Special Guest: Marnie Riches talks about creating memorable characters …

I’ve just observed an interesting feed on Facebook which debated whether a person who is not minority ethnic could write ethnically diverse characters with any kind of integrity. George McKenzie, the star of my debut crime thriller, The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die is mixed-race, so the discussion seemed pertinent to me at first. Should you only write what you know, as the handbooks say? White people, writing white people? Black people, only telling stories with a Black cast? Men-only books for men?

Hell no! If you wrote only the familiar, the bookshop shelves would be fairly empty. Harry Potter? Forget him! Lisbeth Salander? You’re joking! And as for the ethnically diverse and often criminal-as-hell cast of The Wire…not on your nelly.

Fact is, a writer should never limit the scope of the stories available to them. Write whatever takes your fancy! Create the characters that speak to you. But the veracity of your characters does matter. So, make sure your research is spot on, because if you don’t do your characters justice, your story will be weak. Then, your writing will lack integrity!

Switch on your senses. Go out into the world. Notice the component parts that make people who they are…


Building great characters on the page relies heavily on great dialogue. You should strive to reproduce the rhythms of natural speech as faithfully as possible, injecting just a little stylistic flair. Elmore Leonard was renowned for his blistering dialogue, as is Quentin Tarantino – a heavy influence on my writing. Watching great TV and films is perfect for learning about great dialogue.


How do your characters behave? What do they like and dislike? Do they have quirks and foibles? George McKenzie is borderline OCD. Her Dutch side-kick, Senior Inspector van den Bergen is a hypochondriac. Flawed characters are more believable because none of us are perfect.


A character without a back-story is 2D. Even if you don’t incorporate it into your novel, it’s worth writing a separate piece, revealing your characters’ back-stories. If you know them, you can convince your readers that they are real.

Physical limitations

How does your character look, dress, walk, eat? What are their physical capabilities or disabilities? Does it ring true, that they can abseil off a building? It is far better to describe your characters’ visual appearance by dripping details gradually into the narrative, than to dump it all on the reader in a paragraph. Avoid exposition! It’s lazy.

Interaction and character arcs

Create a grid of your characters and make notes for your own reference on how each interacts with the others. This will help you to maintain consistency throughout the story. Then, do a little diagram, showing what your main characters’ arcs will be. How will the journey change them, as they face hurdle after hurdle? How will it change the way in which they interact with the others? Get these basic elements right and you’ve got strong foundations for your novel.

Now, go!  Make shit up but strive to make it the best shit you’ve ever read!

Marnie Riches grew up on a rough estate in Manchester. She learned her way out of the ghetto, all the way to Cambridge University, where she gained a Masters degree in German & Dutch. She has been a punk, a trainee rock star, a pretend artist, a property developer and professional fundraiser. Previously a children’s author, now, she writes crime and contemporary women’s fiction.

Her debut novel The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die went straight to the top of the charts and has already garnered stellar reviews. Links to the books and how to connect to Marnie below …

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die

girlwhobadge (1)
Amazon UK:


Amazon Australia:


Website: www.marnieriches.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Marnie-Riches-author/196117983745658
Twitter: @Marnie_Riches

Special Guest: Graham Smith

Graham Smith is married with a young son. A time served joiner he has built bridges, houses, dug drains and slated roofs to make ends meet. For the last fourteen years he has been manager of a busy hotel and wedding venue near Gretna Green, Scotland.

 An avid fan of crime fiction since being given one of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five books at the age of eight, he has also been a regular reviewer and interviewer for the well-respected website Crimesquad.com for over six years.

What the Hell do I Know?

Every guide I’ve ever seen on writing has a variation on the phrase “write what you know”. As I only read crime fiction and crime thrillers it is only logical that I write about crime. Sounds simple doesn’t it?

Here’s the rub. I’ve been lucky enough to never be the victim of crime, have never been involved in any kind of law enforcement beyond milk monitor and have generally lived a law-abiding life. (Other than perhaps an overly heavy right foot)

So with that experience or lack of it, I found myself wondering how to get inside the heads of my characters and how to create genuine realism when I had no practical experience to draw on.

