Thursday, 12 December 2013

Fear of the Future... a postscript.

Chris Wooding is mighty keen to emphasise the lack of zombie-action in his cracking teen siege-thriller ‘Silver’. Silver is, in Wooding’s words, “28 Days Later meets Assualt on Precinct Thirteen”; and having outlined the book he then finishes with an ironic – “And they’re not zombies, OK?” 

Whatever you say, Chris. What interests me is that Silver tells a story about transformation – and fear of transformation. Victims transform and infect other victims, who in turn transform.

A common reading of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead – undead hordes shamble mindlessly around a shopping mall – is that it satirises western capitalist obsession with unthinking consumption. Silver instead has its young victims infected by a super-intelligent nanobot virus which transforms these poor unfortunates differently – turning them into machines.

If you’re going to critically analyse various sub-genres and styles of zombie fiction, the important thing is – I think, anyway – to look at what the victim loses when they succumb – and what the survivors keep when they don’t.

Look at it that way, and Silver – come to that, plenty of other recent zombie flicks and stories – criticises a world in which individuality and freedom of expression are being daily eroded and people are instead becoming a homogenised mass of identical desires, obsessions and neuroses; machines programmed to live according to the values and ideals espoused by talent shows, soap operas, music videos and endless celebrity junkets. 

And as a critique of the British education system, Wooding’s excellent novel is pretty damn fierce as well.

So in terms of future-fears, something I rambled on about below, Silver lines up a significant queue of concerns and explores them through an impressive, engaging story.

In the end, I s’pose all of us are frightened of changing into something we despise.
And that’s why we love zombie stories – they remind us not to.  

Monday, 18 November 2013

Fear of the Future

It all started with a question. Might have been me, might have been a pal – for the purposes of this post let’s call him Argyle; but someone said something like, “How come you can ironically discuss the vampire tradition in vamp movies…” – we must have been talking about Buffy – “…but you can’t do the same in Zombie flicks?” I know. That's just the sort of conversations we have. But it's true, right? When a victim washes up on the banks of a fictional river with two holes puncturing their neck, one character is going to say ‘vampire’ pretty soon. In the fictional otherworld, people know about vampires. But when a group of shambling animated corpses rock up in the same neighbourhood, they get called “geeks” “walkers” “sickos” “infected”. No-one says, “Jeez. This is like something out of a Romero movie!”
In the fictional otherworld, nobody knows about zombies.

That strikes me as pretty weird. You write a ghost story, for example – your characters are going to know what they’re dealing with. They’re going to be sceptical, but they’re going to know what a ghost is, at least. If an army of dragons terrorise a city – a B Movie scenario, I know, but bear with me – its shocked inhabitants aren’t going to argue about how to describe these unfamiliar winged lizards

But Zombies? No.

How come? It took us a while to unravel this one. I’m not pretending our answer’s anything revolutionary. Probably been said a thousand times before by people quicker and cleverer than me and Argyle.

This is what we did. Imagine splitting the various non-human threats faced in fiction into two groups – ‘fear of the past’ and ‘fear of the future’. Vampires and ghosts have their roots in ancient Eastern European fairytale, and they are physical – or semi-physical at least – representations of the past. Dragons too, maybe, with their similarities to dinosaurs. If it comes from the past, there’s an assumption that your fictional characters will have absorbed all that knowledge and awareness about them. Zombies, though, are about fear of the future. They are what we will become if we don’t watch out; brain-dead morons hooked on consumerism. And since zombies stand for our future fears, human characters in zombie fiction must have never conceived of such horrors before. Part of the drama is them struggling to cope with something so unfamiliar. It’s inconceivable that one character might say to another; “Let’s find a prison! We’ll be safe there – like in Season Three of The Walking Dead!”

So – does our simple system of binary opposites work?

Not really. Where do Martians fit? Aliens? Or time travel? All ‘fear of the future’ threats, surely. And yet if a fictional somebody invents a gateway to the future, we’re going to have to call it a time machine, whether we want to or not, since in the fictional otherworld everyone’s read H.G.Wells and watched Dr Who.

Looks like Argyle and me are going to be arguing this one out for months and years to come.  

Monday, 4 November 2013

Homage to NaNoWriMo

As a kid I was an avid computer gamer and spent many a rainy afternoon playing a dodgy Spectrum version of The Hobbit; a game whose frame-rate was so slow you could pass getting on for twenty minutes watching a child-like line drawing of The Shire compose itself before you could begin to interact. 

