Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Bang bang, you're read

It's no good, I have to share the fantastic new poster for the Flashbang crime writing contest, as designed by sharp-shooter, Becky Xue-Ying. If you've not entered yet, you've got until 15 April to write an original crime story in 150 words that'll impress our judges, who've given buckets of excellent hints as to what they're after. Can I say, give it your best shot, or would that be overkill?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Crime comes to the Cotswolds

I used to live near Chipping Norton before I moved to Bristol, so it gives me a vicarious thrill to announce the town is running its first festival, with a crime contingent. 

The inaugural Chipping Norton Literature Festival is taking place between Friday 20th and Sunday 22nd April, and includes dedicated sessions looking at the world of crime writing.

A crime writers’ forum will bring together Mark Billingham, Sophie Hannah, S J Bolton and Dan Waddell to discuss research, plotting and getting inside the criminal mind. For a more hands-on experience, Helen Black will be hosting a crime writing workshop and there is also an interview with the creator of Inspector Morse, Colin Dexter.

As well as these crime events, writers and readers can learn about short story writing, bringing characters to life, publishing unconventional novels and working with publishers and agents, among a host of other topics.

Visit for tickets and information.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Crawl Space welcomes Zoë Sharp

Zoë wrote her first novel when she was fifteen, but success came in 2001 with the publication of the first Charlie Fox book, Killer Instinct, by Piatkus, followed by Riot Act  and Hard Knocks. First Drop came next, achieving bestseller status with the Independent Mystery Booksellers' Association and being nominated for a Barry Award for Best British Crime Novel. This was followed in the UK by Road Kill, and Second Shot, published simultaneously in the UK and the States. The seventh Charlie Fox book, Third Strike, was published in summer 2008, followed by Fourth Day in 2010, which was again nominated for the Barry Award. Fifth Victim was published in the UK (US February 2012).

Zoë’s books are now available in hardcover, paperback, large print, audio and e-format. In 2010 the Charlie Fox series was optioned by Twentieth Century Fox TV.

Welcome to Crawl Space, Zoë!

Thanks, Sarah ― it’s great to be here!

Above I've mentioned your bestselling Charlie Fox series and I want to ask about that in a moment, but you also write short stories. When we met at CrimeFest last year, you mentioned a very exciting short story with a structural challenge. What excites you most about planning and writing short stories?

ZS: Ah, yes, the story we were talking about eventually came out as Across The Broken Line. The structural challenge was a broken-up timeline that hopped backwards and forwards from different points in the story. It starts at fifteen minutes ago, then a week ago, then ten minutes ago, then a month ago, and so on. Drove me insane getting it to all fit together. But that’s part of the appeal of a short story. It gives you the opportunity to explore a structure, a story, a style, that you either might not want to sustain for an entire novel, or allows you to test the water before you go on to a longer work. I’ve a short story called Lost And Found in the MWA anthology Vengeance (out April 2012), edited by Lee Child. In that, I played with two alternating viewpoints, in second and third person, present tense. It was enormous fun to do.

I really look forward to reading those short stories! Charlie Fox has been optioned for a TV series, and I know you’ve dreamcast the major roles (including one of my favourite actors, Michael Kitchen, as Charlie’s dad). Did you always have a very firm idea in your mind of the physicality of the characters, right from when you started out with Charlie and co?

ZS: Not at all, sadly. I find characters tend to introduce themselves to me after they’ve arrived on the page. Having said that, I had a pretty good starting point for everybody physically … except Charlie. Because the books are written in first person from her viewpoint, as the writer I’m always looking out at the world through her eyes. She’s not the kind of girl who spends time gazing into a mirror, so her appearance is always only lightly described. She is what you want to make of her.

I think that's great. Nothing worse than reading first person attempts to convey how gorgeous your hero/heroine is. I remember Dick Francis resorting to other people telling his heroes how sexy they were! You’ll be at CrimeFest again this year, both as a moderator and a panelist. To coin a phrase, I thought you kicked ass as a moderator last year, but which role do you prefer?

