventure story (especially one of mine) - see how many elements of the Hero's Journey that you can spot. An easy one to start on is the Christopher Nolan reboot, Batman Begins... watch out for that Call to Adventure!

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About Covers and a Small Success...

I’ve got an unhealthy – or maybe it’s perfectly natural, given my career choices – fascination with book cover design. The topic comes up here pretty regularly, usually when I’ve just been working on one for the new book. 

And guess what... designer Stewart Williams has just finished the cover of The Sniper, the new Janac’s Games book that will be out at the end of July.

What do you think?

It had to match the existing covers for The Defector and The Wrecking Crew, so the biggest problem was finding the right images to work with – and that proved tougher than I would have thought. We got there in the end though, after hours on photo stock libraries...

Meanwhile, I thought I’d enter the cover of Powder Burn to Joel Friedlander’s May book cover design competition – at the very least I thought it would interesting to get his feedback, as I’m a fan of his blog. 

If you want to check out the winners for April, and have a look at some cool and some not-so-cool covers, click right here. We'll see how Powder Burn does next month...

The importance of a good cover cannot be underestimated. I was recently part of a promotion run by (it's well-worth signing-up to get their alerts), and it boosted The Defector into the Top 100 on B&N.comMost of those sales decisions are being made based on the cover and blurb – so I’m sticking to the same template for The Sniper. Now I just have to finish it!

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April Review Round-Up

I don’t think I managed quite so much reading this month, what with Powder Burn coming out and starting work on the new Janac’s Games short story - called The Sniper

I’ve just seen that the new B&N publishing system, called Nook Press, allows interaction with Beta readers, so this book might go out on Nook first, and then Amazon. Meanwhile, I did manage to read a couple of thrillers this month, both top notch books from top notch writers...

I picked this one up because it was a group read on Goodreads, and I’m very glad I did. The Harry Bosch books have been a huge hit and it’s easy to see why from this opening tale - Connelly nails his central character from the very beginning.

Harry Bosch is a Vietnam vet, a tunnel fighter, one of the handful of Americans that struggled to battle the North Vietnamese in the dimension that they totally dominated – underground. Harry’s also a nascent media star for breaking a couple of big cases and, thanks to consultancy work on translating those case histories into movies, he’s the owner of a (small) house overlooking the Hollywood studios. It’s a great backstory and Harry never fails to engage and hold the reader’s attention.

The terrific central characterisation of Harry is backed up by a fine portrayal of FBI Agent Wish as Harry’s sidekick/lover/and sometime antagonist. This is combined with a really solid plot -- I didn’t see the twist coming at all, although the hints were there – the central bank ‘caper’ has just the right amount of twists and complexity for a highly entertaining read.

If I had a reservation about the book it would be some pretty clunky dialogue. It’s a nit-picking point, but Connelly hasn’t (rather than ‘has not’) shortened any of the words in the speech. It makes lots of the characters sound pompous and formal. It might have been the way to do it in 1992 when the book was written, but it’s a definite negative now. I also had trouble with some of the minor characterisations, the IAD chief, Irving was a bit of a cliché for instance.

Overall, these are minor quibbles, and I had no problem giving the book four stars.

I’m a huge fan of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, and I think I might have mentioned previously on this blog that they were the inspiration for some aspects of Powder Burn and my new ‘Burn’ series. So I needed no encouragement to pick this one up when it was also chosen as a Goodreads group read. And as usual, I wasn’t disappointed.

Jack Reacher appeals to the angry and vengeful core in all of us – there are no judges or juries in Reacher’s world, just violent retribution dispatched swiftly, without compunction or mercy and, in this case, unusually cold-bloodedly.

The book was written right after the 9/11 tragedy and I think its influence can be seen in the way that in Without Fail it is acceptable for Reacher to assassinate the bad guys. In many of the other Jack Reacher books that I’ve read, Reacher’s own life is at stake from quite early in the story, and so the ruthless killing of the bad guys is softened morally by his need to survive. This is not the case in Without Fail where he could and should have left them to the Secret Service or the FBI – both agencies are intrinsic to the story – but instead goes after them with intent to kill.

Child does a good job of making this aspect as believable as possible, and as the issue only comes up at the very end, it doesn’t spoil what is otherwise a fine story. The rest of the book has the usual impeccable mix of tight plotting, tighter writing and great minor characters, and once again I had no problem awarding four stars.

Powder Burn - Independently Publishing a Novel in 2013

It was back in September 2009 that I self- or independently-published my first novel, The Defector. It had been previously published by Random House in the UK and HarperCollins in Australia and New Zealand. I knew I had a clean manuscript, so it was just a matter of wrestling with the conversion from Word Perfect 5.1 to MS Word. When I’d figured that out, I read the Smashwords Style Guide to format the MS Word document. And then I loaded it onto the Smashwords website. I added a cover that had been designed by a friend and I was done. Ta-daa. Novel, meet world. World, meet novel. I sat back and waited to see what would happen.

Three and a half years later, publishing a novel independently is a rather different process. Some of the differences stem from the fact that the latest novels are new books that have never been published before. Others stem from the fact that the world has moved on. The process of publication for my latest book, Powder Burn went like this...

The book was read and analysed by my favourite structural editor a while back. I don’t know if that’s the correct name for it (or even if there is a correct name) but by structural editor I mean someone who goes through the book looking for weaknesses in the plot, lack of consistency in the characters, bad pacing – all that good story stuff. The structural editor does not care so much about grammar, never mind punctuation, their job is to analyse the structure of the story. I have to be really happy with the book before I get this edit done – I usually, foolishly, believe the book is finished - but they always spot something, often quite a big thing for the final rewrite.

I finished that rewrite over the New Year and as I think I mentioned previously, this was the last of eight drafts. In early January I was able to create some roughly formatted and unedited copies of the final draft. I asked for ‘Beta’ readers on my Facebook page, volunteers to read the book who would give me feedback. And I asked some trusted friends to do the same thing. In all, about twelve people read it over the next few weeks, and they all had at least one important contribution to the finished book.

While that process was going on, I searched for a cover designer. I’ve previously written about using for my covers, and although I’ve been happy with this I had been looking at other options and I really liked the work of Stewart Williams. I thought he was the right guy for the cover I had in mind. I’d noticed the new set of Thomas and Mercer (an Amazon imprint) covers for Ian Fleming’s 007 books, and really liked them. They use a white background and stand out against the almost uniformly dark covers that are currently fashionable. John Locke was doing something vaguely similar and I figured that these are two pretty savvy operators - perhaps white backgrounds and graphics was a bandwagon I should jump on.

Stewart liked those other covers too and was happy to work along those lines. We quickly struck a deal and he started work. It took three or four weeks to get the cover right, and during this time I was working on the changes to the manuscript suggested by my Beta readers. By the beginning of March, I had a cover and I had a story I was happy with – it was time for the manuscript to go to the copy editor. I use a guy in the States, Neal Hock and I had already scheduled the copy edit with him. Neal usually takes a week to ten days to complete the copy edit, and when the manuscript comes back I mostly just had to go through it clicking ‘Accept Changes’.

