How to find your way around

I’ve been blogging for a while now and the number of posts has grown. Time to pin a short post here to advise anyone unfamiliar with WordPress sites how to navigate around the blog. Let’s say you’re a writer interested in posts about marketing or grammar, you probably don’t want to be scrolling down oodles of posts you’re not interested in. There’s a search function and previous posts are archived according to month posted, but the simplest way is to use the Categories menu. It’s on the right—you might need to scroll down a little way to find it. Simply click on the category you’re interested in and you’ll be presented with the posts relevant to that subject-matter. The system’s not perfect—there are some posts that come under more than one category—but it’s the easiest method to find your way around.

Oh, and if you want to leave a comment or read existing comments, you have to be on the post’s page (by clicking its title), rather than on a page containing more than one post.

Irregularity

[Reproduced from ‘News’ page]

14th July 2021

I have recently been finding the commitment to post to my blog every fortnight a little onerous. Come off it, Sam, I hear you saying. One post, every two weeks? What could be onerous about that?

Well, I’m trying to write a new novel and finding it slow-going. I’m only 40,000 words in and I’m aiming for around 180,000 words or upwards, so have a long way to go. There are several reasons for the slow progress that can all be lumped under the same heading: Life Happening.

There have been a few occasions of late when, with the two-week deadline approaching, I’ve had to pull away from the novel to draft a new post or find a suitable accompanying image or format book links or any of the other things that have to be done to run a regular blog.

It’s reached the stage where something has to give and it’s not going to be the new novel.

I’m not abandoning the blog and will still post to it when I have something new to say and have the time to write it. I still have some old interviews to post, including a couple with characters from my books which were great fun to do. But I am abandoning the commitment to post every two weeks. For now, at any rate.

So the blog will remain active and new posts (or old ones that previously appeared on other people’s blogs) will pop up from time to time. But not with the same regularity as before.

Back to the novel…

More On Being a Writer

This is another interview for a blog that appeared in February 2015, not long after the second novel in the Earth Haven trilogy was published.

Although I have never met the blogger in person, I had come to know her as a good online friend. She asked me for a humorous introduction—I hope it’s obvious it’s fictional! I don’t know if, all these years later, she’d prefer to be anonymous so have changed her name just in case.

On with the interview…

Welcome, Sam. Perhaps you could start by explaining to my readers how we met.

I met the lovely Lois when we were both inmates at Wormwood Scrubs. We ended up sharing a cell after we had each been caught trying to tunnel out using nothing more than, in my case, a teaspoon, in hers, a set of false fingernails.

Of course, Lois wasn’t then the sweet Southern lady that you all know and love. She was an Eastend bruiser named Ronnie, with tattooed muscles like painted boulders, a bald head the size of a pumpkin that could double as a wrecking ball, and fists like sides of ham with which I saw her take out Billy the Baby-eater Brown and Mikey the Manic Madman Malone as if they were schoolboys rather than the most feared bare-knuckle fighters south of the Thames. (Billy didn’t really eat a baby. It was a dead squirrel, but you know how rumours can stick.)

No one ever dared mention to Ronnie his camp tendencies. Not if they valued being conscious. I always knew he would one day give in to his feminine side. And I’m glad that he did. Welcome, Lois. You’re much nicer than Ronnie.

What is your most recent release?

The Beacon is the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy that began with The Cleansing. It begins where the first book ended so readers should start with The Cleansing. The trilogy is post-apocalyptic science fiction, a long tale about how humankind is brought to its knees by a manufactured virus. Who developed this virus and why… can’t say too much here as it will spoil it for new readers, but the makers have their reasons. The Cleansing deals with the spread of the virus and the immediate aftermath. In The Beacon, the handful of survivors face a new threat—as if they haven’t been through enough already, bless them. Again, difficult to reveal too much. The book’s blurb contains about as much as I can say without spoiling anything.

How do you react to bad reviews?

I stamp my feet, poke the cat, throw the computer out of the window, shave off all that remains of my hair, get drunk, eat chocolate, smash plates, pluck my nostrils, squirt shaving foam at my wife, speak in tongues, paint the house, and run naked through the streets, wailing and gnashing my teeth.

Nah, I don’t really do any of those things. What I also don’t do is respond to the review. The reviewer is perfectly entitled to his or her opinion; I’m just grateful they bought my book and took the time to read it. All too often I’ve seen authors bemoaning bad reviews, either in direct response to the review itself or by starting threads in various forums. Such authors rarely come across in a good light.

What occupational hazards are there to being a novelist?

I think the obvious one is becoming unfit (or, in my case, more unfit) by spending so long sitting down. To try to combat this, I’ve invested in a home gym that sits in my garage. I even use it now and again…

Do you have any claims to fame?

Not really, although one of my distant relatives was awarded the Victoria Cross for his part in the defence of Rorke’s Drift (immortalised in the film Zulu). He was one of the soldiers who helped save six injured men who were being attacked as they lay in the camp infirmary. He’s (something like) my great-great-great-uncle.

Name your favourite authors.

Too many to list them all, but here are some of my go-to authors: Stephen King (for his horror and fantasy more than his crime writing), Terry Pratchett, Agatha Christie (for her Poirot books), Bill Bryson, Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), Tolkien, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Forsyth, Gerald Durrell (I have a soft spot for the Greek island of Corfu thanks to his books). That’s just off the top of my head. I could list many, many more, but I think that’s probably enough to be going on with.

And your favourite movies?

In no particular order: Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid; Inception; The Great Escape; The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (and one of my favourite film scores); The Wizard of Oz; Hair; Gladiator; Bladerunner; and, of course, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. At least once each year, my younger daughter and I spend a day watching the extended versions of all three films. We often quote our favourite lines to each other (‘My friends, you bow to no one’). She’ll be leaving home for university in September, but tells me she wants to maintain what has become a tradition when she returns home during the summer vacation. I won’t argue; I love our ‘Lord of the Rings days’ as much as she does.

