Sunday, 28 May 2017

Transfer of blog site to jfkirwan website

My blog has been transferred to my new website on Hope to see you there!
Click here to re-direct

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Find out what your readers like about your writing

Most authors love getting reviews. Especially good ones. And if you're planning on writing more than one book, and especially if you're writing a series, you want to make sure you keep them happy. You can always dwell on the bad reviews, but hey, there will always be some who don't like what you write. And even if you change the way you write, those people probably aren't going to read you again, so, in the words of Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, why not 'turn towards the light'?

See what your 4* and 5* reviews are saying. An easy way to do this is using a Word Cloud. I went through around 60 reviews for my two thrillers (66 metres & 37 hours), based on and reviews. I ignored the one or two 3* reviews, and picked out the adjectives and sought to see what the reviewers most liked. I counted each time they appeared, and then entered them into a word cloud.

The results are as shown, and although I'd read every review more than once, there were some surprises. Scuba-diving was top of the list - a lot of non-divers appreciated this unusual context for a thriller. Characterisation was second though, which was nice to know as a writer, but I hadn't predicted it. Page-turner came a nice third place, closely followed by cinematic and fast-paced. The latter I would have thought first. 'Clever plot', which I put tons of effort into, came around 10th, and 'realism' - because I do a lot of research - barely featured, lol. Exotic settings was nice to see, as it's something I'm continuing into the third novel in the series.

Doing this isn't the be-all-and-end-all, and some things which don't feature much (like good plotting) might be deal-breakers if they're not good enough, but still, it's an interesting exercise, and has given me pause for thought about the book I'm writing now.

There are plenty of Word Cloud tools for free on the web, just google them, dissect your reviews, and enjoy :-)


Sunday, 7 May 2017

Why I wrote 37 Hours

I remember when the accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) happened. It was the first time anything major transpired with a nuclear power plant. At the time I was pro-nuclear – it was hailed as the way forward: clean, limitless energy. I’ve always had a fascination with science, and nuclear energy and space exploration seemed to be the pinnacle of our achievements: splitting the atom and putting men on the moon. But the honeymoon with nuclear was over.

The real storm hit with Chernobyl. By the time it happened in 1986, I was working in the nuclear sector, trying to prevent what was called ‘human error’ from unleashing nuclear disaster elsewhere. Whereas with TMI it was mainly the threat of a large-scale reactor meltdown, and the fact that they lost control and some radioactivity got out, Chernobyl was the real deal, the nightmare scenario. The reactor core was split wide open. I recall watching on TV as the helicopters flew over Reactor No.4, pouring cement onto an unquenchable fire. I already knew a lot of those heroic men would die, sooner or later.

Many years later, after I’d moved out of nuclear into aviation safety, I watched the Fukushima accident unfold, after the mother of all tsunamis slammed into 400km of Japan’s shore. I called people who still worked in the industry, tried to offer help; but I was outside now, and so witnessed it as one of the hapless public, wondering how many more such accidents we could take. As with Chernobyl, there was heroism, as well as political hubris that did little to help the situation.

A while ago I got called back to take part in a nuclear power plant emergency exercise in the US. It was pretty realistic, simulating a hurricane that systematically defeated the safety barriers one by one. By the end the crew were pretty shaken up, even though it was an exercise. Such men and women are paid well. Most of the time their job can be a bit boring, but when things go wrong, they earn every penny.

I’ve always had a soft spot for heroes. And I’d heard this story about three men, divers, who had to open a valve underwater during the Chernobyl meltdown, to stop a massive explosion that would have bathed much of Western Europe in a radioactive cloud. I’d heard  they all died shortly after of radiation poisoning. It was actually the inspiration for my novel 37 Hours, originally titled ‘One Way Dive.’ In fact, the truth was less glamourous, if that’s the word. Three men did close the valve, but it wasn’t fully underwater, and although one died some years later after a heart attack, the other two were still around. Nevertheless, they saved the day, and many of their comrades died.

