Questions, Questions

This was an interview I completed in May 2018. I sent it off and didn’t hear another thing about it. I don’t know whether it was ever featured, but I’m guessing not.

As usual with reproduced interviews, I’ve changed the wording of the questions, although they were already quite generic, to avoid potential copyright issues. My answers I haven’t touched.
 
 

 

1 Give the elevator pitch for your most recent book.

My most recent release is called The Lord of the Dance, the final book in The Elevator trilogy. (Well, you asked for an elevator pitch…) It’s a dark fantasy tale that begins when four people step into an elevator, expecting to be deposited at their dreary workplaces. When the door opens, it isn’t a drab office that greets them.

The first book, which was intended as a standalone short novel, shows the unwilling companions whisked to various strange worlds—there are seven floors, including the basement—often inhabited by aggressive creatures. There are science fiction aspects, with elements of time travel and the pivotal appearance of an AI machine. Oh, and there’s a dragon.

The first book left me wanting to know what became of one of the characters (explored in the second book, Jack’s Tale) and to know more about the main antagonist (the eponymous title character of the third book). Thus, it became a trilogy.

2 What made you want to write this tale?

A couple of years ago in my regular job, we had to decamp to an upper level while our groundfloor office was refurbished. Most days, I climbed the six flights of stairs to the temporary office, but now and again I couldn’t be bothered and took the lift—it’s what we call an elevator in the U.K.

As I would wait for the lift door to open on my floor—there was always a pregnant pause while it made up its mind to lurch open—a question kept asking itself: what if, when the door opens, it’s to another world in another time?

When I started considering the answer to that question even when not riding the lift, I knew it was time to write the story.

3 Which part of the story is your favourite?

I was going to say the first time the door to the elevator opens and the occupants gaze out onto a new world, because that is the moment that kept nagging at me every time I rode that lift up to my temporary office. But there’s another moment that occurs at the very end of the second book, Jack’s Tale, that I didn’t see coming until the last minute and which ties the second book to the first, whilst setting up the third, in a manner that is wholly unexpected and satisfying to me. I only hope that readers feel the same way.

4 Has a character ever turned out to play a far more significant role in your story than you intended?

My apocalyptic science fiction trilogy, Earth Haven, is about the Earth being cleansed of humankind to pave the way for an alien species to make it their home. The character in question is a sixteen-year-old girl by the name of Bri (like the cheese but without the e), who doesn’t even appear in the first novel, The Cleansing.

I introduced her in the second novel, The Beacon, initially as little more than a companion to another new character, a ten-year-old boy called Will. However, Bri had suffered a head trauma, which resulted in her developing certain abilities. Those abilities, together with her general no-nonsense attitude to life and her determination to protect Will, made me realise that she wasn’t going to let me keep her in a minor supporting role.

Difficult to say too much without spoilers—suffice to say, her significance to the story grew out of all proportion to what I’d originally thought when introducing her, to the extent that she plays a key role in the final novel, The Reckoning.

5 What books did you fall in love with as a child?

I wrote an article for a magazine about major influences in my life, which I called ‘Enid Bloody Blyton’. I described her books for younger children as ‘insufferably quaint’, which probably makes it 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.

As soon as I learned to read, I began to devour her books: The Enchanted Wood, The Magic 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.

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.

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.

That’s enough about Enid. There are too many others to mention. Books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down. The works of Roald Dahl and Mark Twain. The gripping Run For Your Life by David Line.

One afternoon in school, when I was nine, our teacher took out a book and began to read it to the class. 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 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 moved on to Tolkien and Stephen King and Heinlein and many, many others, but those are the books that most stick in my mind from early childhood.

6 What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a novel set in 1950, which hasn’t yet decided if it’s going to be science fiction or horror. It will probably turn out to be a fusion of the two. It’s going to have a pulp, B-movie feel to it; don’t ask me why—it simply feels right for the story.

