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.

When I Was Three, I Ate Mud

There’s a meme doing the rounds on social media that goes something like this: the average three-year-old can switch on an i-pad and stream videos; when I was three, I ate mud.

Makes me chuckle every time. Not that I can recall eating mud as a toddler, but I might have. I can certainly recall, at about that age, munching on dog biscuits. Never did me any harm. Rowf-rowf. Whatever ways I found to entertain myself when three, I was soon to discover a new form of delight that has never left me since. I refer not to eating chocolate, but to reading.

There are so many books I loved as a child, they deserve a post of their own. These are the books I grew up reading. There were plenty more, but these are the ones I still recall clearly all these years later and which must, therefore, have made a profound impression on me back then.

Let’s begin, as it began then, with Enid. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Mass Movement magazine, which I called Enid Bloody Blyton*. In the article I called her books for younger children ‘insufferably quaint’ and wondered what she had been stirring into her tea while she wrote them. Although it might sound like I was having a dig at her, in fact it was quite the opposite—I felt then as I do now: I owe her a great deal of gratitude for opening my eyes to the unboundless possibilities of the imagination and to the delights that can be found within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me and is as strong now as it was forty-five and more years ago.

As soon as I learned to read—I’m guessing at the age of four or five—I began to devour her books. The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and Adventures of the Wishing Chair. Read them over and over until they began to fall apart. Bought new copies for my first-born and read them to her.


The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair (Wishing Chair 1)

I graduated to her books for older children. She wrote tons of books aimed at children between the ages of six and ten, but there were two particular series that I adored: The Famous Five books and the Adventure stories.

Five on a Treasure Island is the first of twenty-one books recounting the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. In case you didn’t know, George was a tom-boy whose full name was Georgina and Timmy was her dog. (One of the books involved George being captured by baddies who made her write a note to the others whom they also wanted to capture. George alerted them to their peril by signing the note ‘Georgina’, something she’d ordinarily never do. That so struck the six-year-old me as a clever ruse, I remember it still.) At the start of each school holidays I’d nag my parents to take me to W.H. Smith, where I would spend my pocket money on the next book in the series. Some of those books cost as little as £0.30. Inflation, inflation. I’d take the book home and devour it. I collected the entire series and, again, read them time after time.


Five On A Treasure Island: Book 1 (Famous Five)

The Island of Adventure is the first of eight books in my other favourite Blyton series. (Yes, I can have two favourites—it’s my website.) These stories were about four children—Jack, Lucy-Ann, Philip and Dinah, the obligatory pet sidekick coming in the form of Jack’s parrot, Kiki. I had all eight books and, you’ve guessed it, read each of them umpteen times.


The Island of Adventure (The Adventure Series)

Looking back with the cynicism of adulthood, the plots of these books were outlandish, involving unlikely spy rings and treasure maps and, memorably, anti-gravitational wings being secretly manufactured in the depths of a hollow Welsh mountain—you know, I’ve lived in Wales for most of my life and haven’t once heard anyone add the words ‘look you’ to the end of a sentence like the Welsh characters did in The Mountain of Adventure. But never mind the ludicrousness of the storylines or the stereotypical supporting characters, I was seven and lapped it all up.

Not, I should add, that I was a boy for spending all my time indoors reading. I played outside with my friends at every opportunity. We played football, went hunting for slow-worms, scrumped apples, built dams. But this is the UK; we can have weeks of continuous rain, even in summer, so there were ample opportunities for reading. And even during sunny weather, there was always bed time. I was the sort of kid who was more than happy to go to bed half an hour earlier in order to read.

That’s enough about Enid. There are too many others to mention. Books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, wonderful stories about car-driving toads and talking rabbits. The works of Roald Dahl—amongst my favourites were Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The heartwrenching time-travel tale Tom’s Midnight Garden and a story about two boys, a yacht and the rescue of stranded soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, The Dolphin Crossing.


Watership Down (A Puffin Book)

I enjoyed the Twain adventures starring the eponymous heroes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge about a boy’s adventures in preparatory school in the 1950s and 60s. I also dipped into the Just William books, but didn’t take to them as well. Then there were The Three Investigators – The Secret of Terror Castle gave me sleepless nights.


The Secret of Terror Castle (Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators)

Run For Your Life by David Line is about an unlikely friendship between two boys. When they witness a murder, they are forced to flee across the wintry Norfolk countryside with the murderers hard at their heels. No matter how many times I read it—needless to say, re-readings occurred frequently—the tale never failed to grip. I checked on Amazon and it appears possible to pick up second-hand copies. Whilst there, I checked out the reviews: the reviewers mostly seem to be of the same mind as me—a fantastic read for boys of around the age of ten. I wish I knew what has happened to my well-thumbed copy because writing this is making me want to read it again. Nothing like a bit of nostalgia.

