Monday, 24 September 2018

Mason Ball Q&A

The 35 Timely and Untimely Deaths of Cumberland County is a brilliant supernatural historical thriller, which I recently had the pleasure of reviewing (see here: I asked the author, Mason Ball, for a Q&A for my blog so that I (and fellow writers who read my blog) might glean some of his writerly magic.  So without any further ado, over to you Mason:

Where did you get the idea behind 35 Deaths?

The initial idea came many, many years ago in my early teens. I was in my local library and saw a collection of horror stories, the cover of which was a monster breaking free from a wall of ice. The idea prompted by this image floundered for decades and was all but forgotten, but when in my thirties my wife bought Doctor Bischoffberger’s medical record from eBay, as I read through it, parts of that old idea came back to me and 35 Deaths, though completely unrecognisable from that initial idea, began to take shape in my mind.

Your novel has a tremendous sense of time and place, how did you achieve that?

I think one of the things that helped was purchasing a book of old photographs of the area, seeing the clothes they wore, the streets they walked, and just trying to think myself into the era. The more I did so, the more it felt like really not so long ago or quite so alien.

I think something that’s important to acknowledge is that while a certain amount of accuracy in setting is important, what I was doing wasn’t painting a picture of 1930s Maine to the exact historical detail, but a picture of my Maine, as much I was painting a picture of my Dr Bischoffberger; both versions crafted to fit my means and to serve my purpose.

I can only describe 35 Deaths as a brilliant historical/supernatural/crime thriller. What made you want to tell the story that way and have you always been attracted to stories that crossover genre in that way?

I think to a large extent genre exists for salesmen, not writers. The idea really decided the form that the book would take. Once I’d settled on the idea, the dual narrative structure, together with the chapter introductions by Joseph, things were set in motion and it was going to be what it was going to be.

How do you get your ideas? What’s the process and how do they go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notions?

I think if I knew the answer to the first question that I’d get more ideas. Anything can trigger an idea, but you get that idea, or a concept in your mind, maybe a scene, a way perhaps of doing something differently or from an angle or perspective you’ve not read before, and things start to grow. For a long time nothing is written bar the barest of notes, and it exists only in my head: the set-up, perhaps a few characters, a scene or two. Then if you’re lucky, it grows. A strong first line is always good to get you off and running too.

Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?

Due to its unfamiliar historical and geographical settings, in writing 35 Deaths I embarked on far more research than for anything else I’ve ever written.

Finding a book called Now I Will Tell You… The Story of Naples, Maine, Its History and Legends compiled by Robert Jordan Dingley for the Naples Historical Society was a gold mine of information and minutiae: anecdotes, names, incidents etc. that I imagine exist nowhere else. True details from Now I Will Tell You… are peppered throughout the novel, my favourite of which is probably the story of the Chinese idols (the book even has photographs on them!).

I did a little digging into John M. Bischoffberger, however, as stated above, only in so much as it served the novel.

Geographically speaking, the internet, most importantly period maps I found online, and Google Earth were invaluable, helping me place towns and areas, lakes and waterways, their locality and whereabouts in relation to one another.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?

I’d say by nature I’m definitely more of a pantser. I once tried to novelise a theatrical show I’d written and directed but because I knew exactly where it was headed, my interest and enthusiasm soon waned, and the project stalled.

Once I have an idea, I usually have a vague notion of where the piece I’m writing is going, which of course grows stronger as I go, and usually at a certain point an ending or resolution begins to make itself known (which of course can mean a rewrite of earlier passages); but never do I know every plotted point ahead of time. I like to surprise myself as I go and give the opportunity to improvise.

However, as much of 35 Deaths was preordained for me, i.e. the order and nature of the deaths themselves all there in black and white in Biscoffberger’s medical record, I found myself ‘pantsing’ around the plotted elements proscribed by the concept of the novel itself.

How do you make sure you don’t go off on wild tangents? 

If any wild tangents don’t serve the original idea, then I steer my way back to the path. But of course, if any tangents suggest a new idea better than the original then I’m happy to go exploring, making sure to keep an eye out so the tangent doesn’t become an end in of itself.

Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?

In a sense I do, or almost full-time. However much of the time what I’m writing is for my other job, which is in cabaret. As well as hosting other shows, as Benjamin Louche, I co-produce and host a monthly cabaret show The Double R Club, inspired by the work of David Lynch. For each act I write 200 words, often including poems and or stories; the second compendium including material written for The Double R Club, Further Voices In The Red Velvet Elsewhere will be published later in the year.

