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.

Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Autumn is already turning into a fruitful time for me.

2015-10-02 17.13.07Autumn is my favourite time of year. I love the turn of the season, the explosion of colours and smells; I love that transitional blend of chill mornings and still warm, sunny afternoons. I love to see banks of blackberries ripening in the park. I love it when #Strictly starts up again on the telly.

One month into a(nother) healthy eating/exercise campaign and already a notable few pounds less lumbersome, a simple commitment to an early morning walk (weather permitting – I’m not yet a friend of Parkas and Pakamacs) has begun to embed itself into my routine, sending oxygen to all the parts that need waking up as the day begins.

In the park this morning
In the park on Sunday morning

So it is that for the last few weeks I’ve been feeling increasingly fruitful where I have for months been feeling, well, a bit… stale.

2015-09-10 21.24.42My fruitful phase got off to a good start in early September when I retreated with the folks of Circle of Missé in France, spending six intensive days working on the structure for Novel Number Two. It took me a little over 4 days to nail it – that’s what happens when you push everything else aside and make the story your priority. Wayne and Aaron at Circle of Missé know just how to create the perfect environment for writerly focus. In a sublime setting, and with the opportunity to socialise with other writers and enjoy amazing meals every evening, it’s somehow easier to dedicate yourself to the writing – or the thinking and planning of the writing – throughout the day.

I came home with a roadmap and some very positive feedback on my ideas. Now I’m back on my horse, and back to that bare-minimum 500-words-a-week commitment – the one that should see me in perpetual motion (ideally a great deal faster than 500 words a week) through my first draft.

2015-10-04 14.13.45

On Saturday night, autumn brought yet more writerly stimulus – courtesy of my local library service, who have organised a month long festival of literature, arts and music in my borough, called Culture Bite. That’s already amazing, when so many other library services are in decline. Even more amazing, no less than three exceptional new authors came to talk about their debut psychological novels. Clare Mackintosh, with her Sunday Times/Richard & Judy triumph, I Let You Go, which begins with a tragic accident; Rebecca Whitney with The Liar’s Chair, a dark tale of a toxic marriage; and Renee Knight with Disclaimer, about a woman who finds her own darkest secret within the pages of of a novel. These are the kind of books I love to read, and the kind of books I aspire to write. All three writers were so generous of their time, their enthusiasm and – when they learned I had written and self-published my first – their warm encouragement and support. Thank you – all of you – for a fabulous evening, and for sharing your insights and experiences so openly.

Did you realise, you’re living my dream?

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?

Singled Out – A ‘Look Inside’

Singled Out was released yesterday on Amazon on Kindle e-book and in paperback. In case you haven’t made it to your local neighbourhood Amazon store yet, I thought you might like a taster, here on the blog.

Here’s the back-cover promotional:

SINGLED OUT by JULIE LAWFORD

“EVERYONE BRINGS BAGGAGE ON A SINGLES HOLIDAY”

singledout_kindle_656x1000pxBrenda Bouverie has come on a singles holiday to Turkey to escape. Intent on indulgence, she’s looking for sun, sea and … distraction from a past she would give anything to change.

But on this singles holiday no one is quite who they seem. First impressions are unreliable and when the sun goes down, danger lies in wait. As someone targets the unwary group of strangers, one guest is alone in sensing the threat.

But who would get involved, when getting involved only ever leads to trouble?

And here are the first couple of pages:

SATURDAY

1

HE STANDS OVER her, fastening his jeans. Then he scans 360-degrees, checking for any disturbance – evidence of his presence. Like so many hotel rooms these days, it’s a paean to minimalist urban chic; all feature walls and faux walnut veneer. You could be anywhere from New York to Bangkok.

He notices an indentation on the bed between her parted thighs – where his knees have depressed the waffle throw. He tugs first one side then the other, smoothing and flattening.

It was a bonus, finding a lone female in the hotel bar a few hours earlier; an American, an advertising executive en route home to Boston. She was pencil-thin, pale flesh sucking her bones like a famine victim. But she was classy – expensive tailoring, silk shirt – quality underneath too. It was always gratifying to uncover La Perla or Agent Provocateur, Rigby & Peller on the older ones. Like an extra reward for having chosen well.

