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How to find your way around

I’ve been blogging for a while now and the number of posts has grown. Time to pin a short post here to advise anyone unfamiliar with WordPress sites how to navigate around the blog. Let’s say you’re a writer interested in posts about marketing or grammar, you probably don’t want to be scrolling down oodles of posts you’re not interested in. There’s a search function and previous posts are archived according to month posted, but the simplest way is to use the Categories menu. It’s on the right—you might need to scroll down a little way to find it. Simply click on the category you’re interested in and you’ll be presented with the posts relevant to that subject-matter. The system’s not perfect—there are some posts that come under more than one category—but it’s the easiest method to find your way around.

Oh, and if you want to leave a comment or read existing comments, you have to be on the post’s page (by clicking its title), rather than on a page containing more than one post.

Please note that links to the Amazon UK site will usually be affiliate links, meaning I earn a small amount of commission from any purchases made after following the links.  They don’t affect the prices you pay Amazon. 

Ho Ho Bloody Ho

Purple baubles on dark background

Another year passes. Another year marked by wars and hatred and lies and stupidity.

In short, another year of shittiness. And here in the UK we seem intent on becoming the masters of all things shitty. There have been occasions this past year when I’ve felt a little ashamed to be British. As I’ve said before, this isn’t the place, and I’m not the person, to embark on political rants, but Rwanda. Sigh.

As we left 2022 behind, I wished for a kinder 2023. Might as well have wished to become an international bestseller with multiple movie deals. (Yeah, yeah, all right, I wish for that every year.)

It seems it is too much to expect people to try to get along with others despite them having different coloured skin, or worshipping a different god—or even the same god but in a different way… sigh—or having a different sexual orientation, or any of the myriad other ways we humans can differ from one another.

To shamelessly pinch a line from The Simpsons, Jesus must be turning in his grave.

Talking of graves, let’s spare a thought for those who have gone to theirs.

We said goodbye to more greats this year, including the gorgeous Raquel Welch (I’ll never forget seeing her in a fur bikini in the film One Million Years B.C.), Alan Arkin (who will always, to me, be Yossarian), and Cormac McCarthy (who wrote one of the bleakest yet utterly compelling post-apocalyptic novels I’ve read, The Road), to name but a few.

And Shane MacGowan has gone to join Kirsty MacColl at the smoke-wreathed piano in the sky, where I imagine them belting out my favourite Christmas tune ‘Fairytale of New York’.

But enough doom and gloom. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life as a grumpy old man, though finding stuff to be positive about in today’s world is not easy. Trying to be upbeat these days feels a bit like peeing into the wind, only without the damp trousers.

I’ll include a snap below of me smiling into the lens, Milo by my side, with our digital Santa hats on. And I’m going to keep telling myself that humanity is ultimately good and raise a glass to a kinder 2024.

Two frothing glasses of beer clinking together

And yet…

I can’t help but feel this is forced optimism in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I’m the turkey cheerfully wishing that next Christmas everyone will have turned vegetarian.

So, bollocks to it. Ebenezer Scrooge it is, then. Altogether now, in our best Bah Humbug voices:

Ho ho bloody ho.

Sam Kates and his dog Milo wearing Santa hats

Cover to Cover – Part 1

I started writing this post assuming I could fit all I have to say on this subject into one reasonably sized article. It quickly became apparent how foolish that assumption was so I went back and added ‘Part 1’ to the title. There’ll definitely be a Part 2 along soon, probably followed at some point by a Part 3. After that, who knows?

But let’s focus on this part. It’s essentially the background to my recent decision to change all my book covers and I’m going to start with a well-known saying:

Never judge a book by its cover.

We’ve all heard the expression, though I’d bet my last penny we all do it. At the very least, it’s usually the cover that first draws our attention. Do you ever pick up a book while browsing in a bookshop (or click a link online) that your gaze would otherwise have slid past if it wasn’t for the cover? Occasionally a title or author’s name will attract me, but more often than not it’s the cover that first catches my eye.

It’s obvious that, from an author’s point-of-view, covers are pretty important­­—at least to authors who want to sell lots of books. When I parted company with my small-press publisher in March 2018 and decided to take the opportunity to become fully self-sufficient at publishing my own work, I knew that designing covers would be one of the quickest new skills I’d need to acquire and would involve one of the steepest learning curves.

Indeed. The only thing that’s proved to be tougher is learning how to produce my own audiobooks—I’ve blogged extensively about the challenges I faced there and I won’t repeat them now. (If you want to read about them, type ‘audiobooks’ into the site’s search bar; there are nine posts in total. Mind, they’re not for the faint of heart, especially the later posts, concerning themselves as they do with the basics of audio editing.)

