Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Oh, Amazon...

I feel I should take a view on the current issue that’s bothering a lot of indie (and non-indie) authors at the moment — the Great Amazon Review Robbery. In its latest crackdown on fake reviews, Amazon has taken to removing swathes of those that it deems to be in breach of its terms and conditions, and in so doing has taken out every review ever written by a large number of book bloggers or prolific reviewers.

I have some sympathy with Amazon on this, but do think they’re going about it the wrong way. The problem is not authors reading and reviewing one another’s books, asking their friends to review a book “if you enjoyed it” or sending copies to book bloggers in return for an honest review. These practices have been going on for as long as indie publishing has been around. They’re the only way that self-published authors, who don’t have PR departments to send their books to the major Sunday review supplements and wouldn’t be listened to if they did, can get their profile raised high enough for anyone to notice them. (Because Amazon loves reviews.)

There are so many things going on here that I can’t really grasp them, and in truth no-one knows what’s going on with Amazon. It seems to me that reviews which were previously deemed acceptable no longer are, which is bad enough in itself. What’s worse is that bloggers with years of reviews behind them are losing the lot.

Quite why people are losing reviews is a weird one. One of the criteria seems to be that “too many good reviews” aren’t deemed acceptable — but many reviewers, myself included, don’t give bad reviews. In my case, there are two reasons for this. The first is because I generally only choose books I think I’m going to enjoy reading. The second is that I don’t review books I don’t enjoy because I don’t want to give a bad review. Both of those, in my view, are perfectly legitimate.

I hope the brou-ha-ha over Reviewgate will give Amazon pause, and they’ll stop and think about the implications of it. As an author I’m not someone who obsesses about reviews. I don’t count them or keep track of them, but when I checked last week I did notice that my overall review rating had dropped with no new reviews added, implying that some of my reviews have dropped off. Since then (I did take a note at that point) I’ve lost three reviews on Amazon UK and my paltry total has dwindled further.

I read a lot and I don’t review a lot. Where I do make the effort, it’s because I enjoyed a book and a review will help an indie author (the JKRs of this world don’t need my reviews: they have enough). But these seems to be the reviews that Amazon is targeting — 4* or 5* reviews by authors of other authors.

I hope Amazon sorts this out, sooner rather than later, and focuses its efforts on the people who are scamming it out of serious amounts of money, but I’m not holding my breath. I the meantime, I’ll continue to review good books by indie authors, who I may or not know, but on my blog.

Friday, 8 June 2018

Loving Miss Moonshine

I’m sad to report that my Kindle has passed away. I’ve never been at the forefront of technology but I was early on the bandwagon with e-readers, so it was one of the first generation, with all its faults and foibles. I could forgive its clunky keyboard for the freedom it gave me to read, the ease of reading in bright light and the capability to make the type larger, which must have staved off my need for reading glasses by at least five years. 

The last book I read was a goodie. Short stories, no less, by a group of northern romance authors, some of who I know personally — something which was enough of a guarantee of quality. Miss Moonshine's Emporium of Happy Endings (subtitle: A feel-good collection of heartwarming stories) was just what I needed to help me wind down on holiday. 

The underlying premise is the mysterious and eccentric Miss Moonshine, who keeps a shop full of bric-a-brac in a Yorkshire town. Each story focuses on a different character and in each, Miss Moonshine’s intervention leads to a happy ending. All the authors know exactly what their readers are after and all of them write beautifully. Each individual tale was a joy. 

I should say that, while I loved the concept, I’d have liked a little more variation in the stories. A lot of them felt a little bit samey — girl down on her luck buys or is given something from Miss Moonshine’s shop and the happy ending ensues. The first two stories are historical — one Regency, one suffragette — but the remainder are all contemporary, which I felt left it slightly unbalanced. And it would have been good to have found a little variation in content, too. The last story makes reference to happy endings other than romance, such as a criminal being brought to justice, and one or two of those might have made the whole thing more, rather than very slightly less, than the sum of its parts. 

But that’s me being pernickety. As I’ve said before, they’re all beautifully written and some of them made me laugh out loud. Miss Moonshine runs as a constant through the book — not easily done in a group effort — and I’d love to see more from her. 

My conclusion? If that was the last book my Kindle had to offer me, it will have died happy. 



Disclaimer:

I am not a book blogger, so I don’t have a review policy, but here’s full disclosure.

I have a lot of author friends and reviews help them. I read and enjoy their books. I support fellow authors and in future I will try and review more books. I’ll post on my blog rather than elsewhere. 

I review when the mood takes me. I won’t leave a bad review, but if I haven’t reviewed a book it doesn’t mean I don’t like it. I buy every book I review.

