___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

we shall make monsters . . . audio version

A few years ago – quite a few years ago – I wrote a sort-of steampunk, sort-of tongue-in-cheek horror SF piece poking fun at the then newish trend of manufactured “boybands”. You know the sort, the four or five-piece set of healthy-looking young men with a gleam in their eyes and a polished smile beneath carefully styled hair. They’d dance, sing – sometimes well, sometimes well enough – and be pretty much indistinguishable from all the other boybands that did exactly the same thing. You’d even confuse the names of the bands and be unsure which of them was singing which song.

As far as I could work out, these bands seemed to have been born out of the manufactured hits of the late 80s, those awful sound-alike songs of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. I pretty much stopped listening to Top 40 radio when these songs dominated the airwaves, and back then Top 40 radio was pretty much all there was when it came to music on UK radio stations. (Remember, kids, this was before the internet and almost unlimited choice through streaming services. We had an AM and an FM dial, and if we didn’t mind excessive crackle, we could find some foreign longwave station looping in and out of tune depending on the atmospherics in the evening.) But those SAW songs were everywhere, and you couldn’t avoid them. If they weren’t on the radio, they were on the TV; if they weren’t on the TV, they were in the clothes store or on the speakers of the supermarket.

I got to thinking that it was all a bit Frankensteinian, and remembered – or misremembered, I’m not entirely sure – a line from Frankenstein: “We shall make monsters.” It seemed a neat little phrase that tied into the idea of the most popular records in the charts being referred to as “monster hits”. When such ideas hit you, you don’t have much choice. Go forth and apply pen.

So I did, and for a laugh called the boy band “Stepfor’d”, a contraction of Step Forward and a nod to Ira Levin’s satire on male insecurity The Stepford Wives. I think at that point, I had stopped caring that I was riffing on the back of one of the most celebrated books in history with Frankenstein, so was happy to nod at a modern classic. What was I thinking? The answer is I probably wasn’t. I was having fun. With that in mind, I’m sure that it is entirely coincidental that the first-person narrator of the tale has the initials S.A.W. 

Anyway, the tale was picked up for publication by Mad Scientist Journal and is available to buy in the Spring 2014 edition for ebooks.

If, however, you would like to listen to the tale, then the lovely people at Sage and Savant have produced an audio edition, in two parts, that can be accessed free via their site and/or which you can download from iTunes. You can either listen free online or download the piece to keep. Sage and Savant is a great little site, with a cast production of an ongoing series podcast that, at the time I write, is up to episode 203. If fun SF with a steampunk bent is your thing, then this is the place to be. As well as the series podcast, S&S also has a set of short stories you can listen to by, amongst others, Harry Turtledove, Allana McFall, Greg Bear, and Alan Dean Foster. You can't do much better than that.

Composer and Sage and Savant cast member Chip Michael was generous enough to apply his talents to my tale. Thanks, Chip! If you’d like to, you can listen to Chip’s reading of my story here.

after that, this

I’d just come off the back of a big book that I was then calling HEARTSTONES TO ALAEDORNIA. It was a fantasy novel, and it was complicated, and it had hurt my head to write. The first draft was just over 200,000 words long and if it was ever going to look like something anyone would want to read – including me – I was going to have to do a lot of work on it. It was a messy first draft, but okay, at least it was something to work on, and something to work on is better than nothing.

Over the next year, as I continued to write new short stories, I did do that work. I found the thread of the narrative and pulled it tight, pared away the excess (including the TO ALAEDORNIA in the title), and got the book down to a leaner 136,000 words. I polished it. Buffed it up. Then I started to send it out.

During the time HEARTSTONES was collecting rejections, I started on a new book. After all, that’s what you do if you write, isn’t it?

(I mention this because I have met a few people who write their first book and then sit on their hands while they send it off to agents and publishers – and they wait, and they wait, and they wait. Uhm . . . No. Don’t do that. Write the next thing you have to write while the first book is going out. After all, if the first people who see it accept it, you’ll be expected to write another one anyway. So why waste your time? Get on with it. Write.)

HEARTSTONES was a pretty serious piece of work. In my mind, at least, it tried to do all the things that I thought a good book that aspires to be more than disposable entertainment should do. It had themes and subtext, a challenging narrative, a complicated set of characters who grew and changed over the course of the book, and a resolution that felt like it had always meant to be that way. It was technically challenging to write, in that it was really only a one-character point-of-view piece but took place over different times in the characters’ lives and in some unusual locations. But it was a pretty satisfying experience for me, and I thought I had done a good thing in making it, even if it wasn’t perfect. Because, after all, no book is perfect, however hard the writer works on it. I was probably as pleased with it as I could be. Somewhere along the way the book had become the book it wanted to be and not the book I had wished it had been, and that is fair enough and something I have learned to accept when it comes to writing books. They often know what they want to be more than the writer knows.