Nobody saw them beneath the amber glowing downlights, tucked into a corner booth, backs to the room as he summoned round after round before settling the tab in cash. Nobody noticed when he slid her key card into his pocket and guided her to the lifts, moments before she couldn’t stand up any more; so finely judged these days, assured and precise.

Good job he’d pocketed a little of what he needed before he left home, just in case. He tells himself if it hadn’t been put to use he’d have flushed it before the flight. Truth is, once it was there burning a hole in his groin, he’d have found someone – anyone.

The first time on the spur-of-the-moment, he’d taken a photograph; a souvenir. It set a pattern, one he won’t break – can’t break. He points his camera at the woman and clicks off a couple of shots before drawing her legs together. A tight smile laces his features as he rearranges her clothes, rolling her on to her side; the recovery position, they call it. But she looks like she’s sleeping and she won’t remember a thing when she wakes. She’ll probably miss her flight but by then he’ll be long gone.

The bedside clock glows 02:00. He pulls the door shut behind him and slips down the back stairs and out of a side exit, collar high, head down against the CCTV. Moments later, jacket slung over one shoulder, he strides through the front entrance; a nod to the night porter, a few words about how hard it is to sleep in hotels and in minutes he’s back in his own room with time to rest before his wake-up call.

* * * * * *

You can read on a little via Amazon’s Kindle ‘Look Inside’ feature. If you’re intrigued to continue after that, guess what, the whole story – every single word – is available at the click of a buy button on your choice of Kindle or old-fashioned paper.

If you click, I hope very much that you enjoy the read and I’d love it if you would come back and let me know what you thought.

Singled Out is available to purchase on these and all other regional Amazon sites:

How to Hook an Agent Part Two – My Speed-Date with Destiny

I posted yesterday on my Top Five Takeaways from Bloomsbury Publishing’s How to Hook an Agent seminar. Today, I’m sharing what I learned from my agent one-to-one:

How to Hook an AgentThe last part of the day was my speed-date with destiny – the rarest of opportunities to discuss the pitch for my novel with someone who could, potentially, be in a position to bring it to market. In a perfect world.

In those few minutes I learned one particularly critical thing. I’ve thought hard about the genre of my novel – you can see how I rationalised it into the psychological suspense space in my post titled What’s My Genre here. What I didn’t realise was that as soon as I mention psychological suspense in my submission, agents are wont to make a connection with a few very high-profile and successful contemporary psychological thrillers, such as Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn or Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty.

The feedback I received was that if I were pitching a book likely to be compared to these, then I could be on to a loser, as it would have to be truly, spectacularly excellent to attract attention alongside these brilliantly crafted stories. And the likelihood of a debut novel even getting close to Gone Girl or Apple Tree Yard was remote.

I get that. I understand.

But… but… but… I’d never envisaged Singled Out to be an also-ran to these stories, not for a minute, M’Lud!  Apart from anything else I began writing my story long before either of these books was published. With a full-time freelance career to maintain, it took over three years to squeeze Singled Out from my keyboard. It’s a different kind of story too. There is a build-up of suspense, but no ‘thriller’ component and essentially, no twist-in-the-tail either – it’s just not that kind of a tale.

Would readers of these stupendous stories (both of which I thoroughly enjoyed) be interested in Singled Out? Possibly they would – if they enjoy stories about twisted, damaged and dangerous characters. But if they were led to expect another Gone Girl I fear they might be disappointed.

I’ve listened to presentations on a few occasions where agents have stressed that there’s no point in trying to hop on to a bandwagon – for example, the oft cited vampire bandwagon or more recently the 50 shades bandwagon.  Because apart from being an also-ran, you’re already too late – the parade is over. I hadn’t realised I might be viewed as having done this.  But now I can see the quagmire I’ve inadvertently stumbled into. So I’m rethinking how I pitch my grizzly psychological story to avoid any sudden-death comparisons which might prematurely consign Singled Out to the reject pile.  It’s enough of a challenge being an everyday would-be debut novelist; I don’t need to be hobbling my own chances.