ZS: I like either, to be honest, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to do both this year. Moderating a panel is more stressful, but only because I want to get it right on the day and that’s a time-consuming exercise beforehand. Also, it’s your job to keep all the plates spinning and not let one panelist hog the mic too much, or let another clam up. I’ve only ever had one Panelist From Hell, but that, as they say, is another story …

Staying with the theme of kicking ass, you’re moderating a panel subtitled, Spirited Protagonists and Tricky Situations. How much do you enjoy dropping Charlie into tricky situations and watching her kick her way out?

ZS: Yeah, and that has to be both the best and the most scary panel to be moderating at this year’s event. Lee Child, Sue Grafton, Brian McGilloway and Jacqueline Winspear. Wow. I shall be listening much and speaking little, methinks! But to get back to your question, I do enjoy putting Charlie in tricky situations. Someone once described it as putting your character up a tree and throwing rocks at them, and that’s what I do. I love to play with preconceptions, though, which is why in Second Shot I took away Charlie’s physical capability (it’s not giving away too much to say she gets shot twice on the first page) so she can’t rely on her self-defence skills to get her out of trouble. And in Fourth Day I took away her support network and her sense of self-belief. Constantly pressure-testing the character is what keeps it interesting for me as the author―and hopefully for the reader, too.

You used a great definition of flash fiction when describing what you’re after in the winning story for Flashbang (which you’re judging): ‘It’s about movement and energy – a covert snapshot, taken on the fly, rather than a formal portrait.’ Can you expand a bit on that here?

ZS: Erm, isn’t the point to be brief? OK, for me flash fiction is all about getting straight to the heart of the story―you don’t have time to build up to it slowly and set the scene in a leisurely way. It’s a little like TV or film in the sense that it’s all about maximum story for minimum screen time. Get into the scene late, get out of it early. In some ways, Twitter is the perfect training ground for flash-fiction writers. Only having 140 characters to play with really makes you think about every word you use to get your point across.

Thanks, Zoë, that was fun. Looking forward to seeing you at CrimeFest.

ZS: It was a blast, wasn’t it? Thanks for having me here, Sarah. Catch up with you in Bristol in May ― not long to go now.

Zoë will be at CrimeFest in Bristol, 24-27 May 2012. For full details of the programme and to buy tickets, please go here. For a chance to win a pair of weekend passes, enter Flashbang and see if Zoë picks you as a winner!

Bang bang, you're read

It's a week since I launched Flashbang, a new crime writing contest in 150 words, and it's already taking off. Entries are coming in, people are blogging, we even had our first hint of controversy as it was pointed out that the judging panel is all-female. I was chuffed to bits when Benjamin Judge blogged that Flashbang had changed his mind about crime being too long. So word is getting around, which is terrific. Soon I'll be welcoming our top judge, Zoe Sharp here to talk about her take on flash fiction. And I'll be over at Mel Sherratt's blog, Killer Heels, giving my take on the same subject. If you're still in two minds about entering (remember, it's free), check out the extremely helpful hints from the judges as to what we're after in a winning entry. Deadline is 15 April.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Flashbang crime writing contest

Happy news! Entries for the Flashbang contest are now open. It occured to me that I really ought to fulfil my duties as SouthWest Coordinator for National Flash Fiction Day, and also in support of CrimeFest, which is on my doorstep here in Bristol. So I came up with the idea of a crime flash fiction contest and, thanks to the generosity of lots of people whom I'll be thanking in a minute, the idea is now a reality.

Flashbang is a brand new crime writing contest, sponsored by CrimeFest, who are providing the first prize of two free passes, as well as the second prize of DVD boxed sets of The Killing (plus its new novelisation). Hersilia Press is sponsoring the third prize: four of their Italian crime books. Comma Press is kindly providing five copies of MO: Crimes of Practice to runners up.

As well as terrific prizes, Flashbang is free to enter and gives eight lucky writers the chance to be published on websites read by crime buffs the world over. All the details of how to enter and what’s up for grabs, can found here, together with tips from the judges on what they’re after in a winning entry.

