Author Introductions #6: M J Lee

Hello! 

Monday has rolled around and this week I am writing to you from an overcast but cheerful Edinburgh. Although work doesn’t often bring me to this fair city, I’m very pleased to be spending a few days here in support of my sister as her theatre group complete a month spent at the Edinburgh Festival. Their company have been winning awards for their production of Peer Gynt (complete with enormous puppets and whatnot) so it’s great to come up and cheer them on. Aside from that, Edinburgh holds a special place in my heart as it happens to be the location of my very first ‘date’ with Mr Ross fourteen years ago and we are celebrating our wedding anniversary today!

Now, enough of all that mushy stuff…

Every Monday for the next few weeks I’ll be introducing a new author, from varying genres and roads to publication, and this week I’m delighted to welcome Martin Lee to the blog, who writes historical crime fiction and historical novels under the pen name M J Lee.

M J Lee, bestselling author of historical crime fiction

After spending twenty-five years working in advertising as an award-winning copywriter and creative director (everything from Cannes to the United Nations!) Martin now writes fantastic works of fiction. When he’s not writing, he splits his time between the UK and Asia.

To find out a little more about the man behind all those richly textured novels, I sent Martin a few short questions which he has kindly answered…

1. Tell us a little about yourself – don’t be shy!

Hi there, thanks for having me, Louise. My name is Martin Lee, but I write under M J Lee. I spent most of my life working in advertising as a Creative Director. No day was ever the same and I grew to love the buzz of being paid to sit and stare out of the window. For me coming up with ideas is never a problem, but finding the time to implement them is. Nowadays, my time is planned up to two years in advance as I know the books I have to write and the research I have to do. I do miss the speed and unpredictability of advertising but I don’t miss the clients. In my past life I was also an encyclopaedia salesman, a refugee worker, and English teacher and I dubbed pornographic movies. But don’t ask about the last one.

2. Ooh, er, missus! How about your latest book – what can readers look forward to when they pick it up?

The latest book is called The American Candidate. Funnily enough, I finished it six months ago but it has now become immensely topical. Jayne Sinclair, my genealogical investigator, is asked to investigate the family background of a potential candidate for President of the United States. Almost immediately she begins to unearth some unsettling facts about his family’s past. And when the man who briefed her is murdered in cold blood, she finds herself in a race against time to discover the truth…


3. Sounds intriguing! Who is your hero in real life and in fiction? 

In real life, it has to be Nelson Mandela. How a man could be so magnanimous to the people who kept him prisoner for over twenty years was amazing. I don’t know if I would be so forgiving. In fiction, it would have to be Stephen Maturin from the novels by Patrick O’Brien. An amazing combination of knowledge, science and an understanding of humanity in an all-too-human character.
4. Who are your three favourite writers – and why?

John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, William Boyd for their understanding of the human condition and the writing skills to portray it in an interesting and dramatic way. Although, I think Boyd has gone off the boil in his last couple of novels.

5. When you’re not writing, what is your favourite way to spend your time? 

Walking. I’m a professional flaneur. It allows my feet to wander and my mind to roam free.

6. What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

That’s easy. My daughter. She’s now nearly five. I was a very late dad, I never felt old enough to have children before I became a father. It’s wonderful to see the world through her eyes.

7. What was your favourite book as a child?

I don’t know the title but it was a book of the history of English kings and queens. I remember vividly reading it in bed when I was about six years old. I think it gave me a love of history that I have retained to this day.

8. Have you read any books recently that have really captured your imagination?

I’ve just discover the Martin Beck novels of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. They were both writing in the late sixties and early seventies and were the founders (I think) of Scandi Noir. Despite being nearly fifty years old, the books have a modernity that is breathtaking, as if they were written yesterday.

9. If the Prime Minister knocked at your front door and asked to borrow a book, which one would you recommend they read?

If Theresa May came knocking at my door I would give her The Joy of Sex. It might finally bring some joy into a joyless person.

10. Finally, if you could be any character from a movie, which would it be? 

Yoda. I think I look like him anyway. I certainly write like he speaks (or so my editor tells me…)

…Thanks Martin! Great answers (especially #9) and I am looking forward to getting stuck into some of your books. Every novel requires a degree of research but I’ve always admired writers of historical fiction for all the meticulous preparation you do, even before putting pen to paper. I’ve been hearing great things about The American Candidate, so that will be first on my list!

For now, it’s back to the grindstone for me (DCI Ryan is being difficult, as usual) and I’ll catch you all later!

LJ x

 

A note of thanks…

They say, ‘lightning never strikes twice’ but sometimes, in the world of books, it does.

