Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti

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Halloween is perhaps a fitting opportunity to take a look at a certain type of character who often finds a home within psychological suspense fiction; the sociopath…

* * * * *

When we hear the word psychopath we tend to think of infamous mass murderers, names like Ted Bundy, Dennis Nilsen and Fred West evoking memories of some of the most horrific crimes of the last few decades. Fiction has many compelling psychopaths – Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs of course, Misery’s Annie Wilkes and American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman; and there’s Max Cady, Robert De Niro’s terrifying vengeful psychopath in the film Cape Fear.

Yet most people who score solidly within the Hare Psychopathy Checklist aren’t killers, and the word we associate with the less murderous on this spectrum today is… sociopath.

You won’t find most sociopaths stashing bodies under the floorboards or consuming a victim’s liver with fava beans and a nice chianti.  They’re part of the community.  They are your boss or your next-door neighbour, or the guy who smiles at you at the bus stop. 

They’re sharp-witted and can be fiercely intelligent; they hold down jobs, often with considerable power and influence; they enter relationships, they marry and have children; at work, you might call them shrewd or ruthless, single-minded or controlling; in social situations they’re the life-and-soul.

For most people encountering such a person, the word sociopath doesn’t immediately spring to mind. If you label them at all, you might say they were a con-artist, cheat or bastard.

But words like this sell these destructive individuals short.

Motivated only by their own needs and drives and without conscience or empathy, sociopaths have the capacity to wreak havoc.  They are narcissistic, manipulative and deceitful, shallow and self-serving. They’ll tell you what you need to hear, to get what they want. And when they’re done, they’ll depart without a backward glance, leaving any amount of disruption in their wake.

Most people can’t understand the way a sociopath thinks. Most people are able to empathise with others, share their pain or distress and offer comfort because they care about how others feel. Most people will think through the possible outcomes of their actions and avoid doing things which cause harm to others. Most people have values, standards and morals, and appreciate how these underpin society.

Most people strive to be good, kind, understanding and loving; but not the sociopath.  To the sociopath, these traits are weaknesses to be exploited.

Speaking as a writer, I think sociopaths are fascinating. They’re terrific antagonists, shocking in their ability conceal their true nature, hiding in plain sight, and capable of the sort of behaviours that are beyond normal people. They give the writer so much that is unsettling and potentially catastrophic to play with.

I was in thrall to a sociopath for just a few months, very many years ago. Now it turns out there is much about the psychology of the sociopath which is finding its way into my writing; like character traits, and wiles and ways with which I became too intimately acquainted.

They say ‘write what you know’, don’t they? And that’s interesting, because I think what I went through way back then, might be helping me to write better bastards today.

And that’s an unexpected payback, for sure.

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Birth of a Book: Week 2 #amwriting

acorns-57305_1280To plan, or not to plan, this is the question

I’m more of a planner, than a pantser, which means I can’t get very far into a new novel without putting a bit of flesh on the bones of my scraps of story outline.  Those three or four pages need to evolve into a chapter-by-chapter summary before I begin to feel even a little bit comfortable about where things are going.

I’m not obsessive about it. I won’t end up with 10,000 words, perhaps 3,000 all told, in table format, so I can juggle the chapters around. (And no… so far, for those who are interested in this kind of thing – no Scrivener, just MSWord.) I write a few lines about what happens in each chapter, plus – and this is very important – a note of qualification; an answer to the question… what is this chapter doing in the story? That means either (i) how is the chapter moving the story forward, or (ii) what is it telling the reader about a key character. If it doesn’t do one or the other, it has no business being in the story.

So planning has taken up what time I allocated this week, and I’m satisfied that things are taking shape. I’m about half way through, and I’m pretty sure i know where the rest is going – that’s for next week. When I’m done, I can pick my way forward through the chapters, knowing what I need to write.

Do things change as I go along? You bet they do. Things I think will work, don’t. Things I’ve forgotten, emerge. Characters evolve in ways I hadn’t anticipated. New ideas arrive. So I’m certain I’ll be re-engineering my chapter-by-chapter as I go along. That’s a given. But wherever it goes, I have to begin with a plan.

Planning aside, I’m determined to keep up with my minimum 500-word commitment (I can’t allow myself fail after just 2 weeks). So Saturday saw me out in the garden with my laptop, bashing my way to 800 words.  Hardly a stellar performance, but the plan came first this week; that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

Oh… and one other thing – a happy motivational moment. Singled Out hit that magic 100 sold copies milestone this week.  It got there with the aid of a promoted post on Facebook of which, more later, once the promo is over and I know whether or not I broke even or got ahead by a few quid. Still… One. Hundred. Sold. Copies. Break even or not, it was worth it.