Happy reading! And if you would like to help fellow authors, feel free to share my reviews. 

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

An Update from the Dark Side

Dark deeds among the trees...
It’s been a while since I blogged, although as always my intentions were good. But the regular updates on my crime writing…they didn’t go well, did they?

Still, here I am. It’s eight months since I stared in the mirror and realised that despite what I thought I actually am a crime writer. And believe me, a lot has happened in that time. First up, I’ve validated  myself. I applied for membership of the Crime Writers’ Association and after a review of my published works they decided that, yes, I qualified. So it’s official. Even without having written what I thought of as a crime novel I was a crime writer. 

The next step was to write the book. I chose my setting — Cumbria. I chose my protagonists — DCI Jude Satterthwaite and his-newly-arrived sergeant, Ashleigh O’Halloran. I set up their back stories — he struggling it the balance between his job and his relationships, she still trying to break free from an unhappy marriage. Then came the plot, hinging on the discovery of a child’s body after a wildfire on a Cumbrian fell. 

It was easier than I thought. It’s probably because I still thinking of myself as primarily a romance writer, so that the shackles were off. I had fun. I experimented. I tried things I’d never tried before. I played with many points of view. I made characters do things that romance readers  would never forgive them for. I broke the chains of the romance genre and left a relationship unresolved. 

Book three is set in beautiful Grasmere.
I wrote the next book, about the murder of a centenarian in an old people’s home. I sent the first one off to make its way in the world and (as you may have seen elsewhere) it found itself an agent. I planned the third book, in which a controversial and outspoken US professor outrages all and sundry and doesn’t care who she offends — until it’s too late. I have ideas for books four, five and six.  

Quite where this series will go remains to be seen. I’ve been in the writing game long enough to know that there are no certainties. But I’m enjoying the ride, and at the very least it gives me the excuse to undertake research and to post some photographs of a beautiful part of the world. 

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Introducing "Wildfire"

I don’t remember the exact date that I decided to write crime, although I’d been mulling over it for  long time before I first mentioned it on my blog, back in late September. (Back in late September? That’s…less than two months ago).

I’m pleased, if rather shocked, to be able to say that I now have the first draft of the opening novel in what I hope will be a series. My enthusiasm for the project rather overwhelmed me. Not only did I rush to draft one crime novel, but I also have ideas for two or three more, and I’m pretty certain how the stories of the main characters will develop over the series, too. Although I wouldn’t count on that, because characters have a habit of surprising you.

But it’s here, in initial draft form, at least — 67,500 words of error-strewn storytelling waiting for revisions and the for the bugs in the plot to be trapped and eliminated. Wildfire introduces us to DCI Jude Satterthwaite and his team as they struggle to find the identity — and the killer — of a body discovered in the burned-out shell of a ruined building following a grass fire on the shores of scenic Haweswater.

I won’t tell you too much, because no crime novel ever survives a spoiler. But I will say that I enjoyed writing it. I enjoyed the puzzle, deciding who the killer was and how s/he committed and covered up the crime. I enjoyed the intellectual exercise of researching how homicides really are investigated and then trying to turn this into something that’s acceptable to a reader without being totally untrue to the process.

Most of all, I enjoyed creating a new cast of characters. Killers are real people, just like their victims and the people who track them down. To understand the crime you need to know the criminal. I enjoyed getting to know them all. And I hope that, one day in the not too distant future, you’ll enjoy getting to know them, too.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

A Note To My Scientific Self...

Because it's fiction, right?
So I decided I wanted to write crime.

Now, I have a scientific background and that means I value accuracy. All right, it’s tempered by the fiction half of my brain which, by definition, is fuelled on making things up. I’ve never been one to let the facts get in the way of a good plot and you won’t have to look far in my books to find an example, but there’s a balance to be struck. For example, I made up a series of caves along a stretch of coastline in Majorca, but it was limestone and caves are found elsewhere on the island — just not the bit where I wanted them.

Crime fiction — specifically, police procedural crime fiction — is posing me problems. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the past few weeks reading up on procedure. There are some fabulously informative documents out there — I thoroughly recommend the Murder Investigation Manual and the Guidance on Major Incident Room Standardised Administrative Procedures, (both available online). These and many other documents will give you chapter and verse on exactly how an investigation proceeds.

If you spend time reading them, you’ll learn one thing — that much of the work in policing is dull, time-consuming and anything but glamorous. If I’m true to life and have a cast of dozens in our investigation, each of whom might play a tiny part and each of whom requires to be introduced as a character, at briefing meetings, I’m going to end up confusing my reader. If I allow a realistic timescale for the analysis of forensic evidence, I’m going to leave my investigators and readers twiddling their thumbs (or looking through reams of evidence which proves totally irrelevant).