As for the agent who enlightened me, I’m properly grateful for the insight, and I don’t think I would ever have got it without that one-to-one moment. This particular agent requested and now has my submission, and along with it the benefit of knowing I’m not trying to be the next Gillian Flynn, or the next anyone else for that matter.  Whether this makes a difference to their perception of my story, I’ll find out soon enough.

Talking of suspense then, I’m holding my breath.

How to Hook an Agent: Part One – My Top Five Takeaways

What I learned at Bloomsbury Publishing’s invaluable seminar last Saturday.

How to Hook an AgentLast Saturday I went along to Bloomsbury Publishing’s offices in London for a seminar entitled How to Hook an Agent. Along with 27 other budding writers I listened attentively to presentations given by four agents, enjoyed a delicious lunch whilst precariously perched at a small circular table, and then had the privilege of a speed networking one-to-one session with one of the agents, to seek specific help with my pitch for Singled Out.

It was a well run event, the ambience both professional and pleasantly informal. Listening to Real Live Agents explain what they liked to read in a submission and what excited and engaged them (and what turned them off), was enlightening. Had I heard some of it before? Yes. If you read around the various agency websites and countless other sources of advice, you get the broad picture. But the opportunity to hear the individual perspectives of four quite different agents was well worth the investment of time and money.

Without giving away everyone’s presentations, I thought I’d share a few of the observations that were most pertinent to me. So here are my Top Five Takeaways:

  1. Get people who aren’t family or friends to read your manuscript. Whilst they might do wonders for our egos, family and friends do not make the best critics. I’ve been thinking hard about this one since Saturday. My mentor read and critiqued a substantial proportion of my manuscript whilst we were working together. But the whole thing, beginning-to-end, has been read only by a handful of friends. I have to admit, I’ve fought shy of sharing Singled Out with anyone beyond my close circle. Mea culpa.
  2. A synopsis should describe who, what, where and when, but not why. Synopsis writing, as anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, is my personal bête noir. It’s harder by a mile than writing the actual novel. Most agents want no more than 1.5 pages of spaced A4 – that’s less than 750 words. The more you can leave out, the better – not only the why, but adverbs, adjectives, sub-plots and back-story. Easy then.
  3. One good way to craft a synopsis is to write the numbers 1-10 down the side of the page, then fill in the ten most important events in your story in chronological order. That beats a lot of the more complex advice I’ve seen around. Having stepped away from my various synopses in recent weeks, I gave my shortest version another going over using this structure and I have to say, I felt happier with it afterwards.
  4. Should you compare yourself with well-known novelists in your query letter? Interesting, this one, and I’ve been in two minds. Clearly there’s a risk it sounds pretentious or arrogant. So how do you help the agent to understand where you see your novel without saying you’re the next JK Rowling or Stephen King? Rather than saying, ‘I write like JK Rowling/Stephen King’ and risk being swatted from your perch, try saying, ‘my novel will appeal to readers who enjoy…’ or ‘my novel is aimed at a similar readership to…’, or even, ‘my novel might sit on the same shelves in the bookshop as…’
  5. Your book in a Tweet – this is a superb and scary exercise at the extreme end of honing your pitch. Can you distil the essence of your book down to the length of a single Tweet – 140 characters? I failed miserably in the limited time allowed. Later that evening I got to: Singles on holiday; sun, sea and… secrets; hedonism, mind-games and a boat. The truth hurts when bad stuff happens in a beautiful place. That’s just 138 characters even with the grammatically precise (for a Tweet) final full stop. Whether it’s the essence of Singled Out or not, may you all be the judges one day.

Check in again tomorrow for Part Two – my speed-date with destiny.

The Pure Pleasure of Books

Writers must read, and read widely, we’re told. Why would anyone not want to read?

Waterstones PiccadillyI’ve always loved reading and was fortunate to be born into a home full of books. I can never understand when I go to somebody’s house and there are no books around. I wonder why? Why would you deprive yourself?

In my childhood and young adult years, I read widely around my O- and A-level set texts and ploughed through school recommended reading lists. I’m a completer, you see; I love nothing more than to see a line of ticks against every single book on a list.

