The Intel: Matt Johnson

We like writers here. And we’re keen to learn from them. Matt Johnson is the author of Wicked Game, which has been an extraordinary success on Amazon. He’s currently working on the follow-up, Deadly Game.

cover3How does your own experience influence your writing?

Wholly. Write about what you know is advice given to many a writer starting out. It’s good advice, particularly when you choose to write in a genre where authenticity is so key. I weave fiction into personal real-life incidents, personalities, experience and emotion. I also model characters on people I have met, using their personality traits and speech pattern so as to ensure that fictional characters have the kind of variety that we see in real life.

Research can make up for in-depth knowledge, but there really is no substitute for experience. When you live through something you not only see it, you smell, feel, hear and taste the experience. Then, when the time comes for you to recreate it in words, you have a far greater wealth of memory to call upon.

What’s your writing process? What comes first – plot or character?

First comes research. I read books, magazines and newspapers. I watch current affairs programmes.  Most importantly, I read outside my writing genre. I do this to learn how others write, how they describe, expressions used and styles of composition.

If something sparks an idea I make a note of it and, at all times, I carry a little digital recorder. So many times I found that an idea for a story or a character or plot development would occur to me and would be forgotten by the time I reached somewhere to right it down.

For me, plot and characters tends to develop together but, for consistency I write a character profile once a character appears. The profile will be in more detail if the character has a larger part in the tale

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

That’s a challenge. A typical day? I tend to write creatively in the afternoon. I walk the dogs first thing and once in the study tend to start the day with emails, twitter messages and the blog.

As lunch draws closer I review the chapter plan of the project, and look at how the story is developing. This gets me back in the groove. I always have a plan that is several chapters ahead to try and eliminate writers block. The plan acts as a prompt, no blank page to stare at! If I have a block, I take the dogs out, with the recorder of course. Often, in a different environment, an idea will occur to me.

On a writing day I tend to set myself a target of 1000 words. Normally, I achieve it and sometimes I get on a roll and exceed it. If I don’t write at all I will be thinking about the story and the plot but I try not to fret if I cannot get to the keyboard.

Who are the authors or you love, and why?

I have very eclectic taste, from Baldacci, Patterson and James Herbert, through to Kipling, Mark Twain and Ken Follett. The last book I read before my current project was Treasure Island. I would say that the greatest influence on me, in terms of style, is James Patterson. I liked his short-chapter use which I found to be excellent at keeping my attention. I find that, at the conclusion of a chapter, I tend to flick forward to see the length of the next. If its huge I may put the book down, but if it’s short I read on… and on… and before you realise it, the book is nearly finished.

I like a good story that can transport you to another time and place when, for the time being, you have to stay where you are. And I like a book that makes you think.

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

Overcoming fear. The fear that I am wasting my time, that nobody, not even me, will enjoy reading my composition. I have been approached by a surprising number of people in the last year who are intending to write. I always say that if you enjoy writing then get on with it, think of it as an enjoyable hobby, not a means to achieving success, fame or fortune. Having people praise and be prepared to pay to read your work is the icing on the cake, the most important thing is to enjoy the writing.

How do you deal with feedback?

I tend to respond to constructive criticism with a willingness to learn. I don’t have a monopoly on experience, knowledge, ideas or ability. If someone criticises I tend to listen to it without taking offence. I tend to evaluate it, assess it’s worth, and if useful it will influence me. That said, some feedback is motivated by jealousy, some is just rude and some critics are really not qualified to do so, but that doesn’t stop them.

Positive feedback is also immensely useful as it tells you what you are doing right. If people like the depth to which you have described a character or if they praise the twists in a story then you are reassured that the decisions made in the writing/proof/edit stage where the right ones. That gives the confidence to carry on.

How have your own experiences shaped your writing?Mart low res

In my case, my decision to start writing came quite late in life and had nothing to do with writing a novel. In the 1990s I was diagnosed with PTSD following a number of violent incidents I had been involved with in the police. I wrote about this in some depth on my blog. I suffered a typical reaction to counselling where emotion overcame my ability to talk about experiences and feelings. I was asked to write things down when I felt able and to bring my notes to the counselling sessions. Many months later, my counsellor told me how much she enjoyed my writing and suggested I consider writing a book.