After parting company with my publisher, I acquired a photograph-editing program called Affinity and learned how to use it. (By ‘learned how to use it’ I mean that after hour upon hour of trial and error, and painstakingly poring over instructional videos with the mouse cursor hovering over the pause button, I picked up sufficient of the basics to enable me to design simple covers, but have barely scratched the surface of Affinity’s capabilities.)

I had published a few books myself while still signed up to the publisher. (I wasn’t doing anything wrong—I had no contract with the publisher for the books I self-published.) The covers I used for these were either off-the-shelf designs with my name and the book’s title added (e.g. That Elusive Something), or kindly designed by my brother (e.g. the three Elevator ebooks), or cobbled together by me in a handy website called Canva (e.g. Ghosts of Christmas Past—Canva is a great site for designing ebook covers, though wasn’t as good then for the greater resolution required for paperback covers; I don’t know what it’s like these days).

Five books reverted back to me from the small press: Pond Life, the Earth Haven trilogy and The Village of Lost Souls. Apart from one (Pond Life, for which I used Canva), I designed new covers myself—both ebook and, even more of a challenge, paperback—using Affinity. I knew they weren’t great, but they were the best I could do at that time.

Aside from some minor tweaks, my covers have pretty much remained the same since. Even though it’s always been at the back of my mind that they needed improving, there was always something more pressing to be done, such as writing the next tale or producing the next audiobook. Changing just-about-adequate covers for new ones unlikely to be such a huge improvement as to justify the time spent wasn’t high on my list of priorities.

So why change them now? That’ll be the subject of Part 2.

Until then…

Mediterranean Musings

Image of the P&O cruiseship Britannia
P&O’s Britannia

So Mrs Kates and I mooched off to the Mediterranean for a much-delayed two-week cruise that was supposed to be to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. As it happened, it was the day of our 33rd anniversary that we set off for Southampton.

The lead-up hadn’t gone well, making us wonder whether a holiday can be jinxed. The Cursed Cruise­­—sounds like a title from The Three Investigators series of books. That was down to me.

Around five weeks before the cruise, I suffered an infection in my left forearm from some insect bites. I do a lot of walking in the countryside and the culprit was probably a horsefly—the little sods seem to like tucking into me. It necessitated a course of strong antibiotics and, we think, triggered the worst attack of psoriasis* I’ve ever experienced. My usual go-to steroid treatment didn’t touch it.

Worse, the day before we were due to leave, I noticed fresh red marks (not psoriasis patches) on my right shin and calf. They were slightly swollen, hot and tender to the touch. Fresh insect bites—again, probably horseflies—and too late to do anything about them. Bugger.

Image of a horsefly
Horsefly, aka little sod

After a day or two aboard ship, my lower leg looked as though it had a severe case of sunburn and had swollen so much I could only manage to fit into one pair of shoes in the evenings, a low-backed pair of slip-ons. The onboard doctor diagnosed cellulitis and prescribed another course of strong antibiotics. Ideally, I needed to rest my leg and keep it elevated. Easier said than done on a cruise.

We were determined not to allow these mishaps to ruin the holiday and we had a good time despite them. What follows is a brief recount of some of the highlights. Since this blog is mainly about writing and reading, I’ll mix in some literary flavour where I can.

A word or two about the ship and some of the passengers we encountered. Britannia is a ship we haven’t sailed on before, but we will definitely be keen to board her again. Although she’s big, we rarely felt overwhelmed by crowded spaces. The staff are, as always on P&O ships in our experience, approachable and incredibly hard-working, and massively enhance our enjoyment of the holiday.

We chatted to quite a few of our fellow passengers in bars or restaurants or around the decks, and unfailingly encountered friendly people, with more than a smattering of fellow Welshies. But it was in the main dining room we struck gold. We had club dining, meaning we had the same table reserved at the same time every evening in one of the main restaurants. We shared our table with an awesome young couple from Liverpool (one of them is originally from Manchester, she’ll want me to make known) and, despite (or, maybe, because of) the generation gap, hit it off immediately.

We didn’t eat in the main dining room every evening, and neither did the young couple, but when we were all there at the same time, the evening passed in a flash of lively chit-chat and reminiscing about how much we were missing our pets at home: cats Taco and Nacho in their case, pooch Milo in ours. They celebrated their 5th wedding anniversary while in port at Ibiza and went ashore for a celebratory meal where they met and had photos with a well-known club DJ. My and Mrs K’s clubbing days being far in the past, we hadn’t heard of him, but the couple’s enthusiasm was so infectious we felt as though we were fans, too.

Our waiters often had to stand about waiting for us to stop yakking so they could finish clearing away. (Sorry, Birini and Sonam, you were fantastic, too.) A huge thank you to our lovely table fellows A and C, you helped to make our cruise a memorable one. And come on, you Reds!

Image of dog
Milo (badly in need of a trim)

It being a cruise, there were, naturally, ports of call. Here they are, in the order in which we visited them, with an occasional bookish note and snap from the hundreds we took.

