Friday, 28 November 2014

The Thing in the Gap

A post that started life out at Author Allsorts.

You may already be familiar with Ira Glass’s beautifully expressed insight into the thing he calls 'the gap.'

If it’s new to you, I’m glad – you’re going to love it. I’m just standing on the shoulders of giants here, but for those of you who’ve never seen the quote, witness. Ephiphany, choirs of angels, glory and splendour, etcetera etcetera…

And if you want to hear the great man speaking, and watch a lovely film to go with it, go here and spend a very special couple of minutes.

It’s this gap – between what we imagine and what we end up with – that’s the hardest part of being a writer for me. Because for me – like you guys too, I guess – it’s not just the gap, but the bad things that live in there.

Really bad things live in that gap; bad things with insistent voices – our inner critics.

I was in London last weekend meeting up with some writerly types, lovely people one and all, and after a couple of drinks we fell into talking about the gap and the voices in it. There were folks there that admitted to crippling bouts of insecurity. Guys and gals who shared terrible tales of wrestling their inner critics, fighting the voices who told them they weren’t good enough, or it couldn’t be done, or the last book was better, the last chapter was better, the last sentence was better. There were folk who’d ditched whole novels; burnt them up or ditched them.

It happens to the very finest of writers. John Le Carre once set fire to a whole abandoned novel on a clifftop. The guy's got a flair for ceremony, clearly.

That day I met writers with novels that were a chapter away from complete, but the victorious voice in the gap had convinced them they weren’t worth finishing. There were tales of battles with subconscious demons that had prevented the putting of pen to paper for weeks on end.

And there didn’t seem to be any relationship between experience and exposure to the voice in the gap. First-timers like me were fighting it, sure, but people three or four books in were having the same trouble. It doesn’t seem to be something you simply grow out of.

What can we do about it? 

Keep going, I s’pose. Like Glass says; “It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

So here's to all those Nanowrimo-ers who've done just that. Whatever your 50,000 look like by Sunday night - there's 50,000 that weren't there before.

And that's got to meaning something, right?

Thursday, 6 November 2014

For A.K., who asked me where I find the time

This was June. 

I got into work at 7am so I could leave on the bell. Then I drove into Manchester and skirmished with afternoon shoppers trying to find a parking space near Victoria Station. I knew if I managed to get the Newcastle train on time both ways, I’d be back for 11pm. Had my laptop and notebook with me – I was planning to kill a couple of chapters on the way there and back. Turned out I needed close to a tenner in coins for the parking meter. I only had a note. Twenty minutes until the train.

I legged it across zombie parking lots under the shadow of Strangeways and through derelict industrial zones in my supermarket suit and tie. Found a half-empty boozer, the snug full of brawlers, bought a packet of crisps, fed the change into the meter, sprinted to the station.

My train was delayed by an hour. I wasn’t going make the North East Book Awards if I hung about; the whole thing kicked off at 6.30pm. A pissed off businessman said Newcastle was three-hours by car. It was 4pm. Back in the car park, I gave my ticket to a guy in a Range Rover and started driving. The writing I planned to do on the train wasn’t going to happen.

Back in the summer, my Citroen had this thing where over 65mph, the steering wheel buzzed and shook like a dental drill. It was like gripping an electric fence as I sped north on the A1. I listened to talking books. Got to Newcastle at 6.50pm, sprinted from the car park to the event, knackered and starving. There wasn’t any food on, but I got a couple of glasses of water. My good pal Dan Smith was there, looking dapper, and other shortlisted authors, the lovely Emma Carroll and my fellow Chicken House author and general live-wire Sam Hepburn. It was great to see them. We were up on stage within minutes.

It was a brilliant evening. Kids read clever and thoughtful introductions, and in turn, we all stood and talked to the crowd in the auditorium, then answered questions. Emma won. Dan got highly commended. Brilliant books, wonderful writers.