I lost my way fictionally speaking for a few years. Busy with life, a career and weekends full of DIY, I confess (the shame… the shame…) that my reading narrowed to Cosmo and endless sort-your-life-out self-reflection and cod-psychology books. Venus and Mars, several dozen how to be a better woman and even more how to meet the man of your dreams texts all passed through my hands. They didn’t work.

In my late twenties I found my way back to fiction via the Sunday Times book reviews and best seller lists. I own up to occasional forays into chick lit (Bridget Jones had a lot to answer for) uber-commercial (John Grisham and Jeffrey Archer are sneered at by many, but rewarded me with hours of page-turnability) and even the odd few chapters of erotica (Black Lace, the forerunner brand to 50 Shades and all its imitators).  But my pleasure has enduringly come from what might be called mainstream quality fiction – the sort of books which these days get talked about in book clubs and find themselves adorned with Richard & Judy or Costa stickers, and are so often on those 3 for 2 promotional tables at Waterstones.

Today I love reading and listening to these types of books, and I’ll typically have 3 or 4 on the go at once; paperbacks, e-books and audio. I love stories which engage me with the quality of their writing and the depth of their characters, but deliver a great plot and a satisfying ending. And I particularly enjoy stories with a psychological edge.

But I was sorting out my bookshelves the other day and I realised that I’ve enjoyed many different types of books over the years. Just for fun, I thought I’d let you in on a few of my favourites. I’m not trying to be smart or clever – just me – so there are pot-boilers and airport books as well as contemporary literary, funnies and even the odd classic. Whilst I have few favourite authors, I’ve only included one book from any particular author. It’s not an exhaustive list, by any means – it’s really not – just a few notables.

Sizzling Psychological Suspense

  • Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
  • Blue-Eyed-Boy – Joanne Harris
  • Before I Go to Sleep – S J Watson
  • Room – Emma Donoghue
  • Monster Love – Carol Topolski

Gripping Grizzlies

  • Acts of Violence – Ryan David Jahn
  • A Quiet Belief in Angels – R J Ellory
  • London Fields – Martin Amis

Favourite funnies

  • My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell
  • Notes from a Small Island – Bill Bryson
  • E: A Novel – Matt Beaumont
  • The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Jumped out of a Window – Jonas Jonasson

Books I just loved from beginning to end, sometimes without even knowing why

  • A History of the World in 10½ Chapters – Julian Barnes
  • Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
  • Beach Music – Pat Conroy
  • Wild Swans – Jung Chang
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil – John Berendt
  • Alone in Berlin – Hans Fallada
  • One Day – David Nicholls

Books that made me want to give somebody – anybody – a huge hug

  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society – Mary Ann Schaffer and Annie Barrows
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  • The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – Rachel Joyce
  • Five People You Meet in Heaven – Mitch Albom
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon
  • The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

Amazing audiobook narrations

  • The Casual Vacancy – J K Rowling (narrated by Tom Hollander)
  • Dominion – C J Sansom (narrated by Daniel Weyman)
  • The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson (narrated by Saul Reichlin)
  • The Help – Kathryn Stockett (narrated by Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, Cassandra Campbell)
  • A Kind of Intimacy – Jenn Ashworth (narrated by Jane Collingwood)

I’d love to know if you have a favourite read, and why. I’m always on the lookout for books that leave their mark on a reader and I’m sure I miss many, many great reads.  So, tell me… what would you recommend?

Light and shade and a Singing Ringing Tree

Once upon a time, in my compact and bijou suburban garden, I planted a tree.

Amelanchier 2014My amelanchier is beautiful, but shy. She blossoms in early April in an incredible gown of a million tiny, delicate white flowers. She parades her splendour for just 3 or 4 days before donning a summer cloak of bronze-green leaves – pretty enough, but no match for the pure abundance of the spring blossom. In the autumn she’ll come into her own again in a spray of blood-red berries, and leaves which turn shades of fiery red, orange and golden umber.

My shy amelanchier boasts a little non-natural adornment. A set of metal wind chimes tinkles almost imperceptibly amidst her leaves and three strands of tiny mirrors drip from her branches. In the evening as they twirl in the setting sun, they cast a shower of light, spinning circles around and around the garden like fireflies or fairies. Even after years, I’m still transfixed by what I have named my Singing Ringing Tree.

