Accidental holiday

I have become becalmed, lost in the doldrums, unable to advance or to reverse course; awaiting only a fair wind to ease me back into port.

Life has delivered unto me a change in routine, and now I can no longer get behind my keyboard, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for 08:30: instead I have to wait until the afternoon to return to my computer and I am not, as yet, psychically ready to create at that ungodly hour. I just want to fire up Civilization and listen to audiobooks; I don’t want to tangle with the world-weaving or the word-wrangling. I’m struggling even to go and talk to my friends on Twitter. Apologies to all of you, my friends, for being quiet of late.

I need to adapt. I need to embrace change and find a new way of going forwards. Which I will, I’m sure. But recently – this week at least – feels a little like I’ve been taking an accidental holiday.

There are things happening, however. I’m continuing busy with commercial editing (which makes creative writing-time even harder to find, but no matter). I am returning to self-publishing plans; I have begun the final proofread/last tinker/anxiety run of New Gods in preparation for formatting into an actual book-shaped thing. I have been in touch with the cover-artist, trying to work out exactly how a great piece of art is produced – which is to say that the roughs look wonderful, I’m just not sure what to do next.

And amidst all this I have a new novel some 18k words in existence. I have not forgotten you, dear yarn. I’m just leaving you aside for the moment whilst I work on other things. And I have Our Kind of Bastard to rewrite; that too is on one side whilst I try and recover some sense of writing identity. And anyway, I’m stuck with that. My beta-readers identified weaknesses that I don’t know how to solve.

Anyone knows what kind of oil is used on central heating, and whether that could become flammable if spilled on a troll? Cause a reader said that ‘heating oil’ wouldn’t work that way. I am stuck on that, and on the big McGuffin, that feedback has does not excite the reader.

I am letting it simmer as my brain does not seem up to do the heavy lifting at the moment. Partly, I feel, I need to retrain the muscles. Partly I need a break. Either way, this certainly feels like one of the busiest holidays I’ve ever been on.

Being good

“So what do you want to do in life?”

“Well, writing or music.”

“I don’t know anything about your music, but you write well. You should consider that.”

And that, dear friends, is how I became a writer: a moderately chance conversation with my MA Landscape History supervisor was enough to set me to writing seriously. A long, long time before I became published, of course; well over a decade of practice before I got a sniff of a deal, but it was enough to set me going. As I remember it, I pretty much went home and started writing what would become The Ballad of Lady Grace, my never-to-be-published, unlamented (save by me, a little) first serious completed work.

These things don’t come out of a vacuum, of course. I had writing on my mind before that discussion; I was playing with ideas and rolling them around in search of connection. But that one conversation was the spark, the touchpaper, that was lit to dominate what might be the rest of my life.

No wonder I remember it.

It also says a lot about me. My weakness in life – one of my many weaknesses – is my need to be good at things. It’s very hard for me to do something and be bad – or even average – at it. This goes for things like chess, which I played at a club level at university, and cricket, which I’ve never been very good at, and has ultimately led me to more or less give up on both. It’s hard for me to play for simple enjoyment. It’s not that I’m a bad loser, more that I find personal failure extraordinarily painful.

I took up writing seriously because I was told I could string together the odd sentence in a not-displeasing manner. And that conversation, and my own emotions at the time, have driven me onwards through the years, through peaks and troughs of feedback and criticism, to now. Now, with my greater critical awareness both of other people’s writing and my own, I find myself doubting. I am in awe of my contemporaries’ power of prose; in awe of their abilities to shape a plot.

I’m not sure if I can compete. I’m not sure if I should be trying to compete. (And this competition is very much with myself; I don’t resent other authors for being great. More power, more publishing deals, to them. The struggle is entirely internal.) I wonder if I’m good enough to play anymore. And whilst I truly admire the people who can shrug at their own infelicities and move on ‘because they enjoy it’, I’m not that well-balanced a person.

I need to be good at things. And I sit here doubting whether I can truly call myself good at anything. Competent, yes, but I’m never going to be an award-winner. There’s simply too many wonderful ideas, perfect prose, out there in this golden age of SFF writing.