They were going for dinner and drinks but it was getting on for 9pm and I had work the next day. The roads were quicker and quieter on the way home. I was in Manchester, quietly opening the front door of my house before midnight. Upstairs, J was asleep.

I levered open a couple of beers, lined up a playlist, and started writing. By the time 3.30am came, I was wiped out. I got three hours’ sleep then drove into work.

I’m not saying days like that one are typical, but they’re pretty close to. The sections I wrote late that June night never made the book, but that’s all part of the process. 

Later that summer, I took the Citroen to a scrapyard in West Point and got £90 for it.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Second Cheapest on the Menu

This post first appeared on the terrific Author Allsorts site, and in lieu of anything proper to say or news to report, I re-post it here. Everything's at crisis point at the moment and Nightwardens swallows all my time. There'll be a new post soon - I just need to survive until week three of October, deliver the mss and collapse.

Here's the post. Enjoy.

‘Second Cheapest on the Menu’ was one of the many books I never finished back in my twenties. It was (ill) conceived as an autobiographical celebration of holiday food. Here’s its story.

I was ten when we went abroad as a family for the first time. I remember my mum carefully cutting the rind off a camembert at an autoroute service station. (“Is it meant to be like that?” we asked, staring open-mouthed as she prodded it dubiously.)

I guess my parents got wise to France pretty quickly, though. We went every year from then on. After each day’s driving, they took turns unfolding the big map and colouring in the roads we’d travelled on. By the time I was fifteen, the map was full, and every time we went out to eat, we’d choose the ripest roqueforts we could find just to prove we were seasoned explorers.

The family’s eating out rule was an unspoken one, but studiously observed. You could have anything on the menu, as long as it was the cheapest, or second cheapest, in its category. So dad could begin the meal by opening the menus and saying, with a flourish, “Choose whatever you want boys!”
A few seconds later he’d be selecting himself the onion soup and the poulet frites, and the message was as clear as if he’d communicated it using a series of handy flags. We chose cheap.

The second-cheapest-on-the-menu rule lasted five years. Then, one night, our world collapsed.

We were in a bistro near a campsite. It was a cool little place with red-and-white chequered table cloths; candles jammed in wine bottles; wall-mounted plates, carafes of local booze, lots of noise. The five of us sat and dad said, “Choose anything you want boys!” whilst, naturally, semaphoring his expectation that we’d go for the salad and the goats’ cheese and bacon tart. The waiter came over. I was eldest so I chose first. I went for the salad and the tart.

Then it happened. My brother smacked his lips, placed the menu carefully on the table, fixed the waiter with an innocent gaze, and ordered a steak, medium rare, with mushroom sauce and frites on the side. There was a terrified silence. Everyone looked at dad.
He nodded, and with that gesture, the world changed.

When my brother’s steak arrived, we stared at it. My tart was suddenly rendered as colourless and unappetising as a photocopy. Jon offered the meat around in carefully 
sliced morsels.

It was heavenly.

Anyway. Imagine if you will ‘Second Cheapest on the Menu’ by Fletcher Moss, a combination of childhood memoir and comic road-movie in which I travel those autoroutes again, paying homage to the family rule and only choosing the cheapest meals available in bistros and cafes up and down France. It’s got ‘hit’ written all over it, folks.

Or something close to ‘hit’, anyway.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Tagged! The Chocolate Book Challenge

Last month a good friend of this blog - hell, a good friend of mine though we've only met once - the tremendous Sarah Naughton, tagged me on The Chocolate Book Challenge, a neat little meme in which each blogger recommends three books in a chocolately kinda way.

Personally, I don't regard chocolate to even qualify as chocolate unless it's astringent, midnight-black and bitter as Martin Amis in a really shitty mood. But that's not the issue right now.

White Chocolate: Retribution Falls

Lots of frothy laughs. Then after a while, maybe a bit cloying, maybe a bit insubstantial - but man, you want some more.