I’m a minnow in an ocean of self-publishing fish, but I confess, I feel chuffed. It’s a start. Onward and upward.

You said it! A first-quarter review of reviews

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxReviews are the life-blood of any novel. Readers… don’t ever underestimate the power you have at your fingertips, when you write a review.

15 weeks… 15 reviews… 76 stars

From the moment I clicked publish and saw my novel appear on Amazon on a real page, just like real books, where real people could click and really, actually buy it, I’ve been holding my breath. That’s what writers do, you see, as they wait to see what people make of their… baby.

But (so far…) whilst it’s been emotional, it’s been alright too.  In fact, it’s been pretty amazing.

It’s 15 weeks since Singled Out was published on Amazon (Kindle and paperback) and my first novel/baby has been fortunate in garnering a total of 15 reviews (so far…). That’s 11 reviews on Amazon.co.uk (four 4-star and seven 5-star) and five 5-star reviews on Amazon.com. Yes, that makes 16 in total, but I can’t double-count the review my big-hearted blogging buddy Dylan Hearn was kind enough to upload to both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

Whilst sales of any self-published debut novel are inevitably modest – and Singled Out has, ah me, been no exception (so far…) – the kind words in those reviews have been exciting, heartening, and above all, humbling.

Presentation1So this 15/15 moment seems a good point to stop and thank everyone who has taken the time and trouble to read Singled Out – I hope you have all enjoyed it, and felt it rewarded you for those few hours of your time. And I want especially to thank those of you who then went on and uploaded your reviews to Amazon – and Goodreads.

Will you permit me to share some of the reviewers’ observations with you?

I know it feels suspiciously like self-promotion and, oh, it is. But no self-published author can survive without a little of this every now and again. So here, just in case you’re looking for your next read or something to take on your holidays, is a little reader feedback from those reviews on Amazon:

“From the first short chapter I was hooked! The story swings from gritty and tense to beautifully described locations that transported me right into the midst of a singles holiday…”

“With Brenda Bouverie the author has created a wonderful protagonist, very different from anybody I’ve read before. She’s a wonderful combination of the sensuous, with her love of food and drink; the steely, but with an underlying vulnerability that makes her a very special character indeed.”

“This is a scrumptious book for every sense! Mouth watering descriptions that evoke sights, smells and tastes so that you really feel you have been taken on holiday with everyone else to Turkey.”

“With well-drawn characters and a complex protagonist, this was a really enjoyable read that kept me guessing and gave me something to think about.”

“The writing in this debut novel is impressive with descriptions so rich, you’ll feel like you’re touring, sunbathing, and feasting on delicious meals in Turkey yourself. Mystery cloaks every page…”

“An impressive debut novel for fans of psychological suspense.”

“Excellently creepy.”

“Highly recommended.”

“An excellent blend of literary fiction and psychological thriller.”

“A definite page turner, I completed it in a couple of days.”

“I couldn’t put it down!! Gritty and compelling reading.”

“An enjoyable page turner. It’s got character, location, sex, drugs — but above all the writing is captivating.”

“Wonderful story from this author. Well-crafted, believable characters, great plot line, and a description of Turkey that makes you want to take your next vacation there.”

“Overall, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys their thrillers to be a little dark and edgy, but with some warmth thrown in. Oh, and foodies. This is a great book for food lovers.”

“I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good mystery.”

“If you’re going on a beach holiday and you’re a lover of creepy, psychological thrillers, then this is the book for you.”

Are you still with me?

Okay, then it’s worth highlighting a few things people have said about the dark underbelly to this story, because it’s undeniably gritty, morally ambivalent and, for some, unsettling. In the interests of full disclosure:

“This is not, however, a book for the faint-hearted. The assault scenes in particular, while very well written, don’t pull any punches. But for me that’s as it should be. Horrible things should be portrayed as horrible. And it makes you all the more engaged in the search for who’s responsible.”

“But a caution to sensitive readers–the subject matter deals with sexual assault (that’s not a spoiler as the opening scene depicts this) and misogyny, sometimes in quite graphic detail. Normally I would shy away from material like that, but I felt comfortable in the author’s hands given the strong female lead who carries the novel, and the important message that’s unveiled.”

