Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Man Who Knew Too Much?

One sure fire way for getting a book deal as a thriller writer would be to have held a senior job in the security services – particularly if, for example you were once head of MI5 or are a former commander of Special Branch.  But, as writer George Eccles pointed out last week, sometimes too much knowledge can be a hindrance, rather than a help. Here’s his answer to my question about the sort of difficulties he faced in trying to set aside his expertise for the subject matter:

‘On reflection, I think some of the earlier drafts read more like a business history of post-perestroika Russian than a thriller. Looking back, although the story was good (I think), the early drafts made very slow reading.

At various stages, a number of different people read the manuscript, and it soon became clear that radical surgery was required. In the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to write a story where the action and twists moved really fast, almost before the reader had time to catch his breath, so in the end I decided to re-plan the book and rewrote it almost from scratch since this seemed the best way of achieving this objective. To put this in context, the final version of the manuscript was some 100 pages shorter than the original version.’

So, let’s clear here.  Because the book seemed to be like a business history the old draft was jettisoned and the new draft was written from scratch and in the final version, 100 pages were cut from the original.

I have had a similar problem with a play I am still trying to write.  I did so much historical research that when I attended a playwriting workshop where we had to come up with two scenes for the actors, who were coming in for a rehearsed reading, I found I was carrying the weight of the history of this true story on my shoulders.  And as I wasn’t writing a biographical play, I too had to throw away most of what I’d written and started with a blank page.  By then the clock was ticking and I had an hour left to write the scenes.  I did it by imagining what it must have felt like for the two injured and shell-shocked characters fighting for their survival on a tropical island.

So if you want to write thrillers, historical fiction or any other genre for that matter where research is required, remember that just because another writer might have done that particular job – it doesn’t follow that they will be any better at storytelling than you, me or the next person.

If you have any thoughts about research Id love to know them!  So drop me a line or comment on the blog.

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Salander’s Characterisation lives up to the Hype

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

It might seem odd to review a bestseller after the hype has died down, but such was the influence of this book over me that I decided that I had to hold off reading it until my own thriller was published.  Of course, I couldn’t stay away completely and succumbed to the Swedish film version but I waited until I had a good first draft of my own novel. Why? Because we both had spiky female protagonists and I didn’t want to be unduly influenced by Lisbeth Salander’s characterisation.

Rather than simply recount the plot and add spoilers, I’d rather concentrate instead on the characterisation.  Did Girl live up to the hype? As far as the characterisation of Salander is concerned – yes.  And it is to see what Lisbeth does in the sequels is the reason why I shall be reading Hornets Nest and The Girl who Played with Fire. Blomkvist’s characterisation doesn’t quite match that of Salander’s but perhaps that was intentional – that Larsson chose to put the female protagonist centre stage.

The plot is sprawling, there are swathes of minor characters and the family tree is as complicated as the one in War and Peace, but if you like your thrillers with a social conscience, as I do, this deserves to outsell all the pale imitators that will no doubt, follow in its wake.

Greedy, powerful and stinking rich – the battle for Russia’s billions

Interview with G.W. Eccles – The Oligarch: A Thriller

“Upright in the back seat, the FSB officer waited for the Range Rover to glide to a halt outside the battlemented walls of Novodevichy Convent.”  This is the opening of writer G.W. Eccles’ exciting political thriller, The Oligarch.

As you state in the subtitle to the book, this story is about “the battle for Russia.”  And you seem to have inside knowledge of the situation. Can you tell readers a little about your background and how you came to write The Oligarch?

I spent ten years living and working in Russia and Central Asia. I started in Moscow in 1994, shortly after the episode when Yeltsin stood on the tank outside the (Russian) White House to halt the coup against Gorbachev by members of the government opposed to the whole concept of perestroika and wanting a return to the former Soviet style of government. The next few years were a tumultuous period in Russian history as a sick, ailing Yeltsin struggled to govern a country running out of control.

It was during this time that the notorious ‘loans for shares’ scheme took place. Yeltsin was rapidly running out of cash as government revenues stalled, and a group of enormously rich businessmen who had profited from the fallout of the Soviet Union agreed to lend the State money in return for taking shares in major Russian companies (particularly in the natural resources sector) as security. The theory was that the State would borrow money for a year, then repay it and the security would be returned, but everyone knew that Yeltsin would never be able to repay the money in that timescale. As a result, the security crystallised and the oligarchs gained ownership of enormous companies for a tiny amount of money.

While I was working there, I was involved in several assignments for some of these oligarchs helping them come to grips with the companies of which they had gained control. These vast enterprises were all operating in a cumbersome, inefficient Soviet manner, and the oligarchs were quick to put in measures to make them more competitive, adopting Western practices and wholesale rationalisations.

