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.

Writing a Trilogy

[First posted August 2015]

In May 2013, I sat at the computer and wrote the description of the symptoms of a deadly virus. It was a scene from an apocalyptic story I’d had kicking around in my head for years and transferring it to paper (at least, to a hard drive) opened the floodgates. Nine feverish weeks later, I had written the first draft of a 90,000-word novel.

The story was nowhere near finished. It would need at least another novel to complete, probably two. Although I would have finished the story no matter what – once a tale is in my mind, the only way to dislodge it is to write it – here’s one advantage of a trilogy from the writer’s point of view: I could see how well the first was received before committing to the second.

The Cleansing was published in December 2013. I sat back and waited with bated breath for the first reviews to come in. Thankfully, they were positive and so I sat down to write the second book.

Before writing The Cleansing, I had completed two novels, both of which are standalones. This would be the first time I had attempted to write a sequel.

Here’s the thing with writing a sequel: the writer owes it to the story, to himself and, most of all, to the readers who enjoyed the first book, to make the second as good as or better than the first. He’s also not working with a blank canvas; at least, that’s how I felt. Although I introduced new characters into the second book, I was still working with those who had appeared in the first and they needed to continue being the characters the readers of the first had come to know, while continuing their arcs and developing as good characters must.

While I worked on the sequel, reviews for The Cleansing continued to come in. Still mainly positive – phew! – but increasing the pressure for the second novel to build upon those good vibes.

The Beacon was released in January 2015. This time, the wait for early reviews was more nail-bitingly angst-filled. Unlike with the first book, readers would be parting with their hard-earned cash this time around in reasonable expectation of reading a story that matched or improved upon the standard of The Cleansing.

I had already begun work on the final instalment in the trilogy when The Beacon was published, but it had been slow going. I found it difficult to build momentum without knowing how the second book would be received. (Also, life or, more accurately, death – of a good friend – interrupted progress.)

Then reviews of The Beacon started coming in; another huge sigh of relief when they were, in the main, positive. Now I could press on full steam ahead with the final instalment.

This proved to be the most difficult one to write. Not only did I need to make this one as good as or better than the first two, I also needed to ensure I tied up all loose ends. With the first two books totalling around two hundred thousand words, there were a lot of loose ends. And the biggest pressure of all? Ending it in a way with which readers will hopefully be satisfied and that fits the overall tone of the story.

There are writers out there who pen many series and serials. They must all be familiar with these issues, but this was the first time I had experienced them. Whether I managed to overcome them, well, that remains to be seen. I have sent the completed and edited manuscript of The Reckoning to my publishers and await hearing whether it will be accepted for publication.

If it is, by the time the first reviews come in, I shall have no nails left.

[Update July 2018: The Reckoning was accepted and published in December 2015. The Cleansing is by some distance my bestselling novel to date and, thankfully, the sell-through rate to the sequels is pretty high. ]

Why We Write

[This article first appeared on a friend’s blog in September 2014. She asked me to talk about why I write, citing books that influenced me growing up. I took this to be an invitation to talk about books that I’ve loved over the years, although I remembered to tag a paragraph on the end that mentions writing.

It might seem faintly ridiculous that a man then a few months shy of 50 with a tendency towards the Dark Side in both his reading and writing tastes was talking about Enid Blyton, but her books are the ones I devoured as a young child. So shoot me.]

From the moment I learned how to read, I read. We’re talking more than forty years ago so my recollections are a little hazy, but the first books I can remember reading were by Enid Blyton. I guess I was around the age of five when I started to read The Adventures of the Wishing-Chair. When the wings first sprouted on the chair’s legs, thus opening a world of adventure for the children who owned it (who probably had names like Fanny and Polly and Dick and James), something sparked inside me, something that still burns all these years later.

The flames were fanned by The Enchanted Wood and The Magic Faraway Tree. I moved on to her books for older children and discovered a taste for adventures. A series of books (that I read over and over) about four children and a parrot that started with The Island of Adventure and ended with The River of Adventure. There was even one (The Mountain of Adventure) set in my homeland of Wales.

And The Famous Five. I remember the first day of the summer holidays when I must have been six or seven, my parents taking me to Smith’s to buy the next book in the series. I recall it cost me £0.25, but that probably represented a month’s pocket money. I took it home, read it the same day, pined for the next one. I got them all – all twenty-one – and read each of them more than once. ‘Lashings of ginger beer.’ Did they really say that?

I discovered other authors. Run For Your Life by David Line. Wonderful; I read it until it was falling apart. Some classics: The Three Musketeers, Coral Island, Robinson Crusoe. There were more, but my attention was diverted.