Let me explain…

As some of you will be aware, back in May 2015, my debut novel Holy Island nearly gave me a cardiac arrest when it managed to top the UK Kindle chart at #1 (knocking The Girl on the Train off the top spot, although I don’t imagine that gave Paula too many sleepless nights considering the rollicking and well-deserved success of her own book!) Nonetheless, when that happened, I was in a state of mild shock for quite some time afterward and probably, on some subliminal level, I still am. You see, I had no expectations. I hadn’t read every tome on ‘How to be a Writer’ and hadn’t taken endless courses on creative writing, although I was well trained in drafting as a lawyer. I didn’t have an established author platform or a degree in marketing, nor an agent, for that matter. Added to which, I had recently turned down an offer of traditional publication in favour of independent publishing through Amazon KDP and some people probably thought I’d taken leave of my senses. I didn’t have a big publishing house to support me, to pay for advertising space on tables in chain book stores or in magazines, to plaster it across bill boards or distribute my book on supermarket shelves, to guarantee membership rights to all the ‘right’ associations and don’t even get me started on things like television and foreign rights. (N.B. It is a fallacy to think that a traditional deal will equate to investment of this kind – the publisher is a business and they must prioritise resources like any other commercial venture, which usually means investing in established, ‘big hitting’ authors rather than unknowns).

No pressure, then. 

What I did have was complete freedom to produce a body of work on my own terms, without anybody telling me ‘you can’t do that’, or ‘you should write like this.’ I had access to professional editing and proofreading, which I sourced myself, to ensure quality standards. I started out making my own covers but could easily hire a professional cover designer, as many of them work freelance nowadays. I was responsible for making the book visible, as far as I could. Let’s not forget that none of this would have been possible without the revolutionary publishing platform Amazon created, which allows thousands of people to realise their dreams rather than relying on the decision of a minority few. Not every indie book will become a bestseller but at least the readers are the ultimate arbiters and every writer is given the chance to try.

Louise Call to Bar

The day I was called to the bar, quite a few years ago!

 

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This little bumble bee gifted me the time and impetus to change career

The fact is, I just wanted to write my story and retain creative control. I had resigned a well-paid job as a regulatory lawyer and decided to take a short career break to figure out what I’d prefer to do with my life. As an avid reader, writing seemed to beckon. However, the process was – let’s say interrupted by the arrival of our son, Ethan. Having spent a lifetime being told that I might never be able to have children, this news came as a huge, momentous, wonderful surprise and seemed like a kind of miracle. I felt extremely protective of the little bundle I carried and felt less inclined to scurry around the streets of London looking for another stressful job. It was therefore thanks to Ethan that I decided to open my laptop and start writing the story I’d first imagined on a train journey between Newcastle and Edinburgh, looking out across the North Sea to Holy Island.

The success of its sequels (Sycamore Gap, Heavenfield, Angel and High Force) has been very much like a series of aftershocks. With each new release, I am consumed with nerves and very anxious to know how it will be received. There is never any sense of complacency or an assumption that readers will enjoy a book because they have enjoyed the others. The same effort, sweat and tears goes into every manuscript. I certainly never thought another book of mine would reach the same top spot as Holy Island because…well, lightning doesn’t strike twice. I’m not a greedy person and I remember very clearly saying to my husband, “That’s it, for me. If I never sell another book, I’ll always be able to cherish this moment.” Turns out, I have an even kinder readership than I thought, because on 1st June my forthcoming book Cragside managed to claw its way to the #1 UK Kindle spot – and it hasn’t been released yet!

 

I don’t think a simple ‘thank you’ can really convey the deep gratitude I feel for all those people who have supported my writing and enjoyed the DCI Ryan series. It’s great to be able to say a book was a bestseller but, more importantly, to be able to say it came into being because a million people have read my books and deemed them worthy. The readers are the true gatekeepers and it is their opinion that matters to me the most.

Thanks to all of you!

LJ x

 

How to publish independently with Amazon…and have a Guinness afterwards.

Hello!

After a fairly emotional few weeks following a bereavement in our family, I was very happy to get away from it all with Mr Ross for a few days. I managed to combine business with pleasure by accepting Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing’s very kind offer to come along and be a panellist at one of their events: ‘How to Publish Independently with Amazon KDP’, which was organised in association with Writing.ie. and held in Dublin last weekend.