When is your most productive period of the day?

I’d say usually early afternoon, post lunch. I am not a morning person.

Is any part of your writing biographical or are any of the characters inspired by real people? 

I’m a writer who believes that all art is, at least in some way, autobiographical. I think bits and pieces of the artist are all over his or her work, just not necessarily in any cogent or easily definable way; I’m not sure it can be helped.

I like to use the analogy penned by another writer (I think it was Stephen King but forgive me if I’ve misremembered), to paraphrase:

Writing is like a game of handball. When the ball strikes your hand, that’s you, autobiography. When the ball hits the wall, that fiction, utterly invented. But of course, for the majority of the time the ball isn’t in your hand or on the wall, for the majority of the time the ball is in the air.

I have in the past started to write characters based on real people, but they never stay true to the person they’re based on, I find they twist and change, becoming their own thing, again, proscribed the idea itself and the world it creates.

What writing projects are you working on now? 

I’m currently working on a ‘spiritual sequel’ to my 2015 fairy tale The Menagerie, which is similarly dark and strange in tone, and which mirrors to some extent the former’s structure and format but is otherwise unrelated and involves a whole new setting and cast of characters. It’s entitled Princess Of The Asperous Reach.

Unbound is a unique and new publishing novel. How did you find the process of crowdfunding your book?

Daunting and a hard slog. Convincing people that they were pre-buying a book and not simply giving a feckless writer some of their hard-earned money for no good reason could be a struggle; the concept of crowdfunded publishing is new and tricky for some to grasp. Was the book even finished?Were they simply funding me to sit around all day drinking tea and writing?No and no!

Ultimately it was a rewarding experience though and I am incredibly proud of the finished book.

How has your experience with Unbound contrasted with that of publishing your previous books?

Before Unbound I had only self-published shorter works and any longer form pieces, despite my best efforts, had remained rejected by agents and publishers, and unpublished.

So, the experience of Unbound could not have been more different. The simple fact of Unbound selecting for their site, and being supportive of, my novel was incredibly heartening.

Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of His First Lie and It Was Her) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before he became a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

Edit without mercy.

Give me some advice about writing?


Sunday, 16 September 2018

The Thirty Five Timely and Untimely Deaths of Cumberland County by Mason Ball

This is the second book published by Unbound, an innovative new publisher with a radical new publishing model, that I’ve read and reviewed, the first being Sam Haysom’s The Moor (see here for my review of that title: ). Like Sam, Mason Ball is an author who’s new to me, and like The Moor, Thirty Five deaths has a strong supernatural element. The similarities don’t just end there however, for both books are extremely good reads.

Thirty Five Deaths is set in 1930’s Maine, the “dying years of the Great Depression” as the blurb puts it. John Bischoffberger, a doctor from the big city of Pennsylvania, has moved with his wife to the small town of Naples, Maine, where he runs a medical practice and is employed as the Medical Examiner for the surrounding area. In his medical practice he treats the living, as the Medical Examiner he issues death certificates for those who’ve passed in unusual or suspicious circumstances. 

John is plagued by his experiences of the First World War, one mortally wounded soldier who died in front of him particularly haunting his dreams. He and his wife have never had children, a disappointment for them both which weighs on him heavily. Coming from a big city to a town where many have resided their entire lives, he also feels an outsider regardless of how much he’s welcomed. John is a rational man, though he has many a demon. This leads him to lose his faith in God, something that troubles his wife almost as much as their inability to have children. Paradoxically, this also leads him to proscribe his patients homeopathy alongside conventional medical remedies and this dichotomy, of his loss of faith in God yet reluctant, almost superstitious belief in something his scientific mind tells him cannot be so, is one of many conflicts that plague John’s troubled mind. Finally, this allows him to see what is hidden from others: namely that many of the deaths he is witnessing are in fact murders, homicides committed by a trio of supernatural beings in the guise of vagrants.

35 Deaths then is both a historical crime novel and a story of the supernatural. The historical setting is adeptly handled, the author really bringing to life the rural Maine town and its environs: the poverty of many, the absolute and grinding destitution of the vagrants who reside in the woods - not least the three beings, whatever they may be. In fact, the woods themselves, endless forest which stretches out around the small pockets of civilisation, become a character in and of itself, oppressive and threatening.

