Freefall Writing

No matter how long I’ve been writing, there’s always more for me to learn. Reading other writer’s work is a brilliant way to do that. Writing itself, just putting words on paper is also recommended. However, a school teacher once told me that practice did NOT make perfect. ‘If you carry on making the same basic errors, you’ll never improve. CORRECT PRACTICE makes perfect’ is how he expressed it.

With that in mind, though they say you shouldn’t take any notice of school teachers because ‘those who can, do and those that can’t, teach,’ I try to take every opportunity to improve my writing technique.

Content isn’t a problem for me. I’m blessed with a very inventive mind that is harder to rein back than it is to get going. Getting it down on paper in a manner that will keep a reader engeged is the trick as far as I’m concerned.

Many years ago, I was introduced to Barbara Turner-Vessalago’s Freefall writing method and I’ve been attending her two UK workshops every year since.

My first attempts at novel writing are the stuff of legend. I wrote a SF trilogy with a casual, stand-offish point of view that was packed with self-conscious humour that didn’t work and served only to dissipate what little dramatic tension I’d created.

Barbara taught me to write from a more authentic place. To embody what I was saying. To feel in to the characters and the situation. To drop into a place, look around, see what was happening, smell the air, listen to the wind in the trees, watch my characters react to their surroundings.

Her workshops are wonderfully transformative. She is a supremely gifted mentor and the feedback she gives is always exactly what is needed. Unfortunately, there are only two courses per year in the UK and only twelve writers per workshop. Of the twenty four potential places, though, at least half are taken up by gluttons like myself. So the opportunities to attend are very limited. If you ever get a chance, I advise you to take it because you won’t regret it.

After much heart-searching, Barbara distilled her teaching into a book which provides a very cost-effective alternative to her workshops and is the next best thing.

With Barbara’s blessing, I’m going to be giving a short introductory workshop to Chorley and District Writers’ Circle on February 27th. Check out if you’re interested.

If you can’t make it, get the book.


Chekhov’s Gun

My wife had trouble sleeping and discovered that not watching the TV (or any other kind of screen) in the evening made a positive difference. It has also helped me.

In the absence of television to amuse us, we turned to reading together. A good book is a very rewarding shared experience. Even better, we find, is reading aloud. Most nights, therefore, I read to my wife who sits on the sofa in front of the fire with her knitting. We started with my books. It’s important for me to hear what I’ve written because it helps me eliminate clunky bits and also adjust the rhythm of the sentences. Reading to someone else also has the advantage of giving the opportunity for feedback, a valuable resource for any writer.

My wife is particularly good at picking up things that don’t work. Awkward sentences, inadequate explanations, lack of detail, that kind of thing. There’s a good adage when it comes to feedback:

If someone tells you that a piece doesn’t work they’re almost always right.

My wife is getting very good at helping me put things right.

Reading makes me a better writer. Writing makes me a better reader. I think it works for everyone.

In the days before television, books were the main source of entertainment and delight. There was a time, not so long ago, where not everyone could read and being read to was a valuable experience. Before that, storytelling was a purely verbal craft. I find that reading to my wife is wonderfully intimate and connective. It’s a joyful and rewarding experience that nothing televisual could ever match.

My wife doesn’t only have to listen to my books, though. We both delight in reading other things. Recently we’ve completed Peter Hoeg’s The Susan Effect and Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. Currently we’re getting on well with The Paranormal Policeman by D J Harrison (which is yet another one of mine).

As a writer, I can appreciate the craft that goes into a good book. One of the things that I particularly watch out for is the principle of Chekhov’s Gun. This convention insists that something introduced into a story, such as a gun, must be used. Otherwise there is an element of dissatisfaction for the reader that they might not even be consciously aware of. In the Susan Effect there’s an actual gun hanging on the wall which is taken down, examined and put carefully back onto position. My experience tells me to watch out for it later on and sure enough, there it is, popping up at the end in a very satisfying conclusion. A popgun, you might say if you were a humorous writer.  I told my wife about Chekhov’s gun. She’s now on the lookout for more examples and says it makes reading (or listening) to stories even more enjoyable.