I also have the seeds of a time travel series germinating, and a fantasy novel clamouring to be written, so that’s the next year or so taken care of. *

7 What are you currently reading? And which book is the best you’ve read in the past year?

I’m currently reading Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, who’s a new author to me. It’s a tale about Earth becoming uninhabitable after the moon is destroyed. I’m around thirty per cent in and a little ambivalent about it so far.**

The best book I’ve read in the past year? That’s a tricky one, but I’m going to plump for The Last Days of Jack Sparks by Jason Arnopp. It caused me a few nights’ disturbed sleep, the sign of a good horror story.
 

* the novel set in 1950 turned out to be a novella and retained its pulpy, B-movie feel, which I was quite pleased with. I bundled it together with two other dark novellas and published the collection as Moths.
I am in the process of writing the fantasy novel—around 50,000 words in, aiming for 180,000 in total.
What I didn’t know when I answered these questions was that I would soon be embarking on producing my own audiobooks, a massively time-consuming task, and so my flippant remark about ‘the next year or so’ being taken care of proved to be an understatement of epic proportions.

** I ended up enjoying Seveneves. Though I felt it went on a little too long at the end, that’s a minor gripe and it’s a good read if you’re a fan of science fiction.

Links to works and articles referred to:

The Elevator trilogy
Earth Haven trilogy
Moths
Enid Bloody Blyton
When I Was Three I Ate Mud  (favourite childhood books)

Favourite films

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough blathering. On with the list.

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

2. The Darjeeling Limited [2007]

3. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969]

4. Random Harvest [1942]

5. The Longest Day [1962]

6. Inception [2010]

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


The Lord of the Rings

8. Shutter Island [2010]

9. Schindler’s List [1993]

10. Shrek [2001]

11. Kill Bill Vol I [2003]

12. Flight of the Navigator [1986]

13. The Wizard of Oz [1939]


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

14. The Life of Brian [1979]

15. Blair Witch Project [1999]

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

16. Gladiator [2000]

17. The Matrix [1999]

18. Memento [2000]

19. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood [2019]

Replacing Kill Bill Vol I as my favourite Tarantino film.

20. The Usual Suspects [1995]

21. Airplane [1980]

22. Se7en [1995]

23. The Godfather [1972]

Part II could as easily have been included.

24. The Ring [2002]

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

25. Stand By Me [1986]


Different Seasons

26. All the President’s Men [1976]

27. Three Days of the Condor [1975]

28. Cool Hand Luke [1967]

29. Twelve Angry Men [1957]

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

31. Blade Runner [1982]


Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

32. Interstellar [2014]

33. Fight Club [1999]

34. Guardians of the Galaxy [2014]

35. Office Space [1999]

36. The Prestige [2006]

37. Little Miss Sunshine [2006]

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


One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

39. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [2004]

40. The Princess Bride [1987]

41. It’s a Wonderful Life [1946]

42. The Truman Show [1998]

43. My Neighbour Totoro [1988]

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

44. The Exorcist [1973]


The Exorcist

45. Raiders of the Lost Ark [1981]

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

46. The Great Escape [1963]

47. The Wicker Man [1973]

Britt Ekland… sigh

48. Don’t Look Now [1973]

49. Casino Royale [2006]

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


Casino Royale

50. Sideways [2004]

 

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

Favourite Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough blathering. On with the list.

