This week I fired off Takeback to my publishers.
It’s lined up for a July 2018 publication at the moment, which means a fairly long wait until it sees the light of day. Just in case you’re wondering… (go on, admit it, you’re wondering. You are) …this is the 8th iteration of the novel, and comes in at about 66,000 words. I’ve tried, really tried in the past to plot out every last scene of a book and motor through looking calm and composed. But it just doesn’t work for me. I find it virtually impossible to actually put words down once a story’s all neatly planned.
I was relieved to hear Lisa Williamson say something similar at the St Helens Book Awards recently (Lifers was shortlisted – Yey! – but didn’t win – AARGH…) when she explained to the audience how she might spend weeks writing scenes that don’t make it into the final draft because she can’t tell precisely where the story’s going to go until it actually does.
I’m the same. I know the direction of travel roughly. I know the destination; the rest just sorta happens.
Aa-nyway, now Takeback’s being read and considered, I’m in the Hangfire Smokehouse until I hear more. (The what? I hear you ask. Check out the tab at the top of the page, pal. All will be revealed.) This particular stint in the Hangfire is different from others because I have non-fiction work to finish for a May deadline, so that’s right up in my face at the moment.
After that though, I’ll be building ideas. And I have tons. Loads; piles. Plenty. OK, an elegant sufficiency. OK, two. I’ve got two.
Someone recently told be the secret to generating good ideas was ‘the 3 Bs of creativity’. Familiar? No, me neither. They are: bed (sleep on it) bath (meditative quiet, basically) or bus (a metaphor, this one. Movement, travel, fresh environments.) So that’s where I’ll be for the first week or so of May.
Two ideas, three Bs. What could possibly go wrong.
Tom Hardy, eh? Look at the dude. Check his beardy chops, chunky-knit sweater (hey costume department - that's M+S isn't it?) and thousand-yard stare. If you haven't seen Locke, get your ass to the back of the class, it's a straight-fire classic. I blogged about it at the wonderful Author Allsorts and part of that blog is reproduced below:
The story's like this. I was alone in a hotel room many miles from home. Underneath the battered wall-mounted TV was an old curiosity – a DVD player – and down in reception were a lot of terrible films for guests to borrow. Hunting through the trash I found a gem: Locke.
Locke is one of my faves, a truly remarkable movie. It’s written and directed by Steven Knight. Its one actor, Tom Hardy, is always on screen. It has one location – the interior of a car. It is about ninety minutes long. For an hour and a half, we’re travelling south on the M6 while a single character makes phone calls, his life falling apart. It ends on the outskirts of London.
As I was watching, I kept thinking about my current WIP, a YA heist thing called Takeback. Not because of any similarity in subject matter though. My wife always gets to read first, and some months ago I’d given her a hotel-chase scene in which a porter liberates a suitcase from a penthouse apartment, escaping down flights of stairs through a maze of corridors and out onto the delivery bay via the kitchens. There, he meets a mysterious girl who hits him on the head. A conversation ensues. When I asked for feedback, my wife (clever and measured as always) said “It gets good when the talking starts.”
I kept thinking about that as I watched Locke. So much of visual media seems to be caught up in an arms-race towards the ultimate boss-battle; entire stories built around supposedly killer last-act set-pieces in which New York burns.
Locke represents the best of what scripted drama can do because all we get is talking. The conflict is in conversations and the gaps between conversations. We watch a man struggle with his conscience. At moments of anger or release, he monologues to an imaginary father sitting on the back seat. Then he makes or receives another call, staring at the road ahead and gripping the wheel.
When you’ve got a character as rounded, deep and flawed as Ivan Locke, you don’t need exploding cities, disintegrating planets, collapsing skyscrapers or hair-breadth ‘scapes in th’ imminent deadly breach. You just need conversations.
Cut to now.
Hey - what about that Tom Hardy, eh? Look at the dude. Check his beardy chops, weirdly-modern-for-a-period-piece oilskin raincoat (oi, costume department - did you just pick that up at North Face?) and thousand-yard stare. If you haven't seen Taboo, get your ass to the back of the class, it's a straight-fire classic. Much like Locke, Steven Knight scripts and Tom Hardy plays protag. But Taboo exists in my mind as a sort of anti-Locke, as an image in a super-dark mirror, as Locke's evil twin.
Rather than an individual, we have an ensemble cast. There's flippin' hundreds of them. And forget conversation, Hardy almost never speaks. When he does, his mutterings are barely decipherable. James Delaney forgoes dialogue in favour of biting out people's throats, removing tongues from those who have betrayed him and getting it on with his sister. Who needs conversation when you can have this sort of nasty visceral action?
