What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1

Firstly, I must apologise for the groan-inducing title. Yes, this is a post about grammar*. And, yes, there may be more to come. A post about grammar? Part 1? Yawn.

Don’t be like that. I don’t intend them to be dry, technical posts. Rather, I want to talk about the idiosyncrasies of grammar and, occasionally, of those who use it.

Caveat: I do not hold myself out in any way as being an authority on grammar and its usage. If you want authority, refer to one of the style guides, like the Chicago or Oxford manuals**. Alternatively, visit an online forum dedicated to writing and post something like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive’—you’ll soon be swamped with authority or, at least, those who believe they speak with it. I am not claiming to speak with authority. I have, however, been around the block a few times and have published more than half a million words of fiction, so I ought to know a little about the subject.

I’m going to start with one of the most bemusingly controversial of topics: the Oxford comma. It’s also known as the Harvard comma or serial comma, which always puts me in mind of Jack the Ripper. (Or should that be Jack, the Ripper? You have my permission to call me rude names.)

Now, I doubt whether the average reader has even heard of this unassuming little fellow; I’m almost certain that he couldn’t care less about it. For those who aren’t sure what it is, take this example:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips, and peas.

The Oxford comma (OC) is the second one, the one that separates ‘chips’ and ‘and’. Here’s the sentence without it:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips and peas.

In case there are any grammar pedants looking in, I know that some will feel the sentence should contain a comma after the word ‘dinner’, but I’m making the style choice not to include it. So sue me. (I don’t consider there’s anything wrong with pedantry, by the way. I have a strong pedantic streak in me, but find as I get older that I care less and less about what others choose to do. You should try it; it’s liberating.)

Back to the example. Neither sentence is grammatically incorrect, but I prefer the second one. The OC adds nothing in my eyes and the second example looks less cluttered.

It comes down to which style a writer prefers, then? You’d think, but there are a surprising number of people out there who will argue vehemently that either the OC should always be used, or that it should never be used. It’s difficult to think of another example of grammar usage where writers (not all, it has to be said, but many) are so polarised, supporting one position to the exclusion of the other.

Whenever I’m visiting a writing-related forum and see a thread started about the OC, I can guess what’s going to happen. Before too long, someone will come along who will declare that the OC should always be used. It clears up ambiguity, they argue. To back up their argument, they’ll post some (often ridiculous) example, like this:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

See? they’ll say, without the OC the sentence reads like the narrator is saying his (or her, but for the sake of brevity I’m sticking with his) brothers are Laurel and Hardy. Therefore, they’ll say, the OC is always required to avoid such ambiguity, so that the example should read:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

And they are right, up to a point. Unless the narrator wants to say that Laurel and Hardy are his brothers, the OC removes that ambiguity. But with most of the examples (possibly all; I haven’t tested) that get bandied about in support of this position, it only requires a little tinkering and the OC will produce the opposite result, i.e. it will create ambiguity. Take the Laurel and Hardy example. Now change ‘brothers’ from plural to singular:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brother, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

Now it sounds like the narrator is saying that Stan Laurel is his brother. If that’s not what he intends, the OC needs to go.

So why do (some) writers get so bent out of shape by this and insist that the OC is always, or never, required? Beats me. It also amuses me in a head-shaking-sadly sort of way. For me, the OC is simple, so simple that I’m going to state this in bold:

– If the intended meaning of a sentence is improved by inclusion of the OC, use it.
– If the meaning is obfuscated (man, I love that word) by inclusion of the OC, omit it.
– If the meaning isn’t clear with or without it, rewrite the sentence.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all there is to say on the matter.

* By ‘grammar’, I’m including things like spelling and punctuation. Although, strictly speaking, they are usually separate and distinct from grammar, I’m including them under the same umbrella term for ease of categorisation and, well, because it’s my website. So there.

** I mention the Oxford and Chicago manuals because they are the ones which seem to be most favoured by writers (I have a copy of The Oxford Manual of Style sitting on the bookshelf above my writing desk) and both of which happen to be in favour of the OC, but there are other guides which aren’t.

From Page to Screen – Part 2

In Part 1, we took a peek at adaptations of some of Stephen King’s works. Now I’d like to cast the net wider and talk a little about other books I’ve read that have been adapted for cinema or TV. As always, what follows are the highly subjective views of one person, based on his personal taste. It’s perfectly okay to hold an opposing view and for us to remain friends.

Let’s start with a couple of contemporary novels, which were made into films on the back of runaway success. I didn’t particularly like either of the books, but the adaptations were both very well done.

First up, Gone Girl. I loved the writing in this book, but hated the characters and the selfish, psychotic ways in which most of them behaved. Then I watched the film, more out of curiosity as to how far they would stick to the source material than from wanting to relive the story. In fairness to the film makers, I thought they did a good job of being faithful to the novel: I disliked the onscreen characters as much as their written versions.


