My seven months of Facebook exile has ended – what have I learned?

After seven months (give or take) away from Facebook I’ve decided to return to active social networking. My reasons for leaving in the first place were manifold. Progress on my novel A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Billingham Forum was in a state of paralysis and didn’t seem to be moving forward as quickly as I wanted. I needed more time to focus on expanding my graphic designer skillset to include web design (web page design and creation and learning HTML and CSS coding (with Javascript and other languages to follow). I needed these skills to produce a graphic designer website and portfolio, along with an entirely separate author website. I also wanted to leave because, at that point in time, my overuse of social media was getting in the way of these goals. Facebook became my means of venting my frustration and anger at the world, anger that increased when I realised my excessive use of social media was slowing down my progress. And so it went in a vicious cycle of anger and frustration until I decided that leaving was the only way I was going to achieve anything.

It took some time getting used to the adjustment. I realised just how many hours I spent on Facebook, doing nothing of much value, either on my laptop or my mobile phone. I actually missed it, although I wasn’t quite sure why. Then I began to fill this spare time productively. I spent hours studying HTML and CSS on Udemy or reading books on the subject. Gradually these languages began to make sense, and I was able to build a first draft author website. At the same time, my novel started to come together.

After a while, I realised that I didn’t need Facebook at all. And I certainly didn’t miss it. My procrastination levels dropped markedly. I bought server space and downloaded some software I needed to put my designer website together, which happened with little fuss. Then I learned about the responsive website design framework Bootstrap and put together a responsive version of my author website. The novel went off for editing (a process that’s now almost finished), and I’m gearing myself up for its release.

Which brings me here.

I’m in a much better place than I was in January. Just a few small achievements, such as learning to code relatively simple languages like HTML and CSS, and building a couple of websites, have brightened my mood considerably. Plus work on the latest Stanton novel is no longer getting me down. I feel like the time’s right to re-enter the world of social media. With a few caveats, of course!

My newfound sense of purpose and self-belief will disappear quickly if I succumb to old habits. So from now on, Facebook is restricted to my laptop. Besides, the Facebook app drains something like 20 percent battery life from most mobile phones. And I’m going to monitor my usage carefully.

So what have I learned from my time away from Facebook? Firstly, I can get things done when I put my mind to them. Second, social media time is dead time that can be utilised better by learning or writing or doing something useful. Third, I’ve got a long way to go before I can consider myself a fully functioning web designer (Javascript, PHP, MySQL, etc.). Fourth, I’m getting slower as a writer and I need to do something to combat this. I’m breaking my next big novel The Amsterdamned into small plot units, and story beats, in an attempt to speed up writing time (otherwise I’m likely to be publishing the fucking thing in 2019 rather than 2017). Fifth, if any of you want to learn a computer language or pick up software skills quickly, then I highly recommend Udemy. It’s brilliant.

Last but not least, I’ve learned that taking time out to pursue goals is the most productive and rewarding thing you can do. Sure, it can be frustrating, and progress can often be slow, but the pleasure from achieving life goals (however small) is immense. I can no longer imagine going back to the way things were.

Hell, I don’t wanna go back to way things were.

Onwards and upwards, my friends. Onwards and upwards.

I’ve got a brand new author website

After learning HTML and CSS (an ongoing and never ending process, I might add), and after a couple of false starts, I have designed and coded my new author website. Based on the Bootstrap framework, the site is fully responsive. You should have a good experience regardless of the device you view it on (although for some reason it doesn’t play nicely with Adblock – so be sure to turn off your blocker for my site (don’t worry I don’t have any sneaky ads)).

Come pay me a visit and maybe get on my subscriber list.