But I was absorbed. I was borderline obsessed. And my obsession manifested itself in a burning desire to programme computer games.

So I set about mastering BASIC, a just-add-water-and-stir programming language beloved of myopic schoolboys like me, and I made my first game, a BMX-based adventure. The experience was soul-sapping. I never did it again.

There’s a huge disconnect between producer and consumer in gaming. They make ‘em, we play ‘em - and we get what we’re given. The same goes for movies and music. Why? Because these are art forms that need the mastery of an entirely new language; one that could take years to acquire.

Not so with fiction, though.

If we read a book we love, and we’re lucky enough to have received a decent education, we can pick up a pen and start writing… and a story emerges immediately. An hour or so in, you could be re-reading your opening scene and planning what happens next. Fan fiction is massive because people get a kick out of doing just that. NaNoWriMo fans the same flames.

So if you’re hammering away on a laptop somewhere this month – great. Enjoy yourself. I’ll be rooting for you.

Any art form which develops a way of closing the gap between producer and consumer has a very healthy future, I reckon.

Friday, 27 September 2013

The Stranger in the Room

...a post that intially appeared on the magical Author Allsorts website, and reproduced here for your reading pleasure.

I once dedicated a lot of time – more than was sensible or healthy for a grown man – building an imaginary city called Highlions. I visited it almost every night for years, walking up and down its streets, constructing it as I went; dropping a great island into the middle of a river here, putting up a theatre there, adding a district up by the church, clearing sections, repopulating them, adding wells and squares, stitching in lawns and gardens and a street of fountains. In the end, I knew it really well. I could tell which neighbourhood I was in by the sound of the river or the quality of the street slang.

Then I learnt something. It’s one thing building the world – it’s quite another introducing it to a reader. With this big sandbox of tricks at the ready, the temptation is to throw your traveller right into the middle of it; start with a riot of sights, sounds, smells; open chapter one on the busiest street during a coronation, for example -  parades, crowds, sweat and bustle – a firework display of bold and brilliant world building.

Here’s the thing. I couldn’t get it to work. It was too much crazy in far too big a helping; overwhelming for anyone who read it. They’d say, “What’s this?” or “Why’s this happening? What does this word mean? Who’s this guy?”

So I started scaling back. Maybe not the parade, I thought. Let’s start with market day. It still sucked. Oooh Kay. Maybe a quiet street…

Eventually I ended up with a room. And then it suddenly started making sense. One boy wakes in a room with no recollection of how he got there. Now I could build slowly. Corridor, balcony, roof, cellar, each contributing to our growing sense of the world in which the action operates. In the finished version of the book, the first hustle-and-bustle street scene takes place in Chapter Six. The scene I once tried opening with is now Chapter Thirty One.

It was long after I’d gone through this torturous process that I saw others had tried and failed where I had. Chris Wooding, discussing the troubles he endured whilst writing his novel The Fade, comments; I only cracked it when I rewrote it so Orna starts the book in prison. That way, I got to show the reader a tiny space in the world, and gradually expand it through flashback.” As soon as I saw Wooding – a damn fine writer – confess to having to start small, I was suddenly struck by what I’ve called here the ‘stranger in the room’ device. I swear I’d never noticed it before, rookie idiot that I am.

And as is often the way with these things, once you see it once, it’s suddenly everywhere: if you’re a gamer, the room in question is often a prison cell – three epic fantasy games from The Elder Scrolls series, Morrowind, Oblivion and Skyrim, all open with imprisoned characters before gradually introducing a new and unfamiliar world. So does Dishonored. Emma Pass does it beautifully in her wonderful dystopian debut Acid, and James Dashner, not to be outdone in the claustrophobia stakes, opens The Maze Runner in a lift. Atwood does it in The Handmaid’s Tale; Treasure Island does it; The Hobbit does it; The Count of Monte Cristo does it twice.

Makes me wonder how I never noticed, really.

So let’s imagine you’re a writer wanting to set a novel in a thrilling and original fantasy world. Not one that reshuffles a pack a familiar tropes; one that astonishes and delights with its freshness. One that lives and breathes and when struck with a tuning fork rings clear and true.