Gibraltar

We have visited Gibraltar on many previous cruises and it has become one of our favourite ports. I like to partake of a pint of San Miguel in one of the local pubs and Mrs K enjoys a glass of sangria in the main square while watching the world (well, at any event, the passengers from whichever ships are in that day) go by.

We’ve explored most of the Rock, inside and out, but this time decided to visit the Trafalgar Cemetery at the far end of Main Street. It was well worth the stroll through the intense heat (to which we hadn’t yet had time to become acclimatised­­­, though a pitstop for liquid refreshment eased our path). The cemetery is a place of great tranquility amidst the hustle and bustle of touristy Main Street. It contains two graves of sailors who took part in the Battle of Trafalgar and died of their wounds on Gibraltar. I found myself a little awestruck.

Image of sign outside Trafalgar Cemetery, Gibraltar
Gibraltar

Ibiza

Although we have enjoyed holidays on the Balearic islands of Mallorca and Menorca, this was our first visit to their sister island Ibiza. We wanted to see as much as we could in the limited time available so opted for a guided excursion to the north of the island, taking in quaint villages and picturesque resorts, before stopping for a bite to eat and some liquid refreshment in Santa Eularia.

Image of yacht in bay
Ibiza

Palma, Mallorca

We had nothing planned here as we’ve visited a few times before. We just got off the ship and went for a little wander.

French novelist Albert Camus (I’ve read The Stranger and The Plague) stayed in Palma in 1935 and apparently met his first wife in Mallorca. Totally unrelated, the pic is of a gun emplacement outside San Carlos military museum that overlooks the cruise terminal.

Image of gun emplacement
Palma

Cagliari, Sardinia

Here we spent a cultural morning being entertained by Sardinian folk dancers and singers, while sampling local sweets and cheeses and wines. A most enjoyable morning, indeed.

Sardinia is the subject of a travel book, Sea and Sardinia, about a visit to the island, including Cagliari, by D.H.Lawrence and his wife in 1921.

Image of sun rising over island of Sardinia
Sunrise, Sardinia

Malaga

One of the oldest cities in the world, Malaga is known as ‘the land of poets’. Hemingway is said to have written his nonfiction work The Dangerous Summer while staying in the city.

We took an excursion to visit Marbella, which we found a little disappointing with its preponderance of high-rise, soulless buildings (at least in the part which we got to see), and Puerto Banus, with its array of billionaire’s yachts lining the marina partly shrouded by an eerie sea mist, the occasional Ferrari and Lamborghini parked alongside. How the other half live, eh.

Image of expensive yacht in marina
Puerto Banus

Cadiz

One of my favourite books from my early teens was Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie. I also enjoyed his follow-up As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, Lee’s memoir of his 19-year-old self’s journey to and around a Spain about to be engulfed in civil war. He leaves his home in rural Gloucestershire (the setting for Cider With Rosie) and sets off for London, calling in Southampton along the way. In Spain, he starts at Vigo (a port we have been to on a previous cruise) and visits Cadiz, Gibraltar and Malaga. His description of Cadiz is evocative: ‘…a city of sharp incandescence, a scribble of white on a sheet of blue glass, lying curved in the bay like a scimitar and sparkling with African light.’

We, too, are fond of Cadiz and took this opportunity for a wander around parts of the city we haven’t seen previously, before eventually settling—sweaty, footsore and thirsty—in a pavement bar near the port, where we enjoyed a late lunch and a beer or two. Mrs K watched agog when she asked for a glass of sangria and they descended upon our table armed with five bottles of alcoholic beverages and a bottle of lemonade. They proceeded to mix her a sangria by sloshing ‘measures’ into the glass. “How is it?” I enquired. “Delicious,” she replied, “though strong.” Hic

Image of Cadiz cathedral
Cadiz cathedral

 

If you’re been detecting a bit of a theme, you could be right. It’s probably fair to say that when we go on a cruise, we tend to eat and drink our way around the Mediterranean, or Baltic or Norwegian Seas…

Here’s to the next time. Cheers!

Image of Sam & Mrs Kates raising champagne glasses
Back on board for a champagne sailaway

 

* I’ve suffered with psoriasis for many years, a condition which causes my body to produce too many skin cells, making the skin on parts of my body (usually my knuckles, elbows, knees and ankles) inflamed and flaky. Actually, ‘suffered’ is overstating it. It’s not contagious, doesn’t cause me much discomfort apart from occasional mild itchiness and is usually controlled by ointments prescribed by my GP. It’s never been so bad that I’ve needed to see a dermatologist about it. Until now.

Musings on Writing – Part 3

This is the final part of a lengthy set of interview questions I completed to be featured on a fellow writer’s blog in January 2019. More than four years ago… where has that time gone?

