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 I did read an entire book on the crusades before my last unpublished novel, but that was way back in the mists.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.

thanks

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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Bad books

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I want to read bad books. I’m sick of coming up against five-star extravaganzas. I want poor plots and painful prose, especially in debut novels. I want to feel like my writing has a chance. I want to be able to compete.

It’s my own fault. A lot of the new reading I give myself is because I see hype on Twitter and I think I’ll give that author a shot. I should know that, if it’s hyped, it’ll probably be of a decent standard. At least it’ll be technically accurate. Oh! for a debut that consistently misjudges commas or over-purples the prose.

Why do I want this? Because every good book I read makes me feel like I’m less of a writer myself. Established, successful writers can be as good as they like; that doesn’t bother me. It’s the newbies that get me; seeing my stable-mate, a debutante like me, getting starred reviews in the press (or getting press in the first place) – I can’t compete with that!

I’m being silly. I’d never wish anything less than success on my partners-in-writing. And I love to be thrilled and transported by novels both old and new.

But my insecurities, and the void into which my writing has fallen, pull at me. Every single novel I read at the moment seems to excellent – more than that, they seem to be ‘special’, that undefinable quality that one agent told me, mid-rejection, that new novels have to be nowadays.

I say again, I can’t compete with that.

So it’d be nice to pick up, just once, a new and hyped book and think ‘how the hell did this get published?’ To think ‘oh, well of course I’d never make such a silly mistake.’ Or even ‘pah! At least I can use ellipses properly…’

But no. They’re all great.

Damn you, publishers and agents, for doing your jobs!

sad book

Loanless

Trenton library

Trenton library’s automatic book dispenser

There are bad times in a writer’s life. Like the times you realise that less than 11 people in the UK have borrowed your books from libraries.

Like many sensible authors, I’ve signed up for the PLR scheme, by which means I get 9p per book borrowed in the UK. Sadly, they don’t pay out amounts of less than £1. You already know where this is going. I’m receiving nothing this year.

I love libraries. I believe in them – I’m employed in one and have had roles in a number of different libraries through my not-very-varied and not-at-all-illustrious working life – from security guard to cataloguer, I’ve seen a variety of libraries and loved them all. So it’s a personal thing that I should be falling down in the public arena.

There are good reasons for not being borrowed, of course. My book probably isn’t in most libraries – that’s the most obvious thing. I’m not prestige. I’m not the sort of author the casual reader will have heard of, certainly not to ask for. And this must be true of the majority of authors, especially those who have self-published.

All of which leads me to ask: what’s the point? Why do we put all this effort in if the rewards are so slight?

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It’s worth emphasising that this isn’t about money, though that would have been a nice bonus. It’s about the feeling of being read and appreciated. The heartbreak is accentuated by seeing all the more successful authors on Twitter with what I know to be more readers and more acclaim (and don’t get me started on Awards Season).

I know, I know, it’s wrong to compare – and I know that there are people looking up to me as if I’ve got it made; people who see me as occupying the next rung on the ladder. I’m not unsuccessful. I have a novel published and another on the way. What do I want, a medal?

I guess I’d like to be read. I’d like to be appreciated. I’d like to think my career is moving forwards.

[Note on the forthcoming novel: it’s a sequel, and sequels never sell as well as the first novel. True fact. So I’m not placing that much hope in it for career-development purposes.]

So the news about my lack of library issues has hit me pretty hard. Just… what’s the point of being a bottom-of-the-barrel author? No money, no respect, no sunlit uplands for me.

But I will keep going. I will keep writing and keep struggling to make a career as a writer. It’s still what I dream of. I still believe in my abilities in writing and in storytelling. I will go on. I must endure.

Besides, lack of library loans just means that everyone has already bought my book, right?

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Books of the year 2019

trophyIt’s that time again. Not quite awards time – I’m not even going to pretend I’m wearing a specially rented tuxedo and have just stepped from a Limousine to deliver this preamble (and charged myself an astronomical fee for the privilege) – but time to celebrate some of the wonderful books that have crossed my path this year.

Here’s a list of my favourite books of the past twelve months. I’m not limiting myself to 2019 publications but happily freewheeling through the years; I don’t see enough current releases to focus solely on the most recent publications. I’ve never met a loop I wasn’t out of.

Here we go, then – fourteen books that have uplifted me this year:

The Imaginary Corpse – Tyler Hayes (2019)

Imaginary corpse

This is beautiful. An impossible, ridiculous concept – a stuffed triceratops detective; a noir mystery in a cartoon world of forgotten ideas – that brings out the heights and depths of the emotions.