Go for it, brave writer. But start off with a stranger in a room, OK?

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Deep Sea Diving

Writing intensively for an hour or two is, on the surface of it, a little bit like suspending life. Your body temperature drops; your pulse slows. Peripheral concerns and worries rise up and away as you drop deeper. You don’t eat or drink. Communication with the outside world shuts down. Breathing changes. And writing with headphones on, as I do, is like a kind of additional sensory deprivation; you can’t hear the TV, the movement of people in the house, the kids in the street, the distant ice-cream van.

Coming back out of that intensive period of concentration is like surfacing again and dragging in a great ragged breath of air. It’s weirdly disorientating to realise that life has moved on; things have happened. I remember once as a kid, waking up and coming down the stairs at nine or ten at night and being shocked to see my parents still up, talking and watching TV. What – life goes on while I sleep? Incredible! All these years later, I still feel something close to that as I swim up to the land of the living after a couple of hours in the writing deeps.

Then there’s the challenge of shaking off one world and re-entering another. Rise too fast between them and you get the bends – you’re blood’s full of bubbles and you find you’ve brought up a whole host of stuff with you to the surface – it’s clinging to your wetsuit and struggling to breathe and the change in pressure makes it apt to explode. It can take an hour or more for the brain to realign and everything to seem normal again. Even then, you might still find a wriggling bit of fantasy lurking at the bottom of a drawer or in the pocket of your jacket.

Hilary Mantel confesses to worrying over this. “Is writing a way of living,” she asks, “or not living?” Is hour after hour of deep-sea diving a way of embracing life, or ultimately just a retreat from it?

I don’t know. But rather than fret about the state, let’s look at the process: wherever we go when we write, we spend our time there trying to bring other things to life.
Swapping a bit of ours for theirs, maybe.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Anything that Throws Life at You

Keri Smith is doing pretty well for herself at the moment. You can’t go into a high-street bookshop without being tempted by Wreck this Journal or its wiser and more costly cousin, How to be an Explorer of the World. I’m a sucker for her work. I love it and I’m far from the only one; her appeal is broad indeed. At school recently, I found myself chatting with three year nine girls who were all meticulously following the brilliant and bonkers instructions in one of Smith’s books and comparing the results. If you’re not familiar with her stuff, she’ll fire you up with something like this:

Then suggest you get out of the house and do something like this:

In a version of that spirit, I was riding my bike down Chorlton Ees waiting for something interesting to happen and I reached an iron bridge spanning the Mersey across which trams from Sale and Altrincham rumble their way up into town. It happened that as I pulled up at the bridge for a rest, a tram came hurtling past in a rush of air and noise, and I could watch it through the chain link fencing only a few feet from me. The fencing there has been detached from its rivets, probably by some kids looking for a thrill, so that you can slip through onto the bridge and the tracks. There are two running parallel to each other with a knee-high iron spine, maybe a couple of feet wide, acting as a wall separating them. 

I watched a couple more trams rush past, trying to figure out whether it would be possible to lie on your back on that divide, eyes tight shut, and feel the trams careering past only inches from your face. The howl of noise and the smell of diesel and axle-grease; all of that would really be something. The kind of kid with the guts to do it; interesting too. Someone forced to do it against their will – even more compelling.

In a previous post here, I discussed a couple of books exploring the source of good ideas. I’m not ashamed to say that there were times, just after Poison Boy, when I wondered if I’d ever get a decent idea again. The anatomy of the birth and gestation of an idea is a constant source of wonder for me. How the hell does my mind work? Will it ever work again? And if so, when? The short answer is, erm...dunno. 

But that half an hour I spent with my face pressed against the mesh of the fence watching trams is the beginning of something that’s worth storing away; of that I’m sure. Perhaps it’ll have enough of a magnetic pull to tug other thoughts into its sphere of influence and its gravity will grow. Maybe it’ll become something more.

On the way home, I passed an advert for washing powder at a bus stop, that claimed it could deal with “anything that life throws at you”, and I misread it as “anything that throws life at you.” In a weird way, that’s what Keri Smith’s work is about. Putting yourself in a situation where you get a little bit of life thrown at you.

Maybe, if you do that often enough, something will stick.

