Guest Post – Tom East

A departure from the norm this week as, for the first time, I host a guest. I’ve known Tom East—though we both use different names in our everyday lives—for around twenty years since we were members of the local writers’ circle. We hit it off immediately, sharing a fondness for good ale and rugby, and both viewing writing as more a compulsion than a hobby. But that’s enough from me. Over to Tom.

Why Write?

Leaving aside more mundane demands like shopping lists and business writing, plus shorter things like personal e-mails (not to say some of these shouldn’t be creative), it seemed to me there are three main reasons to write. In reverse order of importance, I have always considered these to be:

  1. To make money.
  2. To express your thoughts to others.
  3. Because that demon keeps jab-jab-jabbing away at us and making us write.

N years after I first wrote for publication, this is still the way I see things. I have, though, recently modified my view to an extent.

When I lived in London, back in the Dark Ages (well, it was a long time ago), I wrote a few things commercially or semi-commercially. This first period of literary activity lasted for not much more than two years before ‘life got in the way’ and my attention went in other directions. This period of comparative dormancy went on for a number of years. I did do some creative writing in this interval—I didn’t seem to have any choice in the matter—but didn’t try to get anything published.

Then, following a trip to Romania in 1988, at the time when Nicolae Ceauşescu was still dictator, I was bursting with ideas I had to express, in prose and poetry, in fiction and non-fiction. At that time the outlet most readily available was the small press, so this was where I initially concentrated my efforts. The first thing I wrote (an essay; nothing to do with Romania as it happens) appeared in Schools Poetry Review in 1989. Over the years, I have published around 200 poems, about 80 short stories and roughly the same number of commercial features. Added to this is a large number of works of reviews, essays and things I can best describe as ‘other prose’. My first book-length work appeared in 1993 and six more followed from medium-sized and small presses. You can see samples of all this activity on my website here.

Given what I said earlier about motives for writing, you’d think I should have been happy. If I hadn’t made enormous sums of money, I do know that a large number of people have read what I’ve had to say and at least I’ve managed to keep that demon and his pitchfork still. There were, though, two large flies in the ointment. Firstly, much of my writing had to be undertaken against the background of a busy and demanding job. Secondly, several years ago life got in the way again, more negatively this time, just when my literary life was showing signs of taking off.

This year, I’ve decided to bring more focus to my literary activity. Unless you’re an ‘all-purpose sleb’ or a leading footballer, the window into ‘mainstream publication’ is getting smaller. On the other hand, independent publishing is becoming a viable alternative. So this, armed with a new nom-de-plume, is the route I’ve decided to take. First will be The Eve of St Eligius with more to follow early next year.

Wish me luck! ‘Eligius’ will appear electronically on 30th November, 2018 (which happens to be the eve of the festival of St Eligius) and as a paperback in mid-December.

Tom East

Tom’s first foray into the world of independent publishing is available now in e-book on Amazon:
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon UK
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon US

Audiobooks

A few years ago I was approached by the same company who produced the audiobook of The Martian. They expressed interest in producing an audio version of The Cleansing. Sadly, I could not take the matter any further because I was at the time contracted to a small press publisher. But I’ve remained curious as to whether there would be any interest in my work from audiobook listeners—there’s only one way to find out, right?

It wasn’t until this summer, after I’d parted company with the publisher and all rights to my works had reverted back to me, that I was able to turn my attention to audio.

There seems a bewildering number of audiobook producers out there. Long story short, after browsing various sites and discussion forums, I eventually decided to go through Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). And there is quite a range of options within ACX. I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

I decided to offer the book for audition on a royalty-share basis. This involves making available an extract of the book of 2 or 3 pages (around 5 minutes of recording time). The royalty share would mean I wouldn’t have to pay the narrator up front, but we would share equally a percentage of each sale. Again, my prime motivation was to cut down on up-front costs. What seemed a woefully pitiful percentage share of sales would be the trade-off.

