Monday, October 31, 2011

21 grams

So who is this in the photograph? Do you recognize the face? What a cute little baby! 

It's someone very well known. Instantly recognizable as an adult, in fact. I'll give you a clue. It's a he. What do you think he became when he grew up - saint or sinner? Famous or notorious? Write it down and check your answer later.

People as babies are fascinating to the author bit of me. Writers are taught from the get-go to create believable motivations for their characters. Some teachers even recommend creating whole folios on our MC's family of origin so that we understand them better. A hero should have understandable flaws, I was told; and a villain has to have reasons for being bad so we can at least empathize. All very good advice.

But how does it hold up in real life? Art, as Picasso said, is not the truth. It's a lie that shows us the truth. So how does fiction stack up to reality?

So before I tell you who this baby is, try this on for size:

BC was born in a tenement slum. He was abandoned by his mother when he was 4. His father was away in the army so he was raised by a deranged aunt who used to beat him violently almost every day. When his father returned from the war he sexually abused him from the ages of ten to fifteen.

JD's mother endured a difficult pregnancy but once born, he wanted for nothing. He was loved and adored. His mother kept a scrapbook, as many proud parents do, recording the events of his life; his first step, his first accident, his first tooth, his first haircut. He had a major hernia operation when he was six years old. His parents had an unhappy marriage and divorced when he was 18.

The question is: if you were writing a book, which one of these would be your serial killer?

The violently and sexually abused BC is actually the legendary Scottish comedian Billy Connolly. The kid with the unremarkable upbringing is Jeffrey Dahmer, one of America's worst serial murderers.


Why does one man defend himself from brutality with humour and courage; while the other, after a fairly ordinary childhood, becomes a loner who enjoys dissecting roadkill?

I am not essentially a religious person but I do believe absolutely in the existence of a soul, that part of us that is not attached to our identity and our body. But here's my question; does everybody have one?

It seems to me to be a question that asks itself every single day in our criminal courts. We can certainly ask it of men like Gaddhafi or Amin or Mugabe or Stalin or any of the war criminals and mass murderers who are all too familiar to us on the world political stage.

Is every character a product of their environment as my old writing teacher insisted - or are some born inherently evil, without that essential 21 grams?

I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. Here's an added bonus; I've just released a book called Opium on Kindle. It's the first in a series of five books tracing the history of one of the world's great evils: the heroin trade in south east Asia, 1960-95. Anyone with an e-reader who'd like a copy, just write in a comment and I'll send you one.

Oh, and by the way the picture of the cute little kid. It's Adolf Hitler, before he learned to talk.

If only he never had ...


Friday, October 28, 2011


Many's the happy hour I've spent watching this commercial over and over. It sure doesn't get any books written and I haven't rushed out and bought a Volkswagen but I sure have had a good laugh at this.

If you'd like to see more, here's the blooper reel.

I found this at Samantha Warren's wonderful website

Samantha Warren is an indie fantasy and science fiction author who spends her days immersed in dragons, space ships, and vampires. Her best selling books are Blood of the Dragon (Book #1), a full-length epic fantasy novel, and her urban fantasy novella series, Jane. She is currently writing the sequel to Blood of the Dragon. 

Please check out her blog, but a word of warning - stay away from the picture of her Saturday morning scramble if you had a heavy night last night!


Wednesday, October 26, 2011


I thought I'd put this day aside to look at some of the comments I've got in the last couple of weeks.

Let's start with that wonderful post by Myndi Shafer:

"I want to do this right.  I want to grow.  I want the pain of criticism and rejection to spur me on to do better things than I would have otherwise.  I want to be able to say I gave this story everything I had, that I didn’t cut corners.  Even if, in the end, it never sees the light of day, I want to be able to look at it and know the real success in the endeavor can be found in the process – in the growing, the changing, the learning."

It was just such a great from the heart post about how tough it is trying to get started in the writing business. Her husband Thomas was a big hit too. No matter what enterprise you're trying to get off the ground I guess we all know the difference it makes having someone standing right there beside you.
Please find Myndi's blog at:  
Myndi had Prudence reaching the tissues. Debra put her hands together for Thomas. Lynette, Sandra and Anthony had felt the same way and offered words of encouragement and support. Which is I guess what we all need more than anything when we 're trying to tough it out.

The post about Robert Downey Junior asking people to forgive Mel drew a few reactions.  

