Friday, April 18, 2014

Tips For Writing Action

I've just been writing a fight sequence in the book I'm working on. Over ten years of writing action scenes in Jimmy Coates thrillers, I've noticed a couple of tools I rely on to help me, and a couple of huge WATCH-OUT rules that I don't think any writer should ever, ever break. Those biggies are at the bottom. First, the tools:

Be clear
If you're writing any kind of fight or chase, get hold of little action figures or toys so you can carefully and slowly choreograph the sequence on your desk. The excitement of a scene is instantly destroyed if your reader is confused about how a character's arm got from round his enemy's neck to punching him in the liver without the necessary physical transition. Block out every move in the sequence like the director of a dance show and you'll avoid asking your characters to bend over backwards or suddenly sprout extra limbs.

Be brief
Once you've choreographed your sequence, cut half of it. Then cut half of it again. Reduce every fight or chase to its essence. You want maximum impact, minimum space on the page. For every twenty moves you'd see in a fight on film, write one. But make it count. In my first draft of my first book, Jimmy Coates: Killer, the helicopter chase was twenty pages long. In the final version, it's four pages. But because it's shorter it's more thrilling, it's more memorable. It should feel like it takes up more of the book than it actually does.

Be specific
Jimmy does not punch people. The knuckles of the first two fingers on Jimmy's right hand connect with his enemy's clavicle. For example. Get a diagram of the human anatomy and work out precisely the bones and ligaments that are crunching or grinding or twisting and how. Be specific not just position and action but with degree - how hard is someone hitting? How fast is someone moving? The common adjectives are too loose. Better to cut adjectives altogether and use stronger verbs. Even better, show the effects of a blow and you don't need to explain how hard it was. Show how the character feels the speed and you don't need to say it's fast.

Be vague
Sometimes you want to project the mess or speed of a fight or get across that so much is happening so fast nobody can keep up.  That's when you need to step back and let the reader fill in the gaps. Don't itemise every blow with the detail you would if you were being specific. This works well towards the end of a book when the reader has already imagined enough specifics to be able to know the detail instinctively when you only suggest an outline. So switch to overall dynamics. You'll need to rely a little more on metaphor and simile to make it work. This might not make much sense without an example, so here's a fight between two young would-be assassins near the end of Jimmy Coates: Power...

The two boys swung round each other like Olympic gymnasts on monkey bars. They traded blows with such pace that the noise of each strike echoed into the next. It sounded like rapid drumming. Jimmy let his mind drown completely in his programming. He wheeled his legs round, throwing himself in complete rotations to spin and kick again. At the same time he blocked Mitchell’s attacks with alternate hands – while his right defended against a savage kick, his left held on to the strut above his head, then viceversa.

Eventually, actions merged together. The fight became a blur in Jimmy’s head. He felt like he was in a trance, with a red haze seeping from his centre out towards the tips of his limbs. It was the feeling of murder. He knew Mitchell felt it too, and the longer the fight went on the hotter it burned.

Be different
We've all seen a fast car crash into a market stall. We've seen a lot of fights in movies. Do better. When the movie Bad Day at Black Rock came out in 1955, very few people knew about karate. The fight sequences in that film are short and powerful. A one-armed man has a skill he learned fighting the war in Japan and the result is utterly gripping, even now. It's even more exciting if you imagine never having seen karate before. So do some research. Find something that thrills you. If you find yourself writing a cliché, make a note to come back to it later and tweak it out of existence.

Play with time
A fight or chase shouldn't take the same amount of time to read as it would take to happen in real life. You can accelerate when you want to (especially if you're being 'vague', as above) or you can slow things right down and indulge in the right simile, the right bone hitting the right soft tissue, the maximum impact for a single action that would otherwise be lightning fast (especially if you're being specific, as above). Your job is to create a fight in the reader's head, not to commentate on the fight in your head.

Finally, remember: every single line of every fight or chase should tell the story. If it doesn't, an action sequence will feel kinetic but stagnant. Do not mistake movement for action. Do not mistake motion for emotion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Writing tip from Aristotle

"We are what we repeatedly do. So excellence is not an act, but a habit."

And so to be a writer, write.

(I don't think that includes tweeting.)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

The Goldfish of Doom

I wrote a funny little story that you can read for free, but only until midnight Thursday (UK time), when I'm going to take it down again.

It's called

and you can find it here: 

It's based on a true story, but I've changed things a little. For example, in the story it's about the main character's mum's goldfish. In real life, it was my wife's goldfish. Apart from that, it's mostly true. Every grisly, ridiculous detail.

I hope you like it. If you do, share it around so as many people can read it as possible before I have to take it away again.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Joe Craig's Epic Biscuits. I think they're shortbread.