I have to say that this event was a pleasure to be part of: it lasted all day Saturday and was live streamed throughout libraries in Ireland, as well as via the Amazon KDP YouTube channel. The panels covered wide-ranging topics of interest, particularly to new writers, such as ‘How to Write a Bestseller’, ‘Marketing’, ‘It’s all in the Cover’, ‘How to Make a Book’ etc. Now that I’m onto my fifth book in less than two years, it’s easy for me to forget just how daunting some of these processes can be to people just starting out. But it isn’t too much of a stretch for me to simply cast my mind back to Christmas 2014, when I was on the verge of first uploading Holy Island. That book went on to be an international bestseller but, at the time, I had no way of knowing that. It’s so important for me to participate in these events, not only to share the knowledge I have acquired, but to remind myself of that initial excitement about the industry. And there is a lot to be excited about! Yes, it can be competitive and, yes, you need to work hard, but tell me one industry where that isn’t the case? At least you can be creative and write books which is such a rewarding end in itself.

If you’d like to watch the panels again, you can do so here.

The atmosphere was so lively and positive but at the same time there was a laid back feel which allowed people to relax into the panel discussions. I was joined by some lovely authors and industry professionals, including Mark Dawson, Hazel Gaynor and Catherine Ryan Howard. Rick O’Shea kindly compered alongside some of the team from Amazon and Victoria Fox O’Loughlin from Writing.ie, all of whom have valuable insights and experiences to share. That really struck a chord for me – we may have shared ideas about certain elements of the business, but we are each very individual in our approach and style, which is encouraging for anyone thinking about taking the leap; you don’t have to be pre-packaged in order to succeed.

Dublin itself was warm and friendly, as always. We caught up with some old friends, treated ourselves to a well deserved beverage of the alcoholic variety and thoroughly enjoyed spending time with like minded people.

Now, it’s back to work…

LJ x

International Literacy Day

According to the National Literacy Trust, around 5.2 million (16%) of adults in the U.K. are ‘functionally illiterate’. This means that their literacy level is at, or below that expected of an eleven-year-old. In practical terms, this means that people falling within that demographic find many areas of employment are not open to them. Similarly, they might struggle to help their children with homework and reading stories, or even everyday tasks. Of that 5.2 million, over a million have a literacy level well below that expected of an eleven-year-old.

Low literacy doesn’t just undermine personal confidence, it undermines the ability to progress in the workplace. When this is extrapolated into the millions, it is easy to see how low literacy levels can undermine U.K. competitiveness as a whole and throws up a major obstacle to the creation of a fairer society.

Against this backdrop, I find myself very irritated by some of the comments I hear and read online about the utility of certain ‘types’ of book. Literary works – which are, by the way, still a matter of opinion – are heralded by some as the only valuable contribution to the body of literature in society today. To them, I say…

Don’t be such a snob.

All reading is good reading. If it takes Fifty Shades to ignite a passion for the written word, then so be it. What’s wrong with a bit of saucy fun, anyway? Climb down from that windy ivory tower and take a look around. We have enough class division in our society without using books as another form of ammunition by which to draw a line in the sand. Those who already love a good book and, more importantly, have been fortunate enough to learn how to read in the first place, do not need anybody to tell them what they should or shouldn’t like. Those who have not been so fortunate as to develop literacy skills, for a number of reasons, do not need anybody to make the world of reading even more alien than it already is.

As a personal anecdote, my grandfather (who sadly died in 2003) was born into a poor family in the North-East, one of eight children, amidst the destruction of WW2. His school was bombed and he was only given a patchy formal education until the age of eleven, when he went out to work. It was a similar story to many of his friends. Despite this disadvantage, he went on to become a successful self-made man, a great reader and avid fan of philosophy and politics. To this day, I have never met anybody as well or widely read as he was. I remember his determined, lifelong approach to self-education as an example of the extraordinary tenacity of the human spirit. I wonder what he would think about the fact his granddaughter has written four novels! There are no barriers except the ones we create, for ourselves and for others.

LJ x

About time…

Hello!

It’s been busy in the life of LJ Ross (as always) what with completing Angel (Book 4 of the DCI Ryan Mysteries) and preparing for its general release, alongside all the usual travel and life events! Most notably, my son turned three recently and I was struck forcibly by the passage of time – as I am whenever I need to buy him a bigger pair of shoes. How quickly life storms ahead, twisting and changing before our very eyes.

Ethan's 3rd birthday.jpg

I wonder how different the world will be by the time he is grown; I remember things like ‘floppy discs’ and ‘cassette players’ whereas these will probably sound like weird and wonderful oddities to his technologically-advanced mind. I have always thought of life as a continuous cycle, never something that stands still. Moments cannot be captured like butterflies or created into a frieze, immortalised so that we can relive them time and again. But they can be remembered and that’s what I try to focus on.