The final stage is the formatting and as I said, I used to do this myself. I’m still comfortable preparing the manuscript for Smashwords and Kindle Direct Publishing, but I decided to get some help with an ePub edition to load to the new Kobo direct publishing option, Writing Life. I used the same person that had previously done my CreateSpace PDFs, Heather at the CyberWitch Press – unfortunately, she’s closed to new clients, otherwise I’d recommend her, she’s wonderful.

Once I have the final files ready - Heather is working on them as this is published - it’s just a matter of loading them onto Smashwords, Kindle and Kobo and pressing go at the right time. For the Kindle that will be 3rd April. Of course, that’s when the real work begins. Back in 2009 I just sat and waited to see what happened next, this time I’ll be a little more proactive, but I’ll tell you about that next month.

The NFL - America’s Favourite Socialist Sport

It was a phrase that I’d heard in television interviews a few times, but only recently did I hear it for real - Obama’s turning this country socialist. I’m a Brit and (on this occasion at least) I was far too polite to argue with my American friend - hey, it’s not my country... But afterwards, it struck me that what I should have said (don’t you always think of the right response too late?) was that in one very high-profile arena, the USA has been running a socialist system for years. And as far as I’m aware, President Obama has nothing to do with the operation of the NFL, America’s favourite spectator sport.

In Europe, the top professional sport is football (or soccer) and it’s run on ruthless market principles. Television revenue for the top leagues is divided according to performance. And if a club has a bad enough season then relegation looms – the club drops down to a lower league and the money from spectators, television and all the other sports franchise income sources goes south with it.

The following season the relegated club has to compete to try to return to the old league, and do it with less of everything – money, good players and crowds. It’s a punishing regime, and teams can get into a spiral of failure and drop like a stone through successive leagues in successive seasons, some go bankrupt and disappear altogether. Like any rigorous capitalist system failure is brutally punished and success is hugely rewarded.  

In contrast, the NFL rewards failure and punishes success in an effort to keep the teams evenly balanced. All revenue is shared more or less equally whether you have a good, bad or indifferent season. And there is just the one league with a (more or less) fixed set of teams – no relegation. Occasionally new franchises start and old ones fold or move, but most of the time if a team does badly they stay right where they are in the NFL. There is no punishment from the league itself for failure to perform...  in fact, quite the opposite.

During the NFL’s off-season, the latest draft of players coming out of the college system are farmed out to the clubs – and the worse performing teams get the first pick of players. If they pick right, they get the best new players to kick-start the process of improvement. The NFL is run on a system designed to maintain equality, and to give every opportunity for improvement to those performing badly. Now, if that’s not a system run on socialist principles then I don’t know what is...

Of course, the NFL isn’t a country, it’s a sports league competing against other sports leagues - not to mention movies, computer games and even books - for the attention and cash of US citizens. And the competition for that attention is run on a ruthlessly capitalist system. Sports that don’t get enough attention suffer quickly and cruelly. The NFL is the most successful sport in America, so it’s interesting to note that in order to achieve success in a wider capitalist system, the NFL has adopted socialist principles for its internal functioning. I can’t help thinking that there might be other areas where this same approach could be applied. Like education. Or medicine.  

A Thriller Reading Round-Up...

It’s been a busy month. I’m in the final stages of production for my new thriller, Powder Burn, and I’ve been reading quite a bit of non-fiction as research for a new Janac’s Games short story called The Sniper. It’ll be the next book after Powder Burn, and the first of several about Janac’s time in Vietnam. The idea is to track how he made it through the war, and developed contacts in that part of the world to build his drug empire. I thought I’d call them the Origins books to separate them from the main novels.

So, I’ve been reading various accounts of the Vietnam War, and remembering the nature of that horrific conflict. Long before there were suicide bombers in Iraq, there were sappers in Vietnam. I grew up in a world saturated with Second World War stories and movies, and I can still remember reading a newspaper headline announcing that American casualties had reached 50,000 in Vietnam. I was very young and I didn’t even know that there had been a war going on - how could that be possible? Wars were something that happened in the distant past, not now, and certainly not with America involved.

I remember it so vividly for two reasons; firstly it was a massive wake-up call to a child - I was new to this world and I needed to pay attention. I’ve been a huge follower of current affairs ever since. And secondly, as I learned more and more about Vietnam I began to slide from a belief in a black and white world of good and evil to one filled with shades of grey. Michael Herr’s book Dispatches was central to that coming of age. I still live in that world today, as anyone who has read the Janac’s Games books will know. It feels appropriate to be returning to the Vietnam War to tell more of his story.

All of which is a long way of saying that I won’t be reviewing the non-fiction. I had a go at one in the last blog round up, but I think I’d rather stick to reviewing what I know about - thrillers. And last month I read a couple of highly contrasting, but linked, books.

I first became aware of Barry Eisler after the controversy surrounding his decision to turn down a serious amount of money from a traditional publisher, in favour of bringing the books out himself. Subsequently, he accepted a deal with one of Amazon’s publishing imprints, and hasn’t looked back. Meanwhile, I became a fan of his blog; his writing on book marketing, the publishing industry and politics is always engaging, entertaining and usually right on the money.

I’m not sure why it has taken me this long to try one of his thrillers – I think it was the lack of availability as a reasonably priced e-book, something that Eisler is planning to fix. But having finally got to it, I’m happy to report that Eisler deserved every penny of whatever money Amazon threw at him – The Detachment is an excellent book by a man as fascinated with the shades of grey as I am.

Eisler has been writing about the assassin John Rain for a while, and this is the latest of those books. I guess it’s not an ideal place to start as I came into it with none of Rain’s backstory – but it didn’t matter. The book works perfectly well as a stand-alone thriller, while the writer still encouraged me to go back and read the earlier ones by making some adroit references to Rain’s previous adventures.

Barry Eisler’s bio says he worked for the CIA in a covert position, and it shows. Or, at least it shows as far as I – a civilian – can tell. The book has an incredibly authentic feel, that’s the first thing. The second is that it rips along at pace, with a rock solid and all-to believable underlying conspiracy at the centre of the plot. John Rain, the conflicted killer is a terrific central protagonist, and the other characters that make up The Detachment are all well drawn and keep you guessing. My pulse was racing in the final set-piece shoot up – only the denouement of Argo has matched that recently. I hope we see more of Rain, and the other characters in The Detachment, but I will most certainly be reading more Eisler either way – ‘nuff said about this one. Five stars.

Ironically, John Locke also came to my attention as a result of an ebook publishing controversy – he was one of the first really successful independents. He wrote a book called How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5Months! and I have a copy - I know, I know, sucker. I even read it, and I thought there was one interesting marketing idea and I went so far as to try it. It didn’t work. It turns out the book was probably b******s. Allegedly, Locke was successful because he had the cash from his other businesses to pay for 300 book reviews on Amazon, enough to get him off the launch pad.

I didn’t want to like this book, and to start with I didn’t – particularly coming to it off the back of the hyper-real Eisler book. The central character Donnie Creed is an assassin just like John Rain, but that’s where the comparison ends - there is nothing real about him. He has himself tortured to build up his resistance to pain, sleeps in other people’s attics to build up his skills at undetected intrusion, and otherwise lives in a prison cell so he’s used to it when he inevitably goes to jail. Right. Of course he does.