I was aware that it was highly unlikely I would attract any experienced narrators—why would they risk their time and effort for no guaranteed return on a novel written by a virtual unknown? Not only did I not attract any experienced narrators, I didn’t attract any at all. The book extract remained available for audition for a 30-day period, but I didn’t receive a single audition.

Time for a little soul searching. It boiled down to how much did I want to have an audiobook version of The Cleansing. Turned out the answer was I wanted it a great deal. Enough to bite the bullet and offer the extract for audition in return for a fee. This way, the narrator wouldn’t have to bear any risk of the book not selling and I would benefit in the long run if the book continued to sell after I’d recouped my initial outlay. I opted for exclusivity, meaning the audiobook would only be made available in three outlets—Audible, Amazon and iTunes—but I would receive a higher percentage of each sale.

I mentioned ‘recouping my initial outlay’. Here’s the thing: I don’t know how many sales it will take to do that and start to make a profit.

Firstly, I have no say whatsoever in how much the three retailers charge for the audiobook. Being accustomed to the freedom independent publishing allows me over the prices of my books, to have no say in the price asked for the audio version is a little strange to say the least. (I suppose it has to do with protecting the market for audiobooks and ensuring the price doesn’t spiral downwards like it has with e-books.)

Secondly, I understand audiobooks may be purchased in one of three different ways: directly in the normal sense; directly by members of a subscription service at a discounted price; indirectly by members of the subscripton service by using one of their monthly credits. In each case, the amount the author receives will vary.

So, bizarrely, it’s impossible to say how many sales I need to break even. I’m guessing it’s going to take at least a few hundred, but I’m stumbling about in the dark. The Cleansing is the first in a trilogy and I’d like to have the sequels also produced as audiobooks. Before I can think of making The Beacon available for audition, I have to at least recoup my outlay on the first book. It’s mildly frustrating that I have no way of estimating how long that might take.

Anyway, I offered The Cleansing for audition on a pay-for-production basis. You can set the price range of what you’re prepared to pay and I opted for one of the lower ranges. Not the lowest, because I wanted to attract narrators with some experience, but not high enough that I would bankrupt myself in the process.

Within a few hours, I had received three auditions. Within a week, I had received eight. I had been concerned that I might have priced myself out of attracting any good narrators, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the auditions I received. I narrowed it down to three—two men, one woman—and from there picked my favourite. That wasn’t easy; all three were excellent.

Before I made the chosen narrator an offer, I checked him out online. Not to be nosy, but to make sure he was someone I was happy to do business with. Here’s one of life’s little coincidences. He is an actor and musician, and had appeared in a stage musical I had been to see in Cardiff for my birthday last year. I’m not normally one for musicals, but I love sixties music and had thoroughly enjoyed Cilla – The Musical.

I made him an offer, which he accepted. I could now finalise the audiobook cover by including his name and upload that to ACX. The narrator recorded the first 15-minute segment for my approval, which I didn’t hesitate to give. He then recorded the whole book. It was my job to listen to the completed recording and feedback any mistakes.

It felt weird and wonderful listening to one of my novels being narrated. It made it sound like it had been written by someone else and I found myself getting caught up in the tale. I made a note of the errors—there were remarkably few, perhaps a dozen out a 90,000-word novel—and sent them to the narrator. He fixed the errors promptly, I paid him and we were done. A relatively painless operation—the narrator was excellent, easy to work with and earned every penny of his fee.

It was then down to ACX to make the book available on the three retail channels. That happened this week. I received notification on Wednesday, 14th November that it had gone on sale on Audible and would be available on Amazon and iTunes within the next few days.

The whole process was much quicker than I’d anticipated. I made the book available for audition the second time (on the pay-up-front basis) on 2nd August. I had chosen my favourite narrator and entered into an agreement with him by 10th August. From there, it has taken marginally over three months to complete the recording and make the book available for sale.

Now all I need to do is learn how to market it. If you’ve read any of my posts on marketing, you’ll understand what a challenge that presents.