The knowledge that life is so short, combined with a personal philosophy that does not include any religious deity or notion of an afterlife, has led me to adopt what I hope is a very proactive approach rooted in the here and now. My friends and family have remarked that I ‘never sit still’ or that I am ‘always on the go’ and it’s true: I find it hard to relax and do nothing. It feels like such a waste. But that’s where reading has been such a wonderful gift. It is one of the few times when I can feel my mind and body switching off, so thank you to all of the wonderful authors who have provided me with so many hours of enjoyment.

The nagging feeling that life is passing swiftly was what actively propelled me to change career. I enjoyed my life as a lawyer but I was acutely conscious that something was missing, something unfulfilled. Idealistic notions of ‘making a difference’ didn’t prepare me for the simple fact that life isn’t fair; people aren’t equal; democracy doesn’t always work and human nature is sometimes depressingly predictable. Don’t get me wrong – I have infinite faith in the resilience of the human condition, but I wasn’t prepared to waste the rest of my life trying to prove the point.

I firmly believe that people are capable of being many things over the course of a lifetime. There is no Orwellian dictator who hands out professions at birth and expects us to stick to them, so it falls upon us to reach out and grasp the life we want to lead. There may be challenges: personal, professional, financial, health-wise… but success will taste all the sweeter once these have been overcome.

It’s all about taking the first step. Blink and you’ll find that three years have passed!

Have a great weekend 🙂

LJ x

“The Wobble”

Hello!

Firstly, let me say that I’m not talking about the uncomfortable wobble many of us experience when completing the long ‘walk of shame’ from a sun lounger to the edge of the pool.

There is plenty of wobble there, comrades. The struggle is real.

But actually, I was thinking of the various, multifaceted wobbly bits involved during the process of writing and releasing a novel. “The Wobble” is also a very real struggle and one that tends to crop up repeatedly.

Oh, marvellous, I’m trying to finish my first novel and all she has to say is that the crippling self-doubt never gets any better? I might as well pack it all in now and reach for a tub of Ben and Jerry’s…

Now, now, don’t panic just yet. All I mean is that there is a consistent, fairly predictable cycle of thought processes which crop up during the various stages of writing, editing and releasing your novel. Perversely, their predictability is a source of comfort and I’m here to tell you that you’re not alone.

This isn’t an exact science so don’t quote me on this, but here’s a rough guide to the various stages of “The Wobble”…

  1. BLIND FAITH

Once you have taken the decision to change your career/life/start a new challenge like writing a book, your mind will usually cushion the decision with the pleasant accompaniment of an enormous well of blind faith. This may/may not include various enrolments in creative writing courses/online marketing courses/money-sucking ‘how to be a writer’ days out in the country. (Total waste of time, in my opinion, but each to their own).

Notwithstanding the above, this ‘blind faith’ stage can be enormously productive, resulting in reams and reams of absolute tosh. Don’t be disheartened by that, either! It’s all part of a bigger plan, leading to…

2. BLIND FEAR

Your loving family and friends may not recognise you during this (hopefully brief) phase of The Wobble. Tantrums, tears and stained jogging pants will replace all thoughts of unicorns and Booker Prizes – now a distant memory as the crushing realisation of what you have done weighs heavily upon your shoulders. You’ve decided to follow a dream – how crazy is that?! It’s not practical…it’s batshit nuts, is what it is. It’s a competitive world and your mind will try to tell you that you have no place in it. Stay strong…

3. KICK-BACK

Natural pride/ego/stubbornness will drive you to complete the novel. This can take time with some regression back to Blind Fear but usually results in powering through the pain. It’s a law of Nature, I’m sure of it. If somebody tells you that you can’t do something (even if it’s your worst self) then a small part of your brain whispers…

Fuck off! 

Yes, I can write this damn book. There will be an audience who loves reading about dancing unicorns and, even if there isn’t, at least I can say that I tried.

4. GOLLUM SYNDROME

Once you’ve actually completed the bloody thing, your brain will then tell you (illogically) that nobody should ever see it. Ever. It is your special secret, like Frodo’s Ring. It is your preciooooouuusssssss…

At this point, family/friends/mental health workers will step in to snatch the manuscript from your vice-like grip and advise you to send it off to a decent editor. Take their advice and hand it over. When it comes back covered in red pen, make sure that you are alone before having a meltdown (it will not be your finest moment). Reemerge into the world and thank the editor graciously before reading their comments with an objective eye. That is the key, here. You must be able to look at your own work with objectivity, otherwise you’re stuffed.

5. THE BIRD’S NEST

Much like a baby bird teetering on the edge of its mother’s nest, the prospect of sending your novel to a professional/uploading it for the world to see via Amazon KDP (as I did) is both terrifying and exciting in equal measure. You’ll want to back away – don’t. Take the leap and hold your head high.