And then, with the help of a Goodreads friend, I got it. It’s not meant to be real or anything like it - this is black comedy, satire. And as such, it’s not bad at all – so long as you can get past the grim violence. The writing is uneven and could use a decent editor and personally, I didn’t find it laugh out loud funny. Nevertheless, Locke has created a very engaging character in Donnie Creed, and his first person narrative voice does keep you turning the pages. I doubt I’ll buy another one, as it’s not really my cup of tea, but I can see why Locke has sold a lot of books. Three stars.

About... Mark Chisnell

I've been thinking that it was about time to update the 'Bio' section on my website, which was a bit rambling and off the point. So I did, and then I thought I should post it as a blog, just in case there's anyone out there who's wondering why I'm doing this...

I grew up in a small town on the east coast of England, a town dominated by the rise of the oil industry and the decline of shipbuilding and fishing. I messed around in boats and read everything written by Alistair MacLean, Ian Fleming and many more like them – but the sea was a non-negotiable part of everyone’s life in that little town, and a future as some sort of marine engineer seemed inevitable.

And then I found a copy of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance in a hill cabin in England’s Lake District. A mix of a hang-over and too much snow restricted any other activity – well, it was New Year – and so I read it over a couple of days.

The cover said it would change the way I thought and felt about the world, and the funny thing was... it did. Pirsig’s exploration of quality and values inspired me to drop my plans for engineering, and take philosophy along with physics at college. I also learned that books work - they’re important and they can change your life. I wanted to write one. I wanted to write lots.

Those were the days before 19-year olds got seven figure advances for Young Adult novels, and I (rather sweetly in retrospect) believed that I needed to know about the world before I could write about it - at least that was my excuse for buying a one-way ticket and, with US$400 in my pocket, climbing on the plane to Los Angeles.

By the time I got home three years later, I’d had a couple of travel stories published in the New Zealand Herald and the South China Morning Post. And I’d hitch-hiked to Mt Everest base-camp in Tibet. In Adidas trainers. It was either my greatest achievement, or the stupidest. A year later a fully-equipped British summit attempt was airlifted out from the same spot - cue icy chills down the spine when I read that news story.

I’d also got involved in the 1987 America’s Cup, a professional sailboat race. Before I knew it, I was being asked to fly around the world to glamorous places - Honolulu, San Francisco, Sardinia and the Caribbean - and being paid to race sailboats. It was an impossibly long way from the life I’d grown up to in that fishing and oil town – and far too good to turn down. The writing would have to wait.

It didn’t have to wait long. I quickly started to write about the sport I was so immersed in, publishing hundreds of thousands of words in books and articles on sailing, and winning a couple of awards along the way. And I started to think about a novel - I had an idea from all those philosophy lectures I had endured, a game of the Prisoner's Dilemma played for life and death. The Defector and then the rest of the Janac’s Games series grew out of that idea.

My goal for that first book and all my novels since was to keep the reader turning the pages, but to leave them with something to think about afterwards.

What will you do...?

The Defector was first published in the UK by Random House (as The Delivery), and got rave reviews in the trade literature. It was followed up by The Wrecking Crew, the second in what would become the Janac’s Games series. Initially, this second book was rejected by London publishers and it seemed that my fiction career was over – but I kept working at it, and a few years later HarperCollins in Australia and New Zealand published them both to coincide with what would be the last big contest in my sailing career, the 2003 America’s Cup in Auckland.

I realised that I had been given a second chance at my life’s dream of writing novels, but that this time I must fully focus on it. It was time to close the door on my sports career – I didn’t have the time or energy for both. What followed was a transitional decade, but I was still lucky enough to get involved in some very cool projects. I went to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia on a beautiful sailing boat. I got to write for some of the world’s leading magazines and newspapers, including Esquire and the Guardian, and I worked in television for a while, commentating and script-writing.

There was also a revolution in publishing going on. The Kindle and other eBook readers transformed the business opportunities for writers, and I was quick to take advantage of them to get control of the way my novels were published. The Janac’s Games books found success in the eBook formats, and were followed up by The Fulcrum Files – historical fiction of which I’m very proud - and then the first of the Burn series, Powder Burn featuring Sam Blackett, my favourite character to date. There will be more, lots more. Just like I hoped all those years ago.

The Next Big Thing

A February first – a blog hop. It’s called The Next Big Thing (as you probably guessed) and if you haven’t come across one before (and I hadn’t) then the idea is straightforward - and not dissimilar to a chain letter.

I was tagged by the wonderful Nina Sankovitch, who’s a friend of one of my oldest university buddies, but also - and more importantly in this context - the reader of hundreds of books that she reviews on her website, Read All Day. Nina’s also a writer and her 2010 book,  Tolstoy and The Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading was published by HarperCollins. It tells the story of her lifetime of reading, and of one magical year when she read a book a day to rediscover how to live after the death of her oldest sister. Read about Nina's next big thing right here. It’s a delight to be tagged by Nina.

So much for the preliminaries, onto The Next Big Thing, which in my case, is the soon-to-be-released (April 3rd) novel, Powder Burn.

What is the working title of your book?
Doh – just gave that away, Powder Burn! It’s the first of a new series of Burn books featuring Sam Blackett, a Vermont backcountry girl and wannabe investigative journalist.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
I’d always wanted to write a book with a kick-ass female hero, and when I saw Kill Bill I realised it was time to get on with it. I started well, but then life intervened - that was about ten years ago.

What genre does your book fall under?
It’s a suspense thriller.

Which actors would you choose to play the hero in a movie rendition?
A kick ass female hero? I guess Angelina Jolie virtually made that role her own for a while, but right now I’d take Jennifer Lawrence.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
If Dragon Tattoo’s Mikael Blomkvist and the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen could have a love-child, she’d probably be a lot like Sam Blackett.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be self-published. I’ve had some great agents in the past, but as something of a control freak, I get along a lot better now that it’s all my fault when it goes belly up. Or not.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
About six months – and then another ten years for the next six drafts.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I guess you can probably tell from the one line synopsis that I’m hoping fans of The Hunger Games and the Millennium Trilogy will like the books – although those books set a very high bar for comparisons.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
I took four sources of inspiration for this book, the movie Kill Bill got me going, so that’s one. I love the way Lee Child’s Jack Reacher moves around the USA and happens into an adventure wherever he lands up. I see the Burn series with Sam Blackett in the same light, she’s travelling, researching and looking for stories, and some of them are going to land her in a world of trouble. Thirdly, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy (Dragon Tattoo etc) had a strength, independence and crusade-for-truth aspect to the investigations of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist that I wanted to capture. And finally, I think the first book in Suzanne Collins trilogy, The Hunger Games is possibly the best genre book I’ve ever read. The writing is so smooth, the action, characterisation, plotting and theme are all just so perfectly realised. I think it’s a model for how good genre books can be, and the one I look up to every day I sit down at the computer.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
The movie rights of an earlier draft of the novel were optioned by Working Title Films - Les Misérables, Love Actually, Billy Elliot etc. – but now they’re available again, if anyone’s interested... 