Do you ever laugh at your own jokes?

Of course; someone has to.

Are you jealous of commercially successful writers?

No. I’ve never begrudged another writer their success, even if their books are not to my taste. I have, however, felt envy in the sense that I’ve longed to match their success, whilst at the same time cheering them on, glad they’re reaping the rewards of all their hard work. They are living proof that persistence, allied to no little skill, can pay off.

Does anything make you cry?

I almost skipped this question, but at the risk of looking a complete wimp, here goes.

I barely cried until I was twenty-six. In May 1991, my first child was born. As I sat in the hospital, holding her in my arms while she stared intently up at me with bright blue eyes, something inside me shifted. I went to the ground floor of the hospital to ring the new grandparents. I could barely get the words out. It must have seemed to passersby that I was imparting bad news, not good.

Since then, I find myself myself choking up during films, books, sad news stories and whenever Wales win at rugby. It can be embarrassing, but I’m powerless to prevent it.

Why do you write under a pen name?

I am by nature a shy person, who hates being in the limelight. That’s a bit of a problem in this game where visibility, at least of the books, is key. I decided from the off that, since I am not good at blowing my own trumpet, I needed to use a pen name. I still don’t find that self-promotion comes naturally, but it’s easier to promote Sam Kates than it would be the person behind that name.

Thanks, Sam. Good luck with your writing career.

Cheers, Lois. Thanks for having me!

Favourite films

Following on from my list of favourite novels from a few weeks ago, I thought I’d compile a similar list of my favourite films—that’s movies to American folks. Although this website is about reading, writing, publishing and marketing of books, I feel that a post on films is nevertheless a good fit. After all, a film-maker has to pay attention to much of the same sort of thing that concerns a fiction writer: characterisation, plot, setting, and so on.

By ‘favourite’, I don’t necessarily mean the films I consider to be the best written, directed or acted, or ones that champion the highest ideals, or ones fulfilling any other objective measure of what makes a great film. Nope, I simply mean the films that left a lasting impression on me. Some of the films on this list I’ve watched over and over, and will watch again.

I did originally call this list ‘Top 50 Favourite Films’ but dropped the ‘Top 50’. There are  films I’ve seen and loved that don’t appear on this list because I can’t now quickly recall them—I have seen so many over the years that I’ve forgotten loads—or because my mood when I compiled the list was such that a film didn’t make it when on another day it would have. So this is more properly a list of fifty of my favourite films, but not necessarily the first fifty and not in any particular order.

You could say I’ve cheated slightly by including Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as one film to avoid having to bump two other films off the list. But I’ve always considered the book as one novel, not a trilogy. I believe Tolkien wrote it as one book and it was only split into three at his publisher’s insistence. Thus, the film, like the book, is one in my eyes. So there.

Since so many films have been (usually pointlessly) remade or rebooted (whatever the heck that means), I’ve included the year the version of the film I’m referring to was released.

Finally, where I’ve read the book upon which the film is based, I’m including an Amazon UK link* to the book for anyone who wants to check it out.

Enough blathering. On with the list.

1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly [1966]

2. The Darjeeling Limited [2007]

3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969]

4. Random Harvest [1942]

5. The Longest Day [1962]

6. Inception [2010]

7. The Lord of the Rings trilogy [2001-03]


The Lord of the Rings

8. Shutter Island [2010]

9. Schindler’s List [1993]

10. Shrek [2001]

11. Kill Bill Vol I [2003]

12. Flight of the Navigator [1986]

13. The Wizard of Oz [1939]


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

14. The Life of Brian [1979]

15. Blair Witch Project [1999]

A Marmite film – I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp.

16. Gladiator [2000]

17. The Matrix [1999]

18. Memento [2000]

19. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [2019]

Replacing Kill Bill Vol I as my favourite Tarantino film.

20. The Usual Suspects [1995]

21. Airplane [1980]

22. Se7en [1995]

23. The Godfather [1972]

Part II could as easily have been included.

24. The Ring [2002]

I’ve gone with the Hollywood version, but the original Japanese version—Ringu [1998]—is as good, if not better.

25. Stand By Me [1986]


Different Seasons

26. All the President’s Men [1976]

27. Three Days of the Condor [1975]

28. Cool Hand Luke [1967]

29. Twelve Angry Men [1957]

30. Once Upon a Time in the West [1968]

31. Blade Runner [1982]


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

32. Interstellar [2014]

33. Fight Club [1999]

34. Guardians of the Galaxy [2014]

35. Office Space [1999]

36. The Prestige [2006]

37. Little Miss Sunshine [2006]

38. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest [1975]


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

39. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004]

40. The Princess Bride [1987]

41. It’s a Wonderful Life [1946]

42. The Truman Show [1998]

43. My Neighbour Totoro [1988]

Two other Studio Ghibli animations might have made the list on another day: Spirited Away [2001] and the utterly heartbreaking Grave of the Fireflies [1988].

44. The Exorcist [1973]


The Exorcist

45. Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981]

Happy 40th birthday! (Man, that makes me feel old.)

46. The Great Escape [1963]

47. The Wicker Man [1973]

Britt Ekland… sigh

48. Don’t Look Now [1973]

49. Casino Royale [2006]

This is the Daniel Craig version, not the wackily psychedelic 1967 version starring David Niven as Bond that has very little to do with Ian Fleming’s novel. It nevertheless possesses some charm in its own right, not least being the catchy theme tune.


Casino Royale

50. Sideways [2004]

 

* they’re affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a small amount of commission from Amazon on any sales resulting from following the links; it doesn’t affect the price you pay to Amazon

On Being a Writer

This was an interview for a blog that appeared in January 2015, the month that the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy was published. At that time, I was working in a full-time regular job and was signed to a small-press publisher. Seems like a lifetime ago.

One thing that struck me when I read this over for the first time in six years: if I had to answer the final question again on giving advice to new authors, I don’t think my advice would be very different now from what it was then.

On with the interview…

What is your book about?

