Wednesday, May 21, 2014

My Guest: John Dolan

My Guest this week and I have a number of things in common, one of which he will talk about in the following article: location, location, location... Ladies and Gentlemen...

John Dolan

Writing About Foreign Parts

OK, let’s be clear about a couple of things before we start.

First, the ‘foreign parts’ I’m talking about are not genitalia attached to some exotic, non-local beauty. Secondly, the opinions expressed are mine alone. You may disagree, although I’d point out that I’m usually right about most things – except when I’m discussing things with my wife. Then I’m always wrong.
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Since nobody who reads blog posts has a lot of time (otherwise we’d be reading ‘War and Peace’ instead, right?), I’m going to keep this pithy. I talk too much anyway. I hope these headings will be a useful reminder for those novelists among us who base their works away from the familiar locations of the Western World.

Number #1: Do Your Research

No, you at the back with your hand up, I do not mean read an article on Wikipedia. Using your imagination is one thing, but remember that some of the people who will read your work will be familiar with the place you’re describing. They might even live there. If you balls it up, don’t be surprised if you see scathing comments in reviews pointing out your errors. Your credibility is at stake here.  I never write about a place I haven’t visited – and preferably spent a while there. I know not everyone can do this, but if you don’t, ask yourself what you are really offering the reader. Some view about what a place might be like, for instance? (I know if you’re a writer of science fiction, this may present some problems, but you do have the advantage that no Martian locals will point out your inaccuracies. Though some smart-ass NASA person might, of course).

Customs and mores vary the world over. Does a Chinese person in their homeland REALLY do that? Be authentic. Don’t artificially transplant your own ideas of culture to somewhere they don’t belong. Some folks will either beat you up for it or ignore the rest of your writings as ‘uniformed’, or worse.

Number #2: Don’t Write a Travelogue
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Your setting should provide a relevant backdrop to your story, and may well be integral to it. But your job is not to sell a holiday destination (or whatever) to your reader. That’s not to say they won’t fall in love with it, but don’t write like a wide-eyed tourist. Speak with authority about places. Little details, as well as being interesting, are important. However, if I want lots of data about somewhere, I expect to find that in a Lonely Planet Guide, not in a novel.

Ignore this point if you are, in fact, writing a travelogue.

Number #3: Avoid Info Dumps

This should go without saying, and applies to any aspect of writing, but folks can especially get carried away when describing places. Don’t. Drip-feed details as you go along and choose carefully the order in which you present them: make the sequence relevant for the narrative. You may find it helpful to alternate between wide-angle views and close ups.

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Number #4: Put Yourself in Your Reader’s Mind

Hmmn. I know this is a tricky one – and you may well have readers from all over the planet, some of whom will be familiar with the location, some who will not. You have to please both types – so not too much info, not too little (see above points). Include stuff that is relevant and interesting and hack away the rest. How would you convey the feeling of an Asian street market to someone who has only ever lived in Nebraska? What would make it meaningful for them? Conversely, how will you avoid boring someone who spends time every week at such a market? Not easy, but the key is to INTEGRATE the place with the story as much as possible.

Number #5: Consider All the Senses

If you want to immerse your reader in the location, don’t just describe the visuals. Sound, smell, touch and taste are all important. Don’t just tell your reader what somewhere looks like.

That’s about it, really. Easy, isn’t it? Hmmn. Well, maybe.

NOTE: John is running a Goodreads Giveaway for paperback copies of 'A Poison Tree' until 31 May


“Makes a living by travelling, talking a lot and sometimes writing stuff down. Galericulate author, polymath and occasional smarty-pants.”

John Dolan hails from a small town in the North-East of England. Before turning to writing, his career encompassed law and finance. He has run businesses in Europe, South and Central America, Africa and Asia. He and his wife Fiona currently divide their time between the UK and Thailand.

John is the author of the 'Time, Blood and Karma' mystery series published by Tention Books.

CONTACT John here:

Twitter @JohnDolanAuthor

Thank you, John, for your sound advice. I've read all of your books and the sense of place you reflect on the page shows how it's done by a Master of his craft. Say hi to Jim Fosse for me. Now what's the name of that bestselling writer who consistently breaks rules 2 and 3? Dan something or other...

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Death of GENRE?

Forget what you ever thought you knew about books.


Because YOU don’t decide what you read… Empirical Science does!

A sweeping statement, perhaps… or is it?

Let’s examine one of the most frustrating problems an author can face in today’s writing paradigm. And before I continue, I should make clear I’m not talking just about Traditional Publishing.

Now IMAGINE for a moment you find yourself in a supermarket; we’ve all been there, right. You entered without any clear idea of what you were going to buy; no shopping list clutched in your hand to direct your paces. All you want is something for Dinner; something, a capricious whim, to tantalize your taste buds at the end of a long day. You’ve worked hard, so you deserve a prize. It’s all about seeing something that creates that ‘Oh Yeah!’ reaction. Are you there in the supermarket? Good.
Now see your feet taking you down aisle after aisle, seeking that elusive culinary delight. Got it?

Suddenly you find yourself in unknown territory.

Before you is a freezer; shelves laden with tempting promise. You spy an unmarked box, covered with a thin white frost hinting that’s it’s been waiting just for you; the answer to your gastronomic goal. The image on the box looks attractive; lots of calid colours: fiery red, toasty orange. Exactly what you’ve been looking for, right?

