Marketing for Muppets – Part 3

[First posted 20th October 2017]

In the last instalment of Marketing for Muppets I wrote that Part 3 probably wouldn’t appear until the New Year. Hmm, so much for foresight. As you’ll see if you read to the end, this wasn’t intended to be Part 3 but sort of morphed into it when the subject of marketing insisted on inserting itself firmly into the narrative like a persistent salesman and wouldn’t be shifted. But on with the post…

In one of the online forums I frequent, a perennial question posed to the indie author community who gather there is, “What does success mean to you?” I don’t normally involve myself in the ensuing threads, but when I saw the question posed yet again it got me thinking.

The answer, of course, will vary from author to author, depending on the reasons why they write and the stage they have reached in their careers.

The person with a deeply personal story they need to tell, or someone approaching their twilight years wanting to share their life story with family and close friends, may regard completing the work as success; selling it to the wider reading public may hold no appeal to them.

Contrast the writer with perhaps a dozen or more titles to their name. Success to them may mean nothing less than maintaining a four-figure monthly income from sales of their work.

Then there are the writers who seek validation, for whom only a deal with a traditional publisher will do. There are others who are willing to self-publish or publish through the small press, but for whom reaching the number one spot in their genre is the Holy Grail.

Whatever floats your boat.

I suspect for most writers the meaning of success is a fluid concept. When I first bundled together ten short stories and let them loose on Amazon with only a placeholder cover, short-term success to me meant one person who didn’t know me buying the collection.

However, in the back of my mind, where it had been nestling since my late twenties, was the desire to make a living from writing fiction. No matter how much my short-term concepts of success have shifted like sandbanks over the ensuing six years, that overarching goal has remained as constant as granite.

“May we give you a hefty wad, enough that you’ll never need work again, for the rights to make movies of your books, Sam?” Of course you may, and thank you very much. But back in the real world I’ll be happy if I can make a steady income, enough to give up the day job altogether and spend the remainder of my working life writing fiction.

If you’re a writer struggling to make your way in today’s over-saturated market, it might be worth taking a moment to consider what success means to you. If your answer is a little vague, like mine, it might help to formulate shorter-term goals, ones that can be more easily quantified in terms of words written, or sales numbers, or new subscribers to your mailing list; whatever works for you. Doing so can inform marketing tactics, ones that might help you reach those smaller goals on your way to the larger one.

This didn’t start out as a post about marketing. Its original title was The Meaning of Success, until I got this far and realised that it’s difficult to discuss success without touching upon marketing since, after all, in most cases one is likely to be the precursor of the other.

As I might have mentioned previously, I’m not good at promoting my own work. Useless. A muppet. Yet, it seems impossible to escape the bloody subject. I guess we have to suck it up and get on with it. And this is an opportune moment to state the third proposition I believe to be true about marketing:

Proposition 3: When a writer defines success to include any element based upon level of sales, marketing is inexorably linked to that success.

To try to achieve my measure of long-term success, I’ve broken down my aims into smaller, achievable ones. For instance, publish more works. With a Christmas-themed collection of horror stories coming out today, and the final two novels in a trilogy on course to be finished in time for January publication, that’s going okay. But it’s only one of my short-term aims.

Another one, the most pressing it feels right now, is to build my mailing list. It’s all well and good publishing new works, but without a sizeable body of readers willing to be informed about them and to help make them visible, they will quickly sink to the murky depths, rarely to be seen again.

Despite my misgivings about giving away work in return for signing up to a mailing list (see Marketing for Muppets – Part 2), I’m going to give it a go. Wish me luck. I shall report back in a future instalment.

[Update July 2018: My aim to publish more works went south in March when I split from my small press publisher and found myself revising and republishing 8 novels and 3 short story collections, plus producing 6 paperbacks, then having to rebuild my website from scratch. Still, I’ve almost finished adding my old blog posts and should be back on track to resume my WIP shortly.]

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

The title comes from an REM song that was a minor hit in the UK in the early nineties. It’s a good song by an excellent band, but that’s by the by. It’s the phrase I want to talk about: the end of the world as we know it.