My heartfelt thanks to the sponsors (listed above) and to those who agreed to be judges: Rhian Davies of It's a Crime; Karen Meek of Euro Crime; Laura Crosby from Foyles, Bristol; Ayo Onatade of Shots, crime and thriller mag; Rin Simpson, founder of The Steady Table writing group, and Linda Wilson, UK editor of Reviewing the Evidence. Special thanks to internationally bestselling crime author, Zoë Sharp, who's agreed to have the final say on the top three winners and five runners-up.

Thanks, too, to everyone who's helping to spread the word about the contest. Please do consider entering, and pass on the good news of a free contest with great prizes!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Crawl Space welcomes Sophie Hannah

Sophie Hannah is the author of six internationally bestselling psychological thrillers, including Little Face, The Other Half Lives, and Lasting Damage. Her first thriller to be adapted for television, The Point of Rescue, was broadcast on ITV1 last year, under the series title Case Sensitive. In 2004, Sophie won first prize in the Daphne Du Maurier Festival Short Story Competition for her suspense story The Octopus Nest, which is published in her short story collection, The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets, which I enjoyed reviewing for The Short Review. Sophie’s seventh thriller, Kind of Cruel, is described by the Observer as ‘Cool, calculating and utterly chilling.’

Welcome to Crawl Space, Sophie! Not that this isn’t going to be a high-brow bookish interview, but with the success of Case Sensitive on ITV1 last year, I have to ask: What’s it like being adapted for television?

Fantastic! First of all, it’s flattering that TV people, with all the books in the world to choose from, choose your books to turn into a TV series. And I think ITV and Hat Trick Productions did such a great job with Case Sensitive - I loved it. It was stylish, visually stunning, brilliant cast. Can’t wait for the next one to be on - which will also be called Case Sensitive and is the adaptation of my fourth crime novel The Other Half Lives. It’s probably going to be broadcast May or June.

Q. You’re taking part in two panel sessions at this year’s CrimeFest in Bristol. Before I ask about those, how do you feel about crime festivals in general? Are they fun, or hard work? And have you ever read one of your poems at a crime festival, just to mess with people’s minds? Pessimism for Beginners would be a brilliant choice, I think.

No, I’ve never read a poem at a crime festival, but I once contributed to a panel on Poetry and Crime Fiction at Bouchercon, the American Crime Convention - and the panel was a huge success. I like the festivals - panel discussions are always fun, but any kind of public performance is also hard work because you’re on display - you can’t just slump in a corner. And you can’t delegate - you are the only person who can be you in public!

Q. So, these panel sessions at CrimeFest in May. On Saturday 26th, you’re discussing ‘Crime Fiction as Social Commentary or Entertainment?’ Can you tell us which side you’ll be on, or would that be considered a plot spoiler?

Entertainment first and above all - always. A great story is what every novel needs, the sort with twists and turns that make readers’ hair stand on end, stories with intriguing beginnings and surprising endings. If I feel an author cares less about story than about making a socio-political point, I’m afraid my first reaction is ‘Please bog off with your worthy agenda’.

Q. On Sunday’s CrimeFest panel, the topic is ‘Creeping You Out: Psychological Thrillers’. I love to be creeped out. A couple of my favourite thrillers are The Collector by John Fowles, and I by P.D. James. Daphne du Maurier’s short story, Don’t Look Now, also freaked me out. Do you have any favourites?

Some of my recent favourite creepy novels have been Tana French’s Broken Harbour, S J Watson’s Before I Go To Sleep and Gordon Reece’s Mice. Less recent faves include The Deadly Percheron and Devil Take the Blue-Tailed Fly by John Franklin Bardin, and my all-time favourite Wuthering Heights. Some memoirs are also psychologically chilling, for example the stunning House Rules by Rachel Sontag.

Q. At a recent event in Bristol, you gave some excellent advice about knowing when to listen, while keeping your ears open for weapons grade dimwittery (it is a word, I checked). I’d hate any writers to miss out on this advice, so please can you summarise (and even expand) on your point?