The Beacon is the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy that began with The Cleansing. The trilogy is post-apocalyptic science fiction, a long tale about how humankind is brought to its knees by a manufactured virus. Who developed this virus and why… can’t say too much here as it will spoil it for new readers, but the makers have their reasons. The Cleansing deals with the spread of the virus and the immediate aftermath. In The Beacon, the handful of survivors face a new threat – as if they haven’t been through enough already, bless them. Again, it’s difficult to reveal too much. The book’s blurb contains about as much as I can say without spoiling anything.

How did you choose the title?

I’m not the best at coming up with titles. Titles to every book in the Earth Haven trilogy (the third is provisionally called The Reckoning) have all been used, frequently, by other authors. My publishers are too nice to say so, but I think my lack of originality with titles drives them a little to distraction. Having said that, each title is apt for the content of the book. Also, each title becomes unique (I believe) when coupled with the name of the series. The Beacon: Earth Haven Book 2 is unique (popping off to Google to check…)

Why did you write the book?

The Earth Haven trilogy was, in a sense, at least fifteen years in the making. Back then, I wrote a short story called ‘The Third Coming’ (it’s one of the stories in my collection Pond Life). It’s a tale of a young boy who, in a post-apocalytpic world in which all his family has died, stumbles across an old man in the Welsh countryside. The man is watching the clear summer skies, waiting for someone – or something – to arrive. During their time together, the boy hears things that he finds difficult to believe, such as what actually killed the dinosaurs, the true purpose of Stonehenge and the origins of mankind.

Even as I finished writing that story, I suspected that it contained seeds of ideas, two in particular, that would continue to grow: a manufactured virus, designed to wipe out most of the human population in one fell swoop; an alien species living amongst us, as us, yet willing to eliminate us to pave the way for the rest of their species to make Earth their home.

And so it proved. The ideas nagged at me like an itch beneath a plastercast. The vaguest outline of a story – a long story – began to form in the muddied depths of my mind. And questions. Lots of questions, most of them starting What if…? What if a superior, though greatly outnumbered, species lived unnoticed among us? What if they were only an advance party and the rest of their civilisation is on its way? To what lengths would they go to ensure the safe arrival of their compatriots?

In May 2013, the itch became unbearable and I sat at my computer and typed a scene in which the effects of a deadly virus are described. (This scene was to form the beginning of Chapter Six of the finished novel.) A little over nine feverish weeks later, the first draft of The Cleansing was completed.

Within days of embarking on that first draft, it became obvious that there was way too much story to fit one reasonably-sized novel. So I was faced with a choice: write a doorstop that no one might buy (would you buy a book the size of a brick by a virtual unknown?), or break it down into a trilogy. I opted for the trilogy.

Describe your writing process.

Write the first draft as it comes without worrying about typos. I do carry out any required research as I go along or beforehand if I can foresee it will be required. The latter, though, is rare because I do not outline novels in advance. I’ve tried but that method doesn’t work for me. I usually, though not always, have an ending in mind but little idea at the outset how the characters will reach that point.

When the first draft is done (usually with a huge sense of relief), I let it sit for at least four weeks before starting to edit. During that time, I try to not even think about it. That way, I read it as if someone else had written it. Makes it a lot easier to notice things like spelling mistakes, inconsistencies, confusing passages, etc. During that first pass, I fix things like plot holes, over-description, repetition; I’ll also build in any amendments I need to make consequent upon comments from beta readers. Usually, the word count comes down during this pass as I weed out over-written passages. Having said that, I’m noticing that I tend to overwrite a lot less than I used to and make fewer typing errors so am producing cleaner copy.

At least another two passes will follow, the last concentrating solely on spelling, grammar and punctuation and usually carried out on my Kindle. It’s amazing how many errors I pick up this way that were missed while reading on a computer screen.

Do you have a favourite part of the writing process?

Editing the first draft, particularly during that first read-through. It’s only then that I gain any sense of how good (or bad) the story is. I think of the first draft as a lump of clay with only the vague outline of a face shaped into it. Each editing pass refines the face’s features, adding texture and definition, bringing out the character of the subject.

What’s your favourite scene from your latest release?

When I was a child, I remember watching The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, based (rather loosely) on Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. There’s a scene that has stuck in my mind for many years (we’re talking more than forty) where Heston’s character is wandering through a department store and finds himself in the men’s clothing section. He starts pulling clothes off hangers and from racks, trying them on, discarding some by letting them drop to the floor, leaving on those he likes. That sense of absolute freedom struck a chord in my child’s mind. I began fantasising about being the last person left alive; about the fun I could have. It tended to involve sweet shops and toy stores. It completely ignored the sense of desolation and utter hopelessness that would strike to my very core if I ever did find myself in such a situation. But, hey, I was six. Sweets and toys were high on my list of priorities.

What has this to do with The Beacon? My sense of childlike wonder at that scene from The Omega Man has never fully left me. The Beacon introduces two new characters who didn’t appear in the first book: Bri is 16, Will is 10. They find themselves making their way through central London, now occupied only by corpses, dogs and vermin. They’re in Knightsbridge when Will, who’s from London, points out that they’re near Harrods. Bri has never been to the city before and isn’t really one for designer clothes or jewellery. Nevertheless, her eyes light up because she still has that sense of wonder deep at her core – I believe most of us do. Needless to say, they spend a pleasurable few hours in the store

Have you ever queried agents and publishers?

Yes, when I first started writing fiction in the mid to late nineties. I accumulated quite a bundle of rejections and grew fed up of the thud! of the self-addressed brown envelope containing my manuscript hitting the doormat.

Where are your books for sale?

As well as Amazon, they’re available on sites like iTunes, GooglePlay, Kobo and Barnes & Noble, and most other online retailers.

How do you make time to market your current book while writing your next book?

I work full-time so it’s a constant battle to find quality time to spend writing. Consequently, I prioritise writing over marketing, sometimes to the exclusion of the latter. Perhaps not the ideal strategy, but when spare time is precious we have to spend it doing what’s most important.