To me, it succinctly sums up the attraction of post-apocalyptic fiction to both readers and writers. The world hasn’t ended in the sense that it’s been blown to smithereens and Mars has become the third rock from the sun. The world is still here, but it’s a version that we don’t recognise.

Apocalyptic events come in all shapes and sizes: meteor and asteroid strikes; deadly pandemics; nuclear war; disastrous climate change; attack by extra-terrestrials; plagues of undead. What they have in common is the wiping out of a large chunk of the planet’s population, and a struggle by the survivors in a world where the previous rules no longer apply.

In the immediate aftermath there is no law and order, no society, no culture, no international boundaries. There are no checks and balances. What morality remains has to struggle to assert itself amidst anarchy. Humankind is reduced to its basest, most bestial form.

There’s the attraction for the writer. A blank page that can be filled however he (or she, but can we take ‘she’ as read?) chooses. The writer may open the story with the apocalyptic event itself. Or he may jump forward a hundred years, or a thousand, to whenever he wants, and leap right in at a point where new rules are already established, new orders have arisen, new currencies are being traded or fought over.

The writer can develop goals and conflicts that are unlikely to arise in the world as we know it. Maybe the acquisition of uncontaminated water will be the overwhelming aim of survivors in the new world; or arable land; or sanctuary from mutant enemies; or dry ground; or a cure for disease; or shelter from deadly solar rays. The possibilities are endless.

The reader will take delight in entering a world where all bets are off. He will relish trying to identify the new rules, if indeed there are yet any, and putting himself in the place of the protagonists. How would he, the reader, cope if thrust into such a world? Might there even be, whisper it quietly, something desirable about inhabiting a world where there are no conventions?

That was how I first became attracted to the genre. I was a young boy and watched the film The Omega Man on television one Saturday evening. I can still recall the thrill I felt at seeing Charlton Heston enter a department store and pick out any clothes that took his fancy without having to pay for them. I imagined being in his shoes, walking down a litter-strewn, deserted high street, calling into every toy, sweet and gun shop that I passed (they were always toy, sweet or gun shops—I was nine) and simply helping myself. I was the most dangerous sweet-sucking, gun-toting, toy-laden critter in town. Of course, I was the only sweet-sucking, etc. critter in town but didn’t let that get in the way of a good fantasy. My childish self conveniently ignored the downside to finding myself in such a scenario: the loneliness, the desolation, the abject despair.

Those aspects were brought home to a slightly older version of me with the BBC television series The Survivors. I only vaguely remember the original (it was remade a good few years ago), but recall it being grey, gritty and downright miserable. It nevertheless cemented my love of the apocalyptic story.

Around four or five years later, I read Stephen King’s The Stand. This still ranks as one of my favourite post-apocalyptic books (along with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road—more on them in a future post). I especially enjoyed watching the apocalyptic event unfold and seeing what happened in the immediate aftermath (elements, along with a deadly virus, that I use in my own apocalyptic novel The Cleansing). Having wiped out most of the population of the United States—we never see what is happening in the rest of the world—with a manmade superflu bug, Mr King could have taken the story in any one of a multitude of directions.

There is so much conflict inherent in an apocalyptic scenario that the writer doesn’t need to invent more. The mere struggle for survival is compelling in itself: the competition with other survivors for scarce resources, threats from predators old and new (animal and human), establishment of new bonds that will determine whether the human race can continue. But that’s the beauty of stories about the end of the world as we know it: almost any new element—spiritualism, the supernatural, mysticism, the extra-terrestrial, and so on—can be introduced to add even more spice to an already tasty dish.

Mr King could have shown the surviving humans in The Stand struggling to adapt to their new world without introducing any extra conflicts, and no doubt it would have been a cracking tale. As it was, he opted to have the survivors gravitate to one of two camps (figure-headed by the ancient and pious Mother Abigail, and the charismatic and deadly Randall Flagg) and constructed a ripping yarn about good against evil, while retaining all of the basic conflicts mentioned above.