As I was watching, I kept thinking about my current WIP, Takeback. I’ve been working on this scene in which porter liberates suitcase from penthouse apartment, escaping down flights of stairs, blah-blah, until mysterious girl hits him on head and conversation ensues.
Here's what I'm thinking. I should replace that conversation with a series of impenetrable grunts, turn the blow into a full-scale bloody rumble and conclude with my tattooed protagonist howling an Obeah chant at the moon, a bib of spit and blood plastering his shirt to his chest.
Whatever criticism you level at me, I can never be accused of (a) changing my tune, or (b) wearing my influences too prominently on my sleeve...
When I started blogging seven years ago, I was an unpublished author finishing a novel called Sleepwell and Fly. Between 2010 and 2015, I battled with the book, submitted it to the Times/Chicken House Children’s Book Competition, won it, found my way to publication… and blogged about it all along the way.
Sleepwell and Fly came out as The Poison Boy in 2014.
I’d long since shut down my old blog but today I thought, 75 posts, five years, and a journey from unpublished to published author? Maybe someone will find that useful.
So it’s all back up if you ever feel inclined to check it out. I’ve just read a few posts, brought back a few memories and winced at a lot.
I’d give the whole project a solid 3 out of 5.
And with that thrilling endorsement ringing in your ears, click here to visit. Cheers!
Hey. It's been ages. What's been happening? Me, I've been hammering away at blog posts for other sites, that's what. What with Lifers coming out in the US a few days ago, I've been spending time on stateside blogs saying hello and answering questions from lovely bookish types like you and me.
Other stuff? The German edition has a killer cover! Look, peeps!
And what else? I'm working on book three, which I am ve-ery excited about. More soon. And I've played Firewatch through twice, just to confirm its beauty and wonder a second time. It's still beautiful and wonderful; that much is official. I'd like a t-shirt with this on the front:
Other things: I'm listening to Honeyblood. I am cutting back on cheese. I am having thoughts so I can write an interesting blog post soon.
In her super-useful guide Write to be Published, Nicola Morgan has some very sensible advice about characterisation and character development. In the section ‘Cardboard Villains and Saccharine Heroes’, she writes; “A bad character sometimes benefits from some soft edges that test our judgement of them.” Similarly, she says, “Avoid the too-good... give your angels a touch of hell’s fire.”
Later, I had an interesting conversation with a six-year-old Harry Potter fan – not yet old enough to read the books himself but currently having them read to him before bed and watching the movies as he goes. He’d had a tough night, his dad explained, plagued by bad dreams. The little feller was terrified and confused in equal measure having discovered that Tom Riddle and Voldemort were the same person. So it seems that denying readers the clear moral certainties of the cardboard cut-out villain – even by the introduction of a backstory like this – makes bad guys more frightening; more real. It tests our judgement of them – something the six-year-old in question clearly found pretty uncomfortable.
(This trick works in the right hands. Given the same material, George Lucas managed to make a laboured trilogy about a whiny teenager.)
Having learnt lessons like these slowly over the course of five books – only two of which have been published - I’ve just finished a chapter of Takeback in which our antagonist calmly dissects the methods and motives of our heroes. And man, he really pulls them apart. He’s older, wiser, and cleverer than them, and his victory (at least in this draft) is pretty unequivocal. Even a cheap jibe from our wisecracking gang-leader can’t rescue the situation. Very satisfying writing session indeed.
By contrast, today my crew are stealing Jaguars and driving them through a shopping centre. That’s the thing about writing – no two days are the same. News on our Takeback – my picaresque heist extravaganza – coming soon, by the way.
The Korean zombie-flick Train to Busan is a thrilling experience; great storytelling, powerful cinema and arrestingly other. Though the zombies are the high-speed rabid types familiar from 28 Days Later and more recently World War Z, the sensibility is decidedly eastern. The action stays on a bullet train throughout. Aside from one sequence in a station, we live in claustrophobic carriage interiors. There’s a unity of time too – we cover maybe three hours or so of a single day. The action is gritty and brutal. The cast is nuanced, the characters flawed. In short, almost all the tropes we’d expect of the just-add-water-and-stir Hollywood apocalypse were absent.
It got me to thinking how bad the Hollywood remake will be when it arrives. Here are five things I think money-obsessed risk-averse execs will change when they meet to discuss ‘Train to San Fran.’
1.“People. We need more exterior shots of collapsing cities! Maybe with an earthquake.”
Cityscapes are rare in TTB and beautifully handled. We see smudges of smoke, abandoned blocks, and spookily-empty streets on maybe three or four occasions. At no point is an iconic building seen collapsing under a zombie-horde dam-burst or anything equally idiotic.
2.“We have a train movie, and we don’t have a climbing-along-the-roof sequence? Are we crazy? Hey – we could do the thing with the approaching tunnel!”