I’ve not been to Chernobyl, though some of my colleagues have, and have told me about it. It’s still pretty radioactive in parts, and will be for some time. There are tours you can go on. But there is one place, deep inside, dubbed the elephant’s foot, where a chunk of the remainder of the radioactive core sits in a distorted mound of slag. It’s intensely radioactive. That’s where I wanted to put my protagonist, Nadia, on the one hand fighting her nemesis, but on the other being attacked by invisible radiation.

Reviews say the Chernobyl section of the book, which is a quarter of the novel, is unputdownable, and that Chernobyl’s Reactor No.4 ‘crackles to life.’ Maybe so. For me it is real. I wrote it because I don’t want people to forget, how badly we can screw up, and how valiant we can be in trying to save the day. I don’t want people to forget how much we owe those who paid with their lives.

After 37 Hours, I thought I was done with nuclear. But in the next book, not yet titled, Fukushima makes an appearance via one of the characters who was a doctor there at the time. Maybe I’ll never be done with it.

A long time ago I wrote a non-fiction book about human error and nuclear safety. At the time, also 1986, the same year as Chernobyl, the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy had just occurred, and I dedicated the book ‘to the seven’, meaning the seven astronauts who lost their lives. The dedication in 37 Hours is to my elder brother, Kevin. But I guess the book is also a dedication to all the unsung heroes in the nuclear industry as well.    

37 Hours is available for kindle, iBook and Nook

Monday, 10 April 2017

Insomnia isn't always a bad thing...

This morning I woke up at three am. I had a plane to catch to Rome, so maybe that was it. But I wasn’t due to get up until 5:45. I tried to sleep for an hour or so, and then it happened, as it sometimes does. My brain started typing.  A line. Not just any line. A killer line.

When trained killers enter a dark, smoke-filled room hunting their quarry, they don’t usually look up to the ceiling.

Damnit. The next line typed itself without even asking permission.

Which was exactly where Blue Fan was,

Screw it. I got up, pulled on some clothes and headed to the kitchen, switched on the kettle, made tea, and fired up the laptop.

hands and feet wedged hard against the edges of a recess, as if crucified on an X-shaped cross. Like a sacrifice. Which is exactly what she’d have been if they’d tilted their necks upwards. But they didn’t.

I stared at the words, sipped my tea. Okay, good tension. But what about her? This is the first time the readers of 66 Metres and 37 Hours meet Blue Fan, Nadia’s new nemesis. So, some character. Out-and-out baddie? No. Something more subtle, ambiguous.

Muscles taut, not breathing, she counted the rifle-sight laser beams criss-crossing the empty chamber. Three. Disappointing. She was worth more.

I carried on writing and editing. I’d already written the start of the third Nadia book two weeks earlier. But unless something better comes along, I know this will replace it.

As I typed the last line of the scene and hit save, the alarm went off.  Time to go to work, to catch the plane to Rome, even though part of my mind was still in Hong Kong with Blue Fan. What would be her next move?

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Writers and Russian Roulette

People always ask me if I know the end of my next book. I always reply yes,  because I do, and that I know the beginning. However, the middle 250 or so pages is sometimes a different matter. It's like being able to see a house on a faraway mountain, but the valley before it is shrouded in mist. As a writer, having promised a book to a deadline, this kind of feels like Russian roulette, because there's a chance that the inspiration simply never comes...

After 66 Metres and 37 hours, which have the same protagonist (Nadia) but are slightly different books in style, I wanted the third one also to be different. For about a month I was keen to start the next book, but after writing the Prologue I stopped, because I couldn't see the twists and turns I would need to make this one stand alone from the others and not simply be 'more of the same'. Mostly, I couldn't see the overall arc of the protagonist. If you've made it to the end of 37 hours, you pretty much know what Nadia needs to do. But what challenges would she have this time, possibly her last? It had to be something new. Luckily for me, my Sony laptop broke (the keyboard - I get carried away and sometimes I can't type fast enough) - and I had to wait 10 days for a replacement (a Mac - 10 days? I live in France - just don't ask).