Monday, 5 August 2013


I got lost on the way and was consequently late – but that’s another story. It was late July and the sun had been out all day. I’d driven for hours and my shirt was clinging to me in the heat. My two-year old girl had been crying in the back of the car on and off, so it had been difficult to think. It was 4.30 in the afternoon when I finally found Mr Publisher’s place in the country. We wove through cool corridors to the clutter of his study. He cleared a pile of papers from a sofa and invited me to sit. His colleague was with him. They both had notebooks.

“So, you’ve been working on something” he said, after some preliminaries about Poison Boy.

“Yes” I said and, being fond of pointless questions, added; “Do you want to hear a little bit about it?”

This is a post about – you guessed it guys – my first ever pitch. Not about the thirty minutes or so itself; they were pretty routine, I guess – particularly for Mr Publisher and colleague who must hear it all a hell of a lot – but the stuff I found out in preparation for that day.

I’d been lucky enough to meet some lovely people at The Big Book Bash in Derbyshire a fortnight before. It was a great day. I got to spend time with the mighty Emma Pass (whose account of the day you can read here), the splendid Sarah Naughton (whose account of the day you can read here) plus many other luminaries. And being wired on anxiety and high-sugar snacks, I’d asked pretty much everyone I met how I should approach the looming day-of-the-pitch.

Ciaran Murtagh wasted no time in exploiting the painfully comic potential of my quandry. “Try this” he said, before doing a perfect impression of a cock-sure writer buzzing on a great idea; “I’ve got two words for you. (pause) Monkey Tennis.” Others had compelling anecdotes about the importance of plot-plans and outlines as concrete evidence of shape and structure. Others hadn’t done it face-to-face before, but over the phone. Sophia Bennett had this simple, clear advice. “Just tell them the story” she said.

That, in the end, was what I decided to do. I’d trawled through site after site of online advice about pitches, but I decided for better or for worse, I was just going to tell the story. So I got in my car, put on the soundtrack to Super 8 (my current obsession at the time) and drove home. As I drove, I started to tell the story aloud. And you know what? It’s bloody hard. It takes practice and a skilled eye for precisely what the story is. Do you begin with the theme? The concept? Do you do a speedy chapter-by-chapter gallop through? Describe, like Richard E Grant in The Player, the moody opening scene? (Check out the wonderful clip here) Do you go for genre first? Or the climactic battle?

I was stuck. I pulled over in a little town God knows where. I sat and stared at the trolley park of a budget supermarket for a while. For want of something to do, I read JJ Abrams’ sleevenotes to Michael Giacchino’s soundtrack to Super 8.

And lo! The answer was there.

“As always, Michael is a storyteller” Abrams writes about his composer. “He writes scores from the inside out; he understands the math of the structure of the story…” Christ, I thought to myself as I read. I didn’t even know stories had ‘math’. I know the movie well, and to my limited thinking at the time, it was a straight-up monster-from-outer-space tale. It came as a bit of an epiphany, therefore, to see Abrams write, “But it was always Joe’s family theme and the Alice love theme that mattered most. This was the heart of the movie. This was the kids’ point of view and, if that didn’t work, nothing else would have mattered.”

So that’s what I did in the study of Mr Publisher. I started with the heart of the story; the kid. His family, his relationship with his Dad, his two-bedroomed flat, his school-pal, the mystery of his missing friend; the insomnia, the walking at night, the discovery in the alleyway.

I don’t know whether it was the right approach – I won’t know for some time yet, I guess. But it was the right approach for me and, crucially I s’pose, the best I could have done.

I was back in the car and on the road again by 6.00, and by 8.00, I was putting up a tent and starting my holiday.

Needless to say, the first beer tasted better than usual that night.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Thirty Minutes with John Le Carre

This post was originally published over at the wonderful Author Allsorts blog, and is reproduced word-for-word here...

I’m attempting to transform myself into a proper novelist one podcast at a time.
The particular downloads I’m talking about here are episodes of Radio 4’s Book Club which has free archives readily available. It’s basically James Naughtie and guest scribbler exploring the writing process, characterisation, themes, influences and inspirations for the chosen novel, followed by some reader observations and questions. It’s always a great listen particularly, for some reason, when the guest in question is a crime or espionage thriller writer. PD James was wise and insightful, Ruth Rendell was fascinating, Elmore Leonard was frank and funny.