6. RIDE THE WOBBLES

You’ve done it and you’ve survived. Don’t ruin the victory lap and start demanding that friends and family read it within twenty-four hours, or start huffing if people have a few minor complaints. People are only human and you can’t please everybody. If you manage to please the majority you’re doing well!

There’ll be fantastic reviews and bad reviews from time to time – accept both with good grace. Don’t start engaging in slanging matches with people; you’ll only enflame matters and end up looking like a moron. Think of that walk from the sun lounger to the pool: take it slow, but not too slow; take it easy, but not lazily; and, most importantly, walk tall.

I’m on the cusp of releasing my fourth book in the DCI Ryan series (‘Angel’) for pre-order from 15th July and, after three bestsellers, you’d think I’d know how to avoid The Wobble. Well, I’m still working on that. But I can tell you that optimism, hard work and perseverance does pay off. In two days alone, nearly four hundred people contacted me to say they were incredibly excited to hear about the forthcoming book. One reader in particular brightened my day with the following:

“OH MY GOD! I think I almost wet myself when I heard your next book was coming out!! AAAARRRGGHHH! OK I need to clear my diary! Thanks!”

Take precautions if bladder control is an issue but otherwise massive thanks to every single one of you who has supported my books over the last eighteen months. It’s definitely helped me to ride the wobbles.

LJ x

P.S. On the subject of poolside walks of shame, it goes without saying that speedos seldom help matters. You know who you are. 🙂

 

 

There’s an elephant in the room…

Morning!

So, the first thing on this morning’s agenda has to be Brexit. Yes, that gigantic elephant sitting in the corner of the room, that one right there.

Oh no, I hear you cry. LJ is about to get political!

Well, don’t edge for the door just yet. This blog isn’t the place for me to mouth off about my political views (although the observant amongst you will probably be able to make an educated guess about my voting tendencies and I have indeed ranted at length in the comfort of my own home). This blog was created to discuss reading and writing, predominantly, alongside a bit of positive motivation. But I don’t think there is any point in pretending that everything is all tickety-boo; I think it is important to at least acknowledge that – regardless of how people voted in the recent advisory referendum – the UK is a very divided country at the moment and its mood is turbulent. There are so many questions yet to be answered and there is a sense of uncertainty about where we as a country go from here and how we galvanise ourselves. With that in mind, I ask myself: how does reading and writing impact the present situation?

Writing is my pleasure and solace. I find that when the world gets a bit ‘much’, I can fall into the story I am creating and hours can slip by unnoticed. Likewise, reading is pure escapism and reader choice has never been greater. It is incredible to think that the advent of the Internet and the e-reader now allows us access to more literature than was held in the great library of Alexandria, or indeed any library.

In a broader sense, it has been fascinating to see the shift from old-fashioned print reporting to a more immediate version of real-time reporting through social media outlets. Everybody is a ‘reporter’, now, and we are able to view the news as it happens with less filters than ever before. It is a wonderful resource which allows people to be their own judge rather than relying upon the opinions and bias of a chosen few. However, with greater power comes greater responsibility (said Spiderman’s grandpa, or uncle…or somebody). We need to remain our own watchdogs and not allow ourselves to be blinded by all the traffic which passes by on a daily basis. There’s so much colour and sound, so many people worrying about how they will be perceived in a picture, or in a sound bite, that we might just start forgetting about the stuff that actually matters.

Case in point: before I started out in this new career, I hadn’t ever given an interview, or had my photograph taken for my own media purposes. I had always eschewed a visible online presence, even as a lawyer, because I valued my privacy too much. But I recognise that there is value in sharing some of yourself. Particularly if you write stories for a living, because it allows people to develop a greater insight into your character and by proxy the characters you have created. Plus, I like to hear from people – good or bad – so that I can hone my craft and get to know my readers. Thanks to all of you who take the time to get in touch! But on a serious note, now that my name comes up on Google and there are pictures and articles out there, it is more important than before that I keep perspective. It doesn’t really matter if I fumble my words or take a bad photograph, although it doesn’t help my self-confidence if I already feel exhausted or just a bit meh. However, there are people out there with vastly more important jobs than mine, whose work and decision-making impacts each and every one of us. It’s important that they keep perspective too: worry less about how you appear and worry more about how you actually behave because usually if you behave well, the rest will follow, no?

On a lighter note, those who are clamouring for the next instalment of DCI Ryan will be pleased to know that a cover reveal is IMMINENT! Tune in at the end of this week for further news!

