Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Chilling Challenge: a guest post by S.J. Bolton

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I have to confess, I thought I "discovered" S.J. Bolton. Last year, I picked up Now You See Me, the first mystery in her DC Lacey Flint series. I ripped through it and went looking for the next, Dead Scared. I was recommending the books to friends, patting myself on the back on being able to introduce people to this great unknown British author... until I found out she wasn't really that unknown. In fact, she's been shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger, the Theakston's Old Peculier prize for crime novel of the year, the International Thriller Writers' Best First Novel award and the Mary Higgins Clark award (four times in a row! Her thriller Awakening won that one.)

Okay, I wasn't the first to find out about Sharon Bolton. But - and here we get to today's theme - I wouldn't have discovered her if I hadn't been reading out of my comfort zone. Like a lot of us, I had fallen into the habit of picking up a narrow range of books. British police procedurals (excepting our own Deb Crombie's series) were not on the list. But last year, I challenged myself to dig into books that I normally wouldn't seek out. And you know what? It was a great experience. Here's S.J. (Sharon) Bolton to tell us about her pushing the envelope moments.

Photo: Modernista
On Mothers’ Day this year (10th March in the UK) I ran a five km race through ankle-deep mud. I scaled hills, fell down slopes, crawled through drainpipes, clambered over hay-bales and waded through waist-deep water. I didn’t cover myself in glory (I finished 4th from last) nor did I behave with great dignity. ‘Feel free to give me a shove up the arse,’ I told the man who was coming up behind me in the pipe. ‘Can’t,’ he replied. ‘My shorts are coming down.’

I’m not a natural runner. But my son runs, and I’ve learned that the key to family cohesion can lie in common interests; even if this invariably pushes parents way beyond their comfort zones.

I run so that I can share something with my son. Physical fitness is a fringe benefit. Another is the emotional growth that comes from the willingness to embracing a new challenge.

Now, life lessons can often be applied to writing, I find. Writers who grow are those who stretch themselves. Not so long ago, I met another writer at a dinner. She described herself, several times, as an ‘unsuccessful writer.’ After a while I asked the obvious - what kind of writer she might consider to be successful? ‘Someone whose books are in shops, not just libraries,’ she replied. I was tempted to feel sorry for her. Until she went on to tell me that for the last twenty years she’d written and published two books a year. ‘Stop it, now!’ I wanted to yell at her. ‘Take a break, clear your head, and then WRITE SOMETHING DECENT!’
This was a writer, forever trapped in her comfort zone, forever doomed to be disappointed.

I will not be one of these, even though, ultimately, I may end up shooting myself in the foot. (I thought my publishers would dump me over my third book BLOOD HARVEST – three major re-writes before it was accepted.)

I didn’t want to be labeled a writer of English rural gothic so with my fourth book I went urban. I wanted to see if I could pull off a credible police procedural, so made all my main characters police officers. I wondered if I could write an engaging series character, so created Lacey Flint. It was a major change and not everyone liked it. A writer friend accused me of going over to the dark side, because of the book’s twin themes of sexual abuse and violence against women.

It’s hard, isn’t it? When you’re living the life you dreamed of, (that plenty of others still long for) when armed with a reasonably successful product, you find yourself on the book-a-year treadmill. It’s hard to step off when you know you might never get back on again. Thunderous applause, therefore, to Gillian Flynn, whose first novel came out six years ago. GONE GIRL followed a four year gap. Flynn took her time. She had confidence in herself. She produced an absolute masterpiece.

I’m not that brave. But I do feel the time has come for a change. I’m finishing off my fifth Lacey Flint story and it’s been an effort. Not that I’m tired of Lacey, but I think I’ve gone as far as I can with this series for now. Time to move on.

What I’m reasonably good at is plotting (although it has been suggested that my readers don’t so much suspend disbelief as throw it gleefully out of the window) and my books are totally story driven. I’m less good at characterization. Most crime writers veer naturally towards one or the other, I find. If they’re character led writers, they write psychological crime. If action led, they write thrillers and action-packed mysteries.

I want to see if I can write a book in which very little happens. A book that’s success hinges on whether the characters work or not.

So, there will be no subterranean chases, no helicopter rescues, no mythical creatures lurking in the shadows and no rural communities haunted by the mistakes and ghosts of their past. There will be three people, whose lives have been destroyed by a single event, and who deal with it in very separate ways.

You know what, I think I’d rather be stuck in a muddy pipe with a half naked stranger.

 Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone, dear readers? How have you challenged yourselves in the past year - and in the year going forward? Let us know, and one lucky commenter will win the hardcover of Dead Scared!

Sharon's new Lacey Flint short story, IF SNOW HADN’T FALLEN, is published on 2 April (ebook only) and the new book, LOST, is out in June. You can find out more about S.J. Bolton, and read excerpts from her books, at her website.  You can friend her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter as @authorsjbolton, share reviews with her on Goodreads and enjoy her writing on her blog.