A word of warning for any writers reading this who are considering taking the plunge into audiobooks themselves. I read an online discussion in which authors who know more about the audiobook market than me (which isn’t difficult) stated that the wider audiobook market is set to explode with lots of potentially lucrative markets becoming available through various new players about to enter the audiobook game, and cautioned against entering into an exclusive deal with anyone.

I can’t recall details, but if you’re about to embark on a new audiobook project, read up on it. If you decide, like me, to go exclusive with someone like ACX, make sure it’s an informed decision that you won’t quickly come to regret.

To finish on a high note, I noticed yesterday that the audiobook was available on Amazon and that it already had a ranking in both the US and UK. That normally only happens when a book has achieved some sales, yet my ACX dashboard wasn’t showing any. Until I looked again, a little later, and discovered to my delight that the audio version of The Cleansing has already been purchased several times. I still get a buzz from the thought of a complete stranger reading, or in this case listening, to something I’ve written.

(For a peek at the book, and to listen to the opening scene, follow one of the links to the audiobook on the Earth Haven page from the ‘Books’ dropdown menu above.)

Editing – Part 1

Any aspiring author considering self-publishing their work who seeks guidance online is likely to be furnished with three stock pieces of advice:

1. Obtain a professional-looking, genre-specific cover;
2. Write an enticing blurb*;
3. Have the book professionally edited before publishing.

This won’t be the only advice offered, but is probably the most common. It’s also sound advice—not something that can be said about every pearl of wisdom bandied about on the net.

It’s that third item I want to talk a little about: the advice to have the work professionally edited before letting it loose on the reading public.

The word ‘editing’ is often thrown about with gay abandon as a catch-all term for polishing a raw manuscript until it shines, but there are various types of editing, requiring different degrees of skill and coming with varying price tags.

Generally speaking, editing can range from in-depth analysis of a novel’s structure (developmental editing), to a final proofread to eliminate any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors remaining from previous editing passes. The various intermediate stages may be called substantive editing, mechanical editing, line editing and copy editing—there is often overlap between these terms, or they are used interchangably, or given different meanings by different editors.

And cost will range widely, perhaps from a few thousand dollars or more for a developmental edit, to less than fifty dollars for a proofread from someone who will run it through a spellchecker and little else.

That’s the thing: anyone with a computer and internet connection can set themselves up online as an editor. While there are experienced and skilled editors and proofreaders out there who fully justify their fees, there are also people claiming to be editors who I wouldn’t trust to check my shopping list. Such is the internet.

There are two main issues I see facing the new author who wants to follow the advice and have their work professionally edited. The first is cost—not many new authors are likely to have a few thousand dollars to spend on an editor. The second is finding a knowledgable, reliable editor who’s a good fit—that’s when recommendations from other authors become important, but many newbies might not have the necessary contacts. They will need to poke about online until they find a forum or group that fits their genre and personality; they’ll need to join in, get to know people (in as much as that’s possible on social media) and learn whose recommendations they can trust.

What of the new author who genuinely can’t afford to hire an editor? I’ve seen authors advised to go without whatever it takes in order to save funds for an editor. The advice I’ve seen hasn’t gone as far as to recommend selling a kidney; at least, not yet.

No matter how sincerely the well-meaning advisor believes that the newbie can find a way to raise the funds, the fact remains that for some this will simply not be possible. For some, self-editing might be the only option.

I’ll talk a little more about self-editing methods in my next post on this topic—not, I hasten to add, that I’m an expert, but I can at least talk about what I do. To someone who doesn’t know where to start, it might be useful.

Before I end, there’s one important thing to add: even if self-editing, try to get at least one other pair of eyes on your work before you publish it. Look around on Facebook and other social media for critiquing groups you might be able to join, or suggest to other writers at a similar stage as you that you get together to set one up. If all else fails, it could be a friend or family member whose opinion you trust and who, preferably, has a reasonably high standard of written English. Ask them to read through your final manuscript and note any spelling errors or other mistakes. Though not everyone on the forums will agree with me, I appreciate that in some cases this might the best a novice writer can do.

