___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

one of these things first

Some things take longer than you expect them to take. Just under three years ago I started work on what I hoped would turn out to be a new book. I knew my time for this project would be limited, and that the book would have to be written in sporadic bursts that might, if I was lucky, amount to a month here and a month there.

By that, I mean time that was wholeheartedly and selfishly mine, during which I could commit to being in the same place, getting up at roughly the same hour, and getting the space – physically and in my head – without too many outside disturbances, to put the work in on the book. Concentration and effort, in other words. Focus.

It hasn’t been easy. And it’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way that things have fallen. You can read as many self-help books as you like, telling you all about visualisation and believing in something enough that it will happen – these same books tend to have a no refund policy and are apt to tell you that if something doesn’t work out then it’s because you haven’t been trying hard enough and didn’t really want it in the first place – but the real truth is what the Ancients called Fate has a hand in our lives. We don’t get to decide if we’re struck by a particular illness (or a car as we walk down the street, for that matter) or if and when our loved ones need our help, or even when the computer you’re writing on is going to explode and you can’t afford a replacement. These things are flung at us by whatever Gods we may or not believe in. What I have found is that these things are not usually conducive to writing a book.

The book I’ve been working on, then, was written in patches, and was a dog to get back into after every time I was forced to break away from it.

But, persistence . . . you know?

I did get back into it, each time, even if it did take colossal reserves to do that, and I found myself enjoying it, getting back into the lives of these people I’d come to know. It was hard work, but fulfilling in many ways.

Today, coming off the back of a particularly nasty bout of the flu, I finally got to the end of the first draft of a book that, really, should not have taken anywhere near this long to write. I’ve written more words in shorter spans of time in the past, that’s for sure. But I’ve also been healthier and had, in some ways, fewer demands on me when I’ve been writing those other words.

Anyway. This is where I stand now. I have a working title – THE CHURCH OF WOLVES – and a fair few words to work with. 201,913 of them if MS Word’s word count is to be believed. And that’s good, because it’s easier to fix 200,000 words that are in the wrong order but on a page than it is to have to start from scratch and put them on a page and then fix them . . .

Right now the book feels disjointed, in need of quite a lot of work. It will – the Fates allowing – get that work from me. But not for a while. I need some distance from it – so I can come back and see it with clearer eyes. I’ve already made a few notes about things I need to fix, include, go back and retrofit into the manuscript. So I’m not without a clue as to what needs to happen. It’s not simply a case of writing an instruction to myself like “make this better”, tempting though that is. And it’s a first draft, and first drafts are allowed to be a bit saggy in places and underdeveloped in others. The characters’ names can change throughout as well. They’re pretty fluid things, first drafts.

I tend to think of my first drafts as “story drafts.” It’s where I sit and put words on the page and find out who the characters are and what happens to them and what happens because of them. And if I’m lucky I also learn why it happens and why they’ve done what they’ve done. Some sort of plot resolves itself.

Thus, a story draft.

I don’t pre-plot. I’m not one of those writers who sits down with a flow chart and copious notes all neatly lined up to tick off as I go. If I’m feeling a little bit professional, I might jot a note down on a stray piece of paper that I inevitably lose somewhere down the line. Otherwise, it’s follow the first sentence and see where it leads. I might have a theme in mind – past themes in my books have been identity and duty and doors – or a certain mood I’m hoping to achieve through the book, say awe or fear. Or a question I want to explore, a sort of grand What If . . . or What Does It All Mean? But aside from that, it’s pretty much all that I have. As far as plots go, I never really seem to come across them; at least, not before I set off on the journey of the first draft.

And it is a journey. To me writing a book is like heading out on an expedition. I’ll set off into what I think is a trackless forest armed with a candle and a couple of characters and beat through the bushes until it looks like we know where we’re going. The first draft is learning what happens in the forest, and how we get to the other end of it. Subsequent drafts are about illuminating the path the characters have taken, enjoying the scenery, and making sure everyone’s feet land where they ought to. By the time I get to the final draft, before the endless rounds of polishing and buffing up take place, then that initial course through the forest should look like it was always going to lead to where it leads, an inevitable track to an almost predetermined destination – despite all the swings and turns it makes along the way.

So. Where am I now? I’ve just got through to the other end of the forest.

I’ll go back. I’ll see more. The characters’ voices won’t be as difficult to hear or their needs and desires as obscure or as distorted as they seemed when they first acted how they did. I know who they are, now. I’ve been on a journey with them.

