Friday, 31 July 2015

Cornerstones Mini Masterclass

with Ayisha Malik, Managing Editor at Cornerstones Literary Consultancy.

Each issue, Cornerstones Literary Consultancy explore and critique a reader's opening page. If you would like to participate in their Opening Page Mini Masterclass, send your opening page (400 approx words) as a Word Document attachment to with the subject ‘Cornerstones Masterclass’. Pieces for critique are chosen at random from those submitted to Words with JAM.

Exit Route by Julia Thorley

If Karen had known that on Wednesday evening she would be seeing Tommy for the last time she would have paid more attention.

She stared out of the café window. The station served one of those unsurprising Midlands towns that most people don’t even notice on their way through to somewhere more interesting. There was little activity: too late for travellers to be returning from weekends away, too soon for them to be leaving. A few disconsolate businessmen stood hunched against the March chill, straining to read their phones by murky yellow lights suspended from the awning.

Three chimes signified the arrival of the northbound train. Karen watched as a man in a dark overcoat threw his rucksack to the ground then manoeuvred a double bass down the train steps. Session musician with an orchestra perhaps, she mused. A bevy of young women teetered their way towards an empty carriage.

Karen turned her attention back into the room as Tommy sat down at the table with a lidded coffee in his hands.

‘You needn’t wait, you know. I’m a big boy now.’

Karen looked into his youthful face and resisted the urge to stroke it. Instead she replied, ‘Indulge your old mother. I’ve got nothing to get home for.’

‘When’s Dad back?’

‘Not ’til Friday. His plane lands at 5-ish, so he’ll be home for supper, unless...’ She left the rest of the sentence implied.

Tommy took a sip of his coffee and flinched as it burnt his top lip. ‘Well, it’s been good to see you, even if it was just a flying visit. Thanks for lunch – and the money.’ He grinned sheepishly.

‘Yes,’ Karen teased. ‘You keep telling me you’re a grown-up, yet you rarely turn down a bit of extra cash.’

‘Well, it would be churlish to stifle your maternal generosity.’

Looking out into the gloom again, Karen could see people gathering for the 18.30 to London. A tall man wearing a trilby struggled to keep it on his head as the wind buffeted him. Odd, thought Karen, to see a man in a hat these days.

‘I’d better go and stake my claim on the platform, then.’ Tommy stood up and eased himself into his backpack straps. He kissed the top of Karen’s head.

‘Take care, sweetheart,’ she said.

‘Always do, Ma, always do.’

He swung out of the door and was gone.

Critique by Ayisha Malik

This is a good first page. The author evokes the bleak setting well with specific details such as the ‘yellow lights suspended from the awning,’ which helps to set the scene. It also seems to provide a parallel between the external and the main character, Karen’s, internal state. The opening sentence is dramatic, instantly setting up mystery and what I’m assuming will be a core plot thread. There are aspects such as Tension, Pace and Characterisation, which could be developed in order to strengthen the opening. Another issue for the author to consider is helping us to discern what this story will actually be about: A mother’s search for her missing son? A literary fiction piece about a woman who’s in a state of loss and discontent? It might very well be both, but a little more clarity as to what they want it to be should help.

Although the opening sentence is strong, the author might consider whether they want to hold back this information in favour of drip-feeding Karen’s thoughts. By withholding the plot point, and rather suggesting something has happened, it should help to heighten the tension and urge the reader to turn the page to find out exactly what that is.

The author does a good job of anchoring the reader in Karen’s point of view, though I think we could make this a closer third person limited perspective. Her detachment comes across well – she seems separate from everything around her. Indeed, her gazing out of the café window while ignoring the actual person in her company suggests someone removed from real life. This sets up a potentially strong character arc: Why isn’t she paying attention? What is happening in her life that is emotionally separating her from others? All her distractions, however, seem to be of the trivial kind and I wonder whether the author could pare back the more banal details. For example, after having set the scene so well do we need:

‘A tall man wearing a trilby struggled to keep it on his head as the wind buffeted him. Odd, thought Karen, to see a man in a hat these days.’  

Additionally, Karen’s response to the man in the hat doesn’t tell us anything about the story or Karen – the author’s already shown that she’s distracted – do we need to know her thought process on such an inconsequential matter? If the author is using this thought as a way of indicating to the reader Karen’s sense of boredom then that’s fine, but at the same time we need to be engaged with this emotional ennui. Could the author signpost this in a more dramatic – if that doesn’t sound contradictory – way? Essentially, we need more emotional conflict and tension, and this, at the moment, is dissipated in favour of the less thought-provoking details.