* I know that historically the word ‘blurb’ referred to a catchy phrase about the book, often by a famous author, used to promote the work, but language evolves and the word is often used nowadays to refer to the book description, and that is the sense in which I’m using it. So there.

Shiny Object Syndrome

This piece is about writing, but I suppose could apply to most creative endeavours. It’s about that moment when you’re elbows-deep in your current work and are struck by an idea for a new project. The idea seems far more enticing than the work-in-progress (WIP). The idea offers endless possibilities for a breathless novel that will lead to a series and a movie deal, enable you to give up the day job and pursue your dream of becoming a full-time writer. In short, the idea is shiny.

What does the writer afflicted with Shiny Object Syndrome do upon being struck by the new idea? He (or, as always, she, but let’s take that as read) doesn’t make a note to return to it after completing the WIP. Nope, he abandons the WIP and embarks instead upon the project sparked by the shiny new idea.

Of course, what usually happens is that when the new idea has become the WIP, when the writer has dug beneath the shiny surface, exposing its guts, so to speak, he finds that the idea has lost its lustre. In fact, he realises that once he has started to work out how the nuts and bolts will fit together, the shiny new idea looks much like the abandoned WIP.

Not wanting to give up on the new idea so soon after embracing it, he ploughs on. Until the next new idea strikes. And, boy, is it shiny…

What he ends up with are a handful of novel openings, perhaps a few that have progressed beyond the first couple of chapters, but nothing complete. Nothing to edit and polish. Nothing to publish.

I have a few barely-started novels of my own hanging about my hard drive, dating back twenty or more years when I struggled to see a project through before beginning a new one. Yep, my name is Sam and I once suffered from Shiny Object Syndrome.

If you are a writer accumulating a bundle of unfinished works of your own and feel you might also be a sufferer, what can you do about it?

Well, I’m no expert so all I can do is tell you how I overcame the problem. I began by starting a notebook into which I jotted a note – maybe only a line or a two; no more than a paragraph – of any shiny idea that occurred while I was already engaged on another project. This doesn’t need to be a notebook; it can be a Word document, or equivalent; perhaps a diary or series of index cards or some sort of voice recording. Whatever works for you.

I find that the mere act of noting the idea down helps, as if translating it from a sparky bundle of electrical impulses to inked symbols on a page removes much of the shine. But not all of it.

Then comes sheer will power. I made it an unbreakable rule that I wouldn’t abandon any WIP in favour of a new idea, no matter how dazzling the shiny object appears. Unless you are a being forged of titanium self-discipline, it’s not that easy to stick to the rule. Shiny objects are still shiny.

The final piece of the cure for me was the feeling I derived from typing ‘The End’ on the first draft of my first novel. It’s a strange mix of loss and euphoria, but the dominant sensation is one of deep satisfaction. That’s not a feeling the writer who jumps from unfinished project to unfinished project will ever experience. That in itself is enough to keep me working on the WIP, no matter how shiny the new object looks.

Most of the time, anyway.

Plotting v Pantsing

In What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1, I talked about arguably the most contentious issues amongst writers, the Oxford comma. This post is about another issue that, bizarrely, seems to cause friction between writers—not every writer, by any means, but enough that discussions on this topic often descend into conflict.

Since this piece is more likely to be of interest to writers, apologies to any readers looking in, but it may be worth you reading on to give you an idea of the sort of things writers argue about between themselves, things that seem inconsequential to non-writers (and, indeed, to many writers).

So what are we talking about? In general terms, a ‘plotter’ is a writer who, before he (or she, but we’ll take that as read) embarks on writing a novel, plans it in detail so that he knows every character and every turn and twist of the plot before writing one word of the novel itself. A ‘panster’, by contrast, sits down and starts writing the novel with no or little idea of who the characters are or how the story will pan out—flying by the seat of his pants.

