IMG_0046sOne of my stories was rejected this week. I got some really good feedback, and a request to submit more work to the same publisher – so I’m happy enough. But it did get me thinking. I wrote the piece with the specific publication in mind. I read a couple of their recent publications, then followed a story arc and broad plot that aligned with, rather than copied, their apparent preferred style. Essentially, I wrote to their genre. But did I write a cliché? The feedback said that the publisher didn’t want my story as the pay-off was something they’d seen before. Fair comment, and really useful to know when I either re-write that piece or write something else for them (or anyone else for that matter).

But it does re-raise a question that I’ve been asking myself for a while. I write genre fiction. Most fiction writers do (whether they like it or not). But we all want to avoid clichés (I think it’s illegal to write that without adding ‘like the plague’). Readers want the hero to complete their quest, the white hat to win, the anti-hero to both succeed and reform or the troubled detective to solve the murder. That’s genre. But when does writing genre slip into cliché or even worse, plagiarism? When does one hero become a poor imitation of another, and a third, and so on?

Very few writers set out to plagiarise others (except, perhaps, for some re-tellings of classic stories – which is probably not plagiarism…) but there are only so many broad plots, only so many ways that a small cast of characters can interact and only so many twists which actually make sense.

Here’s the question, then. How do I square the circle? How do I (or anyone else) write in genre and to house style without becoming repetitive or essentially copying what’s gone before. How do we write something new without going so far out of genre that we fall outside the requirements of the publisher and audience we’re aiming at?

I’d love to hear your thoughts – as readers, do you want to be shocked or do you want your stories to follow the usual rules of your preferred genre? And writers, do we need to be brave and break common genres? Or are we writing into ever decreasing opportunities to retell the same broad plots? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments!



Where to set a novel or story is, for me and I suspect lots of other writers, a key decision. You wouldn’t set a western in northern England (unless you called it Jericho… but that’s probably for a different post). Readers want locations appropriate to the action, and internally consistent timelines and locations (no skipping from Edinburgh to London in five minutes unless you have already introduced technology that makes that possible…and you’re writing in a future fiction/sci fi genre).

I am also quite a visual writer. I like to have a mental picture of my characters and the locations where key bits of action take place. Even if these details aren’t shared with my reader. It just helps me to hold these in mind when I write so that I avoid inconsistency.

I am currently editing a novella for summer release. Part of the action requires my heroine to sit in a coffee shop whilst waiting for the villain of the piece to meet a confederate nearby. It is a pivotal moment in the story, as this is when the heroine first identifies the villain for certain from a range of potential characters. All ok so far? Well, yes. It’s a simple set up,  and not particularly location specific. So what’s the problem?

Well, the problem is this. I had a place in mind when I wrote the scene. And last week I happened to be in the area for the first time in a couple of years. I thought I’d take a wander past. And where there was a coffee shop (with my heroine sat just out of eyesight watching the world go by) with eyeline to the building (with my villains engaged in hurried conversation in a door way) there is now…a hole in the ground and a big sign saying ‘Crossrail’!

It probably doesn’t matter. I referred to the location in passing, but not in such specific detail that a reader would necessarily be able to find it, or frankly want to. And the location is not critical to the story so much as it is simply a place for the action to happen. It could be anywhere really. (Let’s face it, there’s a coffee shop on every street corner anyway). So it really should not matter one jot what is or is not there any more. But..I just have this horrible feeling that my inner editor is going to force me to relocate the scene to somewhere that isn’t a hole in the ground!

Does anyone else have a view on this – either as a writer or a reader? Does it matter of the locations in a novel are real, reimagined or entirely fictitious? And if they are ‘real’…does it spoil the work if the location changes and the novel becomes ‘wrong’? Leave me a comment, let me know what you think?


(c) Chris Johnson 2016

People who are, and/or self describe as writers and authors are regularly asked the same series of questions. ‘Have I read anything you’ve written?’ (Answer – I don’t know, let me read your mind for a moment’.) and ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ (Answer – it depends, keeping my eyes and ears open mainly. That and Facebook.) But the one that gave me pause for thought this week was ‘Why did you publish your first book under a pen name? Are you ashamed of it?’ Forgive the cliché, but that is a really good question and one that I considered before I hit publish on Kindle Direct Publishing.

Publishing under a pen name is a well known phenomenon and (reasonably) common. George Elliot anyone? Robert Galbraith? Richard Bachman? Before anyone skips straight to the comments, I am definitely not comparing my efforts with theirs! What I’m actually saying is that if it’s good enough for them, it’s certainly good enough for me!

Assuming that you (dear reader) now accept that there is precedent, and have not switched off because this is an opinion piece not a short story (come back on Friday for one of those), let me answer the question (finally!).