As usual with these reproduced interviews, I’ve changed the wording of the questions for copyright reasons, but without changing the questions’ meaning. The answers I haven’t touched except that, where relevant, I’ve added the occasional update in square brackets after my original answer.

Which actors would you like to play the main characters if your books were made into films?

Quite honestly, if any of my books were made into films, I’d be thrilled regardless of who was cast in the lead roles.

[I do a lot of walking, especially in spring and summer. When I’m approaching a forbidding hill, I often try to distract myself by mentally playing out fantasies about becoming a famous author and suchlike. A favourite is deciding who would play the characters from The Cleansing in a film. Not only is it good fun, it can get me up a hill without noticing how steep it was.]

Name one person you’d love to meet.

It’s difficult to choose only one, but I’ll plump for Stephen King. I grew up with his books and would love to chat with him about writing, over a beer or coffee.

Do you have any hobbies?

I’m a member of a pub quiz team and I watch a lot of rugby and football—I’m past the age where I can play without endangering my joints. Does drinking beer count as a hobby?

Are there any TV shows or films you enjoy watching?

I never seem to find the time to watch a great deal of television. My go-to shows are The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones. I’ll always make time to watch films—although my preference is for science fiction, fantasy and horror, I’ll give almost anything a go.

[Both TV shows mentioned have now finished. I recently enjoyed The OA and Manifest. I’m watching the Star Wars spin-offs and making my way through Stranger Things. I still watch a variety of films.]

What are your favourite foods?

Ribeye steak, curry, pizza, though not all at the same time.

Starsign and lucky number?

Scorpio—a typical one, says my wife, whatever that means. I don’t have a lucky number.

What is your favourite colour?

Since it’s the colour two of my favourite sports teams play in and the colour of the dragon on the Welsh flag, I’d have to say red.

What sort of music would accompany your latest book?

My work in progress is edging towards dark fantasy. As such, I imagine it to be Celtic music similar to that in the Lord of the Rings trilogy meets the soundtrack of Halloween.

If you could no longer write, what would you do?

That’s a scary question. I have recently started a part-time proofreading/copyediting business so I guess I’d concentrate more on that.

[I no longer offer the proofreading service. To edit someone else’s work thoroughly is a time-consuming process, one that doesn’t sit easily alongside my own writing and audiobook production. Something had to give.]

If you only had twenty-four hours to live how would you spend it?

That’s an even scarier question. I’d spend it with my family, making sure they know how I feel about them. There would probably also be beer.

What would you write on your head stone?

Here lies he who never gave less than his best.

Did you make any mistakes with your first book?

Probably, but it was a long time ago now and it’s published (The Village of Lost Souls) so I try not to think about it. But since you’ve asked… damn it.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Read extensively, inside and outside the genres in which you want to be published. And, of course, write as often and as much as you can. Prepare yourself for disappointments—almost everyone gets rejected somewhere along the way—and, above all, persevere.

Who do you turn to for help?

In a writing sense? I’ll always seek out my brother’s opinion. But, ultimately, I follow my own instincts.

 

Wow—that really was a long interview.

Till next time, whenever that might be…

Musings on Writing – Part 2

This is the second part of a lengthy set of interview questions I completed to be featured on a fellow writer’s blog in January 2019.

As usual with these reproduced interviews, I’ve changed the wording of the questions for copyright reasons, but without changing the questions’ meaning. The answers I haven’t touched except that, where relevant, I’ve added the occasional update in square brackets after my original answer.

Image of fountain pen writing on paper

 

 

 

 

 

What music do you listen to while writing?

I envy writers who can work with music playing in the background. That’s not for me, I regret. It has to be quiet so I can escape into the world I’m creating without distraction.

Name one indispensable aid to writing.

Coffee.

Image of coffee cup brimming with frothy coffee

Is there any part of the publishing process you detest?

If by ‘publishing’ you mean the narrow process of getting polished manuscript to distributor, there’s no part of that I detest. But if we’re talking about the wider process, then the most detestable thing to me—though, sadly, a necessary evil—is marketing. I’m a complete muppet at it. I’m also not keen on writing the first draft of a novel—it always feels a little like pulling teeth.

[The title of my long-running series of blog posts about marketing—Marketing for Muppets—remains apt.]

What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve faced to becoming a writer?

Finding the time has always been one of my biggest problems, at least until about eighteen months ago. Then I went part-time in my regular job and my writing productivity shot up.

[When I gave this interview, the possibility of taking early retirement in November that year hadn’t yet occurred to me. It was during a chance conversation in work a couple of months later that a colleague mentioned we could take early retirement at 55 and a flashbulb went off in my head—my Archimedes-in-the-bath moment.]

One word on plain background: Eureka!

Who are your go-to authors?

Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, Tolkien… countless others. They remind me what it feels like to become lost in a fantastic world and why I wanted to write in the first place.

Do you market your books?