And then, following in the great footsteps of Archimedes, I was sitting in the bath one evening thinking about nothing in particular, and the plot came to me. Just like that. Like it was hiding in plain sight and I'd missed it all this time. I got out, vaguely dried myself and began scribbling notes. This went on for 10 minutes, then I sat back. It would work. Already the shape of the book started to form, the clouds lifting from the valleys, and I could see the road, the places Nadia would travel, the obstacles in her way, and how it would change her.


I don't know how other writers get their ideas and do this 'macro-plotting'. It's their business. But the mind is a strange and wonderful thing. Now I just have to write it all down...

So I don't leave you empty-handed, below are the two 'by-lines' used by the publisher for the first two books, and a new one for the book I am now writing.

The only thing worth killing for is family (66 Metres)

Now Nadia has killed once, she knows she can kill again (37 Hours)

 Nadia saved a city. Now she is public enemy number one (15 days)

Friday, 31 March 2017

Five rules for a sympathetic killer protagonist

These days many thrillers have protagonists who, if you stand back for a moment, are only marginally better than the people they are hunting down or trying to escape from. This is particularly the case when they are cold-blooded killers. Most of us as readers would never dream of killing anyone, and wouldn't hang out with killers. As an example, if you were in a tight and dangerous spot, you'd be forgiven for wanting Jack Reacher on your side. But if things were going just fine, I'm not sure you'd want him to come babysit your kids every Thursday...

As a writer the trick is to make such characters 'sympathetic'. This is writing jargon for 'likeable', or at the least, forgivable. It means you can relate to, or admire, or simply respect something about the character, which means you care what happens to them. Don't care = stop reading.

Take Jack Reacher, for example. On the one hand, once he gets going, he's a lethal killing machine. But on the other hand he can be very respectful and non-judgmental with ordinary people, and absolutely a gentleman with women, never assuming anything, never taking advantage. He is also entirely self-reliant, and never blames others for his misfortunes.

For my own protagonist, Nadia, I was inspired by Stieg Larsson's The girl with the dragon tattoo, and his world-famous female protagonist Lisbeth Salander. But I wanted to explore Nadia's transition from normal country Russian girl, to killer, while still keeping her sympathetic. In the first book, during the prologue, she is trapped into working for a gangster, Kadinsky, and from that point on, she finds herself in increasingly dangerous situations where the easiest way out is to kill, the one thing she does not want to do. At the very end of the book, she accepts her fate, and having crossed that line in order to save her sister, is promptly thrown into a secret prison.

So, at the beginning of book 2, I needed to do two things: introduce her, and make her sympathetic, even though she is now a killer. I employed 5 rules, based on everything I'd ever read about hard-nosed heroes who had a dark side:

1. Make her fiercely independent
2. Make the odds stack up against her
3. Don't let her blame others for what has happened
4. In the event of a 'fight or flight' situation, she always chooses fight
5. Show the reader how she can nevertheless be fragile

I then wrote the following short scene where we first meet Nadia, at the beginning of the novel 37 Hours:

Nadia heard the familiar rattles and clanks down the corridor. Steel bar gates unlocked, opened, locked again. Distant footsteps. Coming her way. She stopped her third round of push-ups and sat back on the wooden bench in the cell she’d barely left in almost two years. No visitors, no phone calls, no internet, no television, no papers. Books occasionally, classics. Minimal human contact.
They kept her in the dark, because they still weren’t convinced she’d given up all her secrets, and had classified her ‘need to know’ status as zero. They kept her hidden, afraid she’d talk about the Rose, and shame the British government over what it had created and almost let loose on its own kingdom. Afraid she’d let the public know they’d narrowly dodged a nuclear war with Russia. The government could invoke plausible deniability. Just another foiled conspiracy. But it wasn’t over. Cheng Yi was dead, but the unknown client was still out there. The threat was still real.