Melinda thought that well, no one is perfect and thank God we don't have to live our lives under the microscope - as actors do. Myndi agreed: we're all going to mess up, and we're all going to need forgiveness at some point.

Emma asked though: is he sorry for being a racist and a misogynist, or for being caught? Prudence felt that he should ask for our forgiveness, but that he might need to earn our trust again. Mangler (a pretty ferocious kind of handle - someone I would NEVER disagree with)  disagreed and felt that forgiveness should not have any caveats whatever.

If you're interested here's the video of what Robert Downey said in his speech.


Anthony really didn't agree with what I had to say about this year's Man Booker prize and the suggestion that it was dumbed down. He thought I was the one being elitist. And he'd read 'Satanic Verses' so he'd well earned his right of reply!

Wendy thought that writers who don't write with an eye to the reader's enjoyment won't ever get her dime. Lara though pretty much came down on my side on this one (And I do think 'well torn' is better than 'well told' in this context!)

If you're not sick of the debate, here's what Graham Joyce had to say about it in last Friday's Guardian. 

There was Pongwiffy, my post about Junior starting university a few weeks ago.  

Liz liked this one. I was pleased because she's one of my favourite bloggers. She has a great book review site right here: and she's also one of the funniest people on twitter. It's like stream of consciousness only with wit and moleskin journals. Look for her at @LizUk.  

The other big like came from Michelle. If you like historical fiction you should check out her 'cutest blog on the block' at 

By the way Junior is now reading Beowulf. 

On Friday I have the funniest commercial ever made. You could lose a morning's work watching this on a loop. (In fact, I did.) It's from Samantha Warren and I'll tell you a bit more about her then.

Monday, October 24, 2011


My primary school teacher's name was Mrs Boyne. She once told my mother at a parent interview: “Your son is a complete dreamer. He’ll never amount to anything in this life.” I still think that was a pretty harsh judgment on a seven year old. But she was right, of course, I was a dreamer. It was my greatest asset.
 It was about the time I first read Jules Verne’s Michael Strogoff. To get my hands on it, I had to endure a slobbery wet kiss from my Aunty Ivy, but I considered it well worth it. By the end of that first afternoon, I was hooked on classic literature.
Every week my Aunty Ivy took the train down from London to visit with us in (what was then) rural Essex, bringing with her a collection of Classics Illustrated comics. She must have picked them up in the markets in London. There were some Beanos and Victors mixed in, but I threw them out. My treasure was the cartoon versions of some of the world’s greatest literature. I read all of Jules Verne in an afternoon.
And so began my love affair with literature. By the time I was eight I had read Moby Dick, Doctor Jekyl and Mister Hyde, The Moonstone, The Black Tulip and Ivanhoe, was familiar with most of the major works of Alexandre Dumas (Père), Mark Twain and William Wilkie Collins and had even read most of Homer’s Odyssey (although I never found out how it ended because the last page had been ripped out.)

You can see the  still see the whole comic at!
I don’t think that back then Aunty Ivy knew she was giving me primers for my future career, for no one in my family had ever used their hands for doing anything other than making pies or fixing corner cupboards So wherever she is in Heaven, I hope there’s an angel making her a nice cup of tea and letting her rest her sore feet, God bless her heart.
Those comic books were important to me. I was an only child and though not particularly bookish – I was then, and still am, a sports tragic – it nurtured in me a thirst for great stories painted on broad canvas.
This appetite shows up in the movies I love; The Last Samurai, the Godfather trilogy, the Last Emperor, Empire of the Sun. All epics. My favourite author is James Clavell. I love big stories and big characters.
So Aunty Ivy did not just give me the gift of something to read when it was raining too hard to play football. Classics Illustrated stirred my nascent imagination and at the same time gave me an undying thirst for travel and for adventure. These little gems of comics also made me want to time travel, because many of the places I was reading about no longer existed.
The only way I could revisit them was to recreate them in my head. Imagining them onto a page was the next logical step.
When I left school the first thing I did, to the consternation of both my parents, was to go hitch-hiking around Europe. After all, why go to university? I’d read The Iliad and everything Shakespeare ever wrote by the time I was eight. What was there left to learn?
After Europe I headed down to Morocco, where me and my mate were the only white faces (then) wandering the Djema El-fna’a, the Place of the Dead, in Marrakech. Not too long after that I found myself in the middle of a typhoon in the South Java Sea, and wandering the Golden Triangle of Burma, shaking hands with CIA agents and drug smugglers.
All thanks to Aunty Ivy and Classics Illustrated.
I guess what Mrs Boyne didn’t account for when summing up my future prospects was what would happen to my daydreams once introduced to the genius who sandwiched Les Miserables into 48 lurid pages with speak bubbles. The invention of the laptop, of course, helped a little as well.
I've never made the NY Times bestseller lists but this month my seventeenth novel SILK ROAD, was published in London. I'd send Mrs Boyne a copy, but we have lost touch.
Would you like to share what your teachers said about you? (Not just the bad ones - you can include the really good teachers as well.) What would you like to say to them if you could meet up with them now?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Today's Guest Post: Myndi Shafer