You tip the trophy into your trolley and head for checkout – it’s going to be a great evening!

This is where things then go sideways!

Upon reaching home you race into the kitchen, extracting the bounty from the box, preparing to lavish a little TLC on yourself.

WHAT! What’s this?

Instead of the promised Chicken Wings in Spicy Tex-Mex Salsa the shelf label promoted, you have a chunk of frozen algae. Could this be some new-fangled fashion from Asian shores? Or is it something far more sinister?

Yes, you have become another victim of Empirical Science!

At this point, either you have stopped reading to visit your own kitchen, or you are wondering what the Hell I’m rabbiting on about.

So perhaps a little more explanation is called for…

Empirical Science is all about testing stuff independently and using reproducible methods to define exactly what it is. Useful right? Its essence is really quite simple: nothing officially exists until it’s been labelled!

So, am I talking about a mislabelling of your Chicken Wing delight here?

No. The sad truth is that the supermarket has been taken over by the publishing industry.

Now you are really puzzled, right?

When we scribblers finish a tome, still infused with that cuddly sensation of achievement that magically manifests, we head over to the Internet to tell the World about our latest creation. We need to upload our creative content to Amazon etc., and, of course list it everywhere we can think of, especially Goodreads, Shelfari etc. so our potential reader audience can find it. But what is this? We, the people with the most intimate contact with our creation, don’t get to accurately describe it, to place it on the shelf where it belongs. No. We are made to force it into a pre-labelled existence defined by… who knows?

Again, a picture is worth a thousand words, so they say, so let me draw one for you.

I will use Amazon purely as an example; the problem persists EVERYWHERE!

First step: log on to KDP and enter the details of my new title. Now near the bottom of the page, the trap awaits. It’s a two-pronged beastie, cleverly designed to play with your mind, and that of your readers too.

I wrote the book; spent months researching, planning, plotting, typing, rewriting, editing, more rewriting… you get the picture. So you would think, at this juncture, filling in a few boxes on a form would be child’s play, right?

Someone find me a child. I’ve apparently committed a cardinal sin! I’ve written a novel, nay, a lot of novels, that DON’T fit in to the pre-labelled slots available!

A practical example to illustrate my dilemma: I have just completed book 3 of my series ‘the CULL’. At this moment I’m feeling great. It’s been a challenge: three full-length, fast-paced tales filled with the feats of fantastic characters. Lots of F’s, you’ll note – I added one more when I tried to fit my novel into the available categories.
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You see, dear fellow scribe or attentive reader, my sin was to do something different! In short, I created.

I wrote a series of books which introduce you to events in the lives of two female Federal Agents. (That must be the CRIME category, right?) They work for a covert unit of Homeland Security. (Oh, hang on a minute, that could be ESPIONAGE. No problem, I get to list the books in two categories, so CRIME and ESPIONAGE). They find themselves initially chasing a Serial Killer, (SUSPENSE?) but the tale quickly takes an unexpected twist as a far-ranging conspiracy is revealed. (THRILLER territory?) Then it goes international in a big way, with protagonists and antagonists battling it out over several continents. (EPIC, anyone? Or is this a TRAVELOGUE รก la Dan Brown? If you’ve read his latest, you’ll know what I mean.)

Oh! Did I mention there are vampires?

Whoops! That’s torn it! PARANORMAL, you cry, for all you’re worth.

Yeah, I know they’re not your run-of-the-mill vampires; not shiny or romantic at all. Nor are they angst-filled teenagers.

Up until I introduced THAT word, I was clearly heading in the SUSPENSE THRILLER direction. So what else is in the books? Well, the protagonists use computers, the latest in surveillance techniques and there are guns, explosions, and gadgets galore. Wait, it’s a TECHNO-THRILLER!

…and the story of the antagonists has its origins centuries ago. HISTORICAL! …must be HISTORICAL, you say.

…and there’s quite a bit about genetics…  MEDICAL!

So what do we have so far?

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But they don’t have a box for that.

I’ll have to settle for Thriller – Suspense.

I can’t even mention PARANORMAL because that defines something else. If you want to cite your work as PARANORMAL (for the vampires, even if they are nothing like the aforementioned shiny teenagers, just in case someone has lost the track of my ramblings) then your book can only be listed as FANTASY – PARANORMAL, or worse, JUVENILE FICTION – PARANORMAL. No dragons, sword-wielding knights, fairies, elves, gnomes… or teenagers in sight I’m afraid, so if I use either of those categories I will be MISLEADING the potential reader.

So, it all boils down to a choice:

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I can choose to either MISLEAD the reader or MISREPRESENT my novel!

Empirical Science, you see. If I don’t choose one of those, by definition, my book doesn’t exist!

Dammit! We’re CREATIVES! We create; we are original; we generate new ideas.

(Now I’m apologizing for being a fiction writer! Wonder if Bram Stoker had this problem?)

So what’s my conclusion?

Simple, really: Forget science!

If you want to read a cracking, fast-paced Suspense Thriller with a ‘touch of Strange’ (as one reader once put it) then check out ‘the CULL’ series on Amazon… and don’t look at the Categories listing!

There are extracts and much more on my website...

Now, frozen algae, anyone?