Gone Girl

Next, The Girl on the Train—if this is one of your favourite novels, you might want to look away. The main character irriated me to distraction. The decisions she made throughout the novel were, quite frankly, often ridiculously idiotic, even when she was sober. I guessed the ending around a third of the way before reaching it and it felt more than a little contrived. Still, I thought I’d give the film version a go because, well, Emily Blunt. (Incidentally, anyone else think that she and the Welsh actress Eve Myles could be sisters?) Again, I thought the film makers were in the main faithful to the novel, though (warning: mini-rant ahead) why they insisted on changing the setting from London to New York is beyond me. Surely American film-goers aren’t so insular as to be put off by a film set in Britain, are they? Look at the success of the Harry Potter films, for goodness’ sake. (Mini-rant over.)

So there’s a couple of novels I was lukewarm about which were made into half-decent films. What about a few novels I enjoyed, but the film-makers’ translation fell woefully short?

The first turkey that springs to mind is Life of Pi. The novel, with its hauntingly enigmatic ending, became a stunning visual feast when translated to screen but, unless I missed it amidst the splendour of the cinematic images, completely fudged the ending, making the film version a delight to the eye but a let-down to the intellect.


Life Of Pi

I enjoy Isaac Asimov’s Robot tales, though wondered how they might translate to the big screen. Not very well if the film I, Robot is anything to go by. Paying only lip service to Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the film turned into a frenetic series of chases. Not even the presence of Will Smith could save it.

The last turkey I’ll mention is Dune. In short, liked the book, hated the film. Where the former was rich in detail and intrigue, the latter didn’t seem to know quite what it was trying to be and ended up simply being a mess.


Dune

What of the meh films; those where they made a good stab at translating the source material to screen, but didn’t entirely succeed? Here’s a couple:

One of my favourite post-apocalyptic novels is I Am Legend, with its deliciously dark ending. The film version of the same name is okay. Will Smith is, as usual, easy to watch, but the film lacks something, particularly as it nears its conclusion. This is the second adaptation of the novel I’ve seen (the first being The Omega Man—more on that in a future post) and they both, in my view, chickened out at the finale. Sticking with the ending of the novel would have improved them both.

Red Dragon is one of the best psychological horror novels I’ve read, and one I meant to mention in the post about my favourite horror novels. The film version was nothing to write home about. A reasonable attempt, I suppose, but it failed to capture the dark menace of the book.


Red Dragon

So to the rarities, those films which were so faithful to their source material that they provided just as pleasurable an experience to watch as reading the novels they are based upon; or—shock, horror—those that improved upon the books.

Wolf Hall, about the life of Thomas Cromwell and his rise to prominence in the court of Henry VIII, wasn’t an easy read. But it was worth persevering with and I enjoyed it so much that I bought the sequel (that sits in my TBR pile patiently awaiting its turn). I watched the BBC dramatisation not expecting to overly enjoy the novel in visual form, but I was pleased to be wrong—the series brought the novel to life with its excellent casting (Damien Lewis was surprisingly good as the regal lecher), superb acting and spot-on sets.


Wolf Hall

I’m not a fan of young adult literature. I’ve read both first books in the Divergent and Hunger Games series, and in neither case felt compelled to read any more. Nothing particularly wrong with the stories (though one of the basic premises in Divergent struck me as wholly unrealistic), but it’s the style of writing that doesn’t appeal to me. In both cases, however, I enjoyed the film adaptations much more than the books.

Philip K. Dick is regarded as one of the most influential science fiction writers to have lived. I’m a little ambivalent about his works that I’ve read: some I’ve thoroughly enjoyed; others not so much. One of the former was his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? , adapted for film as Blade Runner. I thought the film took all that was good about Dick’s novel and improved upon it; a rare thing, indeed.

To end, the book I’d name if pressed to name just one (just one? are you nuts?) novel as my favourite ever: The Lord of the Rings. I know it’s technically a trilogy, but I’ve only ever owned it in one volume and have always thought of it as one book. Anyway, I watched the first attempt at making a film version, an animated affair that stopped where The Fellowship of the Ring stops. At best, meh. I seriously doubted that a worthy film version would ever be made. Step forward, Peter Jackson. I remember going to the cinema to see the first instalment, heart in mouth, afraid I was going to hate it. Needn’t have worried; it hooked me from the opening sequence and never let go. I could see why they chose to leave out what they omitted from the novel (I always found the Tom Bombadil portion of the book a little tedious) and loved, loved, loved that Peter Jackson’s image of places like Minas Tirith and Edoras exactly matched my own. Watching those films is like seeing my own imagination brought to life.


The Lord of The Rings

As a final aside, my younger daughter shares my love of the LOTR films. Once a year we buy a load of unhealthy but tasty snacks and binge watch the extended DVD versions of all three films back-to-back. It takes us around thirteen hours, allowing for the occasional break, but we think it’s great fun. (My wife and older daughter don’t share our enthusiasm; in fact, they think we’re a little on the nerdy side of Geekdom, but we don’t care.) My younger daughter has recently turned twenty but is as keen for another ‘Lord of the Rings Day’ as ever. Ah, the magic of movies.