Potted reviews: Russian Roulette: The Konstantin Files by Keith Nixon, High-Rise by J.G. Ballard, Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard

Keith Nixon’s The Fix impressed me a couple of year’s back (and the sequel of sorts I’m Dead Again is just as good). Both featured a six-feet-five Russian tramp called Konstantin whose skillset is considerably more advanced than that of the average homeless citizen. In The Fix and even in I’m Dead Again he’s more of a supporting character. However, in the cracking collection of novellas called Russian Roulette he takes center stage. Along the way Konstantin encounters bumbling criminals, wannabe hardmen, drugs, dominatrixes, prostitution, fake psychics, and other misfortunes, most of which he deals with using a combination of smarts and fast fists. This anthology is packed with top notch entertainment from start to finish, written in short punchy sentences that capture the right mix of description, action and character. These are fast-paced, action-packed, foul-mouthed stories with a fair dose of heart. Highly recommended.

I recently read J.G. Ballard’s The Drought. It came across as well written but somewhat vague and episodic. It was too drawn out and the characters were too opaque for it to be truly compelling. It didn’t fill me with any compulsion to read any other of the Ballard novels on my shelf in the near future. But then the film of High Rise came out and I decided that I should read the novel before watching the film. And I’m glad I did. The book is, in a word, brilliant. Unlike The Drought this one is all just crazy momentum. It starts with a truly wonderful opening line and gets better from there. Whether viewed as an allegory about status and class, a statement on modern society’s inability to function without its technological trappings, or just as a satire about alienation, this is blistering fiction. I loved every second of it.

As regular readers of this blog probably know, I’m a big fan of Elmore Leonard. I try to get through at least one or two of his novels every year, just as a palate cleanser. His work always feels like a homecoming of sorts (Leonard was the first crime novelist I read) and Mr Majestyk was no different. It’s basically just a western dressed up in contemporary clothing, but Leonard’s spare writing makes it seem contemporary and fresh. Melon farmer, and former soldier, Vincent Majestyk wants nothing more than to be left in peace to bring in his melon crop, but various people get in the way of this including a mafia hitman. He gets zero help from the ineffectual local police, who actually want to use Majestyk as bait to lure the hitman, so decides to take the law into his own hands and hunt down the bad guys. Like I stated, just like in a western, a small guy gets pushed around by big interests and pushes back with bloody results, but the pleasure comes from the way the tale is modernised and told. Elmore Leonard couldn’t tell a dull story if he tried: his dialogue is always a pleasure to read, his descriptions hit just the right notes of concise, snappy detail, and the action and momentum is just right. If the romance between Majestyk and Nancy Chavez is a bit pat and easy that’s probably because this was Leonard’s second contemporary crime novel (after the relatively low-key The Big Bounce) and he didn’t really hit his stride until the next novel Fifty-two Pickup. But that’s a minor caveat because this is a cracking read otherwise.

Subtitle Fatigue: The Gripping Post With the Twist that’s got Everybody Talking

Am I the only person out there who’s bloody sick and tired of seeing Kindle books with SEO subtitles that are like a mini-essay?

For example:

The Girl with a Girl Tattoo: The psychological thriller novel with a gripping twist that you just won’t see coming!

A Man Without Eyes: The astonishing debut thriller novel that will grip you by the genitals until the very last page!

Book titles with colons and a short essay of random keyword bullshit seem to be the new trend for indie fiction and some self-publishers, now that The Girls… are beginning to wear out their welcome. Every new book that seems to be hitting the Kindle charts at the moment is followed by some ludicrously long subtitle/essay. I’m not sure if you agree (maybe you don’t), but this whole thing just screams AMATEUR! It also automatically makes me not want to buy the thing. In fact, if your title is followed by a colon and a random-arse description of what it contains then I’m sorry, but you’ve just been scratched off my to-read list forever. It could be the best novel ever written, but I’ll never know because I just won’t read it.

Is that writer and reader snobbery? Perhaps. Call me strange if you like, but I prefer not to be informed about an impending twist, and I don’t need to be persuaded that something is gripping. I prefer to read for myself and make an informed decision. And if I’m looking for thrillers, if your novel shows up in my search I can safely assume that the fucking thing is, in fact, a “thriller novel.”

I know I won’t stack my work with subtitles for a competitive advantage. If I can’t say what needs to be stated within the genre selectors that Amazon provides, along with its generous keyword provision, and my book blurb then, frankly, my novels deserve to fail.