As John becomes more and more obsessed with the three beings killing spree, and the deaths come closer and closer to those he knows and love, the author ratchets up the tension and sense of foreboding perfectly. The supernatural element of this novel is extremely well done, as is the conflict John feels in response, knowing as he does that should he speak of it to others he’ll be thought insane. His impotence in the face of something he cannot understand, yet inability to look away and do nothing, brings out the essential characteristics of his nature perfectly and the author has created in his protagonist a deeply good and likeable hero.

35 Deaths is an incredibly well written book and one that will stay with me for a long time to come. Mason Ball is an incredibly talented writer and I look forward to reading more from him. Finally, once again I’ve been hugely impressed by an Unbound author; this is a publisher who’ve found some serious talent and their catalogue is one to watch.

5 out of 5 stars

Monday, 10 September 2018

City Without Stars by Tim Baker

Tim Baker burst onto the crime fiction scene with an outstanding debut, Fever City, a conspiracy thriller about the assassination of JFK. His follow up, City Without Stars, is in many ways a step change, focusing as it does on the Mexican drug wars. That said, there are similarities between the two, both being steeped in conspiracy, corruption and paranoia.

City Without Stars follows a Mexican police officer, Fuentes, and Pillar, a union official, as they both investigate the murder of women in the city of Ciudad Real. There have been 873 murders and all of them remain unsolved. If this story line sounds far-fetched, horrifically it is very much grounded in fact. Since 1993, the city of Ciudad Júarez has seen hundreds of murders of young women. Between 1993 and 2005 it is estimated that 370 women have been murdered, and while there have been some arrests, the murders have continued, and many Mexicans believe the real perpetrators remain undetected. So, this is the basis for City Without Stars, Baker’s protagonists trying to discover once and for all who is responsible for the mass femicide. 

Alongside Fuentes and Pillar, we have Ventura, a privileged American journalist also investigating the killings, Padre Marcio, a corrupt archbishop, and the psychopathic El Santos, who heads the local cocaine cartel. Throughout the novel their threads remain separate but move inexorably closer and the reader just knows that when they collide the results with be shattering. Without giving away spoilers, the author doesn’t disappoint and the denouement of all this is intense

The plot of City Without Stars, while primarily focused on femicide, encompasses two underlying threads: the corruption sown by the drug trade and the maquiladoras – the warehouse factories where women endure back-breaking work for pitiful wages and which are a product of the NAFTA agreement. Baker shows how each are two sides of the same coin of exploitation, symbiotic forces that grind down ordinary Mexicans, particularly women, between them. So as with Fever City, City Without Stars is a deeply political novel with much to say about the society within which it is set.

In less able hands this complex story of five inter-connected character arcs might become confusing, but Baker handles it all with assured aplomb. Under the pressure of tying all the strands together, a lesser author might have created clichéd or cardboard cut-out characters, but Baker gives us a set of three-dimensional protagonists and antagonists who come alive on the page. 

The Mexican drug wars have been the focus of great American writers – Sam Hawkens and the towering figure of Don Winslow to name but two – and City Without Stars is a worthy companion to the canon. Baker really encapsulates the sense of a state and society captured by the corruption engendered by the cocaine cartels, the fear that their impunity infects into every strand of everyday life. This is an assured follow up to the author’s debut and secures his place as one of the great crime novelists writing today.

5 out of 5 stars

Weeping Waters by Karin Brynard

Inspector Albertus Markus Beeslaar is new to his posting in a backwater town in farmland bordering the Kalahari Desert. A one-time big city cop in Johannesburg, he packed that all in for a quieter life after his life and career was waylaid by trauma. Now an outsider in this close-knit community, struggling with the oppressive heat, he is called to a farm where an artist and her daughter have been brutally murdered. The homicide comes at a time of rising tension in the area, a roving band of stock thieves spreading fear through the neighbourhood. 