Imagine a knockabout sci-fi romp in which your protagonist is the twin brother of Han Solo. Then surround him with a quality crew of well-drawn, distinctive crazies; stick them in a battered ship called the Ketty Jay; send them out into the great blue-black yonder, and propel a gang of cops after them. Brilliant stuff. But if you're reading this on the bus, make sure no-one you know has taken the seat behind you. Strictly your secret, right? Until you mention it on a blog.

Milk Chocolate: The Goldfinch

It's on everyone's list, sure. The whole world's doing it. But that don't mean it isn't total quality...

I know a guy - let's call him Argyle for the purposes of this post - who has a problem with D.T. He, like me, is a massive fan of The Secret History. He, like me, thought that second one was just slightly rubbish. But the thing is, he's irked by those passages where she wears her education prominently on her sleeve. "Hey Donna," he says, acting out a conversation I'm pretty damn sure will never happen, "I've got Wikipedia too, you know." I'm here to tell you to ignore him, folks. The Goldfinch is very very good. 

Dark Chocolate: Joyland

This is my stuff. Yeah, it's not to everyone's taste. Some may call it gloomy - dismal even. But it's distinctively dark and magnetic.

I both love and hate amusement parks. Like clowns, they represent two things at once; a child-like joy at innocent idiocy - an adult fear of something distorted, fake and ugly. Joyland enters this hinterland and tells a brilliant, haunting tale that won't go away. King is good at those chilling one-liners that represent the failure of language to cope with the supernatural. In 'IT', Pennywise says, "Everything down here floats." In Duma Key it's, "My father was a skin-diver," a killer line if ever there was one. In Joyland it's a character, choked by terror, who says, "It's the way she held up her hands!" The book is one of his best, and it's got a lovely pulp cover to boot.

Next, a brilliant writer for both children and adults; Dan Smith. (You'll be hearing a lot about Dan in the coming months - some big titles on the way!) Looking forward to your answers, Dan!

Friday, 30 May 2014

Tagged! Seven things...

Much thanks due to the dauntingly interesting, multi-talented Kerry Drewery who kindly tagged me on the Very Inspiring Blogger Award tag. Kerry's YA novel A Brighter Fear was shortlisted for the Leeds Book Award in the same category as, but a year before Poison Boy. Look out for A Dream of Lights too - Carnegie nominated no less!

Her brilliant Seven Things You Don't Know About Me can be found here. And here's mine...

1. Fletcher Moss is a pseudonym. Yeah, you'd never have guessed, right? I named myself after a park. 

The park was named after a dude of some considerable local import. He wrote books too, though his titles don't inspire fevered excitement; not in me at least. Still, if you're interested, you could check out 'Pilgrimages to Old Homes'. 

2. I support Huddersfield Town. Oh well. The thing is - you don't chose your team - your team chooses you. I grew up there and when I was young I supported anyone but Town. But then I faced up to my responsibilities and embraced the mediocrity.

3. My brother writes for The Guardian. My cousin has a killer menswear blog. They're both better writers than me by a mile.

4. What's the best bourbon money can buy, I hear you ask? That'd be Maker's Mark. You're welcome.

5. Every year since 1992 me and my brothers have dutifully listed our top five albums of the year. We're pretty damn geeky when it comes to lists. Looking back, I made some tragic decisions. Here's me drawing up my shortlist for 2004: 

Beastie Boys? Good call. 'Egypt' by Youssou N'Dour? Well... it hasn't lingered long in the memory, put it that way.

6. Apparently I graduated from Manchester University in the same year as crime writer extraordinaire Sophie Hannah. I've been the green-eyed monster ever since. An embarrassing admission but there you are; I'm not above a bit of envy.

7. I played in a five-a-side footy team for ten years. We were called the AFC Chieftains and we were terrible. Once, we got this great striker to play for us - he was whippet thin, lithe and strong and he was thumping in goals week after week. We got promoted. Then he got arrested and couldn't play while he was on remand. Our heaviest loss without him was 12-0. That was a tough night to get through. The following week, the ref suggested we try the veterans league. That's when I knew quittin' time was imminent. 