I run Amazon ads on the first book of both completed trilogies. The ads just about pay for themselves in terms of sales of the books so advertised, but the real benefit comes in follow-through sales of the sequels. I also blog about writing, reading and publishing, which I enjoy but also regard as a form of marketing.

[Amazon advertising, so effective for me then, has since gone drastically downhill as it has become so expensive and effectively priced me out of the market. I have also dabbled in Facebook advertising, with mixed results. I feel I’m almost back to square one when it comes to marketing, nearly as invisible as when I started out. As for blogging, I have stopped posting to a fixed schedule because I was finding it was interfering with the writing and audiobook production, and becoming a chore. So I now blog irregularly and it feels like fun again.]

Do readers ever get in touch with you?

It does sometimes happen, usually through my author Facebook page, or more occasionally by e-mail. I’ve been lucky that they’ve never been less than complimentary about my work.

[Reader interaction has since largely died away, which I suppose is inevitably a result of reduced visibility. In common with most writers, I have received less-than-glowing comments on my work in reviews. I’m not complaining—it’s an occupational hazard.]

Is there anyone you trust to read your draft work?

I have a few trusted beta readers, the main one being my brother. If he says something needs to be changed, I listen.

Describe your first book signing.

I’ve never done one and, unless it was essential for furthering my writing career, I’d shy away from ever doing one.

What message are you trying to pass to readers through your work?

I’m not trying to pass on any messages or make any points with my work. They’re stories told for the sheer enjoyment of telling them and to entertain the reader. If, as a by-product, they make the reader think, that’s a bonus.

Image of the sculpture 'The Thinker' 

There’ll be a Part 3 along shortly. Till then…

Merry flipping Christmas

Headshot of author wearing a Santa hat

This time last year I was in a mild state of despondency. Covid was rife, our government was in a bit of a mess, social media was often a cesspit of hatred and misinformation, my book sales weren’t great, and advertising was growing increasingly expensive and ineffective.

I wish I could say all or some of those things have improved. But, nah.

We’re learning to live with it, but covid is still very much with us. We’ve had not one but two changes of prime minister, and I’m not convinced the current incumbent is much of an upgrade on his predecessors. Social media is as rancid as it ever was. My sales still aren’t much to write home about, and I remain extremely wary of the cost and effectiveness of advertising.

But so much more shittiness (you’ll have to excuse my French—it’s difficult to talk about the current state of this world without resorting to the occasional swear word) has happened in this past year.

The new year had barely begun when, without warning, I lost one of my oldest friends. His funeral in London on a mild day in late January was, as you might imagine, a desperately sad affair.

Also in early January, we watched our televisions disbelievingly as what looked like an attempted coup unfolded across the pond when rioters stormed the US Capitol, apparently with the blessing of or, at least, lack of condemnation from the outgoing president.

The following month and Russia invaded Ukraine, bringing World War III significantly nearer to becoming a reality. Massive hikes to energy prices followed and a consequent cost-of-living crisis.

Inflation has been rampant and interest rates keep increasing to try to counter it. Some believe Brexit has also played a significant role in the current mess we’re in, not to mention a bizarre mini-budget from the previous PM and her Chancellor that sent the financial markets into a blind panic.

Summer temperatures soared in the UK as new records were set and we all wilted like last week’s lettuce.

Then, in September, Queen Elizabeth II died. She was the only monarch I’d ever known and, though I’m by no means a royalist, it was a time of deep sorrow—it felt as though we’d lost a constant presence in our lives that we’d not even been aware of until it had gone.

It was also a surreal time as people queued for days to view her coffin lying in state in the Palace of Westminster and a television channel was devoted to seeing those paying their respects filing past. I sometimes turned over to watch it for a while.

Currently there are strikes everywhere you look, from rail workers to nurses. Last year, the government urged us to clap for the NHS staff who worked so selflessly during the pandemic; now the same government would have us believe they’re being selfish for expecting to be paid a living wage. Sigh. This isn’t the place, and I’m not the person, to go off on political rants. Still, sigh.

That was 2022. A year of loss, insurrection, war, economic turmoil, weather extremes, political and royal upheaval.

There’s undoubtedly a recession looming. We can only hope Armageddon isn’t.

Shit happens, as the saying goes, though it’s a little mild to describe what’s happened this past twelve months. Dumbfuckery of the highest order is more accurate. Little wonder my sense of despondency has, if anything, deepened.

When I was seventeen, I appeared in the school play. It contained a line I still quote, usually accompanied by an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders, whenever dumbfuckery is occurring. It’s especially apt now:

Hey ho, such is life.

Have yourself the merriest flipping Christmas (or whatever) and here’s to a kinder 2023. Perhaps if enough of us say it often enough, more kindness will happen. No, I’m not going to hold my breath either.

