On Being a Writer

This was an interview for a blog that appeared in January 2015, the month that the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy was published. At that time, I was working in a full-time regular job and was signed to a small-press publisher. Seems like a lifetime ago.

One thing that struck me when I read this over for the first time in six years: if I had to answer the final question again on giving advice to new authors, I don’t think my advice would be very different now from what it was then.

On with the interview…

What is your book about?

The Beacon is the second book in the Earth Haven trilogy that began with The Cleansing. The trilogy is post-apocalyptic science fiction, a long tale about how humankind is brought to its knees by a manufactured virus. Who developed this virus and why… can’t say too much here as it will spoil it for new readers, but the makers have their reasons. The Cleansing deals with the spread of the virus and the immediate aftermath. In The Beacon, the handful of survivors face a new threat – as if they haven’t been through enough already, bless them. Again, it’s difficult to reveal too much. The book’s blurb contains about as much as I can say without spoiling anything.

How did you choose the title?

I’m not the best at coming up with titles. Titles to every book in the Earth Haven trilogy (the third is provisionally called The Reckoning) have all been used, frequently, by other authors. My publishers are too nice to say so, but I think my lack of originality with titles drives them a little to distraction. Having said that, each title is apt for the content of the book. Also, each title becomes unique (I believe) when coupled with the name of the series. The Beacon: Earth Haven Book 2 is unique (popping off to Google to check…)

Why did you write the book?

The Earth Haven trilogy was, in a sense, at least fifteen years in the making. Back then, I wrote a short story called ‘The Third Coming’ (it’s one of the stories in my collection Pond Life). It’s a tale of a young boy who, in a post-apocalytpic world in which all his family has died, stumbles across an old man in the Welsh countryside. The man is watching the clear summer skies, waiting for someone – or something – to arrive. During their time together, the boy hears things that he finds difficult to believe, such as what actually killed the dinosaurs, the true purpose of Stonehenge and the origins of mankind.

Even as I finished writing that story, I suspected that it contained seeds of ideas, two in particular, that would continue to grow: a manufactured virus, designed to wipe out most of the human population in one fell swoop; an alien species living amongst us, as us, yet willing to eliminate us to pave the way for the rest of their species to make Earth their home.

And so it proved. The ideas nagged at me like an itch beneath a plastercast. The vaguest outline of a story – a long story – began to form in the muddied depths of my mind. And questions. Lots of questions, most of them starting What if…? What if a superior, though greatly outnumbered, species lived unnoticed among us? What if they were only an advance party and the rest of their civilisation is on its way? To what lengths would they go to ensure the safe arrival of their compatriots?

In May 2013, the itch became unbearable and I sat at my computer and typed a scene in which the effects of a deadly virus are described. (This scene was to form the beginning of Chapter Six of the finished novel.) A little over nine feverish weeks later, the first draft of The Cleansing was completed.

Within days of embarking on that first draft, it became obvious that there was way too much story to fit one reasonably-sized novel. So I was faced with a choice: write a doorstop that no one might buy (would you buy a book the size of a brick by a virtual unknown?), or break it down into a trilogy. I opted for the trilogy.

Describe your writing process.

Write the first draft as it comes without worrying about typos. I do carry out any required research as I go along or beforehand if I can foresee it will be required. The latter, though, is rare because I do not outline novels in advance. I’ve tried but that method doesn’t work for me. I usually, though not always, have an ending in mind but little idea at the outset how the characters will reach that point.

When the first draft is done (usually with a huge sense of relief), I let it sit for at least four weeks before starting to edit. During that time, I try to not even think about it. That way, I read it as if someone else had written it. Makes it a lot easier to notice things like spelling mistakes, inconsistencies, confusing passages, etc. During that first pass, I fix things like plot holes, over-description, repetition; I’ll also build in any amendments I need to make consequent upon comments from beta readers. Usually, the word count comes down during this pass as I weed out over-written passages. Having said that, I’m noticing that I tend to overwrite a lot less than I used to and make fewer typing errors so am producing cleaner copy.

At least another two passes will follow, the last concentrating solely on spelling, grammar and punctuation and usually carried out on my Kindle. It’s amazing how many errors I pick up this way that were missed while reading on a computer screen.

Do you have a favourite part of the writing process?

Editing the first draft, particularly during that first read-through. It’s only then that I gain any sense of how good (or bad) the story is. I think of the first draft as a lump of clay with only the vague outline of a face shaped into it. Each editing pass refines the face’s features, adding texture and definition, bringing out the character of the subject.

What’s your favourite scene from your latest release?

When I was a child, I remember watching The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, based (rather loosely) on Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. There’s a scene that has stuck in my mind for many years (we’re talking more than forty) where Heston’s character is wandering through a department store and finds himself in the men’s clothing section. He starts pulling clothes off hangers and from racks, trying them on, discarding some by letting them drop to the floor, leaving on those he likes. That sense of absolute freedom struck a chord in my child’s mind. I began fantasising about being the last person left alive; about the fun I could have. It tended to involve sweet shops and toy stores. It completely ignored the sense of desolation and utter hopelessness that would strike to my very core if I ever did find myself in such a situation. But, hey, I was six. Sweets and toys were high on my list of priorities.