Rant over!

 

Some fresh cover concepts

I’m thinking of renewing my cover designs. The aesthetic is rough and gritty – all sketchy, nervous lines and spatters of colour – reflecting the content of the books. It’ll be interesting to know people’s opinions. Good? Bad? Indifferent? Do I need a better illustrator (ie. somebody who’s not me)?

Personally, I like them. They sum up the content and the location of the book better than the current covers. Over the coming weeks I intend to do the rest of the covers, but it’ll be interesting looking at these a few weeks after their initial creation and see if I still feel the same about them.

CuriousCaseCover v2   BoneBreakers2016

Anyway, it’ll be interesting to know your thoughts on the matter. If you’re feeling chatty let me know in the comments section (particularly if you feel these are more impactful than the current covers).

Ta.

Martin

 

 

Review: The Colombian Mule by Massimo Carlotto

Massimo Carlotto’s The Colombian Mule is one of a series of novels featuring a recurring character called Marco ‘The Alligator’ Buratti, an unlicensed PI who was once imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, along with his accomplices Max The Memory and former Mafia heavy Beniamino Rossini. In this novel he is tasked with working for a man who has been fitted up in a sting involving a Colombian drug mule. His case isn’t helped by the fact that he is already a fairly unrepentent criminal (who got away with the murders of two policemen) and that his only possible chance of release is for the mule to admit that the whole operation was a frame-up. As Buratti and his allies delve deeper into the case they find that the whole thing goes deeper than just a Colombian connection. They are soon enmeshed in a case that involves the police, designer drugs production, double- and triple-crosses, and a system that is at best hopelessly inept and at worst hopelessly corrupt.

Having enjoyed some previous Europa Editions novels and spurred on by enthusiastic cover reviews – such as this one by the New Yorker: “Carlotto’s taut, broody Mediterranean noir is filled with blind corners and savage set pieces” – I decided to give it a try. Well, as much as I liked The Colombian Mule I had some real caveats, too. The New Yorker review, with its talk of “blind corners and savage set pieces” must be describing a different novel to the one I’ve just finished. The set pieces are anything but savage; in fact, they’re underwritten to the point where they are just basic descriptions of a thing that happened. There’s little tension, nothing is drawn out to create suspense or thrills, and there’s a distinct lack of ‘savagery’. If I compare this with Mr Majestyk by Elmore Leonard, the novel I’m currently reading, there’s a real difference in approach. One particular set-piece during the first third of Mr Majestyk stretches to about six pages in length. It’s exciting, tense, written concisely with an eye for just the right details – a beautiful piece of action writing. Carlotto deals with a murder towards the end of the novel in two or three short paragraphs with zero tension or emotional investment described in flat, declarative prose – a bland, dull piece of action writing.

My other caveat is that the ‘detection’ mostly involves Rossini threatening people, either through his reputation or via actual violence, or by intelligence work performed by Max The Memory. Buratti himself is a fairly benign character, offering little more than musings about women and legendary consumption of Calvados (a beverage I’m now obssessed with trying at least once). He lacks Rossini’s sociopathic indifference to using violence as a means to an end and he doesn’t possess Max’s analytical intelligence. He’s more of a conduit between the two more interesting characters.

Still, despite all these shortcomings, there was something likeable and offbeat about the relationship of the three protagonists, and the downer ending packs a decent wallop. Although I’ll be happy to read another novel in this series (along with some of Carlotto’s other work), I’ll be in no particular rush to do it. Decent but not essential.

Roger Smith talks about his brilliant new novel Nowhere

Nowhere_RogerSmith

Regular readers of this blog will know just how highly I rate Roger Smith’s excellent new novel Nowhere. It contains fantastic characters, a compelling plot, along with a detailed view of South African politics (old and new).

It’s available to pre-order at the moment but will be available to buy on 23rd February. I highly suggest you grab a copy. Otherwise you’re missing a treat.