I can’t quit. I can’t quit now, because I have no alternative, nothing I have a better chance at making my name at. My best chance for happiness is to change myself, to get over this hopeless yearning to be something I’m not and can never be.

So I keep writing, keep striving, keep hoping I’m wrong and that I’m better than I think I am. What else can I do?

The proof

The proofs are in. This is the last chance I’ll have to rework Human Resources – well, ever. The last chance I’ll have to make sure I’m not sending out a pile of dreck into the great wide world, and that my reputation won’t be forever tarnished.

Early thoughts? Well it’s surprisingly not too terrible. All those drafts and heartburn heartache has just about paid off. My beta-readers came through for me.

I won’t ever be able to read my own work without wincing, so, aside from forced occasions such as readings, I may never pick up the book again. It can never be good enough for me, can never not cause me to flush with embarrassment.

So far in the proofs I’ve picked up on one or two very minor points – a typesetting error, the repetition of a phrase – and one bigger what does that actually mean? So it’s so far so un-terrible.

Is it actually any good? I don’t think I can answer that. Maybe there are artists who can stand back from their work and say objectively ‘yes, I’ve nailed this,’ or ‘I don’t think I’ve quite hit that as I wanted,’ but I’m not one of them. It’s been too long since I wrote it for me to have boundless enthusiasm but I don’t want to be too negative because it’s probably actually much better than I think.

I don’t hate it.

And you should buy it.

Erm. It’s actually really really good and I believe in it whole heartachedly wholeheartedly. That’s what I came here to say. Obviously.

No, let’s say this: I have more faith (less cheek-burning embarrassment) about this than I did in Night Shift. I’ve written some good stuff in my life and this can hold its head up.

So yes, pre-orders now available.

Q & A part 2

Author Life Month

Hello all, and welcome to Part Two of the Q&A we started last week. Hope you’re finding it interesting and entertaining; if not, I hope it’s not causing too much anger or angst. Let’s not waste time: let’s get straight on with the interrogation!

15. Prized bookish possession:

I’ve a few signed books; a copy of American Gods signed by Mr Gaiman that went round the US with me is probably the pick of them. But I’ll plump for something far geekier: this.

It is a work of art and a labour of love that never fails to thrill me whenever I pick it up.

16. Research:

I am not good at research. I am, in fact, very lazy. For some writers it’s all about knowing where to stop. For me it’s more about a single question typed into Google.

Actually, I’m probably doing myself an injustice. I did read an entire book on the crusades before my last unpublished novel, but that was way back in the mists. Now I very much like to write the story and fill up on detail as I go along.

17. Dream event or retreat:

Hmm. Well, I’m on record as loving Edge-Lit but I’m really a greenhorn when it comes to literary events and conventions of all stripes. Similarly I’ve never been on a writing retreat so it’s hard for me to comment. I think any event where you get a lot of writers together is bound to be stimulating and informative, especially the parts set in the bar. So I’ll stick with that for now, but ask me again in five years.

18. Teaser Tuesday:

I’m guessing the 18th Feb was a Tuesday? How about the pitch I’ve put together for the work I’m trying to get some agent love for?

Insomniac Saira accidentally summons a monster from a parallel universe, a land that has been manipulating ours for decades. Now she must prevent the sadistic Dashwood from linking realities and flooding London with monsters from the Dreamlands. But how can Saira survive when Dashwood can kill in her dreams? #A #CF #IRMC #lgbt

19. Background noise:

Oh hell yes! Silence is too loud for me. I always have music playing; ideally something familiar enough to become background but I’m pretty good at staying on the right side of distraction. Nothing too wordy – I once tried to write to The Streets, and that didn’t work at all.

Muse is a common muse, as is New Model Army. Bowie, Metallica, Richard Thompson, The Decemberists – all have underpinned my writing over the years. I don’t think it’s visible in the finished product; maybe something shines through but for the most part it is just beautiful background.

20. Reader love:

What do I say to this? I love my readers. I love all readers, whether they’ve read my work or not. I’m a reader first and foremost so how can I say anything else?

21. Your team:

I’d like to think all readers everywhere. Specifically, though, it’s my wife, who supports my writing by doing a full-time job. It’s the friend I see when the world gets a little too much for me. And it’s all the great authors I worked with in my old writers’ group, and especially those in the spin-off full-manuscript critique group.