What advice would you give a new author intending to self-publish?

Here are some generalisations (since there are always exceptions to every rule) based upon my own experiences to date, and aimed at those looking to make a living from their endeavours:

  • If you go into this expecting to throw a book out there and grow rich, you’re in for a major disappointment.
  • Write the best book of which you’re capable.
  • Edit, edit and edit again. If you have a budget, consider employing the services of a professional editor. Be wary, though, and exercise due diligence. For every good editor out there, there are a handful of people charging for editing services who don’t know an adverb from an adjective, an ellipsis from an em-dash, a… you get the idea.
  • Obtain the best cover you can buy within your budget (or, if you’re one of those clever clogs who can design professional-looking covers yourself, make sure to use a professional-looking font).
  • Be prepared at some point to spend money on advertising. Best wait until you have a few titles available first, though.
  • Join some good online forums and read as much advice about the business as you can. I find The Writers’ Café on Kboards is packed with invaluable information. Be wary – not all advice you’ll receive online is good advice or is right for you. Listen to it all; be selective in which bits you follow.
  • If you can’t handle criticism or frustration, if you’re not prepared to put in hour after hour of hard work for week after week and month upon month for little or no immediate financial reward, if you can’t pick yourself up off the floor and come out fighting, then you should carefully consider whether this business is for you. There are easier ways to make a living.

[Next time I’m due to post to my blog in two weeks’ time, I’ll be away for a much-needed change of scenery, so the blog will be back in four weeks. Till then…]

Favourite Novels

By ‘favourite’, I don’t necessarily mean the books I consider to be the best written or of the highest literary merit. Nope, I mean the novels (I’m including novellas) that left a lasting impression on me. Some of the books on this list I have read more than once—I used to reread some books over and over when I was younger, though not so much these days. Too many books, not enough time.

I originally called this list ‘Top 50 Favourite Novels’, but dropped the ‘Top 50’. There are novels I’ve greatly enjoyed that don’t appear on this list because I can’t now quickly recall them—I have read so many books over the years that I’ve probably forgotten loads—or because my mood when I compiled the list was such that a book didn’t make it when on another day it would have. So this is more properly a list of fifty of my favourite novels, but not necessarily the first fifty and not in any particular order.

I’ve read many books by the same author—e.g., Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), John Irving, Ursula Le Guin, to name a few—that I’ve enjoyed but that haven’t made the list. That doesn’t mean I don’t like their work. Far from it; merely that other books have stuck in my mind more.

There’s a preponderence of fantasy and horror and science fiction, often of the dark and/or apocalyptic kind. That’s the way my tastes run.

The books marked with an asterisk either form part of a series of which I could easily have included more or all, but I haven’t to save space; or, e.g., Christie’s Roger Ackroyd, I’ve included a book that’s illustrative of an author’s body of work of which I’m fond—I love Christie’s Poirot novels and could have easily included more—but again I want to save space; or I’ve named the series rather than just one book from it. Cheating? Maybe, but you’ll have to forgive me since it means being able to name more books. And more books is always good, right?

There are a few Stephen King novels in the list (and one slipping in under a pseudonym). If pressed to name just one, I’d say he is probably my favourite author so I had to include more than one of the twenty or thirty books of his I’ve enjoyed and reread over the years.

I didn’t consider the books I first remember reading: The Wishing Chair and Faraway Tree books by Enid Blyton, for instance, though I have included her books for slightly older children, such as the Famous Five.

The links1 are all to Amazon UK and are included for anyone who wants to check out the book.

Enough blathering. On with the list.

1. Imajica – Clive Barker


Imajica

2. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown


The Da Vinci Code

3. The Road – Cormack McCarthy


The Road

4. The Day of the Jackal* – Frederick Forsyth


The Day of the Jackal

5. IT – Stephen King


IT

6. The Lord of the Rings* – J.R.R. Tolkien


The Lord of the Rings

7. Shadowland – Peter Straub


Shadowland

8. Rape of the Fair Country – Alexander Cordell


Rape of the Fair Country

9. Men at Arms* – Terry Pratchett


Men At Arms

10. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe* – C.S. Lewis


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

11. Salem’s Lot – Stephen King


Salem’s Lot

12. Dracula – Bram Stoker


Dracula

13. Run For Your Life – David Line


Run For Your Life

14. The Fog – James Herbert


The Fog

15. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway


The Old Man and the Sea

16. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card


Ender’s Game

17. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

18. The Valley of Adventure* – Enid Blyton


The Valley of Adventure

19. Dark Matter – Michelle Paver


Dark Matter

20. Red Dragon – Thomas Harris


Red Dragon

21. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson


I Am Legend

22. Five on a Treasure Island* – Enid Blyton


Five on a Treasure Island

23. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

24. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut


Cat’s Cradle

25. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte


Wuthering Heights

26. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantell


Wolf Hall

27. Riddley Walker – Russell Holban


Riddley Walker

28. Life of Pi – Yann Martell


Life Of Pi

29. The Stand – Stephen King


The Stand

30. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak


The Book Thief

31. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger


The Time Traveler’s Wife

32. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller


Catch-22

33. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd* – Agatha Christie


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

34. 1984 – George Orwell


1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four

35. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood


Oryx And Crake

36. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury


Something Wicked This Way Comes

37. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy* – Douglas Adams


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

38. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline


Ready Player One

39. Watership Down – Richard Adams


Watership Down

40. Legend* – David Gemmell


Legend

41. World War Z – Max Brookes


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

42. The Gone-Away World – Nick Harkaway


The Gone-Away World

43. The Last Days of Jack Sparks – Jason Arnopp


The Last Days of Jack Sparks

44. The Eyre Affair* – Jasper Fforde


The Eyre Affair

45. The Talisman – Stephen King & Peter Straub


The Talisman

46. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury


Fahrenheit 451

47. The Long Walk – Richard Bachman


The Long Walk

48. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever* – Stephen Donaldson


The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

49. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny


Lord Of Light

50. Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce


Tom’s Midnight Garden

 

Let me know how many of them you’ve read. Or if there are any you dislike. It’s okay—we can still be friends.