Then I listened to John Le Carre discussing his famous Smiley trilogy. Before I go on, I’ll level with you here, folks – I’ve never read of word of Le Carre. Radio adaptations and movies, yes – prose; not a damn syllable. Castigate me now, I fully deserve your scorn, etcetera.

The man was brilliant. Perhaps it was partly because his audience were drawn from students from the Falmouth School of Creative Writing as well as fans and regular readers, but Le Carre was in calm, clear and quietly inspirational advice-giving form, and as he talked I realised he was demonstrating without any fuss or fanfare the qualities that make great writers. Here, in distilled form, was what struck me:

“Those first three books” says le Carre breezily, “were written while still in harness.” Aside from being a lovely phrase, this was arresting for other reasons. Three novels planned and written whilst holding down a hugely stressful job as a member of the secret service? Wow. That dwarfs my struggles just a tad – yours too, I’ll bet. Guess I need to man up a bit.

Describing the trilogy Le Carre says, “It grew out of a great sense of failure I had. After writing a book which was widely regarded as awful, called ‘The Naïve and Sentimental Lover’, I lost a lot of confidence and felt very hurt.” Then here’s the killer line. The Le Carre response to setback: “I threw my lance into the middle of the enemy and thought I would fight it out. I’d plan a trilogy.” Superb, eh? I hope I have half his courage when Poison Boy bombs.

“I flailed around writing material for a full year,” Le Carre admits of one novel. “Then one day I took it up to The Beacon and set fire to the whole damn lot.” The crowd laugh appreciatively as he says this. But under that admission sits a strength of character that’s pretty awesome. Duly noted.

When asked how he plans books, Le Carre speaks with the kind of clarity of purpose only an expert can. “It’s childhood images to begin with,” he starts. “Then I want one character who can take the reader by the hand – one the reader can trust. Then I want terrain. Locations become characters. Then I want conflict. What do they want of this man? What demands are going to be made of him? These things are important for setting up a story.”

It was a masterclass of calm and good-humoured understatement, and it’s just sitting there waiting to be downloaded for free. That’s the thing with this great technological renaissance we’re living through: at its best, it’s about the democratisation of education – about universities in the UK and the states putting their lectures online for free; about John Le Carre and hundreds of others sharing the secrets of their creative processes for nothing but the cost of an internet connection.

So thanks, John.

All I need now is a copy of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ to add to my teetering TBR pile, and sufficient grit and gumption to be more like the man himself. The bar’s been set pretty high, I think you’ll agree…

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Selling my Guitar

I was talking to a group of kids, parents and teachers recently (and lovely it was too) promoting The Poison Boy.  Their questions were at once engaging, unexpected (“What kind of car do you drive?”) and direct. On the spot like that, there’s no time to think – I just answered. Here’s a sample exchange which surprised me; not the question so much as my response. One lad asked, “What most helped you become a writer?” and I answered, “Selling my guitar.”

Bizarre. I hadn’t thought of that old thing – a Gibson Epiphone – for ages. I’d forgotten all about getting rid of it. I stuck it on Gumtree two years ago and a guy with plasters on his fingers and dubious personal hygiene arrived, strummed it in my front room for a bit and handed over the forty quid. After he’d gone I had to open all the windows.

I’d bought it just after university when I was in a band called – depending on the week – Idiot Jukebox, My Fat Friend, Barson, Stepford Robinson or The Cup of Tea. Most of my creative energy was channelled into song writing and the quality of outcome was, ahem, variable. Though, once we sent a demo off to Cog Sinister and I got a call back asking whether the band could support The Fall on their upcoming ‘Middle Class Revolt’ tour. I was so terrified I bungled the call; went mute – blew it. Progress was generally glacial and that phone call, taken one evening in my tiny flat on Northen Grove, was the closest we ever came to any kind of success.

But ten years later I still had the guitar and I still played a few old songs now and again. “Selling my guitar”, though. Why that? All of us have dabbled before; it’s a quality of childhood – the skateboard, the skis, the fishing rods and tackle collecting dust in the garage or attic. We are encouraged by our education system, by friends, by parents, to get quite good at twenty different things rather than expert at one.

Recently I was reading Neil Gaiman’s ‘Make Good Art’ speech, a commencement address to the students of The University of the Arts, and was struck by his frank admission: “I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I'd become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.” Here was a guy with tunnel vision. No dabbling from Mr Gaiman. He goes on to say, “I had a list I made when I was 15 of everything I wanted to do: to write an adult novel, a children's book, a comic, a movie, record an audiobook, write an episode of Doctor Who... and so on. I didn't have a career. I just did the next thing on the list.”