It’s also everyone reading this, and all the people I talk with on Twitter that I call my friends. I don’t see many people in the real world – in many ways I’m fairly isolated – so my electronic buddies mean a lot to me. They’re definitely part of my team.

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22. Greatest strength:

Oh gods, I’ve no idea! Stubbornness, perhaps? The willingness to slog on when there seems no end in sight? Or maybe it’s simply that I’m a fairly affable chap that people tend to get on with.

Hell, what am I good at writing-wise? Maybe it’s getting inside a character’s head. Or maybe it’s writing action scenes. I really and honestly don’t know.

23. Biggest distraction:

A toss-up between Twitter and my daughter. Actually, no – it’s definitely Twitter because I don’t even attempt writing whilst the little one’s in the vicinity. Twitter, on the other hand, knows no such bounds.

24. Non-bookish hobby:

I’ve had a lot of hobbies. I used to play Warhammer and to roleplay. I used to play drums. I’ve played a fair few board games in my time.

Now? Well, I play a little cricket – exceptionally badly, though I did once bowl Sebastian Faulks – and I still keep up reading in archaeology and history from my old degree days (MA Landscape History, I’ll have you know). I also play far too much Football Manager (currently managing Gosport Borough).

I’d love to do more in my free time but, sadly, I don’t know people with whom to do things. Maybe in the future I’ll rediscover a friendship group that does things like roleplaying, which I miss so badly.

25. Motivation:

Writing is the only thing I’m in any way any good at. I have to do it as it’s my last chance to make a difference.

26. A prized non-bookish possession:

You know, I don’t think I have any one possession that would fit here for an easy answer. I like owning things so still have books aplenty and a supply of CDs and DVDs – I’ve not gone digital yet. But they are, at the end of the day, just replaceable things.

I have no pets (yet) so I can’t choose them, and I’ve just finished my bottle of rather nice whisky.

Ooh, I know – my new office chair, a bargain at £15 from the local charity emporium!

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27. Bookstore/library love:

Love bookstores and libraries! Waterstones in Norwich was where I joined my first writing group. I worked in Earlham Library for six years and have such fond memories of the place, and of the people. I did a reading there once Night Shift was published.

I also did a reading in Mostly Books, Abingdon, which was my local bookshop when I lived in the town. That’s a lovely little shop. And I did another in Between the Lines, Great Bardfield, a non-profit bookshop in which my mother-in-law is a partner and makes their excellent cakes.

These are the ones that stick out to me, but seriously, any bookshop is a joy and a delight. I can lose myself in them quite happy for hours. It’s the same with libraries. All human life is there and it’s wonderful.

Oh, and I currently work in one, so I guess I should give a shoutout to the Clay Farm Centre in Cambridge. Woo!

28. Acknowledgements:

Acknowledgements are always the toughest; how to include everyone without rambling on for pages. How can anyone ever truly say how much the team around them means – family, friends, inspirations, editors, copy-editors, proofreaders, beta-readers, cover designers, publicists, admin support…

I’ve already thanked my wife, so my acknowledgements would be to those I don’t know who do the actual work. To the underdogs, the supporting cast, the otherwise forgotten.

And, of course, to my friends on Twitter. You don’t know how much you mean to me.

29. What’s next?

What’s next? After answering this question I’ll be straight on with a structural edit and, if I make good progress with that, it’ll be back to the ol’ WIP for another bash at character-wrangling.

More generally speaking, I’ve got my novel HUMAN RESOURCES coming out in November and I expect to have publicity to do around that. Watch, as they say, this space.
And life continues. I’ll (hopefully) be moving house in the next few months. Maybe I’ll get a new job. The wheel turns.

That’s assuming that some sort of normality is maintained through the coronavirus pandemic.

Still, buy my books! They’ll happily see you through the apocalypse.

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Checking in

Check in

Today’s blog is a short one, I’m afraid, and more of a check-in than a fully-fledged post. This is because I have managed to simultaneously contract a proofread, a copy-edit and a structural edit. I am thus plagued by deadlines and have had no time for real writing.