There are many more books and films in the apocalyptic genre that I have enjoyed, as well as computer games like the Fallout series, so it was inevitable when I began writing fiction that sooner or later I would turn my hand to an end of world tale of my own. Like many writers, I write the sort of stories that I enjoy reading (and watching and playing).

Apocalyptic books, films, games, they all provide the reader, the viewer, the player, with the vicarious terror of experiencing a horrifying situation and wondering what he would do next. Run for the hills? Give up? Fight back? But in contrast to being actually thrust into such a scenario, the reader will derive great pleasure from the journey without suffering the accompanying deprivations and heartaches. He will feel relieved or even smug that he will never, hopefully, have to undergo such an experience in the real world.

And that brings me back to the title of this piece. It’s not quite correct or, at any rate, complete. The full title of the REM song is It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) . Now the title sums up the attraction of the apocalyptic genre more fully. It explains it all.

The writer will pen tales that involve the deaths of millions or billions of people; he will place the survivors in yet more jeopardy (as if the poor buggers haven’t already suffered enough); he may offer them the flimsiest hopes or the thinnest opportunities to escape ever more desperate situations; he may force them to champion the cause of mankind against overwhelming odds (give them a break, for goodness’ sake).

The reader will sit on the sidelines, watching the tale unfold with increasing incredulity or awe or horror. He’ll sympathise with the survivors; gasp as they face each new challenge; root them on when there’s nobody else on their side; laugh and cry with them.

But neither writer nor reader have to die with them. And maybe, only maybe, we end up appreciating the world we know, this world, just that little bit more. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as it sometimes seems. The apocalyptic tale shows us that it could be a whole lot worse. It might make us feel, even if only subconsciously, a little better about our world and ourselves.

And that can only be a good thing.

Marketing for Muppets – Part 2

[First posted 5th October 2017]

I posted Marketing for Muppets – Part 1 in July so thought it was about time for Part 2.

Quick recap: these posts are not, emphatically not, about me offering advice on how to market books. Why would I presume to offer anyone advice? I might have mentioned that I’m an absolute muppet when it comes to marketing. No, these posts are merely my observations, such as they are, on marketing and a chronicle of my attempts at becoming better at it. A little like a hen blogging about her efforts on learning to play the flute.

Since that first post, I have been on a two-week cruise around the Med, and very nice it was, too, thanks for asking, and posted six times here. You can see them by scrolling down but to save you the bother there were a couple about movie adaptations, one each on horror novels, science fiction novels and children’s books, and one about words that readers don’t know how to pronounce.

I said at the end of Part 1 that I’d report back on whether regular updating of my blog has any effect on sales. Well, nothing of note to report yet, but it’s still very early days to judge whether it’s an effective approach because, by its very nature of trying to slowly build an audience by providing (hopefully) interesting content, it’s a longer-term tactic. I shall keep at it and see what happens. If nothing else, I’m having a lot of fun writing the posts.

On, then, to other marketing tools writers can employ. More specifically, one tool in particular, regarded by many as the most important tool we have. High time for another principle:

Proposition 2: The received wisdom is that a mailing list is an indispensable marketing tool for authors.

When you buy advertising slots with marketing sites like BookBub, you are in effect paying to use their mailing list of thousands of readers to advertise your book. Not all those readers, even if they read in your genre, will necessarily be interested in your book. The idea of building your own list is that you have a way of reaching readers interested in your work without having to pay a premium or having to rely on third parties spreading the word about your latest release or promotion. In theory, it’s like having your own private BookBub without the expense.

I resisted setting up a mailing list for a long time, not because I didn’t think they are a good idea, but for a couple of other reasons. Firstly, I’m not a technophobe but find learning new applications vastly time consuming; I preferred to spend my limited spare time writing than sussing out Mailchimp and sorting out a PO box address. Secondly, with all the junk e-mail that keeps popping into everyone’s inboxes these days, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to receive e-mails from me. I wasn’t far wrong about that. Anyway, long story short, I eventually set up a mailing list in October 2016, with sign-up forms on my Facebook page and website. I included a link in my most recent release. We’re approaching the list’s first anniversary and so far I have fewer than twenty subscribers. (See? I told you I was absolutely pants at marketing.)

