Yorkshire-born Keith Dixon has been writing since he was thirteen years old. A two-time winner of the Chanticleer Reviews CLUE First in Category award for Private Eye/Noir novel, he has penned nine books in the Sam Dyke Investigations series and three in the Paul Storey series, as well as tackling literary fiction.
Thinking back to when you started writing, what are common mistakes new writers make?
Although I’ve got a strand of books dating back now about 13 years, I actually began way before that, when I was 21 or 22. My problems then were not really understanding the development of character – I wrote books based almost entirely on plot action. These days I try to develop both at the same time, though I know that often I’m not entirely certain of my characters until they start talking … then they come alive.
Another thing I’m reminded of is a comment by a friend of mine, an elderly lady, who was discussing a particular book in a Book Group. I wasn’t there and don’t know the book, but what she said was that it ‘didn’t contain enough surprises.’ Now this is an educated and civilised lady and the book – as far as I know anything about it – wasn’t a crime or thriller novel. But it’s interesting that the element of surprise is something she was looking for, and I try to build that in to my own work now. I had a brief spell as an editor, working with new writers’ work, and I would say that was a besetting sin – once the plot was in motion you could tell where it was going and nothing was going to derail it.
The third thing I’d mention is what’s known as info-dumping – the trait whereby the beginning of the book is a detailed description of the lead character, her or his background, the environment in which the story is about to take place … all the stuff the writer thinks you should know before the story starts. Of course, all this material should be brought piecemeal into the story, when appropriate, and not dumped on to the impatient reader, who is waiting for something interesting to happen.
Do you believe in writer’s block and if so, what do you do about it?
The version of it that I’ve suffered is actually a version of fear … I have a story mapped out (I plan everything quite minutely) but then I’m scared to start in case I don’t do it justice. It’s not that I can’t sit down and write – it’s that I feel underpowered or wary of my own limits. Research can help get over this hump, but it can also make it worse, because you become aware of the huge field you’re stepping into! These days I try to do just enough research to give credibility to the story without drowning myself or the reader in the detail. I wonder if this fear – or a version of it – is really what’s meant by writer’s block.
Do you write to please your readers or to please yourself?
Strangely, I think it’s neither! That’s not quite true for me, in that I’m writing the kind of novels that I like to read (by which I mean novels by my favourite authors), but when I’m putting a book together I have some kind of ideal version of the telling in mind. This includes being aware of character and plot development, as I said above, and ensuring there are surprises and a satisfying ending. But I know from the reviews I get that you simply can’t please everyone all the time. I’ve been fortunate with most of my reviews, but there is a strange experience where you get a damning 1-star review one day, and the next day a glowing 5-star review for the next book. Everyone has an opinion, and their own taste, so even though I’m working in a genre where readers have fairly well-defined expectations, they can be disappointed – or thrilled – depending on how well you meet them.
What do you think about the many social media groups for writers (such as Facebook), and do you think it’s important for writers to subscribe to them?
I’m in a few of them and find them useful occasionally … but I do wonder sometimes whether I fit! I write books set in England but with a hard-boiled, noir tone to them more like the books of Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald. The private-eye genre doesn’t seem to have a huge following in the UK (which is partly why I started in this vein – to see what it would be like to create a P.I. in leafy Cheshire!) and often people in these groups are wedded to a type of English crime writing that I can’t get into – either horrific serial killer stories, or UK police procedurals. Having said that, I think it’s important that I have a presence, however minor, in these groups otherwise I’d be completely faceless.
Have you taken any courses to help with the writing process, or to help tackle the many technical aspects of being an indie author?
I took a degree in Creative Arts (Drama/English with Creative Writing) and later did an M.A. in 20th Century English writing. These have had an impact on how I read books. As for the current courses, I’ve taken Mark Dawson’s FB course – which I couldn’t make work for me because I haven’t got the patience to perform the kind of spreadsheet analysis it demands; and I’m currently working through Books Go Social’s marketing course. I’ve also read dozens of books on writing.
