Here on Daily (w)rite, as part of the guest post series, it is my pleasure today to welcome Tony Kent, a criminal barrister who draws on his legal experience to inspire and bring unusual accuracy to his thrillers. Today he gives advice on writing craft, the writing life, and speaks about his latest thriller: Power Play.
1. What does your typical writing day look like?
I really don’t have one. Due to my day job, every day is different. Sometimes I am lucky enough to devote a full day to writing, but that’s pretty rare.
Usually I will have a court appearance of some sort in the morning or the afternoon, which – until the lockdown – was always in person, so I would not only spend however much time it was at Court, I would also be travelling to and fro. If I was lucky then that travel will be on a train and I could get some writing done, but more often than not – now that I live out of London and near the M25 – it’s a drive. So those hours are written off!
I also run my own law firm, so even when I’m not in court I am not necessarily home; I have to go into the office at least a couple of times a week, to make sure that everything is running smoothly and to deal with any problems that arise.
The only hard and fast rule I have in my life is that – if I am in my house by 7.30pm, which I absolutely strive to be – I spend 30 minutes reading to my son, Joseph. That is the only thing that is typical about my every day. Everything else – including writing – works around each other. It’s difficult. But it seems to be just about manageable!!
2. How do you balance your day job as a criminal barrister with your writing? What would be your advice for aspiring writers holding down a day job?
I think I’ve answered the first half of the question with my answer to question one – the short unnecessary précis of which is: ‘with great difficulty!’ – so with your permission I’ll focus on the second half: advice for aspiring writers with a day job.
My advice is a mixture of perseverance, sacrifice and realism.
Let’s start with the last one first. Realistically, no matter how good you are, 99.9999% of the time you are not going to make enough money from writing at the beginning (or even 4 or 5 books in) to quit the day job. So be realistic. You have to find a way to make the mix of writing and working, well, work, because the writing is not going to be how you put the mortgage. At least not at first.
Next, persevere. This is not going to be easy. You will find there are times when you are just too tired to write, or work just does not permit it, or life gets in the way. And these times WON’T be rare. But to succeed, you need to come through them. Don’t stop because it’s hard. Everything worth achieving is hard, otherwise everyone would do it. Suck it up, take the hits and push on through.
Finally, sacrifice. Something WILL have to give if you’re going to mix two essentially full time jobs. And whatever it is – provided it’s not something absolutely fundamental; your family, for example, should not be the ones who suffer for your ambition – then that sacrifice needs to be made. Social life? Football? Rugby? Regular gym attendance to hone that six pack? All gone, if you really want to successfully mix writing and working. Like I said, something has to give, because there are only 24 hours in a day.
3. What extent of research do you put into your writing, and what are the research pitfalls writers must watch out for?
I actually spoke about exactly this on my YouTube show – Tony Kent Writes…and Chats .
The short answer is that apart from day to day research – by which I mean things like checking a route on a map; checking what US Law Enforcement Agency has jurisdiction for what crime in what place; checking the magazine capacity of a particular pistol, that sort of thing – I do my research AFTER I’ve finished writing!
It’s a roundabout way of doing it, but I know how distracted I would get by random facts on any subject and so I have to avoid them. Instead, I make logical assumptions about, for example, whether a governmental department would or would not exist, or how a particular WMD might work, or – topically – how a contagion would spread. I then write the book based on those assumptions. And when done, I THEN go back and research, so as to find the facts and the figures and the details that fill in the blanks, and which take my logical assumptions and turn them into accurate portrayal. So far I’m happy to say that the world seems logical, as I have rarely had to make significant changes to how I thought something would work, and have yet to be wholly wrong. It’ll happen, I’m sure. It just hasn’t yet!
4. You keep the pace at a very high clip in your thrillers—could you share a few tips on how to do this?First, thank you very much for the compliment. There are a few things I strive for in a reaction to my books and pace is one of them. Anyone who tells me that they fly along, well, I love that. It’s up there with ‘it was like watching a movie’ in my wish-list of reactions. So thank you!
In terms of tips, I think really it’s a combination of things. Relatively short chapters and immediate wording are both important. To move fast, you can’t delve too deeply into long poetic description and flowery language. You’re in the moment. Move with it.
I also think that seeing things visually when you write is important. Watch them happen in your mind, and report them as clearly and as dramatically as you can.
Most of all, though, it’s structure. Everything needs to make sense. Everything needs to follow naturally. And everything needs to be exactly where it should be. As a barrister, I can stand in front of a jury and speak about a case for an hour, two hours, sometimes more, and I can do that without a single note. And the reason I can do that is structure. If you structure any address to an audience correctly – be it a closing speech to a jury, be it a book, be it anything – then the words will all flow in the correct direction and the pace you choose. You won’t miss a beat and you won’t lose your audience. Structure it poorly, though, and all the short sentences and brief chapters in the world won’t save you!
5. Could you recommend five novels that you think all new thriller writers should read?
Now that’s a hard one, because everyone is different. I don’t really believe that there are ANY novels that everyone SHOULD read. I think all we can do is recommend those works that I believe MY readers – readers who like what I write – will enjoy, based on enjoying my own. And this is inevitably totally subjective, so don’t blame me if you don’t like them!!
First I would go with The Winner by David Baldacci. The book that made me want to be a thriller writer. I am a firm believer that David Baldacci’s first 6 thrillers (ignore Wish You Well and The Christmas Train; both were early attempts to widen his genre base and so they don’t count!) are the best single run of standalone novels in the history of the genre. They really were something else, and The Winner is the best of them. I won’t say anything about the plot. Just trust me.
