WRITING: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I came to writing really late, which is weird because the signs were there for a long time – my father wrote non-fiction about nature and gardening (for several decades he wrote a weekly 3/4 page in the weekend supplement of a national newspaper on the appreciation of nature) and he used to work as an editor for a children’s publisher in the Netherlands (Ploegsma), so we had all the Ploegsma books. I was an avid and voracious reader, and a convincing storyteller, but my parents were abusive and neglectful of my talents and those of my three brothers, so we were not inspired and motivated to do something with them.

It was only after I got new friends who were impressed by my storytelling capacities that someone mentioned that I ‘should write a book’. I wasn’t susceptible to that suggestion at the time – I didn’t actually liked to write, I liked to read. And there was always something impressively magical about the fiction I read that I couldn’t see myself doing the same thing.
Then I took a job working security and had a lot of long night shifts. Night shifts where I imagined I would read books and study languages, but I had the germ of an idea, so I started to write it down. After a few months I started to enjoy the writing more and more and though that I could actually see myself finishing the novel. That was in 1992.
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OPINION: Writing a series is lazy writing to cash in on gullible people!

Recently, a discussion on GoodReads was started by a reader who loved stand-alone books, but every book he was offered seemed to be part of a series. The thread quickly turned ‘anti-series’ with complaints about sequels being less good than the first novel, stories become repetitive, single volume books being enlarged to fill several volumes to make more money from gullible readers, writers becoming too lazy to invent new characters, and so on.

As I write a suspense fiction series, I want to address these issues in this blog article.

When I wrote Reprobate, I had some excellent ideas for additional plot lines that would explore other sides of the freelance assassin protagonist, so I decided to develop the Amsterdam Assassin Series as a series of stand-alone novels and short stories that have the same characters but enjoying one book does not rely on having read the other books/stories. No cliffhangers beyond readers want to know what will happen next in the lives of the protagonists.

As to the concerns addressed in the GoodReads thread:

“Can’t you put just everything in one book?”

No. The books are all over 100K and all have a different theme. The first book, Reprobate, deals with the protagonist breaking her own rules and the consequences. The second book, Peccadillo, has criminals trying a hostile takeover of her legitimate business, unaware that they’re dealing with an assassin. In the third book, Rogue, Katla comes to the attention of global intelligence communities when she kills the wrong target. I’m currently working on the fourth novel, Ghosting, which will show yet another side of the character.

“The first book is mostly good, but the rest is repetitive crap.”

Most reviewers agree that the second book is superior to the first book. I just published the third novel. Feedback from the beta-readers convince me that Rogue is both different from Peccadillo and Reprobate, but just as interesting and entertaining. Just because some people force themselves to turn a stand-alone book into a series doesn’t mean every series writer succumbs to this laziness.

“You write a series to cash in.”

If I wanted to cash in, I’d write short novels in a hot genre, not suspense fiction about a freelance assassin in Amsterdam. And as I sell somewhere around 30-60 books per month, I’m not ‘cashing in’. If I listened to ‘market experts’ I would abandon the series due to the meagre sales. However, I do have fans who want to know what happens to the protagonists and are eager for future books (check my reviews), so I just ignore the sales and keep on writing what I love to write.

“Series are just fluff/sugar coated candy/throwaway books.”

My series is pretty dark, which is quite normal for a suspense fiction series with a freelance assassin protagonist. I’ve been praised for the brief instances of wit that lighten the mood and ground the story in reality. In keeping with the need for verisimilitude, the events in the books have real moral/ethical/physical consequences and I received feedback from fans on how scenes made them reconsider the reader’s own attitudes.

“You’re just too lazy to invent new characters.”

Writing a series is actually more difficult than writing stand-alone novels, mostly because you need to satisfy both the new readers and the readers who read the other books, which requires a fine balance of putting in just enough back story to please both. Meanwhile, I dedicated myself to writing about characters who might never ‘hit it big’ with fans. Writing stand-alones with new characters doesn’t require any referencing to published stories.