Next time I come back to this book I get to shine a light on them, to make things as clear as glass. And I’ll know what lies ahead of us as we go in to the dark woods, and what we’ll find there. I know the darkness, and want to make sure you get an idea of it too. In time, we’ll see if I can manage that.

not another duck

I’m pleased to say I have a new short story available in/on (still not sure how that should go) the fiction webzine With Candlelight. The guys running the zine have got a really great set-up, with a nice easy podcast, and interviews on the site, as well as plenty of stories, mainstream and genre (and those fuzzy bits in between as well as some flash fiction too). It’s well worth a visit and a look around.

My tale is called “Not Another Duck!” and is about 1,500 words long, if I remember correctly. It’s not the first of its kind, so I wanted to say a few words about what’s been going on.

For a while now, when I’ve either been too tired to write anything longer or wanted to write something that could be finished in a single sitting, I’ve been working on a series of pieces featuring the nameless protagonist of this tale and his three-legged dog, Horatio. The series – if that’s really what it is – came about by accident . . . which seems to be the defining feature of most of my writing output.

A good few years ago I wrote a 3,000- word short story called “Walking Horatio.” It didn’t fall into any easily defined genre and wasn’t really mainstream enough to be published in a mainstream venue. But friends who read the piece enjoyed it and that made me want to see it in print. I toyed around with it, adding a crime element to see if it might be possible to sell somewhere. But the tale felt dishonest like that and I reverted back to the original version. I showed it to a couple of mainstream magazines, and the responses were positive, but no money changed hands and the tale didn’t find its way into any of those good publications. So, in the way of these things, I put it aside a little sadly . . . and forgot about it. 

Or at least, I thought I did.

Turns out the characters didn’t want to leave me alone, even if I had thought we weren’t seeing each other any more. I wrote another story about them, thinking when I’d finished that there would probably be a final tale written some time in the future to wrap up a little trilogy of pieces.

Again, I was wrong.

I wrote another tale, and there they were again – one slacker and his dog, Horatio – but it wasn’t the final tale of the loose trilogy I’d imagined it would be.  Okay, I thought. That’s interesting.

Four seemed like an odd number (even though it’s even, as my nameless protagonist would probably point out) for a trilogy, and so, after resisting doing so, I wrote another tale. And then another. Both featuring the narrator and Horatio. I started to think of them as “The Horatio Tales.” But they weren’t the only things I was writing at the time. I wrote a couple of books which you can probably find on eBay or Amazon Marketplace for a penny each, some that you won’t be able to find because they didn’t make it into print, and some other short stories too (some of which have been published, some of which have not). For a  while – maybe a year or more – I didn’t go back to our hero and his dog. After all, although they were fun to write and didn’t take long, I wasn’t selling them . . . or even sending them out to magazines that might have published them. They were beginning to feel like an indulgence. But then, between chapters of novels, or at the end of drafts of other pieces, or just on the occasions where I’d no strength to write something new from scratch, I found myself going back to see how these guys were doing.

Slowly, over the years, new characters made their way into the tales. They kept popping up in other pieces, and I realised I’d got quite a cast of oddballs and sweet innocents I genuinely enjoyed spending time with. Indulgence or not, the reason why you write, ultimately, is for yourself, and I have been doing exactly that with these tales.

I have maybe twenty pieces now, and I still haven’t written the tale that I thought would make up that original trilogy. It’ll happen, I think, possibly later this year or early next, and when it does it won’t be long until I write another couple of Horatio tales to round things out. Then I’ll revise (because you always have to revise) and gather the tales together in a short collection. I’m looking forward to it.

“Not Another Duck!” is one of the Horatio tales. It was written – or at least first drafted – in a single sitting, as most if not all of the Horatio tales has been. I think it’s one of the more recent pieces, written in the last year or two. When I saw that Brandon and Roger were asking for tales that didn’t really fit anywhere else for With Candlelight, for some reason I flashed on this piece and thought it would be worth sending to them. I don’t know why. But I did.

They agreed it was, and you can find it here now. Just scroll down the page and you’ll see it there. Read it for free. And enjoy it. One way or another, there are more of them to come.

library thing

I've been reminiscing lately, for all sorts of reasons, some happy, some sad, some just melancholic.