And now I get the huge pleasure of passing the torch to four of my favourite writers.  Here they are (in alphabetical order) - go check 'em out!

Rachel Abbott has spent the majority of her working life running an interactive media company, designing and building software and websites, mainly for education. Her company was sold in 2000, and although she continued working for another 5 years, she also fulfilled a lifelong ambition of buying a property in Italy, and then found the time to fulfil her second ambition of writing a novel.

The book proved very successful, and by February 2012 it had reached #1 in the Amazon charts (all genres). It remained there for four weeks. It also hit the top spot on the Waterstones ebook charts, and remained there throughout August, September and most of October 2012. Rachel now has a publishing deal in the US and Canada, and the foreign rights in Only the Innocent have been sold in several countries, including France, Germany, Brazil and Russia. An audio version of the book is also in development.

Debbie Bennett has worked in law enforcement for over 25 years, in a variety of different roles (on the front-line and back in the office), which may be why the darker side of life tends to emerge in her writing. In 2005, she was long-listed for the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger Award, which gave her the push to independently-publish the psychological thriller Hamelin’s Child, closely followed by a young adult fantasy novel and a collection of previously-print-published short stories. 

The sequel to Hamelin's Child was published in January 2013. At present Debbie plays with police computers during the day. The rest of the time she’s working on a couple of other novels and several short stories. 

Ruth Harris is a 1,000,000 copy New York Times and Amazon bestselling author and a Romantic Times award winner. Ruth’s highly praised fiction has "been called brilliant," "steamy," "stylishly written," "richly plotted," "first-class entertainment" and "a sure thing" and been translated into 19 languages, sold in 30 countries, and honoured by the Literary Guild and the Book Of The Month Club. In their e-book editions, Ruth's novels have risen to #1 on the Movers And Shakers List and been featured on Ereader News Today, Pixel of Ink and Kindle Nation Daily.

With her husband, Michael, Ruth indulges her wild side and writes bestselling thrillers with vivid characters, international backgrounds and compelling plots. Their thrillers have made numerous appearances in the top 3 of Kindle’s Movers & Shakers list. Publisher’s Weekly called Ruth's and Michael's thrillers "Slick and sexy with all the sure elements of a big seller written by pros who know how to tell a story.”

Scott Nicholson has written 15 thrillers, 60 short stories, four comics series, and six screenplays. He lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, where he tends an organic garden, successfully eludes stalkers, and generally lives the dream. Entering the digital era with a vengeance, Nicholson is releasing original titles and collections while conspiring to release interactive books in the near future, building audio files, video, and collaborative fiction projects. 

Nicholson won the grand prize in the international Writers of the Future contest in 1999. That same year, he was first runner-up for the Darrell Award. He studied Creative Writing at Appalachian State University and UNC-Chapel Hill. He has been an officer of Mystery Writers of America and Horror Writers Association and is a member of International Thriller Writers and inaugural member of the Killer Thriller Band. 

A Couple More Book Reviews

It's winter, it's cold outside all the time, and dark for most of it - what better way to pass an evening than to do some reading? Here's a couple I got through in January...

I was introduced to Jake Needham through the first of his Inspector Samuel Tay books, The Ambassador’s Wife, which I really enjoyed. I thought I should give his Jack Shepherd series a try, and I wasn’t disappointed. This is a character-focused rather than an action-packed thriller, and Jake Needham does grumpy, out-of-sorts-with-the-world characters really well, and comes up with some strong storylines to push them through.

Jack Shepherd is a former big-shot Washington lawyer, now living in Thailand and teaching at a University. Unfortunately, the strength of his US and White House connections see him targeted by the world’s best-known and wealthiest fugitive, and the result sucks Shepherd into a grim and tragic plot that threatens to lose him everything. It’s well-paced and well-written, and as I’ve set a couple of my books in that part of the world, I appreciated seeing someone else doing it. Recommended.

I picked this book up to research the war in Vietnam, as I have a story planned that features a US Marine Corps Sniper from that tragic conflict. I'm not going to pull any punches on the writing - this is not great literature, but that's not its purpose or point. I suspect that it does exactly what it set out to do, which is show the reader the mechanics of a very particular form of warfare - humans hunting humans with long-range weapons. If you want to know how the US Marines went about training and using snipers in Vietnam, then this is your book. If you want psychological insight into the cost of engaging in hunting and killing your fellow man - even while harbouring reservations about the politics of the war - then it's not your book, Ward doesn't really go there. But perhaps that's why he was so successful at this most rarefied of jobs.

Bye Prince Harry, Hello Captain Wales...

Stumbling across Monday night’s BBC 3 documentary on Prince Harry in Afghanistan, my first reaction would have been to surf-onwards to the next channel. Fortunately, the missus had the remote at the time and she stuck around for a look. I was glad she did, because as a die-hard republican this made an incredibly strong case for bringing an end to Britain’s hereditary selection of a head of state.

This was not a great documentary. Richard Bacon was fawning and shallow, and there were many interesting issues raised and then passed over. For instance, should royal family members be allowed to serve in combat zones? On the one hand, training someone to fly/co-pilot a £45M Apache attack helicopter is expensive, and a pointless waste if you don’t let them do it for real when the need is there. On the other, their very presence may make the environment more dangerous to those around them – if identified, Harry would be the highest value target in the conflict. And should we really be allowing one of pop culture’s most famous figures to be an ambassador for killing people, just like it was on a video game?

It was a shame not to see this issue properly discussed and explored, but the programme remained compelling for all that. It was clear that Harry is very good at his job – no one gives that much expensive kit to someone in a war zone if they’re not capable of doing the job. It also seemed that this ability, and the training and work he’s done to achieve it, has given him a sense of worth that he otherwise lacks. Being born into the job of head of state doesn’t mean that the occupant will necessarily value it, or get self-worth from it – contrast this with how he/she might feel about it if they were elected or appointed to that role by the citizenry. Who would you rather have doing the job?

If that wasn’t enough, then after an hour of watching Harry explain just how much he despised the media, and hated the almost total lack of privacy in his life, it was hard not to feel sympathetic. This is a young man whose life has been so distorted by being born into the royal family that the only place he can find a sense of peace is on the frontline of a war zone. Think about that. It’s time to stop doing this to people. It’s cruel and unnecessary. If the Government messed with the lives of the rest of us like this - forcing roles and responsibilities on them - there would have been a revolution a long-time ago. No, there was no doubt in my mind as the credits rolled – it’s time to call time on the royals. Bye, Prince Harry, Hello Captain Wales...

Holiday Reading - Review Round-up...

The holidays are behind us, and I hope you all got as much reading done as I did... In fact, I got rather more done than I expected. For various reasons that are too complicated to go into here, I ended up in a hotel room in Houston on my own for a week...

What? You say it's not too complicated? 

Well, ok... my lovely new wife was so sick that she couldn't come on what was supposed to be a combined business trip and holiday. The holiday was hers and the business trip mine - so while she could and did cancel and claim on the insurance, I couldn't. I had to go - and the result was that we spent our first married New Year thousands of miles apart. So I did a lot of reading and writing, even finishing the final draft of my latest novel Powder Burn - but more on that in the future, this post is about my holiday reading...