Weeping Waters is a topical crime thriller, and likely to become more so as time passes. Farm murders are a contentious subject in South Africa, and increasingly so in the wider world. The Boer – Afrikaans farmers of Dutch descent – are synonymous in many people’s imagination with Apartheid. Indeed, as mentioned in the novel, a popular song amongst the youth wing of the ANC contains the lyrics “kill the farmer, kill the Boer”. This perception of the Boer as being unreconstructed racists responsible for the Apartheid regime might not be fair, but it is widespread. The spate of Boers killed on their farms has been blamed by many on economic factors – the perpetrators when caught almost exclusively being poor – but some have sought to weaponise the subject, pointing to Mugabe’s farm seizures across the border in Zimbabwe and suggesting that the murders are the beginning of something more sinister in the Rainbow Nation. The idea that South Africa might follow its neighbour and turn on its white minority is one that has been feared in some quarters ever since the fall of Apartheid. Indeed, the alt-right internationally has started to jump on the bandwagon and even Donald Trump has tweeted about farm murders. So, the author has chosen a subject of much controversy to centre her plot around.

This is a long novel, running to 512 pages and a number of threads run through the main plot. As well as the farm murders and the stock thefts, there is the historical treatment of the Griqua people, one of South Africa’s mixed-race ethnicities, superstition and the belief traditional magic, racial tension and corruption. It all comes together nicely and at no point did I feel the story stall or lose pace and it kept my interest throughout. Karin Brynard has been compared to Stieg Larson and Weeping Waters is her first novel to be translated into English from her native Afrikaans. I don’t know if future novels follow on from this or stand alone, but wither way I look forward to reading more from her soon

4 out of 5 stars

Putting the Science in Fiction by Dan Koboldt

As an aspiring author myself, I’m always interested in titles that might help me develop my craft. I predominantly write crime fiction, but my reading tastes are a little more eclectic – encompassing horror, some science fiction, dystopia and the burgeoning new genre that is Cli-Fi - so I can well envisage writing something along those lines someday.  Readers have always sought a certain realism, even in horror and fantasy they expect some consistency in the world the author creates, and this is especially so since the dawn of the internet age, when facts are so easily checkable. Obviously, the online world is the writer’s friend, enabling as it does swifter and more efficient research, but it can also be a foe, swamping them with facts of dubious veracity and luring with distraction. 

Putting the Science in Fiction aims to act as an easily accessible resource for writers of any genre whose plots might touch on scientific matters. It is important to note here that “science” is broadly interpreted so as to include all the disciplines from physics through medicine and biological science to engineering. The text addresses cutting edge scientific debates and phenomena, topical debates, as well as the science that routinely reoccurs in fiction. So, we have everything from the human genome and genetic manipulation, through zombies, to the science behind Star Wars weapons.

While this book is listed as by Dan Koboldt, in actual fact he is the editor. Each chapter is in actual fact written by an expert in their field. So, we have a chapter on the human genome by Koboldt (who is a geneticist), one on portaying mental health accurately by Kathleen S. Allen, a psychiatric nurse, and another on cyborgs and cybernetics by Benjamin Kinney, a neuroscientist. Other topics I might list are writing convincing death scenes by Bianca Nogrady, a science reporter, and realistic space flight, by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, a pilot and aviation engineer.

As noted, some of the chapters deal with more speculative topics, the chapter on zombies for example tried to answer scientifically how a zombie could theoretically come to pass, while the chapter on Star Wars weapons and space flight is clearly aimed at helping science fiction writers base their fiction in theoretical hard science. Other chapters, such that on the science behind Jurassic Park, aim to answer the question as to the realism of scenarios portrayed in film and firmly embedded in the public’s psyche.

This is a really good book with essays penned by an eclectic range of authors on a broad range of subjects. Each has suggestions at the end for resources the reader might want to look at if they want to research the topic in more depth, but on their own they stand as informative summaries, the authors successfully straddling the divide between sufficient detail and brevity. I found this book very helpful and think that as a resource I will be referring to it for a long time to come.

5 out of 5 stars

World War Two: Heads of State, Politicians and Collaborators by Jack J. Kanski

Before the dawn of the internet (and yes, I am old enough to remember such a time) there were these quaint things called encyclopaedias. For the handful of youngsters who read my book reviews, these were “books or a set of books giving information on many subjects or on many aspects of one subject and typically arranged alphabetically”. This definition is courtesy of Google, which is how people get their information these days, the internet being the death knell for the encyclopaedia. But as we all know; the internet’s many strengths are also its weaknesses – too much information making it sometimes difficult to find exactly what you want and a related difficulty in being able to judge the veracity of what is served. I doubt the encyclopaedia will ever return to its pre-internet eminence, but in some limited senses, when the subject matter is focused and the facts unlikely to change, such a medium is welcome. Which brings me to the subject of this review.