1. Imajica – Clive Barker


Imajica

2. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown


The Da Vinci Code

3. The Road – Cormack McCarthy


The Road

4. The Day of the Jackal* – Frederick Forsyth


The Day of the Jackal

5. IT – Stephen King


IT

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


The Lord of the Rings

7. Shadowland – Peter Straub


Shadowland

8. Rape of the Fair Country – Alexander Cordell


Rape of the Fair Country

9. Men at Arms* – Terry Pratchett


Men At Arms

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


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

11. Salem’s Lot – Stephen King


Salem’s Lot

12. Dracula – Bram Stoker


Dracula

13. Run For Your Life – David Line


Run For Your Life

14. The Fog – James Herbert


The Fog

15. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway


The Old Man and the Sea

16. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card


Ender’s Game

17. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

18. The Valley of Adventure* – Enid Blyton


The Valley of Adventure

19. Dark Matter – Michelle Paver


Dark Matter

20. Red Dragon – Thomas Harris


Red Dragon

21. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson


I Am Legend

22. Five on a Treasure Island* – Enid Blyton


Five on a Treasure Island

23. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

24. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut


Cat’s Cradle

25. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte


Wuthering Heights

26. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantell


Wolf Hall

27. Riddley Walker – Russell Holban


Riddley Walker

28. Life of Pi – Yann Martell


Life Of Pi

29. The Stand – Stephen King


The Stand

30. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak


The Book Thief

31. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger


The Time Traveler’s Wife

32. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller


Catch-22

33. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd* – Agatha Christie


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

34. 1984 – George Orwell


1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four

35. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood


Oryx And Crake

36. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury


Something Wicked This Way Comes

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


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

38. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline


Ready Player One

39. Watership Down – Richard Adams


Watership Down

40. Legend* – David Gemmell


Legend

41. World War Z – Max Brookes


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

42. The Gone-Away World – Nick Harkaway


The Gone-Away World

43. The Last Days of Jack Sparks – Jason Arnopp


The Last Days of Jack Sparks

44. The Eyre Affair* – Jasper Fforde


The Eyre Affair

45. The Talisman – Stephen King & Peter Straub


The Talisman

46. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury


Fahrenheit 451

47. The Long Walk – Richard Bachman


The Long Walk

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


The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

49. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny


Lord Of Light

50. Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce


Tom’s Midnight Garden

 

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

Coming soon: Favourite Films.

 

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

More On Writing Apocalyptic Tales

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

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

Thank you. I enjoyed writing it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your favourite read of 2013?

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

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

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

Weird Words 6

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

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

On with this week’s words…

innovative

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

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

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

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

petrichor

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

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

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

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

skedaddle

Thanks to fellow writer Mike Van Horn for this suggestion.

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

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

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

 

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

Reviewing: An Unknown Writer’s Perspective

[Browsing through the murky depths of my hard drive the other day, I came across a handful of articles and interviews—some from quite a few years back—most of which were published on blogs or websites of fellow writers. So that I have everything I’ve had published collected in one place, I’ll reproduce them on my blog from time to time, with a brief note of when they were written and, where I can remember, why. There is often overlap between interviews and articles, and so inevitably the later pieces will repeat, sometimes verbatim, some of the earlier material.

Let’s kick off with this article, written in 2002 and first published in the long-defunct Cambrensis magazine*. To the fifty-six-year-old me, this piece displays a fairly high level of naivety on the part of thirty-eight-year-old me—it is evident that the possibility of a self-publishing revolution, which was around five years away when I wrote this, was not on my radar. Hardly surprising, given that I didn’t notice the revolution until around five years after it had started.

On with the article…]

 

How should an unknown writer approach the preparation of a review of another writer’s work? With extreme caution, I would suggest.

To state the obvious, though it’s surprising how often it seems to be overlooked, a review is a showcase of your own writing talent. Don’t make it dull and uninspiring, even if the book you’re reviewing is. Use it to demonstrate that you, too, are a writer, but without losing sight of the work under consideration. It’s a question of balance: providing a fair appraisal of the book, while revealing a glimpse of your own writing ability.

Books are like any other entertainment medium or artform – films, music, comics, photographs, paintings, theatre, etc. Beauty is very much in the eye (or ear) of the beholder. Take the film The Blair Witch Project, a perfect example. People who have seen it seem to fall within two distinct camps: those who love it and those who loathe it. I come within the former category. I thought the film was brilliantly conceived and executed, one of the scariest films made, yet without showing a single supernatural image or gory scene. That’s probably why many people felt it a waste of time.

The point, of course, is that art is completely subjective. This can best be expressed in relation to books by mutilating a well-known proverb: one man’s ripping yarn is another man’s sleep-inducer. And that’s a sentiment that we should always keep in mind when reviewing another’s work.