  1. I have found that I’m much more likely to read something “new and different” on my eReader than when I am browsing through either the library or the bookstore [where I tend to gravitate toward the same sections/shelves of books]. . . . Sometimes I have been disappointed . . . but more often I have found new authors and books that I’ve really enjoyed . . . . I’m looking forward to reading “Lost” . . . .

  2. Hi Joan, One of the great joys of a bookclub for me, is that it forces me to read out of my comfort zone. I do a lot of complaining about the stuff that really isn't for me, but every now and again, I come across an absolute gem. I do hope you like LOST.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I frequently try books out of my comfort zone. Only rarely do I find something I will stick to for the long run. Dee

  5. One of the side benefits of starting my blog was that I found myself reading some great books that I might otherwise have overlooked.

    My bookclub also has the same effect.

    I think as readers (and writers) we need to explore outside of our comfort zone every now and then, as that is what helps us to grow.

    I have read and enjoyed S.J.'s gothic stuff, but have not yet tried out Lacey Flint. I think that time has come.

  6. What a fabulous post, and thanks for the insight -- and push -- to stretch beyond comfort zones. I think I'm in one of those right now, and I hadn't realized it until I read your post. Thank you for that. I intend to go back to my wip and shake things up. For my characters and for me.

  7. What a wonderful post SJ, thanks for sharing it with us! With quick deadlines, it's hard to imagine thinking out of the box, so this is an excellent reminder.

    The tunnel was my Aussie's favorite event in agility training, so maybe I'll try that tube also Jack:)

  8. Great post, Sharon - Love your reason for running. That's love for ya. It's why I cook, and there's no greater pleasure than having a daughter in the kitchen with me.

    I hear you on the book a year treadmill. I wrote 5 series novels before stepping on to write standalones... which no way can I turn out one a year.

  9. I agree. Good post; thanks for the inspiration. Doing things that scare us should be part of our lives (not just writers, either). This year I'm going to tackle my fear of public speaking by holding author events and maybe getting a short spot on the local news to promote my book.

  10. Awakenings is one of the best thrillers I've ever read...I talk about it all the time when I'm asked about favorite books!

    But--I applaud you for trying something new.

    Why is that the most difficlut thing?

    When you're on the jungle gym you have to let go of one rung before you can grab the next one--and in that moment...ah.

    But there's no other way the big idea will come.

    Thank you so much for being here--and--though you couldn't know and we'll talk later-- perfect timing!

  11. Hi again. Thanks for stopping by everyone. Since my last post, my son and I drove 200 miles north to my sister's house in Lancashire (the setting for Blood Harvest) It's so cold here no one's in their comfort zone. I had a quick chat with my agent before leaving home and what she said seems to resonate with a few other comments. To take a leap forward, or make a big change, writers have to take big risks. Scary thought.

  12. Loved the post and congratulation on
    your publications. I can't imagine making the run you did! True LOVE.
    I haven't read any of your work but will make an immediate trip to the library. I started following Criminal Element in this last year and have been reading some the harder stuff and noir - not my usual at all, even though I'm pretty eclectic. I haven't liked most of them, but I've tried them!

  13. Risks in reading. My first thought was they are all risks. You never know what you will find inside. That's the point, though. Isn't it?

    Then there are the black eye risks. Like last night. I got a black eye when I fell asleep. My iPad dropped on my face. I really need that overhead bookstand.

  14. Everyone who says they've been inspired to try Sharon's books: you won't be disappointed!

    Since I'm doing research for my next book, I think I'll keep the idea of taking a risk in mind. Looking for ways to open up my writing to something new and maybe a little scary.

  15. Julia, I am very much looking forward to reading one of Sharon's books.

    I had another thought regarding change and trying something new, doing something different. Writers hear over and over that they must establish their "brand" (god, I hate that term). Writers spend all kinds of time, effort, and money working to define themselves. How easy is it, then to say... hmm, well, never mind, I'm going to do something entirely different now. I'm just... oh... I think I'll reinvent reinvent myself, get a new "brand."

  16. This was a very important, interesting, and inspiring post. If you know me, you know I am not an athlete, but in August I entered a fund-raising 1/2 mile swim to raise money for ALS research. The swim was in Buzzards Bay -- not a calm swimming pool or lake -- and I "only" did 1/4 mile -- but I did it. The organizers are considering adding a 1/4 mile option for "folks like me."

    I am much more daring in my reading than almost anywhere else in my life.

    But the challenge for me has been to give myself permission to read for the pure pleasure of it. You Jungle Reds are helping me on that path!

    And, I may actually finish a writing project now that I have decided to "lighten up" in that area as well.


  17. Catching up on my week...AND I loooove your Lacey Flint series, Sharon!!

    The only way I have stepped out of my comfort zone in this last year is that I have started reading YA novels. Basically so I would have something to talk to my middle schoolers in the libeery. Some I have loved and some I have not.

    But I am looking forward to reading "Lost"! So excited for a new one of your books!