This title, sub-headed “A Concise Outline” is effectively an encyclopaedia. The volume basically does what it says on the tin (or the jacket cover to be precise) and contains concise entries on all the major Second World War heads of state, politicians and collaborators – though by “collaborator”, the author means governments that collaborated with the Axis powers, such as Vichy France, rather than individuals like Lord Haw Haw. Each entry contains bullet points giving all the important and pertinent facts and it’s thus easy to skim read and find what you want.

This is a surprisingly useful text and for a subject matter such as a period of history which has been studied exhaustively, and thus the essential facts are unlikely to change, the encyclopaedia format works well. Even for an adept Googler, it is easier to skim through the pages of this tome to find biographical details of Winston Churchill or Heidrich Himmler than wade through Wikipedia. 

Apparently, this is one of a series of titles, the others dealing with figures from other periods of history. I haven’t seen any of the other titles, but certainly this is a worthwhile addition to the history buff’s library.

3 out of 5 stars

Weird War Two by Richard Denham

It seems that there is no end to the publishing cottage industry that is books on World War Two. There are tomes and tomes brought out every year and one wonders whether one day we’ll reach saturation point - that there’ll be nothing left to say or the reading public will just get bored. I doubt we’re there yet as this title, Weird War Two is testament. 

A collection of weird facts and stories from the second world, some more definitely concrete, some more myth, this is a very readable book that’s easy to dip into. To be sure nothing here is new as such, the author hasn’t trawled through recently released archives to discover some surprising and long buried revelation; nor has he interviewed elderly survivors of a previously unknown massacre (I don’t think he has at any rate). But he doesn’t claim to. Instead he has collected little known factoids, some amusing, some strange, some sinister, but all what might be described as a little weird (hence the title).

Despite the fact that I doubt any of it is new as such (and Googling a few examples that I didn’t know of, I wasn’t surprised to find they were indeed already known), it’s unlikely readers won’t learn something here. For an explanatory subtitle could well read: “little known and surprising facts of World War Two.” I doubt many know for example that the Russian strapped explosives to dogs trained to run under German tanks or that the Japanese tied bombs to balloons and then sent them on their way to the US west coast. Other ideas for bomb delivery included bats and cats (both of which in the end were never utilised). 

It’s not just bombs that the author writes about. The Nazi’s obsession with the occult has been debated for decades – and has led to numerous appearances in mass entertainment, from Indiana Jones to Marvel’s Captain America – but whereas Hollywood might exaggerate the Nazi’s interest, what is known and revealed here is that Heydrich Himmler sponsored an exhibition to find the descendants of Atlantis. There are more sinister section two, aspects of the holocaust and the Nazi’s vicious anti-Semitism are dealt with, as is Unit 731, the Japanese military germ warfare department which murdered thousands of allied POWs in experiments. While the title and concept of this book might seem relatively light-hearted, I must credit the author with treating these aspects with the seriousness and sensitivity that they deserve and at no point does he treat the atrocities committed with flippancy.

As mentioned, Weird War Two is a compendium and each chapter are self-contained factoids. This makes it a perfect book for dipping in and out of. There are many deeper and more weighty tomes on the war but for a quick and easy read, and one that will teach even the most knowledgeable a thing or two, this is highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars 

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Amer Anwar Q&A

Where did you get the idea behind Brothers In Blood?
Originally, I thought it'd be a great idea for someone to write a crime thriller set in Southall – I felt the place and the people would make a fantastic setting – I just never imagined I'd be the one to do it. I was thinking purely from a reader's point of view. But no one did it (not mainstream anyway) and the idea stayed with me.

I'd always harboured an ambition to write a book and, when I finally started to pursue writing seriously, the germ of the idea was already there. I knew I wanted to write a crime thriller, I knew it was going to be set in Southall and I knew it was going to feature characters like the people I knew and had met. The rest I made up as I went along!

How do you get your ideas? What’s the process and how do they go from vague inspiration to fully fleshed out notions?
For Brothers In Blood it was a very long process. It was my first attempt at writing a novel and so I really had no idea how I was supposed to go about it. It was a huge learning experience.