Coming soon: Favourite Films.

 

1 they’re affiliate links, which means I’ll receive a small amount of commission from Amazon on any sales resulting from following the links; it doesn’t affect the price you pay to Amazon

What’s Occurring (Part 1)

Now and again, I get the urge to talk about things without wanting to go on at sufficient length to fill an entire post. A mish-mash, if you like. A potpourri. (Completely by the by, but does anyone else’s brain insist on pronouncing the ‘t’ in that word, despite knowing that it’s silent? In my head it’s always pot-pooh-ree. Even more off topic, but does anyone else think that potpourri smells yeuch? My mum always kept a dish of the stuff in the hallway and I came to detest its perfumed fragrance.)

This, then, is the first part of a series of musings on the state of my writing career and associated matters. Oh, and for those who don’t know, the title is a catchphrase of one of my favourite sitcom characters, Nessa from Gavin and Stacey (though she used it in the interrogative: “Oh, Stace, what’s occurring?”). Since I live not twenty miles from Nessa’s home town, it seems apt.

Audiobooks
So I finished The Beacon audiobook and it passed the quality checks of both Audible and Findaway Voices. Findaway is the audiobook distributor I am using to publish my audiobooks in various places other than Audible and Amazon. I have taken my other audio titles (The Cleansing and the short story collections Pond Life and Ghosts of Christmas Past) out of exclusivity with Audible due to their shenanigans over returns—see Returns—and am distributing them through Findaway, too.

I can’t honestly say that going wide has yet proved to be worthwhile. Sales via Findaway have so far been sporadic and not at all lucrative, while I now receive a lower share of each sale on Audible (and it wasn’t great when I was exclusive). One sale through Findaway—actually more in the way of a borrow in some sort of library lending service I’ve never heard of—netted me the grand royalty of $0.10. Yep, that’s ten American cents, around 6 or 7p in sterling. And that’s for a novel over ten hours long in audio format. When I read that, and rubbed my eyes and read it again, I think a tiny part of me died.

The only saving grace is that the site in question was winding up its audiobook operation and perhaps such a pitiful royalty was all they had left. At least it shouldn’t happen again or else I’ll be seriously considering chucking in the towel on audio.

Marketing
Yep, the dreaded M-word. I’m heartily sick of marketing at the moment. It seems that whenever I try something new and begin to make it work for me, something outside my control changes and abruptly the method loses its effectiveness.

Take advertising on Amazon through AMS (Amazon Marketing Services). Putting aside the irksomeness of having to pay Amazon to make my books visible on its website so it can make more money out of me through my increased sales, I was having some measure of success with this a year or so ago. By ‘success’, I mean my books were gaining visibility and selling steadily if not spectacularly.

Then the price of advertising started shooting through the roof as, so I understand, the bigger publishers began to use the service more and push prices up. Since I’m neither prepared nor can afford to pay a couple of dollars each time someone clicks the ad for my book without any guarantee they’ll go on and buy it, Amazon advertising has lost its lustre for me. (You see, my cut for each sale is generally around a few dollars. If I have to spend a couple of dollars merely to get a potential buyer to click my ad and if, say, I make one sale per ten clicks, well, you do the maths. Suffice it to say, it’s not cost-effective to run ads at those prices.)

Then there’s Facebook advertising. I’ve only recently started dabbling with it and it began reasonably well, generating some sales and interactions from new readers. If a method of advertising can achieve both these things, it’s bloody great in my book. But something has happened, something I haven’t yet fully looked into, to do with changes Apple has made to its operating system that have had a knock-on effect, which seems to have stopped the effectiveness of my Facebook ads dead in their tracks. I clearly need to investigate in detail, but it’s the sort of time-sump of a task I hate and I need to psych myself up to perform it.

Social media presence
Perhaps absence might be more accurate.

I’ve never been a massive fan of social media. Even less so over the last few years in this age of polarisation and pandemics. It’s made me appreciate why it adversely affects some people’s mental health. The utter tosh bandied about as fact—and believed by many as such—is astonishing. And there’s so much vileness out there, so much hatred and unkindness, I find myself shaking my head, wondering what’s gone wrong with the world.

Still, I suppose social media is useful for posting links to new blog posts, promotions, releases and the like, which is pretty much all I use it for nowadays. Even then, there are so many other writers competing for attention, it often feels as though I’m shouting into the void.

I see writers on places like Twitter engaging in lengthy conversations and lively discussions, and I wonder how they manage to devote such time and energy to social media without it affecting their writing output. Maybe it does, but not that you’d notice. I take my hat off to them.

On the brighter side…
Hmm, that was all a touch doomy and gloomy. Sorry—I’m not trying to bring anyone down, but it’s how I feel about publishing right now.

Whenever I’m a little despondent about writing-related matters, I remind myself that it wasn’t too long ago that I was trying to fit in all this stuff around a full-time job, and later around a part-time one. Since November 2019, I’ve had the massive good fortune to be able to work full-time from home doing what I love. And I do love it: the writing, the publishing, the audiobook production. Not so much the marketing.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. In February 2020, I suffered the aneurysm in my knee that resulted in an emergency bypass operation and laid me up for weeks (National Heroes Service and Part 2).

Then we went into the first covid-19 lockdown and the pandemic has pretty much dominated our lives since.

But things on both those fronts are looking up. I had my first (and only) outpatients follow-up appointment in the vascular clinic for my leg last week. It was supposed to have taken place within three months of the op, but this was fourteen months later due to the pandemic disruptions. The doctor checked the pulse in my foot and declared it to be strong and healthy. When I told him that I haven’t smoked since February 2020 and I’m currently walking 16 miles a week, aiming to increase to 20 miles very soon, he said he couldn’t ask me to do more. He promptly discharged me. Happy days.