Those are the extremes, but there’s a broad spectrum in between. Most writers are likely to fall somewhere along that spectrum, hybrids of panster and plotter who may have planned certain aspects of the novel, but perhaps not all.

I’m very much towards the panster end of the spectrum. I embarked on a 300,000-word trilogy (though, in true panster style, I didn’t know it would be a trilogy when I started out) without knowing anything other than it would be about an apocalypse caused by a virus manufactured and deliberately spread by beings who wanted this planet for themselves. I had no idea who the characters would be, what situations they would find themselves in (other than the broader scenario of facing the eradication of almost the entire human species) and how the story would pan out.

How does a writer even begin writing a novel with only the vaguest notion to go on? In my case, I began by describing the effects of the virus on the human body. That scene subsequently formed the opening of chapter 6 of The Cleansing. Having set pen to paper (rather, finger to keyboard), I was then able to begin writing the opening scene proper in which a woman sits gazing out over Central Park before setting in motion the chain of events that will lead to the destruction of humanity.

This is how I’ve always worked, literally making it up as I go along. On occasion I’ll have a final scene in mind, or perhaps one or two key scenes along the way. It then becomes a case of navigating the characters through the uncharted waters in between (provided they want to play ball—my work might begin as plot-driven, but the characters quickly take over). More often, I have nothing to go on except a vague scenario that usually begins, ‘What if…?’

When I first began self-publishing, having written two novels and umpteen short stories back in the days when the e-book didn’t exist, I joined various writing forums. These forums were full of advice as to the ‘best’ way to carry out the writing and publishing process. Most of it was opinion presented as fact. One ‘fact’ I saw often was that the best way to write a novel was to plan it out in detail before starting to write it. The implication was often only thinly veiled: real writers plotted; if you didn’t, you must belong to some sort of Mickey Mouse club of pretend writers.

I have tried plotting a story and found that I simply can’t do it, that my brain doesn’t work that way. I might be able to vaguely sketch out a couple of chapters, but for the life of me cannot go any further until I have written the opening chapters and have begun to get to know the characters—until then, I have no idea how they are going to react to the circumstances in which they find themselves. There have been times when I’ve had to abandon potential plot strands upon realising that the characters would not react in the way required to realise them.

But that’s just me. There are many writers who couldn’t write like that, who have to know the route a story is going to follow, the stops along the way and the destination, before writing one word of it. And that’s perfectly fine—that’s the way their brains work. We’re all different, right? (Altogether now: yes, we are all different—sorry, just having a Monty Python moment.)

The point is, and this needs to be emphasised:

There is no right or wrong way—there’s only what works best for the individual.

Seems pretty obvious, you’d think. Yet—and it’s no good asking me why because I haven’t the foggiest—some writers adopt a polarised stance. These are examples of some of the comments that appear with eye-rolling predictability whenever the topic is raised:

‘Plotting kills creativity’
‘Pantsing stifles creativity’
‘Every book being written must follow a plan’
‘Plotting makes writing the book boring’
‘Pantsing means that most of the story will have to be discarded or rewritten’
‘Plotting allows no scope for characters to develop naturally’
‘Pantsing results in incoherent, rambling storylines’

It’s the absolute nature of these opinions-masquerading-as-fact that bugs me. ‘Every book being written must follow a plan.’ Nope, they don’t. Maybe that’s how it works for you, mate, but you’re not me.

What each statement amounts to is, in effect, ‘I plot/pants, so plotting/pantsing must be the best way to write a book and I’m going to sneer at anyone who employs an alternative method’. Sigh.