When you are an unpublished or struggling new writer, there’s a tendency to feel immensely grateful if any agent or editor shows an interest in you. But not all agents are equally intelligent, and nor are all editors. My advice is, meet your potential agent/editor before committing and try (subtly!) to assess whether they’re clever or a dimwit. Signing up with someone who is too stupid to give you sound editorial advice will do your career more harm than good.

Thanks, Sophie, that was fun. I especially liked, ‘Bog off with your worthy agenda’ and may be using it myself in future. Looking forward to seeing you at CrimeFest.

Sophie Hannah will be at CrimeFest in Bristol on Saturday 26 May and Sunday 27 May. For full details of the programme and to buy tickets, please go here.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Code Name Verity

I adore stories told in two parts, from different narrative viewpoints, and that is just one of many many things to love about Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein. The first half is told by 'Verity', a captured female spy being interrogated by the Gestapo in a former hotel in France. She begins her story with the words, 'I am a coward,' but you don't have to read much further before you realise this simply isn't true.

Tortured, threatened and terrified, Verity proves her courage again and again. Under the cover of writing a confession for her captors, she tells the story of how she came to be a spy, how she met her best friend, Maddie ('It's like falling in love, finding your best friend') and how the pair of them came to be in France.

'We're a sensational team', Verity tells us. It's this friendship that drives the story, as we try to piece together the clues in Verity's confession - being made in extremis - to get at the exact truth of what happened to the sensational team.

Elizabeth Wein lays many excellent traps for the reader along the way; expect to have your heart in your mouth a lot of the time. Is Verity really betraying her country (Scotland, not England)? Is she going to die? Is her best friend already dead, or in terrible danger? Will the two young women ever see one another again?

Midway through, the story switches to Maddie's voice. This is the tricky point at which an author can lose a reader, especially one who's fallen in love, the way she helps us fall in love with Verity. But it only takes a couple of pages for us to love Maddie, too, and to marvel at how distinctly different her voice is to Verity's.

These women are alive. They leap off the page and grip you by the hand, and then the heart. You desperately want them to have a happy ending, but at the same time you sense it would be cheating, or lying, to arrive at this after the harrowing and entirely believable scenes which have unfolded.

To move the reader without resorting to sentiment. To arrive at an ending that is both honest and uplifting. To make you think afresh about a part of history you thought you knew. To transport you, for the time it takes to read the book, to a different time and another world, while showing you so clearly why these stories matter and how they can resonate. These are proofs positive of a gifted, compassionate and generous author.

I doubt I'll read a better book this year.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Flash Fiction South West

Lovely to have a very tiny story of mine, Wendy the Water Buffalo, published on this rather wonderful new website for flash fiction based in the SW of England. The editor, Rachel Carter, is inviting writers across the region to submit flash pieces thoughout March for an online anthology to celebrate National Flash Fiction Day, which is coming up in May. Details of how you can enter are here, so get flashing!

Friday, 2 March 2012

Partners in Crime

Those of you lucky enough to live in Bristol should sneak along to this event at Bristol Grammar School on March 13. Sophie Hannah (author of the novels from which ITV adapted Case Sensitive), whose short stories I reviewed here, and Erin Kelly, whose writing has been compared to Daphne du Maurier's, will be talking crime all evening. Bliss!

Bristol Grammar School and Hodder, in association with the Bristol Festival of Ideas, invite you to Partners in Crime with two high-ranking crime writers, Sophie Hannah and Erin Kelly, who will talk about their writing and the popularity of the crime genre with Carolyn Mays, Publishing Director (fiction) at Hodder.

Tickers are a steal at £7, which includes refreshments and a 40-piece orchestra to play you in. What's more, you can buy 4 tickets for the price of 3, which means you and a squad of pals can attend for a fiver each (don't quibble over the maths, please). If you're thinking of attending, join me, the editor of Reviewing the Evidence and others for pre-event drinks in the bar at Brown's. Now, what could be better than that?