16 March 2015

The Intel: Ian Coates

Ian Coates Writer Ian Coates is like the ‘Q’ Division of authors. He knows his gadgets. Ian’s worked in the electronics industry where he specialised in the design of radio communication equipment. Ian’s love of technology fuels his writing, so it’s no wonder he writes about high-tech spies in his debut thriller Eavesdrop.

It’s a tale of smuggling, industrial espionage, assassins and the struggle for peace in the Middle East. The novel was written in snatched moments on planes and in airport lounges. We love a bit of tech at Crime Thriller Fella—we have a transistor radio and everything—so we’re chuffed that Ian has agreed to give us the intel on encryption, robots and how winning a competition was just the beginning of his writing adventure…

Tell us about your high-tech thriller Eavesdrop…

James Winter is a Customs Investigation Officer, but when the smuggling ring he’s closing-in on suddenly develops an uncanny knack of avoiding arrest, he is suspended on suspicion of helping them. As he tries to clear his name, he uncovers a group of smugglers, industrial espionage, and a very determined Mossad agent.

The story starts with three apparently separate story threads. The first follows the assassins – they are operating in London, and when their hits suddenly start to go wrong, they begin to think they have a traitor in their midst.

The second story thread follows the smugglers. They are setting-up a new run to smuggle diamonds from Antwerp to London, and need to bring in a new courier to help. However, they soon begin to think that the man they’ve chosen is not all that he seems.

The third thread follows Winter as he tries to discover who was behind his dismissal. As the story progresses, these three threads start to come together until, by the time we reach the climax in the snowy wastes of Finland, they’ve become just one storyline and we suddenly realize there’s a lot more at stake than just Winter’s career.

It’s a fast paced thriller, and the book’s title gives us a clue as to what links the story threads.

Where did the inspiration for the novel come from?

I graduated in electronics, and my first job was working for a company that designed radio equipment – transmitters, receivers, walkie-talkies and the like – and one of the ranges we made had a facility for encrypted audio. That was at the time of the Northern Ireland troubles, and we sold some of those to the Northern Ireland police force – the idea was that they didn’t want the IRA listening in to what they were saying. And that got me thinking - what if I wanted to be able to intercept their conversations? How might I go about it? That was what gave me the main idea for Eavesdrop.

But I don’t think a single idea is large enough or strong enough to support something as big as a novel. For that, I believe you need two or even three solid ideas that work together to create an overall plot. The second idea for Eavesdrop came when I thinking about the attempts to achieve peace in the Middle East, and how it is that we never seem to be able to manage it, especially around Israel.

It was only when those two ideas, together with some thoughts I’d had about smuggling, all coalesced that I realized I had a plot powerful enough to support a full length thriller – and Eavesdrop was born.

EavesdropYou worked in the electronics industry for many years – did you often get ideas for thrillers from working with so many gadgets?

I love technology, so it’s probably natural that they come into my writing. Also, the environment I’m most familiar with is that of gadgets and high-tech laboratories, and it’s generally said, “write about what you know.” I suppose, really, I’d like to do for electronics what Dick Francis did for horse racing - even when his stories weren’t racing-centric, they still had a horse racing environment as their backdrop. That’s probably how I will end up treating the high-tech electronics environment - as a general backdrop to my books.

Having said that, I’m sure that each thriller will also have several high-tech gadgets playing their roles. I find them fascinating and they open up so many opportunities for interesting plot ideas. Even if ideas don’t come from what I’m working on, I keep up to date with the technical press, and they always have snippets of information on great gadgets.

I recently came across an article about a little robot designed by MIT. It had originally been created to detect stress fractures in the walls of nuclear reactors, but someone realised its technology (which is basically ultrasound, as used to scan babies in the womb) could also be applied to find secret hidden compartments in ship’s hulls that smugglers used for contraband. The plan is that these little robots can swim around a ship’s hull and scan it for hidden compartments without those on-board knowing. Smuggling is something that plays a key part in Eavesdrop, and is a theme I will probably return to in my third thriller, and I think this little robot may well find a part to play in that.

I’ve even dedicated a page of my website to “cool-tech” where I post bits of information about some of these gadgets I come across.

What’s the hi-tech piece of kit you’d like to incorporate into your next book?

I’m already working on my next thriller, which has the working title, The Rival. That has one really big gadget in it - a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle). And I don’t mean just one of those little drones we see on TV delivering Amazon’s latest shopping; I mean something with a fifty feet wing span that can stay airborne for the best part of a day - the kind of thing that circled above Iraq or Afghanistan at the height of the wars. Those can be really high-tech, especially when you talk about the control systems, the radio, and its power. One of those is going to play an important part in The Rival.

Your writing was kickstarted after after winning a competition – tell us what happened…

There have been two particular competition wins that have played a key part in writing Eavesdrop. The first was decades ago, right back when I was 14 and won a local authority writing competition with a private-eye crime novella. That win is really important to me because there have been many times during my writing career when I started to become despondent. At those times, looking at the winner’s cup (which I still keep prominently near my desk) reminded that I have proved I can write, and that has spurred me on to keep going.