Two of those three things are for other people – paid work, in other words, and thus a priority. The other – the copy-edit – is for my own work and thus a priority priority. I’ve been sent a manuscript full of corrections to my own half-baked scrawl and instructed to ‘sort it aht, geezer.’

Just because it’s for my own work doesn’t mean it’s deadline-free. This is from the publisher and publishers work to a schedule. I have to prove my dependability by not only making half-decent corrections but by getting them in on time.

It’s done now and sent off to the Great and Wonderful Editor of Oz – or, rather, New York. And it’s straight on to the next deadline.

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All of which means that the novel I was working on has been temporarily parked. The realities of life and business get in the way sometimes and, with only finite time available, the novel has to be the one to go to the kerb. But that’s okay. It just means it’s had extra time to percolate around my brain so that when I return to it – and I will – it’ll be with a vengeance.

Whatever happens, the holidays seem a long way in the rear-view mirror. Hope you all had good ones. I’ll catch up with you again next week.

Sledge-Lit 2018

It’s five days until Edge-lit! To get you in the mood, here’s what I wrote about Sledge-Lit 2018 and about surviving conventions in general! Hope you enjoy!

A Writer's Life

Those of you who have been following me for years may know that this blog (and my Twitter feed) was originally inspired by several seminars I went on at Winchester Writing Festival 2013. I even wrote a blog post about it, which I’m linking to even if I’m now pretty embarrassed by everything I wrote in the first few years of this blog’s life.

Well, 65 months (and a lot of words) later and I’ve finally made my second writing convention. This one was almost entirely different: Derby’s Sledge-Lit. It was a one-day event and was a lot, lot smaller that Winchester. Smaller is no bad thing. Smaller is more intimate. Sledge-Lit (Edge-Lit’s winter cousin) is also a genre convention, a gathering for followers of science-fiction, fantasy and horror.

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So, without further ado, here’s my thoughts on the event. There may also be advice, though I promise nothing.

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The lazy writer’s guide to genre

I’ve failed to write anything acceptable for the first time in yonks. So, by way of a holding pattern, please accept this post of five years ago in lieu of my eternal soul. Normal service will be resumed next week, I promise

A Writer's Life

The lazy writer’s guide to genre 

Know you want to write be aren’t sure what? Simply scan through the list below and you’ll soon find the genre for you! 

Childrens & Young Adults 

How well do you know the little blighters? Can you find the right degree of simplicity without falling into patronisingness? Are you afraid of being terribly, terribly silly – or, at the older age-range, terribly po-faced and intense (because, like, teenagers feel, man)? Plus you have to pick an additional genre, which means you’ve got all those problems too. Incredibly difficult and best avoided 

Comedy 

Risky. Visual humour doesn’t work too well when written down, and sarcasm and irony create black comedy at best. Unless you’re really, really good at writing bon mots and creating high farce I’d steer well clear. Otherwise you end up looking like a bit of a…

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On Interviews

Q & A

I have done two live interviews. I have done two non-live interviews and a further one where I wrote the questions myself. Obviously this qualifies me to give you, Joe and Joanna Public, advice.

It’s worth saying that I didn’t organise any of these myself. My publisher hired a PR agency for its whole range and my particular publicist managed to wrangle these for me. Maybe in the future I’ll be able to examine how you might get these yourself, but that’s for another day.

Buckle up, folks. Here we go:

‘Paper’ Interviews

These are questions received in advance of a deadline, usually via email. The advantage of this is that you can take your time over them; you’re not under pressure to provide an instant response.

The downside is that you can’t really ask for different questions. You (or at least I) also feel more pressure to get it ‘right’; to be interesting and informative.