This is the key background to The Oligarch: A Thriller. It begins with the election of a Russian President for a third term amid widespread accusations of vote rigging, and deals with the consequences of the President’s determination to claw back from the oligarchs what he regards as the family silver they obtained for a song as a result of the ‘loans for shares’ episode.

What impressed me about this book is the strength of the storytelling and the pacing, particularly in the opening.  Given that you know so much about the setting and the background to your story, how hard was it for you to set aside your expertise while you concentrated on telling an exciting story?

Extraordinarily difficult. On reflection, I think some of the earlier drafts read more like a business history of post-perestroika Russian than a thriller. Looking back, although the story was good (I think), the early drafts made very slow reading.

At various stages, a number of different people read the manuscript, and it soon became clear that radical surgery was required. In the back of my mind, I’d always wanted to write a story where the action and twists moved really fast, almost before the reader had time to catch his breath, so in the end I decided to re-plan the book and rewrote it almost from scratch since this seemed the best way of achieving this objective. To put this in context, the final version of the manuscript was some 100 pages shorter than the original version.

Politics, power, money and the struggle for supremacy – this is no place for the weak or the insecure.  What sort of personal qualities do your characters have to have to operate in the world of your story?

They have to be strong or, at least, get strong. Let me explain what I mean.

The Russian business world is not for the faint-hearted. While I was there, bankers and oil industry executives lived in constant fear for their lives. Western oilmen lived in an armed compound outside Moscow formerly reserved for the Politburo. Directors of aluminium companies tended to have a fairly short lifespan. The Russian approach to a contractual relationship, even after the contract’s signed, is that it’s always renegotiable. The people who get to the top not only need a certain presence, but they are tough through and through.

In The Oligarch: A Thriller, there are three main characters. Leksin, the hero, who is brought in by the President to investigate what is happening at Tyndersk prior to its appropriation by the State. He is tough both physically and mentally, and has the confidence not to be intimated. Anton Blok, the oligarch, who gained control of Tyndersk though the loans for shares scheme, has his own private agenda (about which we learn about as the book progresses) and will stop at nothing to thwart the President’s plans. He’s essentially a thug in a suit: rude, insensitive, greedy, ruthless. Finally, Anya, Blok’s daughter. She’s a particularly interesting character, I think, because, when we first meet her, she comes across as a rich, spoilt waster, obsessed yet bored with the Moscow social world. However, as she gets to grips with what her father’s doing and the danger in which it’s putting Leksin (with whom she falls in love), she has for once a purpose in life and she shows steely determination in pursuing it.

The Oligarchs is an impressive debut for a first-time novelist– or have you had other fiction published? 

No, I haven’t. That of course doesn’t mean that I haven’t written any fiction before. Probably like all authors, there are plenty of manuscripts in the bottom drawer. The early ones are, I suspect, pretty terrible. One or two of the others I might revisit one day to see if anything can be salvaged from them.

Given the quality of the writing, I am surprised that you have not been taken up by an agent or a publisher.  Did you submit this to agents before deciding to indie publish?

How nice of you to praise the writing. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

Yes, I did look at mainstream publishing, and through an agent it was sent to a few publishers. The feedback in most cases was pleasantly flattering, but two relatively consistent themes emerged from their replies. First, there was a reluctance to take on new authors in the present climate, especially I think thriller writers. They wanted to stick with the tried and tested. Second, they all had Russia-based novels already in their lists. This second point I found particularly depressing. There are of course numerous thrillers set in Russia, some of them with good stories. However, with only a few exceptions, they appear to be written by people whose knowledge of Russia is limited at worst to the internet and at best to a two week Thomas Cook tour of Russia! By contrast, my family and I lived in Russia and Central Asia for ten years, and I was painstaking about trying to make the novel authentic: how people live, what it’s like to travel within Russia, the cold and drabness of the Siberian Arctic, what they eat, how they dress, and so on. I got a number of my Russian contacts to read the manuscript and highlight anything they felt was odd.

Anyway, getting back to your question, after I’d received a few publishers’ replies, I had to make a decision. One of the key things about the book is that it is immensely topical. It begins just after a Russian President has been controversially elected for a third term, and concerns his battle to wrest control back from the oligarchs. All these things are happening in Russia in real life right now, although of course the rest of the story is fiction. With this in mind, I had to choose between persevering and hopefully finding a mainstream publisher (which even if successful would mean that the book wouldn’t be published for at least another year), or publish it independently. Rightly or wrongly, I felt that, to achieve most impact with readers, the thriller needed to be published now, so I went down the self-published e-book route

 

What’s next for G.W. Eccles, thriller writer?

I would very much like The Oligarch: A Thriller to be the first in a series of Leksin thrillers. I have the next story firmly fixed in my head. However, at the moment I’m waiting to see how this novel goes. If enough people read it and like it, then I’m sure that’ll provide the necessary motivation to get on with the sequel.