On the pandemic front, vaccinations in the UK are continuing apace and here in Wales businesses are being allowed to gradually reopen. I’m due to meet up with five friends at an outside table of our local pub this Sunday. These are mostly the same bunch of friends I went to Dublin with to celebrate our 55th birthdays and to watch the rugby the weekend before I suffered the aneurysm (In Dublin’s Fair City). To say I’m looking forward to seeing them all again and to imbibing a few pints would be understating it.

Of course, as the current horrendous situation in India demonstrates, we are not out of the woods yet with the virus and we cannot afford any complacency. Mask wearing, social distancing and hand washing continue to be the order of the day. We are yet to count the full cost in loss of lives and livelihoods. Nevertheless, it is nice to be able to look forward with cautious optimism.

Finally, in October we acquired a new addition to our family. He’s a little bundle of fluffy energy who has brought a great deal of joy into our lives. Say hello to Milo.

He’s eight months old, and is a cross between a Maltese and a Shih Tzu. We love him to bits.

 

Here endeth Part 1. There’ll be a Part 2 along sooner or later. Till then…

 

More On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

Another blogger who enjoyed The Cleansing asked if she could interview me for her blog. I was only too happy to oblige. The interview appeared in February 2014.

Congratulations for The Cleansing—I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. What attracted you to writing an apocalyptic tale?

Thank you. I enjoyed writing it.

I’ve held a fascination for end of world tales since I was a boy. Books, films, computer games, some of the most memorable have been based in apocalyptic worlds. Difficult to pin down quite what the attraction is. I guess it has something to do with it being this world but not as we know it. All bets are off. No laws, no society, no civilisation, no checks or balance. What morality remains has to battle to make itself felt amidst the anarchy and struggle to survive. It’s man reduced to his basest, most bestial form.

The end of world scenario provides the writer with a blank page that he or she can fill in a wide variety of ways. I think that’s the main attraction of the genre to a writer. The possibilities are endless.

I particularly enjoyed how The Cleansing was set in various different countries. How else did you try to make the novel stand out from other apocalyptic fiction?

It wasn’t a conscious effort to make it different from other apocalytpic fiction I’ve read. Of course, I was well aware of its similarities to other stories. If I’d thought, however, that I was merely rehashing tales that had been done before without bringing anything new to the party, I wouldn’t have bothered sending it to my publisher. I still would have written it as it’s the only way to dislodge a story once it’s taken up home in the rattling space within my head. And The Cleansing had well and truly settled in for the duration. It was either write it or be stuck with a nagging lodger for the rest of my life.

As to how it’s different from other tales, I’ve not read a book that tells of humankind being wiped out deliberately to make way for new inhabitants. If such a book does exist, I haven’t read it but then I’ve only read a small fraction of the end of world tales that have ever been written. So it was a new take on the genre to me. I hope it will be to some readers, too.

The novel is exciting and fun to read, while also being tragic and upsetting in places. Is it important to move your readers as well as entertain them?

Vitally important. As a reader, I better remember books that have moved me than those that have merely entertained me. As a writer, I want readers to feel some sort of emotional reaction to my work, though I’d settle for them being merely entertained over feeling indifferent. I don’t deliberately set out to provoke particular emotional responses. I think that they are a natural by-product if a story is worth telling and is told well.

The Cleansing is part of a trilogy. Do you know how the final book will end or is it still evolving?

I can see in my mind’s eye the climactic scene that occurs at or near the end of the third book, but I don’t yet know how the characters will reach that point. They may take off at tangents that will result in a different ending – characters can be untrustworthy like that – or unforeseen events could occur that push the action in a new direction. That’s part of the fun of writing without an outline; it’s also a little scary.

Do you find the structure of trilogies restrictive? Why do you think they are so popular?

This is the first series I’ve written, though I didn’t set out to write one. It quickly became obvious when I was writing The Cleansing that there was way too much story to fit into one reasonably-sized novel. I didn’t want to write something the size of a brick because I felt that nobody would take a chance on buying a book that size by a virtual unknown. So a trilogy seemed the natural solution.

As for being restrictive, I’m actually finding it to be quite the opposite. Instead of trying to condense the plot into one novel, I have the freedom to explore the world more fully. If characters choose to deviate, that’s fine. There’s time and room for them to get it out of their system before finding their way back to the main action.

I’m not so sure that trilogies are universally popular among readers, at least not when the subsequent books have yet to be published. As a keen reader myself, I understand why. If the first book in a trilogy is captivating, the reader naturally wants to read more immediately. By the time the sequel comes out, readers will have moved on and some will have lost their sense of wonder at the first book. It may not be recaptured on reading the sequel.

However, from a writer’s point of view trilogies are attractive. For a start, writing the first book is nowhere near as daunting as writing a book three times longer. Moreover, the writer will have some idea how well the first book is being received while he pens the sequel. He will have the benefit of reader feedback that may shape the direction the sequels take. He will have the opportunity of answering questions posed by readers of the first book as he develops the sequels. Those questions may even prompt ideas that will enrich the sequels in ways the writer might not otherwise have envisaged.

When will the sequel be published and does it yet have a title?

I can’t tell you when the second novel will be published for a very good reason: I haven’t finished writing it yet. When it has been finished and edited, it will then be up to my publisher, Smithcraft Press, whether to accept it for publication and, if so, where it will fit into its schedule. I can tell you that the full title will be Earth Haven Book 2: The Beacon.

I’m a huge fan of apocalyptic novels. What are your favourites?

So am I, though I’m an avid reader of many genres so haven’t read as many apocalyptic novels as I’d have liked. Too many books, not enough time. Of those I have read, the three that instantly spring to mind that I’d have to name as my favourites are, in no particular order:

The Stand by Stephen King. Many apocalyptic tales begin after – sometimes a long time after – the apocalyptic event took place. What I love about The Stand is that the novel opens just before the event begins so we watch it unfold. I also liked the fact that it was not a traumatic event such as an asteroid strike or nuclear war so that our infrastructures remained intact. (The Cleansing is very similar in these aspects.) Certain elements of the tale didn’t appeal to me so much and I would have liked to have seen a little of what was happening outside the United States, but as a whole the book is a fantastic read.

Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but the book has a haunting lyricism and sense of mysticism that stayed with me long after I finished it. Just writing this is making me want to read it again.

The Road by Cormack McCarthy. Bleak, depressing, pessimistic… I found it utterly compelling. This seems to be a Marmite book, but I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp. It’s not often I find a book to be truly unputdownable, but this one was. Simply superb.

What was your favourite read of 2013?

My reading highlights included catching up on some classics such as The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury; my first, but not last, venture into the world of John Le Carré in The Little Drummer Girl; and the moving Joyland by Stephen King. But my absolute favourite read of the year, though I did not anticipate it being so, was World War Z by Max Brooks. I’m not a huge fan of zombie fiction but picked this up on a whim as a holiday read. Boy, am I glad that I did! The structure is unusual: a series of interviews with key players or witnesses in the zombie war that has recently ended. The advantage of the format is that we get to see the war unfold through many different points of view. Thoughtful, intelligent, it dragged me in and kept me totally engrossed to the end. Wonderful.

Thank you so much, Sam! Roll on Book 2!

No, thank you! Giving up space on your blog for my ramblings is greatly appreciated.

Audiobooks – Part 7

To quickly recap, my three main concerns when embarking on the process of producing my own audiobooks were:

  1. a soundproofed workspace;
  2. differentiating between characters without using accents;
  3. learning how to edit and master.

The only item I haven’t talked about is the second part of number 3: mastering. You’ll be glad to know that this will be a much shorter post than the last one on editing.

Before embarking on this enterprise, I had no idea what mastering an audio track even meant. I’m still not much the wiser, except that I know it has to do with making the recording sound as good as possible by, for example, making the sound levels consistent throughout the recording. In other words, it’s a process whereby the track is optimised so that it sounds a lot more professional than it did before it was mastered.

Am I sounding a little vague? That’s because I am. And more than a little. Anyway, the point is that you don’t need to understand the tasks involved in this process to be able to perform them and produce audio of sufficient quality to pass Audible’s quality control checks.

If you’ve been using a second track to disguise fades (see Part 6), you’ll first need to mix both tracks together into one: in my version of Audacity, select ‘Mix – Mix and Render’ from the dropdown ‘Tracks’ menu. Then you’re ready to start the mastering process.

Before we go any further, here are a couple of links you’ll need.

If you’ve already begun the process of narrating your audiobook, you should already be familiar with the first—it’s ACX’s Audio Submission Requirements. When I first read these, the techncal jargon in some of the sections made my eyes spin. But it’s okay—you don’t need to understand most of it.

This is the godsend: Audiobook Mastering. I stumbled across this page when desperately seeking a straightforward method and explanation of how to master an Audacity recording. I downloaded a couple of the plug-ins they provided, followed their instructions and—hey presto!—finished up with a mastered audio track that passed Audible’s quality control checks.

I believe this page has been updated since I first came across it—and Audacity has definitely gone through a few upgrades that I haven’t kept up with—and the plug-ins might be called something different to the ones I use. To avoid causing confusion, I’m not going to talk about what I do. Suffice it to say, follow the three simple steps set out in the instructions and you hopefully won’t go wrong. They even provide a plug-in that enables you to check the track to see if it complies with ACX/Audible’s requirements.

If you do as they suggest and your track doesn’t pass the ACX check, they go on to talk about other things you can try to get it to conform to Audible’s requirements. I’m thankful to say that I have never needed to take any of those additional steps. Here’s hoping that you won’t either.

And essentially that’s it. Before exporting your MP3 track, you’ll need to add a short clip of silence at the start (by generating a half-second clip of silence from the ‘Generate’ dropdown menu) so that your opening clip of ambient room sound (what ACX’s requirements refer to as ‘0.5 to 1 second of room tone’) is preserved during export. Otherwise, it could be lost and your track won’t then satisfy Audible’s requirements—I was going to add a link to where I found the advice to do this, but I can’t recall where it was; probably some online forum. Whatever, it was darned good advice.

 

That’s really all I can say about the process of producing an audiobook. I hope that some of it, at least, will be of use to anyone embarking on the process for the first time.

In the meantime, I’ve recently completed the audio version of The Beacon, the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy. (Here’s a link to the UK Amazon page  where you can listen to the free sample.) It took me substantially longer to narrate and, in particular, edit than it did to write in the first place. Now I need a rest from audiobook production before embarking on the third book in the trilogy, The Reckoning.

Much to my delight, The Beacon has passed both Audible’s and Findaway Voices’ quality-control checks. So the process set out in Part 6, long-winded though it is, still works.

Findaway is an audiobook distributor who will make the book available in around forty different outlets. Due to the kerfuffle with Audible and its shenanigans over returns—see Returns—I have removed my existing audiobooks from exclusivity with Audible and distributed them, too, through Findaway.

Whether this proves to be worthwhile remains to be seen. I might report back at some point in a Part 8. And maybe I can discover a way to specifically promote my audiobooks—if I do, I can feel another Marketing for Muppets post in the offing, though I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Until next time, stay safe and happy listening!

Weird Words 6

The sixth in a series of posts about words, taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

innovative

Thanks to an old school friend, Simon Evans, for this suggestion. Simon says he can’t pronounce this word without a long ‘o’. So, something like ‘in-ohh-vative’, with presumably the ‘a’ in ‘-ative’ being short, as in ‘superlative’.

This could be a case of the Avid Reader’s Curse.

If Simon has mainly seen the word written down and seldom heard it spoken, it’s understandable that he might pronounce it incorrectly. I still come across words that trip me up when I try to pronounce them because I usually only encounter them in written form. A recent one was ‘lieutenant’—I had to remind myself that the correct British pronunciation is ‘leff-tenant’ and not ‘lew-tenant’ as our American friends say.

