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…]

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]