Rachel Abbott’s Only the Innocent was one of the big independently-published hits of 2012, and I was intrigued to finally read it. The cover and blurb promise an edgy thriller, and there’s no doubt that all those elements are there – sex, abuse, murder. Nevertheless, the book still has a lot in common with a ‘cozy’ mystery, as the detective work revolves around the drawing room of an old manor house - but no, it wasn’t Colonel Mustard with the knife in the kitchen, the end was much darker than that.

Only the Innocent leaves you with a central moral dilemma – something I’m fond of in my own writing - and this lifts it above the run-of-the mill mystery or thriller. Punish the guilty, or protect the innocent? I can’t tell you which the book goes for without dropping some massive spoilers, so you’ll have to read this one, and I can strongly recommend a four star ride.

I held back a star because the central protagonist’s necessarily meek and frightened character became a little wearying. There’s one fabulous moment where Abbott shows the reader what Laura was like before her marriage – unfortunately, it just made me want to read about that Laura, rather than the one we see in the book. But that aside, it’s a well structured, well-written mystery and well worth your time and money.

Russell Blake is a force-of-nature, I don’t know where he’s holed up, but wherever it is there can’t be a lot of distractions. I think he’s now published 18 books in as many months. The latest includes the Jet series, and he launched the first four of these in the back half of 2012. These are thrillers in the Lee Child / Jack Reacher mould, only more so. They’re short, sharp and straight-forward – don’t expect much sophistication in the plotting; there’s lots of action, very little sitting around and pondering, and about as much navel-gazing as you’d get from Daniel Craig as 007, i.e. an occasional grim look in the mirror.

And while it’s nuts and bolts stuff, Tab A always fits squarely and neatly into Hole A, and it all comes together like the solid piece of craftsmanship that it is, and the writing occasionally elevates to several notches higher. I wouldn’t call it art, but there’s some excellent descriptive stuff in here. I don’t know that I’ll be rushing back to Jet 2 in the short-term, but I’ll get there next time I’m looking for an easy, super-entertaining read.

This is a book I noticed flying high in the Kindle store and with almost 400 reviews averaging close to 5 stars, I thought it was worth a closer look – I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a great read, the tale of an innocent man dispatched to a brutal jail for the rest of his life – Shawshank Redemption territory.

In my view, it’s a match for that movie. It has all the action required of the genre, but pushes home a few hard points about leadership, the nature of punishment, violence and man’s essential self. It’s not necessary to agree with what Herley seems to have to say about these things – it’s more than enough that he gets you thinking about it.

This really was my kind of book, and in a sense it brought together the thought-provoking element of Only the Innocent, with the faster, cleaner, pacier writing style of Jet - and produced a book as good as either one on their own terms, and better than both judged on my own personal scale.

Richard Herley seems to be one of those writers that publishing forgot, and more power to the eBook revolution in bringing his work back to the surface and into the light it so richly deserves. I will be reading more.

Kill Your Darlings

It’s an old saying in writing circles, kill your darlings. The instruction is not to commit filicide – thank goodness, because there are writers out there who would seem prepared to do anything for a bestseller – no, it means cut out the best bits of your writing. 

Whenever you think your prose has hit the most wondrous heights – delete it. The reason that’s usually given for this is that if you love those words so much, then you have lost a sense of objectivity and that’s dangerous. If all that fabulous language isn’t moving the story along efficiently, then it’s got to go whether you love it or not. It can’t just sit there looking pretty. Unless you're Zadie Smith.

The phrase is usually ascribed to William Faulkner and an earlier version - murder your darlings - originated from a lecture at Cambridge University given by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – wholeheartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.’

I recently had cause to murder a real darling in the final rewrite of my new novel Powder Burn. Originally it contained several viewpoint characters, but in this last go-around I’d decided to strip it back to just two. One of the consequences was that my favourite scene in the entire book had to go, because it was written from one of the deleted points of view – oh, the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth...

Anyway, I couldn’t let it die completely, and here it is... but reading it again a couple of weeks after the act, I’m glad I did it. It was written for the book’s original audience of snowboarders and mountain folk. I’m hoping that the final version of Powder Burn will reach a wider audience, and this scene might have driven them away.

The set-up is that a character called Vegas has climbed a mountain in the Himalayas to attempt to be the first person to ride a snowboard back down it. By the time he’s got close to the top and into position for the descent he’s not in good shape, exhausted and with the stirrings of altitude sickness. Will he climb back down, or ride to his destiny? And what will that destiny be?

He knew what he was there to do after the months of planning and preparation. He must climb and ride. And nothing, not even the bowel snake of fear, was going to stop him. This was his last chance, and every cell of his body knew it. He moved over to the edge and started looking for a place to get down into the chute as he ascended those last few yards. He dragged himself upwards until the cornice on top of the main ridge began to tower over him. He couldn’t go any further, and there was no easy step down, at least none that he could see. But it was only a couple of yards and so without really thinking about it he jumped. He landed flat on his back, and sank into the snow.
Given the steepness of the slope he had jumped onto, it now occurred to him that he was lucky that he hadn’t hit a hard crust. Otherwise, he might well have started the first descent of Powder Burn on his ass. He lay there for a long while, the sun giving the illusory impression of warmth, while he struggled again for breath. It would have been easy to fall asleep. Just to slip away, rest his weary body. But eventually, he remembered that he was there for a reason and he sat up. He wrestled to get the pack off his back, but the snowboard was strapped to it and the tail had dug deep into the snow. He couldn’t work out why he couldn’t drag the pack round in front of him. He floundered, digging a deep hole until finally he got his arms out of the straps and rolled clear.
He stared at it for a while, anger subsiding. Then he fiddled with the strap buckle that was holding the board onto the pack, but it wouldn’t set at the angle for quick release. He pulled a mitten off and tried again, then fumbled until he found a way of pushing the strap back through the buckle an inch at a time. After what seemed like an eternity of effort the board was loose. He set the edge into the snow so the board sat perpendicular to the slope and kicked his feet into the bindings. The hard plastic straps were easier to deal with, and he got them ratcheted up tight with relative ease. He was ready. What about the headcam on his helmet? There was a switch. He wasn’t taking his mittens off again. He reached up and fumbled, fingers thick through the cloth and cold. It felt like he got it. Whatever.
He stared down the chute. The walls seemed to be getting closer together, moving in on him like some giant car crusher. His breath rasped in the neoprene face mask. The backpack - he turned and found it lying behind him. The ice axes were still strapped to the outside. He’d forgotten those as well. The quick release buckles chose to work. He stuffed the axes handle-first into the snow and struggled into the backpack straps, then looped the axe leashes around his wrists. He adjusted the goggles, pushed at the face mask. Then there really was nothing else to do. He had to go.
He stood up, and immediately the board started to slide sideways down the mountain under the extra weight. He was pushing a gathering wall of snow in front of him and already gaining speed, reeling at how steeply the slope fell away beneath him. It crossed his mind that he could just cruise down like this. Then he remembered Lens and the camera, and a switch clicked in his brain. He had never stepped back, never bottled a drop or a jump or a run. He flicked his hips and his board pointed straight down the slope.
The acceleration was a familiar sensation, and the trained responses kicked in from thousands of hours of riding. But never before had he dealt with this much gravity, at this altitude. The adrenaline rush flushed through him with the avalanche of raw sensation, of clumsy response. Of nerves and muscles doing whatever they could to keep him upright and pointing down the hill. Somewhere, there was a voice saying - put in a turn and slow it down, this is the limit of control. But the chute walls were a fuzzy black blur and with the tunnel narrowing and quickening and flashing past on either side with terrifying closeness, the fear of blowing the turn and hitting the wall rose like bile and drowned even that shred of conscious decision making. It was all he could do to control and respond to the board, the snow. The froth of fear and reaction pushed the voice of experience under for the last time.
Then he fired out of the bottom of the chute and the run didn’t look so threatening. It was wider and the wall on the left hand side had disappeared. It didn’t matter that riding over the cliff was just as fatal an error as slamming into the rock – he felt the psychological pressure of making the first turn ease. He gently put some pressure onto his toes to push into a turn away from the wall. He was on perfect snow and the board – yabbering and hammering at his legs - responded. Now it flashed through him. He realised what was beyond the edge ahead. He didn’t panic. He just pushed a little too hard instead of rolling into another turn. Even then, it was far from disastrous. The board was hitting the snow with too much angle and too much speed. But it could have just bitten deeper into soft snow, slamming into a huge, thigh-jellying power slide that if controlled, would, if nothing else, have finally slowed him down.
But some confluence of snow type, temperature, humidity, wind, and geography ensured that his board dug only so far into the snow before it hit a layer of ice. The edge started to skid along the top of this harder surface, while the snow above it let go of its frail grip - just as it would in an avalanche. For all the resistance it provided at this critical moment, it might as well have been on roller bearings. He felt nothing more than the sudden rush of acceleration and a moment later, along with a couple of hundred pounds of snow, he flew off the edge of the mountain and out into space. He was falling, spinning in a whirl of powder, unable at first to comprehend what had happened. But he had a long way to go. Time to realise that he was all done. That there was nothing left to hope for, save a miracle landing. And perhaps more realistically - that it wouldn’t hurt. There was a feeble blip of anger at his error, then resignation. No screaming, no histrionics, becalmed in utter helplessness, then nothing.