When I was nine, one afternoon in school our teacher gathered the class around, took out a book and began to read it to us. It was about four children who are sent away to the countryside as evacuees in World War II to stay with an eccentric uncle in a rambling old mansion. I was instantly captivated. The book was, of course, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and so began my lifelong love affair with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t wait for the teacher to finish the story in class; I had to get my hands on my own copy. When I discovered there were another six books in the series, I probably went into raptures. I’ll never forget the teacher who introduced me to them: thank you, Mrs Davies.


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (The Chronicles of Narnia)

Quick aside: I often stayed with my grandparents as a boy. Their spare room contained an old wooden wardrobe. Yep, I used to step into it, remembering to leave the door ajar behind me since sensible children never shut themselves inside wardrobes. (Crikey, it must be fifteen or more years since I last read The Lion… to my younger daughter, yet that line popped into my head as though I’d read it yesterday.) I’d push through the clothes hanging there—never fur coats; my grandparents weren’t rich—and tap forlornly at the wooden back, hoping it would give way beneath my fingers and become a chilly passageway leading to fir trees and snow and fauns and white witches who handed out Turkish Delight. It happened every time in my imagination.

When I was three, I ate mud. Maybe, but when I was five and upwards, I devoured books. I only hope that despite all the modern distractions that I didn’t have, there are children today deriving as much joy from books as I did as a child.

* For anyone who’s interested, that article is here. Be warned: there’s a disconcertingly large headshot of me accompanying it. Incidentally, Larry Niven of Lucifer’s Hammer and Ringworld fame was also featured in that edition, which I think is kind of cool.

(The covers are clickable links to the books on Amazon. The text links are for the benefit of anyone reading on a mobile device.)

 

 

 

Marketing for Muppets – Part 1

[First posted 28th July 2017]

Before we go any further, I’d better explain the title. In the UK we use ‘muppet’ to describe someone who’s a little clueless about something. Here, I’m using it to describe someone who’s a little clueless about marketing, and that someone is me. (‘Numpty’ would do as well but, you know, alliteration.)

If you also consider yourself to be a little clueless about marketing, then well met, fellow muppet. Should, on the other hand, you feel you’re pretty clued in to marketing in all its multifarious forms, then you may quietly mock me. I won’t take offence.

As for ‘Part 1’, this leaves the door wide open for a sequel. It’s the blog equivalent of a cliffhanger, without the cliff or, er, the hanger, but you get the drift. I intend setting out what I know about marketing—shouldn’t take long—and following up later, or perhaps a few laters, with stuff I learn as I progress.

I’ve been an indie author—both self- and small press-published—for nearly five years. You’d think that by now I’d have developed at least some basic skills in marketing. You’d think. One of my excuses (yeah, I have more than one), and one that will be familiar to many, is that I’ve always had to fit writing around working a regular, full-time job. What with family commitments and the usual stuff life throws at us, I’ve never made time to try to get to grips with marketing, always preferring to make time for writing first.

But that’s about to change. As of last week I cut my hours in my day job in half, mainly to make more time to concentrate on writing but also to eliminate that ‘no time to learn’ excuse. Whilst most of my freed-up time will be spent writing, an hour or so each free afternoon will now be devoted to learning how to promote my books. I’m going to post about my experiences and what I find works for me as regularly as I can. And I have much to learn—this could turn into the blog equivalent of the Friday the Thirteenth movies.

Another thing I need to mention: now that I’ve cut my regular working hours, my income has also been halved. (I did suggest they carry on paying my full salary if I promised to work twice as hard when in the office, but they didn’t like the idea.) Money will therefore be tight and I am going to have to explore free or almost-free marketing techniques. No BookBub ads for me—no change there, then, but I won’t be applying any more.

I thought that as I go along, I’d state in bold any principles or theories that seem especially true based on my own observations and experience. This is an opportune time to mention the first:

Proposition 1: What works well for one author, won’t necessarily work well for another.

In case I haven’t already mentioned it, I’m rubbish at marketing. Utter pants. A complete muppet. I intend to change that, but I know that not every marketing method will suit the sort of person I am, the type of fiction I write or the time I have available to spend on promoting.

Some writers spend a lot of time engaging with readers and other writers on social media—these are the writing superheroes who can bend time to their will, making it stretch to enable them to write in addition to spending all that time on Goodreads or podcasting, or whatever; either that or they never sleep. Some do nothing but write, aiming to publish a book every month or so, coupled with a spurt of highly-targeted, paid adverts at launch time—these, too, possess superhuman powers: the ability to produce a 60,000-word novel every month. Most others, like me, fall somewhere along the broad spectrum in between.

