Let this snap of Dan Smith and I at Leeds Book Awards be the last word on the matter: I don’t photograph well.
When I saw the pic, taken on a sunny afternoon in a grand civic hall, I had a sudden flashback to a wet Scottish night two years earlier. A night on which I understood with fresh and vivid clarity my relationship with (i) my fellow authors and (ii) cameras. Wigtown Book Festival, 2017.
It was pissing down in Wigtown.
I’d ridden a train up through the Lake District past Carlisle and into the lowlands of Scotland, changing at Lockerbie and heading west. A grey-skinned taxi driver with a mini-whiteboard had picked me up from the station. I was sharing the cab with Steven Poole – his column in Edge magazine was one of my monthly go-to reads on computer gaming and I was trying not to gush too much – and SJ Parris, elegant and hyper-intelligent writer of historical mysteries with CJ Sansom-style dust-jackets. I’d say we chatted in the taxi but in reality it was an episode of Cabin Pressure in which Steven Poole was Douglas; dry quips, dark glasses and cigarettes, SJ Parris was a deft combination of Caroline and Martin, riding up front all deep thought and fierce insight; and I was John Finnemore’s wide-eyed Arthur. I made the conversational running, an eager idiot declaring everything “brilliant!”
Every table in the town was booked for dinner but we all ended up in a pub somewhere because Philip Ardagh, with his national-treasure comedy-charm, had talked us in. His illustrator was with us too; a lively and charming woman with killer glasses. There was lots to drink. We discussed the festival, the green room, the various event venues and running order, the town’s bookshops. In a conversational turn that I consider emblematic of my writing career we discovered, sharing details of our accommodation, that my drinking buddies had all been put-up at the town’s well-appointed hotel. I, by contrast, was in a remote hillside B and B fifteen minutes away by taxi. It was getting on for midnight and I’d forgotten to call the owners. When I did, I’d already put away a few beers and struggled to make my apology coherent. They were furious with me. “I’m going to bed,” growled the owner once I’d failed to calm him. “I’ll leave a key.”
Back in the pub we drank some more. Sometime later, the split-second event that sits at the heart of this story happened.
I was mid-sentence, doubtless boring the arse off Steven Poole, when he went all Duran Duran on me. Seriously – he sucked in his cheeks, brushed back his fringe, tightened his jaw and his eyes went glassy and gorgeous. He was staring somewhere over my shoulder. Perplexed, I checked the others. They too had taken on new aspects. Philip Ardagh was grinning broadly. SJ Parris looked like Miami Vice. I’d dimly got as far as a what-the… when I figured out what was happening. Someone was taking a photograph of us all.
Too late; the flash blinded me precisely as I was gurning horrifically at my fellow diners, clumsy features distorted by misplaced enthusiasm, booze and shame. That’s the record of my Wigtown Book Festival experience right there.
And this picture of me and Dan Smith – I appear to have been caught in the moments immediately after saying something infantile, or responding to a hastily barked instruction to look surprised! – is one I have a great deal of affection for. Payback didn’t win, by the way, but I had a great time.
Five years ago it was April of 2014 and my first book, an MG fantasy-adventure called The Poison Boy was published... to very little fanfare.
Yesterday, after a final frenzied hammer at my laptop and a double-check with my co-author, I sent Storycraft to the publisher. Which, though I recognise it's far from finished, nevertheless draws book seven to a sort-of close.
In the last five years I've been hugely lucky. I struck another two deals for YA novels, got a gig with an educational publisher for a study-skills text-book, and managed to persuade them to publish a further two. Seven books in five years hasn't been easy, though.
And in between the successes there have been three abandoned novels that reached 30,000 words or so before being relegated to the Hangfire Smokehouse (the what? I hear you ask... check Hangfire for further details), there's been a change of career and a change of agent. There's been the small matter of raising a wonderful daughter - she's eight now - and staying afloat financially.
In short.... there's been a lot happening for a long time.
So I'm going to try and slow down for a little while. I've got a new book to be working on. I'll still be back here to share pedestrian observations and inane updates for the three or four of you who care ;-)
But for now, some time to reflect, decelerate and just write. Best wishes for 2019 - see you soon.
The Cycle Courier Challenge is an experiment in creativity that I've been messing with for some time for inclusion in a new book, Storycraft. There's a pretty decent KS4 lesson in this blogpost. Feel free to give it a go and collect a whole-class worth of answers. Get them to me and I'll include them in the book if there's space.
To play, you'll need...
Get settled. Ready? Good.