I knew it was going to be a crime thriller and I knew it'd be set in Southall… apart from that, there were two other things I guess I knew right from the beginning. One was from news reports of a crime that took place in the area and the other was, if I was going to write about the characters I wanted to, it wasn't going to be a police procedural or regular detective story with a police detective.

I had a rough idea of my main character and then I basically thought, well, he isn't a detective, doesn't know the first thing about trying to find a missing person. So, if it was me, what would I do? I just tried to put myself in his shoes and come up with a plan.

As for turning vague inspiration into fully fleshed ideas – that was the result of a lot of rewriting and editing. The first draft took about two and a half years. I was working full-time, doing an MA part-time and working on the book at the same time. I was really trying to find my way and just wrote down whatever idea came into my head. I'd read the advice that says to just get the first draft done and not worry about editing until after. That's what I did.

When it came to doing a second draft, in my head it all seemed great. I thought it'd basically be a matter of going through it all and making some changes here and there, and then it'd be finished. Boy, was I wrong!

I read through the first draft and thought it was awful. The ideas were there and for the most part, they were OK but it was the writing itself that was terrible. To be fair, I'd learned a lot in those two and a half years and the writing toward the end was better. Still, the second draft turned out to be a complete rewrite. I read the first draft and reimagined and rewrote the whole thing. Some bits did make it without any great changes but in the main, everything was rewritten. I repeated the process four times, over the next three years, before I felt it was ready to send to my agent. 

Tell me about the research that goes into your writing?
I was fortunate in that I'd chosen to write about a place and people I knew, so I already had an understanding and a feel for a lot of the background. As I wrote, I made notes of things I needed to find out and then I'd go and research them. Thinking back, I did quite a lot of research but it was spread over such a long time that it only really felt like a little at a time.

I visited locations, made notes, drew diagrams and took photos. I talked to people; friends who'd worked in the builders' yard that the one in the book is based on; a friend who'd worked at the airport; a doctor; policemen; a friend's aunt who was a probation officer; a barrister friend of mine; I visited a butcher's shop; Southall Police Station; a self storage warehouse; and all of the pubs that feature in the book – purely for research purposes of course. There was also a lot of reading involved, newspaper articles, stuff on cars, money etc. – and location scouting and geographical planning for which GoogleMaps and Streetview were very helpful.

Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Well, I started out as a pantser and then eventually found I needed a rough plan to help me keep everything straight and work out ideas going forward. 

If you plot, how do you go about plotting your stories? 
As I said, I started out as a pantser but when I found I needed a plan to help me keep track of elements in the story, I used a single page for each day (in Brothers In Blood the action takes place over a little longer than a week) and bullet pointed what happened on each of the days. It really helped me see everything and then roughly start to plan how it might all come together at the end, though I didn't actually work out the ending until I was almost ready to write it.

The plan really helped after the first draft was finished because it gave me an overview of the whole book and made it easier for me to cut scenes, add new ones and change the chronology of certain events.

It was a learning process but it showed me that a rough plan is very useful. For the book I'm working on now, I've planned the whole thing out in advance, chapter by chapter, essentially just kind of bullet pointing the story, so I'm not floundering around, trying to figure out what happens next, which did happen at times during Brothers In Blood. Although it's planned out, as I mentioned, it's very rough and nothing is set in stone. I'm sure other ideas will come to me as I write and I'm quite happy to change the plan as I go along. It's really just a guide for me during the writing process. I'm quite prepared for things to go in totally different directions if it works better for the story. 

If you’re a pantser how do you make sure you don’t go off on wild tangents? 
As Brothers In Blood was my first attempt at writing a novel, I really wasn't sure how best to approach the whole thing, so I just started to write. I don't think you can prevent yourself from going off on wild tangents if you do it that way, as that's the whole point of being a pantser. You go where the story takes you, where the words lead you. It might not be the right place but you won’t know that till you've got there. There were quite a few tangents and wrong turns in the first draft of the book. Some of those were cut completely but others were changed or combined with other elements and worked into the story. There were complete characters and whole scenes that were cut but I wrote them, thinking they were where the story needed to go.

It was all a learning process and showed me that I needed at least some kind of basic plan to help me keep things in order.

Having said that, even if you do plan, I think you can still allow yourself to pantser it a bit. You might be writing a scene and suddenly you get an idea that may take you in a different direction and you'll just run with it, see where it leads. You can always change the plan afterwards.