Image of cute dog in reindeer suit

 

Musings on Writing – Part 1

This is the first part of a lengthy set of interview questions I completed to be featured on a fellow writer’s blog in January 2019. The original interview is so long I’ve split it into three parts.

As usual with these reproduced interviews, I’ve changed the wording of the questions for copyright reasons, but without changing the questions’ meaning. The answers I haven’t touched except that, where relevant, I’ve added the occasional update in square brackets after my original answer.

Fountain pen writing cursive characters

Why did you decide to become a writer?

Since learning to read as a four- or five-year-old, I’ve read voraciously. Writing seemed the natural progression. I still marvel at worlds other authors have created, but now I create my own, too.

What are you aiming to release next?

I’m aiming to release a new novel later this year. It will be a standalone fantasy, though a chunky one of around 180,000 words. A collection of dark novellas might come before it—depends which I finish first.

[The collection of dark novellas, Moths, was published later that year, in August, but—due to the time-drain of producing my own audiobooks—I’m only 70,000-words into the fantasy novel. I love the note of cheery, but wildly misplaced, optimism in my January 2019 answer.]


Moths: A trio of dark novellas

Do you think it’s important that aspiring authors should read widely?

I think it’s vital. No doubt there are exceptions but, generally speaking, I don’t see how anyone can hope to become an accomplished writer without reading a lot of books. It would be like hoping to become a cabinet maker without trying to understand how cabinets are put together.

What was the first book you remember reading?

Other than Dick and Jane, or whatever they were called, in nursery school (‘Run, Dick, run!’), it was probably one of the Enid Blyton books about the wishing chair or the enchanted wood. Her books opened my child’s eyes to the endless possibilities to be discovered on a page.


The Enchanted Wood

What are you reading at the moment?

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m also picking away at Infinite Jest, but I’m finding it a challenge, to put it mildly, so don’t anticipate finishing it any time soon.

[I thoroughly enjoyed Aurora. I’m still picking away at Infinite Jest.]


Aurora

Tell us about a series you’ve written and how you came up with the title.

I have two complete series—The Elevator and Earth Haven trilogies. The idea for Earth Haven came from a short story I wrote at the turn of the millennium about a young man who survives a plague that wipes out almost the entire population of the world. The title of the series came from how some of the characters refer to our planet—to them, it represents a haven to which to escape their own dying planet many light years away.

Earth Haven series

Is there a character you identify with in your books?

I don’t identify with any of the characters in my books, with one possible exception. The only novel I’ve written that doesn’t come under the broad umbrella of speculative fiction is called That Elusive Something. It’s about a professional in his early thirties who yearns for something more. Funnily enough, when I wrote it I was a lawyer in my early thirties yearning for something more.


That Elusive Something

Is your work based on real life events?

Since most of the stuff I write is horror or science fiction or fantasy, I’d have led a damned peculiar existence if my books came from true-life experiences.

Do you only base your stories in places you’ve visited?

I’ve based parts of books in Sydney and Los Angeles, and Wick in Scotland, places I’ve never visited. That’s when Google Earth is your friend.

Earth viewed from space

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’ll be a couple more parts along shortly. Till then…

Audiobooks – Part 9

In Part 8, I talked about my old audio editing process, emphasising how time-consuming it was, and my acquisition of RX 9 editing software. Here’s the follow-on: my new process.

This involves running various editing routines in RX 9. For instance, I’ll run the ‘Mouth De-click’ routine on a 34-minute track. The routine counts how many clicks it has fixed. Typically, for a track that long, it will fix more than 25,000 clicks. Yep, you read that correctly. 25,000 clicks, that previously I was removing by painstaking fades, consigned to the ether in only a few minutes while I sit and watch with a goofy grin on my face.

There’s a lot of trial and error involved. There are many editing routines in RX 9 and each one has its own settings that can be adjusted to suit your voice. I fiddled around until I found the routines and settings that eradicated most of the extraneous noise without adversely impacting the narration I want to keep. It’s pointless laying out the settings I use because what suits my voice might not suit yours. You’re going to have to experiment until you find what works for you.

When I’ve finished running the various routines in RX 9, I end up with a track that’s significantly cleaner than when I started. Most clicks, pops, overly sibilant esses, slaps, breaths, etc. have disappeared.

Any tenuous excuse to include a dragon

Though not all. A few still remain, which I will remove as before using fades, masked by the Ambience track. And I still need to adjust pauses between sentences, paragraphs, scenes, etc to make them more uniform. However, the time it takes me to edit in Audacity has, at a conservative estimate, been halved. The time I’m saving has made every penny I spent on acquiring RX 9 worth it. Without reservation.

There’s one more change I’ve made to my editing process (from another tip picked up from the Facebook group). Occasionally, RX 9 is too keen and removes a sound I didn’t want to be removed, usually from the end of a sentence. Maybe it will take out an ess sound or remove the final hard syllable at the end of a word like ‘chuckled’ so that it sounds as if I said ‘chuckle’. I could adjust my settings to avoid this possibility, but I’d rather lose the occasional sound I need to keep than keep sounds I want to eradicate.