In this activity, your job is to list ideas in response to a scenario that’s given below. I'm going to ask you for ten of them. Before you read the scenario, though, here’s what we’re interested in – seeing when your best and most original ideas emerge. Is your first idea your favourite? Second or third? Is your tenth idea your most original? Or are all of them, in your opinion, terrible?
So as you list your ideas you must do it chronologically, in the order you get them. Be completely uncritical. If a bad idea springs to mind, record it. If all ten are bad in your opinion, that’s fine.
Now for the scenario. Think of the cycle couriers you see in all towns and cities. They usually zoom around on their bikes weaving in and out of traffic. Their bikes have large square delivery boxes on them, usually because they’re ferrying takeaway food like pizza.
Now consider this. What if every cycle courier in your nearest town or city looked as if they were delivering fast food, but really it was a disguise…and they were delivering something else entirely?
What could the something else be?
OK – you’re off. Make a chronological list of possibilities:
Now that you’ve made your list you might want to consider the following:
3. Party cakes
4. Smuggled pets
6. Chopped-off Heads
7. Stakes for killing vampires
8. Doorways to other worlds
10. A very slow prison break – one limb at a time.
I reckon some of these a pretty good, but most are terrible. If you've got a list of responses in front of you, perhaps from classmates, look for patterns in the responses. You might want to consider choosing one of the following investigations:
That's it. Enjoy!
In 1999, sports journalist Jonathan Rendall wrote Twelve Grand. It was published by Yellow Jersey Press which I think was Harper Collins’ sports imprint. It was about gambling. Yellow Jersey gave him a twelve-grand advance on the condition he gambled it all. They envisaged a straightforward account of wins and losses and some funny stories, perhaps with a tally of progress at the end of each chapter.
Rendall didn’t want to play ball. Instead he reckoned the story needed to be one of disaster. He descended into alcoholism, quickly lost everything and had a breakdown. His prose collapses as the book goes on – by the end he’s unable to put full sentences together. It’s brave and brilliant on the one hand, bonkers nonsense on the other. I was twenty-seven and loved it.
After Twelve Grand I read everything Rendall wrote, partly because he looked frickin' terrific, partly because I was worried about him. He seemed so unhinged, utterly addicted to self-destruction. My memories are hazy but I recall loving a weekly piece about games and gambling for one paper – the Indie maybe – and a column about drinking for The Observer Food Magazine. He never seemed to hold down gigs for long. I guess editors couldn’t stand his disregard for deadlines.
His last book, Garden Hopping, was another examination of complete self-destruction. I’m pretty sure that this time he’s split with his wife, left his kids and is homeless by the end. It was as if every project required a slow-motion explosion of chaos and devastation.
No-one knows exactly when he died. His body was discovered late January of 2013 in his Ipswich flat. He’d been there for some time – apparently he rarely ate when consumed by a project and often passed out from hunger exhaustion or drink. He was writing an epic biography of Mike Tyson called Scream. This time it killed him.
Tom Rendall’s name in Payback is a hat-tip to Jonathan Rendall. Every now again I remember him and re-read his last interviews, reviews of his books and the couple of obituaries that still exist online.
Today is one of those times.
I was chatting to an acquaintance about his NYE plans. Turns out he does the same thing every year; goes to an old school friend’s house. There’s dinner and drinks and then, as the night wears on, the vinyl comes out and everyone contributes to a remember-this reminiscence session. The Pixies, The Clash, The Smiths, Joy Division…
I thought a lot about this after he’d gone. Would I enjoy the same sort of night? The answer came quickly. In a word, no. In three words? No, no no. There’s a reason I’ve never attended any sort of reunion ever… I just can’t get with nostalgia. I haven’t got time. Maybe if people would stop making new stuff for like a month or something?
Here’s a for instance. Two days ago I heard a remix of Enter Shikari’s 2017 track Rabble Rouser – it popped into my Spotify Release Radar – and it changed my life. I don’t consider this too much of an overstatement. I was absolutely bewitched. “I torture rock stars with pliers,” it begins. “They’re so stock it wouldn’t be a shock if I opened ‘em up to see wires.” Underneath, a relentless-uptempo-138-bpm drum-assault with layered vocal hisses and shouts plus bonus bleeps and pops. Yum.
Anyway, now I have to explore their album and Spotify’s algorithm will lead me down a rabbit-hole of similar bands. I’ll be in there for weeks. And I get at least two or three this-song-changes-everything moments a year. It's exhausting.