How long did the book take to write – from research to publication and can you tell us a little about the writing process?

A very long time. The first draft was done several years ago, then left in a drawer. Once I picked it up again, as I’ve mentioned, I realised that tinkering with it wasn’t the answer. I spent about a year writing and rewriting it, then sending it off to contacts for their feedback, then writing it and rewriting it some more. My wife, who speaks Russian and has a far greater knowledge of Russian culture than I do, spent a massive amount of time helping with the editing process.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Not really. I just hope people read the book and like it. Personally I think it’s a very exciting and pacy story, taking place in an interesting and unusual setting. but that’s not really the point: the key thing is that the readers share that view. That’s what would make all the effort worthwhile.

And finally, Russia is in the news at the moment, for all the wrong reasons and even though we in the West would like to understand what’s going on it’s hard to make sense of it from here.  What do you think will happen to the young women in the punk band, Pussy Riot, who dared to publicly humiliate Putin?

To be honest, no idea. All I can say is that upsetting Putin is a very dangerous practice. Look what happened to Khodorkovsky. [currently serving a 12 year prison sentence].

The Oligarch (ASIN: B007T48YV2)is available through:

Amazon UK:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Oligarch-A-Thriller-ebook/dp/B007T48YV2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1339148959&sr=8-1

Amazon US:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Oligarch-A-Thriller-ebook/dp/B007T48YV2/ref=sr_1_16?ie=UTF8&qid=1339149019&sr=8-16

Amazon France:

http://www.amazon.fr/The-Oligarch-A-Thriller-ebook/dp/B007T48YV2/ref=sr_1_28?ie=UTF8&qid=1339149108&sr=8-28

It is also available on Apple iTunes (UK, US and France), Barnes & Noble, and Kobo eBookstore

Interview with Lisa Williams author of Death on a Long Winter’s Night

Revolution Earth has a sequence in it set in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica – the one location that we weren’t able to get to.  We consoled ourselves that if we were lucky enough to find a reader who had been to Antarctica, that they were most likely to have gone as a tourist and we hoped that our readers would suspend their disbelief and find our fictional setting credible.  And then we found Lisa, via Goodreads – who had not only worked in Antarctica but had worked there over the winter – and written a thriller set there too. The moral of this tale is that the world is a small place and despite choosing a remote location to set your book, do your homework first, as there will always be a reader who has been there.

Lisa, as you state in the introduction to Death on a Long Winter’s Night,” it is a glimpse into a world that few of us will ever see. Cold, dark, forbidding, the landscape is as deadly as the killer.”  To me, it seems similar to being on a space shuttle – cut off from the rest of the world – with only your colleagues for company – how did you cope with the isolation?

With the Internet bringing ever more connectivity to the wide world, it’s not nearly as isolated as it used to be. When I first went down to the Ice in the early 1990s, we phoned home to the States by booking an appointment with the Telecom operator at Scott Base. You got ten minutes and the connection was usually so bad you were screaming into the phone. It was expensive too. I don’t remember how much…but it seemed like a lot. The other way you could communicate with loved ones was by being hooked up with a ham radio operator. You’d get on the radio with them and they’d ring your home phone. You had to remember to say “Over” when it was the other person’s turn to talk. Of course the whole world could be listening to your conversation. So the rules were no swearing. You also had to book an appointment for those phone calls. The Navy was in charge, so there were always lots of sailors in line pining for their girlfriends.

And certainly before I was ever in the Antarctic, it was even more isolated.

But yes, even with the Internet we were isolated, especially in the winter. Once the last plane left in February, we were on our own — when I was there for the winter in 1995, there were 200-250 of us at McMurdo Station. And I think 10 at Scott Base. As the winter went on, the parties got wilder and wilder. We were bored, parties allowed us to let off steam.

What were the practical problems you encountered down on the ice and are these incorporated into the novel?

Hmmm, practical problems. The static electricity sucked. I worked in the science lab and we had carpet. The humidity was 1%, so any time we touched metal we got a big zap. Is that a practical problem?  I didn’t put the static electricity problem into the novel. I did talk about how we didn’t have any real crime fighting technology. No dusting for fingerprints, no forensics, no police detectives. Just our federal marshal…who was nothing like the character I created in the book. He was an okay guy, though he did wear his little gold star on his parka. On the other hand, I didn’t think it was fair that there was a police figure but no lawyer or other advocate for suspected ‘crims’.   The only crime down there was petty theft and an occasional assault fuelled by alcohol. [If there was anything more serious going on, we didn’t know it.]

What was the inspiration behind Death on a Long Winter’s Night?

The fact that there was no crime fighting technology. How would you catch a killer without those tools? Also, the fact that it was winter and there was no way to get off of Ross Island, so no escape for the killer or the innocent. And I wanted to write about Antarctica again.