The other thing that childhood competition taught me was that people’s opinions of a book are very subjective. My winning story had been dismissed a couple of months previously as a very average 7/10 by my English teacher, which was due, I think, to the fact that she was a lover of literary fiction and looked down on genre fiction. That competition judge, however, happened to be someone who loved thrillers and crime friction, and my novella therefore gained his attention and enjoyment. That was an important lesson.

The other event that had a big impact on me was to be one of the winners in the Writer’s and Author’s Yearbook centenary writing competition, in which I entered an early draft of Eavesdrop. I still remember getting the email to say I was one of the winners - it was such exhilaration. My wife and daughters printed the email out, framed it, and presented it to me together with a celebratory cake. Writing a novel when you also hold down a busy job and have a family to bring-up is a very long and lonely business, so having professionals read a draft of what I’d written and declaring it to be a winner really spurred me on. It told me it was good, that I wasn’t wasting my time, that it was worth me now investing more time to do the final editing and to send it out to agents and publishers. It gave me that extra momentum to finish the job. Thank you competition organizers - your efforts make a difference.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

I work as a technical manager in the electronics industry, so I tend to have to fit my writing in between holding down a busy full-time job and helping to bring up a family. That means it gets written over breakfast, during additional snatched moments here and there, and during holidays. Eavesdrop was largely written during a spell when I did a lot of business travel, which meant much of it was written on planes and in airport lounges.

On those rare occasions when I can afford to take a day’s holiday to dedicate to writing, I rise at 6:00 and immediately start to write with just a cup of tea. I write the first draft long-hand with pencil in a large notebook. I work until 9:00, when I stop for breakfast and then continue until lunch. In the afternoon, after a walk to get some fresh air, exercise, and a clear head, I get stuck into typing-up the previous day’s work.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

The need to plan. When I first started writing, I simply began at page one and wrote from there without knowing where the story was heading. I got to chapter 4 or 5 and found I had trapped my hero with no way out of his dilemma, and the novel collapsed. That happened with three attempts at writing a novel, until I gave up writing in despair.

For many years I wrote nothing more, until my wife bought me a copy of Lesley Grant-Adamson’s great book, “Teach Yourself Crime & Suspense Fiction.” In her book, Lesley explained the need for a chapter-by-chapter plan. It was one of those light bulb moments. No-one had ever taught me the need to plan a long story before - at school we were just taught to write, and were never given the mechanics of how to write something as large and complex as a novel. Following her basic suggestions with a few of my own modifications, I suddenly found I was able to write full length novels. That was a very important lesson, and if it hadn’t have been for her book, I could never have written Eavesdrop.

How do you deal with feedback?

It can be really difficult to take negative feedback - it’s like a body-blow when someone says that what you slaved over for years doesn’t come up to scratch. I’m glad to say that, so far, that hasn’t happened much, but when it does, I remind myself of what I learned as a child about the subjectivity of stories. What to one person is the best story ever, is to another a bad story. So if one person doesn’t like it, that doesn’t mean the next person won’t.

As a writer, though, you can get so involved in your story that you are no longer best placed to see its problems, so comments from others are invaluable. I try to take feedback without arguing back or making excuses, and then go away to mull it over once the initial emotional response has died down. I think if you get consistent feedback on something, it’s definitely time to pay attention.

It’s also always important to say “thank you” for any feedback, good or bad, as feedback is always useful.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

That’s tough - there are so many good authors around. I think I have to say Robert Ludlum, who sadly passed away in 2001. He managed to create some great stories with beautifully complex plots. It was reading his thrillers, especially the early ones, that taught me how to construct exciting plots.

Very recently, I read Skin and Bones by Tom Bale. There was nothing I could fault in it at all - it was immaculate writing. That claims to be the author’s debut, and it put me in my place. I felt tiny and very humbled when I read his flawless book.

Give me some advice about writing…

Similar really to the need to plan above, but I would add that it’s also essential to produce a solid synopsis before starting to write. You’re going to need one anyway for an agent or publisher, but the reason to do it before starting to write is that it will highlight any flaws in the basic story before you commit months or years of effort to the project. The problem is that it’s all too easy for the mass of 90,000 words to hide some basic problems in the plot or character motivation, and it’s only when you boil the novel down to 500 words or so that you can really see the underlying carcass. It’s only with that in front of you that you can truly say the story is realistic and doesn’t have any dull spots. It’s amazing what you can suddenly spot when you look at the bare synopsis of the book.

Do that first before starting to write, and do it thoroughly. The temptation to start writing can be massive, but I believe it’s important to hold yourself back until you know beyond any doubt that the framework you’re about to hang your story on is sound.

What’s next for you?

I’ve just about finished planning another thriller, The Rival. It’s a story of industrial sabotage, a long-hidden family secret, and a double blackmail; and what happens when two people being blackmailed don’t want to be blackmailed any more. I already have a strapline in my head - “What do you do if you’re being blackmailed and it’s not your money they want?” I’m just about happy with the synopsis now, although I’ve made a few alterations based on what I’ve learned from Eavesdrop. I’m really looking forward to getting down to the writing - it’s hard to hold myself back, but I know I need to have total confidence in the story outline before I let myself get too far into it. I have to confess that a prologue has somehow sneaked onto the page when I wasn’t watching, but I’m back in control now!

You can find more about Ian, and how to buy Eavesdrop, at his website www.iancoatesthrillers.co.uk