Next, The Killing Floor. You cannot read thrillers in the 21st Century without reading Lee Child and without emulating Jack Reacher, so it makes sense to start at the beginning. Lee Child has this genre down to a degree that puts the rest of the world to shame. Remember what I said about structure? If you had any questions about what I meant, just read a bunch of Reachers one after the other. The man has the recipe. Everyone else is just trying to tweak at it!!
The next recommendation is Slow Horses by Mick Herron. Again, I have chosen this one above Mick’s others merely because it’s his first and, frankly, you don’t want to miss ANY of these thrillers! Mick’s Slough House series is a legitimate work of modern genius and whilst it bares absolutely no resemblance to my own books – like most authors, I sometimes lie awake at night wishing I could write like Mick Herron – I truly cannot imagine ANYONE not loving this series. So I feel it’s a safe recommendation.
Next, Steve Cavanagh. The new master of the legal thriller. The Defence. The Plea. The Liar. Thirteen. Fifty-Fifty. And, away from court, Twisted. What can I say about Steve and his protagonist, Eddie Flynn? Well, nothing that hasn’t been said by everyone else. Tight, masterfully conceived and perfectly executed plots, these thrillers are the very definition of the word. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
And finally, the thrillers that teach all of us young ’uns that others had already perfected this thing years before we were even born. The Eagle Has Landed by Jack Higgins, and The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth. Sheer perfection, both of them. I read these books at least once a year each, determined to remind myself of how is can be done – how it SHOULD be done – and hoping that one day I can do it that well, too!!
6. What writing advice would you give to someone outlining their novel?
After several answers which I imagine were rather longer than you expected, time for a short one: I’m afraid I have no advice whatsoever because I just don’t write this way! I have no outline when I sit down to write!
My process is easily described. I have a long list of one line plot ideas. Scores of them now; so many that I will probably never use them all. And that, in turn, is no doubt for the best, as who knows how viable the majority of those ideas really are!.
I usually know the main lead character in each idea, and that really is about it. And so when I decide which one line plot will be next, I make the selection and then go about my life for a couple of months with that plot line just moving around in my head. During those months, I’ll come up with a few new characters and a few key scenes and a few key plot points, and usually what I hope will be a killer of an opening chapter idea. And that’s it. I don’t write anything down. And what I do have in my head rarely corresponds to what finally ends up on the page.
So it really isn’t an outline at all. Certainly not a written one, and almost never an accurate one. I just need those two or three months of ‘head time’ to get myself to a point where it feels ready to come out.
And then I sit down and write.
7. What is the world and setting of your new book Power Play like?
Like every book in my thriller series, the world and setting of Power Play is very much our own, but with a few slight tweaks. So in Power Play we are in 2020, but it’s not our 2020. There is no COVID19. There is no Trump. There is no Boris. To all intents and purposes it’s the same world with the same history, but at some point – probably around 2000 if I really try to pin it down – history diverges. So we have a different Northern Irish Peace Process in Killer Intent. We have had no George W Bush. We have had no Obama. We have had no Tony Blair (which I guess means history diverged in 1997, now I think about it…)
The answer, then, is that in most respects it’s our world, but with enough differences at the top to grant me the freedom I need for the kind of world-stage, political thrillers I write.
Less philosophically and more geographically, Power Play is a significant step away from my previous books. Whilst Killer Intent and Marked For Death were set in the British Isles, Power Play takes in the wider world. Yes, we have London. But it plays less of a role than Washington DC and New York, and we even get a little Afghanistan. It’s the bigger canvas I have been wanting to paint on for a while, and it’s the reason I sent Joe Dempsey off to join the
United Nations’ ISB agency at the end of Killer Intent.
It’s taken me a couple of years, but finally we’ve gone international!!
8. What is that one thing you’d like readers to know about Power Play before they dive into the book?
I think probably that they should not be expecting a Michael Devlin focused thriller.
I realise that Michael was very much the main character in Killer Intent; we spent just as much time with Dempsey, but Michael was the focus. It was Michael’s story. And of course Michael was 100% front and centre in Marked For Death. It is therefore natural to assume that Power Play is number three in the continuing Devlin saga.
But it’s not.
Power Play is, in my mind, Joe Dempsey’s Killer Intent. We spend more time with Dempsey in this one. We learn more about him. We meet his friends. We get to know him. It’s his book.
It was always my intention that I would have two main recurring characters – Devlin AND Dempsey – in my series, not one. Two characters who could lead books together and lead them on their own. And whilst Power Play has big roles for them both, it is – when all is said and done – a Joe Dempsey thriller.
And I am very happy that it is!
Tony Kent is a criminal barrister who draws on his legal experience to inspire and bring unusual accuracy to his thrillers. Long ranked as a ‘leader in his field’, Tony has prosecuted and defended the full range of criminal trials. He now specialises in the defence of serious crimes such as murder, kidnap, armed robbery, extortion and high-value fraud. A regular at London’s Old Bailey, Tony’s case history includes many high-profile, nationally reported trials. Before his legal career Tony represented England as a heavyweight boxer and won a host of national amateur titles.
Do you have questions for Tony Kent? Have you read his earlier work? Would you be picking up Power Play? What is your favourite thriller? Why do you like it, or find it memorable? ———————————————————————————————————————————-
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