Have you ever used real people or real experiences to create characters/plots?
Not real people, but real events. Some of my minor characters have been based on people I knew and a couple of my plots were given to me by someone who was a senior police officer – so it was effectively her experience. And The Hard Swim is based fundamentally in real events, given a twist by me to make a plot out them.
Has your previous work experience as a psychologist helped in the creation of characters or events in your books?
I think the only real influence has been the notion called Attribution Theory – this suggests that when asked, individuals can usually describe their motives for performing certain acts. Often these motives are derived from what they see as some kind of external pressure – an instruction from a boss, or peer pressure, a desire to fit in. When other people witness these acts, however, they’re more likely to ascribe the individual’s motivation to an internal desire, not an external pressure. This has been called the Fundamental Attribution Error, because we tend to attribute that motive to the individual’s desires before we consider any other possibility. In my books I often move from the point of view of the hero to that of other characters, and it’s partly to explore these ‘other’ motivations that I do so. I suppose I believe that you can’t totally understand another person, but writing gives you the opportunity to try.
Have you based your writing style on that of any specific author?
I’ve gone through several ‘periods’! My first book, way back when, was based on the books of Len Deighton, and was a spy novel. The second was modelled after Frederick Forsyth’s international thrillers. Fortunately both books have been lost in time!
My Paul Storey series was based loosely on the style of American writer Elmore Leonard – he had an amazing facility to get you inside the thinking of his characters, and he had a few stylistic tics that helped him to do that. I used several of them in that series (e.g. having his characters talk to other characters about the very conversation they’re having, being self-aware of their own motives). My latest book, The Lonely Grave, was written after an immersion in the novels of Ross Macdonald, creator of the P.I. Lew Archer. What I like about his books is his striking use of simile and metaphor and his determination to understand the psychology of his characters. And his plots are hellish complicated.
Do you use any specific techniques, such as Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’ theory?
I don’t think I do … I certainly don’t write enough to throw away nine-tenths of it, as Hemingway said he did! I’m more of a ‘squeezer’ who struggles to get out 1000 words a day. I suppose the technique I do use is to structure my books very clearly around a well-tried foundation – three acts, with a turning point close to the middle of the second act. I’ve also been aware (though not so much with The Lonely Grave) of creating a moment near the end where all seems lost … only for a surprise resolution to appear. I’ve read a lot about structure in narrative and I think in many respects structure is what we should concentrate on … along with character and plot development!
Do you have many unpublished novels/stories?
Not now. I had a science-fiction story published years ago, but I haven’t written any since that I’ve tried to publish commercially. And I did have 7 manuscripts written between the ages of 21-23 – but they were in a box in a basement that was flooded and were ruined. Nothing valuable was lost.
How many hours a day do you write, and do you stick to a set schedule?
Probably 2-3 when I’m in a book. My schedule is 1000 words a day, initially, then I try to up that to 2000 when I’m well into it.
Who designs your book covers, and how do you set about branding each series?
I do my own book covers. I used to work in an advertising agency and, separately, with a bunch of web designers. I learned some basic design skills from them and I watch YouTube videos for technical help when necessary. I look at what others are doing to get some ideas for series branding. It’s usually down to typography and layout these days.
In terms of your writing, how is your new book ‘The Lonely Grave’ different from the others in the Sam Dyke series?
I would say it’s more rounded, more literary in style and more in depth. I try to have some kind of ‘theme’ for each book, but in this one I worked harder at making the theme more all-encompassing, working in different ways, not just a single layer, so to speak.
With the Sam Dyke and the Paul Storey series both going strong, do you plan to create further books set around one character?
I feel I need to keep going with Sam Dyke at the moment to try to get a long-running series going. The Paul Storey series is set in Coventry, where I was brought up, but I haven’t lived there for 40 years, so while I go back to visit my mum, I’m not exactly immersed in the locale.
What is the future for Keith Dixon?
More plotting, more writing! Trying to find ways of capturing an audience and marketing to them without being dull and predictable. Who wants that?
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