Tell me about your writing, do you write full time?
I'd love nothing more than to be able to write full-time. Brothers In Blood took about eight years to write and during that time I worked on the book evenings and weekends, part-time and full-time. I had a full-time job when I started and was also doing an MA in Creative Writing part-time, so inevitably progress was slow. When I was made redundant from work, I took some time to write full time. Then I went back to work and writing slowed down again. After that, I was a stay-at-home-parent for a couple of years and managed to do some writing during the day. Then I went back to work part-time and finally took some time off again to do the last couple of drafts on the book in one hit.

I'm hoping to take some time to concentrate on writing full-time to get the first draft or two of the new book done. Brothers In Blood as a real journey of discovery in terms of learning about the writing process. Where it took five complete drafts to get to the stage that I was happy to give it to my agent, I think it should be there a lot sooner second time around. 

When is your most productive period of the day?
That's usually been dictated by necessity. For a long time it had to be around other things, so I mainly wrote in the evenings and late at night. Weekends I usually write all day if I'm in and at my computer. The times I've been able to spend writing full-time, I find that daytime works best for me. I'll start around 9.00 AM and work until about 9.00 PM, with a break for lunch and other stops to make tea or grab a drink and a quick snack.

Brothers In Blood is an amazing piece of Southall noir. I note you hail from the same area. Is any part of it biographical? Are any of the characters/events inspired by true events?
Thanks very much, James. That's very nice of you to say. I wouldn't say any of its auto/biographical, although a fair amount was drawn from my own experience and knowledge of the place, and some of the characters were informed by people I met and heard about. A couple of elements in the story were inspired by real events, though I won't say what they are, as it might give something away. You'll have to try and figure it out. 

Zaq and Raj are such compelling characters that reading the book I didn’t want to say goodbye to them. Are you planning a sequel?
I'm really pleased to hear you say that. I've been really surprised by the reaction I've had to the two of them in particular. Many people have commented on how much they liked the friendship between them. It was one of the most fun things about writing the book. I'm fortunate enough that a lot of it was based on friendships I have, which include very similar banter and mickey taking.

I am planning a sequel featuring the two of them again. I'm currently working on something else but have some ideas for Zaq and Jags' next misadventure, which will probably be the next project.

What other writing projects are you working on?
I'm currently working on another book, with a different main character and different structure to the story. It starts with an armed robbery that seems to go as planned, at least until afterwards, when things go wrong and the main character is left in the frame as having double-crossed the rest of the gang. I'm really looking forward to writing it.

Finally, I’m going to shamelessly poach two questions the author Mark Hill (author of The Two O’Clock Boy) used to put to writers on his blog. Like me, Mark was a book blogger before a successful author and I like to think that the answers to these questions helped him glean valuable help for his own writing. Certainly, reading them on his blog is helping me. So here goes:

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
Even when you think you've worked on something until it's really good, it could probably still be better. It usually takes someone else to point it out to you and it's not always easy to hear. But if you want to improve, you need to listen, take it on board and act on it.

As I said, I wasn't happy with the first few drafts of Brothers In Blood but by the fifth draft, I thought it was pretty OK. I sent it to my agent, who has an in-house editor to help get manuscripts in as good a shape as they can be. When I received the feedback, they thought it was good overall but… and then there were four or so lengthy paragraphs detailing what could be improved upon. It was hard to take on board at the time. I'd spent about five years working on it and, rewriting and improving it with every draft and yet it still needed a fair bit of work. It took a few weeks to absorb that and let the comments sink in properly.

Reading that email now is much easier as I know all of the comments were right and were only meant to help me improve. There were a lot of positives too but you tend to dwell on the negatives.

I made a list of the five or six main points that needed addressing and started a new draft. With one thing and another however, I had to stop work on the book and didn't touch it for about a year. When I did come back to it, the time away had really given me some distance and, I think, made me much more objective. I started a new draft right from the beginning and worked my way through the whole thing, with the list of main changes in front of me, so I could keep focus on what I was trying to change and improve. Turns out that was the draft that really shaped the book into what it is. It still took another draft to fix up some minor things and clarify others but then it was finally ready.

So, yeah, even when you think you've done a good job, be prepared for some criticism and advice. Don't let it knock you back too much. Let it sink in, then act on it.

Give me some advice about writing?
Just write. Read and write actually. The only way you ever get better at anything is by practise. Writing's no different. The more you do it, the better you'll get.