It was years later before I felt able to do so, but when I did start to weave my personal experiences into a novel, I found it an enjoyable and cathartic experience.

Give me some advice about writing…

Read… a lot. And don’t just read the story, take the time to analyse style, technique, character creation etc. Even look at choice of font and page layout. It all makes a difference. So many indie books you see on kindle get these basics wrong. To the reader, if a book looks amateurish in terms of layout and is littered with errors, then it is likely to be labelled as poor, even if it is a fantastic tale.

Characters. People love a good story but also like to relate to the participants. If your reader likes your protaganists then they may be encouraged to keep reading. Try humour, nothing encourages affection like an ability to make your reader laugh.

What’s your best advice for an author looking to get into the marketplace…

Be patient and don’t rely on agents to do it for you. You have to be pro-active, build a profile and develop a readership. Most importantly, have a realistic expectation as to what you hope to achieve. For every Lee Child, there are thousands of published authors who make pocket money from their books, no more.

What those thousands of authors have in common is the pleasure of seeing their work in print. That is a reasonable aspiration for any writer. Very few ‘best selling’ books actually make their authors wealthy so my advice is to be realistic about what you aim to achieve.

Have dreams, we all do, but don’t set the bar so high that you are sure to suffer disappointment.

What’s next for you?

Second novel syndrome! That awful situation where an author is expected to produce a book that is as good as the first one. Wicked Game has made a name for me, got me on BBC radio, a world-wide readership and even brought me an agent. With 100 5* reviews now on Amazon it’s an act to follow.

I had been writing a police based novel set in North London but with an overwhelming demand for a sequel to ‘Wicked Game’ I put that project on hold. ‘Deadly Game’ the second novel in a trilogy is nearing first-draft completion and I have an outline plan for a third novel in the series.

A bit about Matt:

Matt Johnson is not a typical author. A divorced dad to one daughter, he lives in a converted barn and on a daily basis exercises his four gundogs. A keen biker, he rides a ’99 Harley Fatboy and in his spare time scuba dives.

A retired soldier and Police Inspector, Matt witnessed horrific scenes in the aftermath of the London terrorist attacks during a career spanning over 20 years. He recalls the moment in 1982 that bombs exploded and the chaos that followed.

“It was July. I was 25 and working in the CID Crime Squad in North London. My colleague and I were manning a CID car. We were among the first on the scene of the Regents Park bomb explosion, two hours after a similar attack at Hyde Park. A bomb hidden underneath the bandstand exploded during a performance by the Royal Green Jackets band to about 120 people. The audience and band were peppered with six- inch nails, causing serious injuries and instantly killing seven band members. It was carnage. Then, on April 17th 1984 I was driving a marked traffic car when word came over the radio of a shooting in St James’ Square outside the Libyan Embassy. Our car was sent to escort an ambulance with an injured officer to get it to a hospital. The traffic was a nightmare. The roads were chaotic and blocked up. We were forced to drive on pavements, between bus stops and shop fronts and to direct vehicles out of the way so that we could get to the Hospital as soon as we could. It was a tortuous drive. What I had no idea of at the time was that the casualty was my friend PC Yvonne Fletcher. She had been at a party at my home only a few weeks previously. I only found out when I arrived home that night and saw it on the news.”  is a link to Matt’s facebook page and his first interview on BBC Radio Wales in 2012 about the day Yvonne was shot, the way PTSD affected him, his recovery and how the book came into being.

In 1992 Matt was present at the Baltic Exchange bombing in central London. A few years later he started to suffer recurrent nightmares, night sweats and other symptoms that saw him diagnosed with PTSD.  As part of his treatment for the condition he was asked by his counsellor to write notes about memories, dreams and incidents he had been involved in. Those writings inspired the counsellor to comment that they were the basis of a good book.  One evening, Matt sat at the PC and started to weave his experiences into a novel. ‘Wicked Game’ is the result.


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