There, succinctly, is the reason I sold my guitar. I didn’t have the courage or maturity to know it at fifteen, but at least I do now.

So clear out your cupboards, people! You ain’t ever getting any better at cross-stitch or watercolours. Put that trombone on e-bay; sell your saxophone to a smelly stranger. Ditch all the paraphernalia of the dabbler and dedicate yourself to the pen and paper.

Then, in the words of Gaiman, just do “the next thing on the list.”

Thursday, 16 May 2013

A Question of Passion

A little while back on Twitter, Ian Rankin was bemoaning the quality of his debut, Knots and Crosses. “There’s hardly a page that doesn’t make me cringe” he wrote. I did the same as 30 other people; I smiled, retweeted, and spent a few moments feeling better about my writing struggles. 

A few days later, in the way these things often do, I found a neat little connection between Rankin’s gripe and another piece I was reading; Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils and Rewards of Artmaking by David Bayles and Ted Orland. (They discuss ‘art’ in general, but for the purposes of this post, I take it to mean writing.) In it, they are argue that one of the more painful experiences of a writer’s lot is the movement – gradual, dispiriting, repetitive… in short, pretty damn gloomy – from what they call naïve passion to informed passion.

This is the (significantly simplified) deal, according to these guys Bayles and Orland. Naïve passion is the hell-for-leather, carefree, up-and-at-‘em creativity of the  first-time storyteller. Stories explode from the pen; characters leap into life, plots are unfettered, diverse and ambitious. The whole process is fearless because the creator hasn’t assessed or analysed potential obstacles and so the outcomes, always breathless and energetic, can be by turn amazing or disastrous.  

But whichever way it turns out, you can’t keep hold of that naïve passion for ever. Once you’re done creating and the dust has settled, looking back from a critical distance you can often wonder how the hell you managed it at all. And so you move into another phase. “Naïve passion - which promotes work done in ignorance of obstacle…” write Bayles and Orland, “…becomes, with courage, informed passion, which promotes work done in full acceptance of those obstacles.” That, they argue, is the great leap forward the aspiring writer makes and, so they say, huge amounts of people stop creating during this period; they freeze up, curse their luck, cry writers’ block, in some cases put the pen or paintbrush down for good.

But gather round, people, gather round – for here’s the good news. One key conclusion is that novels get finished not by geniuses, but by those with enough dedication and bloody-mindedness to face down the daily challenges and doubts. Do that, and you move incrementally from naïve to informed.

Which is perhaps why Rankin can look back at his early work and wince; it’s the product of a different kind of passion, an earlier version of the passion he clearly still feels twenty-odd novels later. 

All I can hope right now is that I get even a quarter as far as he has, and one day have the chance to look back on The Poison Boy from some distant, marginally loftier position… and cringe.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Fletcher Visits an Old Friend

Square one! How nice to see you again. It seems recently that you and me have been drifting apart. Over the last few weeks in particular, I’ve been hanging out with some of your more distant cousins; squares twenty three and twenty four. They’re good, positive energising company, it feels like we’re going places and doing things when we’re together. They’ve got a fizzy whack of get-up-and-go, those guys, and I’ve had a blast with them. Such optimism, such vistas and views from up where they hang out!

Still, it’s nice to be back here with you, square one. In a sense, it feels comfortably familiar. We’ve spent a lot of time together over the years I guess. I notice a glint in your eye pal, and I know it’s because of that recent practical joke you played on me – you know, the one where you pack me off on a long journey with a length of invisible twine looped round my waist, so that just as I think I’m making progress I find myself bound taughtly to you and I’m forced to return. Rather than throttle you with it, I’ve decided to simply take it off and leave it here with you while we get comfortable in each other’s company again.

Yes, you can laugh all you like, square one, but remember this. In a couple of weeks I’ll be off again, and maybe this time I won’t be back. You, on the other hand, are always stuck here and the only company you’ve got are those who don’t even try.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Silence for Structure, Music for Mood

Both my regular readers will know I’ve not just been making a meal of plotting the second Highlions book; I’ve been making a seasonal dietary planner complete with handy wipe-clean recipe cards. It’s been going on forever and I just can’t get it right. I’ve bored you about it here – though this version was screwed up after a fortnight’s work, then blabbed about it here – though this too no longer exists, and to cap it all, blogged about binning it all here too.