My capacity to be amazed is apparently limitless. This either makes me (i) a guileless knuckle-dragger so easy to impress the city-folk laugh at my wide-eyed idiocy or (ii) lucky. I wonder which it is.
Perhaps a quick listen to Rabble Rouser will make up your mind…
Payback has been shortlisted for the Leeds Book Award - one of my fave regional awards and one with a fabulous website. I'm delighted! Also the good people of Trinity Academy asked for an interview. I did my best to be entertaining and interesting... but look at the quality of the finished result! The Teen Titles crew have done a top job on this. Stunning stuff, and three great reviews too. My thanks to Amelia, Rebecca and Sebastian for your thoughts on Payback and some really great interview questions.
All of which is making me feel kinda guilty about using the word wazz in my last post. I mean c'mon folks. We're better than that right?
The trains from Cardiff to Manchester are crude utilitarian cattle-boxes. There’s two toilets, both generously awash with commuter-wazz. There are still those little cards atop each seat to indicate reservation – the kind last seen inside seventies library books. There are no charge-points, so my carriage is full of dudes in latte-coloured chinos swearing as their laptop batteries expire. We’re moving so slowly that when we briefly travel alongside a motorway, heavy goods vehicles overtake us.
I reckon the UK’s much-discussed productivity conundrum is largely down to the fact that for a quarter of a working day the entire country is trapped in airless work-free zones, phone-calls abandoned, emails and uploads deffed off. I’m writing this with a slim fraction of laptop energy left and listening to music on a phone in low power mode. Plus it’s night so the carriage windows are cruelly illuminated matt-sheen obsidian mirrors. I’m forced to regularly consider my reflection; unpleasant since I look like a homeless alcoholic.
Anyway, happy new year!
As I type the train is pulling into a town that looks like a Brexit-nest of Range Rovers and racists. The chaps in chinos and preparing to alight; no doubt fleeing for the warmth and liberally-available electricity of their suburban homes.
Three hours without a plug. It’s enough to drive a guy to drink.
Regular readers - both of you - will know that last year I decided to read twelve huge books in 2018, having blogged about my problem with big books here.
I'm gonna be honest. It didn't happen. I read some big books, sure - seven of them, ahem - but the smaller ones kept tempting me too much. Here's some of what I got through this year. It started like this....
See? I even have a celebratory 'BB' label for epic reads. The Fireman was a blistering post-apocalyptic drama that sat curiously alongside Dan Smith's super-tense MG chiller Below Zero. I also thought it might pair nicely with The Stand; father and son even quoting the same Springsteen lyric at the start of their respective pandemic-epics. Have to say, though, I bought the fat Stand and it was waa-ay longer than the slim 600-pager I read back in the day. This bad boy came in at about 1,200 pages and didn't have the skinny pop-and-swagger I remember from my first read through. Clearly I've changed - many still consider it King's magnum opus but I'd take Buick 8 any day of the week. Nostalgia sent me back to Terry Brooks' work - I devoured it as a kid - and the staggeringly bad Netflix adaptation kept me there for a while.
But look at the little ones creeping in. PD James. Marcus Sedgwick. Michelle Paver. Alex Scarrow. Non-fic about creativity I'm reading for another project. I read Ignore Everybody in a day, dammit. Soon I was doomed to return to punchy-as-a-puppy-in-boxing-gloves YA thrillers. I've had a grand time with Nick Lake's There Will Be Lies, Karen McManus' One of Us is Lying, Martin Stewart's The Sacrifice Box, Tom Pollock's Red Wolf White Rabbit and Andrew Smith's Grasshopper Jungle.
My fave of this year though? Drum-roll......... :
OK, so maybe I'm being too ambitious. I should stop setting myself suffocatingly-specific annual targets and just read, yeah?
That said, I'm planning on 2019 being the year of only reading the work of dead-authors-who-had-voluminous-beards-and-impractically-small-glasses!
Friends - are you thinking what I'm thinking? I know, right? Bring on the Wilkie Collins!
I'm waiting for news.
Writing news, that is. Which has got me thinking; back in 2012 I decided to enter my scruffy and ugly, nascent but promising story - Sleepwell and Fly, it was called - into the Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction competition. What followed was weeks of waiting for news. For a writer, waiting for news is good. It means total defeat hasn't yet darkened your door. There are still irons in the fire, right? All is not lost.
News came little-by-little following my competition entry. The longlist was announced... and I was on it. The shortlist announcement, I was told, would come in a few weeks. I was waiting for news again. The shortlist announced... and I was on it. The final winner would be announced in due course, I was informed. I was waiting for news again. Maybe you know how this story goes. I was phenomenally lucky... I won the competition and got my first novel published in 2014.