A bit more insight into Karen’s feelings should help to bring the tension to the fore. It should also help with the pace, which is slowed down as a result of the more mundane particulars. Could we be shown, subtly, through dialogue and action more of who Karen is? Her urge to stroke Tommy’s face (and not doing so) is a good instance of how actions reveal character. For example, the mention of her husband indicates some tension in their relationship. Perhaps we can spend another sentence or two with her pondering about him. One of the strengths of this opening is that it manages to avoid exposition, so the author wants to maintain this, but a few details about her feelings, a stronger indication of perhaps a marriage in trouble (if that is the case) should help to heighten the tension as well as strengthen her character arc.

As the core narrative will be related to Tommy going missing the author could show us more of him through Karen’s eyes. The scene’s importance is based on the fact that it is the last time Karen will see him so a little more interaction between them would be helpful in establishing their dynamic. Right now, it comes across easy and quite playful, which demonstrates their closeness, but what is Karen really thinking about her son? She seems lonely and so how does this manifest in her dealing with Tommy? Does she want him to stay? If so, does she say something? Perhaps she holds it back, just the way she resists the urge to stroke his face – and this too would be very telling of her character. It might also be interesting to find out a little more of Tommy’s character through his mother’s eyes. He will be going missing so we want to really care about him as a character and understand what Karen is losing.

On the whole, the author has a good foundation to work with here. I want to know more about Karen and especially what happens to Tommy. Seeding in more detail about her emotional state should help to raise the tension and give a better understanding of her character. Also, by paring back some of the details that aren’t relevant to the plot we should get a faster pace, helping to keep the reader engaged.

I wish the author luck with developing this interesting piece. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Sympathy For The Devil

By Sarah Bower

I recently had a conversation with a fellow novelist about heroes and villains in fiction. I remarked that he had created a memorable, and oddly loveable, arch-villain, but that the hero of his books was a curiously blank canvas, an everyman, perhaps, whose distinct and individual characteristics were elusive and hard to grasp. This conversation set me thinking.

Who do we remember? Who do we love? Heathcliff, wild, violent, brutally sadistic? Or kind, decent Edgar Linton? Hector, the honourable family man who goes reluctantly to war, or Achilles, brooding, sulky, riddled with hubris? Shiny, clean-living Sir Galahad, or Lancelot, whose unruly and selfish heart brings about the destruction of Camelot? (Not forgetting, of course, that even before he met Guinevere, he had already abandoned the pregnant Elaine, Galahad’s mother.) Square-jawed Superman, imbued with mom, apple pie and the American way, or Batman, whose role as protector of Gotham is born of darkness in so many ways and who has no means of relating to the rest of humanity other than disguised as a creature of the night? Ivanhoe and Rowena? Or Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Rebecca, both of whom played starring roles in my decision to become a writer. From Milton’s Satan to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert to Bulgakov’s Master, the bad guys always seem to manage to carry a livelier story than the good. The Devil, as we know, has all the best tunes.

Everyman, of course, was a deliberate literary device of Bunyan’s and, I suspect, of my novelist friend with the good line in bad guys, but the consistency with which literature’s villains arouse our affections, while we treat the heroes as little more than part of the wallpaper, suggests the average reader’s moral compass is at the very least going a little haywire under the influence of bad boy magnetism. And although the theme of this edition is bad guys, I’m a good feminist, so let’s not forget the girls. I’m sorry, Mr. Thackeray, but I would far rather be Becky Sharp than Amelia Sedley. And Scarlett versus Melanie? No contest. Look what Disney recently managed to do with Maleficent. Who’s really interested in The Sleeping Beauty and her good godmothers? As Disney recognised in their 2014 movie, it’s the bad fairy who intrigues, whose story we want to know.

This is because, as consumers of stories, it is the motivation of characters which most fascinates us and offers catharsis, in that, via the bad guys, we can rationalise and explain to ourselves our often irrational and incomprehensible reasons for doing things. Heroic motivations are generally altruistic. Heroes are driven by their concern for the good of others, not themselves, or by noble, abstract concepts such as patriotism, religion or courtly love. Of course, there are dark sides to all these, as we see only too readily in the current tragedy of the Middle East and North Africa, but those drawn to the underbelly of heroism are, pretty much by definition, the villains, at least in the simplistic analysis of popular journalism. And while heroes claim allegiance to the good, the holy, the self-denying and self-sacrificing, villains tend to have concrete, comprehensible and personal reasons for their actions. Heroes may be humane but villains are, perhaps, even if they are Darth Vadar or Hal, more human.

I’m currently addicted to the Channel 4 drama, Humans, which illustrates this conundrum superbly. For those who don’t know it, Humans is set in a parallel present in which very lifelike humanoids undertake most menial jobs on our behalf. They are the domestic workers, the call centre operatives, street cleaners and waitresses, the home carers and sex workers. These humanoids heroically and selflessly (because they obviously have no sense of self) make the world a more comfortable place for humans. Until, that is, the crazed megalomaniac scientist who always lurks in such narratives creates a small group of humanoids which/who do have a sense of self, and emotions, and intellects, and thus confront the human characters in the drama, as well as its watchers, with difficult questions about exactly what a human being is. The crazed scientist is a bad guy, disrupting the status quo. His ‘children’ are also bad guys, outsiders, a threat to society.