The best sort of reviewer is he (or she) who tells us enough about a book to give us a flavour – no more – of its plot and characters, tells us why he likes or dislikes it, then, regardless of personal taste, encourages us to go and read it. Such a reviewer appreciates that simply because he hated a book it doesn’t mean that we will, and recognises that his role is not to read a book in our place, but to draw our attention to it so that we may read it and judge for ourselves.

That, I believe, is the ideal we should all, as writers, particularly of the unknown variety, aim for when reviewing. The key word is objectivity. Let’s not dismiss other people’s work out of hand. We know, or can give a shrewd estimate of, the time and effort that goes into writing a book. Who are we to be contemptuous of the result of those labours? Moreover, do we want to run the risk of the first reviewer of our debut novel or collection being the same author whose work we so callously dismissed? Nor should we talk up good writing so much that it can never meet a reader’s inflated expectations. Remember: we have all had work that we feel is good summarily rejected, showing that we are not the best judges of our own work. Why should we be of others’?

And there’s a sound practical reason why a reviewer of, say, a novel, who is himself an aspiring novelist, should encourage people to read the book for themselves, even if he considers it the worst piece of writing he’s ever encountered. The more books people buy, the more money publishers make and the more should be available to filter downwards, making the publishers more willing to take risks on unknown writers. That’s you and me.

But wait, you’re saying. I have to review a novel that’s badly written, has a hackneyed plot, stereotypical characters and clichéd conflicts. It has no redeeming features and I can’t conceive of it being anyone’s ripping yarn. How can I encourage anybody to read such drivel without being completely dishonest?

Well, try to remember that somebody thought the book had something going for it – they’ve published it, haven’t they? Assuming the author isn’t the daughter of the publisher’s managing director, the book must have some good points. Take another look. Then another. If you still can’t find anything positive to say, then I suppose you’ll have to let rip.

Just don’t forget that in doing so you may be harming more than the reviewed author’s prospects.

 

*if you were a writer of short fiction or book reviews in South Wales at the turn of the Millennium, you will almost certainly have heard of Cambrensis

Weird Words 5

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

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

On with this week’s words…

Raccoon

Thanks to Vijaya for suggesting this word—it’s one of her favourites.

Raccoon… hmm, makes me think of Guardians of the Galaxy and, unlike Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, a non-irritating CGI anthropormorphic animal named Rocket.

For anyone who doesn’t know, a raccoon is a small nocturnal carnivore native to North America. According to Merriam-Webster, the word derives from the native American language Virginia Algonquian, also known as Powhatan. According to Wikipedia, that language became extinct around the 1790s when its speakers were forced to switch to English.

That makes me feel sad.

Noisome

Meaning highly obnoxious or objectionable; often used to describe a disgusting smell.

It’s one of those words ripe for being misused by the careless writer who chucks it into a sentence without double-checking its meaning.

The noisome explosions surrounded me while I cowered in the foxhole.

Nope. Unless, perhaps, you’re describing the rapid expulsion of air from someone’s backside, or a hand grenade lobbed into a cesspit, explosions are rarely likely to be noisome.

Kerfuffle

Another of those words I love because they sound so much like their meaning. Does a disturbance or commotion sound like a kerfuffle to you? Of course it does.

It apparently comes from a combination of ancient Scots and Gaelic. Probably. It typically refers to a commotion caused by an argument, though can apply to most disturbances.

Since I’m claiming it to be one of my favourite words, I checked to see whether I’d used it in any of my published fiction. Lo and behold, it appears in my first novel, The Village of Lost Souls.

Although the rear wall blocked out the Dead Lights at ground level, they were bright enough to light up the garden like a flare and I was vaguely aware of a kerfuffle coming from the disturbed animals and poultry as I sprinted past them.

See—told you I loved it.

 

That’s all for Part 5. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

In Praise of Paper

A light-hearted post today—in these days of gloom and uncertainty, I’m increasingly drawn to writing blog posts tending towards frothiness. Cappuccino rather than espresso.