So getting close to desperate, I decided to clear the desk, forget all the setbacks and give it another damn go. Plotting and planning are not like ordinary work, it seems to me. There’s two phases. One’s pull-your-eyes-out hard, the other’s a joy.

The hard bit first. For me, plotting-part-one requires a special set of circumstances. Here’s what you need to do:

1.Find a still, quiet place where you can achieve high levels of intense concentration during which you feel like you’re doing the mental equivalent of a Rubik’s cube with numb and clumsy fingers – or solving a sodoku with no numbers in at all.

2.Gather paper and pen to write, cross-out, ridicule, question, re-scribble and finally, as it all falls into place, underline with a big ‘YES!’  

3.Set up a discussion with a critical friend that begins with a garbled energy and enthusiasm (I usually start with – ‘you’re gonna love this!’ just for good measure) then watch as your pitch becomes speedily derailed, usually with a very straightforward observation: ‘I don’t get it. Why would they do that at that point?’ Get angry for no reason. Cut short the discussion.

4.Realise critical friend is right, usually during commute to and/or from work the following day.

5.Return to step one and continue until borderline insane.

It’s such tough work. I marvel at people who can breeze through this initial planning. I’m the foaming-at-the-mouth green-eyed monster when I hear about people (yes Ian Rankin, I mean you) who don’t even bother, and claim to essentially ‘discover’ plot as they write. For me, silence and solitude are key here; it’s brain-work that will take all your concentration.

But then there’s another kind of plotting; a second stage. And this is blissful. You’ve battled to get your shape in place; now it’s time to add mood and colour. You don’t want silence here; you want input, inspiration, energy – in short, you want music. Music and, if you’re lucky, bourbon. Because here’s where you need to submerge yourself in the world and just channel it all. I listened to one track for close to an hour on a loop yesterday. It’s the Main Theme from a pretty damn splendid game called Dishonored, and it’s two minutes long, so I figure I must have heard it maybe thirty times; but by this point plotting is an otherworldly, transformative borderline mystical experience (I know, I know – sounds stupid…) during which you’re barely even awake.

But stage two sends your plot crazy-shaped if you haven’t done stage one properly. All your splashes of inspiration and colour leak out of the cracks and you end up with a shapeless and senseless puddle; something I’ve done too many times to mention. That there’s the reason why I had to do 50,000 words worth of re-writes on Poison Boy.

Hence my new mantra; silence for structure, music for mood. Hey - it’s worth a try, right?

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Allsorts, really.

Lots going on, people. This is just a quick and poorly conceived post to replace 'An Open Letter to Chuck Hogan', which, like 'The Click', has vanished because I had second thoughts about its preponderance of snide. Instead, the me typing this is jovial and chatty.

So what's happening? Well - The Poison Boy is out. It's finally available in shops. Unless those shops are ones in which I've actually physically been. In which case it hasn't. Yes, I'm talking about you, Waterstones Deansgate, with your flaccid excuse about ordering it but it not turning up.

What else? It's had some lovely reviews! What's that? You want proof, you say? Well OK then, buster. Check these bad boys out:

The Booktrust Review ("Readers will be gripped from the opening pages of this richly-imagined story")

The Books for Keeps Review ("I wouldn't be surprised if The Posion Boy makes it onto other prize shortlists too.")

The Bookwitch review ("this is close to being a perfect book")

The Bookbag review ("a rich and exciting story from a prize-winning author")

The Love Reading 4 Kids Review (April 2013 Debut of the Month)

The Mr Ripley's Enchanted Books Review ("One of the best original books that Chicken House has published in some time")

The Times Review ("Bravo!")

...aaaand The Sweet Review, which is in many ways my fave since its author is ten years old. ("I give this five stars!")

So. In other news, I've been lucky enough to be asked to get involved in a really wonderful and exciting project called Author Allsorts - check it out; there's some really great writers and illustrators involved, including the brilliant Emma Pass and the talented Dan Smith amongst others. Emma interviewed me on publication day; you can read that here.