For some reason I got to thinking about the library of my boyhood, a single room of books in a terrace house owned by the local council. This was in an old village on the side of a hill in Yorkshire. I'd go there with my dad first of all, before I was old enough to go by myself, either walking down the hill and back or, if there was petrol in the car and the car was running, driving down. To get to the heavy library door you had to cross a slab of old stone, worn and weathered, and often slick and dangerous in the wet. Beneath the stone slab, was a darkness, leading to the cellar. The library door took some opening, and inside there was a narrow square of hallway with bare, painted steps leading up to a place I knew was out of bounds. Instead of going up the stairs you turned right, through another heavy door with a  circular knob that rattled for all the years I remember using the library (before it was closed and the books taken in some odd amalgamation with the newer community centre), and there was that certain smell unique to libraries, there to greet you along with the silence of dreaming books. 

There was a grill fire in an old chimney breast, and the fire smelled when it was lit. Rosemary the librarian's reception counter stood in the middle of the room. There was a microfiche reader that looked magnificently science-fictional and took up more space than was probably good for it, and there were white walls with shelves up to a boy's head, and on the shelves were books. Lots of books. More books than I'd ever seen. Many were old and grubby, but still had a shine to them because of their protective covers. They were all special to me, things to be amazed about.

Even though it was a small library, I'd be lying if I said I read everything in there, but I certainly got through everything in the small children's section. Often more than once. 

I thought I was smart back then, so figured that if I looked at an adult title or two and pretended to put them all back on the shelves but really kept one for myself, I could sneak that title into the children's corner, and then - criminal genius - make a louder show than usual of taking it out of the children's section and over to Rosemary.  I'm sure I wore a most convincing expression of innocence as I presented her with some horror novel or violent thriller.

I used to think Rosemary was a stern fearsome person, but looking back, I realise now that she was looking after me. With only the odd raised eyebrow behind her glasses, she let me take out more titles from the adult section than she might have done. I read a lot of yellowback Gollancz SF, thanks to Rosemary, long before I truly understood them. And plenty of middle books in fantasy sagas. (For some reason the library never had book one of a trilogy or series. To this day I kind of prefer reading book two of a series before book one. A hangover from those days, I suspect; though to some extent I do think the second book of a trilogy is more interesting if you haven't read the first one.) I read a lot of everything.

But there was, quite appropriately it seemed to me, more than a little bit of myth and legend about the library among us kids. I mentioned that beneath the library was an entrance to a cellar and it looked very much like a cave. The rumour went that there was a passage from the library, running underground, to the ruined old folly of the criminal Black Dick, and that his ghost walked the passage during the day, until sundown, when it haunted the ruin itself. 

One day I would dare go down there, I told myself, and see if I could find the tunnel. I would take my best friend and my brother and his friend, and we would use a torch like the posh kids in The Famous Five did, and explore, and probably find buried treasure and be chased by a ghost. Or a man disguised as a ghost, which was often what ghosts turned out to be in detective fiction and on Scooby Doo on the television. It all seemed possible, beneath the library, as if the secret worlds in the books had slipped out of the pages and been pulled down by gravity into the cellar and the secret tunnel. We would have our adventure and it would be scary and exciting.

One day we would do that.

But of course, we never did.

after jerusalem

Okay. It's 2017 (why do all years feel like science fiction titles these days?) and it hasn't been a great one so far, for all sorts of reasons. The details are too grim and upsetting to go into, so I won't linger on them. Let's just say I'm not going to forget this one in a hurry and can only hope it gets better as the months pass. We take our happier moments where we can, and we should remember to cherish them. 

And so . . . with that in mind: I have a new story out. Which is always nice to say. It's a quiet little science fiction piece called "After Jerusalem" and was actually written quite a while ago. (I've a feeling it could be ten years old.) It's one of those tales I've always been quite fond of but never been entirely sure what to do with; and so, while deep in prevarication, hadn't really done anything with it . . . for a long time.

But then I found Sci Phi Journal, and the old story popped into my mind as sort of appropriate for the publication. I thought so, anyway. I found the file, gave it a quick polish (look, something ten years old must be improvable in some respects), and emailed it off . . .

. . .  not realising I'd missed the open window for submissions by a week or two.

Luckily the lovely people at Sci Phi Journal promised to read the tale anyway. This is called going above and beyond the call of duty and is a rare gift in publishing. That kindness alone was enough to make me feel the world was a better place than I'd previously feared it was. I just hoped I wasn't wasting their time by giving them yet another tale to read that wasn't approriate and was wasting their time . . .

Fortunately they liked the story enough to want to publish it. (This sometimes feels like it's even rarer than acts of kindness in publishing.) Naturally I was delighted, and am pleased to say you can read it right here. If you can, then please do so. I hope you like it.

Take care.

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