That’s when I had a career saving epiphany. I might not have the first-hand experience of crime but I’ve read enough good and bad books to teach me what works in terms of pacing, tension, creating drama and engaging characters. My day job brings me into contact with a varied cross-section of the general public which allows me to observe interactions and find the basis for characters. Ergo, I know the framework which makes for a great story and I get to meet lots of interesting characters.

My wife and son were watching one of those reality shows / contests recently and there was a person who came onto the stage. They were cowed, timid and looked to my writer’s mind as if they’d been bullied and made to feel worthless. I found myself cheering this person on and hoping they’d qualify for the next round. I knew when I felt such empathy for this stranger competing in a show I don’t care about, there’s no way I’m not going to use those traits to create a character I want my readers to care about.

From there it was a simple matter of creating situations and putting the characters into them and seeing how they reacted. After that, I kept throwing obstacles at them and generally being horrible so the situations I created were filled with drama, conflict and either suspense or tension.

One situation in particular is the driver of my novel Snatched from Home. Without giving spoilers, I had a middle-class man amass such large gambling debts his children were kidnapped to force him to pay up. My son was the same age as one of his children which made research easy. The interplay between the man and his furious wife was garnered by me putting myself and my wife into their situation and imagining what she’d say to me and do to protect our son.

Other elements I included were all little bits of things I’ve heard or seen people discussing. Like the general feeling cops are bound by too many rules and it was better in the old days when they’d dish out a quick spot of justice down a dark alley.

So to sum up, I guess I know what keeps me turning pages, people and what my wife is like when she’s angry.

Links to Graham and his work …

The Major Crimes Team Vol 1: Lines of Enquiry





Snatched from Home 










Special Guest: Pete Sortwell

Pete is 35 and lives with his wife, Lucie, and their pet sofa, Jeff. He’s been writing for just under six years and they’ve been pretty eventful; well, more eventful than he thought sitting on Jeff, typing would be anyway.

Author of comedy e-books ‘The Village Idiot Reviews’, ‘The Office Idiot Reviews’ and ‘The Idiot Government Reviews’, ‘More Village idiot Reviews.’ These books sell more than he ever thought they would, and he’s hooked. ‘Dating in the Dark’ was Pete’s first self-published novel.

How I Sold Ten Thousand Books and why I’m quitting now I’ve done it. 
I’m not really quitting, but I couldn’t think of a bigger headline. I did, however, sell ten thousand e-books in one year. Here’s how it happened …

On October the 1st 2012, I hit publish on Amazon’s KDP self-publishing program. I’d spent the month before getting The Village Idiot Reviews together. It’s written in the front of the book, but for those of you that haven’t read it, I’ll tell you how and why I came about the idea in the first place.

Sadly, in August of that year I lost a very close friend, Dennis Roper. His death was something, that although not wholly unexpected, shook me and, at that time it felt like everything had changed. I wasn’t sure how I was going to move forward without my mate there by my side. I wanted to feel better and I knew that Dennis wouldn’t have wanted me sitting about miserably. Throughout the month of August there was what can only be described as uproar in the online writing community with the outing of several authors that had been caught either writing their own reviews or promoting their own work under different names, or to term it correctly ‘sock puppets’. The writing of fake reviews reminded me of the funny ones that had gone viral. (Check out Veet for men.) One evening I decided that rather than jump into any arguments (which would have been my reaction in the past, but I figured that whenever I’ve done that in RL, I usually end up in the shit myself somehow) I’d do something I’d never done before and keep my big mouth shut. I did more than that, in fact: I wrote some fake reviews of my own, The Village Idiot Reviews being the first book to link all those reviews together into a story.

I’d been watching other people on the writing scene for a while and I’d got an idea of what I didn’t want my book to look like. I knew I wanted it to look really professional both inside and out, so the only option was to use pros. Which is what I did. I’d already hooked up with an editor and proofreader, Julie Lewthwaite, while working on other, unreleased projects. I’m lucky that she’s more than just an editor, she’s also very experienced in most things I want to know and was able to point me in the right direction to find an artist. I knew I wanted something fun, so when I managed to get the services of Graham D. Lock I was over the moon. One thing though, I couldn’t afford him. So I asked to make a deal, Which was basically me saying ‘Please help me, I promise if this works I’ll use you for everything that comes after and pay your going rate.’