Aaand that's your lot, folks. But don't despair; good times are just around the corner - I'm passing this one on to the amazing Sarah Naughton.

Sarah is a Costa-shortlisted YA author who's first two novels have been critical smashes. Check out The Hanged Man Rises and The Blood List - both brilliant.

Her blog is here. And you can follow her on twitter too!

Monday, 19 May 2014

Radio Silence. Again.

A cursory check of archives down on the right will tell you that this happened before a couple of years back. It’s late Spring. The sun is hot and high; I can see the valley barbecues from my windowsill, see the blue pools in the squinting sun – and I hit crisis point.

The thing is; I've got close to 30,000 words of re-writes to do and at some point I need to give my family a break from all this and go on holiday. 'The Nightwardens' needs to be delivered in July and there's a way to go yet.
So rather than beat myself up for not finding the time to put the #pb52s up here, or write that post about Into the Woods I promised myself I would, or any of the other myriad little jobs I need to clear - I better just vanish for a bit.
Have yourselves a slow and easy summer... 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014


...started a few nights back. I had a rare hour or two on my own and a half bottle of wine. The Walking Dead – my go-to entertainment if it’s late and I’m alone – is losing its appeal a bit. Season One started with a rush of promise but Shane took the vibrancy and energy with him when he shuffled offstage and The Governor’s no kind of replacement.

No, the early stages of this particular story were the best, I’m thinking.

That’s where #firsttwentyminutes started – me thinking about early stages of stories. Here’s the maths. An average movie’s, say, 120 minutes. The first twenty are roughly the 20% point. Time isn’t something I’ve got very much of, so twenty’s the point where I’ll happily bail out if its not killer. (Recent victims – Dragon Tattoo, re-make of Dragon Tattoo, Golden Compass, Hobbit, Sherlock 2, new Star Trek 2, that thing about a boat in a storm with Robert Redford.) 

Equally though, twenty’s the point where you know you’re totally aligned with the world of the story, the motivation of the characters, the direction of travel, the mood and theme – and you’re going to follow it all the way to the end.

I thought to myself: if I watched the #firsttwentyminutes of three films I really 
like, I might learn something.

So I did… and I did. Here’s what happened:

An iconic opening reminiscent of The Walking Dead. I’ve blogged about it before here but what really struck me was this: the story-proper begins bang on twenty minutes. To the second, I mean. It goes like this: we get the activists raiding the animal-testing facility, the grotesque apes hammering at the glass of their cages, the beasts released, the initial infection, the go-to-black, then those phenomenal shots of Cillian Murphy wandering a silent and empty London in his hospital pj’s. Twenty minutes clocks up, and he steps into a church. His adventure begins.

(ii) The Ghost
This was uncanny. Again: it’s to the damn second. There’s a lovely opening scene on a ferry. An abandoned car is towed away after the ferry docks at Vineyard Haven. The body of its driver is washed up on a nearby beach. Cut to London: Ewan McGregor chats with his agent about a potentially exciting new job – ghosting the ex-PM’s memoirs. He gets the gig, flies out to New York and travels out to Martha’s Vineyard, the scene of the ferry-death. He steps out of the back of a cab after a punishing 16-hour journey, ready to start his new assignment. His adventure begins; twenty minutes, on the nose.

Three in a row. In the first twenty, we get an introduction to an ex-priest living on a farm surrounded by acres of deep corn fields. Strange stuff is happening and his kids are attuned to it. Water tastes odd. The dog’s going bonkers. There’s something out in the fields, and we soon learn it’s responsible for the appearance of a massive crop-circle. The cops come to investigate. “Don’t call me ‘Father’”, says Mel Gibson, a man with a tragic past. The following night there’s another intruder on the farm – unidentified. Crop circles are turning up all over the world, according to the TV news. Cops return. Refer to Mel Gibson’s character by his first name. The adventure begins – twenty minutes exactly.