Also, the series does feature new characters. Granted, they may be antagonists, but if the antagonists don’t measure up, the protagonist will fall kind of flat. I go by the principle that any character I create should be able to hold their own as protagonist of their own stories, so they have to be fully developed, not just sounding boards for the main characters.

Still I understand how readers don’t want to read series and prefer stand-alone books. In that case, Reprobate would work as a great stand-alone novel because it has all the characters, but all the plot lines are resolved in the end and you don’t need to read the other books.

Except if you want to know what the future holds in store for Katla and Bram…


Writing During A Motorcycle Trip…

I went on a motorcycle trip from July 1st till July 20th. Just me, my trusty BMW R1100GS motorcycle, and my iPad with Adonit Writer keyboard in my tankbag. And camping gear, obviously. From Amsterdam I rode 700 kilometers motorway to Dijon, from where I rode secondary roads exclusively. First down to the Vercors, then Alpes Maritimes, Parc de la Mercantour and crossing from Sospel to Olivetta in Italy. The coast turned out to be even warmer than I expected, so I spent most of my time riding deserted mountain roads and visiting dusty villages that didn’t see many tourists as I rode a figure-eight through Tuscany. Firenze, Siena, Pisa, Parma.

Taking the example from the Italians themselves, I parked the motorcycle in a shady place around noon and spent a couple of hours writing until the heat dissipated enough to resume riding. My iPad has a longer battery life than most laptops, but I could always use an outlet. In many cases, the cafe/restaurant/hotel were so honored that I used their facilities to write on my novels, that I was treated with a pleasant hospitality, the staff leaving me alone and keeping other guests away from me so I could concentrate.

At home, I have many distractions, but in Italy I didn’t have many other things to do then ride, camp and write. Watching television was useless, since my Italian is ‘Amsterdam Restaurant Italian’, meaning that I knew how to greet and order food, but following an Italian conversation was impossible. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have enjoyable conversations in a mish-mash of Italian/French/English, but an Italian television drama went over my head.

I rarely spent more than one night in one place. I spent two nights in the Vercors to acclimatize myself to camping again, two nights in Firenze because I enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere and the beautiful city, two nights in Parma, and two nights in Rocaforte because I didn’t want to travel in France on their Quatorze Juillet (July 14th, Independance Day). Instead, I spent most of July 14th in Caffe La Bottega Errante in Mondovi, a very pleasant cafe with excellent cappuccini, high ceilinged cool rooms and an English speaking staff. The atmosphere at La Bottega Errante proved inspirational – I think I wrote close to 8,000 words that day. Other places that were very conducive to writing:

– Chiar di Luna, an Albergo/Ristorante/Pizzeria in Careggine. A glass serre in shadow with a view of the fields and mountains, with a fragrant breeze coming in through the open windows, great pizza and excellent cappuccino.

– Ostello della Giuventu di Parma, the Youth Hostel in Parma, where the English speaking staff helped me with Italian phrases (thank you, Alessio). Along with the comfortable and stylish Auberge de Jeunesse in Liege, these youth hostels were the only places when I didn’t use my tent. In both cases because there were not many campings in the vicinity and the prices for a bed in a dorm were comparable to most Italian campsites.

– Lino’s Caffe in Parma. These coffee shops are part of a chain, but still, sitting in the shadow on a terrace with WiFi provided by the Municipality of Parma while being served strong and tasty cappuccino is difficult to beat. By way of thanks Katla kills someone in Parma’s La Cittadella…

– Caffe Bertaina in Mondovi, who graciously safeguarded my motorcycle gear so I could tramp around Mondovi in cargo pants and sandals, as well as enjoy the shady breeze of their terrace under the arches around Piazza Maggiore.

– The restaurant of Camping Michelangelo in Firenze, where I could write while looking out over this glorious city, with a friendly staff who clearly enjoyed their work.

All in all, when I returned to Amsterdam, I updated my Scrivener file and found that I’d written some 27,000 words while on the road, which comes to an average of 1,350 words a day. Most of the time, at home, I won’t get over 1,000 words a day, if that, so my French Italian motorcycle trip was enjoyable, refreshing and productive as well.

Rogue – A Katla Novel (Amsterdam Assassin Series 3) is now at 86,000 words, with a goal of 100,000+ words in September… Keep your fingers crossed.