I'm absolutely delighted to be featuring today a guest post from Myndi Shafer, a new writer "in the seemingly never-ending process of writing/editing/writing/chopping/writing/querying/bawling-my-eyes-out/re-writing/re-editing/re-chopping…"

She has written this wonderful piece about rejection - something every writer is all too familiar with. But it's about so much more than that. It's about how important it is to having someone close to you who can give good counsel (go Thomas!) and how a real writer responds to a profound disappointment. It's a great piece and I found it both inspiring and moving. I hope you do, too.


Titanic-Hating-Goo-Covered-Squid (or, Rejection)

'You know how some people are gorgeous criers?  Their eyes glisten as they well up with tears.  Their already doe-like lashes seem to amplify with the moisture.  Their complexion becomes rose-like and dewey from whatever happens physiologically when we cry.  I had a friend in college like that.  Two of my kiddos are that way.

I’m not.

This is what happens when I cry:  My skin becomes blotchy and swollen (my husband likens it to how a food allergy looks on some people).  And it’s not just a quick there and back again kind of blotchy.  It sticks around for awhile – at least twenty minutes after the waterworks have stopped.  And for whatever reason, when the tears begin for me, my nose runs.  Fiercely.  I’ll go through a mega-box of tissues for one good cry.

When I cry, I become a blotchy, swollen, snotty mess.

I avoid crying, and things that will make me cry, like the plague.  Especially in public.  Oh my goodness, I’ll never forget the humiliating moment when the lights came up after Titanic, and the people around us in the Nebraska movie theater were staring at me like I was some kind of squid who had dropped from the sky: trembling, gasping for breath, covered in goo.  Horrifying.


Last night, Thomas and I went on a date.  The first in months.  It was a much-needed outing.  We’ve got a lot going on, and we needed some grown up time, big time.

As we were waiting on our food at this great new dive we found (Fizz in Wichita.  Seriously excellent food, people.  Go there.  Now.), my phone dinged.  New email.  From an agent I was waiting on an answer from with baited breath.  I really liked the looks of this agent, and my hopes were high.

Oh, man.  Rejection.

I’m getting better at this rejection thing.  Anybody who has queried a book will tell you, rejection is just part of it.  Nobody’s book is going to be everybody’s cuppa.  That’s just the way it is.  And I’m cool with that. But this rejection caught me off guard.  It actually hurt.  Not because she was harsh or mean or anything like that.  Not at all.  It hurt because, one, I really really liked this agent, and two, because (oh, crap), she said something that caught my attention.

Actually, it’d be more accurate to say it caught my husband’s attention.  Back to the date.  We’re sitting across from each other in our booth.  I have just slipped my phone back into my purse.  My face is rapidly changing from it’s freckled-ivory self into a swollen-blotchy monster.  My nose is immediately out of control, and I’m grasping blindly for napkins.  Thomas is watching this, wondering what the hell is going on with his wife.  I’m finally able to spit out the word, rejection.

He immediately gets it.  He doesn’t have to ask which agent I mean.  He knows me so well; he knows who I’ve been waiting to hear from.  He asks to read the email.  I refuse.  (Did I mention that crying also makes me utterly irrational?)  He insists.  I cave and wait, sniffling, as he reads it.

When he’s done, he asks this question:

What does she know after reading the first 50 pages of your book?

I answered the question, and he looked at me kindof funny, and said,

Myndi, sweetie, that’s not your book.  Your book starts when…

and then he went on to give me a run-down of my book through his eyes.  The things he loves about it, the things that make him care about it, the things that make him want to read it.

And none of those things are in the first fifty pages.