I think that before we decide what marketing tactics might work for us, we need to decide what fits in with our lifestyles and character. For instance, being heavily active on social media neither appeals to me nor do I believe I’d be very good at it. I’m simply not someone who enjoys chatting at length to strangers; I firmly believe my time would be more profitably spent writing than attempting to portray myself as someone I’m not.

What, then, might work for me? Well, posting regularly on my website (and on my Goodreads blog) is something I’ve only done sporadically, but is something I enjoy and would like to do more regularly. So, first up, this is what I’m going to do: post once a week a piece that’s, broadly-speaking at least, writing-related, although I won’t be able to begin properly until late August since we’re escaping another typical British summer (a scorching week in June, when the unaccustomed heat makes us wilt like unwatered house plants, followed by a couple of months of grey skies and rain so heavy it makes your head throb) for the sunshine of the Med.

I don’t expect results, in as much as I expect them at all, in weeks. This seems to me a longer-term tactic but I will report back on the effect, if any, this has on my sales. At least one sequel, then. Oh, and of course it’s all well and good writing regular blog posts; it’s another thing altogether to get people to read them. And there are other mysteries to delve into, such as how to organically build a mailing list (yep, I have one; nope, it doesn’t have many subscribers), how to effectively use social media if we’re on the introverted side of sociable, and (this, for me, is a biggie and one of my other excuses for being rubbish at marketing) how to make potential readers aware of our books without making them, or us, feel that we’re shoving them into their faces.

Friday the Thirteenth meets Rocky it could be.

That Elusive Title

[First posted 23rd June 2017]

While my first novel, The Village of Lost Souls, accumulated a steady supply of rejection slips from publishers and London agents, I began writing the second. This was during 1999, when the doom merchants had us all worrying about the so-called Millennium Bug which would, we were told, result in stock market crashes, drought, famine and aeroplanes falling from the sky. In short, Armageddon.

It was also a time when I was going through a mid-life crisis. Many of us have been there. That yearning for something better. That unscratchable itch saying there has to be more to life, that it has to be about something other than slogging away at a job you detest. Those longings heavily influenced the direction the second novel would take.

I finished the first draft the following year, in the new millennium, long after it was clear none of those apocalyptic events would materialise. At least, none as a result of computing peculiarities.

So the world as we know it didn’t end and I had a second novel, but no title. Sometimes the title of a story is obvious from the outset, before a word is written. More often it suggests itself as the work progresses. In this case I drew a blank until my wife suggested, based on some references in the story to Laurel and Hardy, calling it Another Fine Mess. Not perfect, but I had nothing better and it was under this title that the novel accumulated its own pile of rejections.

Fast forward seventeen years. I’d decided to self-publish the novel, having ummed and ahhed whether I should since it’s a lot different to my other published works, not involving the supernatural or the science-fictional or the fantastic. Having made the decision to take the plunge and get it out there, thoughts turned to the title and cover.

Another Fine Mess suggests a cover with a Laurel and Hardy theme – perhaps two bowler hats at a cocky angle. I spent hours looking, but could find no premade covers remotely suitable and I lack the budget to have one tailor-made. In any event, such a cover would be suggestive of a novel about Laurel and Hardy, which mine isn’t. Then I double-checked the famous line, only to find that it’s often quoted incorrectly as ‘another fine mess’, when in fact they said ‘another nice mess’ in their films. Not that this made much difference. Most readers would recognise either version of the quote, but the novel still wasn’t about Laurel and Hardy.

And something else about it bothered me: the word ‘another’ suggests that this is a sequel, that there has been a previous mess. There hasn’t, at least of the prequel sort.

Clearly a new title was necessary. I’d struggled to come up with one seventeen years previously so doubted anything would be different now. To take my mind off it, I wrote the blurb. And there it was – the title staring me right in the face.

The relevant phrase in the blurb was, “That indefinable, elusive something.” Too much of a mouthful for a snappy title, but drop one word and That Elusive Something was born. Still not the snappiest, perhaps, but it sums up what the novel is essentially about – one man’s yearning to escape the rat race.

It also made the hunt for a suitable cover much easier. No longer tied to a Laurel and Hardy motif, the choice of good premade covers grew dramatically. Bewilderingly, even. I’m happy with the one I eventually settled on – it would not be particularly apt for a book called Another Fine Mess, but is a good fit for That Elusive Something, and the general tone and mood of the story.

Whether readers will agree, I guess I’ll find out soon enough. It’s that anxious time writers experience when they send their babies out into the world hoping that everyone will coo over them, while steeling themselves to having them roundly ridiculed or, worse, having them subjected to displays of supreme indifference. I find the best way to deal with this uncertainty is to shrug, mutter ‘what will be, will be’ under my breath, and crack on with the next novel.

That Elusive Something becomes available in e-book format on Friday 23rd June.

[Update, July 2018: it’s also now available in paperback – see links on the book’s page]