The thing with a mailing list is this: it’s all well and good having one, but how do you encourage readers to sign up for the bloody thing?

And isn’t that the whole marketing issue in a nutshell—it’s all well and good having published a book, but how do you encourage readers to read it? So, for me, creating a mailing list has merely created another layer of something to be mildly fretful and feel vaguely helpless about.

There are various methods for increasing the subscribers to your mailing list. These seem to be the main two:

—giving away free short stories, novellas or even novels in return for the donee subscribing to the list. Kudos to those who succeed with this method, but I have my doubts as to how effective it can be. Before you start thinking it, I’m not too much of a skinflint to give work away—I’ve given away thousands of copies of The Cleansing as a way of giving readers a cost-free entry into the Earth Haven trilogy. It’s that I wonder how likely it is that readers who sign up only to take advantage of a free offer are going to buy the next release. No doubt there are many readers on these lists who are genuinely into the authors’ works, but there must be many who aren’t. Still, perhaps it’s nevertheless worth going down this route to find readers who may become converts to your work.

—taking part in cross-promotions with other authors, which involve e-mailing readers on other authors’ lists. Again, good luck to those who find success with this method, but it’s not for me. The thought of sending promotional e-mails to readers who haven’t subscribed to my list makes me, like any form of cold-calling, shudder. Besides, I promise on my sign-up page never to share subscribers’ e-mail addresses with anyone. I also promise not to contact subscribers unless it’s to share news of a new release or promotion.

To date, I have sent one e-mail to my list. Just one. But, then, I’ve only had one release since October and no promotions of note. That will change soon when I’ve finished my current works-in-progress—the final part of a trilogy where only the first part has yet been published, and a quartet of dark Christmas stories. I intend to make available all new releases to subscribers at a discounted price (or, occasionally, as a gift) to express gratitude to them for their interest in my work and to reward them for their loyalty. In today’s world, the value of loyalty should never be underestimated.

But I urgently need to do something to build up my list. Despite my doubts, I have come to suspect that giving away the first instalment of the new trilogy in return for subscribing may be the way to go. I’m taking it out of Kindle Unlimited—its last day in KU is 5th November—to give me that option. If I decide to try that, I’ll report back in a later instalment.

Here endeth Part 2. Part 3 isn’t likely to be written until the New Year and I have no idea what it will be about—hopefully my successful efforts at building my mailing list and using it to effectively launch the forthcoming sequels—but I’m not holding my breath. And if that sounds negative, a little doomy and gloomy, it’s because that’s generally how I feel about my feeble promotional efforts. But that’s okay. I’m a determined bugger and if I never manage to make a full-time living from my writing, wholly or partly because of my woeful attempts at marketing, at least I’ll know I didn’t fail from lack of trying.

[Update July 2018: whether or not blogging regularly would be a good marketing tool became a moot point when my old website went kaput in February 2018. As for my mailing list, I have continued to try to grow it and I’ll report in a future post on how successful, or otherwise, my efforts have been.]

Reach for the Stars

It is so long since I read my first science fiction novel that I can no longer recall the title or author. It was something to do with space travel to a distant planet, possibly Mars, and that’s about all I can remember. However, I do recall the way the book made me feel: it fired my ten-year-old imagination, struck me with awe not so much by the suggestion of man reaching for the stars, but of the boundless possibilities for inventing stories about such exploits. Whatever that long-forgotten book was, it made me fully realise that even if there are limits on what we as a species can achieve, there is no limit on what we can imagine and convey through fiction. I’d like to say this was the moment of epiphany, when I realised that I had to become a writer as nothing else would ever feel as fulfilling, but I’d be lying; that wouldn’t come until years later.

Here’s a mention of some of my favourite science fiction novels; at least, of the ones I can remember.