What has this to do with The Beacon? My sense of childlike wonder at that scene from The Omega Man has never fully left me. The Beacon introduces two new characters who didn’t appear in the first book: Bri is 16, Will is 10. They find themselves making their way through central London, now occupied only by corpses, dogs and vermin. They’re in Knightsbridge when Will, who’s from London, points out that they’re near Harrods. Bri has never been to the city before and isn’t really one for designer clothes or jewellery. Nevertheless, her eyes light up because she still has that sense of wonder deep at her core – I believe most of us do. Needless to say, they spend a pleasurable few hours in the store

Have you ever queried agents and publishers?

Yes, when I first started writing fiction in the mid to late nineties. I accumulated quite a bundle of rejections and grew fed up of the thud! of the self-addressed brown envelope containing my manuscript hitting the doormat.

Where are your books for sale?

As well as Amazon, they’re available on sites like iTunes, GooglePlay, Kobo and Barnes & Noble, and most other online retailers.

How do you make time to market your current book while writing your next book?

I work full-time so it’s a constant battle to find quality time to spend writing. Consequently, I prioritise writing over marketing, sometimes to the exclusion of the latter. Perhaps not the ideal strategy, but when spare time is precious we have to spend it doing what’s most important.

What advice would you give a new author intending to self-publish?

Here are some generalisations (since there are always exceptions to every rule) based upon my own experiences to date, and aimed at those looking to make a living from their endeavours:

  • If you go into this expecting to throw a book out there and grow rich, you’re in for a major disappointment.
  • Write the best book of which you’re capable.
  • Edit, edit and edit again. If you have a budget, consider employing the services of a professional editor. Be wary, though, and exercise due diligence. For every good editor out there, there are a handful of people charging for editing services who don’t know an adverb from an adjective, an ellipsis from an em-dash, a… you get the idea.
  • Obtain the best cover you can buy within your budget (or, if you’re one of those clever clogs who can design professional-looking covers yourself, make sure to use a professional-looking font).
  • Be prepared at some point to spend money on advertising. Best wait until you have a few titles available first, though.
  • Join some good online forums and read as much advice about the business as you can. I find The Writers’ Café on Kboards is packed with invaluable information. Be wary – not all advice you’ll receive online is good advice or is right for you. Listen to it all; be selective in which bits you follow.
  • If you can’t handle criticism or frustration, if you’re not prepared to put in hour after hour of hard work for week after week and month upon month for little or no immediate financial reward, if you can’t pick yourself up off the floor and come out fighting, then you should carefully consider whether this business is for you. There are easier ways to make a living.

[Next time I’m due to post to my blog in two weeks’ time, I’ll be away for a much-needed change of scenery, so the blog will be back in four weeks. Till then…]

Favourite Novels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enough blathering. On with the list.

1. Imajica – Clive Barker


Imajica

2. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown


The Da Vinci Code

3. The Road – Cormack McCarthy


The Road

4. The Day of the Jackal* – Frederick Forsyth


The Day of the Jackal

5. IT – Stephen King


IT

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


The Lord of the Rings

7. Shadowland – Peter Straub


Shadowland

8. Rape of the Fair Country – Alexander Cordell


Rape of the Fair Country

9. Men at Arms* – Terry Pratchett


Men At Arms

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


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

11. Salem’s Lot – Stephen King


Salem’s Lot

12. Dracula – Bram Stoker


Dracula

13. Run For Your Life – David Line


Run For Your Life

14. The Fog – James Herbert


The Fog

15. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway


The Old Man and the Sea

16. Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card


Ender’s Game

17. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein


The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

18. The Valley of Adventure* – Enid Blyton


The Valley of Adventure

19. Dark Matter – Michelle Paver


Dark Matter

20. Red Dragon – Thomas Harris


Red Dragon

21. I Am Legend – Richard Matheson


I Am Legend

22. Five on a Treasure Island* – Enid Blyton


Five on a Treasure Island

23. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

24. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut


Cat’s Cradle

25. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte


Wuthering Heights

26. Wolf Hall – Hilary Mantell


Wolf Hall

27. Riddley Walker – Russell Holban


Riddley Walker

28. Life of Pi – Yann Martell


Life Of Pi

29. The Stand – Stephen King


The Stand

30. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak


The Book Thief

31. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger


The Time Traveler’s Wife

32. Catch-22 – Joseph Heller


Catch-22

33. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd* – Agatha Christie


The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

34. 1984 – George Orwell


1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four

35. Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood


Oryx And Crake

36. Something Wicked This Way Comes – Ray Bradbury


Something Wicked This Way Comes

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


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

38. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline


Ready Player One

39. Watership Down – Richard Adams


Watership Down

40. Legend* – David Gemmell


Legend

41. World War Z – Max Brookes


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

42. The Gone-Away World – Nick Harkaway


The Gone-Away World

43. The Last Days of Jack Sparks – Jason Arnopp


The Last Days of Jack Sparks

44. The Eyre Affair* – Jasper Fforde


The Eyre Affair

45. The Talisman – Stephen King & Peter Straub


The Talisman

46. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury


Fahrenheit 451

47. The Long Walk – Richard Bachman


The Long Walk

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


The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever

49. Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny


Lord Of Light

50. Tom’s Midnight Garden – Philippa Pearce


Tom’s Midnight Garden

 

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

Coming soon: Favourite Films.

 

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