The Avid Reader’s Curse

Despite having more than half a million published words of fiction to my name, I still consider myself to be more a reader than a writer. Since I learned to read beyond ‘see the dog run’ at the age of four or five, I’ve read pretty much constantly. If I had to give up all sources of entertainment except one, books are what I’d keep. I’d miss watching films and sport, and listening to music, but I’d miss books more. Yeah, you get the point.

Like other avid readers, I probably have a more extensive vocabulary than someone who doesn’t read for pleasure. But that can bring its own problems and thus the title of this piece. (‘Curse’ is probably putting it too strongly but, you know, snappy titles.) There are words I have encountered in reading whose meaning I know, either from context or from looking them up, but that I have absolutely no clue how to pronounce.

I couldn’t have been more than six when I first encountered this problem. In school, writing a story, I wanted to say that the protagonist was so tired he collapsed from ‘exhaustion’. I knew the word, but not how to spell it. Even less, as it turned out, how to pronounce it. Try as I might, I could not make the teacher understand what word I wanted him to spell for me and in the end I gave up in embarrassment.

When I was around ten or eleven, I read a series of Westerns, passed down to me from my grandfather, in which one character frequently called another a ‘sonova bitch’. I had absolutely no idea what the term meant, mainly because I was pronouncing ‘sonova’ incorrectly in my head as ‘sonne-over’. In the end, I settled for it meaning a not-very-nice person from an even-less-nice place called Sonova, which the author had forgotten to capitalise. It took a good while for the penny to eventually drop, bless me.

Years later, when I had started working for a living, I encountered for the first time in writing the name Siobhan. In my head and, to my great discomfort on meeting the lady of that name, I pronounced it as something sounding very similar to autobahn. Thankfully, she found it amusing and corrected me with a twinkle in her eye, though I suspect she secretly wondered how I had spent all those years in college.

Then there were the Harry Potter books, which my elder daughter read as they were published and which I read after her. I’d never come across the name Hermione before. In my head, for the first three or four books, she was ‘Herm-ee-own’, that sounding marginally better to me than the alternative ‘Herm-ee-won’—my brain insisted on adding ‘Kenobe’ to that version. It wasn’t until I overheard my daughter telling her younger sister about the books that I heard the correctly pronounced name of Hermione for the first time. How they mocked when I confessed my ignorance, while I laughed outwardly and cried a little inside.

There are many place names in the States which I read about long before I heard them spoken. There are two that immediately spring to mind: Arkansas and Yosemite. I don’t remember hearing the state being spoken about much before Clinton’s rise to prominence and, yep, I used to pronounce it in my head as ‘Ar-kansas’, not the correct ‘Ar-ken-saw’. As for Yosemite, I failed to realise the link with the name of the cartoon character Yosemite Sam. So I pronounced it ‘Yosser-might’, which makes it seem more like a cousin of that vile-sounding Australian spread vegemite than a national park.

Here are some more, though this list is by no means exhaustive; I tend to come across new ones every few months or so:

Hyperbole—I mention this one because I’ve often heard others mispronouncing it, usually to make it sound like a super-duper version of the USA’s Superbowl.

Paradigm—never sure about this one: is it ‘para-dim’ or ‘para-dime’? It’s the sort of word where knowing the correct pronunciation won’t help me because it’s highly unlikely that I’ll ever use it in conversation and so the next time I see it in print I’ll have forgotten the correct pronunciation and will make it sound in my head like whichever version first pops into it.

Preface—this comes at the beginning of a book so it made perfect sense, to me, to pronounce this ‘pree-face’. It came as a surprise to learn that it’s properly pronounced with a short first e, like in ‘pretzel’.

Segue—yep, this was pronounced like ‘vague’ in my book (that’s the autobiographical Sam Kates book of being an ignoramus). I knew there was also a word out there to do with transitions in music which sounded as if it was spelt something like ‘segway’, but the connection between the two, i.e. that they are the same word, didn’t occur until recently.

Victuals—an oft-read word, especially when younger when I used to read books about explorers and expeditions, and one I pronounced phonetically, enunciating the c and the ua combination as you would in the word ‘actual’. Who’d have thought (not me, certainly) that it’s pronounced like its archaic spelling ‘vittles’, to rhyme with ‘skittles’?

There is an upside to this problem: many of these words are rarely, if ever, going to be dropped into casual conversation—not unless you’re an expeditionary or a musician or you’re trying to sound pompous—and, really, nobody cares how we pronounce these things in the private space of our own head. Just as well, eh, or every time we came to have to pronounce one out loud, we’d all be in an ague.