Insert conclusion here, eh? The first thing I did once this all came together was work out the equivalent for a YA novel of approximately 76,000 words. 

It’s the 12,000 mark. 

If you want – and I do, given my inability to plot a book that actually works – a rough rule of thumb, everything’s gotta be sorted by 12,000; the protagonist, their motivation and flaws, the mood and atmosphere, tone, world. It’s the place where ‘the adventure begins’. That’s roughly the end of Chapter Six if you write in Fletcher-sized sections.

I’ve just re-read book 2, The Nightwardens, up to the end of Chapter Six. The news is… mixed.

Someone pass me the wine.    

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Lists and Prizes

Gather round, gather round.

I had the enormous pleasure of attending the award ceremony of the Dudley Teen Book Award a few days ago. I met Ally Kennen, shortlisted for Midnight Pirates, and Marie-Lousie Jensen, who’s novel Smuggler’s Kiss had made the shortlist as well. And I got to meet a nice big crowd of fantastic young people who very graciously and politely listened to my blather and queued up to get their copies of Poison Boy signed. It was a great occasion. Mostly because I won! The Poison Boy pipped a whole bunch of brilliant books to the post, and I’m delighted.

Thanks to everyone who organised the event and all the kids who took part for making the day so special.

Coming up are a few more awards for which I’ve been lucky enough to be shortlisted:

The Leeds Book Award has an amazing shortlist in three categories and a killer website – where kids can vote for and review the shortlisted books. I'm getting trounced, but what the hell. The winner will be announced on May 22nd.

On June 18th, The Calderdale Children's Book of the Year will be announced, and the longlist is waaay good. PB's an outside bet at the best, I reckon.

The Staffordshire Young Teen Fiction Award is open for voting now – you can vote up until the end of June. Go!

And I’ve also been lucky enough to be shortlisted for the North East Book Award. Details to follow on this one.

I know what you’re thinking. ‘Hey, Fletch – surely Poison Boy on the Branford Boase Longlist was a mistake, right?’ Well, it’s certainly a wonderful turn-up for the books. I get booted off when the longlist becomes shortlist, so expect my name to be missing when the announcement is made in early April.

Right. Back to work…

Monday, 10 March 2014

Reading in the Sun

When I was ten I went on holiday abroad for the first time. And so I became acquainted with one of the greatest of life’s pleasures, namely: reading in the sun next to a swimming pool. Ever since those Elysian days, I’ve been trying, one way or another, to recapture the sheer self-indulgent carefree joy of lying on my back on a towel, holding up a novel until my arms ache, taking a dip to cool down, and starting all over again.
So when it was recently suggested to me that I could save space by taking an e-reader on holiday this year instead, I shuddered. No chance, pal. I want a suitcase full of battered books. That’s the whole point. I’m no luddite guys, honest, but bear with me while I take three key images of childhood holidays camping in France and expand on them a little by way of explanation.

Image one: melting paperbacks with black covers

You’ve never done this? C’mon. It’s formative. You’re reading a novel with a black cover – usually Stephen King or James Herbert I seem to recall, though my Fellowship of the Ring was also black – and you splay it open face down on the dashboard of your parents’ car. Park the car – a green Capri – in full sun for three hours or so; go and play table tennis with your brothers or something; then return to find the binding-glue has completely evaporated in the baking heat and your book has become a cracked and melting spine inside which are clotted sections of pages still stuck together like little mini novels, usually no longer than eighty or a hundred pages each. You can shuffle them about and read the book in the wrong order. It’s ace.