He would try again.

Maybe they’d keep her there for good. She’d killed two people. The world was better off without them, but British justice took a dim view of unlawful killing. British justice… She’d not seen a lawyer, nor been charged as far as she was aware. No visitors. She tried not to reopen that particular can of tarantulas; it never helped.

In the first six months, the thought of someone visiting her, Jake, maybe, or Katya, kept her going. But after a year the pain became unbearable. Nobody came. Nobody cared. And so she worked out, she read, and the rest were just bodily functions. She often sang the Cossack lullaby before lights out, just to practise using her voice, and to reach out to her older sister who used to sing it to her when they were young, soothing her while their parents screamed at each other downstairs. Nadia prayed Katya was all right, and comforted herself that above all, Katya was a survivor.

The sounds drew nearer, the telltale rattle of iron keys on a large ring. She knew the routine. She wiped sweat from her forehead with a mouldy towel, and stood to attention at the end of her cot, next to the washbasin. No mirror, no glass anywhere, a metal sink and lavatory in the corner. Light filtered through the misted glass and steel bars. She faced the solid metal door. Maybe she’d get coffee today. It would be cold, but that didn’t matter.

Footsteps grew closer. Two sets, not one. Another routine medical inspection? There hadn’t been an interrogation for months. Jake’s ice-bitch ex-lover and current boss, Lorne, had come regularly in the first nine months, until she could extract nothing new. Initially Nadia had played tough, until Lorne showed her photos of Ben’s funeral – the man who had helped her so much in the Scillies, yet asked for nothing in return – whereupon she’d cracked and told Jake’s MI6 handler everything she knew.

Lorne informed Nadia she would receive no visitors, because no one knew where she was: some British military high-security facility. Probably not even on the books. Nadia doubted anyone would visit even if they did know, after what had happened back in the Isles of Scilly. Unless it was to spit in her face, something she’d welcome after two years of solitary. But Jake must have known, and yet he never came. That was a kick in the stomach. And inevitably, she’d become angry. Now, after two years, it had cemented into a deep resentment. She might just lash out at the first unfortunate soul who came to see her.

The footsteps stopped right outside the door. A double-clank as the deadbolts retracted. A small scratchy noise as someone slid the latch and peered through the glass eyehole. The door didn’t open. Nadia stayed absolutely still. Come on, you bastards, give me my bloody breakfast! The routines of each day were sacrosanct, propping up her sanity. Still the door didn’t open. Voices, muffled, she couldn’t make anything out. A high-pitched cry, female, stifled.

Nadia was suddenly gripped by panic. What if they were going to kill her? Take her outside, shoot her and bury her? Nobody would know; no one would care. She clenched her teeth and fists, suppressed the fear. This was England, not Russia. But her arms and legs tensed like coiled springs, just in case.

The heavy door swung open slowly. She smelled her sister Katya before she saw her, the perfume she knew so well. Katya walked around the door, into full view, tears sliding down her cheeks as she held out her arms.

‘God, Nadia, I’m sorry it took so long.’

But Nadia was already in her arms, squeezing her, gripping her, two years of pent-up emotions erupting. The anger fled, chased away by a deluge of relief. She shook so much she couldn’t speak. Katya whispered soothing noises while the guard waited patiently. Nadia’s face was wet, like the rain she hadn’t felt in two years. She gathered herself, knowing this visit would be kept short. She wiped her eyes and cheeks, and spoke to her sister urgently, taking in every line of her face, details she might have to remember and savour for another two years.

‘How long can you stay?’ Nadia asked. ‘How long have we got?’

Katya bit her lip then pulled Nadia’s face tight to her chest, struggling to get the words out. ‘Time to come home, my Cossack,’ she said.

Nadia’s legs gave way.

66 metres here
37 hours here
Now working on the third instalment...