Treasure Hunt - SHOW ME YOUR NOOK!

In eBook-world the focus is so often on the Kindle, Amazon’s baby and the device that brought eReading to the world. It’s far from alone though, with a rapidly increasing number of choices available even in the UK (my home). There’s now the Kobo, the Apple tablets and – finally - the Nook. 

In celebration (it’s Christmas after all), I’ve got together with a few other authors and, until December 31st, we've got a fun offer so you can win some free ePub books – the format that will load into the Nook (or the Kobo or Apple readers). So...

Show me a picture of you with your NOOK! 
(Keep it clean, people) 

Just post the picture on my Facebook page - and leave a message so I can get back in touch! 

I might not be around much over the holidays (hey, authors need a break too), but I promise once we’re all back to work (probably around 7th January) I’ll be in touch with a coupon code for you to download a shiny new copy of my thriller The Defector from the Smashwords store.

It’s not just me though – head to any of the following authors hang-outs, because they are also playing Show Me Your NOOK!  They will have similar instructions to mine, although the way you get the ebook may vary.  

Fantasy, Humour, Mystery, Nonfiction, Romance, Science Fiction -- who knows what they're offering?  

Here are other authors playing Show Me Your NOOK!

Cat Kimbriel -- Fires of Nuala -- Science Fiction
Jeffrey A. Carver  --- Eternity's End --- Science Fiction
Phyllis Irene Radford -- Guardian of the Balance -- Fantasy 
Brenda Hiatt -- Lord Dearborn's Destiny -- Regency Romance
Phoebe Matthews -- Demonspell -- Contemporary Fantasy
Lorraine Bartlett -- Murder On The Mind -- Mystery
Ruth Harris -- Modern Women -- Chick Lit  
Doranna Durgin -- Barrenlands -- Fantasy
Jennifer Stevenson -- King of Hearts -- Romantic Comedy
Vonda N. McIntyre -- Starfarers, Book One of the Starfarers Quartet -- Science Fiction
Lise McClendon -- All Your Pretty Dreams -- New Adult Fiction -- 

Go get ‘em folks – just... Show us your NOOK!

And have a fabulous holidays -- see you back here in 2013!!

Obligatory disclaimer: All copyrights to the free books are retained by the authors. You may share this post in its entirety.  All pictures must be posted by 11:59 PM, December 31, 2012, CST.  If anyone posts any of these EPUBs to a torrent site, the portal closes and we won't have any more games.  This is a gift to you, not an invitation to set the book free forever.  If you post a picture that would be considered in bad taste, it will be deleted and you won't get a coupon code.  Thank you for keeping things fun!

Zero Day by David Baldacci

I’ve not read any David Baldacci books before, and I only started with this one because it sat at the top  of the UK charts with a bunch of good reviews and a 20p price tag – but I’m glad I picked it out, and I’m giving it four stars. It would be three and a half, but that isn’t possible.

Zero Day is the first in what I’m sure will be a series starring Jack Rea... sorry, not Jack Reacher, John Puller. Spot what Baldacci did there? Many other reviewers have drawn the comparison between Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Baldacci’s Puller, and while there are only seven basic plots in story-telling and some overlap is inevitable, I’d still have to say that Baldacci’s Reacher is unnecessarily close to Child’s Puller. If you see what I mean.

The story begins with John Puller being assigned to investigate the murder of an entire family. Puller is Army CID, and he’s given the job because the father was in Defence Intelligence. The investigation unwinds slowly, and the book really gets going at about three quarters of the way through when we learn the reason for the murder. It was done to cover up multiple wrong-doings, and part of that is a very nasty terrorist attack that Puller must prevent once he’s figured out who the bad guys are.

The book’s writing style is a curious mix of spare with a tendency to being long-winded. The set pieces are economically described – a little bit too economical for my liking, it’s a bit slow in the slow parts, and never really fires up in the action.

This is not gritty realism, this is a CSI-style procedural detective story, with thriller action in the end game – also very much like a Jack Reacher book. So if you’re one of those people for whom Child’s one-a-year output is not enough, then this is right up your street.

Despite my reservations about the comparisons, I enjoyed this one and thought it was just about worth the four stars. It stretched my suspension of disbelief too much to stand any chance of getting the fifth star, and while I was always engaged with the story, it never came close to rising up and sweeping me away.

It was a perfectly good nuts and bolts thriller with, for the most part, tab b very effectively fitted into slot b. If you’re looking for paroxysms of excitement or enlightenment, this isn’t where you’ll find it, but it’s a more than pleasant diversion for a winter evening.

A Tale of Two Sales

Christmas has been rushing up like the light at the end of the tunnel (or more like an on-coming train) for a while now, so this was always going to be a short blog. The festive season focuses the mind of anyone in the book trade like nothing else.