Image two: sand between the pages

…which empties out into your sleeping bag as you dip back into a book you’d been reading on the beach earlier that day. The scene is this: it’s late, but still light. You’ve got a torch with a knackered battery, and you’re reading. It doesn’t matter what time it is. It doesn’t matter what’s happening tomorrow. You’ve no mobile phone or internet connection – you won’t have for another twenty years – and you’ve haven’t seen a telly for close to two weeks. You’re utterly calm, centred and carefree; so much so you happily recline in the sand rather than brush it all out. That night, you sleep like a log.

Image three:  swollen and bloated books

Choose an appropriately epic summer read – the key here is to make sure it’s already a whopper. Then leave it near a source of water and engage in the kind of vigorous play which usually frightens other kids away from the pool. Return to your reading spot to find your novel, sopping wet, has warped and inflated into something close to twice its size. Dry it in the sun and the pages get stuck with a pleasing ripple, never sitting flat again. The spine arches into an inverted U shape. When you get it back home, it won’t fit the slot you withdrew it from; it looks like you’re trying to put Lennie Small in your bookcase.

Seems strange writing this now, it being early March and all, but praise be the sun’s been out for two days now. I know there’s rain on the way. There always is. But here’s hoping we get a hot one this summer - a long, drowsy and endless sequence of books by the pool.

Oh, and e-readers? Get lost.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Myazaki and Me

This blog post was first published at the tremendous YA Yeah Yeah blog - the link to which is here. It is reproduced in full. Enjoy...

My fixation with age started in my twenties. I’m not talking about wrinkles, bags or greying hair here; my obsession was different. I was gloomily fascinated with how old writers were when they got their first novel published. I’d heard somewhere that Donna Tartt had begun The Secret History when she was nineteen, and that great swathes of it were the unedited first draft of a teenage writer. Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she too was nineteen. Brett Easton Ellis, I hear you ask? 21.

There were others, too, and the knowledge of it was eating me from the inside out. Every time a debut novel came out I’d find myself in a bookshop somewhere checking the author’s bio, and working out their age. Twenty four, twenty eight, thirty one – these kind of ages seem to figure highly as I stood in bookshops over the next decade anxiously doing the maths.

Time, I knew, was slipping away.

My problem? I couldn’t find any long-term traction for an idea. I’d spend a year on a doomed piece of misplotted detective fiction, and then my eye would be caught by something new; I’d declare myself on a mission to write kooky travel fiction, strap a thrift-store tent to the back of a bicycle, and be abandoning the whole sorry endeavour before sundown. Everything I read became the missing link. For three years in my early thirties I was mainlining A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and trying to turn myself in to Dave Eggers having decided I was never going to be Iris Murdoch. Then it was Julian Barnes; Martin Amis, Ian MacEwan. I couldn’t ‘be true to myself’ because I had no idea who I was. I couldn’t ‘write what I know’ because all I knew was trying to be other writers.

Then everything changed. I read Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (Reeve? 35, in case you were wondering.) Damn, I thought. I used to love stories like this. Then, after a moment; I still love stories like this. Really love them. The YA bug bit me and I was away – I was off – I had a direction and a drive and a belief in what I was doing.

I was 42 when The Poison Boy came out; very much the back-end of the distribution curve, I reckon. But since that day I’ve gathered around me a gang of noteworthy guys and gals who also came (fashionably!) late to the party. Ian Fleming was 42 as well; Raymond Chandler 51. George Eliot belongs in this crew, as does (ahem) the Marquis de Sade.

For Christmas this year, I got a tremendous little gift - a book of critical essays that told the story of the Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli and its creative director the magnificent Mr Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve long been a borderline obsessive fan of his. Kiki’s Delivery Service, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Ponyo; these are all, I reckon, timeless works of magic. And wouldn’t you know it? When his first feature-length movie was released, he was 38. His second came out when he was 44.

So whatever your age or circumstances – I reckon there’s pretty much no such thing as too late in this game. Here’s to making up for lost time.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Blog Chain: The Night Wardens

I was recently tagged by the wonderful Tony Ballantyne in this blog-chain-meme-thing that's going around. There's four questions, and I get to answer them, then pass them on!