Despite the title of this piece, writing fiction isn’t a contest between plotting and pantsing. There is plotting, there is pantsing, and there is a wide range of methods employing a mix of the two. Each writer needs to find what works best for them. No writer should hold out their method as being the only or right way. Seriously, there’s no such thing.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

‘Two nations separated by a common language’. That quote, or something very like it, is usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw and refers, of course, to the differences between English as spoken and written in the UK, and the version spoken and written in the USA. (I am aware that the term ‘America’ includes a heck of a lot of countries, but for the purposes of this piece I am going to use ‘American English’ as shorthand for the spoken and written word pertaining to the USA only.)

Everyone—and we’re talking about adults, not children—knows there are differences between British and American English, right? It surprised me to discover that there are people who don’t. It came to my notice a few years ago through a review of one of my books. The reviewer said that the book was ‘littered’ with spelling mistakes. (Note: this is not about having a pop at reviewers. I’m incredibly grateful for each and every review my books receive, even the less-than-stellar ones of which I have my fair share. I mention it only because that’s how I became aware of this issue.)

The review puzzled me. Whilst I aim to have my books completely error-free, I accept they may contain the odd error that was missed during the editing and proofreading stages. But littered with spelling mistakes? I knew that couldn’t be right (and read the book again to be sure). It took me days to realise that the reviewer clearly wasn’t aware of the differences between British and American English, and the mistakes ‘littered’ throughout the novel were actually words spelt in British English.

I want to talk a little about those differences, but I don’t intend to list every one I’m aware of—there are plenty of places where you can find such lists, if you’re interested (e.g. here). I’d rather mention a few that amused (and sometimes continue to amuse) or surprised me when I discovered them.

Take the word ‘fanny’—a fairly innocuous word in the States, but with quite a different meaning here. The first time I came across the American usage was, I think, in a Stephen King novel many years ago. When a male character patted a female character on her fanny, I almost dropped the book in shock. I mean, he’s noted for his horror, not his erotica. It took me a while to work out that in American English the word refers to the backside. I still can’t see the expression ‘fanny pack’ without it causing a juvenile snigger.

Then there’s the word ‘pissed’. To us Brits that means drunk, intoxicated, inebriated, sozzled. In American English, it means annoyed. We also use it to mean annoyed, but only when adding the word ‘off’: I was so pissed off, I felt like getting pissed. It was probably in a SK novel (since he was the American writer I mostly read as a teenager) that I first came across the American usage. When he described a character as being ‘pissed’, I understood him to mean that the character had been drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Strange that he’d failed to explicitly mention the drinking; even stranger that the character was behaving normally (in an annoyed sort of way), without slurring or stumbling about or trying to hold conversations with the furniture. The penny has long dropped, but I still have to sometimes pause when I come across the word in a novel and remind myself whether the author is American before deciding if the character is annoyed or drunk. It’s not always obvious from context.

There are some words in American English whose variation from British English is minuscule and yet they always give me pause while my mind adjusts. Take the simple little word ‘spit’. In American English, it doesn’t appear to have a past tense. In British English, it’s obvious in which tense I’m writing: ‘The boxers spit out blood’ versus ‘The boxers spat out blood’. In American English, they’d both read exactly the same and, unless obvious from context, ‘The boxers spit out blood’ could mean that they’re doing it now or did it yesterday.

I can’t read the American English words ‘math’ and ‘aluminum’ without wondering what they’ve done with the ‘s’ or the ‘i’; the first time I saw the latter, I thought it must be a new kind of metal that I hadn’t heard of. I had to rely on context to realise that a ‘bullhorn’ is what we call a ‘loudhailer’; a ‘cell phone’ is what we call a ‘mobile phone’ (easy if the word ‘phone’ is included, otherwise I’m relying on context); a ‘pacifier’ is what we call a baby’s ‘dummy’, not some sort of cattle prod as I first thought.

Some American English words I prefer to their British equivalents. There’s something far more colourful to my ears about a stroller than a pushchair. When I first read the name ‘tic-tac-toe’, I thought it sounded like a delightful new game to discover; I was disappointed to learn that it’s merely noughts and crosses, with a less literal but more fun-sounding name. And what about the American English ‘fender’, as opposed to the British ‘wing’? No contest, unless someone, employing ‘wing’, can think of a better phrase for a minor road traffic accident than a ‘fender bender’.