And finally for now, I'm working on another couple of books. Early stages. Not a word's been written yet. One's a Highlions book, set in the same world as The Poison Boy. The other isn't. In the next week or so, I should have a clearer idea if either is any damn good.

Here's hoping.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

The Calm before the Calm

The past is another country and all that. Thing is - when you’re in that other country for the very last time, dawdling at the border, you don’t know it. Like the last time I rode a BMX. Or the last time I spent a whole day in a library just studying. Or the last time I went out, childless and fancy-free, to South for beer and dancing. I didn’t know these were the final times these things would ever happen. I didn’t lavish on them any fitting or reverential last rites; I just never did them again. It makes me wonder what it might have been like if my future self had been able to magically materialise and let me know. “Enjoy that” it would say to the kid version of me as I hauled the busted bike over the jumps. “It’ll be the last time you ever do it.”

There are other moments, though, when you know things are about to change and you’ve had fair warning. You have in fact been counting down the days. April 1st is one such day – The Poisonboy comes out – at least according to Amazon it does and, with a bit of good fortune and the wind behind me, I’m hoping life will never be quite the same again.

And yet, speaking to other published authors at the Big Breakfast, the excellent London launch that my publishers Chicken House put on, it became very obvious that this period is not the calm before the storm, but the calm before the calm. There are no fanfares, skywriting biplanes or tickertape parades, and lots of people have told me so in no uncertain terms. Nothing happens. You just get on with life. Start work on the next book.

Despite this, I’m hoping for something pseudo-supernatural to happen. A sign or symbol. A shift in the temperature of the universe. Anything which nudges me closer to the writing life will do; I’m not fussy.

And you’ll be gratified to know you can help. For just five English pounds, ladies and gents, you can make this miracle happen! I may not get a storm after all this calm, but a slight breeze wouldn’t go amiss, eh?

Monday, 21 January 2013

Repeat Readings Part Three

Try to convince someone of an author’s control and intention, and they’ll often raise a suspicious eyebrow. Yeah right, their face says. That pattern of images is coincidence. You’re reading too much into it. Teaching, you get this a lot. You might be discussing “…patter out their hasty orisons” in a poem by Wilfred Owen, for example, and drawing attention to the poet’s use of sound. It’s like a machine gun, see? Yeah right, go the faces. You’re not seriously saying he meant that?  They write it down, but they don’t buy it.

However. The editing process has given me a little bit of fresh insight into this one. I’ve read and adjusted Poisonboy seven times now. (Previous posts with this title – there’s two, I think – have told little stories about re-reading. Poisonboy is now my most read book, beating this, which is more than a little narcissistic for my liking.) Anyway, here’s a pretty exact account of what happened with one image as I re-read and re-wrote.

It started with the antagonist whose face, torn by dogs and healed ugly, is raked by scars. He only has one eye. When he blinks in the half dark of a shadowy room it looks like a peeled egg. Level of intention here – currently zero. I just like the idea. My boy Dalton Fly is our protag. He has a Lucky Jack; a playing card he believes serves as some sort of protecting influence. On re-read two, I notice the Lucky Jack has only one eye because, well, Jacks do, don’t they? And the single eye ‘stares impassively at him’ or some such line. It’s a neat link between goodie and baddie so I keep it in and forget about it.

Later on in the book, one character has a toy rabbit, a throw-back to their childhood, as a pet. It has no eyes and it's called Hoppy. I added the detail early on with no sense that it might link to anything. My daughter has a toy rabbit called Hoppy and it has a missing eye, so it was a little reference to that. On re-read three and four, I’ve now got the eye image stored away somewhere in my mind and the level of intention starts to rise. Following a dose of Belladonna, Dalton can’t see properly; his vision buckles and distorts. It’s a straightforward symptom of the poisoning, but I play it up a bit more than I would have. Later, I fiddle with a fight scene in which the lad takes a beating and comes round, face swollen, with one working eye. By re-read five, I have to describe the hot pellet of a bullet, so it becomes a ‘metal eye’. For another character, cleaning spectacles and being able to see properly is important - he never can; his lenses are always grime-encrusted. 

What does all this mean?

I’m not entirely sure; I’ve made a dodgy pattern and I don’t know why. Except that the story is a bit about seeing the world, and seeing it in a new way, maybe. Yeah, that. I write all this because it might look, just a little bit, and just occasionally, like I know what I'm doing.

Rest assured friends. I don't.