KATLA FAQ: Why I chose an assassin for my protagonist…

Why I write what I write is very simple in essence. I write what I write because no-one else writes it. And I want to read what I write. I wanted to read a story about a female freelance assassin, someone who enjoys her job without being a freak, pervert or weirdo. Someone whose view of the world is bleak enough to do the job without remorse, but not so bleak as to make her bitter. With a heart cold enough to make dispassionate decisions, but still warm enough to trust and love someone who accepts her for who she is.

In stories, whether books or movies, hired killers, in any shape or form, are mostly perverted weirdos, as if killing in exchange for money debases someone more than killing for God and Country. A soldier can justify his actions, as he is ordered by his superiors to kill ‘the enemy’. A mercenary can be ethical, following certain ideals in joining an army that fights for what he thinks is right. But a freelance assassin is a realist, someone who accepts the responsibility of taking a life without justification, for there can be no justification for the taking of a life. Reasons, sure. There are always plenty of reasons to kill another human being, but rarely a justifiable reason. But then, isn’t justification just another illusion? Is there justice in this world? Are the evildoers punished and the righteous rewarded? Anyone who takes a good look around them knows better.

Katla is a realist, pur sang. She knows there are more reasons to kill other people than people to do the job. Do the job properly, that is. There are always ambitious punks who can be hired to kill for a nickel. As Creaux says in Reprobate: “The world is overrun by amateurs, but bereft of professionals.” If you have carefully built a company and your business partner is driving your company into the ground, and you know you cannot buy him out or talk sense into him, maybe it’s time to get a professional to do the job.

Katla is an expert in disguising homicide, which makes her a particular breed of assassin. Most professional killers want to remain detached from their targets, needing the distance to separate themselves from the act. Dispatch the target with the minimum amount of fuss. Use a suppressed semi-automatic Ruger .22 Mark II and shoot a dumdum into the base of the skull, with just enough power to enter, but not to exit the cranium, so the bullet will bounce around the dome of bone and shred the brains. Just a trickle of blood, maybe bulging eyes from the pressure in the head, caused by the gases that exited the barrel pressed against the entry wound. Clean and easy. Except that such a kill would send up a red flag at any law enforcement office. Warning: Professional At Work. Same goes with any kind of skilful applied violence. Whether you garrotte someone or bomb his car, if you cannot disguise the homicide, there will be an investigation. And since your client most likely stands to benefit from the death of your target, any criminal investigation is to be avoided. Unless the investigation clears your client, or rules the demise of your target accidental or self-induced.

Katla has the mind of a hunter and trapper. Not the kind of hunter who runs around the woods drunk with a bright orange vest to avoid getting shot by his equally drunk buddies who will use an elephant gun to shoot a squirrel. Katla studies her targets like a dedicated hunter tracks his prey, like a trapper finds the places to position his snare. Stalking her target and constructing the perfect strategy towards the demise is as much an intellectual endeavour as a physical challenge, demanding both acumen and stamina. To become the perfect assassin requires a study both of human nature and human biology, its inherent flaws and how to put them to full advantage. With that pursuit of excellence taken into account, Katla’s fascination with her job make her choice of occupation not only understandable but even admirable, to an extent.

My own life has had its moments of violence, enough to make me realise that violence lurks in pretty much everyone, although the veneer of civility may have more substance on some people than others. To the outside world, Katla seems more than composed, she has an almost Zen-like attitude towards life, but it’s rooted less spirituality than reality. Katla knows how fragile life is and how easily destroyed, which makes her appreciate her own life and that of her loved ones. Fate is fickle and the wrong circumstances or timing can extinguish any life prematurely, so celebrate the life you have today and don’t live in the future life you might never receive. To be aware of the present is the greatest gift.


WRITING: Self-Editing Fiction

I’ve been writing and editing my own work for over twenty years now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not open to new ideas. When I first started writing, I wrote on paper using a typewriter, retyping whole sections to edit out the errors. Currently, I write on a MacBook Pro, using Scrivener, synching scenes in progress with SimpleNote, so I can edit them on my iPad. Needless to say, my current work process differs from the process I had when I started out.