We paid our check and left.  I cried some more as we walked and talked, now not nearly as upset by the rejection, but by the fact that I’d missed something.  Something BIG.  Something writers aren’t supposed to miss.  Granted, I’m an untrained newbie, but whoa.  If I haven’t enticed the reader to care about the big picture of the story within the first couple of chapters, I’m screwed.  And the scary thing was, I thought I had done that.  I mean, good grief.  I’ve read, re-read, read aloud, re-read aloud, and read again.  I’ve polished until you can’t see some of the letters on my keyboard any more.  I’ve spent sleepless nights going over plot, developing characters, imagining in fine details.  How on earth did I miss something so huge?

Anyway, all this to say, I’m stopping querying immediately.  I’m going back to work.  I love this story; I love my characters; I love these books.  And, yeah, I could stick them on a shelf and say they were my first try, and just be proud of that.

But I don’t want to.

I want to do this right.  I want to grow.  I want the pain of criticism and rejection to spur me on to do better things than I would have otherwise.  I want to be able to say I gave this story everything I had, that I didn’t cut corners.  Even if, in the end, it never sees the light of day, I want to be able to look at it and know the real success in the endeavor can be found in the process – in the growing, the changing, the learning."

Please find Myndi's blog at: 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Last Friday in LA there was a benefit dinner in which Robert Downey Junior received the 25th American Cinematheque Award. But the night was actually all about Mel Gibson.

Downey had Gibson (the 'surprise guest') present him with the award and used his acceptance speech as a forum to ask Hollywood to forgive him: "Allow him to pursue this art without shame."

Now first thing I thought was: what a great mate to have. If I was in trouble, I know I'd like to have a Robert Downey Junior in my corner.

In fact, I do have. Years ago I landed in a whole heap of trouble. I was ostracised by almost the whole town I lived in. I didn't commit a crime or steal or physically hurt someone. But it sure wasn't my finest hour.
But what still brings a lump to my throat is the thought of a buddy I had not seen for fifteen years driving three hundred miles unasked and unexpected just to make sure I didn't stand alone on the worst day of my life. For him, it was a case of my mate, right or wrong. Friends like that are hard to find. I consider myself blessed. So the first thing I thought when I read this: Robert Downey Junior must be some kind of guy.

The second thing that leaped out at me is that it was also a great example of playing it forward. (Did you see the movie? I'm not so sure about the storyline but isn't it a fantastic concept?)

Downey has hardly had a blemish-free career himself. About ten years ago his well publicized drug problems resulted in a jail term and he lost his part in the hugely successful Ally McBeal TV series. It looked like he was finished. He was uninsurable until Gibson stepped up and paid his bond on the 2003 film "The Singing Detective." From that point on Downey's career returned to the upswing. "He kept a roof over my head and put food on my table," Downey remembered.

At the time all Gibson asked of him was to pay it forward - to do the same for someone else who was struggling. "It is reasonable to assume he didn't know the next guy would be him," Downey said.

photo: Georges Biard

Now I don't hold with any of things Mel did. There's no excuse. But like a great man once said, let ye who is without sin ... so I'm certainly not going to stick the boot in here. Besides, I don't get any satisfaction from seeing anyone who hasn't raped or murdered or abused children getting their head kicked in, in public.

So I'd like to focus on another question; one that involves each and every one of us.

Why have Hollywood producers turned their back on him? On moral grounds, because they themselves were offended by his actions?

Or was it because he had damaged the one thing every famous person courts assiduously; the public's perception of him? He screwed his box office.

People do confuse actors with the roles they play. When the lights go down and the opening credits roll, a part of us thinks it is real. It's why any story works.

We want to believe in Braveheart. Courage and loyalty and honour still mean something to us even in post Wall Street 2011; we may not admit it out loud, but many of us wish for true heroes in the world, not just in a Hollywood fantasy. So when Mel fell off his pedestal he had a long way to fall.

Celebrity in sports and in entertainment is extravagantly rewarded. Ultimately our heroes are rewarded by us, because it's our money at the turnstiles and box office that pays their wages. But what are rewarding our heroes for? For being able to sink three pointers in a tied game, for their skill at pretending to be someone else?

Or do we want them to also embody the roles they play?

Please have your say. It's a topic that involves every facet of modern celebrity. Tell me what you think: should Mel Gibson be hung drawn and ostracized - or if not, what can he do to be forgiven?
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