In fact this was the same deal I cut with everyone I worked with on TVIR. Luckily, all saw more promise in it than I did and agreed. I still thought it would be a disaster and that I’d never have to come good on my promise – not that I didn’t want to, I just wasn’t that confident in my work. I need to shout out to my mum here, also, as she actually covered half of the costs. Another thing I paid for was a decent product description; this helped, and it’s something I’ve used as a template for my other books. For no other reason than the career of the chap who did it, Mark Edwards, had taken off and his publishers think his time is better spent working on his own books. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to bring him in to my little project, though.

I pressed publish and just hoped that before I died it would recover the small cost it had taken to put out. It took less than a week to cover costs and by week two I’d had an 80 sale day and been the highest in the Kindle ranking that I’ve ever been: #314. I was just short of the top ten in humour and I was made up. If that wasn’t good enough, I started to get reviews, and some from people I didn’t know either. There was nothing for it, it was time to write another one. So I did. The Office Idiot Reviewscame out in November, followed by The Idiot Government Reviews in December. By the end of 2012 I’d sold my first thousand.

The bug had got me by then and in January I started a romcom; large market, I thought, lovely. However, large market means large competition. Dating In The Dark: sometimes love just pretends to be blind has done OK, though. In fact, my other works this year, More Village Idiot ReviewsThe Diary Of An Expectant Father, and The Diary Of a Hapless Father have all done OK. All were put out with the hope that they just wouldn’t lose me money, which they haven’t, and the ones I’ve just mentioned all paid for themselves within the first month, (except for Dating In The Dark: sometimes love just pretends to be blind, which took two, but it’s a longer book).

I’ve since experimented with box sets, or boxed sets; I don’t know which one is correct, but I have put them out and they’ve worked. I did decide something about pricing early on, and that was that I wasn’t going to be flogging 100k words for $1.99 when I could write something tight, for 30k and get the same money; as a result, most of my books are shorter than people’s who’ve got a deal. I don’t think this takes away from them, though. DITD is 51k, so is a novel, and it works. It’s my longest self-published work. I suppose in a way there is a reason why I am not big on fluff and filler; I don’t need to be, I’ve no one telling me that I need to submit between 70 and 90k, so I don’t, it’s as simple as that. I can also get more product out there if I stick to the lower word count. That isn’t to say if a story needed it, I wouldn’t go further; I’m working on DITD2 at the moment and it’s going to go over … how far? I don’t know yet, as I’m still working on it and I let the story dictate to me when it’s done. I don’t plan that much.

I’ve put all my books into paperback and although I haven’t sold that many, I think it adds something to the Amazon page when there is a choice. DITD will soon be an audiobook too and again, the deals been done, with the view of more to come if it works. That is something I’m really excited about as I listen to more books than I read.

People ask me lots of times, what’s your secret. There isn’t one. I’ve done the same have others have done and people have liked my work. I would say to anyone thinking of self-publishing though, put some time, money and hard work into your project, if you don’t you can’t expect anyone else to.  (Well, hopefully, it won’t be hard work for the reader, but you know what I mean.) One thing I’ve learnt is that I don’t always need to make my own mistakes. If I see someone run across the road while a lorry’s coming, I won’t do that. Likewise if I see someone link-dropping their book every time they comment, I won’t do that either. In fact, in recent months, I’ll only post my paid for books links once, then I’ll only share the free ones on Facebook. Maybe I’m going about that wrong, but I would much rather give people I know the books for nothing than charge them, then expect them to share the link when it goes free. I’d be pissed off if someone did that to me. Maybe not once, but I’ve now got ten products.

I’m lucky enough to have people contact me on Facebook to tell me how much they enjoyed reading something of mine. This is something I never thought would happen. It’s nice, though, and I always try and give people who take the time to contact me something for free. There really has been little more to my success than writing a book people wanted to read, investing my time (even when I’d much rather have been talking about writing than doing it), my money, and being nice to people, both fans and the people who work for me.