A new teacher started in our class. One afternoon, she gathered us around and began to read a book to us. A book about a land of snow and magic that could be reached through the back of a wardrobe. I was instantly captivated. The sense of wonder that began with Enid Blyton, the sense that anything is possible within the pages of a book, was firmly entrenched by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I soon acquired the book and the six others in the series, and read them over and over. I read them to my daughters when they were growing up as an excuse to read them again.

On entering my teens, I discovered shock horror authors like Guy N. Smith. James Herbert struck all the right notes with books like The Rats and The Fog.

Then I bought a book by a writer I hadn’t heard of that sounded promising: Carrie by Stephen King. It was good, but it was Salem’s Lot which cemented my love affair with Mr King’s books that continues to this day.

And there was Tolkien. My parents had a hardbook copy of The Lord of the Rings, complete with wonderful illustrations upon which Peter Jackson based many of the sets for his films. I now have my own copy and return to it every few years.

In my twenties, a friend lent me a book by someone called Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic. Instant addiction. Every now and then I give in to the urge to reread every Discworld book and fall in love with that world all over again.

And there are others, many others, way too many to mention them all. Here’s a few: Imajica by Clive Barker, anything by Bill Bryson and Iain Banks (and Iain M. Banks), Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantell, Shadowland by Peter Straub, Christie’s Poirot novels and short stories. And there’s John Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, Laurie Lee, Robert Heinlein, Gerald Durrell, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Frederick Forsyth, Philip K. Dick…

Reading has played such a big part in my life, it was almost inevitable that I would turn to writing fiction. My favourite books provide a means of escape from the trials and tribulations of real life. Writing serves a similar purpose, a sort of pressure-relief valve that also helps unclutter the jumble of my mind. And those authors and their books have had a profound effect on me, prompting awe, fear, sorrow, amazement, or simply entertaining me. I wanted to provoke the same emotions in others, though I’d settle for merely entertaining them. Sometimes mere entertainment is enough.

Pen-name – help or hindrance?

[First posted on Goodreads January 2014]

Sam Kates is a pseudonym. When I first decided to self-publish a collection of short stories almost a year and a half ago, it wasn’t a question of whether to use a pen-name; only which pen-name to choose.

Life is full of unexpected contradictions. Here’s one that some writers may recognise. I deeply desire making a living from writing fiction – to be paid to do what I most enjoy, thus freeing me to do it more… It must be like the starry-eyed schoolboy who signs a professional football contract and suddenly finds himself sharing a changing room with his heroes. Yet that dream can become reality for a writer at almost any stage of his or her life. I’m way past the age where Liverpool would be interested in me (even – in my dreams – were I good enough), but at 49 I’m not too old to become successful as a writer. And yet, I have no desire to seek the limelight, to become even moderately famous – not as me, the real me anyway.

So here’s that contradiction (no, I hadn’t forgotten): I want to be a successful author of fiction, yet I don’t seek fame. Hmm… becoming successful in most fields of the arts requires the artist to become well-known. In the field of literature, this means the author’s name has to become familiar to readers. There are way too many indie authors out there – the more well-known a writer’s name becomes, the more visible he or she will be among the milling masses. To use a more business-like expression: it’s about building a brand. So, success without a modicum of fame? Ain’t going to happen.

Going with a pseudonym was, therefore, a non-brainer. There were other reasons, such as being the sort of reserved person hopeless at blowing his own trumpet (it’s a lot easier to promote Sam Kates than it would to be to promote me), but the overriding one was to impose a degree of separation between writing and my private life.

By and large, then, having a pen-name has been a help. Today, for the first time, it became a hindrance. The local newspaper had agreed to run a feature about my new apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing. The reporter who interviewed me e-mailed this afternoon to say that his senior editors would only publish the piece on condition that they used my real name. After a little soul-searching, I told him that I didn’t want to proceed under that condition. Some of you might be thinking, “Fool! You’ve just given up some free advertising!” and you’d be right. My publishers, when they find out, may be displeased, though I think (hope) they’ll understand. But I’m certain I’ve made the correct call.

Not that my real name is a great secret. Anyone who knows me knows I write under the name Sam Kates. Anyone with a little computer savvy who can be bothered could probably find my real name online within minutes. But given what I said above about why I used a pen-name in the first place, to start announcing my real name to the world (or at least this small part of it on the edge of the South Wales valleys) seems self-defeating and more than a little hypocritical. If that means I’m going to miss out on promotional opportunities, (with apologies to my publishers) so be it. I’ll just have to work harder at other methods of promotion and, more importantly, writing books that readers find entertaining.

Hindrance or not, Sam Kates is rolling up his sleeves…

Baring the Soul

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

I posted this on Facebook last night:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

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

Melodramatic? Maybe.

True nonetheless? I think so.

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.]