Perhaps this is another way we define bad guys. They are outsiders, they tend to upset the apple cart. Perhaps, also, this is the source of their power over the imagination. Bad guys change things. Let me venture briefly into Christian mythology here. Jesus, I think it’s safe to say, was one of the good guys, but without the bad guys, Judas, Pilate et al, he would probably be a footnote to the history of the Roman Empire rather than the founder of a world religion. The concept of heroism is closely associated with the role of protector – of the poor, the polis, of women and children and others perceived as too weak to look after themselves. Protection infers preservation, keeping things the same. Most of us, however much we protest to the contrary, fear change, find it, at the very least, uncomfortable. This may help to explain both what makes us portray change-makers as villains and draws us to them for the way in which they can enable us to confront our fears safely between the covers of a book or the confines of a screen. Iago allows us to get to grips with the destructive powers of jealousy and prejudice. Through Heathcliff we can safely consider the effects of change on family dynamics. Cocteau’s creepy but exotic enfants terribles draw the sting from incest by titillating and enchanting us. The blood-soaked works of Edgar Allan Poe or the cobwebbed ghost stories of M. R. James allow us to peep into the abyss of hell yet step back safely once the candle is snuffed out and Nanny says it’s bedtime.

By now, you may well be protesting that many of the fictional characters I have mentioned here are not what you would call villains. Lancelot and Batman may have their bad guy moments, but we rarely construe either of them as villains. Batman is generally listed among superheroes, even though he has no superpowers. Heathcliff is customarily included in the great trinity of English literary romantic heroes alongside Messrs. Darcy and Rochester. Yet Rochester is a cantankerous, lying rogue with a rather spiteful sense of humour, and Darcy a self-righteous prig. Satan, as portrayed by Milton and subsequently by Bulgakov and Jagger and Richards, who picked up the ball and ran with it, is surely one of English literature’s most alluring and attractive figures, and has been the inspiration for every debonair bad guy since, from Tom Ripley to Hannibal Lecter to Patrick Bateman. (Although perhaps Bateman doesn’t deserve a mention here, as a mere fantasist, but being one of my personal favourite bad guys, he’s getting one.)

The distinction between hero and villain often seems arbitrary, or at least imposed by a system of morality so simplistic as to have little or no bearing on the human condition as it is lived and written about by poets and storytellers. Which brings me back to the matter of motivation. ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,’ says Hamlet, who had to make an appearance here eventually. All three of my own novels are constructed around men who can easily be adjudged bad boys. The first features Odo of Bayeux, younger brother of William the Conqueror and notorious for his brutality towards the Anglo-Saxons. The second stars Cesare Borgia, whose reputation needs no further elucidation here. The third bad boy, ironically named Arthur, is involved in a particularly heinous crime whose details I won’t go into because it would be a plot spoiler. The book on which I’m currently working features a Palestinian terrorist. One response my work often elicits  is that these central characters aren’t likeable, they aren’t heroes. Well, no. Where would be the fun in that? It is the novelist’s job to ask, not just who, how and when but, most crucially of all, why? Why do her characters act as they do? What is their motivation? What makes them tick?

The challenge, for me, in writing convincingly about these men was to find reasons for the character flaws that made them act in wicked ways, to create back stories which would at least explain, if not justify, their actions. And once you start doing that, once you start digging behind the violence, the meanness, the treachery, the vengefulness, the bigotry, whatever it is that attracts the label ‘bad guy’, the mask of villainy is rapidly stripped away to reveal a fallible human being, a dysfunctional childhood, a broken heart, a brutality made, not born, by the vagaries of the lived life. Hamlet drives Ophelia to suicide because of the pressures of grief and guilt he is under. Rochester lies to Jane out of shame. Lancelot and Heathcliff are undone by heartbreak, Maleficent by betrayal. Ripley and Becky Sharp respond to social humiliation, Norman Bates to the loss of his mother. These factors do not necessarily justify their behaviour, but they do explain it and locate it in the realm of the human. Bad guys are real. Whether we like it or not, they’re like us, flawed, compromised, passionate, irrational and, with everything that makes us who we are dependent on fragile electrical circuits protected by nothing but a few millimetres of skin and bone, terrifyingly vulnerable.

I would like to say a big thank you to the bad guys – and girls - and their creators for taking the hit on our behalf and making us feel safer and stronger when we close the book or turn off the TV and drag ourselves back to reality. Life just wouldn’t be the same without them.