“Be warned ….there is a dark undertone to this story that can make one feel slightly uncomfortable (and it’s meant to), but the author deals with these scenes admirably, giving you enough to make you feel uneasy but not too much so that you want to stop reading – cleverly done.”

“I particularly enjoyed the ending – even when the ‘bad guy’ is discovered, there is still a dilemma to be faced. I’m not sure what I’d have done, put in Brenda’s place.”

“Pick it as a good read, but don’t be surprised if it also challenges and makes you think twice.”

There, now you’ve got the full picture.

In case it’s piqued your curiosity, you can find out more about Singled Out on this website here, and throughout my blog.  And of course, Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

Blog posts coming soon(ish)…

  • Making a start on Novel Number Two – I need your help!
  • Marketing Muse: Promoting your book as holiday read.
  • Happy Endings: Should every story be tied up with a ribbon?

Incredible Edibles: 18 ways to use food to illustrate character

In the universe of Show Not Tell, food in all its guises is a magnificent ally.

Exc1In Singled Out my protagonist, Brenda, is a woman who loves her food. The way she indulges shows the reader what kind of a woman she is. To her, food is a sensual as well as a sensory experience. Another character is as dry and stale as the desiccated breakfast he chomps his way through, in the opening pages. Yet later in the story his own personal awakening is reflected in the way he begins to enjoy unfamiliar and exotic meals.

Food is a wonderful medium through which to illustrate aspects of a character’s personality. Food can food reflect what kind of a person they are, what mood they’re in, what attitudes they hold, how self-disciplined or spontaneous they are and other facets of their temperament and lifestyle; it can also reveal the ways they change or develop as a story unfolds.

Here are a few ideas on the way food – the shopping for it, cooking of it, eating of it, and attitudes that surround it – can help flesh out your characters:

  1. Where do they shop – Are they upscale or down-market? Is it important to them that they buy from certain shops or outlets? Are they Waitrose or Lidl; down the market or Harrods Food Hall; superstore or independent; farm shop or gas station; deli chic or corner shop?
  2. What do they buy – Is quality important to them? Do they care what they put in their body? Is their body a temple, or a tavern? Do they choose ready meals or organic ingredients, value ranges, own-brand or premium; vegetables or cake, brown rice or oven chips?
  3. How do they buy – Do they buy in bulk and stuff the freezer or shop for fresh food every day? Do they dash a trolley round the supermarket, shop online for home delivery, order vegetable boxes and specialist products or raid the discount bins? Do they pick their own, or grow their own? Or do they neglect nutrition and grab what’s closest when hunger strikes?
  4. What do they drink – Is alcohol important to them? Are they light or heavy drinkers? Does every meeting or event have to have an alcoholic component? Is their style Armagnac or alcopop, cocktail or Cava, prestige or plonk, mass-market cider or micro-brewed beer, spirits or spritzers, juices, smoothies or squash, tap water or bottled, fizzy or flat? Do they have a favourite tipple (shaken, not stirred…)?
  5. Where do they eat out – Michelin starred or McDonald’s, identikit chain or quirky cafeteria? Pizzeria, curry house or Chinese? Gastropub or burger bar? Trendy street food or shrink-wrap sandwich?
  6. What food aromas excite them – beef dripping on barbecue coals, sizzling onions slathered on a burger, or juiced wheatgrass and freshly-peeled citrus fruit? Candyfloss (cotton-candy to my American friends) and toffee apples, or home-made apple pie?
  7. How do they eat at home – Are they sociable diners or secret eaters? Do they pick or binge? Would they be at ease or ashamed if other people knew what or how they ate? Do they prefer dinner parties and conversation or lap trays and the TV, formality or fridge pickings, bone china or bowl food? Does food feature in the bedroom? Do they wake in the night and need to eat?
  8. What do they cook – everything or nothing? Do they follow recipes to the letter or throw in a bit of this, a bit of that? Are they spontaneous when ingredients run out, experienced enough to knock up a meal in a few minutes? Or do they cringe at the thought of warming up a tin of soup? Do they bake? Are they a candidate for Masterchef or a poke-and-ping merchant? Does cooking energise or depress them?
  9. What food principles do they have – Are they fashionable or faddy? Do beliefs (religious or otherwise) define their diet? Are they raw, vegetarian, vegan, fruitarian, kosher, halal or organic? Do they avoid GM, minimise food-miles? Are they cutting out sugar, reducing salt, getting their five-a-day? Are they on a weight-loss diet? At all these things, are they succeeding, or failing? How does that make them feel?
  10. What’s their kitchen like – Is it immaculate and well-equipped, or sparse and chaotic? Are the cupboards crammed with ingredients and choice, or empty? Are things fresh, or past their sell-by dates? What stands out – shine or grime? What’s the most important implement – a food processor, a juicer, a pasta-maker, or a tin-opener?
  11. What food allergies/intolerances/dislikes do they have – Nuts, lactose, dairy, shellfish, wheat, gluten, alliums? Do they have genuine digestive problems or are they faddy or picky, or attention-seeking?
  12. How do they eat – Restrained or indulgent, gastronome or greedy, baby bites, prim and proper or chomps and gulps, knife and fork or finger-lickin’?   Do they have any distasteful food habits – talking with their mouth full, sawing at their food, slurping or guzzling? Are they indifferent to, or repelled by bad eating habits in others?
  13. How do they breakfast – Full English fry-up or Bran Flakes and skim milk, donuts and Danish pastries or a cereal bar and a piece of fruit? Sit-down, desk-bound, or on-the-run? Variety-is-the-spice, or same-old-same-old every day?
  14. How do they regard food – Is it their friend or foe, life-enhancing or destructive, necessary fuel or tantalising taste temptation? Does it make them strong, or weak? Are they excited by mealtimes or inconvenienced by the intrusion? Are they a picky person, a food fanatic or a comfort eater? Do they have to eat, or do they forget to eat?
  15. What tastes/textures do they favour – Sweet or savoury, soft or crunchy, lean or creamy, mild or spicy, healthy or hedonistic, hot or cold, slow-cooked or fast-food?
  16. What do they eat – Are they rare or well-done, low-fat or deep-fried, naked or drenched in sauce? Do they love food that others despise… snails or sweetbreads, blue steak or horsemeat? Do they try anything, or stick to what they know?
  17. What’s their beverage of choice – Tea or coffee, green, fruit infusion or builders, latte, cappuccino or espresso, full-fat or skinny, sweetened, or sweet enough? Is there a ritual or a habit?
  18. And lastly… What might they choose for their very last meal?…