Large-scale, heavily-staffed, drawn-out investigations don’t lend themselves to gripping fiction. So what does a writer do?

The answer, of course, is compromise. We have to acknowledge that we’re writing fiction, not true crime. Reduce the cast of thousands to a core handful. Show only the detective work which leads forwards, rather than along blind alley after blind alley. And assume the all forensic tests are going to be rushed through as a matter of urgency.

I’m not sure this sits easily with me, as yet, and there’s no question that the rigours of a crime novel are less comfortable than those of contemporary romance — it’s as if I’ve been writing free verse and suddenly find myself having to write sonnets. But I shall persist…

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Where is the Whodunnit?

Dark deeds in a brooding landscape...
In my last blog I gave you a quick — and not especially teasing — clue about where I’m proposing to set my new series of detective novels. The answer, of course, is Cumbria, and the picture I posted was a well-known view of Ullswater looking towards Gowbarrow Fell, where Wordsworth saw his daffodils. Not that there were any there on that spring day, though they abounded everywhere else. Maybe one of the books should be The Case of the Missing Daffodils

Why Cumbria? Well, to begin with, it had to be somewhere I know well. There are a few options here but the most obvious among them, Edinburgh, has been done to death, so to speak. Besides, I don’t feel that the city offers quite the same range of opportunities for crime scenes. 

It came down to a choice between Cumbria and the Highlands, and the Lakes won. Why? Because there’s a range of different types of place in a relatively small area, along with terrific access and vast numbers of people coming in and out. There are wild hillsides where it would be oh-so-easy to have an “accident”. There are lakes where you can disappear, crowds in which you can be lost, a coastline into which you can smuggle your contraband — and a motorway by which you can make a sharp exit.

A wonderful place to dispose of the body.
I did try to research exactly how many people are murdered in Cumbria in a year and by what method, but I failed. My guess is that the majority of homicides here are pretty run-of-the-mill , as they are in most cases. The National Centre for Policing Excellence’s informative Murder Investigation Manual points out that: “Between them, domestic homicide and confrontation homicide account for just over half of all homicide cases. Within the category of domestic homicide, killing by a current or former spouse is by far the largest group. Compared with these types of homicide, all others are infrequent. None generally have an incidence greater than ten per cent and many are much less frequent than that”.

That’s not particularly creative — but then, it’s always been this way and it’s never stopped crime writers focussing on, and extending, the very few genuinely complex and puzzling murders that aren’t committed in the heat of the moment. So if we’re to create a series of genuinely intriguing and original crimes in a single, rather steady, location, we have to step away from reality. 

So here I am, metaphorically  speaking, looking down on a broad range of environments from a Cumbrian fell, and musing. Where in this wonderful county will the first mystery take place?

Sunday, 1 October 2017

First Steps Along the Slippery Slope

Not su much whodunnit as whereisit?
Last week I shared my decision to switch genre — not, in fact, a particularly difficult thing to do, given that the writing of one type of novel shares very many of the requirements of another. Of course there are differences in the formula and the readers’ expectations, but the similarities are greater. If you ca create plausible characters, if you can structure  plot, if you can rack up the tension and produce a satisfactory ending…it doesn’t really matter what genre you write in. 

As I’ve said before I do read a lot of crime, although I avoid anything too grim and gory. And writing romantic suspense requires many of the key elements of any crime novel. With this in mind my research into crime writing of this week was a refresher rather than going in cold. Much of it is things I knew but had never thought about — such as what, exactly, constitutes a crime novel. And, under the definition that the genre encompasses everything that revolves around a crime, I’ve already written three. 

One thing that did strike me is that there seems to be a split in the how-to-write-crime ranks. One camp champion the plot as the driver of the novel, with its twists and its turns and increasingly desperate (it seems to me) ways to kill someone. The second focuses on the characters of hero and villain, especially in longer series of novels. 

Anyone who’s read one of my books will know exactly which is my dog in this fight. It’s character for me, all the way. The limitation of the romance genre was that the relationships between the two main protagonists have to be tied up at the end of the book, and moving into a different genre frees me from this. This allows me to plan a series of relationships which extend over several books, and which aren’t required to have that element of romantic love. Friendships can wax and wane, professional partnerships forged and fractured, in a realistic time frame. 

 I’ve begun with my two main characters and I know how their relationship will develop over what I hope will be the first three books in the series. And I’ve decided where to set my books. I’ll tell you that next week — but in the meantime, in true detective tradition, I’ll offer you just a tiny clue with the picture.