My Singing Ringing Tree bears little resemblance to its namesake. Those of you who grew up in the UK in the 1960’s may remember a gruesome Central European fairytale which appeared on our TV screens first in 1964, and popped up once or twice more over the years. ‘The Singing Ringing Tree’ (or ‘Das singende, klingende Bäumchen’) was a product of secret, scary East Germany; a story in three parts in the style of the Brothers Grimm. It was without a doubt, the grimmest, creepiest and above all most disturbing fairy story I’ve ever encountered. And judging by what other people have blogged about this nightmarish narrative, I wasn’t the only one to be utterly terrified at tea-time.

If you’re interested, Wikipedia provides a plot summary here. The story revolves around a cruel and haughty princess, a prince who turns into a bear, a giant fish and – most disturbing of all, an evil dwarf. Yes, the 60’s had little shame when it came to negative stereotyping.

Singing Ringing Tree DwarfCentral to the story is an enchanted tree guarded by the evil dwarf, which will only sing and ring once the princess falls in love with the prince. But all is not well in this dystopian fairytale land. The dwarf cruelly keeps the prince and princess apart with devilish spells and tricks; and the path of true love lies dark and cold until the princess learns to mend her selfish ways.

Old-style fairytales have dark hearts and evil characters. Children live in poverty and get lost in woods; they are lied to and deceived, routinely starved and poisoned – or fattened up to eat. Beautiful girls are abused, locked away in dungeons and towers and forced to sleep for hundreds of years. It is a world beset with nightmares, monsters, evil stepmothers, witches, trolls and goblins. And whilst there are life-lessons within their lines and they usually have a happily ever after ending, fairytales are awash with tragedy and drenched in evil. There is much to unsettle in fairytale land.

But children enjoy being unsettled by stories. In the comfort of their beds, before they’re safely tucked-in for the night, they’re gripped by tales which drip with malevolence – so long as they end with that happily ever after moment allowing a contented slumber and sweet dreams.

Fortunately, as adults we still enjoy being chilled and disturbed from within the pages of a good story. In books, we meet the sort of characters we might hope never to meet in real life. Our nerves are jangled and our emotions and loyalties toyed with. Sometimes we don’t know what’s going on; sometimes we think we do, but then realise we don’t. We are misdirected and misled. We follow trails of breadcrumbs scattered by the author, uncertain what lies at the end of the journey, but excited by a discomforting ride.

I love reading stories like this – and now, I love writing them too. Dark tales by the likes of Joanne Harris, Gillian Flynn, Erin Kelly, S J Watson and Carol Topolski inspire me. I try to imagine my way into sick and damaged psyches and I won’t be burdened to provide a neatly sewn-up resolution or a happily ever after ending.

This summer, I’ll sit under the shade of my beautiful Singing Ringing Tree, as it tinkles gently and showers its dancing light across my garden. But as I push on with Novel Number Two, my thoughts will lean to the mood of the original Singing Ringing Tree and all its perversity, darkness and dread.

What’s my genre?

Notebook 03

One of the things I struggled with when preparing the framework text for query letters/emails, was genre.  I’m a marketer in my current day job, so I understand perfectly well why it’s helpful for agents and publishers to be able to classify a book according to what category or categories it falls within.  Amongst other things, genre (and, by the way, sub-genre and sub-sub-genre) will point to a likely audience, set expectations as to the content and style, and drive decisions on cover design, marketing and promotion.

Knowing your genre means you can pinpoint authors whose books bear similarities to your own – although whether you indicate same to agents in your submission material is a matter of fierce debate here and there on the interweb.  Either (i) do it because it helps the agent figure out where you might sit in their talent stable or (ii) don’t do it because it makes you seem cocky and pretentious and you should let them be the judge. No help there then.

Inevitably for every mainstream genre, there are gazillions of sub-genres, and sub-sub genres, and it’s up to you how far you navigate the tributaries, to arrive at a label which adequately categorises the novel you’re writing.