Sarah Bower is quite a bad girl, as one or two bad guys could attest.

Question Corner

Lorraine Mace answers readers’ queries.

Alicia from Estepona, Spain, wants to query magazines, but isn’t sure what she should put in the email. She writes: I’ve seen on websites and in magazines that freelancers should query before submitting articles. I’ve sent lots of emails asking editors if I can write for them, but only one replied and that was to say I had to be more specific about what I had to offer the magazine. Does that mean sending my work CV?

No, not at all. Sending a query is not the same as applying for a job. A magazine editor has certain slots that are written in-house by permanent employees. There are other slots that are written by freelancers, but the same writer will fill that column every issue. What you are looking to fill is one of the many slots supplied by freelance writers that are not allocated to a specific writer.

First things first – you need to know that what you want to write fits the magazine you are going to query. This means reading several back issues to get a feel for style, word length, tone and content.

Assuming you’ve done that and have an idea for an article that will absolutely fit with the magazine’s readership, the next thing to do (before writing the article) is to send a query to the editor.

You need to treat this as a business email. Editors are busy people, usually with inboxes overflowing with unsolicited emails. This means you need to make the subject line striking enough to stand out from the rest – more on this later.

What is a query?
This is simply a one page email outlining the article’s content and gives reasons why the editor should commission you to write it.

To whom and from whom?
Always address the editor by name and use Dear Whoever. Once you have built a relationship with an editor you can switch to Hi, Hello, or any other friendlier form of address.

Make sure you have your full contact details in (or after) your signature.

What to say after the greeting
The opening paragraph is crucial – this is where you will make or break your query. If it’s a strong opening the editor will read on. If it isn’t, he or she will move on to the next query. Below are some ideas for strong opening paragraphs.

The first line of your planned article – provided it is attention grabbing!
A quote from someone you have interviewed for the article
A shocking statistic
A relevant newspaper headline

Follow this up with a short description of how you intend to deal with the subject matter – including mentions of interviewees (if any).

Why You?
Having outlined the article, you need to say why you are the right person to write it. Give relevant details of your personal history that promotes your credibility and/or professionalism (as related to the subject matter). If you’ve been a chef in a top restaurant and want to give an insider’s view, mention the work background. However, if you intend to write on global warming, telling the editor how hot it was in the kitchen is not going to influence a decision in your favour.

And lastly
Mention any relevant writing credits if you have any and say you can produce clips (copies of previously published work) if wanted. If you have not yet had any success, simply leave this part out.

Subject heading for the email
Only decide what to put in the subject line after you’ve written the email. By the time you’ve reached the end you should have a better idea of what angle you can take. It needs to be to the point and eye-catching. A play on words or the punchline to a joke can work, as can a short, sharp statement. You need to tailor the hook in the heading to the subject matter of your proposed article.

Good luck!

Lorraine Mace is the humour columnist for Writing Magazine and head competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She is a former tutor for the Writers Bureau, and is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book. She is also co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam of The Writer’s ABC Checklist (Accent Press). Lorraine runs a private critique service for writers (link below). She is the founder of the Flash 500 competitions covering flash fiction, humour verse and novel openings.

Her debut novel for children, Vlad the Inhaler, has now been followed by the second in the trilogy, Vlad’s Quest.

Writing as Frances di Plino, she is the author of four crime/thriller novels featuring Detective Inspector Paolo Storey: Bad Moon Rising, Someday Never Comes, Call It Pretending and Looking for a Reason by Crooked Cat Publishing.

Bad guys: Beasts drawn to Beauty

Who are you calling bad?

I admit it. I like a bad guy. I'm intrigued by the man in black, the saboteur, the bringer of danger. And no, of course I don't mean in real life, but in fiction - most definitely.

There is something compelling about a Hannibal Lecter type of character. Yes, he's malevolent, evil and sick but reading a story such as his allows the reader to safely explore humanity's darkest aspects. 

However, that's not really the type of character I have in mind when I think fondly of fictional bad guys.

Nor is it the classic baddie or anti-hero, whether it's the moustache-twirling, cape-swirling plotter of dastardly crimes or the warmongering, power hungry king, dictator, leader of an alien race who is intent on domination of country, planet or universe. And even less so is it the perpetrator who is unmasked at the end of a who-done-it.

No, for me, the fascinating bad guy is the tough, flawed, damaged individual. He could be Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind or the Phantom below the opera house. He's perhaps aggressive, even violent when he needs to be, but only in the furtherance of a just cause or in the defence of himself and those he loves or protects. He may be blinkered and misguided, but he has an interesting back story, can ultimately be a force for good, and there's often the possibility of some sort of redemption. Yes, the ubiquitous maverick cop springs to mind, but it could equally be a rebel soldier, politician, lawyer, journalist - whatever - bad guy will be a boundary pusher and bender of rules. And that edge of unpredictability, unconventionality and danger will make him sexy, intriguing maybe even lovable - as the Beast was to Beauty.