I want it, and I want it NOW!

We’re told these days how important it is to hook the reader right from that first line of a novel – indeed I blogged this very topic myself just a couple of days ago. But it wasn’t always like this.

In our quick-fire, instant message, SnapChat, 140-character world, readers are all supposed to be so impatient and intolerant. They can’t be bothered to read their way through a leisurely build-up; they’re not interested in scene-setting or description. We’re told if you want to amount to anything as an author, you have to begin your story in the middle of the action, or you’ll lose easily bored readers in droves. You can’t waste time waking your characters up in the morning; you shouldn’t squander words setting up the mood or describing your characters.

I’m quite prepared to believe that some readers (maybe even most readers, or some readers some of the time, or most readers most of the time…) want to be thrown into the action; rather like the beginning of a James Bond film where we join the fun, slap-bang in the middle of a massive car chase, all guns blazing; heart-stopping, chaotic tension.

But then… I’ve always seen reading as a leisurely pursuit. It’s something I enjoy most at certain very relaxing times – like whilst I’m lazing around on holiday, or curled up in an armchair on a Sunday afternoon. I think there’s room in life for the slow-burn novel – and I’m not just talking about your up-market literary fiction, all contemplatioAlan Bates as Farmer Gabriel Oakn and no action. I’m talking actual general fiction, complete with plotting, inciting incidents and conflict – and all the other good stuff – but just at a more unruffled pace.

One of my all-time favourite novels breaks all the modern-day rules. That’s probably because it’s 140 years old. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy opens with a magnificent character description. I’ve not found one I prefer anywhere. There’s no action for several pages. We’re not thrown into a moment of crisis/tension. The story begins with a rambling but utterly exquisite character portrait of one Farmer Gabriel Oak.

Here’s the first sentence:

“When Farmer Oak smiled, the corners of his mouth spread till they were within an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared round them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the rising sun.”

That’s hardly a hook, now, is it? But it is beautiful. And read on here and you might be as captivated as I was by the unfolding picture of this steadfast, ordinary man.

When Thomas Hardy eventually moves on to some kind of action, a languid 868 words in, it is with nothing more exciting than the image of a wagon trundling over the brow of a hill.