You can read Tony's lovely take on it all here. And the best bit is I get to tag someone else, my pal Sarah Naughton, Costa shortlisted YA novelist don'tchaknow - details at the end.

What am I working on?

Well - it's not a sequel to Poison Boy. I would have loved to have written more about the Highlions gang, but someone needs to publish it, right? So I absorbed the blow, took it like a man etc etc, and cooked up something else.

I'm sooo glad I did. I'm dead excited about The Night Wardens, a contemporary superdark sci-fi thriller set in Manchester around about tomorrow night. There are urban explorers, missing children, insomniac kids, a secret government project, a shoestring crew of maverick scientists, and a couple of sinister devices known as Kepler Valves. 

Now all I have to do is persuade someone to give it a home...

How does it differ from others in its genre?

It loves its genre, this one. I've been channelling the soundtrack to Super 8 for over six months while I write - another story that loves its genre.

Why do I write what I do?

I guess it's just what sticks. I don't think I could ever write a book about - I dunno, I'm making this up - the developing relationship between a father and a son on a family holiday in Devon.

Unless there was something lurking down in that cave on the beach...

I guess that's me. I'm a beastie-in-the-caves sort of guy.

How does my writing process work?

I wrote about this in a post called Little Pockets, which you can find here.

I have notebooks and I gather up loads of ideas from newspaper stories, items on TV, documentaries, and of course reading other people's brilliant books. Then I find the ones that are going to work. Some lie dormant for ages. Others seem to creep up the pecking order by gathering bits of other ideas and strengthening.

When they start to look good, I begin trying to build them. They fall down a thousand times of course. Eventually, they stand up, wobbling drunkenly - propped up by all manner of crazy interventions on my part.

Now on to you, Sarah! Sarah wrote
The Hanged Man Rises (Simon and Schuster), a Victorian supernatural thriller for teenagers, and her second book, The Blood List, set in rural England during the witch-trials, came out a couple of weeks back. Check out her blog for her answers! 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Lessons from The Green Mile

How much do you guys spend on pricey tomes called variations of how-to-write-a-killer-novel

I've flung a fair few quid in that direction over the years, with varying success. Worth my hard-earned was this:

And more recently, this - which I'm getting on with very well indeed:

(And there's another one - Jerome Stern's Making Shapely Fiction, which I blogged about here.)

But you can get far better advice in other places. Rather than seek out the latest handbook advertising an instant-novel:just-add-water-and-stir, I've taken to scouring introductions and forewords by generous writers who don't mind demystifying the process. 

Stephen King does this brilliantly, to my mind. Recently I picked up a new edition of The Green Mile because of its additional introduction and, wouldn't you know it - there was more in those four pages than I've seen in whole chapters of meandering guff from some less helpful creative writing tutors. 

Grab it, kids. 

Alternatively, clock my filleted version below - for me being the sharing type (my mum often makes reference to my 'nice nature' - awww) I thought I'd share the three that worked best for me.

My advice? Do them. All three, all the time.

1. Plan obsessively (at night). 

SK: "I go through cycles of I try to keep a story handy for those nights when sleep won't come. Each night I start over from the beginning, getting a little further before I drop off."

2. Dismantle, rebuild. Dismantle, rebuild. Abandon, return. Dismantle, rebuild.

SK: "It was a good idea, but the story wouldn't work for me. I tried it a hundred different ways... Then, about a year and a half later, the story recurred to me, only this time with a different slant."

3. Then, as soon as you possibly can, get going.

SK: "...I thought research might kill the fragile sense of wonder I'd found in my story - some part of me knew from the first that what I wanted was not reality but myth." 

It has the virtue of simplicity, I think you'll agree. So save your pennies, people, and rather than reading about learning by doing, just learn by doing. 

10,000 hours, a million words and all that stuff. Off we go!