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Some quick pointers:

  • Read all the questions before you dive in; you might be able to give similar answers to several questions and it’ll help to have an idea of the overall shape of the article
  • Avoid one-word answers. Hopefully you won’t be asked anything that could be answered so simply; you do see them in print but they tend to come from face-to-face interviews (or where the journalist has been very creative)
  • Think about what the interviewer wants – and that usually boils down to something that’ll fill space without alienating their readers. They want as little work as possible. Thus they want good writing and full answers; don’t worry about going on too long (they can cut it back if necessary) but don’t expect them to correct your grammar for you. Errors reflect on you more than they do them
  • If there is a question to which the answer is simply ‘no’ then reinterpret it so you can say something sensible. Example: ‘What impact did playing professional basketball have on your writing?’ could be answered thus: ‘I didn’t actually play professionally but I do like to go for regular walks. I find exercise really helps focus on the knottiest of plot-points…’ That’s an extreme example and you’d like to think that in such cases the journalist would rewrite the question to fit your answer
  • If you’re entirely stymied get back to the interviewer as soon as possible. Don’t sweat on it up to the last minute. Most times things can be changed
  • Similarly, if you have a crisis and can’t make the deadline let them know as soon as possible. Most times articles can be pushed back. Even if the opportunity passes you’ve kept from being blacklisted. There’s always the next novel to promote
  • Get someone you trust to check your answers. My wife is superb at pointing out where my particular brand of dry humour or self-deprecation could be misinterpreted. Some things are perfectly clear in your head but don’t come across on the page. Leave time for a check-and-redraft
  • Link to your work. Even if the article is to be about you and not your magnum opus, it’s nice to add in the odd reference here and there; how does the question you’re answering affect the way you’re writing, or the material you produce?
  • Standard rules of good writing apply. Don’t answer every question the same – vary your sentence & answer length as you would in your prose. Watch out for typos and homonyms
  • Don’t lie. You can tailor your answers to the source material – for example the answers I gave for Living North magazine were not the same as I’d for the Oxford Times – and it’s reasonable to exaggerate certain aspects of your life (such as my affection for my time spent in the Bodleian Library). Just don’t go into outright falsehoods. Stay true to yourself. Lies have a way of taking on lives of their own and creep your ankles, ready to trip you up and scratch your eyes out. Or they may just be a perpetual embarrassment. Either way, not worth the hassle
  • You are interesting. You may not think so, but you are. If you truly can’t think of something distinct about your life you can always play up the Everyman aspect of your life. What could be more relatable than that?

Radio (or similarly ‘live’) interviews

If written interviews are like coursework, a live radio interview is like your final end-of-year exam. But here’s something to take the edge off: your interviewer wants you so succeed. There is an art to interviewing and that’s to make the subject feel at home and to get them talking as if it’s just a friendly chat between the two of you.

That’s why, if you get the chance, you should go and do the interview face-to-face and not over the phone or via Skype. Not always possible, of course. I wasn’t able to get to Guernsey for my interview with their local radio station. Needs must.

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Onto the advice:

  • Pretty much all the above applies
  • If possible, work out what questions you’re liable to be asked. Ways to do this…
    • Ask. You should have a contact either via email, letter or telephone. In my case the publicist arranged it so I asked her. The answers weren’t massively illuminating but better than nothing
    • Listen to the show; see what other guests are asked
    • Find out what materials they might have: did you send them a publicity pack or press release? Have another shuftie at it; consider if there are any threads they might pull upon
  • Try and find a way to describe your work succinctly. This doesn’t have to be the ‘elevator pitch’ – indeed, that’ll probably be too short. You can simply read the blurb, but know this: people can tell when you’re reading from a set text. All you have to is precis it with something like ‘Well, if I might read you the blurb…’
  • Find out where you’re going as soon as possible. Check parking or public transport. Leave plenty of leeway. Take contact details in case of emergency (and emergencies do happen; radio stations know what to do if, by some catastrophic catastrophe, you can’t make it. As long as you let them know ASAP then your bridges won’t be burnt)
  • Assuming you’ve got there in plenty of time, get a glass of water or cup of tea and try to relax. You’ll have to wait for a bit. Everyone will be nice. Smile. Try and enjoy – or at least learn from – the situation
  • It’s okay to be nervous. It shows you care. And a kick of adrenaline will help keep you going
  • What happens next will vary depend on what type of show/organisation you’re on. You might be pointed towards a room all alone with a mic and headphones. You might be in a studio with other guests. You might be in someone’s living room, though in this case it’s unlikely you’ll be recording live
  • You should be given an introduction and cued to talk. Again it hugely helps to have eye-contact with the interviewer (or possibly producer) but it’s not always possible. But deep breath, relax. You’ll be fine
  • Listen to the introduction. The presenter will likely read something about either you, your work, or both. Find the clues: are they reading from your press release? Have they scoped out your blog/Twitter feed? You can get a lot of info from this short eulogy
  • Smile. Thanks to Rod Duncan for this advice. Smiling lifts your voice and helps you project and articulate. It also makes you feel better
  • Listen carefully to the question. Answer it. Again, full answers, not single words. If you really can’t think of a way to answer it properly…
  • …Go in with an idea of what you want to say and turn the question into one you want to answer
  • Try not to leave too much silence. If you need a moment to work out how to answer, say something like ‘Gosh, that’s a tricky question’; it’ll give help camouflage your thinking time. In my first interview I drew out a simple ‘yes’ for long enough to give me a moment to regroup
  • Remember you’re not a politician and the interviewer isn’t trying to trick you. You’re working together to tell a story. And you’re good at that
  • Thank the staff as you leave. If you’re worried about live mics, take your cues from the presenter. Or simply mouth the words
  • Woo! You’ve done it! Congrats!