The Horror, the Horror…

[First posted 1.9.17]

I started out reading books written by Enid Blyton. The Famous Five books (‘lashings of ginger beer’—did they really say that? I do recall one saying of Ann’s: ‘Food always tastes better when eaten outdoors’; no doubt the wasps would agree) and the series beginning with The Island of Adventure I lapped up, re-reading them over and over as my age approached double figures. Then I discovered C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and fantasy was back on the reading menu; my enjoyment of that genre had begun with Enid and her Faraway Tree and Wishing Chair adventures. I read westerns (the Sudden series by Oliver Strange) and thrillers (if you have a son, grandson or nephew around the age of nine, try to get hold of a copy of Run For Your Life by David Line and I’d dare him not to enjoy it) and science fiction. I enjoyed some of the classics (Coral Island, The Three Musketeers, The Wind in the Willows, to name but a few) and gave up on others.

But it wasn’t until I approached the formative years of my teens that I began what I consider to be my first love affair with one genre. Too long ago to recall whether it was a particular book which began it, though I suspect it might have been Dracula, but I began to devour horror books at such a rate I look back and wonder where I found time for schoolwork, not to mention playing football and rugby and making awkward, tongue-tied overtures to the fairer sex.


Dracula (Penguin Classics)

My friends and I would swap books by Guy N. Smith and James Herbert about man-eating rats or giant crabs that scuttled from the sea to attack scantily clad women on the beach. There was a sexual element in these books that was part of the attraction—we were at the age of sexual awakening and easily titillated—but it was the horror aspects that kept me hunting out more. Oh, yes, it was. I still recall the immense thrill of reading The Fog by James Herbert for the first time. As far as I can remember, though the plot seems irrelevant now and, to some extent, was back then, it was about the escape of a nerve gas that had been buried deep below ground; everyone it encountered was driven instantly insane and began acting like psychopathic lunatics, the sort who would end up strait-jacketed and muzzled à la Hannibal Lecter. To a teenager hungry for gore and terror, it was like attending for the first time an all-you-can-eat buffet.


The Fog

Then, with the discovery of a writer from America by the name of Stephen King, I hit the payload. I’ve read almost everything he’s published in the way of horror, science fiction and fantasy. Of his out-and-out horror novels, my favourites have to be Salem’s Lot and IT, both of which I mentioned in a recent piece I did about adaptations of his work and won’t rehash again here. Suffice it to say, both novels had a profound effect on me when I first read them and I’ve since returned to them many times; it’s like renewing acquaintance with an old but disturbed friend.

I’ve never confined myself to reading in one genre, though that period between roughly the ages of thirteen and fifteen was probably the closest I’ve come. Ever since, I’ve regularly returned to the genre and perhaps it’s unsurprising that a couple of my earliest published short stories (Celesta, Room Eight) and my first novel (The Village of Lost Souls) were horror. Not every horror novel I’ve read since those teenage days has been to my taste, but I’ve come across many goodies and I shall mention a few.

House of Leaves by Mark. Z. Danielewski. In many ways I found this a difficult book to get through with its pages of annotations written at weird angles (it’s not easy constantly turning a book that size upside down and on its side when you’re reading in bed) and its strange side plots, but it contains enough moments of genuine scalp-prickling scariness to have made the effort worthwhile.


House Of Leaves

The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. I read this in my twenties before I’d seen the film. Even before reaching the well-known shocking moments, it frightened me with its creeping sense of menace as scientific tests are carried out on the unfortunate Regan MacNeil and various strange things about her behaviour are revealed, such as her ability to speak perfect English backwards. The film, when I saw it, probably didn’t scare me as much as it would have had I not read the book, but I don’t regret reading it for a moment.


The Exorcist

Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. Set in the snow and ice deep within the Arctic Circle, this held moments of such breath-catching terror that I was reluctant to turn out the light to try to sleep. I’ve been to the Arctic Circle, though nowhere near as far into it as this book is set, so could appreciate even more the sense of desolation and isolation the protagonist was experiencing. It all added up to a fantastic horror read.


Dark Matter

That’s an off-the-top-of-my-head selection. There have been many other good ones and I’ve many yet to read, such as the complete set of Lovecraft sitting patiently on my Kindle. The paperback I’m currently reading (The Last Days of Jack Sparks) is shaping up nicely, too.

(The links should take you to the books’ paperback versions on Amazon UK. If you prefer reading electronically, it should be a simple matter to find your way to the Kindle version from there, or it will provide you with the detail you need to search out kobo or itunes or whatever version floats your boat.)

[Update July 2018: The Last Days of Jack Sparks did more than shape up nicely – it turned out to be a top-class scary read, one I’d recommend.]

Tale of a Tale

A question that is often asked of writers is, “From where do you get your ideas?” As most writers would, I imagine, agree, it’s not an easy question to answer. Here’s my take on it.

What if? I ask myself that a lot. It’s how nearly all of my ideas for stories begin. Just two little words that can open worlds of possibilities.

Though not always. The hypothesis may lead nowhere and is quickly discarded. Sometimes only hints of potential are revealed, perhaps to be filed away for another time. What if that bloke sitting opposite me on the bus is a psychopath? Nah, he looks like an accountant. But what if he’s a psychopathic accountant? Hmm, I quite like the juxtaposition of madness and mundanity. Perhaps he’s cannibalistic and preys on tradesmen, a sort of plumber-munching number-cruncher. One day, maybe…

On occasions, that what-if question leads to places where my imagination scrambles to follow. That’s what happened with the Earth Haven trilogy, but to explain I need to go back twenty years to where it began.