My editor once pointed out the way I was dangling items in front of my readers then never mentioning them ever again. She told me to cut it out, that it wasn’t something a good writer ever did. I had to mention the Sternwood chauffeur in The Big Sleep (Marlowe never finds out who murdered him) but her justifiable reply was to the effect that if I ever became as proficient as Raymond Chandler then I could please myself. Until then, I’d be best advised to knuckle down and learn my craft.

That’s what I’m doing and reading to my wife is a big part of that.

Stranger then Fiction

Truth is stranger than fiction. This familiar saying is a quote from that master storyteller, Mark Twain. Any writer of fiction, like myself, has to bear this in mind.


Well, I suppose it’s because too much realism can be difficult for a reader to swallow. Real life tends to be fragmented, things happen that are often completely unrelated. The relative importance of events can be very hard to judge and often remain opaque. Things come and go. Things that seemed to matter one moment fade into complete insignificance.

None of these aspects of reality are conducive to telling a good story. In fiction, it’s essential to have a structure. A beginning, middle and end. There has to be a satisfactory outcome for the reader, something that can’t be guaranteed by a factual account.

You might have observed that books, films and TV programmes based on true events are always heavily dramatised. The complexity of the real has to be simplified and carefully presented in order to tell a story in a way that will hold an audience. Outcomes, especially, are manipulated in order to deliver that essential happy ending.

Here’s an example of what I’m trying to say. Consider this as the plot for a thriller.

The Russians invade Ukraine on a pretext. They arm the local thugs and support them with Russian soldiers who are ‘on holiday’ there. A Russian-supplied ground to air missile system is deployed to shoot down a civilian airliner and kill hundreds of innocent men, women and children. The AA battery is quickly spirited away back to Russia and vigorous denials are issued.

The CIA find satellite evidence of Russian involvement in the atrocity. Secret agents in Russia collect damning information about the incident and also uncover links between the Russian leader and organised crime. More diligent investigative work discovers billions of dollars of offshore funds linked directly to Putin.

OK, so far so good. Let’s put an ending to it:

In a race against time, a plucky CIA agent puts all the information together and then manages to dash to the UN building, through a hail of FSB bullets, and give it to the US Ambassador. A Security Council resolution proposed by Russia is blocked when the revelations are made. Russian allies voice their disapproval and withdraw support. Hundreds of thousands of lives are saved in Syria as the disgraced Russian regime is prevented from continuing to support the vicious Assad regime. A popular uprising in Russia ousts the president and the world becomes a better and more peaceful place.

This is the kind of thing required to make a good story. Of course, it’s fictional. The true outcome is as follows:

FIFA decide to hold the World Cup in Russia.

See what I mean?

photo credit: Delta_33 Malaysia Airlines 9M-MTC Airbus A330 via photopin (license)





Stephen King considers The Shining to be his breakthrough novel. Instead of doing more of the same that had earned him fame and fortune, he consciously decided to make the Shining something more. The way he did it was to concentrate on the character of the father and his upbringing so that the demons that afflicted him later on in the book are as much internal ones as the result of supernatural forces. According to King, being propelled by some external irresistible force provides too much of a comfortable excuse and dilutes the power of the narrative.

I found this insight extremely valuable and it has changed the way in which I view my own writing. My crime fiction books are primarily plot driven. Fast paced, breathless even. I try to pack as much story into each paragraph as I can. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Vonnegut advised, I try to spend my reader’s time as wisely as possible.

Lately, though, I’ve been working with my writing mentor on a project which is more an examination of character and relationships than whirlwind narrative. For me, it has been a completely new way of doing things. I’m a great proponent of the write the whole thing and don’t look back until you’ve finished method. It has served me very well in the past and has the great merit of not having to make any judgements as I go along.

For this novel, and it’s grown to novel proportions already, I’m constantly trying things out because I have the great benefit of someone I trust who can give me an opinion. There’s been a lot of stuff that I’ve submitted which hasn’t gone down at all well. Fortunately, I’ve sufficiently matured as a writer to view negative comments as even more valuable than positive ones. Sometimes I find it hard to agree with them but most of the time I’m able to reflect on the truth behind them and take them on board.