There’s a crossover between science fiction and fantasy—sometimes the line between them is a blurred one indeed—but I’m confining myself to stories where the fantastical element is based on some form, no matter how far-fetched, of technology, as opposed to magic, or mythical creatures like elves and centaurs, or imaginary worlds reached through magical portals. Of course, aliens and imaginary worlds reached through faster-than-light space travel qualify, which just goes to show how artificial these distinctions can be.

Oh: as usual this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list— there are too many books I’ve read, let alone the thousands I haven’t, to even attempt such an ambitious undertaking. And these are my views, based on my tastes, with which you are free to agree or disagree as you wish. Just don’t take it personally if I happen to like a book you hated, or vice versa.

Oh, part 2: I’m excluding apocalyptic and dystopian novels because they’ll get their own piece at a later date, along with fantasy and a few other genres.

Oh, part 3: I don’t want to say too much about any of the books I mention in case I inadvertently spoil it for those who haven’t yet, but intend to, read them. So, of necessity I talk only superficially about the works.

To the first book, then, a perfect illustration of the marriage between science fiction and fantasy: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. How can this be science fiction, do I hear you ask? It’s about gods of eastern mythology, like Buddha, Vishnu and Krishna. And so it is, yet their powers (or ‘Attributes’) in Zelazny’s wonderful imaginings are technology based. I read this recently and wondered why I hadn’t read it years earlier. It’s the sort of book that’s so breathtakingly good, most writers will read it in awe and wish they’d written it.


Lord Of Light

Despite some rather antiquated (that’s putting it mildly) outlooks on women and their place in society, I’ve enjoyed most of the Robert Heinlein books I’ve read. (There’s a notable exception: Farnham’s Freehold; as well as his usual misogynistic touches, there are some aspects about race that make uncomfortable reading to a contemporary audience.) Here are some of the better ones: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Door into Summer, Tunnel in the Sky.


Stranger in a Strange Land

In a previous post, I mentioned Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, probably my favourite book of his I’ve read, but another I enjoyed was The Man in the High Castle. It’s a dystopian tale presenting an alternative reality in which Germany and Japan have won the Second World War, and are competing as the world’s superpowers. I didn’t find it the easiest book to get into, but am glad that I persevered.

I haven’t read a great deal by Arthur C. Clarke (too many books, blah blah blah), but one I thoroughly enjoyed is Childhood’s End. It slightly depressed me, with its gloomy outlook for the future of the human race (I don’t always like to be reminded of man’s fallibility when reading for pleasure), but is a greatly entertaining read that also makes you ponder, and despair, a little.


Childhood’s End

Apologies to any hard science fiction fans looking in, but that branch of the genre doesn’t overly interest me. (‘Yeah, anyone who’s read your books can tell that, you techno-doofus,’ I hear someone say.) Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed works of hard science fiction, but pages of detailed exposition on how a plasma blaster or anti-gravitational device works tend to make my eyes glaze over. I’m less put off by detailed world building, however, politics and all. I’m thinking of two tremendous series I’ve dipped in and out of over the years: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Iain M. Bank’s Culture series. If you’re a fan of science fiction which involves power-struggles and cultural clashes and political machinations on an intergalactic scale yet have never read either series, you’re in for a treat. (I suppose I could include the Dune series, but didn’t enjoy that as much after the first book.)


Foundation

The next book was written by an author who some readers boycott due to his controversial views. This isn’t the place to go into those views; suffice to say I strongly disagree with them, too, but that didn’t stop me greatly enjoying his novel Ender’s Game. The whole book was good, but the ending, which I completely didn’t see coming, was a real Wow! moment.

I couldn’t write a piece about science fiction without mentioning The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It became a ‘trilogy’ of five books, but it’s the first one that I am fondest of and re-read from time to time. It’s wacky, irreverent and pure genius.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Finally, a mention of Ursula K. Le Guin, who died earlier this year. I have thoroughly enjoyed those of her works I’ve so far read. I’ll talk a little about her fantasy works in the forthcoming fantasy post, but to end I’ll mention one of her science fiction novels I enjoyed: The Lathe of Heaven. Although I felt the story ran a little out of fuel during the second half, it’s well worth a read.


The Lathe Of Heaven

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.)