LJ x

 

 

 

 

 

The cardinal importance of Latin music

Well hello again and greetings from LJ Ross HQ!

Continuing the trend of recent blog postings, I’m going to chat a little bit more about the ways in which you can try to capture your writing buzz and (more importantly) hold onto it!

Here are the most common complaints I hear (both from aspiring writers, established writers and myself, when I’m having a rant), alongside some suggested responses:

  1. My work isn’t good enough; nobody will read my novel, let alone like it, so why should I bother?

Briiiiiing briiiiing! Hey you, sitting over there feeling sorry for yourself, Hemingway called to tell you to stop being such a big baby. Also, he says to remind you that he’s already taken the liberty of penning several great works of fiction, so, sorry, you won’t be able to write exactly the same thing. The point to take home is simply this: if you spend your time trying to emulate your heroes, or even those who are currently enjoying success, then you set yourself up for a miserable time of it. Human nature being what it is, your state of mind will probably create a vicious and self-fulfilling prophecy in which you end up writing a heap of old crap. Why? Because you will have no identity of your own, no ‘voice’ (that sounds pretentious but you know what I mean) so your plot lines and general style will likely suffer. Readers are very attuned to what they like and don’t like and they can spot a phony a mile off, so be warned.

2. I feel torn in so many directions. I’m trying to change career and pursue my dream to become a writer but I have a family and commitments – what should I do?

You have family and commitments that you care about more than pursuing your own selfish desires? Well hooray, that means you’re not a raging sociopath! (Phew).

Look, jokes aside, there’s no two ways about it: the moment you become a parent, your own needs are instantly and irrevocably subordinated to the needs of the precious little life/lives you have created. The same logic can apply if you have no kids whatsoever – perhaps you have responsibilities as a carer, or simply feel responsible to the other important people in your life. What I would say is that you must find the balance that is right for you. In some cases, this will mean carving out snatches of time to pursue your own hopes and dreams – if you want to be a writer, perhaps it will mean only a couple of hours a week to sit and have the luxury of mapping a story on the bus into work. Whilst I agree that you can’t suspend real life and commitments, I don’t believe that you should abandon the things that make your soul sing. We are each in different circumstances; emotionally, financially and in a multitude of individual ways, so the journey towards our goals will naturally be different. Don’t give yourself a hard time if it takes you a few years to get there; one of the best bits about a career in writing is that the more experience you have of life, the more you have to draw upon as inspiration.

In my case, I have always been a fiercely independent person and I like to think that even without the benefit of being married or having a loving family and friend network, I would still have had the gumption to make a play for my dreams. However, it’s a moot point because without all of the aforementioned people, it’s likely I would have turned out to be a vacuous person, devoid of any insight into human behaviour or relationships and therefore would have been an utterly abysmal writer of fiction. Funny how the world works, isn’t it? Anyway, the existence of this network gave me the confidence to try. I cannot overstate how important that was, and still is, throughout the process of writing each new book. If you are thinking of making the leap, confide in those special people and you might be surprised at how supportive they will be.

3. I can’t seem to get into a good ‘flow’ with my writing. Is this what they call ‘Writer’s Block’?

It sounds like it, but here’s a checklist you can take home:

  • If you can’t get into writing your own story, it might be worth seriously considering making changes to the concept because if your subliminal mind doesn’t want to write it, ain’t nobody going to want to read it. Just saying.
  • Have you been getting enough sleep? Seriously, your brain needs to be able to function properly in order to write a book. Go and take a power nap!
  • Do as I say (and not as I do) and lay off the caffeine. It’s fine as a boost, but it’ll make you jittery and nervous!
  • Get some exercise. Take a brisk walk and you’d be surprised at how the ideas start to floor. I recommend taking a notepad to jot them down!
  • If all else fails, close the door and search Spotify for a compilation album of Latin choons that you can shake your hips to, such as my current favourite The Rhythm is Gonna Get You. I’m not kidding. Skip ahead to La Bamba, make a beeline for Bamboleo and round it off with a quality bit of Livin’ La Vida Loca. It’s infectious fun – exactly what you need when you’ve been sitting over a desk mourning your lack of talent/skills/life/literary awards and frankly you need to get a grip and shake it loose!

That’s about all I can think of for now, folks!

Until next time…

LJ x

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Series or standalone?

Any mother will tell you that if you manage to find the time to blow dry your hair in the morning and get through the day without ten strong coffees, you’re a bloody rock star. Factor in multiple children and work, and things start to get pretty frenetic.