What follows here is not some great rambling on the whys and wherefores of genre – if you’re looking for guidance in categorising your own writing, Google is your friend.  There is already more help out there than you can possibly need in an entire literary lifetime.  This is about me and my genre, and how I got there.

The first issue was the question of literary vs commercial.  Commercial books – apparently – sell in large volumes to an audience which may not be sufficiently discerning – apparently – to mind that books in this category may – apparently – not be all that well written.  In commercial fiction – apparently – the plot is the only thing that matters. Everything else (characterisation, setting, sensory detail, realistic dialogue, linguistic style, grammar…) is inconsequential relative to the plot.  It may therefore have been thrown together and served up as a literary and linguistic dog’s dinner – and – apparently – nobody minds.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is all about the quality of the writing, and how poetic, evocative or mesmerising it is.  And the plot?  Who needs plotting when the writing, line by line, word by beautiful, witty, well-chosen word, is such a sublime joy to read.  Apparently.

For those of us who fall somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous (no, I’m not getting drawn on which is which, thank you very much) there is a wealth of options for that first level categorisation, amongst which Quality Commercial, Mainstream Literary, Literary-Commercial Crossover, Book Club, or even more specifically, ‘Richard & Judy’, and my personal bête noir, LitLite.

I vacillate between Quality Commercial and Book Club for Singled Out.  Books which end up on book club reading lists tend to offer plenty of scope for discussion around moral dilemmas, character qualities or shortcomings and so on – and I like that.  And Quality Commercial?  I don’t see what’s wrong with cherishing the vision that I’ve written something which might be simultaneously popular/saleable and well-written.  An agent or publisher will probably put me straight one of these days.

Next, there’s the subject and content of the story.  At the high level, is it a romance or a thriller?  Is it science fiction or magic realism, chic-lit or crime?  Is it humorous or historical, fantasy or satire, politics or parody? Is it erotic, domestic or dynastic?  And… breathe.  Yes, if you’ve looked into this, you’ll realise as I did, there are myriad ways to slice-and-dice for genre.  There’s a crime in my story, but it’s not, technically speaking, a crime novel – there’s no mystery (well, not much mystery) and no police (ah, almost no police).  There is a little romance and an erotic moment or two (no sniggering at the back please), but not enough to make it a romance and certainly not enough to position it on the same shelf as Fifty Shades of Naughty.

Having read several (too many?) blog posts and articles, I think I’ve got there.  The genre I’ve concluded best fits Singled Out is Psychological Suspense. Theoretically this is a crime fiction sub-genre – but that’s as close as it’s going to get to crime.

The elements which characterise psychological suspense include the following:

  • Psychological suspense may use crime as a pretext for investigating psyche and personality, but the story is about the context of the crime, rather than the crime itself.
  • There’s often no mystery as to who committed the crime – what psychological suspense is interested in is not whodunnit, but whydunnit.
  • Psychological suspense is about the mind of a criminal – and the other people involved.  There will be insights, observations and reflection, from all sides of the house.
  • Psychological suspense stories are often told from multiple points of view – from inside the minds of protagonist and antagonist alike.
  • The overarching mood is one of dread or malignity – a sustained suspense embedded with moments of heightened tension, rather than a build-up to one massive peak.
  • Psychological suspense stories often feature psychologically damaged central characters such as sociopaths, or people with weaknesses, phobias, a tragic past, the weight of guilt or shame bearing down.
  • The reader can see what’s happening before it happens – they watch, seemingly helpless.  I liken it to the reader banging soundlessly on a window, trying to attract the attention of a character, who walks innocently towards some terrible scenario or event, content in the company of the person the reader knows to be dangerous.
  • Interestingly, psychological suspense is often ambivalent when it comes to ethics and justice.  There are moral ambiguities, few happy endings or easy solutions; and the baddies don’t always get what they deserve.

I’m fascinated by stories like this – they’re the ones I go to when I’m looking for a good read, and so it felt good to be writing one, even though it’s not what I set out to write.  I started out to pen a wry dissection of the comings and goings on a singles holiday. But when I realised this amounted to not very much and would bore a readership to tears, the landscape shifted.  And that’s when I begun to learn how much I loved writing about bad stuff happening and dark, damaged psyches.

Hey ho, happy days.