But back to innovative. It means, of course, featuring or introducing new ideas, methods or devices. And it is properly pronouced with a short ‘o’: ‘inno-vative’ where the ‘a’ in ‘-ative’ is longer, as in ‘native’.

petrichor

We’ve all smelled it, that earthy (and, to me, metallic) odour which rises from the pavement when it rains for the first time after a dry spell. It’s a distinctive smell that really deserves its own word. And wouldn’t you know…

It’s only fairly recently that I became aware that one existed, though it seems to have only gained official recognition more recently still.

See this BBC article from 2018 about the word. And here’s another article from around the same time from Merriam-Webster, which I’m including because it’s interesting. Yes, it is. When the article was written, the American dictionary compilers were watching ‘petrichor’ with a view to including it in their dictionary, but it did not then qualify. As the addendum notes, the word was accepted into the dictionary in April 2019.

There you have it. Next time you’re out and it rains for the first time in a while, sniff deeply and say to a passing stranger, “Don’t you just love the smell of petrichor?”

skedaddle

Thanks to fellow writer Mike Van Horn for this suggestion.

What a splendid word this is. It’s another of those words which sounds a lot like its meaning:
—to leave immediately, especially in the sense of to flee in a panic.

When I noticed the snake slithering towards me, I skedaddled in the opposite direction.

The folk at Merriam-Webster included the word in a list of ten common words with military origins. If you find words and their origins interesting, it’s well worth a read: civilianized military jargon.

 

That’s all for Part 6. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

In December 2013, the first book in the Earth Haven trilogy, The Cleansing, was published. A reviewer enjoyed the novel so much that she asked to interview me. Not being one to turn down free publicity, I readily agreed. The interview appeared on her blog towards the end of January 2014.

At the time, I was writing the second book in the trilogy, The Beacon, but (as is obvious from my answers) had no clear idea as to how it would all pan out.

I was with a small-press publisher at the time—seems almost quaint to say that now.

On with the interview…

Why did you write an end-of-the-world story?

I have been fascinated by end-of-the-world tales since watching the film The Omega Man as a young boy. There’s a scene where Charlton Heston wanders into a department store and starts picking out new clothes. I remember thinking how wonderful it would be to be able to go into any shop I fancied and just take anything that caught my eye. I was too young to appreciate the downside to all this—the despair, the loneliness, the absolute hopelessness of being in such a situation—but the sense of wonder has never left me.

Since then, some of my favourite books have involved end of the world scenarios: The Stand, Riddley Walker and The Road, to name a few. When I started writing in my early thirties, it seemed perfectly natural to pen an apocalyptic tale and I wrote the short story ‘The Third Coming’ around fifteen years ago. It contained the germs of the ideas that would be realised more fully in The Cleansing and its sequels. When writing that story, something in the back of my mind told me I would be returning to explore that world in more depth at some point.

It nagged at me on and off for the next fifteen years, but it was only when a review of my short story collection Pond Life mentioned that the reviewer would be interested in reading an expanded version of ‘The Third Coming’ that I decided the time was right to return to that world.

Did you find it difficult to approach the genre from a new and fresh perspective?

To be perfectly honest, not once did such considerations enter my head. Of course, I was all too aware that similar stories had been told, and amazingly well, by writers with reputations I can only hope to emulate. More than once the thought passed my mind, ‘Does the world really need yet another apocalytic novel?’ Moreover, by a writer no one’s ever heard of? But I pressed on regardless. Not through arrogance, but because I’m the sort of writer who has to write a story once it’s in my head. The only way to get shot of it is to write it. A little like lancing a boil but without the mess.

Who is your favourite character from The Cleansing?

Bishop and Simone both intrigue me. Without giving anything away, they are of the other sort yet neither display the hive mentality of their kindred.

Peter and Milandra, too, I find interesting. Torn between loyalty to their kind and sympathy for the survivors, I’m looking forward to seeing how they will act from here on in.

But my favourite character? Probably Ceri. I sense a strength of character within her that I don’t think even she’s aware of.

Do you know how the rest of the story will play out?

I know (roughly) how the third book ends, so in that sense it’s plot-driven. However, I have no idea how the characters will reach that point. And there are new characters in Book Two (The Beacon) that I’m enjoying getting to know. Quite what their roles will be is not yet clear. That’s part of the fun, and terror, of the way I write: I don’t plot in advance—I’ve tried and I can’t do it—so it’s almost as much a journey of discovery for me as it will be for the reader.

Without giving too much away, what’s next in store for the characters?

Tom was the dominant survivor in The Cleansing, but I suspect that he has already plumbed the depths of his courage when he did what he had to do in his mother’s back garden. Ceri will come more to the fore in Book Two. I know that at least one of the new characters, Bri (pronounced like brie, the cheese), will have a big part to play.

Simone will become a key figure, but possibly not revealing her full role until Book Three. Diane is still an enigma—her innermost feelings and motivations are still unclear. And Peter… hmmm. He’s hiding something. That’s all I’d better say for now.

Who is your favourite comfort author and what is your favourite comfort book?

Since my teens, Stephen King has always been my go-to author, but Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series is often revisited for light-hearted escapism. So I’d have to declare a draw for my favourite comfort author. Book? No contest: The Lord of the Rings. I can return to it time after time and never grow bored.

And your favourite comfort food?

Ribeye steak (medium/well done), onion rings, fried mushrooms, peas, golden chips, all washed down with a good Merlot.

Name something you’d like to be better at doing.

Advance plotting. I’m a little envious of writers who can produce a 30,000-word outline then knock out a near-perfect novel in a few weeks because most of the hard work—resolving twists and turns, coping with characters who insist on doing their own thing, tying up loose ends—was done at the outline stage.

Oh, and I have to mention self-promotion. I’m completely inept at blowing my own trumpet. When I try, I become all coy and self-deprecating. So that’s what I wish I was good at—and so do my publishers.