Roger was kind enough to answer some questions about the new novel recently. He really gave me some very illuminating answers that should make folks want to read this superb novel

Nowhere is without a doubt the most political book of your career. And South Africa is such a prominent supporting character in the story. Was it your intention to bring more attention to the politics of your country with this novel?
The three books I wrote before Nowhere (Capture, Sacrifices and Man Down) were all pretty intense, almost claustrophobic, psychological thrillers. Since they were set in South Africa (although Man Down was also set partly in the US) the particular nature of South African society—which is a very politicized society—informed the books, of course. The decisions the characters made (and the crimes they were able to get away with) were a direct consequence of living in South Africa, but the unique political sensibility of the country was implicit in those quite contained stories rather than highlighted.

So, before I wrote Nowhere, before I had any idea what the book would be about, I felt the impulse to write something more expansive, something on a broader canvas, and something that would allow me to use all stuff crammed into my fifty-five-year-old South African head: memories, fears, anger, disillusionment—the fallout from growing up under apartheid, going through the giddy Mandela era and then witnessing the rise of the cynical, corrupt regime that is in power now.

I’d been obsessively reading Shelley’s Ozymandias, with its powerful image of a broken statue’s trunkless legs and head lying in the desert sand—a warning about the inevitable decline of all leaders and of the empires they build—and it struck me that all that remains of the Afrikaners’ forty-six year blight of apartheid (when they had felt so all-powerful) are some old statues of their forgotten leaders lying in sheds or standing in the dust in a couple of tragic little white homelands whose inhabitants still cling to the notion of Boer superiority, and it left me with the certainty that this new regime will come to dust, too, in time.

What was the hardest part of writing this particular book?
I was worried that it was too South African. That it would be incomprehensible—or, worse, boring—to foreign readers. I wrestled with that while I was writing it and then I thought, fuck it, just write the thing the way it wants to be written. I’ve been very encouraged by the early feedback on the book (including yours) from readers in the UK, Europe and North America.

There is one particular moment when Steve Bungu recalls a specific piece of torture to a loved one. Was this based on research?
Over the years I’ve known people who were tortured by the SA security police and I’ve also spoken to security policemen and I’ve heard stories that are hard to stomach and difficult to comprehend, so, yes, the stuff in Nowhere is rooted in fact.

Speaking of Bungu: In my own humble opinion, you write the best villains in crime fiction – how do you manage to create such vile, and yet three-dimensional antagonists?
Thanks, Martin, I appreciate that. Well, villains are always the most interesting characters to write, aren’t they? And the challenge is to give them dimension, to make them complex, to force the reader to identify with them to some degree, even if that’s uncomfortable.

The genesis of Bungu was quite interesting. Around thirty years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties, I lived in Johannesburg and was involved in making anti-apartheid documentaries. This was a bad time: states of emergency, draconian media gags, troops in the townships, arrests, political murders. Nobody had any inkling that it would all be over in a few years. Anyway, I was put in touch with a Zulu poet who was quite a prominent figure in the Black Consciousness movement who had been detained and tortured by the security police in Durban and had escaped and was hiding out in a brothel in Hillbrow, a very rundown, dangerous part of Jo’burg.

I met the guy (I won’t mention his name as he was a lovely man, not at all like the monstrous Bungu) and we struck up an unlikely friendship. Here was this Black Consciousness (by definition anti-white) poet befriending a young white guy. The police had beaten him badly and all but destroyed his left knee. He’d been unable to get proper medical attention for fear of being apprehended and lived on painkillers and booze. The hookers cooked for him and cleaned his room and probably provided other services, gratis, to soothe him. He had no interest in discussing politics with me, he just wanted to drink Scotch and talk about books. He was going through a Beckett phase, I guess the absurdity of those plays struck a chord and informed his poems. We had wonderful, wild conversations. He was a very funny man. After a month or so he disappeared back to Durban and I never saw him again, but I never forgot him.

When I sat down to write Nowhere I was fascinated by the idea of a young man, a student who loved Beckett, who had the ambition to be a playwright (as Bungu did) whose life became overwhelmed by his battle against apartheid. Who, after a devastating period of torture and detention, went from being an idealistic pacifist to a stone killer.