How long did the book take to write – from research to publication and can you tell us a little about the writing process?

 

The research was pretty much the experience of wintering over. By then I had been to Antarctica five times and absorbed a lot about life on the Ice. In fact, when I was re-editing the book this past year, I was amazed at how much I used to know about the Ice that I wouldn’t be able to capture now. I wrote the book over a couple of years starting in 2001 and then put it aside.

The manuscript was a finalist for the Richard Webster prize in popular fiction in 2004 (I think that’s the right year) that was at that time sponsored in conjunction with Hazard Press, Christchurch. (May Hazard rest in peace).  But they were only publishing the winner of the contest.

I decided this past year to bring the book out again and have a look to see if I wanted to have another go, given the popularity of ebooks. I edited out 20,000 words and got some good feedback about how to quicken the pace. I learned a lot through that re-editing process: quicker pace, less characters to keep track of, not so much description. Even had to sacrifice some scenes I was quite fond of. For example, I originally had a chapter that takes place in the station infirmary with the doctor. He’s not a very good doctor — a dermatologist — and he can’t stand dead bodies, so he hasn’t really examined Poke’s body.

I found it fascinating that you created a mythology of Antarctica, which features skuas – can you tell us a little about that? Have you incorporated this mythology into any of your work?

You’ll find the myths I wrote about Antarctica in my first novel, Drifting at the Bottom of the World, published in 2003 by Bella Books. I started writing that novel while wintering over in 1995. The myths sprung out of my realisation that since there was no people indigenous to Antarctica, there had been no myths created. So I made some up. They centre on the animals you find down there. I figured that if anyone would be creating myths, it would be them. I also wrote a creation myth that puts the rape of a child as the act that brings about the fall of humanity from a state of grace. None of this stuff about a woman disobeying God, aka the patriarchy, by eating an apple to cause our expulsion from the garden.

Can you tell us about the other books you have had published or are working on?

As I mentioned, Drifting at the Bottom of the World. I just finished No Such Luck, which is a novel in seven pieces. It was my creative project for my PhD at AUT. It contains a novella, vintage newspaper articles, an old photocopy, a photograph, an audio interview (fiction in reality but in the context of the novel appears to be a real interview), a videotaped news clip, and a handwritten letter. It’s set in the American south where I grew up. The novel’s artefacts span a time period of 70 or so years and the tragedy of racism is at the heart of it. I didn’t realise until I got into it that this was such a deep theme with me — racism. My family has been in the south since the 1600s and it seems the issue is pretty much in my bones. I am still deciding how best to publish it. Ebook? I don’t know.

The amazing American actress Berlinda Tolbert worked with me on the audio interview. She played the character Miss Naomi Mays, an older African-American woman who is talking to the interviewer about an incident from her childhood when she suffers an act of violence at the hands of a white man. The interview supposedly took place in 1972…way before digital media and the online kingdom. So her interview is very private, meant only for a local oral history project. Berlinda co-wrote the script and she really improved it. I wrote for the page, she wrote for the ear.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

My thanks for getting to talk about Antarctica and my work. Really, Antarctica is the soul of the earth.

One point I wanted to add is that until October 1st all profits from the sale of Death on a Long Winter’s Night are going to Lisa’s good friend and Ice pal, Mariah to help with Mariah’s medical expenses after surgery and chemo for cancer.

 

Death on a Long Winter’s Night is available through Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008GWMO08

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B008GWMO08

Only the Innocent

Only the Innocent is perhaps the best example there is of the new breed of indie published novels. It’s as professionally written as any you will find published by mainstream publishers – from the arresting cover image to the formatting – little details they may be, but in the world of indie publishing – this makes this novel a stand-out.

I came across Only the Innocent at the end of November 2011, as our books were launched on a writing critique website at the same time – and well before Rachel had become the epublishing sensation of 2012. Let me declare my interest here: Rachel runs an incredibly helpful blog and I have learnt more about ebook marketing and publishing from that than any other source. In return, the least I can do is write a proper review of her novel.

It is cleverly plotted and skilfully woven and there is very thorough attention to detail. Rachel is obviously putting her experience of writing an interactive version of Cluedo to good use.

This reader, who is a little less in awe of social status and power than Laura must have been, failed to see any charm in Hugo at all. It is almost as though the author anticipates that readers might not suspend their disbelief over whether or not a woman would stay with such a charmless sadist, so time and time again, Rachel Abbott comes up with credible reasons. In the early stages of the book I wondered why there were so many letters that were never sent, but yet again, the author comes up with a good enough reason for me to go – okay, I’m in capable hands – now I’ll just sit back and enjoy the story.

Rachel is perhaps better known for her skilful marketing of Only the Innocent – and one thing is for sure, she knows exactly who her readers are. As a fellow author, I can only admire her for that.
I rate this book 4.5 stars and great value at £1.99.