Bad guy pops up in all the genres, and can be the protagonist or antagonist or, indeed, both rolled into one. But as long as he's badass which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as both tough and good, then he'll work for me.

But, wait a minute, this bad guy thing - it seems all very male doesn't it? And if I go back to my dictionary I see that the O.E.D. defines guy (singular) as 'a man' BUT guys (plural) is defined as 'people of either sex'. So surely there should be some leeway for the gender of bad guys?

I must admit, I'm at a bit of a loss to come up with a sexy and intriguing bad guy-woman who has made any sort of impression on me. I know the baddies in fairy tales are often women - and boy are they wicked. The evil stepmother, the wicked queen, the bad witch - scheming murderers all. Then, in comic-strip superhero world there are the Catwoman types and their cousins the femmes-fatales and the tarts-with-a heart who appear in spy thrillers and crime novels. But the bad-in-a good-way female guy - she seems rare if she exists at all. Why that is - well there's a whole PhD thesis in the answer to that question.

But male or female, for writers wanting to employ the services of a captivating bad guy the important thing to remember is complexity. Yes, bad guy can be on a mission to fight a one-dimensional baddie be that a person, organisation or demon, but your guy needs to be nuanced, intriguing  and beguiling - just as any other protagonist/antagonist needs to be. However although my preference is for deepdown-good-bad guys, your bad guy doesn't have to be likeable. The notions of 'bad' and 'good' are difficult  to define objectively and are open to the writers' and readers' interpretation. The truly irredeemable and entirely wicked individual is rare in life and literature, but where a writer creates such an individual some degree of subtlety, ambiguity and credibility is good.  As the saying goes there's a banality to evil, but you don't want your writing to suffer from the same label.

So how do you like your bad guys?

Hmm, thinking about all of this has given me an idea for a novel. Main character is a kickass, badass girl-guy, complete with scar, blackbelt,  aggression and a mission. She's afraid of no-one as she battles through the plot, saves the world, and is ultimately saved from herself by cardigan-guy.

Watch this space for the publication date of Badass Beauty - I may be some time...

Anne Stormont is an author-publisher. She can be a subversive old bat but maintains a kind heart. As well as writing for this fine organ, she writes fiction for adults – mainly of the female-of-a-certain-age persuasion – and for children when she goes by the name of her alter-ego, Anne McAlpine. She blogs at  – where you can find out lots more about her.
Websites at :  and

60 Seconds with Marius Gabriel

Marius says 'I am a writer by profession. I love books, music, food and all other forms of human culture. I love serious things and silly things. Almost nothing in life is uninteresting to me. I like to share what delights me, and that is why I write.'

Tell us a little about you and your writing.

I have been writing fiction since I was a child and will probably keep writing till I die. I write about what I’m interested in, not necessarily about my experiences – it’s a way for me to explore my own imagination.

You’ve written across many genres from romance to historical fiction, why such a diverse range? 

I started writing romance novels to pay my way through postgraduate studies, but soon realized that it was going to be my career, anyway. I wrote around 35 short romances before turning to longer fiction. I loved writing romance, it was like being constantly drunk on champagne.

Did you enjoy writing for Mills & Boon? What do you think male authors add to romance novels?

I think male authors are surprisingly adept at romance, so long as they are able to understand the ups and downs of love, and see both a woman’s and a man’s point of view. Oh, and I enjoyed it very much!

Tell us about your latest novel, Wish Me Luck as You Wave Me Goodbye. (see our review here …)

It’s a novel about three sisters who experience World War II each in her own way. I fell in love with all three of my characters, and have just finished a sequel, which will come out early in 2016!

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

What it does to your mind.

And the worst?

What it does to your mind.

Where do you write?

I am at my desk, in my study, by 8am each day, and write until around 6pm. Fuelled by coffee and loud music.

You’ve lived in some wonderful locations, do you use any of them as settings in your novels? Is location important in your writing? 

Yes, I’ve drawn heavily from my locations, and the people who inhabit them. I feel one learns something about history from individual memories that can’t be found in history books. I’m a great listener to old people.

Which 3 books would you take to a desert island?

If Shakespeare and the King James Bible are already there, I would take Tolstoy’s “War And Peace”, Joyce’s “Ulysses,” and Yeats’ Poems.

What are your future writing plans?