In my case, I can’t complain too loudly. I have a hands-on husband who, despite managing his own busy career, is always an equal parent and a great dad to our little boy. My son is two and enjoys spending time at nursery (terrorising the staff, no doubt) which allows me to ring fence blocks of time during the day when I can work, too. Despite what some people imagine the life of a writer to be, it isn’t all that glamorous! Like any self-employed job, there are long periods of time spent at a desk, with only your fictional characters for company. Then, there is the act of being persistently creative, which can be both a joy and a curse. Finally, there is the crippling self-doubt which comes from putting that creative product ‘out there’ in the real world, where people can heap plaudits or shred it to pieces, depending on their mood.

Why do you do it? I hear you cry. Well, it’s for the simple love of writing stories. I was a lawyer in London before deciding to change career, and almost as soon as I got into the flow of writing I knew that I had made the right decision. The process can be frustrating and there is a lot of hard work involved, but the benefits far outweigh the costs in terms of personal happiness and a flexible working life.

Holy Island

After my first novel, ‘Holy Island’ was published in January 2015, my jaw fell to the floor when it reached the UK #1 spot the following May in the Amazon charts. When I wrote that book, I wasn’t at all sure how it would be received and certainly hadn’t thought far enough ahead to consider that it might form the basis for a series of Northumbrian murder mysteries. Yet, when it was received so kindly by readers around the country and internationally, and people wrote to me to ask if there would be more of DCI Ryan, I began to think about the possibility. I was clear on the fact that I would only write a sequel if I felt there was a genuine story to be told; it needed to come organically, rather than being something formulated only for commercial gain.

Well, I think I’ve been bitten by the writer’s bug, because now I can’t seem to stop imagining new mysteries. For me, the ideas flow from the landscape of Northumberland and its surrounds: the first novel was named after the atmospheric island of Lindisfarne and the second, ‘Sycamore Gap’, after that iconic spot on Hadrian’s Wall made famous in Robin Hood: Prince of ThievesThe third in the series, ‘Heavenfield’ is named after the tiny, remote church of St. Oswald’s, also in Hadrian’s Wall country. The scenery is my muse and so, for as long as the stories keep popping into my mind, I’ll be happy writing them.

Sycamore Gap

But, are there certain rules to abide by, when writing a series? As with any practical advice on the topic of writing, this is a highly individual thing. Each writer is different and their approach to writing stories reflects their own personality. In general, it is probably fair to say that the stories should flow and, depending on the type of series you are writing, you should bear in mind your audience and remain loyal to the characters you have created. When I say that, I mean that you should try to put yourself in the shoes of the characters and ask yourself: ‘what would be likely to happen in their lives, next?’ Thinking along these lines usually helps with the flow of a story, when your planned outline comes to a bit of a shuddering halt with the dreaded writer’s block. Yes, it is a real thing and, no, you cannot always predict when it will strike!

Should each book in a series also be capable of being read as a standalone? As the characters develop through each of the books in the series, it becomes increasingly difficult to create standalone stories unless each book truly encapsulates an entirely new theme. For example, in the first three of my DCI Ryan series, I included a secondary thread relating to a cult circle, which was never designed to continue indefinitely and needed some form of resolution by the third book. This brings a sense of satisfaction to both me and my readers and with the fourth book, I am looking forward to re-introducing my main characters in the context of a new and exciting mystery.

The one potential drawback to writing a series is that, as the stories and characters progress, the fabric of their imaginary lives becomes more complex and will require a strong grasp of each so that you do not unwittingly drop a clanger! For, as with people in the real world, the reader will immediately notice if your detective says or does something that is noticeably out of place, or if he grows ten years older, overnight.

LJ x

 

 

 

World Book Day, or just ‘Book Day’…

Hello there!

It is World Book Day today, but I will admit that this almost passed me by owing to a combination of (i) toddler-associated sleep deprivation and (ii) constant awareness of books and book-related things, which means that every day is a ‘book day’ in the world of LJ Ross! Still, it’s a good opportunity to think about some of my favourite books and a selection of those I’m looking forward to re-reading once I have the luxury of a few minutes’ peace…

Taste in literature is a very subjective thing. I’m growing more and more jaded by people who claim only to enjoy ‘real’ literature; the kind which wins prizes and the respect of The Establishment. What’s wrong with admitting that you like reading a bit of commercial fiction? Nobody’s going to lynch you for it! All reading is good reading, regardless of what some people say. Reading broadly enhances your own tastes and brings you closer to understanding your preferences. How can you say, categorically, that you don’t like reading chick lit – unless you have tried it?