I was asked to contribute a recipe to a school cookbook. I got a bit carried away and sent them something a little more confessional. Here it is:

I spend most of my day cooking or eating or thinking about cooking and eating – when I should be writing. I don’t usually follow recipes. I read them, nick ideas from them, then do my own thing. This is fine for savoury dishes but it’s a disaster for desserts. In particular: baking. For this reason, I am a terrible baker.

I get nervous about following baking recipes precisely. I make a huge mess. I’m also too lazy and impatient to follow all the steps properly. I don’t mix things for long enough – it’s boring and tiring on the arms. I don’t set things aside to chill for long enough – that’s not cooking, it’s waiting. I didn’t start making biscuits just to wait around. I started so I could eat biscuits.

So here’s my method for making biscuits. A method for the lazy, impatient baker who just loves biscuits.

You’ll need:
225g butter – I don’t care whether it’s salted or unsalted. Just don’t use the really good butter that you should be spreading on toast. But whatever you do, don’t use margarine or any of your other ‘spreads’. I don’t know what those spreads are even doing in your fridge. Throw them out. Get some butter. Come on.
110g caster sugar – it’s always really annoyed me that this isn’t 100g. That would be so much neater. But maybe you’re not as OCD as I am and this won’t matter to you. Also, you’d think that someone as OCD as I am would be a more tidy baker, but I’m not. I’m chaos.
225g plain flour – I love flour. I usually end up eating this off the spoon then I feel ill later. So don’t do that, however tempted you are.
I’m sure there are meant to be eggs in this recipe but I can’t remember when or where you use them. So maybe have some eggs ready, just in case. I don’t think you’ll need them but we’ll see.
110g cornflour – what even is cornflour? This stuff baffles me.
Pinch of salt – easy.

Here’s what you do:

Turn on the oven to 170 degrees – you could do this later, but you’ll thank me if you do it now.
Smear some butter on some baking trays
Put the butter and the sugar in a bowl. Now you’re meant to ‘cream’ it but I’ve never had a clue what that means so what I do is get my electric whisk, shove it in and mash it around a bit, then I turn it on and suddenly butter flies all over the kitchen so I immediately turn the whisk off again and panic. I put an apron on, realising I should have done this first. Then I try to whisk gently, covering as much of the bowl as possible with my hand, but it’s not actually possible to whisk ‘gently’ cos the machine is either on or off, right? And when it’s on it’s not ‘gentle’. So then I give up and just mangle the stuff together with my hands until I get bored. I think you can also use a wooden spoon for this. In fact, maybe that’s what you’re meant to do.
Sift the flour and cornflour into the bowl – I love sifting. I really do. It’s like you’re making a tiny Christmas scene, then it all builds up and it’s not just Christmas any more, it’s the Alps and you can imagine a tiny person skiing down this beautiful powdery snow that isn’t actually snow, it’s flour.
Add the salt
Mix it all together – again, probably a wooden-spoon-job. Get stuck in.
Throw some flour on the kitchen surface
Tip all your mixy stuff out of the bowl onto the kitchen surface and knead it – this is the bit where I’m always amazed that it somehow starts to look like dough. Actual dough! Amazing. And yummy.
Roll out the dough so it’s all as even as you can get it. I aim for about a centimetre thick. I never achieve that aim. Judging 1 centimetre is surprisingly hard.
Get a fork & make cool patterns in the top of the dough – you’re meant to just prick it evenly all over. I don’t. I make shapes and pretend they’re alien crop circles or the logos of weird extremist political movements.
Cut it all into shapes. What shapes? BISCUIT SHAPES. Obviously. Triangles work best because that’s the easiest shape to cut and the sides don’t have to be even. Also, a triangular biscuit is perfect for dunking in tea.
Arrange the shapes on the baking trays.
Chill the shapes for 30 minutes. Hahahaha. Yeah. Like I’m going to wait an extra 30 minutes for my biscuits. What am I supposed to do in that 30 minutes? Clean up the kitchen? Oh wait, that would actually be a good idea. But I don’t usually do that. If you’re going to chill your pre-biscuit shapes for half an hour, you can leave the ‘turning your oven on’ bit until now. But I can’t usually wait more than about 5 minutes, so it’s good to have already put the oven on earlier.
Put the shapes in the oven for about 20 minutes – watch them turn all delicious and golden. Yes, I’m telling you to stare through the window of the oven for 20 minutes. It’s better than anything on TV.
When they’re just starting to go a bit brown at the edges, take them out (USE OVEN GLOVES, SILLY).
Sprinkle a bit of extra sugar on them.
Now you’re meant to leave them for a bit so they can get a bit firmer as they cool. But come on. You’ve just baked biscuits. You’re going to wait? EAT THE BISCUITS.

Also, SEND BISCUITS TO JOE CRAIG. That bit is important.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Codes, Clues, Secrets & Lies in Jimmy Coates books

On page 138 of Jimmy Coates: Target (the UK edition) there's a code.