Many of your novels involve messed-up family units – what makes this such a compelling theme for you as a writer?
What did Philip Larkin say? “They fuck you up your mum and dad . . . but they were fucked up in their turn.” I suppose I’m fascinated by the whole sins of the fathers thing. The karmic wheel creaking. And the messed-up family is just a metaphor for the broader messed-up society, isn’t it?

You’ve now written three novels that involve Disaster Zondi: do you have any further plans for the character?
You know, as much as I liked Zondi when I wrote Mixed Blood, I had no intention of writing him again. I resisted the idea of creating a series character, which can pigeon-hole a writer. When I was working on Dust Devils a couple of years later Zondi would wake me up at night (I’m serious, he would appear in my dreams and wake me) and insist I put him in the book. I did, and it worked. But when I was done with Dust Devils I was sure I was done with Disaster Zondi, too.

But, for a while, my French publisher, the irrepressible Robert Pépin, has been at me to write another book featuring Zondi. For whatever reason Zondi has quite a following in France. And when I started work on Nowhere I realized Zondi would be a perfect addition to the ensemble cast: an older, jaded, disillusioned Zondi, in the twilight of his career.

Will I write him again? No plans, but it’s not impossible . . .

What does your writing process involve (for instance, initial plotting, research, and then the actual mechanics of writing and redrafting)?
I start off with an image, usually quite random, that often becomes the opening of the book. With Nowhere it was the image of the president of South Africa murdering his wife with a spear in the dining room of his official Cape Town residence. I had no idea where this came from or what to do with it, but I wrote the scene and then Steve Bungu, fully formed, dressed in his check shorts and golf shirt, walked through the door of the dining room and I was off and running.

I don’t like to structure things too tightly, I find this stifling. It tends to encourage formulaic plotting. I like to give my characters their heads, let them surprise me. And new characters just appear as I write, which is great. Like the bushman cop, Jan Assegaai. Zondi walked into a rural police station and there Assegaai was, standing by the window that looked out onto the desert. I had no idea that he’d be there but I loved writing him. (Now there’s a character I could bring back . . .)

Research tends to happen as I write the first draft and it happens in response to what I’m writing.

I bang the first draft out as fast as I can, in around eight weeks. Then, when I understand what I’m writing about, I write draft after draft after draft, honing and refining, for another three to four months.

There has been talk of a film adaptation of Mixed Blood: any further news on that front?
Shit, it’s a slow process. It’s been going on for years, with different producers and screenwriters. Movies are tough. All that money, all that risk. If it happens it happens . . .

What novelists have most influenced your work?
In no particular order: Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark, Norman Mailer, Martin Amis, Jim Harrison, Pete Dexter, Denis Johnson, Joan Didion, Robert Stone, Graham Greene, Richard Ford, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, Jim Thompson, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Cormac McCarthy, Ross Thomas. Many, many more . . .

Are you currently working on any new writing projects?
I’ve just finished writing an international espionage novel under a pseudonym. I can’t really say more as publishing deals are still being inked, which is very exciting. But there’ll be more South African books, for sure

Is there anything you find particularly challenging about writing?
Turning on the computer each morning and typing that first word.

What do you like to do when you aren’t writing? Hobbies, interests etc.
I have a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter, so I spend a lot of time in kidland, which is a sweet antidote to my work. I live by the ocean, so swimming and walking on the beach is fun. I read a lot. I do ashtanga yoga every morning before I write.

What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching? Do they influence your writing at all?
I love movies and TV right now is astonishingly good, isn’t it? Series like The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad were an inspiration. Vince Gilligan, who was the Breaking Bad showrunner and is now doing Better Call Saul, is a real innovator: the structure of his scripts—the way he messes with time—is fascinating.

I worked in movies and TV for years and people have said that my writing has a “cinematic quality” so there’s been some cross-pollination, clearly.

Nowhere can be bought here now and will be available for download on 23rd February