Tippy lives in the Stillreal, a world where ideas go when they’re not needed anymore. There he solves mysteries and battles his own trauma – until he runs into The Man In The Coat, a creature who can do the impossible: he can kill an Idea permanently. Now Tippy must solve the case before there is nothing left but imaginary corpses.

A mad idea written with such beauty and delicacy that it utterly convinces. Were I awarding a Book of the Year this would be a strong candidate.

The Breach – MT Hill (2020)

BreachI crammed my way through this in two days, thanks to deadlines. But I feel like it’s still unfolding in my brain, even a month after finishing it. Intense, lyrical and creepy as hell.

Shep is a steeplejack with a second life as an urban explorer, breaking in to abandoned structures to document their existence and for the sheer thrill of it. But when he discovers a mysterious nest on one such foray, his life will be forever altered – and maybe much, much shorter.

Meanwhile a down-on-her-luck journalist, Freya, is investigating the death of another urbex adventurer. She meets Shep and follows him across the world to try and get to the bottom of just what is making people act so strangely.

Just what is out there? And what is trying to get in?

Dark River – Rym Kechacha (2019)

Dark RiverTwo mothers, with 8 millennia between them, struggle to save their children in this brooding, suspenseful novel of climate change.

In Doggerland Shaye makes an epic journey to perform a ritual that will secure a future for her son. In London in 2156, Shante waits for a visa that will allow her to extract her family from an angry Thames and make her way to the safer north. On the way both women will face trials and tests that will push them to the limit.

Written without speech-marks, Dark River is a flowing, liquid read that sweeps you along relentlessly right up to its devastating conclusion.

The Outside – Ada Hoffman (2019)

OutsideA lot’s been written about this already, with its autistic main character and its great AI Gods and semi-human Angels. It’s worth the hype.

After Yasira’s prototype energy drive malfunctions and destroys the space station its mounted on, her work is deemed heretical and Yasira is abducted by angels. Her mission becomes one of tracking down her old, vanished mentor, who has been committing atrocities not only against people but against the known laws of the physical universe.

With her own home planet infested by impossible monsters, Yasira must choose who to trust: the AIs and their harsh angels or the rebel scientist whose unorthodox mathematics can open doors to impossible space.

An elegantly put together story that manages to bring something new to the table, and introduces mind-twisting concepts in a way that doesn’t twist your mind!

Angelmaker – Nick Harkaway (2012)

AngelmakerThis is great fun. Gangster noir meets James Bond meets absurdist comedy in this book of clockwork, of secret doomsday weapons, mad museums, dictators and octogenarian secret agents.

Joe Spork is a clockmaker and son of a famous mob figure. He is drawn into a conspiracy by the seemingly normal pensioner Edie Banister, who, sick of a life of fighting the nations foes, plots to activate a secret 1950s doomsday machine. Joe now has to fight not only the government but Edie’s arch-nemesis – a mad Asian dictator with a cult of mysterious monks at his behest.

A sprawling, thrilling adventure that always leaves a smile on your face, this is a big, fun thrill-ride that never bores despite its considerable bulk.

Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City – KJ Parker (2019)

Sixteen waysThis was an unexpected delight. A colonel of engineers is, thanks to a series of unfortunate events, left in charge of a Classical city just as it’s invested by a vicious enemy who’s promised to kill all of the inhabitants. To save the city would be a miracle, but Orhan – a cheat, a liar, a man with a serious problem with authority – might just be the perfect person to pull off the impossible.

Witty throughout and with characters you really come to love, the beauty of this really is in the telling; the style is light and irreverent and simply a pleasure to read.

The Ninth Rain – Jen Williams (2017)

Ninth RainA cut above the normal fantasy epic, this is the first in a trilogy set in the world of Sarn: the ancient protectors of the planet, the Eborans, are all but dead from disease, their ancient god powerless and dormant. The planet is littered with the remnants of past wars.

Tormalin the Oathless, one of the last Eborans, leaves his home to wander and live a dissolute life. That is until he meets scholar and antiquarian Vintage de Grazon and the escaped fell-witch Noon. They find themselves hunting old relics in warped and mutated ruins whilst fleeing Noon’s old foes from the Winnowry. And, should they survive that, there is the prospect of the waking of the foes of all – the ruthless and totally alien Jure’lia. They are coming. And the ninth rain will fall…

The Ninth Rain is a wonderful book, the dark mood totally lightened by Williams’ wonderful touch with characters. The central players are all wonderfully drawn, their sarcasms and dry wit brightening a fairly dark world to produce a truly compelling trilogy.