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.

‘Bangs’ is another American English word that confounded me when I first came across it. I suspect that everyone these days knows that the word refers to the humble fringe but, seriously—bangs? If it wasn’t clear from context, how the deuce was a British reader in the pre-internet days (and, yes, if you’re of a certain youthfulness, there is such a thing as ‘pre-internet’ and it wasn’t that long ago) supposed to work out what that meant?

On one of the online forums I frequent, where writers from the US are the majority representatives, I happened to use the word ‘fortnight’ that we Brits use without even thinking about it to mean a period of two weeks. This was quite recently and I was taken aback when some folk from the US didn’t know what I was talking about. Not all of them, by any means, but enough to show that the word I assumed was in common usage throughout the English-speaking world isn’t even widely used in one chunk of it (a big chunk, granted).

Another great source of confusion, at least to me, is the American way of referring to the ground floor of a building as the first floor, although there is a lot of sense in their method. So a lift (elevator) in a six-storey (that’s ‘story’ in American English, which mkes a lot less sense) building in the States has buttons marked 1 to 6, whereas a British one has buttons marked 1-5 and another marked G. I prefer the American way in this instance.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Knowing that these differences in usage and spelling and grammar exist is vital for any writer, either side of the Atlantic; at least, for any writer who is looking to sell his or her books internationally. It may also be a good idea, for the benefit of readers who aren’t aware that the differences exist, to somehow make them aware. Some authors insert a note in the front matter stating that the book is written in British or Canadian or whatever English, which varies in some aspects of usage, spelling, etc from American English.

I haven’t done that (yet), preferring where possible to employ a subtler approach, such as have the characters in the novel mention the variations; this is much easier where the book includes both British and American characters. It is an issue that I now keep in mind in all my writing, even going so far as to name a novel The Elevator. There is actually a good reason for calling it that, which has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but I’d be lying if I said that the possibility of there being some (a tiny minority, I’m sure) American readers who’d think a book called The Lift is about ice skating didn’t feature in my reasoning.

Size Isn’t Everything

At the start of the twenty-first century, I had a completed novel and had started writing the second. This was long before the e-book revolution and the only ways into publishing back then were through the traditional or vanity routes. I had neither the inclination nor the funds to pursue the latter so embarked on trying to break into the former. For those too young to know or too old to remember, this involved querying London agents in an effort to obtain representation. I must have spent a fortune in posting the first three chapters of the novel and the obligatory stamped addressed envelope large enough to hold the chapters on their inevitable return journey. They sometimes thumped back onto the doormat in such pristine condition that I doubt they’d even been read.

But this isn’t a post bemoaning the querying process. In case you’re wondering about the title, neither does it have anything to do with sex. This is about short stories.

During those endless rounds of posting a query and waiting for its return so that I could send it to the next rejector, I developed an itch. (And, no, this still isn’t about sex.) It grew and grew into an overwhelming urge to see a piece of fiction I’d written in print. More than that, I needed to know what it felt like to have complete strangers reading something I’d written.

I pressed on with the second novel. When I’d finished it, I embarked upon the by-then-familiar, but no less fruitless and demoralising, querying process. Different novel, same results. If anything, the thud of the returning envelope hitting the doormat made the itch intensify. I had to find a way to scratch it or go out of my mind. My solution was to write short stories.

I didn’t think short stories were easier to write than a novel, and still don’t, but they are undeniably quicker to complete. And I had a lot of story ideas sloshing around in my head that would not be suitable for the long treatment of a novel, but might make half-decent short tales. Any that didn’t, well, I’d only waste hours writing them instead of the couple of months or so (depending how much writing time you have) of commitment required for a novel.