The book came out in 2006 and nobody has cracked the code yet (or at least, nobody has cracked the code and let me know about it). Every now and again people send me their theories about it - all wrong. This week I had an email containing a lovely, creative solution. Also wrong.

Here's the email (edited, to keep all this discreet) along with my response (also edited. What do you think this is, a democracy?).

From: xxx
Sent: Monday, March 10, 2014 8:38 AM
Subject: Jimmy Coates: Target - Door code?

I've been reading your books recently (they're great by the way) and I was looking at your website and you said the door code for the safehouse was easy to figure out with a bit of research.

Well, I'm a graphic designer who does a lot of web design and I found it odd that the # was in the middle of the code, they're normally at the beginning or end of a door entry code right? So I wondered what would happen if you put the # at the beginning and when I did it looked familiar. So now I'm wondering if it's a hexadecimal colour code? Maybe of the colour of the door? If it is it's a very nice shade of blue ;-)


From: Joe Craig
Sent: Monday, March 10, 2014 8:38 AM
To: xxx
Subject: Jimmy Coates: Target - Door code?

Hello xxx,
[general hello and intro and thanks for emailing and aren't you wonderful and all that blah blah blah]

You’re absolutely right that the # does look very odd in the middle of the code, doesn’t it? But I’m afraid that’s all you’re right about. I love the idea that it might be something to do with a colour. It isn’t. Am I going to tell you what it’s really about? No. That would spoil all the fun.
But I’m happy to tell you when you’re on the right lines, and you should definitely persist in not bothering about the #. It’s only there to mislead you.
Hope that helps. I’m pretty sure you’ll crack it now. Oh, I suppose it’s also only fair to warn you that if you’re doing research online (especially about me) there are several supposed ‘facts’ about me online that are just wrong. So don’t trust, for example, the internet. Just saying. If the internet had all the facts right then this would be a pretty simple code to crack. Fortunately it’s easy to make sure there’s plenty of misinformation about yourself online. Again – all part of the fun.
Meanwhile, if you get stuck with that code there’s a better one on page 155 of Jimmy Coates: Blackout (number 7 in the series – the latest one). The two codes are related.
I’ve given you way too many clues now.
Have fun and enjoy the rest of the series. Let me know how you get on.
Best wishes,



Monday, March 03, 2014

Book Questionnaire for Authors

West Earlham Junior School have been asking authors 4 questions. A whole bunch of authors have replied and it's quite enlightening to check out everybody's answers here:

I've chipped in. The email asking me to do this said I should take 30 seconds over it. So I didn't think about it very much and just typed as fast as I could. Here's what I said:

1. What was your favourite book as a child? 
Age 8: Magnus Powermouse by Dick King-Smith
Age 10: The Guinness Book of Cricket Records
Age 13: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
Age 16: New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
Age 32: The Sneetches & Other Stories by Dr Seuss

2. Which of your own books are you most proud of?
This changes every day. Today it's either Jimmy Coates: Blackout or Jimmy Coates: Power. I was re-reading JC: Power yesterday for a work thing and I found myself thinking, "Wow, I really knew what I was doing with this plot." It was a bit weird to be getting into the story and finding it so exciting when it was something I'd written myself a few years ago.

3. Is there a book that you think all children in Year Four (age 8/9) should read or have read to them?
Obviously Jimmy Coates: Killer. But apart from that... READ WHATEVER YOU LIKE. Try something new and if you don't like it after two pages pick up something else. I go through a lot of books this way, but I also find a lot of books I end up loving. And it doesn't cost you anything because at the library books are free. Awesome.

4. Do you think children should be allowed more time to read in school?
I think we should all have more time to read, especially in school. You should also be able to pick a week in the year and declare, THIS IS MY READING WEEK and in that week you do nothing at all except read. And there should be more time for creative messing about too. Reading, experimenting, discovering, failing over and over again... those are the most important things if you want to come up with anything that rocks the world.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Young Spy Books - Interview

A new facebook page has popped up dedicated to 'Young Adult Spy Books'. If you like that kind of thing I suggest you check it out:

It's early days but they've already got an interview with me up there. It's one of those interviews in which I talk about setting people off on their path to greatness...

Mr Joe Craig author of the Jimmy Coates series has kindly agreed to be interviewed by us.

1) Did you write stories at school for English projects?

We didn’t do a lot of story writing at school. We did some, but not a lot, and I’d say I was above average at it, but not outstanding. I didn’t read enough. I was very good at visualising stories, coming up with good concepts and a lot of the other skills that go into being a novelist. I got better and better at telling stories – orally – but didn’t get enough chance to practise writing them down until I left school.

2) Where did the name Jimmy Coates come from?