So KDP Select? Yep, I use it. Have done for almost a year and it seems to work, although – and this is the hard thing to understand – a successful free promotion (where you give your books away for free on Amazon) actually costs money. With all the free books that are out there the grabber won’t find my little effort if they’re just browsing, so I rely on their favourite website to email them and tell them about it, and that costs. However, I’ve seen the results, so it’s something I’ll continue to do until I don’t.

I’ve learnt so much over the last year, It’s like being a project manager when you’ve got three guys doing four or five jobs for you, giving feedback on work is something I struggle with if I’ve not made myself clear in the first place, however it all just comes down to being nice about it and working with people rather than moaning or placing blame. One thing overall that I’ve learnt is that dialogue helps most things. Not speaking doesn’t. The other thing I’d like to say is that most of my problems on this front have been my own, where I’ve been trying to do too many things at once and don’t explain myself well enough rather than anyone that I’ve worked with. I’m surprised they all put up with me, to be honest.

There really isn’t much more to it than that. I’ll stop short of saying I’ve been lucky and go with fortunate. The reason I say this is because sitting tapping away on a keyboard at 2a.m. when everyone else is in bed doesn’t feel much like luck, it feels more like hard graft.

I don’t like to forget the people that have helped me get where I am now, which is slightly better off and slightly more tired than I’ve ever been, with a pile of books I’ve written myself. This time last year I had a pile of books that I had short stories in. so it’s nice to see all my effort sitting on my shelf.

I wanted to write this because during the first couple of months I was desperately looking for blogs that spoke about the experience of others. If I hadn’t been so busy writing the books in the last year I might have kept one myself, but unfortunately I would never have kept it up and I knew it, so I did what I always do when I know I can’t give it my all, I didn’t bother. That’s the difference between writing a blog and writing a book, deep down inside, with the little bit of my ego that I didn’t want to tell people about, I knew I could write a book that people would like. My low self-confidence stopped me trying for a long time, but in the end, and after Dennis going, I knew it was time to start and time to prove to myself I could. What’s next to prove? I have no idea. Maybe a sitcom. There, I’ve said it now, it’s out of the little part of my brain that cares what people think.

How to get in touch with Pete …
And his latest bestseller The Diary of an Expectant Father is here  www.smarturl.it/DOAEF

Special Guest: Sarah Hilary

Getting an Agent by Sarah Hilary

Sarah Hilary has worked as a bookseller, and with the Royal Navy. Her debut novel, SOMEONE ELSE’S SKIN, is nominated for the Theakstons Crime Novel of the Year. It was the Observer’s Book of the Month (“superbly disturbing”), a Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller, and has been published worldwide. NO OTHER DARKNESS, the second in the series, was published in April 2015. The Marnie Rome series is being developed for television.

Here’s what I learnt five years ago, at the beginning of my journey to publication. I hope it helps if you’re at this stage. If you’re beyond it, maybe you’ll share a wry smile at the memories. NB: the bits in brackets and italics are the bits that tell you How NOT to Get an Agent. But you know that, right?

How to Get an Agent (or not)

  1. Write a damn good book. (Convince yourself it’s word-perfect; show it to no one who might cast doubt on this conviction)
  1. Pitch the book to the right agent in the prescribed manner. (Or not. Don’t let submission guidelines get in your way; this book can’t be pinned down in a paragraph)
  1. Practice patience. (Chase after two weeks. That’s plenty of time for the book’s brilliance to have penetrated)
  1. Submit a full ms on request in the prescribed manner. (Convince yourself this is it: your genius is about to be universally acknowledged and rewarded)
  1. When a rejection comes, accept it with good grace. Put it to one side if necessary until you’re in the right frame of mind to read it as the valuable information you need to get better at what you do. (Curse and pity the poor fools who didn’t have the wit to recognise genius when they read it; do not entertain the idea that they know more than you do about books and publishing. If you really want to go to town, tweet about their ridiculous rejection in the hope that other agents will take note)
  1. Start a new book, keeping close at hand the rejection letter that contained vital information about what you needed to do to get further ahead this time. (Start a new book ignoring that ridiculous rejection, which you’ve torn up in any case)
  1. Pitch and submit as earlier. (Dont forget to mention the idiots that turned down your previous work of genius)
  1. Accept the rejection with good grace, learning from it all that you can. (Wonder what is wrong with a world that can reject you twice. Storm. Rant. Flounce. Better: do it on your blog, naming and shaming those who thwarted you. Alternatively, curl up in a ball and never come out)
  1. Repeat steps six to eight, as required. (Give up. Tell yourself it’s because you’re too good to get published)