I have long been fascinated by end of days tales in film and in books. It was almost inevitable when I started writing fiction in my early thirties that I would sooner or later pen one of my own. And it started with a question: what if the apocalyptic event involved mankind being wiped out deliberately? Other questions followed hard on its heels: who would do that? Why? How?

And again, what if? What if we were created by an advance guard of beings from a distant planet and the bulk of their population is only now heading this way?

This led to more questions, more possibilities. If we were created by off-world beings (I’m hesitating to use the word ‘aliens’ since they are, on the face of it, more us as we would ideally like to be: non-violent, altruistic, cerebral), then to what purpose? If this took place many millennia ago, we would have been little more than shambling, rutting foragers, possessed of simple brains yet a compelling instinct to survive and procreate. Maybe we were created as expendable slaves, little more than drones, designed to face toothed and tusked and clawed danger in place of our masters; to spread out and populate and colonise; to cultivate and construct; to prepare the way.

But what if the arrival of the rest of the off-worlders was delayed, perhaps by thousands of years? Mankind would have proliferated, grown smarter, become warlike and warring, developed cunning and technology, demonstrated a nasty streak and a tendency to violence. The peaceful incoming beings would now be vastly outnumbered. Would humanity welcome them with open arms and a peck to both cheeks, or with open enmity and missiles to both flanks?

Those who remain of the advance guard must make a decision: allow their people to arrive to a barrage of detonating warheads, or take action that will clear the way for a safe arrival. Wouldn’t it be ironic if humankind must now itself be eradicated as it has become the obstacle?

These are the questions I mulled over as the twentieth century drew to a close. While people fretted about the Millennium Bug, I wrote a short story that began to answer these questions, while posing more: The Third Coming.

The twenty-first century arrived and then along came the e-book revolution. It passed me by. By the time I paid attention, trying to get noticed as a new guy on the block was like trying to stand out at Woodstock by wearing a flower in your hair.

I jumped in anyway. Bundling ten short stories together, including The Third Coming, I published the collection Pond Life in August 2012. I hadn’t thought about The Third Coming in more than ten years. While my regular career took unexpected turns, writing had taken a back seat, though the longing never disappeared. Back it came, bubbling to the surface as ideas in that short story began to nag at me.

The off-world beings inhabit a planet hundreds of light years from Earth, yet the story demands they have the ability to travel here in months. Traditionally, science fiction writers have employed concepts like wormholes or hollow asteroids or dimension-bending bubbles to allow faster-than-light travel to exist in their stories. The method of travel hinted at in The Third Coming was none of those. A force exists that we’ve all heard of and that moves a great deal faster than light. What if (there it is again) the beings had discovered a way to harness that force?

Other questions raised by the short story vied for attention. What was the original purpose of Stonehenge? Were the dinosaurs really wiped out by a meteor? Can any of this provide an alternative explanation for the so-called missing link between Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon man?

The catalyst that drove me to the keyboard to formulate answers came when a reviewer of Pond Life mentioned that he would like to see the world in The Third Coming explored in more depth. In May 2013, I wrote a scene describing the effects of a deadly virus on the human body. Nine feverish weeks later, the first draft of The Cleansing was done. In a private nod to the origins of the novel, the Millennium Bug took on a new meaning.

But the story wasn’t fully told. Too much to fit into one reasonably-sized book, there would be two sequels. I know that many readers find trilogies unsatisfying, having to wait for the next one to come out while their ardour cools, but it was either that or write a doorstop. And, seriously, who would buy a doorstop written by a virtual unknown? Over the course of the next two years, I wrote The Beacon and The Reckoning, bringing the Earth Haven trilogy to a close.

Even as I finished the first book, there were questions still nagging at me. Many of them started, ‘What if?’ Some reviewers of The Cleansing posed their own questions. Niggling, itchy questions that I endeavoured to address in the sequels.

It doesn’t only start with ‘what if?’; often, it ends with it, too.

From Page to Screen – Part 1

Almost every fiction writer will tell you they’d love to see their work translated to the big screen or to television through a network like HBO. I’m the same, and not only for the money. It must be an amazing feeling to see the characters and situations you’ve created brought to life on screen. I do a lot of walking and sometimes keep my mind off steep hills by fantasising about who could be a good fit for the characters in my book The Cleansing. (Ioan Gruffudd would make a great Tom; Eve Myles as Ceri; Whoopi Goldberg, though she’d have to pile on a few pounds, as Milandra; Michelle Rodriguez as Lavinia… well, a man can dream.)

Other times (there are a lot of steep hills where I live), I think about adaptations I’ve seen of books I’ve read: which ones worked for me, which were disasters, which—quite rare—improved on the source material.

I thought I’d mention a few here in a rough and ready recap. Nothing in-depth; just for a bit of fun.