This has resulted in lots of rewrites, many versions of the same scene, drastic plot revisions galore. For example, an early version had the protagonist in a hospital bed paralysed apart from a couple of fingers on one hand which he used to type long accounts of early childhood. This might immediately seem cumbersome and overly melodramatic to you but it took me a while to get that myself.

I don’t know if this will be my breakthrough novel and, quite honestly, it might not even see the light of publication. What matters is that I feel that I’m growing as a writer all the time and that’s important.

photo credit: JoeInSouthernCA Vintage Movie Poster: “The Shining” via photopin (license)


I saw this thing on the BBC website and loved it enough to want to tell you about it. As a writer, I love words and what they can do. I also recognise that years of practice have instilled in me some basic rules that serve me well. A writer’s job is to tell a story and not to advertise the way in which the story’s being told.

If I write a clumsy sentence, or even a single inappropriate word, the reader is immediately pulled out of the situation my protagonist is faced with and back to reality. Do that often and any reader will put down my book in disgust and give up. Having a compelling plot and interesting characters isn’t enough. The story needs to flow in a way that a reader will find comfortable and satisfying.

There are many craft books out there that help a writer to understand what works and what doesn’t. However, there are some extremely powerful rules that are instinctive and rarely expressed.

Take this, for instance:

Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out.

The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth

Break this rule and, as the man says, you’ll sound like a maniac. Which will be off-putting to your English wonderful readership. ARRGH! See what he means?

Of course there’s more too it, there always is. I can almost hear the cries of Big Bad Wolf. What about that then? Shouldn’t it be Bad Big Wolf according to the rule, even though that would sound pretty awful?

The brilliant Mr Forsyth explains:

Reduplication in linguistics is when you repeat a word, sometimes with an altered consonant (lovey-dovey, fuddy-duddy, nitty-gritty), and sometimes with an altered vowel: bish-bash-bosh, ding-dang-dong. If there are three words then the order has to go I, A, O. If there are two words then the first is I and the second is either A or O. Mish-mash, chit-chat, dilly-dally, shilly-shally, tip top, hip-hop, flip-flop, tic tac, sing song, ding dong, King Kong, ping pong.

So linguistic reduplication is so important that it outranks the adjective sequence.

We don’t have to learn any of this, it’s all natural. Which makes it so powerful because my readers don’t spot that I’m breaking any rules, they only know that it sounds wrong and they don’t like it. So they stop reading. And I don’t want that.

No more washy-wishy prose for me, I’m getting Mr Forsyth’s book.

First Words

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

(Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep)

Whatever I’ve been writing, I find that the opening needs to be written last. That might sound a bit contrary but believe me it works much better this way.

I have a tendency, in common with many writers, to start a story with some stuff that is best described as ‘backstory’. Information that’s necessary for the writer but not needed by the reader. Things like what the protagonist looks like, what he had for breakfast and the number of the bus he gets to work.

These days, I try to write the whole story from beginning to end and then decide what’s needed and what isn’t. Then I have a go at the opening few sentences to see if they’re the right ones for the story.

Openings are of crucial importance. They set the style and tone for the whole piece. They also, crucially, invite the reader to read on. The best openings include enough information on character, setting and plot to engage readers without giving them indigestion.

My favourite opening paragraph is reproduced above. I love everything Chandler wrote but the beginning of The Big Sleep is quintessential Chandler. Here we meet Marlowe, perhaps for the first time. We learn a huge amount about this man from the way he describes himself. Neat, clean, shaved and sober might seem unremarkable but the fact that he takes the trouble to mention it indicates that these are not part of his default state. The details of what he’s wearing down to the pattern on his socks shows he’s been very methodical in deciding exactly what to wear. And that the meeting is very important. And that Sternwood is very, very rich. And so on. All shown to us in an effortless way that lets us form our own opinion of the protagonist. Awesome. I love it.

Oh, and the second paragraph is just as good. And the third…

If you haven’t read The Big Sleep then I suggest you do. If you have read it, read it again and this time remember to marvel at Chandler’s technique as well as enjoying the story.