Reading has its place in every part of life. I’m thrilled by the fact that people can download novels at the click of a button and read them whilst they wait for a train (would that they will download mine on Sunday, for next week’s commute). I love being able to ‘read’ an audiobook whilst I’m doing other things. But I also cherish those moments where I’m doing nothing but reading. That’s when I can immerse myself in a book and give free rein to my own imagination, to pull me into the world carefully crafted by another author.

That’s when I not only tolerate, but warmly welcome those slow-burn, descriptive narratives, where I can be moved by the beauty of the prose, before I get caught up in the action.

What do you think? Do you need instant gratification? Or are you happy for the storyteller to pace your pleasure?

Seven Quick-Fire Ways to use Food to Enrich a Novel

Exc1A quickie post for today as I continue to count down towards my Big Day on 1st February (oh, you know what I mean by now, don’t you?).

I use food and mealtimes quite a bit in Singled Out. Here are just a few thoughts on what food related scenes can do for a story.

  1. A social/sociable meal involving two or more people: At home, in a hotel or restaurant, on a picnic, at a barbecue; useful in showing the nature of relationships and the dynamics between various characters. Caution though – this does need quite a bit of dialogue.
  2. Someone eating alone: Reveal character through how they prepare food, what they choose to eat, how they eat and what they do whilst they’re eating.
  3. During a sexual scene: Add a luscious dimension that takes your scene beyond the turgid ‘he touched this, she stroked that…’ zone. Adds sensuality, deploys all the senses without focusing on the obvious.
  4. How someone responds to food: Reveal character through how someone reacts to new or unusual food, or to eating with their fingers or unfamiliar implements. Are they adventurous or narrow-minded, sensual or constrained? Useful in demonstrating how someone’s attitude or demeanour changes over time too.
  5. For nostalgia: The flavours and and aromas of long-forgotten foods, sweets and treats from childhood, school dinners and nursery favourites are all wonderful tools to evoke a mood or nostalgia, or to segue to a flashback/past-times.
  6. In the kitchen: A great location to deploy all the senses – sights, sounds, smells, touches and taste; can be a place of danger (knives, open flames) or comfort (cosy family setting).
  7. A particular single item of food: There are so many different ways of eating, say, an ice-cream, a slice of cake, a plate of wings or ribs, spaghetti, or almost anything else you can think of; can highlight the differences between people, display greed, gluttony, shyness or sensuality.

If you have any favourites that aren’t on this off-the-top-of-my-head list, please do share them.

7-7-7 Challenge

airport-66116_1280It’s hard finding time to work, write my story and keep up with a blog, without the added time-vampire of blogging awards and challenges. But every now and again one comes along that is, frankly, easy and fun to do. And when you’ve been nominated by one of your very favourite writerly bloggers (in my case, the sublime Dylan Hearn), it’s just wrong not to accept the challenge. So I’ve climbed down off my high horse, and Dylan, I thank you for the nomination.

The 7-7-7 Challenge itself is simple: Go to the seventh page of the manuscript you’re working on, go down to line seven, then publish the next seven lines. And here they are:

A girl wanders in from Passport Control. Is that the singles’ luggage tag? She’s on her own with a beach bag, so it’s a fair bet. She’s wearing a modest skirt and a t-shirt that isn’t too tight like so many in the hall. An ingénue, the sort he likes best. She finds a seat but isn’t alone for long. A man, scruffy son-of-a-bitch, approaches her waggling the tag on his bag. That’s a sure sign they’re headed in the same direction, his direction. The man settles beside her, sleazy sod.

This excerpt is taken from Singled Out, my soon-to-be self-published first novel which is set on a singles holiday in Turkey. Bad things happen in this beautiful place where no one should let down their guard, but everyone does. Singled Out is a psychological story laced with moral ambiguities, told from the point of view of three of the holidaymakers. The character in this scene is not identified. As he waits for his flight he watches, trying to spot others who might be sharing the holiday with him.

I’ve found I enjoy getting under the skin of dark and disturbed characters and this man is no exception. I’d love to tell you more, but I can’t bring myself to stray into spoiler territory.

I’m aiming to publish Singled Out in February 2015, but before then I have to get to grips with the complexities of Kindle e-book publishing and CreateSpace – and get a cover designed, and make a hundred decisions based on, oh, mostly guesswork. It’s all an adventure, this self-publishing business, isn’t it?

Now to passing the baton to two more authors: I will nominate two of my lovely subscribers and active contributors, who I know are writing currently:

Over to you!