Take one of my favourite authors, Stephen King. I’m one of his Constant Readers, having grown up with his horror and fantasy books. Some adaptations of his works have been, to put it mildly, disappointing. I’m thinking mainly of the books turned into mini-series for television: IT (one of my favourite Stephen King books; the recent film adaptation was a vast improvement on the mini-series, but still didn’t completely hit the mark for me), The Stand (another favourite; part of the reason I ended up writing the Earth Haven trilogy), The Tommyknockers and Under the Dome.


The Stand

As always, these things are entirely a matter of taste; I know people who really enjoyed Under the Dome, for instance, but it didn’t do it for me.

On the other hand, I thought they made a decent fist of 11.22.63, and I’ll always have a fondness for the original adaptation of Salem’s Lot, screening as it did on TV when I was a teenager. We talked about it for days in school with that delicious thrill which comes from sharing something frightening. I’ve since watched it again with my daughters, when they were teenagers. To my chagrin, they laughed at one of the moments I found most scary at their age, when Danny Glick tapped on the bedroom window to be let in (“Dad, you can see the wires holding him up!”). My fondess for the two-parter hasn’t dimmed, though I accept it has dated a little.


‘Salem’s Lot

Then there are the the big screen films of Mr King’s works. Some, in my opinion, have been turkeys: The Running Man, Cell, Pet Sematary (the book contains one of the scariest scenes I’ve ever read, but the film left me cold; I can only hope the forthcoming remake is an improvement—it shouldn’t be difficult) and the nothing-to-do-with-the-story-apart-from-the-title The Lawnmower Man.


Pet Sematary

I don’t always like the way he ends stories I’ve enjoyed—for me his books are more about the journey than the destination. One I do like is his novella The Mist. He left it open-ended, which I felt was right for the story. The makers of the film version obviously believed it needed a more conclusive resolution. Fair enough, but the ending they came up with was so excruciatingly and ludicrously tragic that it made me laugh out loud. If you’re familiar with the novella, you ought to watch the film for the ending alone.

Many more of his books have been made into films which didn’t do a terrible job but that made me feel, at best, meh. A few examples: Christine, Firestarter, Secret Window (despite the presence of Johnny Depp and Maria Bello), and Dreamcatcher.


Firestarter

What of the good ones, the ones that took the original work and rendered it faithfully or improved upon it? The Green Mile (nothing with Tom Hanks in is a turkey) and The Shawshank Redemption immediately spring to mind, but my favourite has to be Stand By Me with the late River Phoenix, from the collection of novellas Different Seasons. I so enjoyed the novella it was based on (The Body) that I recall sitting down to watch the film expecting another meh reaction, the formula seeming to be that the more I like the source material, the less I enjoy the film version. In this case, I couldn’t have been more pleased to be wrong. What a wonderful evocation of childhood; if you’ve not seen it, watch it post-haste.


Different Seasons

Here endeth Part 1. In Part 2, I’ll do something similar for some of my other favourite books/authors.

(I had intended adding a few images of movie posters to illustrate this piece, but didn’t want to run foul of any copyrights so ended up including images of some of the books mentioned—this is a site about writing and books, after all. They’re clickable links to Amazon UK; it should be a fairly simple matter to find disc versions of the films mentioned and I imagine most of them are available on sites like Netflix. I’ve also included text links for the benefit of anyone reading on a mobile device.)

 

Writing a Trilogy

[First posted August 2015]

In May 2013, I sat at the computer and wrote the description of the symptoms of a deadly virus. It was a scene from an apocalyptic story I’d had kicking around in my head for years and transferring it to paper (at least, to a hard drive) opened the floodgates. Nine feverish weeks later, I had written the first draft of a 90,000-word novel.

The story was nowhere near finished. It would need at least another novel to complete, probably two. Although I would have finished the story no matter what – once a tale is in my mind, the only way to dislodge it is to write it – here’s one advantage of a trilogy from the writer’s point of view: I could see how well the first was received before committing to the second.

The Cleansing was published in December 2013. I sat back and waited with bated breath for the first reviews to come in. Thankfully, they were positive and so I sat down to write the second book.

Before writing The Cleansing, I had completed two novels, both of which are standalones. This would be the first time I had attempted to write a sequel.

Here’s the thing with writing a sequel: the writer owes it to the story, to himself and, most of all, to the readers who enjoyed the first book, to make the second as good as or better than the first. He’s also not working with a blank canvas; at least, that’s how I felt. Although I introduced new characters into the second book, I was still working with those who had appeared in the first and they needed to continue being the characters the readers of the first had come to know, while continuing their arcs and developing as good characters must.

While I worked on the sequel, reviews for The Cleansing continued to come in. Still mainly positive – phew! – but increasing the pressure for the second novel to build upon those good vibes.

The Beacon was released in January 2015. This time, the wait for early reviews was more nail-bitingly angst-filled. Unlike with the first book, readers would be parting with their hard-earned cash this time around in reasonable expectation of reading a story that matched or improved upon the standard of The Cleansing.