First a couple of things that tend to confuse beginning writers:

  • Writing and Editing use different parts of the brain. Editing while Writing uses more energy, but most Writers have trouble ignoring the Editor.
  • Most Writers produce a first or rough draft that is not fit for consumption. This is normal.
  • When Writing, there is no rule as to the length of the scene, or chapter, or dialogue, or narrative. That will be sorted out by the Editor.
  • Don’t sweat the grammatical issues, the Editor will sort them out. Just get the stuff that’s in your head onto something tangible outside your head.
  • The Editor doesn’t work on a computer screen. That’s why Writers print out their books and use a highlighter and a pen to edit their manuscripts. Or they make an e-book draft (see below).
  • If you wait for the right moment to write, you will spend a lot of time waiting.

Since I used to write on a typewriter, I understand the advantages of writing on a computer, but there are also some disadvantages. Like having to print out your work, or losing a few scenes or chapters or even a whole book if you do not to back-up your work. This disadvantages are minor compared to the advantages of creating on a computer. You can Edit your first draft without the need of having to retype the whole bloody thing for starters.

Let’s start with that. Too many writers try to churn out perfect copy when they’re supposed to be creating a story. This tends to stir up a conflict between the Writer and the Editor. While the Writer just wants to get the stuff in his head on paper, the Editor is constantly pointing out grammatical errors, overused words, typos, clichés, run-on sentences, punctuation issues, and so forth. All important issues, certainly, but Any Mistake Can Be Remedied in the Second Draft. And, more importantly, the Editor is distracting the Writer from the creative process. The first or rough draft is supposed to be an outpouring of creative energy, and anything that hinders or blocks the flow should die in horrible agony.

Only to rise from the ashes like the mythical phoenix when the first draft is finished, because now the Editor can get to work. Like I stated above, the Editor doesn’t work on a computer screen. I’m sure there’s a chorus of writers who will naysay this assertion and claim they can Edit on a computer screen, and I’m sure they can. Nothing is set in stone. However, most writers agree that you’ll find mistakes and errors in your prose when you’ve printed the manuscript that you didn’t find when you read the text on a computer screen. I think that’s because the computer screen is for creating, not for correcting.

So, I used to print out my work, carrying around a sheaf of paper (that’s 500 pages), a pen and a highlighter. And wondering why people though I was nuts, screaming at them to close the goddamn door because my papers were flying around. Ah, good old times.

All this changed when I got an e-reader. With some simple conversion programs, I could take my draft, turn it into an e-book and upload it to my e-reader. And most e-readers have a built-in highlight and note function. Even better, instead of a stack of paper with scribblings in the margins, I could select ‘View Notes & Marks’ and get a neat list of all the editorial scribblings I’d made in the e-book.

First things first, though.

Computers allow for pre-editing the rough draft to eliminate some of the most irritating errors. First, use Find+Replace to eliminate extra spaces, and search for filter words, crutch words and overused expressions. If you don’t know what I mean by that, send me an email and I’ll send you a Word file with words that you can safely eliminate from your manuscript, like ‘actually’, ‘very’, and ‘seemed to’.

Then the rough draft goes into the e-reader that I can take everywhere without fear that my papers blow everywhere or that my highlighter/pen will run out of ink. As long as I don’t forget to charge the battery regularly. Reading your manuscript like a reader will reveal mistakes that you had never taken into account, like the number of times the name of your protagonist is featured on the page [too many or too little], how the dialogue is confusing without speech tags, how the small paragraph of information you squeezed in turns out to be two pages of exposition, etcetera. Many e-readers also have ‘text-to-speech’ features that allow for a bored robot to read back your awkward prose to you.

And when you’ve finished Marking & Notating your entire manuscript, you sit back down behind the keyboard, View the list of Notes & Marks, and make the changes.

So fill your screen with unreadable garbage and revel in the fact that you can polish the turd in a few months, when your draft is finished and your creative juices are depleted.

Enjoy your writing, and let me know if you liked this post. I might write more articles that distract you from writing your own garbage.

 

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