Homer

And that’s all I have to say on the matter. For now, at least. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions of your own, please do share them. I’d love to hear from you.

Happy writing!

Not-quite-a-launch party

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For those of you who don’t know, I did my first ever book-signing cum reading on Monday night. Huge thanks to Sarah at Mostly Books for hosting an event that, to my mind at least, went really well.

The only problem, in fact, was that I was heckled during the reading. Repeatedly. By my own daughter. It seems that being up two hours after bedtime and being sneakily funnelled chocolate by well-intentioned friends might not lead to perfect behaviour. Who knew?

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I’ve got another signing tomorrow night at Between the Lines in Great Bardfield. If you’re in that particular corner of Essex please do come along; I’ll be pathetically grateful for the attention.

Hopefully in the next few days I’ll get chance to set down a more reflective piece, and maybe even give some advice on how to go about doing a talk/signing/interview. Not that I know the second thing (the first is to get to the right place at the right time) about it, but still.

Oh, and I’ve not mentioned Sledge-Lit at all, which is a sin. I was there. It was great. More on that, too, shortly.

But for now I’m still trying to catch up with all the things I’ve let fall slack over the last week. Happy reading and happy writing, folks. I’ll be back when I’ve caught my breath.

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All photos copyright Sarah at Mostly Books, used with permission.

 

The great release

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Today my book is released onto the great unsuspecting world. And today it struck me: there is no-one (save my wife, who doesn’t count, and my daughter, who calls me Momma most of the time so her evidence must be considered suspect) within an hour of me who knows who I am.

It’s out. And nothing has changed.

Hell, I’ve not even got any copies of the novel. I’m going on rumour and hearsay – well, the word of my publisher – that anything’s happened at all. There’s such a colossal disconnect between my daily life and my Twitter-life that, right now, I’m struggling to marry the two.

I’m still a writer trying to get work completed and out in the public domain. I’m still distracted by publicity, by events and by life, the universe, and – as they say – everything.
But now I have a novel out.

They say – those ‘they’ again – that, no matter what else you do, you should mark the occasion. A book release is a big deal, ‘they’ say. It must be celebrated. Frankly, I’ve been too busy with emergency proofreading work and with trying to organise trips to bookshops and conventions. There’s been no chance to even think of organising my own party too.

So: happy release-day to me! A quiet day will be had, unless I spend a little extra time on some promotionary tweets. But there will be no cake. No champagne. Really this is just another day; one spent with a sick child (just a minor snuffle with accompanying nasal oozage) and with no chance of hitting a bookshop or a library or anywhere else where I might see my work.

Maybe this evening I’ll polish this off

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Or maybe work on this

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But there’ll be no visit to the inebriatorium. That’ll have to wait until the much more tangible prospect of the few events I have lined up. They’re the things I’ve been working towards. The actual day of release has arrived as something of an afterthought.

So yes, I’m happy. Hell, I’m delighted. This is the day I’ve been working towards for years. It’s just that… nothing at all has changed. Nappies need changing. The bins need putting out.

Can you smell the glamour?

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“Life. Don’t talk to me about life.”