Personally, I enjoy a good bit of genre fiction just as much as I enjoy ‘high end’ literature, which is why I write murder mysteries. They say that you should write what you enjoy and that’s precisely the approach I take to work. I don’t expect to receive a call from the folks over at Booker, but I don’t lose a lot of sleep over that. The capacity to write is like anything creative: it knows no limits; it cannot be pigeon-holed or bound by other people’s expectations. There are a lot of writers I’ve met who become very concerned – obsessed, almost – by the need for recognition from the ‘right’ people. Here’s what I say to that: my readers are the ‘right’ people. They are the ones whose opinion matters to me and they represent the fabric of society: they are from all walks of life, all genders, ages, professions. There is no great Book Dictator to tell any of us what we should or should not enjoy.

That said, if anybody is looking for book inspiration or has run out of ideas about what they should read next, here are some of the books that I have enjoyed – feel free to disagree!

  1. The Far Pavilions, M. Kaye

Some people might recall the 80’s dramatisation of this epic novel, but I have to say that it wasn’t a patch on the book (they rarely are, with the possible exception of To Kill a Mockingbird). The story is a sweeping adventure laced with a love story, set in the last days of the Raj in India. The author was fluent in various Indian dialects and lived there for years, so the descriptive passages and dialogue is very realistic and full of texture. It is quite a commitment to read if you are short of time and usually only manage a chapter here and there. It is over a thousand pages long and you need to immerse yourself in the story, but it makes for a great holiday read if you’re a bit tired of the usual lighter fare.

  1. Northern Lights, Nora Roberts

Nora Roberts is the #1 New York Times bestselling author, which gives you some idea of her widespread popularity. Although I’m less of a fan of her ‘straight’ romance, I really enjoy her romantic suspense standalone novels, of which ‘Northern Lights’ is a good example. She has a fantastic ability to give the reader a sense of ‘place’ in her stories, which are set in beautiful American landscapes – in this case, in Alaska. The writing is accessible and therefore you can dip easily in and out, so it’s perfect after a long day at the office, or during lunchtimes. In this book, she introduces the reader to the small, remote town of Lunacy, and paints a very clear picture of the characters who live there. She manages to convey a feeling of being amongst them, living their life in the frozen landscape with its mountains and sea planes. Of course, the two main protagonists are strong-willed and likeable, which is a big part of her skill – it isn’t always easy to create characters that a reader actively likes. In Northern Lights, a killer has escaped justice for over twenty years, for a crime committed in the mountains. When the frozen corpse of his victim is accidentally discovered, it’s a case of solving an old-fashioned whodunnit. Good stuff!

  1. The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas

As I said above, I like the classics as much as the next person! Dumas is one of my favourites and I’ve loved his books since childhood. The Man in the Iron Mask is another goodun’, but I’d have to say this one has the edge. It’s meaty and complex, covering the psychology of such an incredibly broad spectrum of human emotion that it’s hard not to admire that kind of writing skill. When you read the story, Dantes’ hatred and quest for revenge is an almost tangible thing. The sense of injustice is palpable and the reader can recognise negative characteristics in his tormentors that might just as easily be found in any modern tale, or even in our own lives (to a much less harrowing extent, I hope). What a book!

  1. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier

First published in the 1930s, this novel has quite a gothic, old-world quality which really works. Hitchcock made it into a film which was also wildly successful, starring Laurence Olivier and Joan Fontaine. The book tells the tale of a young woman (she remains nameless throughout) who falls in love with brooding widower and aristocrat Maxim de Winter. After a whirlwind romance in Monte Carlo, they return to Manderley, his beautiful West Country estate. She meets the sinister housekeeper, Mrs Danvers, who begins a campaign of psychological warfare against her, deriving from her great loyalty towards de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca. She undermines the young woman at every available opportunity until she begins to believe her husband does not really love her – how could he, when she lacks all the beauty and sophistication of his first society wife? The success of the story really lies in its believability. As the story progresses, we can really imagine the slow demolition of the young woman’s confidence and, as we like her, we fear for her sanity and her safety as the book reaches its climax.  Atmospheric storytelling, at its best!

  1. The Psychopath Test, Jon Ronson

This book is an absolutely brilliant leveller. If you ever feel like you’re starting to take yourself too seriously, then pick up this little gem of a non-fiction book. It’s the story of the author’s quest to understand the meaning of ‘normality’ in modern society, or if it even exists. I laugh out loud reading some of the passages in this book as he delves into the meaning of ‘madness’, meeting psychopaths, those whose lives have been touched by madness and the clinicians who diagnose it (including the man who came up with the renowned ‘Psychopath Test’). It skilfully addresses some of the most damaging and interesting sides to the human psyche with clarity and humour. Great read!

I could go on and on, but there are a few to be getting along with!

LJ x