It used to be that Christmas shopping was the key sales period for the whole year. It’s still really important for printed books as they make such great presents. And the village that I live in recently had ‘late-night’ shopping for a couple of evenings to cater to the present-shopping brigade. The local gallery, Sea Sky Art stocks my books, so they asked me to come in and do a ‘signing’.

This really is old school book selling – making a sale by hand, of an individual, signed 'spy thriller' to the person you have just spent five or ten minutes talking to about books, life and the universe. It’s a wonderful experience, and I had a great night. My wife, Tina is a photographer and she came with me to take some pics – there were carol singers, minced pies and mulled wine. It really felt like Christmas had started.

But these days, the peak book-selling period extends a month or three into the New Year. And that’s because so many eReaders and tablets are given as presents. All those new owners look to Amazon, Nook, Kobo and Apple to load up with something to read right after they unwrap their new toy on Christmas Day – and either that or Boxing Day is usually the top sales day for eBooks.

It was with this in mind that I have spent every spare minute over the last couple of months sprucing up my book pages on Amazon and the other websites. New book descriptions, jazzed up formatting, a new cover here, a change of category there... whatever seemed like it might help. I’ve also made The Wrecking Crew, one of my ‘Janac’s Games’ action thrillers available as a free download, the idea being that a good position in the ‘Free’ charts will help people find the others, and so boost sales overall.

I got a big helping hand on that front when the book was featured on the fabulous Ereader News Today on Monday, 11th December. The Wrecking Crew shot up the charts into the Amazon Top 100, and reached #1 on the US Spy Thriller Chart. This could not be more different from hand-selling printed books – in the time it takes to sell one paperback, tens, or even hundreds of eBooks can be downloaded. And I have no idea who those ereaders are, unless they pop back in a week, month or a year and write a review. It’s a very different experience of selling books, but no less thrilling when you see your pride and joy hit the top of a chart.

I don’t know where it’ll be when you’re reading this – hopefully it’ll stay high enough to boost the visibility of all my books right through into the New Year. So if it’s after the great unwrapping, go have a peak at the Spy Thriller Charts in the US, or in the UK, and see how I’m doing... 

In the meantime, I hope you’re not in the middle of a last-minute shopping frenzy, have your turkey wrapped, your presents decorated and your tree ordered. Or... is that... oh, never mind. Happy Christmas and Merry New Year.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

I don't normally review books on the blog, they are usually too short and just get posted at Amazon and Goodreads. But I've thought a little more about Chris Pavone's The Expats, which has been riding high at the top of the thriller charts for weeks now, but I think it's because of the 20p price tag, rather than the writing...

I just don't quite know where to start with The Expats. A great idea, let down a bit by some over-done writing and inconsistent characterisation - but the really dodgy part is the way it's been structured.

There is a relatively straight-forward and entertaining story here about an ex-CIA agent and a major white collar crime, but you wouldn't know it to read the book. The timeline is all over the place, with little or no indication of when many of the scenes are set until very late into them. This is just plain frustrating. It might work if you read it all in one go on a beach, but I didn't. I read a little each evening and I very quickly got tired of trying to keep track, and gave up and went with the flow... skipping a lot just to get to the end to find the resolution.

The other problem is that the book lacks big tense scenes of the kind that a good thriller needs - think Jack Reacher going into battle at the end of a Lee Child book. Chris Pavone seems unable to hit these heights, and I can't help thinking that he's tried to hide this deficiency with the convoluted narrative.

If you do read it, when you get to the end think back through the major events and you'll see that there's a potentially great thriller here, but written in a single timeline from multiple viewpoints - loads of tension could have been extracted by letting the reader know more than the characters, with a lot of excitement to be had watching these people car crash into disaster.

Or not. And boy don't get me started on that ending, what a let-down... but I won't spoil it for you, just in case I haven't put you off!

Plotting After Powder Burn – Part 3

In a blog called Plotting After Powder Burn - Part 1 I talked about the search for a plot for my fifth novel, which would be the second in a series starring American wannabe-journo, Sam Blackett. I’d always had a particular story in mind for this second book, but I was worried that it had similarities to the 'Janac's Games' stories, and I felt I should make a break from those boat-and-action dominated tales.

I finished Part 2 concerned that the second book should be more urban, and more of an investigation than an action thriller. I went off to find out what Lee Child did with Jack Reacher in books one and two, as this series is the model for the Sam Blackett stories. Well, it took a while - and there's been a few blogs floated under the bridge on other topics since then - but I'm finally back to thinking about plotting after Powder Burn.

I can report that Lee Child started the Jack Reacher series with Killing Floor, written in the first person about a counterfeiting fraud set in a small town in Georgia, and mixing action with investigation. He followed that up with Die Trying, which switched to the third person but maintained the mix of action and investigation.

Powder Burn is mostly action with the mystery-element relegated to a relatively minor role - and so I think I definitely need to introduce more of an investigative storyline to the Sam Blackett series in the second book. I've also thought a lot about the milieu for this story and I now feel even more strongly that I should try and find an urban setting for the book, to help me break out of the ghetto of 'sailing author' that I fear I'm in danger of drowning in...

So far so good - now any decent investigation needs a murder, preferably linked to a serious criminal conspiracy. I've been casting around for just such a conspiracy and I think I've found it. There's always been a huge market in counterfeit aircraft parts; they look and feel like the real thing, but are often made much more cheaply from sub-standard materials with low-cost manufacturing techniques. Consequently, they don't have anything like the same life span as the real deal.

This fact might worry you if you fly a lot, but while the safety hazards of this fake parts trade has been well known for a while, there now appears to be a national security risk too - the trade has spread to military aircraft. This is the sort of criminal conspiracy a good thriller needs - a gang plotting to make a fortune from selling fake parts to the USAF for the F-22 Raptor, the planet's most expensive fighter?

Or, maybe it's drone parts - these things are much more controversial (anyone been watching Homeland?) and that might really ramp the story up. It also plays into a theme I've been thinking about for a while: Western military supremacy relies on cheap and effective offensive dominance. It used to be gunboats, and machine guns against spears. These tools provided such a massive military advantage that they enabled the use of force at a minimal cost of lives - vitally important to politicians in a democracy.

The drone strike is the modern version of this, allowing the US to use swift and brutal violence at zero (direct risk) of US casualties. So what if the fake parts conspiracy threatened the drones, and this politically vital means of applying American power in the hot spots of the world? I can feel my story juices already starting to flow...

At the very least this is a good starting point - the next step is to work out how Sam Blackett might stumble into this conspiracy... but perhaps I should end the 'Plotting After Powder Burn' blogs right here, before I spoil the final book for you - or until this story idea crashes and burns in development hell...

The Vividness of a Moral Dilemma

Moral dilemmas strike many poses - the two men battling for the heart and soul of America in last night's US Presidential debate both face a constant moral dilemma, although you don't hear them talk about it much: take the lobbyists funding and pay the piper down the track, or lose the election and let the other (bad) guy in.

This is probably the single greatest moral issue facing American politics, but we're much more likely to hear about the strength or otherwise of some Senator's morals, and his ability to keep his pants on with a pretty intern. There are many causes of this colour blindness, not least the power of the lobbyists money and the public thirst for scandal; but some recent research puts the latter in an interesting light.