I had already begun work on the final instalment in the trilogy when The Beacon was published, but it had been slow going. I found it difficult to build momentum without knowing how the second book would be received. (Also, life or, more accurately, death – of a good friend – interrupted progress.)

Then reviews of The Beacon started coming in; another huge sigh of relief when they were, in the main, positive. Now I could press on full steam ahead with the final instalment.

This proved to be the most difficult one to write. Not only did I need to make this one as good as or better than the first two, I also needed to ensure I tied up all loose ends. With the first two books totalling around two hundred thousand words, there were a lot of loose ends. And the biggest pressure of all? Ending it in a way with which readers will hopefully be satisfied and that fits the overall tone of the story.

There are writers out there who pen many series and serials. They must all be familiar with these issues, but this was the first time I had experienced them. Whether I managed to overcome them, well, that remains to be seen. I have sent the completed and edited manuscript of The Reckoning to my publishers and await hearing whether it will be accepted for publication.

If it is, by the time the first reviews come in, I shall have no nails left.

[Update July 2018: The Reckoning was accepted and published in December 2015. The Cleansing is by some distance my bestselling novel to date and, thankfully, the sell-through rate to the sequels is pretty high. ]

Why We Write

[This article first appeared on a friend’s blog in September 2014. She asked me to talk about why I write, citing books that influenced me growing up. I took this to be an invitation to talk about books that I’ve loved over the years, although I remembered to tag a paragraph on the end that mentions writing.

It might seem faintly ridiculous that a man then a few months shy of 50 with a tendency towards the Dark Side in both his reading and writing tastes was talking about Enid Blyton, but her books are the ones I devoured as a young child. So shoot me.]

From the moment I learned how to read, I read. We’re talking more than forty years ago so my recollections are a little hazy, but the first books I can remember reading were by Enid Blyton. I guess I was around the age of five when I started to read The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair. When the wings first sprouted on the chair’s legs, thus opening a world of adventure for the children who owned it (who probably had names like Fanny and Polly and Dick and James), something sparked inside me, something that still burns all these years later.

The flames were fanned by The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree. I moved on to her books for older children and discovered a taste for adventures. A series of books (that I read over and over) about four children and a parrot that started with The Island of Adventure and ended with The River of Adventure. There was even one (The Mountain of Adventure) set in my homeland of Wales.

And The Famous Five. I remember the first day of the summer holidays when I must have been six or seven, my parents taking me to Smith’s to buy the next book in the series. I recall it cost me £0.25, but that probably represented a month’s pocket money. I took it home, read it the same day, pined for the next one. I got them all – all twenty-one – and read each of them more than once. ‘Lashings of ginger beer.’ Did they really say that?

I discovered other authors. Run For Your Life by David Line. Wonderful; I read it until it was falling apart. Some classics: The Three Musketeers, Coral Island, Robinson Crusoe. There were more, but my attention was diverted.

A new teacher started in our class. One afternoon, she gathered us around and began to read a book to us. A book about a land of snow and magic that could be reached through the back of a wardrobe. I was instantly captivated. The sense of wonder that began with Enid Blyton, the sense that anything is possible within the pages of a book, was firmly entrenched by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I soon acquired the book and the six others in the series, and read them over and over. I read them to my daughters when they were growing up as an excuse to read them again.

On entering my teens, I discovered shock horror authors like Guy N. Smith. James Herbert struck all the right notes with books like The Rats and The Fog.

Then I bought a book by a writer I hadn’t heard of that sounded promising: Carrie by Stephen King. It was good, but it was Salem’s Lot which cemented my love affair with Mr King’s books that continues to this day.

And there was Tolkien. My parents had a hardbook copy of The Lord of the Rings, complete with wonderful illustrations upon which Peter Jackson based many of the sets for his films. I now have my own copy and return to it every few years.

In my twenties, a friend lent me a book by someone called Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic. Instant addiction. Every now and then I give in to the urge to reread every Discworld book and fall in love with that world all over again.

And there are others, many others, way too many to mention them all. Here’s a few: Imajica by Clive Barker, anything by Bill Bryson and Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell, Shadowland by Peter Straub, Christie’s Poirot novels and short stories. And there’s John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Laurie Lee, Robert Heinlein, Gerald Durrell, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Forsyth, Philip K. Dick…

Reading has played such a big part in my life, it was almost inevitable that I would turn to writing fiction. My favourite books provide a means of escape from the trials and tribulations of real life. Writing serves a similar purpose, a sort of pressure-relief valve that also helps unclutter the jumble of my mind. And those authors and their books have had a profound effect on me, prompting awe, fear, sorrow, amazement, or simply entertaining me. I wanted to provoke the same emotions in others, though I’d settle for merely entertaining them. Sometimes mere entertainment is enough.

Pen-name – help or hindrance?