When I was lucky enough to be signed by Gregory & Company, a fantastic agency that specialises in crime and thrillers, it was with the full knowledge that my book needed work, of course it did. Thanks to a brilliant team at the agency, and an editor who knows exactly how to lead a writer through what’s needed, I felt enthused rather than daunted. In fact, I was dying to get stuck into the changes.

‘You’ve been trying us for some time,’ Jane said when we met.

‘I’m famed for my stamina,’ I confessed.

Not to mention bloody-mindedness, but also as it turns out, the ability to listen to what I’m told and to know that a good writer can always — ALWAYS — be a better writer.

Keep the faith, take advice from the experts, never give up. (Or, you know, not)

You can reach Sarah on Facebook

Twitter – @sarah_hilary

Or over at her website – www.sarahhilary.com

Life’s a Pitch – Alexandra Sokoloff


I’m often asked to speak to groups and classes of aspiring writers, and recently I was speaking to a college writing class, and I realized something that I’ve known for a long time, but I’ve never actually put into words.

Life is a constant pitch meeting.

There were a few dozen kids in this advanced class. Okay, not all kids! I talked for about forty-five minutes, my whole story of breaking into the film business as a screenwriter and then moving on to write novels, all the usual, and for the rest of the two-hour class I was just taking questions.

Out of the whole class, only five of the students asked questions, although more did answer when I asked them questions to draw them out. And out of those, only two people voluntarily told me what they were working on, in detail. And those were two out of the three who continued to ask questions throughout the class.

Guess which students I remember from the class?

Not only that, but these two guys caught my attention from the very first moment they walked into the class. They are attention whores. One walked in with a Nerf — Uzi, it looked like, in violent neon colors. At the slightest prompting he pulled that puppy out of his backpack, loaded a clip of Nerf bullets with awesome efficiency, and fired several lethal rounds into the whiteboard at the front of the class. It was a thing of beauty.

The other shuffled in, collapsed into his seat in a posture of abject and total martyrdom, made sure everyone could see the bruise under his eye, and proceeded (again with the most minimal prompting) to tell a woeful tale of being assaulted by his girlfriend over the weekend. She subsequently harassed his roommates, who called the cops and had her arrested.

Now those are entrances. Those are characters.

I don’t know if either of those guys can write worth a damn; I don’t know if they’ve got the drive and dedication to do what the job is, but I would give them a chance to show me more, just because they’re standouts — and because in two hours I learned so much more about them and their writing than I did about anyone else in the class. They moved themselves to the top of the theoretical list just by being forthcoming. They put the spotlight on themselves.

Furthermore, the guy with the Nerf Uzi draws and writes comic books, and the guy with the out-of-control love life is writing a wacky romantic comedy.

Do we see the pattern here?

They were illustrating the kinds of writers they are, in clothing, props, actions, and their entire personal presentations. They were pitching their writing with everything that they did that night. And oh, do film executives love visual aids. Who doesn’t?

At twenty-two or whatever, these kids already have it down.

In screenwriting, because so much of the job is pitching, you have to stand out for simple job survival. Film executives will take six or seven or ten pitch meetings in a day. Of course you have to have a great story to tell, but you equally have to make sure they’re actually awake enough to pay attention.

And it’s a lot the same if you’re an author. The more interesting character is going to get more attention from the media (essential for an author’s job survival). You will get more attention from your publisher if they sense you will get extra attention from the media. That’s just reality.