I am debating writing a third novel in the “Wish Me Luck” series, and making it a trilogy, going up to the end of the war!


twitter: @scribbler4bread

The Industry View - Horror's Darkest Imagination

By JJ Marsh

 MATT SHAW is the published author of over 100 stories. Although known as a horror author, he also enjoys spending time in other genres too - something he had always planned to do in order to have at least one book, in a wide collection, which would appeal to people from all walks of life. In 2004, he published his horror novel Happy Ever After - the first of his books to reach the number one slot on Amazon and the first to use his trademark style of narrating the stories through the first person perspective. An extremely prolific writer, Matt is continually writing as well as keeping up to date with his readers via his (some might say) crazy Author Page on Facebook.  

First question, who is your ultimate bad guy (book, film, real person)?

My favourite film bad guy is Norman Bates, without a shadow of doubt. I like the quietness to the character, the awkward shyness and lack of social skills. I guess, on some levels, he reminds me of myself before the writing took off (since the writing took off I have found my confidence and don’t get flustered talking to people now). I do like characters such as Freddy and Jason but it is the fact Norman is real that makes him a firm favourite. He could be your neighbour, he could be your friend… He could be anyone. But then, he was partly based on a real ‘monster’ and that was Ed Gein. Ed was the inspiration behind not only Norman Bates but also The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He was a quiet guy who kept himself to himself but - at night - frequented graveyards to dig up corpses. Knowing he is the inspiration behind so many characters, including characters I have written myself, it serves as a reminder that sometimes fact is scarier than fiction.

You’ve written a swathe of quite terrifying characters – how do you keep each one different enough to be distinctive?

That’s all down to the type of story being told. I try and avoid treading ground once trodden before so things stay fresh. Fresh stories equals fresh characters. I have literally just finished a short story called “SNUFF” - it’s about two girls taking out their revenge on a man who has committed wrong. In the introduction I explained that it was a short story because - if it weren’t - I would have to go into the background of the characters to explain why they’re doing what they are doing and what turned them that way. Girls seeking revenge on people who have wronged them is something I have written before so, to turn that story into a novella or novel would have felt like recreating a story already written - in this instance my story ‘Whore’; the story of a prostitute who murders any clients who happen to be cheating on their partners. So, yeah, “SNUFF” was kept as a brutal, shocking short and it is all the better for it.

Another thing that helps is the wealth of information out there on real life monsters. You have Ed Gein, you have Dahmer, Gacy…. Drawing on aspects of all of these characters - and lesser known serial killers - and dissecting them for your own characters is a great way of ensuring you don’t have a character similar to another you’ve already created. Never just take one role-model and try and put them into everyone you write. It will get dull.

How far is there an element of psychology in creating these individuals? Do you, for example, say this is a sociopath, this one has zero empathy, etc…

There’s quite a lot of psychology involved, helped by the fact that I have seen many a psychiatrist because - going back many moons - my dark thoughts used to make me feel uncomfortable. I would be thinking one thing, totally happy, and then - out of the blue - I’d be imagining all these God awful scenarios centred on my surroundings. I saw the Doctors, I got referred. Next thing I am learning all about Psychopathic Personality Disorder and other fancy terms Doctors like to throw around the place whilst they trying to get inside of your head. It made me realise had complicated human emotions are, what with the empathy we are capable of feeling (in most cases) and triggers which can turn a good mood to a bad one. It’s all pretty interesting.

When I sit down and write a character I have to decide whether I want him to be a true monster or whether I want him to have some charm about him. Does he manipulate people with this charm? Does he just take what he wants from them? Does he just kill them for other reasons in his head (brought on from upbringing) etc. etc.

The collaborative work with Michael Bray is an interesting one for a horror author. Working individually, there are no limits. How does that change when working in a team?

Michael Bray knows that working with me means there are no limits. They go out of the window. He knows that anything we do is going to be Black Cover and he knows what people expect from them. They want ‘sick’ so we have to deliver it. We bounce ideas off each other until one of them sticks and then we get cracking and - I’ll be honest - we’re normally done very fast. Both ‘Art’ and ‘Monster’ took just over a week to write. ‘Home-Video’ a little longer and - because it is being a bastard to me at the moment, ‘Neo-Nazi’ a little longer than that but that is because we are trying something new with it. I am doing the main story section and then Mik is taking over for the real nasty stuff.

It’s interesting, if you read Mik’s stuff (you should) it is definitely tamer than the Black Cover Books (although he still has some pretty nasty bits) but he seemed to get into exploring his REALLY dark side with our story ‘Monster’. Some of what he came up with shocked me and that’s saying something. Not that I cared. I just laughed and said, “Let’s do this”. We write it, release it and then sit back with nervous apprehension as to how it will be received. Sometimes, when reading his sections, I often sit there wondering whether I have helped create a monster or whether he has always had that level of darkness within him and was just looking for an excuse to vent it. Who knows. Damned fine imagination though.