This Dreaming Isle – Various (Dan Coxon ed) (2018)

Dreaming IsleA short story collection of dark and twisted folk tales from the British Isles. Fifteen stories, all depicting something unsettling about this land. Some explore myth and legend, others root themselves very much in the here and now. All are fascinating and it’s a real credit to editor Dan Coxon that he’s produced such a coherent body of work from a disparate and high-powered cast of authors.

 

 

The Outlaw and the Upstart King – Rod Duncan (2019)

Outlaw UKDisclaimer – I call Rod a friend so you can feel free to disregard my opinion. Nevertheless, this is great. Rod blasts his Elizabeth Barnabus series into the New World with this explosive novel set on the frigid isle of Newfoundland where tattoos bear witness to laws and oaths.

Elias is an outlaw, a man who was cheated out of his place in society – and his thumbs. He wants revenge. Is the mysterious woman who landed unwontedly on the island’s rocky sure, a way for him to reclaim his honour? Or will she just lead them to their deaths?

A fantastic adventure filled with great characters and a real feel for the cold, hostile landscape, this is definitely worth a pace in my favourite books of 2019. Indeed, my next read will be the last book in the trilogy, The Fugitive and the Vanishing Man.

Fleet of Knives – Gareth L Powell (2019)

Fleet of KnivesAnother second-in-trilogy book here, and another cracker from this Golden Age of British SFF that we’re living through.

The story concerns the former warship Trouble Dog – one of the best AIs I’ve ever come across – and its crew answering a distress call from the crew of Lucy’s Ghost, who have taken refuge aboard an enormous alien generation ship. Meanwhile the Marble Armada have decided to enact peace at any cost – including the destruction of many human ships.

Can Trouble Dog and her crew survive being trapped between chaotic alien monsters on one side and the Marble Armada on the other?

The Winter Road – Adrian Selby (2018)

Winter RoadThe Circle – a thousand miles of perilous forests and warring clans. No one has ever tamed such treacherous territory before, but ex-soldier Teyr Amondsen, veteran of a hundred battles, is determined to try.

With a merchant caravan protected by a crew of skilled mercenaries, Amondsen embarks on a dangerous mission to forge a road across the untamed wilderness that was once her home. But a warlord rises in the wilds of the Circle, uniting its clans and terrorising its people. Teyr’s battles may not be over yet . . .

A very fine work filled with characters you really feel and care for. A little different to the run-of-the-mill fantasy works it’s competing with, its plant-based ‘magic’ a tonic after the years of wizards. Highly recommended.

Embedded – Dan Abnett (2011)

EmbeddedThe role of journalists in war is the premise in this intriguing SF tale of warring factions.

Lex Falk is recently arrived on planet Eighty-Six, a dull place without much more than minor military skirmishes to cover. But when Lex gets the runaround from the military, his interest is piqued. He gets himself chipped to share the consciousness of a front-line soldier. But when that soldier is killed, Falk must use all his resourcefulness to get back to his own body – and maybe, on the way, he’ll find out what on earth the fighting is really all about.

Lovely writing, an interesting premise and believability are all strong plusses here. There are also strong echoes of contemporary conflicts and the role of journalists within war-zones. Is access to the frontline worth being channelled to give what is essentially military propaganda?

An excellent novel.

Darksoul – Anna Stephens (2018)

DarksoulAnother second of three; Darksoul is the sequel to Godblind and, though it manages not to be quite as nasty as the first book, Darksoul is still pretty grimdark.

The veil that kept the red gods from walking the earth has been torn down. The Mireces army controls the fields of Rilpor. All that stands in the way is the city of Rilporin – and the mind of a soldier with the eyes of a fox.

Bloody, action-packed and thrilling from start to finish, this is a fine book. I really must get around to reading book three.

The Tiger and the Wolf – Adrian Tchaikovsky (2018)

Tiger and WolfAll people have two shapes: human and the animal to whose tribe they belong. This is the simple and fascinating concept behind The Tiger and The Wolf. And it works brilliantly.

Maniye’s father is the Wolf clan’s chieftain, but she’s an outcast. Her mother was queen of the Tiger and these tribes have been enemies for generations. Maniye can take on tiger and wolf shapes. She refuses to disown half her soul so she escapes and the killer Broken Axe is set on her trail.

Beautifully written and with a real feel for landscape and character, this is a fantastic novel.