I was un-agented at the time, and being sort-of addicted to waiting for news, when Poison Boy came out, I sent it to twenty film companies with a covering letter. This would make a great movie, I told them. You'd do a fabulous job. I was naive, I knew then, but waiting for news had become kind of addictive. I was lucky; I got a couple of nice rejection letters.
My wife, a student studying Landscape Architecture back in 2015, got bitten by the bug and she too went on the hunt for waiting-for-news. There was a design competition offering a tasty prize for the winners. She put months into her entry, working alongside a colleague. The deadline came and went. All was quiet. She and I were waiting for news again. The news, when it came for her, was good.
Some of the news I'm waiting on is Payback related, and maybe - if it happens - I'll get to share it here sometime soon.
Some of the news is related to a new project. I'm excited, scared, up one day and down the next. I'm a nervous wreck on Mondays, weirdly excited on Tuesdays, distracted on Wednesdays...
...but basically just thankful to be waiting for news.
I'd recommend trying it yourself. You could start here!
Payback's final third owes a fair bit to John Buchan's The 39 Steps, and I figured it deserved a re-read. I know the book well - I re-visit it every three or four years, I guess. I love it... but I'm not above a little criticism. I'm talking about the ending, folks. The ending.
The last time an adaptation graced our screens, it was the Beeb in 2008. The writer of the screenplay, Lizzie Mickery, seemed keen to return to the source text rather than refer to the previous film versions. You can see why, right? Forerunners – Hitchcock’s in 1939, a remake of Hitchcock’s original in 1959, and a seventies version I was brought up on as a kid – all play pretty fast and loose with Buchan’s story; characters are added, others are absent, the plot is mangled and blockbusting set-pieces are conjured up.
In the end though, Mickery found herself needing to make adjustments of her own. “I have added fun and romance, I hope, and a bit of oomph,” she said, speaking to The Guardian before the BBC broadcast its Christmas showcase adaptation. Mickery’s a quality writer (she worked on The State Within which I loved) but she, like others before her, recognised the novel’s limitations when reimagined for a visual medium.
What all four movie adaptations have in common is a total disregard for Buchan’s original ending, and re-reading it again, you can see why. Buchan wrote the novel whilst ill with an ulcer. Reading the closing paragraphs, you can’t help but suspect he felt suddenly better and fancied downing tools in favour of a nice walk and a kickabout with a few mates. Dashed off doesn’t even begin to cover it.
It starts well. Hannay, our plucky protag, corners a trio of German secret service agents in a coastal cottage. Trouble is they’re such accomplished actors, their roles as public school educated chummy Englishman are masterfully executed. He bursts in and accuses them of being murderers and spies but their masks don’t slip; they’re all jolly and polite and flabbergasted. Hannay ends up – pretty preposterously – playing bridge with them during the awkward moments that follow his accusation.
Finally a fight breaks out, back-up arrives and the good guys triumph. But the speed with which Buchan puts this final scene to bed is breathtaking. If I didn’t know better, I’d wonder whether he was being paid to complete the novel under a certain word limit.
“I blew my whistle. In an instant the lights were out,” Buchan writes. (The darkness comes in handy. There’s virtually nothing to describe.) “I grappled the old chap and the room seemed to fill with figures.” That’ll be the reinforcements then. Phew! One guy escapes. In a three-sentence thriller that comes as close to extending the drama as Buchan will allow, we get; ”Suddenly my prisoner broke from me and flung himself on the wall. There was a click as if a lever had been pulled. Then came a low rumbling far far below the ground, and through the window I saw a cloud of chalky dust pouring out of the shaft of the stairway.” I think that means the 39 steps down to the beach are obliterated by some sort of bomb? Presumably wired to a nameless lever in the room of the cottage? Lacking any specific detail I’m reduced to guessing. Anyway the lights come back on and our hero gets his chance to triumphally wisecrack: “As the handcuffs clinked on his wrists I said my last word to him.”
Then there’s a paragraph break followed by three more sentences that begin, “Three weeks later…” and within 46 words, we’re done and dusted.
Perhaps Buchan was writing under exam conditions and fast running out of time. Whatever the explanation, there’s a reason Lizzie Mickery et al. mess with Buchan’s ending. All the components are there I reckon, but it’s outlined rather than written; a bizarre and slightly sad final scene whose shape, tone and proportion have almost nothing in common with the remainder of what is a brilliant novel.
Hopefully I didn't screw Payback's ending up in quite such a blatant way.