I will also just take the time to state now that writing with Mik is a real pleasure and I feel very fortunate that he approached me after I put an advert up asking if anyone wanted to co-write a book with me. I had heard nothing but good things about him, seen him around the social media sites with all these book deals happening and thought he would never look at someone like me. So when he messaged me, I jumped at the opportunity and sent him the idea I had in mind (our first project ‘ART’).

And filming your stories involves a lot of other creative minds. Is that motivating or frustrating?

Filming sucks. Which is funny because it was what I wanted to do with my life before my writing career took off. It is frustrating having people tell me what I can and can not do. Like, why can’t I show this or that? Why does this character need a reason to do this? Sometimes people just act out. Not everything needs a reason and sometimes it is scarier when there is none.

Over the last couple of years I have grown disillusioned with the whole film-making process. I have sold the rights to ‘Sick B*stards’ and ‘SEED’ and have since had them revert back to me, I have sold the rights to ‘Love Life’ to a guy who I was having regular meetings with and who has since disappeared from the face of the planet although that’s not a bad thing… He paid his money for the rights but no contracts were ever signed so… They also revert back to me. Now I’m pushing ahead with filmmaker Dan Brownlie to bring ‘Happy Ever After’ to the screen. Because I am more involved with this and raising the funds myself, I’ll have more control. This is the film that I want to make, this is what I think my readers deserve and this will be the film which ensures more Matt Shaw films follow.

If you want something done right… Do it yourself.

The passion Dan brings to the project is refreshing. There doesn’t seem to be any pretentious bullshit with him that you get with other directors and when we talk - which is fairly often - we seem to be singing from the same song sheet. I guess time will tell but I am hoping he is the one who reignites my passion within that particular industry.

Why aren’t there more Bad Girl characters in the horror genre?

Because it is too easy to paint a woman as a victim and so many ‘bad men’ have appeared in history, literature and film that people are often scared to step away and try something new. That and the fact that it is lazy storytelling; it’s easy to make a man appear bad, certainly easier than a woman. You can make the man large so he is a daunting figure, you can make him deformed so instantly we - the reader - know he is a bad egg… Most authors like to make their women pretty and approachable and this and that… But, again, that’s what makes them interesting to have as a bad girl; the monster buried beneath the make-up.

I have written many a bad man into a story but I don't just keep it to them. I like bad women as well. Snuff, Whore, Porn, Some Kind of Cu*t, Menu… Just a few titles where the women are the evil ones.

You’re a great example of how to interact with readers online and in person. What common elements attract them to your work?

We all share a love of horror, that’s it. Reading reviews, listening to feedback - they all seem to like the fact that I don’t seem to skirt around sensitive issues. I just jump straight in with both feet. These people want their horror nasty and dirty, I will give them horror. By handling certain things with sensitivity I feel I am cheating them. I’m not here for that. I am here, writing, to make them feel uncomfortable and question what they are reading. I want to push them to the point where they turn around and say, “Actually, this is too much for me”. But - and this is important - whilst doing this I want to give them a good story and, without trying to sound too modest, I believe I can tell a cracking story. I hate thinking of myself as an author because my writing isn’t very technical (something else my readers seem to like is how easy my books are to read). There are MUCH better authors out there… But I can tell a mean story.

Writers of all genres say readers tend to see the author in the characters or vice versa. How far do people expect you to reflect your writing? And do you have a strategy for dealing with that?

There are traits of me in the characters that I write, mainly the feeling of isolation and loneliness that some characters feel. Sometimes I can be surrounded by folk and still feel lonely. It’s quite horrible. But that’s about as far as my similarities to my characters go and - yes - people often think I am going to be this evil bastard who goes out torturing people when not writing. However… They then come to my Facebook page ( and realise that - actually - I’m usually up for a laugh. I’m the one doing naked dancing videos, I’m the one doing book readings whilst sucking up helium, or promoting a book by doing the cinnamon challenge… Once they say these videos, or the random posts I put up… They also see that I am approachable. I welcome questions on the publishing world, I offer advice where it is wanted and I have a laugh with them. They know I’m not the darkness that I write, just the madness. And that is fine by me.

 Have you, do you, will you write in another genre?

The Missing Years of Thomas Pritchard and Heaven’s Calling are two examples of books in other genres. Both of them are pretty sad and have reviews stating the reader wept like a baby at the end of them. I’m very proud of these books but - like I said before - it’s the Black Cover books that sell. This doesn’t mean I won’t write more of this style of book… I just don’t do them as frequently as the horrors. The same as Sexual Healing and Sexual Tension - two erotic books that I wrote just because I felt like a change.

It can get boring sticking to the same characters and the same themes, the same horrors all of the time. It’s nice to mix the horror up with different styles from time to time - if only to give my soul a break from the disturbing things that pop up in my head when writing these books!