Let me begin by saying that this isn’t about bashing e-readers. Indeed, I have an e-reader. It’s a Kindle Paperwhite and I love it to bits. It holds umpteen books, it’s lightweight and easy to hold when I’m horizontal, and, best of all, it is backlit so I can read in the early hours without disturbing the other half.

So what is this post about? Well, a little while ago I was buying something on Amazon for £16. Postage and packing would cost £4-odd, but I could get free p & p if I bought something else to bring the total past £20. It was a bit of a no-brainer to look for something around the £4 mark and, in effect, get the second item free.

If you, too, are an avid reader, you’ll know to which department I headed in search of a £4 item. I found something straight away—a small Penguin paperback of essays by George Orwell.

Here’s a pic of the book next to my Kindle. And, yes, that’s one of my books on the e-reader screen. Why miss an opportunity for a little self-plugging, eh? Goodness knows, I’m rubbish at doing that most of the time.

The caption sums up my feelings towards e-books and their more traditional counterparts. Some people say they will never use an e-reader; others that they will only use an e-reader and never return to paper books. Me, I enjoy both. Much as I love my Kindle, it will never completely replace traditional books for me.

I tend to alternate between reading a book on my Kindle and reading a paperback, but of late I’ve been reading more of the former. No particular reason other than the books I’ve been wanting to read next happen to be on my Kindle.

So when the Orwell book arrived from Amazon, it had been a few weeks since I’d last handled a paperback. And a great deal longer since I’d held a brand new one.

I imagine most book lovers will recognise how I react to holding a new book for the first time:

– gaze at it for long moments, slowly absorbing the cover design

– run my fingers over the cover; if, as is the case with the Orwell book, the cover is embossed, my fingers will linger as I relish the ridges and furrows, silky to the touch

– turn the book over and absorb the back cover and description

– (this, and the next, are the ones that people who have little time for books don’t get) raise the book to my nose and inhale deeply

–  riffle the pages, stop at random and thrust my nose between the pages to inhale once more

There is nothing quite like the pleasure to be derived from holding a brand new book. (Indeed, from holding old, well-read books, too, though the sensations involved there are more to do with an appreciation of age and mustiness, and being in the presence of something much-treasured.)

While the aesthetic pleasure in e-books lies almost entirely in the reading device itself—which, of course, looks the same no matter what you’re reading on it—paper books differ in their dimensions, type and size of font, cover design, and more. An e-reader strips back a book to make it all about its contents; I’m unlikely to ever derive pleasure purely from the look of an e-book. By contrast, I can greatly enjoy simply looking at and holding a paper book, never mind reading its contents.

Take the Orwell book. It’s small in height and width and thickness, like a well-padded pamphlet, and weighs very little, a pleasant surprise when you’re accustomed to holding weightier tomes. I’ve already mentioned the silky feel of the embossed cover—it really is something I delight in touching. I love the classic Penguin design of the cover: simplistic and iconic. And it has that new-book scent that always reminds me of the smell given off by roads and pavements when it rains for the first time in a while. The smells aren’t the same, as such, but similar for their distinctiveness.

I’d like to say that the scent of a book is of crisp paper and ink, but they’re more likely to have been laser-printed these days. Still, there’s something special about thrusting your hooter between the pages of a new book and inhaling. I’m not going over the top and claiming this to be akin to a religious experience, but it nevertheless stirs something spiritual in me.

“Guru Sam, tell us the secret of life.”
“Certainly, my acolytes. Go forth and buy a new book. Open it and breathe in through your nose. Slowly. Deeply. Therein lies true enlightenment.”

Yeah, I agree; that’s enough wittering for one post. Whatever your preferred medium, happy smell— er, reading!

Weird Words 4

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

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

On with this week’s words…

Definitely

One of those words that is so frequently misspelt that I have to pause to think when writing it. I know Facebook and Twitter are hardly the measure of society’s literacy standards, but it’s rare indeed to encounter it spelt correctly on social media. How often have you seen it written as ‘definately’? Or, my favourite and the result, no doubt, of that curse of modern technology, the autocorrect function:

‘Are you sure?’
‘Oh, yes, defiantly.’

