Baring the Soul

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

I posted this on Facebook last night:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

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

Melodramatic? Maybe.

True nonetheless? I think so.

That Elusive Title

[First posted 23rd June 2017]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking the Plunge

[First posted 21st July 2017]

I’ve long harboured a dream to make a living from writing fiction. That dream was placed on hold for a good number of years while I changed career, but was dusted down five years ago when I came to realise the possibilities made available by the revolution in e-publishing. No more having to submit sample manuscripts and stamped-addressed-envelopes (remember those?) to London agents. No more being in limbo waiting for the latest rejection. No more wondering whether the despondency was worth it.

I rediscovered my urge to write. It had never really gone away, but had lain dormant and now awoke with a vengeance. I began writing in evenings, at weekends, during leave from work. I completed a trilogy of apocalyptic science fiction novels, which sold well enough that I could consider going part-time in my regular job. I dabbled in marketing, not especially successfully, but sufficiently that sales continued to tick over.

Then things went a little pear-shaped when life—or, more accurately, death—intervened. My uncle died in June last year, having appointed me to be the executor of his will. I used to do such work for a living so it was a smart move on his part as it would save the family many thousands of pounds in legal fees. I didn’t mind in the slightest, but it was a fairly complex estate with a house to be sold and tax to be paid so involved a lot of time-consuming work, which I’ve had to fit in to the spaces previously occupied by writing and marketing.

Something had to give. Much of my writing time disappeared along with all the time I used to spend marketing. My book sales have suffered, especially in the States. But I’ve now almost completed administration of the estate. Most of the time-heavy work has been done and I’ll be ready to finalise everything as soon as I receive final confirmation of the estate’s tax affairs.

At last, I can return to writing and this week I’ve cut the hours in my regular job by half. In truth, it’s more of a risk now than it would have been twelve months ago, but if I don’t do this now, I may never.

Yesterday was my first ‘writing day’ and the first time I’ve been able to write in a block of four hours without feeling guilty about the jobs around the house or family stuff I should have been doing instead. Afternoons of writing days are to be devoted to things like editing, research, business administration and, of course, marketing. Perhaps I will at last get to learn a little about how to effectively promote my books, which to me means making readers aware of them without feeling I’m shoving them in their faces.

Here’s a snapshot of what is now my office for two or three days of each week. At least until I can write full-time. Or, God forbid, until I have to go back to my regular employer, cap in hand, and beg for my full-time hours back. Shudder…

[Update, July 2018: I finalised my uncle’s estate a couple of months later. And apart from a few more books lying about, that writing space hasn’t changed much.

Since becoming a part-time writer a year ago, my output hasn’t been as great as I’d anticipated. It went well at first – I finished the novel I was working on, Jack’s Tale, wrote a collection of dark, Christmas-themed short stories in time for a late October release, began and finished the final novel in The Elevator trilogy, The Lord of the Dance. I began a new novel, a dark tale set in post-war Britain that hasn’t yet made up its mind if it’s going to be horror or science fiction. In addition, I posted regularly to my blog.

However, in March came a couple of events that somewhat derailed progress. My wife underwent a double knee replacement and I parted company with my publishers. For a while, I found myself playing the part (willingly, I should add) of carer for a temporarily disabled spouse – she’s now almost fully recovered and far more mobile than she was before the op. More significantly, I found that I needed to revise and revamp my entire catalogue – more of that in later posts.

The upshot was that my writing and marketing time once more disappeared, along with my website which had gone poof! in February. In effect, I’m around five months behind where I’d planned to be. But now that my catalogue has been revised and self-published, and my website’s back, I can turn once more to the horror/sci-fi novel and hopefully publish it before Christmas.]