Take a look at successful authors you admire. There’s something beyond their amazing writing, isn’t there? They’re also fascinating people. They have star power in person. You can always find them in a room, and once you spot them, you can’t take your eyes off them. Watch Lee Child smoke a cigarette, for example, and tell me that’s not a living advertisement for the Reacher novels.

Now, that is not at all to say that you can’t make a bestselling career as a recluse. It’s happened throughout the ages. Great writing finds a spotlight, even when the author can’t. But I suspect it’s a lot harder to make a career that way, especially these days.

Even though I wasn’t handing out jobs in that class that night, I am a highly connected industry professional who was right in front of those students, at their disposal, for two hours. That’s an opportunity that doesn’t get handed to most people every day. There is no reward for being shy in that situation. You need to milk an opportunity like that for all it’s worth.

But the fact is, the Universe is always handing us chances to get exactly what we want. It’s a matter of whether or not we’re prepared enough, professionally and emotionally, to take the chances we’re given.

Sometimes we’re just not ready.

Those two guys I’m talking about didn’t know who I was or that I was going to be in class that night. They didn’t put on those little performances for me. They are clearly people who are always performing. But the point is, you never know when someone who can help you is going to be watching, or who might take an interest in you and your career simply because you’re interesting.

If you are ready… and that’s a big if — you need to put yourself out there so that people can see who you are. You need to talk passionately and specifically about your work. My friend and literary idol Margaret Maron calls it “sparkling,” and Margaret truly does. You have to sparkle.

This really goes double and triple if you attend writing conferences. Conferences are expensive investments in your career, and you need to make the most of the hundreds of opportunities that will present themselves to you over a conference weekend.

You aren’t ever going to be on all the time, let’s just be realistic about that! But you can talk passionately and specifically about your newest projects (without dominating the conversation to the point of being obnoxious and a turn-off) so that editor or agent on the sidelines of the group will make a mental note (“Read that author” or “Keep track of that person”).

You have to sparkle, whatever that means to you.

And if you find yourself resisting this idea, perhaps you might consider this question: Do you not present yourself at full power because somewhere inside you don’t feel ready?

I think that’s an important question for all of us to consider, and regularly. Because when it feels like we’re being held back, it’s usually something inside ourselves that is putting the brakes on.

So think about the last time you were in a group of authors or aspiring authors. Who stands out? Who stood out? Who presents an intriguing sense of the kind of writing that they do? Who sparkles? Who makes you want to know more

Let’s hear it, so we can all learn something!

    —- Alexandra Sokoloff


Alexandra Sokoloff is the bestselling, Thriller Award-winning and Bram Stoker and Anthony Award-nominated author of eleven supernatural, paranormal and crime thrillers. The New York Times has called her “a daughter of Mary Shelley” and her books “Some of the most original and freshly unnerving work in the genre.”

As a screenwriter she has sold original scripts and written novel adaptations for numerous Hollywood studios. She also teaches the internationally acclaimed Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workshops, based on her Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks and blog.

Her Thriller Award-nominated Huntress Moon series, following a haunted FBI agent on his hunt for a female serial killer, is out now. Huntress_Moon_TM_CVR-FT





Welcome to MJM Ink

Nav button 3A warm welcome to MJM Ink and thanks for tuning in!

Over the years I’ve delivered milk, sold shoes and suits, worked in a bar and in a bank, been employed in a coffee shop, was (briefly) the poet-in-residence for an adult gift shop (don’t ask) and latterly I was a regional sales manager for Faber and Faber.

The one constant in all of that has been my love of books and my need to write.

I am delighted to be opening up this service through MJM Ink and I look forward to collaborating with you to help you achieve your writing goals.

I have been published in fiction, non-fiction and poetry (don’t mention the gift shop) and, although my publishing credits are mainly in the crime/ psychological thriller area, the tenets of good writing and storytelling hold true for all genres.

So whether you are writing commercial or literary fiction, romance, crime, fantasy or horror, let me help you move a huge step closer to your literary dreams.

Have a look through the website and if you need any clarification – or to begin the process, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.