First, I wanted to go one better than James Bond, so I moved one on in the alphabet to get the initial letter for his surname. Then I wanted a contrast between hard and soft. A first name that sounded innocent. Just like Jimmy looks from the outside. But his surname had to have a harder sound. Something a bit tougher and something with a double meaning to suggest the different layers of Jimmy’s character and physical make-up. So the name reflects the character.

3) I read you are writing a new novel, will it be young adult?

I’m not sure what it is at the moment. I don’t set out to please a particular audience. I just want to tell a good story. So at the moment it’s still a rough first draft. The main character is in his teens so it will probably end up being YA but the plot of this one is a bit less... obvious. It’s not high-concept like Jimmy Coates. I’m trying something a bit more like the deeper novels I enjoy reading. But after I’ve finished this one I’m going to get back to writing a cracking thriller. I enjoy that.

4) Jimmy Coates has been associated with the Alex Rider, Jason Steed and CHERUB series. Have you read any of them and if so what ones?

I’ve read at least one of each of those series. I’ve also enjoyed Jack Heath, Andy Briggs, Mark Walden and there’s a newer one from Alan Zadoff I’m looking forward to reading. The master is Robert Ludlum, but he never wrote anything for kids. I try not to read too many other young spy thrillers – especially not while I’m working on a first draft – because I want to be able to stick to MY story and tell it the way I want to tell it. Influence can be productive, but it can also throw you off track.

5) What would be the greatest thing to happen to the Jimmy Coates series in your wildest dreams?

Hard question. A Jimmy Coates movie would be great. Or a Jimmy Coates TV series. But that’s not the be-all and end-all. It feels much more important to me for people to read the books and enjoy them – especially people who wouldn’t normally be into reading. So I suppose the greatest thing to happen would be in several years for some great writer or scientist or statesman to say that when he or she was a kid, the thing that got them reading and set them off on their path to greatness in the world... was the Jimmy Coates series. I’d like that very much.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

Writing Clinic: Basic Tips

Thought I'd share with you one of the latest messages I've had asking about writing. It came from one of my readers via facebook but I get asked similar things all the time so I hope my answer helps. Tell me what you think or add your suggestions in the comments...

I don't know whether to describe a character in one big paragraph or a bit here and a bit there as the chapter goes on. Also i just can't seem to change the scene.
I'm having lots of trouble bringing the child from school to home.
Should i write about him walking home from school because that's not in my plan or should i skip from morning to noon and go straight home?
So if you understand what i mean i want to write a bit about a conversation with his friend at school and then he gets detention but i don't want to write about him walking home.
Please help and i hope you understand what i mean as it's hard to explain and these problems really frustrate me i hope i'm not wasting your time and ask for your help


Hi F,
These are great questions. I think I have a couple of bits of advice that might help...
First of all, it's OK to write ANYTHING in your first draft even if you think it's not part of your plan or you think it doesn't work. Forget all that and just WRITE to get to the next bit of the story. When you're finished, you go back and you can cut out all of the bits that you don't need. But in order to find out what those bits are, sometimes you have to write a lot of rubbish in a first draft to begin with.
Having said all that, with a bit of experience and practice you'll get a better feeling for which bits you don't need to write in your first draft. For example, if nothing happens when the character is walking home from school, don't write that bit. You'll only cut it out later (or you should). Just go straight to the character being at home. Readers are smart people. They'll work out that the character isn't still at school when they seem him sitting at home watching TV or eating or having an argument or whatever it is that he's doing (and by the way, having an argument or having some kind of problem will probably be a lot more interesting for your readers than watching TV or eating. Unless he chokes.)
So what about describing a character? My suggestion is that you describe a character as little as possible. If you feel like you have to do it, just give one or two bits of very basic information without being too fancy about it. Get it out of the way early and quickly. You readers will build their own picture of the person. Again, they're smart people. They'll assume your character has some kind of face. Unless there's anything really unusual about it (and there should only be something unusual about it if it's essential to the story) then you don't even need to mention it. Your readers will also assume your character is human and has the right number of arms and legs. Also that he or she is not wearing a hat. Nobody assumes there's a hat any more. Maybe they did in the fifties. I don't know. What a world that would have been.
Anyway, whatever you write, don't worry about it for your first draft. Just get it down on paper or the computer. Then go back and change most of what you've written or cut it out.

PS Here's my tip for changing the scene: JUST STOP and start again with a different scene.
Nobody has to leave the room or die or say "that's it" or turn the lights out. You can just end the scene by stopping writing any more. So say what you need to say, show your reader the bit of the story they need to see, then stop. Start a new line. Start the next scene. Sounds simple, but I know it feels hard sometimes. So JUST DO IT.
Same thing with characters getting to and from different places. Nobody needs to see how that happens. It may as well be magic. Nobody actually cares if they got a train a bus or rode a dragon. Travelling is boring unless that's the story. Just get them there in a single line:
"By the time Joe turned up at home he was too late..." etc.