A simple solution is to add the unedited track as a third track and mute it. On those occasions when I come across a bit of over-vigorous sound removal by RX 9, I find the original section on the third track and simply copy the missing portion of the word back in to the edited track. One or two crossfades to mask the join and I’m good to go.

Here’s a screenshot of what my editing process in Audacity now looks like.

This is a chapter from The Reckoning—I’ve labelled the tracks in red to make it clearer. Track 3 is the original recording which has only been edited to the extent of removing the mistakes as described in Part 6 under Step 1. It’s greyed out because it’s on mute. Track 2 is my track of ‘good silence’ as described in the postscript to Part 6. Track 1 is the original recording, minus mistakes, that has gone through the editing routines in RX 9. Essentially, Track 1 is my master track to which I’m making final edits. When I’ve finished, Track 3 will be deleted, and Tracks 1 and 2 will be mixed together. The resulting track will be mastered and, when the audiobook is complete, uploaded to Audible and Findaway Voices for distribution.

This, in summary, is my new editing process:

  1. 1. Record as normal in Audacity
  2. 2. Export raw recording as WAV file (for back-up; also save it to the cloud)
  3. 3. Delete error sections and resave track (Track 3 in the screenshot)
  4. 4. Export as WAV file and import it into RX 9
  5. 5. Run RX 9 editing routines. These are the ones I use, though there are others:
  6. ‘De-plosive’
  7. ‘Mouth De-click’
  8. ‘De-click’
  9. ‘De-ess’
  10. ‘Voice De-noise’

6. Export edited track as WAV file and import it into Audacity (Track 1 in screenshot)

7. Import ‘Ambience’ into Audacity as second track (Track 2 in screenshot)

8. Import Track 3 (original recording minus mistakes) into Audacity – mute it

9. Edit Track 1 in Audacity as before, using Track 2 to mask fades and Track 3 for restoring any clips overzealously removed by RX9; delete Track 3 before mixing and mastering

Thanks to RX 9, the task of producing the rest of my works in audio has become significantly less daunting. And big thanks to the Facebook group Authors Who Narrate Their Own Audiobooks, whose members are generous with their advice and knowledge sharing.

I’m not sure whether there’ll ever be a Part 10. If not, for the final time, happy listening!

Audiobooks – Part 8


This post in its entirety turned out to be quite lengthy so I’m splitting it in two—there will, therefore, be a Part 9 along shortly.

It’s been a while since I wrote about producing audiobooks. Part 7, about mastering the edited track, was posted on 2nd April 2021. Part 6, about editing, was posted on 21st January 2021—this is the process I want to talk a little more about. As usual with these posts, they’re primarily aimed at writers who are considering producing their own audiobooks but don’t know how to go about it.

This is what I said in Part 6:

I am not claiming this to be the only or best way to edit audio using Audacity. On the contrary, it is not even an advisable method because it is massively time-consuming.

If you managed to wade through the rest of that post, you’ll know what I mean when I said my editing method was massively time-consuming. Although I managed to speed up my process a little by importing a second track of ambient room noise, it took me almost a year—a year!—to edit The Beacon, a novel of 104,000 words.

I took a much-needed break from producing audiobooks. When I returned to them, I procrastinated over embarking on the final novel in the Earth Haven trilogy, The Reckoning, since it’s the longest of them at 106,000 words. I couldn’t face taking a year to produce it. Instead, I finished producing the rest of my short stories in audio format.

Then, in mid-November, I couldn’t put it off any longer; it was time to begin recording The Reckoning. But I was mindful of what I’d also said in Part 6:

There must be quicker, more efficient ways of achieving the same outcome.

I needed to find those ways, and sharpish.

A few months back, knowing I’d eventually need to pick the brains of other authors who produce their own audiobooks, I joined a Facebook group: Authors Who Narrate Their Own Audiobooks. (I’m not sure what their policies are on linking to the group so I’m not going to post a link—if you want to find it, typing the group’s name into the search bar in Facebook should take you there.) I’d kept an eye on posts about editing and noticed discussion about a mysterious (to me) editing tool by iZotope called RX 8. It was time I looked into this in greater detail.

Long story short: RX 8 has now been upgraded to the latest version RX 9, and it was the standard version I needed because it contains a useful little tool called ‘Mouth De-click’. At the full price of $400, it was a little too costly for me. However, by first purchasing RX Elements (a basic package that doesn’t include ‘Mouth De-click’) as part of a Black Friday bundle and then waiting for an upgrade offer, I was able to purchase RX 9 for a combined total of $198 plus taxes, a decent saving.