I often find myself reading the post as if the writer meant what they wrote—there’s something almost noble about being defiant in the face of the latest photograph of someone’s dinner.

A good way to remember how to spell it correctly (at least, the way I remember) is to pronounce it in your head as ‘dee-fie-night-lee’, or to remember that it’s the opposite of ‘infinitely’. Best—defiantly best—not to rely on autocorrect.

Serendipity

One of my favourite words in the entire English language. I didn’t even know it existed until one day I happened across it by happy accident.*

A former work colleague—I hope she’ll forgive me if she ever reads this—came across the word for the first time when taking down a customer’s address over the telephone. The customer had called his house ‘Serendipity’. My colleague wrote the address as ‘seven dippety sendipity’. For years afterwards, I kept the yellow Post-it note on which she’d written the address and brought it out for a giggle whenever I needed cheering up.

Collywobbles

If you’ve read my previous posts in this series, you’ll know I love words that sound like their definition. Meaning stomach pain or queasiness usually brought on by intense anxiety or nervousness, ‘collywobbles’ is another beautifully descriptive word completely in harmony with its definition.

(At the risk of destroying the magic, Merriam-Webster says the word probably derives from a transformation of the New Latin term for the disease cholera, cholera morbus, to make it sound less sinister. Hmm, that’s one of those things I’d prefer, on the whole, not to know.)

 

That’s all for Part 4. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

 

*see what I did there?

 

Twinkies

Making the Mysterious Mundane

If the title and subtitle don’t already tell you, this week’s post is not profound. Indeed, you might say it’s light-hearted. Frivolous, even.

Nothing wrong with a bit of frivolity now and then. It can provide a small but welcome distraction from the deadly serious stuff that’s been pretty much the story of 2020 thus far. So here’s a bit of froth about Twinkies.

I’ve mentioned them before in a post about the differences between British and American English: What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

For those who don’t want to read the entire piece, this is what I said about Twinkies (‘SK’ being Stephen King):

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, that Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

For any non-Americans looking in who don’t know what they are, Twinkies are a cake, of sorts. A snack-sized, yellowish sponge filled with synthetic cream.

They feature in the film Zombieland, where Woody Harrelson’s character is constantly on the look-out for them. (Interesting aside: the Twinkie he consumes in the film is, apparently, not a real one but a vegan version mocked up for him. The real ones contain ingredients unsuitable for vegans; some would argue they contain ingredients unsuitable for humans.)

After first encountering them in a Stephen King novel in my early teens, I spent many years knowing that Twinkies exist, but without knowing what they are. As anyone with an active imagination will appreciate, we often picture the unknown as more exciting and exotic than the reality. I don’t now recall what I imagined a Twinkie to be, but it wasn’t a plump finger of highly processed, sugary sponge filled with fake cream. When later, much later, I learned the truth, it came as a bit of a let-down, but still my curiosity wasn’t fully assuaged. That would only happen if I one day ate a Twinkie.

I’ve since visited the States a few times, but on each occasion, there being too many other delights to sample (such as a corned beef sandwich in Katz’s deli in Lower East Side Manhattan—yum, yum), I completely forgot to hunt down a Twinkie. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally tried one for the first time.

During lockdown, one of my daughters decided to order a delivery of confectionary from a place that stocks products from the US. Yep, including Twinkies. She ordered a box of ten for her and her boyfriend; one was enough for me.

The most satisfying part of the experience was getting to set eyes on a Twinkie at long last, to hold one and peel off the cellophane wrapper. Actually consuming it? Not so much.

Hmm, how best to describe it? Well, it was edible. Too sweet, cloyingly so, for my palate. Did it leave me wanting more? Nope, I can’t say it did, though I guess I’d happily consume them during the Apocalypse.

So more than forty years after first hearing about them, after many moments spent idly wondering what they are, I’ve eaten a Twinkie. Despite it not being an experience I’m in a hurry to repeat, I’m glad to have done it. A small part of my teenage curiosity has been satisfied.

Now to find out what this sex thing is all about…