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And that’s that for another year! I’m going to take a break, now, until 2020, unless something thrilling and dramatic happens inbetweentimes that I just have to share. Otherwise, I wish you a wonderful holiday season and much, much, happy reading.

 

The hangover

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This week I have been mostly doing proofreading. This is a job with actual deadlines and suchlike, so please excuse my recent lack of a proper social media presence – or, indeed, any particularly witty or erudite comments here.

What I have been doing is cramming: reading a novel very, very quickly. Over the course of two days I have demolished a pretty intense novel, which is certainly rapid by my recent standards. And it occurs to me: the speed with which we read must affect our experience of the novel.

Is it the same to read a novel slowly over the course of a few weeks, as it is to race through it in one sitting? Does one get the same experience if one reads last thing at night and you’re drifting into sleep with the last words you read?

For me, reading this intensively often leaves me with a sort of book hangover. What I’ve been reading hasn’t been able to unpack properly, and so I find I’m still experiencing the novel in quite visceral – not always pleasant, given the book I was reading – ways a few days later. Is this a symptom of over-speedy reading, or is it just the sign of a good book?

emotionally crippled

Anyway, I have more cramming to get on with now – deadline #2 is well past the horizon, marching double-time to give my shins a good kicking – so I will just ask you this: how do you read? What techniques give you most pleasure, and are they the same ways as give you most understanding?

All the best, you wonderful dreamers out there. Hopefully there will be more coherence next week.

Reading and not reading

James Coates

‘Woman Reading’ by James Coates

If you ever take a look at my book log you’ll notice that my reading has tailed off considerably over the last year. This almost exactly coincides with the leaving of my last job – and, more pertinently, the lack of a regular bus-rides and lunch breaks.

This is a cause of considerable distress to me. I love reading. It remains the source of unalloyed joy and learning and I am always mindful of Stephen King’s maxim: “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

But that’s not the whole story, for I have been doing a bunch of reading that hasn’t appeared on my blog, and that’s the proofreading and copy-editing I’ve been doing professionally. I’m not entirely sure why but I don’t think it’s professional to put this on my blog: there’s thoughts of anonymity and confidentiality in mind but they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

Regardless, there’s another reason for not putting my proofreading work on my blog and that’s because it’s not reading. It’s work.

I learn a lot from my regular reading-for-fun. It’s how I developed my writing skills and how I learnt as much as I have about the world. But it’s above all for pleasure. I read because I love to read, no matter what the subject or the genre.

Spring+illustration+by+Lee+White

‘Spring’ by Lee White

Proofreading and copy-editing is an entirely different experience. It’s not about enjoyment; it is, first and foremost, work, and it requires discipline to get through. That’s not to say that it can’t be a pleasure – my favourite book of the year so far was one I was given to proofread – but really if you get lost in a proofread you’re not doing your job properly. You get swept up in the flow and the mistakes you’re paid to find slip past.

So I have been missing out on a lot of pleasure over the last year. I need to get back in the saddle – and maybe that will involve dropping some of the worthy books, the non-fiction weighties, and concentrate on sheer pleasure. Maybe that’ll give me a road back in.

But why impoverish myself like that? Maybe it’s better to try and carve out some dedicated reading time – half an hour minimum per day? Surely that’s not much to ask?

Or maybe I should just relax and not let it bother me. I’m still reading. I’m still learning. I’m still in love with books. Circumstances will change again, sooner or later.

I just miss those days of getting through three books a week. What a heavenly time that was.

On Air #3

8-tips-on-how-to-have-a-successful-radio-interview

This is, as per bloomin’ usual, a photo stolen from the internet. I do not look that good.

I’m buried in proofreading and copy-editing at the moment, my deadlines teaming up to smack me oop-side the head. And my daughter has the plague, which is… unhelpful. These are my primary excuses for not having much to say this week.

So please excuse the brevity of this communique. But if you want to hear more about some of my writerly philosophies and the problems of cultural insensitivity, you might like to check out this interview I did on BBC Radio Cambridgeshire on Monday.

I’m on from around 02:20 in, right after Katy Perry. I’m in and out for nearly 40 mins, which came as something of a surprise to me.

Big thanks and kudos to Charlie Thompson for making me feel at ease and for drawing out the best of us guests. Remember, if you ever do interviews like this, the host is your ally. They will do their best to make you sound good.

And now it’s back to the word-mines with me. Them deadlines won’t meet themselves.

Hopefully I’ll have broken the back of them – and have maybe done something more interesting – in time for next week’s blog.

In the meantime may the words rise up to meet the pen.