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Little Pockets

This post first appeared in full on the smashin' Author Allsorts site. Go and see what you're missing!

Writing as someone with a full time job and a young family, I can sympathise with anyone engaged in the often fruitless battle for time, solitude and laptop access. Having been on the front line of that particular conflict for some years now, I humbly offer up some suggestions for how it can be achieved. It’s a two-step programme, people. Not complicated!


All of us have a tendency towards multiple interests. Be it origami, fell-running, electronica or shopping; crochet, croquet, cricket or cards – most folk are fitting in a fair amount. I’ve decided not to. I’m a one-hobby guy; an obsessive. I went to my last footy match just over three years ago; played in my last one two years ago (the shame of my miserable performance still haunts me by the way); I’ve never seen Breaking Bad or The Sopranos or The Wire or Prison Break or Lost or Mad Men. Or Eastenders or Corrie or Strictly or X Factor, ever. I do watch a bit of telly – but I’ve become really picky, and whatever I sit down with has to be feeding my thinking somehow or it’s not worth it. I sold my guitar. I’ve cancelled subscriptions, ditched the newspapers and magazines and stopped buying cookery books. I game at a glacial pace in little twenty-minute sections; The Last of Us will take me a year or so to complete given current progress. I skip the gym and the cinema.

Instead, I write. And read, of course. To some, this might sound like some draconian nightmare but I love it; I gets me four hours a week undisturbed and for me that means 2000 words or more. Which means a first draft in three-quarters of a year. Sometimes when I’ve got some time ahead of me, that little devil on my shoulder might say, “To hell with it - let’s watch The Walking Dead!” but I never do because – here’s the thing – I’d rather be writing. Sad, but true.

One drawback: I have next to no idea what anyone is talking about in the staffroom at work. Or in the canteen. Or student common room, cafĂ© or bus queue. Or anywhere really – it seems to be all about telly. Still, a relatively small price to pay.


Here’s a true story from last week. There’s this scene in Book 2 – forgive me while I outline it: five characters stand in a circle around a dead body in an open-plan space on the first floor of a warehouse building. A minister of her majesty’s government is riding the lift, and is about to enter the room. Furious chaos will ensue.

I was tapping away when I thought – wouldn’t Mr Government Man have some ministers with him? So I stopped and thought and decided no he wouldn’t and carried on. Then as the lift doors opened I thought – wouldn’t the terrified protagonist hide? So I stopped and thought. Then I made a broom cupboard appear and shoved him in it. Then I thought – can he see what’s going on? So I re-position him a bit and carry on. Can he hear what they’re saying? So I stop and think it through, and start writing a half-heard conversation, but it’s not clear enough. Then I think: Government Dude would have ministers with him. Researchers and interns doing his every bidding. So I reverse a bit and put them back in… and then I stop. An hour’s been wasted on this. It’s not working.

If you’ve only got four hours a week my friends, you’d better make them count. Nothing’s worse than making a poor fist of your Sunday session and thinking, Ah well, I’ll fix it next Thursday night. So prepare. Think your scene through over and over again before you fall asleep at night. Check the positions of your actors, the props, the dialogue, the outcomes. Other writers have time to let characters, relationships and themes organically grow – but I haven’t and chances are neither have you. Hothouse your scenes for days beforehand and then write in intense bursts. You’ll never waste time 
staring at a blinking cursor again…

One drawback: J will sometimes say to me, “Where are you?” and I’ll come out of some reverie and realise I’ve fallen silent halfway through a conversation. I’ve accidentally travelled to another world and left her behind. Oops.

I won’t lie – I sometimes wish things were different. Log into Twitter and you’d be forgiven for thinking the world is full of people with so much time on their hands. It’s like glimpsing the secret garden. One day I hope to be there too. But I know it’s not going to be any time soon – maybe ever. In the meantime, this is what most of us have – little pockets of opportunity in otherwise frenetic days. Do whatever it takes to grab ‘em.