There’s a big difference between central characters and minor characters. Here’s what I mean:

1. Getting punched in the face

Minor character collapses unconscious in a heap, never bothers anyone ever again.

Major character rides the savage blow, comes back for more. And more. No matter how often he’s hit, he keeps on going even though he’s obviously going to be battered to death. Then, just when you think he’s finished, he swings a hay maker of his own and his assailant collapses unconscious in a heap and never bothers anyone ever again.

2. Getting shot

Minor character dies without fuss from a single wound.

Major character staggers slightly, looks down at the blood seeping from his shirt then carries on regardless. May take several more bullets with similar minor effect. By the next scene all traces of injury have gone and he’s restored to full fitness.

3. Dialogue

Minor characters rarely speak and if they do it’s usually monosyllabic.

Major characters can’t stop spouting on. They have an opinion about everything and a back story that they can’t resist constant references to. Their speech defines them, makes them real and tells us what we should feel about them.

4. Names

Minor characters, like farm animals, don’t usually have names. The reader/viewer has enough information to take in without having to memorise names that may never be heard of again.

Major characters have memorable, carefully chosen, names. Like Bilbo Baggins and Lyra Belacqua. Or Milo Minderbender. Or even Lady 3Jane Marie-France Tessier-Ashpool.

I suppose you’re getting the drift, now. But, apart from the potential amusement, why am I pointing this out? I as usual with me, it’s a observation that might help my writing. It’s important for me to remember to make a clear differentiation between major and minor characters so that readers get a helpful steer on who to engage with and who to ignore. Otherwise, I risk overloading them with information and maybe get myself confused as well.

But how many major characters are allowed? As many as I can keep up with, I suppose. It’s a bit like spinning plates, if you’re old enough to get the reference. For the younger readers I should explain that it was once considered top class entertainment to watch a man keeping plates balanced on thin poles by keeping them spinning. The audience would gasp with excitement at such a wonderful spectacle, I’m surprised that nobody has been on Britain’s Got Talent with such an act. Problem with spinning plates is the ones that fall off and spoil the trick. If a character or plate is going to smash on the ground I’d advise making it happen rather than watching helplessly.

Did you recognise the names I used as examples? In case you didn’t they came from The Hobbit, His Dark Materials, Catch 22 and Neuromancer. If there’s any of these you’ve not read I suggest you stop what you’re doing and get reading.

photo credit: plynoi Why so serious? via photopin (license)



This is the result of the previous submission I made to the BBC. Note the date. January 1972. It’s taken me this long to recover from the feeling of disappointment. OK, I suppose I’m not quite there yet.

In 1972, submitting a script was much more difficult than it is today. There were no computers, printers, photocopiers, email, internet or automatic spell checks. I had to type out my manuscript on a typewriter, a process akin to carving out letters on to tablets of stone. Mistakes were impossible to correct. They hadn’t even invented Tippex in those days.

The kindest thing I can say about my 1972 submission was that it was typed reasonably neatly.

I’m now used to working with an editor, as you will have gathered from previous posts. I love the freedom this gives my novel writing. I am relieved from having to guess what works and what doesn’t. An editor tells me in no uncertain terms. I’m more happy to accept criticism these days now that I recognise it as an essential part of my writing process. You note I use the term more happy and not just happy.

I’ve (bravely) put the BBC disappointment behind me and have sent them another script, 55 years on from the first (and only) one. This temerity has to be laid at the doorstep of that distinguished Irish writer and friend, Daragh O’ Reilly. He’s developed a bee in his bonnet about radio plays and, just so that I can spend some time with him, I joined him on a course about them. I’ve always been a big fan of Radio 4  and the prospect of getting something out on the airwaves is a delicious one however remote the possibility might be. Writing for radio is very different to writing a novel. My story arcs tend to be vast, requiring several hundred thousand words to complete. I write novels in batches of three or four. A 45 minute radio play needs only about 7,500 words. This is all a bit sudden for my liking so I’ve submitted the first episode of a six-part series.

I need to get back to the third Tyrant book now, but, before I do, I’ll finish a new radio play that I’ve started . Then Daragh and I have a joint one to complete. Maybe I’m catching some of what he’s got.