[First posted on Goodreads January 2014]

Sam Kates is a pseudonym. When I first decided to self-publish a collection of short stories almost a year and a half ago, it wasn’t a question of whether to use a pen-name; only which pen-name to choose.

Life is full of unexpected contradictions. Here’s one that some writers may recognise. I deeply desire making a living from writing fiction – to be paid to do what I most enjoy, thus freeing me to do it more… It must be like the starry-eyed schoolboy who signs a professional football contract and suddenly finds himself sharing a changing room with his heroes. Yet that dream can become reality for a writer at almost any stage of his or her life. I’m way past the age where Liverpool would be interested in me (even – in my dreams – were I good enough), but at 49 I’m not too old to become successful as a writer. And yet, I have no desire to seek the limelight, to become even moderately famous – not as me, the real me anyway.

So here’s that contradiction (no, I hadn’t forgotten): I want to be a successful author of fiction, yet I don’t seek fame. Hmm… becoming successful in most fields of the arts requires the artist to become well-known. In the field of literature, this means the author’s name has to become familiar to readers. There are way too many indie authors out there – the more well-known a writer’s name becomes, the more visible he or she will be among the milling masses. To use a more business-like expression: it’s about building a brand. So, success without a modicum of fame? Ain’t going to happen.

Going with a pseudonym was, therefore, a non-brainer. There were other reasons, such as being the sort of reserved person hopeless at blowing his own trumpet (it’s a lot easier to promote Sam Kates than it would to be to promote me), but the overriding one was to impose a degree of separation between writing and my private life.

By and large, then, having a pen-name has been a help. Today, for the first time, it became a hindrance. The local newspaper had agreed to run a feature about my new apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing. The reporter who interviewed me e-mailed this afternoon to say that his senior editors would only publish the piece on condition that they used my real name. After a little soul-searching, I told him that I didn’t want to proceed under that condition. Some of you might be thinking, “Fool! You’ve just given up some free advertising!” and you’d be right. My publishers, when they find out, may be displeased, though I think (hope) they’ll understand. But I’m certain I’ve made the correct call.

Not that my real name is a great secret. Anyone who knows me knows I write under the name Sam Kates. Anyone with a little computer savvy who can be bothered could probably find my real name online within minutes. But given what I said above about why I used a pen-name in the first place, to start announcing my real name to the world (or at least this small part of it on the edge of the South Wales valleys) seems self-defeating and more than a little hypocritical. If that means I’m going to miss out on promotional opportunities, (with apologies to my publishers) so be it. I’ll just have to work harder at other methods of promotion and, more importantly, writing books that readers find entertaining.

Hindrance or not, Sam Kates is rolling up his sleeves…

Baring the Soul

[An unusually introspective piece, first posted around January 2015]

I posted this on Facebook last night:

“Putting something that you’ve written out there for anyone to love or ridicule makes for some anxious moments. It feels a little like baring a piece of your soul for public inspection. An uncomfortable, vulnerable, naked sensation.

There are many moments of self-doubt, moments when you wonder why the heck you’re putting yourself through it. Then a reader will tell you that he or she loved your book and all the hard work, all the angst, will have been worthwhile.”

Sounds a touch melodramatic; in my defence, I had consumed a beer or two. But throughout today, sober as a teetotal judge, I’ve been thinking about the ‘baring your soul’ bit.

I write the stories I write because they’re what I enjoy reading. They tend towards darkness and the fantastic and the wondrous, though not exclusively. What my stories usually have in common is that they are written to entertain.

What I don’t write are true-life tales of courage about survivors of cancer or war or domestic violence or any one of hundreds of worthy subjects that give people hope for a brighter future. I don’t attempt to write stories with deep meaning that shed new light on the human condition. I don’t write self-help books that change lives.

Nope. I write fiction that isn’t highbrow, that sets out to do nothing more than satisfy a need to tell a good story well and entertain. Who, then, am I to be talking about baring a piece of my soul? Pretentious, moi?

I write a story. Publish it. Sounds simple; nothing so weighty as to merit mention of the soul.

But…

That story has been rattling around in my head for perhaps fifteen years or more. Until published, it’s a private, secret fantasy, known only to me. It’s driven by characters that materialise from my experiences and aspirations. Plot, dialogue, motivations, all come from my ever-ticking-over imagination, shaped by my emotions and ambitions and the hopes (sometimes already dashed; disappointments, then) I hold for the human race.

Imagination, experience, emotions… without getting all philisophical, isn’t this the stuff of which the soul is made?

It’s as nothing compared to a soldier marching into battle or an abused partner trying to survive another controlled day or a patient facing yet more nausea-inducing chemotherapy – I’m not trying to elevate this to a status it doesn’t deserve – but nevertheless, relatively speaking, writers who publish their works reveal fundamental bits of themselves that most others keep firmly hidden away.

So, yeah, when I send a story out into that wide, bad world, I’m exposing a piece of my soul for all to see. Every published writer, irrespective of the level of their intellectualism, from the highest-brow to the lowest, does the same.

Melodramatic? Maybe.

True nonetheless? I think so.