That was the easy part. Next I had to learn how to use the software. RX 9 contains various editing routines, some (maybe all, I’m not sure) of which can be imported into Audacity as plug-ins. After much trial and error, I decided not to go down the plug-in route, but to edit tracks in RX 9 and then import the edited track into Audacity for fine-tuning.

It’s the editing process in RX 9 where the time saving comes in. And how! The chapters of The Reckoning are fairly lengthy and the unedited recordings are typically over 30 minutes long. Due to my deficiencies as a narrator and the limitations of my daughter’s bedroom as a recording studio, they contain a lot of extraneous noise: clicks, breaths, slurps and slapping and other moist mouth sounds (yeah, I know, eww), creaks, rustling, the occasional sound of distant traffic, mysterious little bangs, and so on.

My old process involved removing each sound in Audacity manually, using a combination of Crossfade Clips and Fade In/Fade Out*, and pasting in a short clip of ambient room noise to mask the fades—as set out in Part 6. That part also mentions the time-saving idea of using an entire track of ambient room noise, which I still do and is indeed a great time-saver in itself. That process, even with the Ambience track, was still massively time-consuming. To edit a 36-minute chapter might take me 30 hours or more. You can see why I needed to find a better way.

And I’m glad to say RX 9 is that better way.

In Part 9, I’ll talk a little about my new process. See you then.

* another way to speed up the editing process is to make use of Audacity’s shortcuts. By assigning two keys to each function, I can employ fades from the keyboard without having to use any dropdown menus. This, too, has helped speed up my editing times significantly.

Tell Them You’re Proud of Them

Barely had the new year begun than the news came through. One of my oldest friends had died.

Howard was fifty-six, a non-smoker, not a heavy drinker. He was slim and active, a member of the RNLI operating on the Thames. He’d run a half-marathon in October. This was a bolt from the blue which hit me, and our other friends, hard. I can only begin to imagine how it has devastated his wife and family.

We’d known each other since we were six when I started attending school in the small village in South Wales where we grew up. We were in the same class for most of our school lives. Over the years we fought like cat and dog, played in the same football and rugby teams, attended cubs and scouts, camped out, drank, chased girls, went on a boys’ holiday to Corfu, and did all the other things you’d expect lifelong friends to have got up to.

He was supportive of my writing endeavours and I believe was secretly chuffed I’d given a character in the Earth Haven trilogy his first name.

In February 2020, in a world only weeks away from being devastated by covid, we spent a weekend in Dublin with some of our other friends. There are photos of him on this blog from that trip: In Dublin’s Fair City. When we made our way back to Dublin airport, he hopped off the bus before the rest of us since he needed to be in a different terminal to catch his flight back to London. As the bus pulled away, he banged on the window and grinned. That was the last time I saw him.

Dublin 2020

Howard lived in London for many years. It’s where his life was, one far removed from our quiet home village. Yet, whenever we saw him—perhaps at Christmas, or at a funeral or a rugby international—we’d pick up where we’d left off, as though it had been months since we’d last seen him, not years.

And how well he’d done for himself. After qualifying as a quantity surveyor and working in private practice, he went on to hold high-powered estate management positions with the Metropolitan Police and, more lately, with the British Museum. A far cry from how our teachers had perceived him when we were in comprehensive school.

Neither of us were loud in class. We tended to keep our heads down and try not to draw attention to ourselves. Accordingly, I don’t think our teachers had any real idea of who we were.

When we were sixteen, Howard and I were asked by the school to attend a local factory which was on the lookout for apprentices. The factory manufactured staples—the sort you use to attach pieces of paper together. I have no idea why the school thought we would be interested in becoming staple manufacturers, but they asked us to go and, seeing the opportunity for a day off school, we both said yes. I don’t remember much about the visit, except that we caught the bus up the valley, attended the factory, nodded and smiled when shown around, and caught the bus home again.

Presumably the school followed up, asking whether we wanted to apply for apprenticeships at the factory, but I don’t really remember. The answers would have been two firm noes in any event. I had no idea what I wanted to be at that age, but I did know I didn’t want to make staples. And neither did Howard. (Nothing wrong with being a staple maker; it just wasn’t for us.)

I went on to become a lawyer and now a writer, and Howard, as already mentioned, went on to become successful in the world of estate management, outcomes that I imagine would greatly surprise whoever’s idea it was that we might want to make staples. It’s something we shared many a chuckle over.

I am proud of what he achieved, not only professionally but in his private life, too—his marriage to a lovely lady who he was completely crazy about; his selfless work for the RNLI; his dry wit and popularity with everyone who knew him. But here’s the thing: I never told him I was proud of him. It’s not the sort of thing blokes say to each other. At least, not among my friends.

Perhaps we should. And not just that we’re proud of each other. Perhaps we should tell our loved ones how we feel about them more often. Our friends and colleagues how much we appreciate them.

Otherwise, before we know it, it’s too late.

Corfu 1988