Last question. You’re invited to a Hallowe’en party. Dress code: your worst nightmare. Your costume?

I would go as myself as - more often than not - I feel as though I am the worst aspect of my own life. Put it this way, I have a tattoo on my arm which reads, “My only regret in life is I’m not someone else”.

Seeing as that was the last question, I just want to give a shout-out to the people who have tried my work so far and have stuck by me. Your support for what I do has been amazing and I am truly grateful to you.


Want to help Kickstart Matt Shaw’s film?

60 Seconds with Jan Ruth

Jan Ruth lives in Snowdonia, North Wales, UK.

This ancient, romantic landscape is a perfect setting for Jan’s fiction, or simply day-dreaming in the heather. Jan writes contemporary stories about people, with a good smattering of humour, drama, dogs and horses.

Her full-length novels are currently being re-published by Accent Press. She has also self-published two sets of short stories.

Hi, Jan. Tell us a little about you and your writing?

I live in rural North Wales on the fringes of Snowdonia. Love books, horses and wandering about the countryside in a daydream.

You’ve recently moved from self publishing to Accent Press. Why the change?

I began writing seriously about 30 years ago. I thought I’d ‘arrived’ when I quickly attracted a London agent - but it came to nought, and then I went through a failed publishing venture with another London agent and some pennies began to drop. I gave up for a while because the traditional route was all we had back in the old days, and with only one title to my name I realised that I’d actually done pretty well to attract a passing glance in the first case. I received tremendous support and advice from Jane Judd and Cornerstones Literary Agency, and they did encourage me to write another book. Then Amazon and Kindle came along and I self-published the first two and wrote another one, plus a sequel to the first book and two sets of short stories... phew, this game was full on! Formatting, advertising, editing, The Media. I learnt a huge amount from the ground up, which has been a good foundation to improve because I’ve met some great, like-minded people who are experts in their own field. I’m not sure whether I reached a stage of burn-out or whether I simply came to realise that my books were drowning in a sea of genre wars and sheer numbers. Something happened to my self-belief and the drive to continue. And somewhere along the line, any individual such as me who has writing skills only, needs to consider the cost of publishing books to a professional standard. My pleasure comes from improving my writing and in producing a quality novel. I write when I’m inspired or have something to say. There’s nothing wrong with the opposite objectives of course, but I do think that self-publishing falls roughly into two camps. I write more fully about that here:

The wonderful discovery for me was that Accent Press are not only Welsh based and champion a lot of Welsh writers, but they are pretty savvy in a constantly changing world. I was expecting a long, long wait for a decision, and maybe problems because I’d self-published all of my material. This has not been the case. And I’m enjoying writing again! I have clear objectives, uncluttered with the nuts and bolts of the publishing process. Their validation of my work has resulted in renewed motivation to do more and I’m working from a quieter place in my head. Technically, I’m a hybrid author as my short story collections will remain self-published, and if I venture into children's books then these will also be self-published.

If you had to swap to a different genre, what would it be and why?

I think it would be historical or young adult because I could still write about relationships, horses and the Welsh countryside! I know where my comfort zone is and I don’t think Id stray too far from my original roots. Having said that, I do enjoy adding a hint of crime into my family-saga genre as it blends perfectly well with the dynamic and adds another dimension to a series.

What’s the best thing about being a writer?

Expression through the written word, living in a dreamscape of my own making. Readers telling me that they were right there with me ...

And the worst?

The solitary existence, the endless blank pages when nothing will come together. It’s par for the course but no creative vocation is perfect. No pain, no gain.

Where do you write?

I write in a cosy corner of the kitchen close to the coffee machine and the wine rack. My desk used to be in our conservatory, which has stunning views of the Welsh mountains but not only was it distracting, it was invariably too bright, too hot, too cold…

What does your love of Wales and your Welsh locale bring to your writing?

I think my spiritual roots are here in the hills. I wasn’t born in Wales but I do feel an affinity with this area. I love the history, the big outdoors, the wild ponies, the general lack of pretension. I spent a lot of time here as a child and a teenager and I think those early impressions are always powerful. When the books started to come together a brand began to emerge and I was happy to go with that flow as it pulled all the loves of my life into the same place somehow, and as a writer, that’s no bad thing.

Which 3 books would you take to a desert island?

The Lord of the Rings, (for the sheer magnitude of escapism and lets face it, it’s an adventure on horseback). Mist, by Mary Fitzgerald, (to remind me of home). The One Plus One, by Jo Jo Moyes, (to make me smile).

What are your future writing plans?

I’m currently working on the third book of the Wild Water series, then I’d like to write a third for the Midnight Sky series. That should keep me busy for a while! After that, I think some new characters are called for but I’ve also had a hankering to write a children’s book…