And read. Read about writing, pick up hints and tips that might help you but also read novels. Personally, I found myself going back to the books that really made me want to write in the first place. I re-read them in order to regain that sense of magic and wonder, the thrill and pleasure they gave me, so I could try and infuse my own writing with a little of it. Just as an example, the last couple of lines in Brothers In Blood were directly influenced by a book I read about 30 years ago. I loved the final lines of that book so much, I still think about it and knew I wanted to try and do something similar at the end of my own. I didn't copy it; I just tried to recreate that same feeling it gave me when I read it.

And while you're just writing, keep pushing forward. Don't worry about editing, just plough on until you have a completed first draft. Then you can go back and start editing. When I first started on the book, too often I'd get bogged down writing a paragraph, then re-reading it and editing it, over and over, trying to get it just right. In a couple of hours, I might only end up writing about 100-200 words, having gone over them multiple times. How long would it take to get a whole draft done at that rate? It was too easy for me to start editing on a computer… so I shifted to good old pen and paper! You can't worry too much about editing that way. At most, you can cross something bad out and make some notes but then you have to move on. Just keep going.

I don't think I'd do the pen and paper thing again but it helped me learn how to just concentrate on writing, writing, writing to get that initial draft done. It doesn't have to be good. Chances are it won’t be. As Hemingway said, "The first draft of anything is shit." But once you've got a whole book, you've got something to work with. Not just bits and pieces but a whole book. Some of the stuff at the beginning you might not even need any more and will simply cut out, so there wouldn't have been any point wasting time trying to get it just right, would there?

So, my advice would be to just write. And read.

Brothers in Blood by Amer Anwar

I first heard of Amer Anwar back in 2008 when he won the Crime Writer Association’s Debut Dagger Award. Back then the CWA used to put the winning entries up on the website for all to read and Amer’s was, in my humble opinion at least, better than most. It was a modern-day gangster type tale but with a difference. None of those cliched, shaven-headed goons one would get in a Guy Ritchie movie, instead this was a slice of Southall noir.

I’m a “writer” myself - well I say writer, but I don’t have a literary agent or a publisher, hence the inverted commas – and like Amer I’ve submitted material to the Debut Dagger. Unlike him however, I’ve never won. So, as his entry impressed me so, as with other winners of the award, I kept my eye open for his book. For surely now he had won, his novel would hit the bookshelves in a blaze of glory? Well I waited and I waited. What had happened? Was he mad? Had he given up and decided he didn’t like this writing malarkey after all? Nope, turns out that winning was just one battle amongst many. Turns out that the time between winning the competition and hitting the bookshelves isn’t necessarily a smooth, short road. But finally, it’s here: Brothers In Blood. So, is it any good? Did it live up to my expectations? Well actually it did and some.

Brothers In Blood tells the story of Zaq Khan, a Muslim man recently released from prison for manslaughter who just wishes to get his life back on track. He works in a builders’ merchants as a delivery driver. That is until his boss, Mr Brar, calls him into his office and tells him he has to track down his daughter, or else. The Brars are Sikh and Rita (the daughter) has run off with a Muslim. This is unforgivable to the Brars. Her brothers, Parminder (Parm) and Rajinder (Raj) are local criminal hard cases and Zaq is soon feeling the pressure from the entire Brar clan.

Brothers In Blood is populated with a plethora of interesting supporting characters. There’s Jags, Zaq’s best friend; Rita, the Brar’s daughter and her friend Nina, the various thugs the Brar brothers are allied to. The plot quickly escalates and Zaq soon finds that locating Rita is the least of his troubles. Without giving spoilers this book touches on the drug trade, kidnapping, armed robbery, the tensions within the Asian community amongst the different ethnic groups, I could go on. All this is handled with admirable and impressive aplomb, so much so, I have to say that Brothers In Blood is probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Returning to the first paragraph of this review, I’ve since learnt that like many writers (like myself I hope to be able to say one day) Amer has been on quite the journey to publication. On his blog, Amer tells us that Brothers In Blood went through seven drafts with his editor. I certainly know how that feels. The result is a brilliant book and one that he can be proud of. Now finally published, Amer can call himself a writer (without the inverted commas) and is an inspiration for those like myself who wish one day to follow in his footsteps.

5 out of 5 stars