There was another significant consideration: I don’t know whether it remains the case today, but back then there were a number of small press magazines which accepted unsolicited short stories for consideration. It didn’t matter to me in the slightest that these magazines didn’t appear on the shelf of my local W.H. Smith or that their readerships might only number in the hundreds—the point was to have my work appear in print and be read by people who didn’t know me from Adam.

My first published work of fiction was the short story Celesta. It appeared in the now defunct Cambrensis magazine in September 2002. I can still recall the sheer thrill of holding a copy (my author copy, no less) and seeing my words in print for the first time. It was followed by publication of another four short stories in various small press magazines—I was even paid for a couple of them.

That was that particular itch scratched. I continued, and continue, to write the occasional short. Novels are my preferred form, but I enjoy the variety, and different challenge, of penning shorter work from time to time. Those early published short stories can now be found, amongst others, in my collection Pond Life. I have another two collections: Strange Shores and the recently published Ghosts of Christmas Past. Others can be found in various anthologies.

But I’m digressing. The purpose of this piece isn’t to publicise my works—though I oughtn’t be hesitant about doing so; it’s my bloody website, after all—but to trumpet the value of short stories and to mention a few of my favourites by other authors.

It’s not very often that we hear of short story collections becoming bestsellers. There are, of course, exceptions. Stephen King’s collections, for instance, usually shoot to the top of most charts. But for the lesser-known writer, they can be a hard sell and often end up being heavily discounted or given away, considered as little more than a means of funneling readers to longer, more lucrative works.

That’s a shame. A well-crafted short story is as worthy of praise as a tightly-plotted novel—the same level of skill has gone into both. And in today’s world of, we’re told, ever-decreasing attention spans and shrinking mobile devices, you’d think that short stories would be the ideal format for today’s hectic lifestyles. You’d think. Maybe their day will come, but I shan’t hold my breath.

Anyway, enough wistful thinking. What about the short stories I’ve enjoyed over the years? There have been far too many; too many to remember, let alone discuss here. I’m just going to mention a few.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that Stephen King is one of my favourite authors. No surprise, then, that I’m going to start with one of his short stories. Survivor Type appeared in his collection Skeleton Crew and tells of a surgeon washed ashore on a tiny, deserted island after a shipwreck. How he attempts to survive—no spoilers, but the clue is in his profession—horrified me in a gleefully fascinated way.


Skeleton Crew

While we’re at it, another of King’s short stories that has stuck with me many years after I first read it is Quitters, Inc, which appears in his collection Night Shift. If, like me, you’ve embarked on numerous failed attempts to quit smoking, this story will resonate.


Night Shift

All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein is a mind-bending tale about the paradoxes of time travel. Difficult to say too much without spoilers so I’ll only say that the number of characters who populate the story turns out to be far fewer than appears at first sight. The story was turned into a film called Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, and a cracking job they made of it, too.

Another Heinlein short that’s stuck in my mind is And He Built a Crooked House. It’s another mind-bender, not to mention space-bender, about an architect who designs a house based on an unfolded tesseract (the four-dimensional analogue of the cube). When an earthquake causes the cube to collapse, Heinlein—and the reader—has great fun with the consequences.


“All You Zombies—”

A quick mention of an American short-story specialist, Raymond Carver. I’ve enjoyed a few of his collections, such as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His stories are often little slices of life, usually dark and always poetic—he is also known as a poet and it shows in his fiction writing.


What We Talk About…

Finally, I couldn’t talk about short stories without mentioning Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. It’s a collection of science fiction stories linked through the animated tattoos on the body of a vagrant. If you like science fiction and short stories, this is the perfect union—go read it.


The Illustrated Man

That’s merely a small taster. There have been many, many more stories I’ve read and enjoyed over the years. There are many, many more I’ve yet to sample. The beauty of short stories is that if you come across a dud, you won’t waste much time on it, and when you come across one of the countless gems hidden amidst the rough, you’re in for a thrill and delight. Happy reading!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that can only be a good thing.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.