I have recently published a novella, as an e-book, under a pen name. I did so for three very specific reasons:

  1. It is a genre novella. I prefer to call it pulp. It’s actually quite niche. A revenge story, with some gore and adult language. I intend to publish other work later, which will not be in the same genre or so niche. I also intend to continue writing niche/pulp/genre fiction. I don’t want my readers (assuming that I ever have any…) to be confused and pick up something which is well outside their expectations. Simple solution – write under different names.
  2. I already write, in a different field entirely, under my own name. (No, you won’t have read it, or at least it’s very unlikely unless you are a professional internal auditor or work for the same organisation I work for.) I wanted, for myself and for professional reasons, to separate the two styles of writing and content.
  3. Yes, I admit it, to some degree I am ashamed of it. Actually, not true. I’m not ashamed so much as I can foresee a time when I will be ashamed of it. This is my first attempt at a novella, and will contain plot holes and probably typos and grammatical mistakes. My defence is that it is a short, plot driven adventure story meant to be read on a train/tram/bus for fun, not a piece of literary fiction to be analysed and examined in detail. I wouldn’t recommend it to my mother’s reading group. It’s aimed at a very specific market and as yet I am still exploring whether there actually is a market!

You will notice that I haven’t told you what my pen name is…That is because this is an opinion piece not an advert for my alter-ego’s book. If you’re not interested in the advert I’d skip straight through to the final paragraph!

If you want to read the book, in the full knowledge that it is a different style and genre to most of the postings on this blog, it’s 99p/99c (or equivalent) to download from Amazon, or you can read it for free if you’re enrolled in Kindle Unlimited or from the library if you’re an Amazon Prime member. The links are UK: Amazon UK and US: Amazon US. My alter-ego also occasionally Blogs and tweets.

I’d love to know what readers who have made it this far think. Is publishing under a pen name duplicitous? Does it help readers when an author’s work in one genre is all published under the same name? Or am I simply trying to justify publishing work which I don’t want linked directly to me? (Although that ship sailed when I published this blog entry I suppose!) Leave me a comment, let me know.



(C) Chris Johnson 2016

I remember when this frame was new, shiny, silver plated. It had pride of place on the fireplace. My mother would take it down and polish off the nicotine and dust at least once a week. More often if someone was coming round. She bought it for her favourite picture of me. Taken at my cousin’s wedding in June 1950, I was wearing my first ever suit, a new hat, highly polished shoes. I’d been allowed to stand at the bar with the grown up men for the first time, allowed to smoke cigarettes and drink beer with them. Bitter tasting, warm and flat, it tasted like nectar to my seventeen year old self. It explains the crooked smile. My mother thought I looked grown up. I thought I looked drunk. We were both right.

My mother died in 1965. The frame went into a box. It was, lost, forgotten. No one wanted it any more. Not until one day in 1968 when my nephew, John, in bell bottom jeans and a tie-dyed shirt, found it while he was looking for inspiration for a university assignment. He wrote the assignment, passed and so kept the frame and my picture in his bedsit as a lucky charm. The room that was always full of loud music, the smell of pot, sweat and cheap beer. The silver plate got black in the thick smoke, the glass got covered with dust.

The frame moved around with John for another ten years. From his bedsit until his first divorce he kept it on display. In the early seventies cigar smoke replaced pot smoke, dinner party conversation and playing children replaced the loud music. By the late seventies his marriage had broken down and the sounds of arguments and screaming adults took over. The silver plate flaked. The picture faded. Eventually Amy issued the ultimatum and John took the easy route. He packed a bag and walked away. She dumped the rest of his belongings on the street. All but the picture frame. It sat, forgotten again, on the top shelf of a book case full of unread Dickens, Shakespeare and Chaucer along with a hundred Mills and Boone romances with broken spines and loose pages. A witness through her days of tears, sadness and endless David Soul ballads. Right through to the day when Amy started dating again. It was the new boyfriend who noticed it.

‘Hey, Amy, who’s this bloke?’

‘I don’t know. It’s one of John’s family I think. I’d forgotten it was there.’

‘He looks drunk. Shame this frame’s not real silver, it would have been worth something.’

‘It’s just a cheap thing. I’ll give it back to John.’

She put the frame face down on a telephone table in the hall. It stayed there for three months. Dark, dusty and ignored until John saw it one day when he was collecting the kids and Amy told him to take it.

John passed the frame on to his nephew, Julian. He was real eighties success story, a young millionaire trader in the city with a blonde girlfriend sharing his converted warehouse apartment. It sat on a shelf in the bathroom because Julian thought it was funny to talk to his Grandad, who told endless stories of austerity, while he was literally pissing away a fortune in overpriced champagne. During one of his parties someone thought it would be a good idea to snort cocaine off the glass. The party went on for days. The conversation fast and meaningless. The smoke as thick as it was in the sixties, the drug of choice and the price of the alcohol massively different. Then the market crashed, and so did Julian. The frame was taken from his repossessed apartment in the mid nineties and sold in a job lot to a second hand furniture dealer. Where it stayed. For two decades. It got moved from time to time. Picked up, dusted, put back somewhere new. But no one wanted to spend six pounds on a faded picture of a stranger in his first suit on his way to his first hangover in a battered frame with few patches of silver plate left.

At one of those dinner parties in the seventies one of John’s friends drunkenly joked that there was a tribe in Peru that believed that having their picture taken stole part of their soul. He found it hilarious. But it’s true. I’ve looked out from this frame for fifty five years. I’ve seen so much. And I’m ready for another change of scenery now. Please.

(c) Chris Johnson 2015