But . . .

There was one thing I kept coming back to, though, when I thought about the book. That fantasy novel, it was pretty serious, I kept thinking. It was quite grim in places and pulled very few punches. There weren’t many moments of levity in it.

For my own sake as much as anyone who might read it, I decided the next book should be a little lighter. The tone should be easier, even if darkness crept in – which, seeing as I was writing it, I suspected it would.

I didn’t have a title or a plot. I had vague ideas about a couple of characters, including one of their names: Rusby Once. The location for the first part of the book would be the country lanes in which I used to play as I’d grown up, and I wanted to use an old folly in the area as the basis for something, some plot development, some important part of the narrative. That’s about all I knew. Apart from one other thing: I knew I wanted the prose to set up the way the book might come across. I like long sentences, and have to fight with myself not to go on and on when I write. So, with that in mind, I decided to do something a little more punchy than usual. Shorter sentences, shorter book, I was probably thinking. And more dialogue to convey ideas. Make it more easily accessible than HEARTSTONES.

I had an opening line, and like most of the lines that I write, I had little idea where it had come from. But I went with it anyway, deciding to follow where it led to. Here’s what I had for the opening:

Weird 24.

That’s all. But it felt right. I carried on from there, trying to keep things sharp like that, while allowing room for the characters to introduce themselves. In relatively quick time they did, and when the characters come alive then some sort of plot inevitably follows. After a few months that stretched to close to a year (with a few months’ break in the middle thanks to pesky old real life interfering in the process) I had a first draft – what I like to call the story draft – of about 90,000 words and I thought it hung together pretty well and had some nice light moments in it, and yes, some dark ones too.

My girlfriend read the book, while I went back to sorting out what was going on with HEARTSTONES (after a few rejections I did yet more work on it to make it a little shinier, a little more polished, so I could submit it to a few other places). Anyway, the good news was she liked it. She made a really good suggestion, too. That I should up the age of the leads. In the first draft they were 11 and 12. She thought that, by beefing things up a little, the book would be better served with them as older teenagers, and the moments of darkness wouldn’t be traumatic to any younger audience that the book might naturally have picked up with protagonists of more tender years. I thought about this and realised she was quite right, so Gideon Sawyer became 16 years old and Rusby Once fast-forwarded through a few summers at the flick of a pen to become 17.

In the meantime, as HEARTSTONES continued to pick up rejections, and on the back of finishing the first draft of the new lighter fantasy, which at this point I was calling “the Rusby Once book”, I had a sudden window of good health and energy and, in a fit of pique at the fantasy novel getting rejected so sorely and surely, I wrote what would become my first published book, HOUR OF THE BLACK WOLF. It was written at break-neck speed and first drafted in 10 days, and like the Rusby Once book, had some lighter moments in it. It was about 56,000 words long. It was accepted on first submission, on condition I made some revisions. So I did, and it went through the all the usual steps of being professionally edited and proofed and published without a hiccup. It even picked up a couple of good notices when it came out. If there’s a moral to this, or a life lesson to take in and abide by, then I don’t know what it is.

Baffled but pleased, I went back to sending out the big fantasy, and started on the rewrite of the Rusby Once book, wondering if it and HEARTSTONES would find a publisher as easily as HOUR OF THE BLACK WOLF had done. All I was sure of was that I could breathe out now, that I was finally someone who’d had a book professionally published. The rest would happen as it would. Or wouldn’t. But for a working-class kid sending out his own untutored prose, I thought I had done well.

As it happened, HEARTSTONES found a publisher, and then wasn’t published. Because of me. But that’s another story. And I found a better title than “the Rusby Once book” for the Rusby Once book. I decided to call it A CLASH OF ICHOR AND BLOOD and I sent it out to the few agents who’d made nice noises about my earlier books. They made more nice noises but that was about as far as it went. I didn’t have the heart to go through the dreary task of hunting out new agents only to be turned down by them. It felt too depressing and time-consuming. (After all, if you keep repeating the same actions you’re going to get the same results, and I really didn't want the same results.) So I decided to do something different with A CLASH OF ICHOR AND BLOOD.

In future posts we’ll get on to what I’m doing, have a guess at why things have turned out as they have, the good and the bad and the ugly, and what I’m doing about it.

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.

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