There are many violent things happening in the world. The murderous actions of extremists are on the front pages of our newspapers on a regular basis. In reaction, governments pledge to drop more bombs in the places that the terrorists might be. The term is fighting fire with fire. In the real world, it’s what the general public seem to require of our politicians.

In the fictional world of Jenny Parker, violence isn’t an option for her. Even if it were available to her, which mostly it’s not, she realises that the kind of people she has to deal with actually thrive on violence. It’s something they understand. Jenny has to find other means of saving herself knowing that threats of retaliation in kind aren’t going to change her antagonists’ mindset.

If someone’s trying to kill you shouldn’t you just kill them first? Isn’t that the only way?

I don’t believe it’s that simple. I find plots that rely on a hero being able to out-fight, out-shoot or out-muscle the villain somewhat unsatisfying. There is, of course, a degree of might-is-right inherent in the way we humans conduct ourselves and it’s a horrible fact to contemplate. But that doesn’t mean violence has to be the only way out of a difficult situation.

One of the reasons I write the Jenny Parker series is to get away from the convention that a hero has to be able to beat up the bad guys. My old karate teacher, Billy Higgins, used to say that a good big ‘un will always beat a good little ‘un. He also taught me that, regardless of how proficient I might be, someone bigger and stronger would most likely kick my ass. The point of the training was to be able to defend myself long enough to be able to run away. Sprinting is a noble form of defence, in my opinion. Mind you, I only progressed to the level of yellow belt which some might find highly appropriate.

Jenny Parker doesn’t have super powers, nor does she wield a samurai sword to deadly effect. She has to think on her feet and talk her way out of danger. It doesn’t always work, mind you.

In the world of thrillers as in the real world, I firmly believe that violence will never bring a satisfactory resolution to a conflict. There are more subtle and effective means. And these are much more interesting to me and, I hope, to my readers.

photo credit: Explosion (Verleitung, Ablenkung beim SEK-Einsatz) via photopin (license)


As Stephen King will tell you, writers rarely ask each other where they get their inspiration from because we don’t know. The more we think about it, the weirder it becomes, so we tend to take it for granted that the ideas will flow.

Some of us find inspiration comes more easily than others. There’s this horrible thing called writers’ block that gets in the way some times.

I’m very fortunate to have worked with the brilliant and insightful Barbara Turner-Vessalago for many years now. She has taught me the process that I use whenever I write. It doesn’t matter what I’m writing, this really works for me.

Most of the time, I’m writing a novel. I used to think that a novel was an enormous almost never-ending task. I was often so daunted by the immensity of it I would feel like giving up. Then I learned that any piece of writing has to be written one word at a time. One word isn’t so difficult to do. The next one comes even easier than the first and I’m away.

My starting point is almost always a place into which I parachute my characters and allow them to have a good look around. Then I see what happens and write it down.

Barbara’s writing process is called Freefall and I heartily recommend it to you. I have found that most books on writing craft only become useful when I’ve more or less finished what I’m writing and am looking for technical assistance to make it work. Freefall is so wonderful because it gets me going. Starts me off. I lower my self into a time and place, sniff the air, listen to the rustling of the wind in the trees, narrow my eyes against the setting sun and…

I think you’ve got the picture.

Until recently, the only access to Barbara has been through her workshops in Canada, Australia and two per year in the UK. I’m lucky in that I’ve managed to attend at least one a year since 2007. Now, she has published two books on Freefall. Get them. You will find them useful and inspiring.

At the moment, I have the fourth Jenny Parker novel away for copy edit. The two Tyrant fantasy novels are sitting in a proverbial drawer maturing and my SF novel, Voyager, has just reached the 30,000 word hump which means it’s now got a life of its own and all I have to do is watch what happens and write it down. So I’ve taken a couple of weeks out to write a radio play. This is really good fun and a complete change to my usual form. As a prelude, I attended an inspirational one-day course presented by a radio producer called Polly Thomas. If I like what I produce, I’m going to actually submit the script to the BBC, who sent me the only rejection letter of my career in 1972.

Wish me luck.

photo credit: SFB579 Namaste Candle-Light via photopin (license)