It seems that people are more likely to make an emotional rather than a rational response to a moral dilemma, if that dilemma brings a particularly vivid image to mind. If the moral dilemma has the consequences of a bloody death, then the brain will react emotionally - that's just wrong!

Take away the vivid picture, and the brain is more likely to react rationally, and use a cost-benefit analysis to decide the dilemma. NPR's Shankar Vedantam gives the detail of Joshua Greene and Elinor Amit's research, recently published in the journal Psychological Science.

I think we can see how the mental image of the Senator with his pants down is rather more vivid than the dry consequences of lobbyists funding politicians. Or is it? Reframe the lobbying and funding issue around its consequences - big tobacco and dying of lung cancer - and it's possible that a lot more heat could be put into this issue.

It's a lesson that debating politicians can learn - tell a story with a vivid mental picture and you'll get the gut response. If that's not what you want, then tell a dry story about numbers and outcomes, and you'll get the cost-benefit response - unfortunately, dry stories are much more likely to get ignored than blood and thunder dilemmas.

Is this what drives politics to the emotionally-charged culture wars, and allows the real issues to be pushed to one side?

I don't know, I'm not a politician, I'm a thriller writer who specialises in stories with a moral dilemma and a twist - but I do know that from now on they will always bring to mind a vivid image.

The Game of Climate Change

This is the fourth in a series of blogs on how Games Theory can be seen in action in the real world. I've already looked at the banking crisis (It's Only Taken Three Years...), the housing market (Games Theory and the Estate Agent) and even the application of Games Theory ideas to the Olympic road race.

Before I start I'd better give you the low-down with links for Games Theory, which drives the plot of my first novel, The Defector, and in particular a thing called the Prisoner's Dilemma. If you haven't come across it before then I will point you at my own description in the foreword to The Defector, a suspense thriller in which it features as the central plot device. Or you can check out a much more technical take in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry.

If there's a big topic for Games Theory then it's climate change, in which all the notions of cooperation and defection are crystallised. Let's start by agreeing to agree on some premises, since I don't intend this to be a discussion of the science. First off, climate change is happening; secondly, its impact could be mitigated by human intervention, specifically spewing less CO2 into the atmosphere.  

We can apply the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) to our responses to the finger-wagging advice from pressure groups to minimise CO2 emissions. For instance, paying more for solar generated energy rather than burning cheap coal costs the individual money, so formulating this as a PD:

If I cooperate in the fight against climate change by minimising CO2 emissions, then I am individually poorer, but I improve (albeit microscopically) the survival chances of the rest of the human race, and so the group should have a better outcome than if we all defect.

If I defect and opt out of the battle against climate change, then I gain relative to all those people cooperating. By burning cheap coal while other people pay more to switch to solar, then I have more money to protect myself from many of the bad outcomes associated with climate change. I can afford a house on a hill, and sky-high food prices.

The individual's age has a big impact on the way this dilemma formulates, since most people over 40 (ie. those in charge) will be dead before the really bad outcomes hit the planet. They have a realistic hope that enough money will protect them. But for a 15 year old that isn't an option, they're going to be around when the real shit hits the fan, and all the money in the world won't help. And so the young tend to be more in favour of climate change activism than the old.

Things are changing though, and the time will come when it's clear that even the multi-million dollar pensions of middle-aged oil company executives and ex-Prime Ministers won't save them from the hordes of starving refugees roaming the land, armed to the teeth. But by that time, if the scientists are right then it will be way too late to do anything anyway. And evolution's experiment with opposable thumbs and big brains will come to a sad, grisly and untimely end.

In an ideal world I'd have some solution for you, some mechanism for reshaping these choices so that cooperation made sense for the people in charge before it was too late. But it isn't going happen with Games Theory mechanics - science and technology are the only hope. The cost of cooperation needs to drop under the cost of defection. In other words, cheaper solar panels and biofuels. It's back to the scientists, but as they came up with a coal-driven steam-engine rather than a biofuel in the first place, they really should be responsible for getting us out of this mess.

Bike Racing and Cooperation...

I've been writing blogs on how the Prisoner's Dilemma can be seen in action in the banking crisis (It's Only Taken Three Years...) and in the housing market (Games Theory and the Estate Agent) - and yesterday we saw Games Theory ideas in action in the Olympic road race. 

It's Games Theory that drives the plot of my first novel, The Defector, and in particular a thing called the Prisoner's Dilemma (PD). If you haven't come across it before, I will point you at my own description in the foreword to The Defector, a suspense thriller in which it features as the central plot device. Or you can check out a much more technical take in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy (SEP) entry.

If you're going to read on, please get to grips with the Prisoner's Dilemma first!

The peloton is a place where everyone has to decide whether to cooperate or defect. The co-operators take their turn at the front, while the defectors hide in the bunch, freewheeling in the slipstream and hoping to conserve their energy for the sprint at the end.

We can see this in PD terms - all the cooperators give themselves the same chance at winning if they all do even amounts of work at the front. But there's a big benefit to defecting when everyone else cooperates, as the energy conserved would give you a massive advantage in the final sprint.

If it was that simple, it would turn into a slow bike race pretty quickly, as everyone would defect and huddle into the centre like penguins in the Antarctic. What makes it more complex is the fact that you can defect in a different way, by trying for a break-away. If the peloton dawdles then one or more riders have the opportunity to sprint away from the group and build a lead that can't be broken down before the finish.

This is another form of defection. Instead of cooperating and riding together to break the back of the 150+ miles - and then seeing who's the strongest and fastest at the end - let's just see who's strongest by riding hard and trying to break the peloton up the whole way. Until we have a last man standing.

This scenario is made more complex because the riders are working in smaller teams, and those teams have different interests depending on the make-up of their team. The teams with the best sprinters have the biggest interest in the race finishing with everyone in a single bunch. So a race would normally develop with the teams with sprinters cooperating to try to control the peloton and keep them together, taking it in turns at the front of the peloton to haul in any breakaways.

Meanwhile, those teams lacking sprinting power will defect - not take any of the load, and do everything they can to get one of their teammates into a decent breakaway.

What happened yesterday was unusual, in that only one team was interested in the peloton finishing together in a mass-bunch sprint. And that was Team GBR. Everyone in the race knew that Mark Cavendish is the best sprinter in the world, and that he would almost certainly win a bunch sprint to take gold. They all figured that the normal reward for cooperation had evaporated - taking it in turns at the front was pointless, as Cavendish would win the resulting sprint.

And so the normal rules went out the window, they all defected, either tucking into the peloton to conserve energy and see what happened, or constantly trying to engineer a break-away, but... But perhaps this was actually a form of cooperation. The rest of the peloton shared an interest in breaking the normal race strategy - defection became cooperation, and vice versa.

The outcome was pretty inevitable - Cavendish had around him the strongest individual riders in the world. But faced with an entire peloton unwilling to cooperate in engineering a massed bunch sprint at the end, it was too much work. Eventually, one of those breakaways was going to work - and in the end, it did. It was followed by a couple more, and the group splintered until there was only one man in the final breakaway. And that was Alexandr Vinokurov, gold medallist and last man standing.

And that will definitely be it for this blog until September... I'll see you back here in the autumn.