TTB opts to restrict the action to inside the train. Sliding doors are used to great dramatic effect. The imminent danger is intensified and the violence kept brutal and close-quarters precisely because Indiana Jones style roof-based escpades are impossible.
3.“Guys. Why don’t we blow the train up? Y’know. Detach the back half with a kick-ass BOOM?”
There is one small explosion in TTB. Hollywood is so in thrall to fireballs, a weird kind of expectation-inflation has occurred and audiences have reached such a level of desensitisation that the disintegration of an entire zip-code leaves us shrugging and picking popcorn from our teeth.
4.“Our protag isn’t skilled enough. Too ordinary. Make him a zombie expert. Oh, and an ex-marine. Is Chris Pratt available? Call Chris.”
TTB opt to go with a heartless city-trader who wears soft-soled slippers in his apartment and has never even creased his ice-white shirt, let alone had it bloodstained. He’s so patently out to save himself and screw everyone else in the process, it’s fascinating and refreshing to watch in equal measure.
5.“Raise the stakes! We’ve only got the passengers’ lives at risk here. Put a zombie-antidote on the train! They have to get it to the CDC by six pm. We can have a countdown to the destruction of THE ENTIRE PLANET! This is gold!”
No it’s frickin’ not.
Writing a novel in a month is like trekking through a jungle. You never know what you’re going to face during the slog, there’s adventure around every corner, and you need to be prepared for anything. So what do you pack in your bag? What are the writer’s equivalent of the machete, the water purification tablets, the parachute cord or the butterfly sutures? Every writer’s pack will be different, but here’s what I’ll be taking in mine…
1. A psychological map
You might not know exactly where your story’s going, but you can know something of the emotional journey you’re about to embark on. It’ll be a battle between your better self and your desire to bail. Austin Kleon puts in best in his diagram, ‘The Life of a Project’, which is at the top of this post. That’s your November in one picture. Remember though, that's everybody’s November in one picture. No-one’s going to breeze through this. Check out Kleon’s wonderful book ‘Steal like an Artist’ if you want more inspiration.
2. A selection of Writerly Podcasts
I’ve spent a few years now using my commute to and from work to feed my brain and challenge my writing process. Nuggets of wisdom and moments of insight can give you that boost you need in the middle stages of a project that feels like it’s floundering. Two podcasts that are forensic in their analysis of the writing process are:
Writing Excuses (Each season runs January to December. Download a healthy chunk of the back-catalogue. Season ten was sequenced in the order you would follow when writing a whole novel, and is designed to support you through the entire process.)
Brian Koppleman’s The Moment (Brilliant discussions with creatives. Choose episodes featuring screenwriters/novelists)
3. A Wellspring
Every writer should have one: a text or texts that only needs to be glanced through to deliver a spirit-boosting injection of energy, enthusiasm, awe and wonder. It might be a novel, a handbook, a poem. Yours will be different from everyone else’s, and that’s fine. For what it’s worth, mine's Pressfield’s The War of Art. Whenever I’m struggling, I turn to this beaut and soon enough I’m ready to re-enter the fray.
4. A Pair of Headphones
For me, music can take me back into the world of fiction quickly, immerse me in a world and empty the mind of clutter. If music helps, find the music that does the job for you. Doesn’t matter whether it’s cinema soundtracks, instrumental hip-hop, electronica or introspective Americana; build yourself a playlist. And, here’s the thing… make it a long one.
(I wrote a post on playlists over at Author Allsorts, here.)
5. A Bunch of Goodies
Rewards beat penalties anyday. So when you’re hacking your way through jungle, you need moments where you rest, recuperate, and enjoy the fruits of your labours. It might be chocolate. It might be fancy savoury snacks, long walks or box-set episodes. Whatever your rewards are, ration them carefully and savour every moment of them when they arrive. There should be waaay more hacking than snacking.
And that’s it, apart from: good luck, explorers!
And don’t forget your injections before you go…
Here’s what all-round YA hero Chris Wooding has to say about writing really difficult books – this snippet in relation to his excellent Storm Thief: “As usual, while writing it I got to a point where I wished I’d never started, and I wanted to run my hard drive over an electromagnet…” Wooding admits. “And also as usual, I got through it, and when it was finally done and I got the bound copies I decided that I loved it again.”
I’ve been thinking about my relationship with Lifers a lot recently. Partly because I’ve been listening to actors reading it in preparation for an audio version – a thrilling experience – and partly because of a conversation I was having with some more interesting, funny, insightful children’s authors; Niel Bushnell, Dan Smith and Chris Callaghan.
Here’s the thing about reviews, I was saying. Pretty much everything, over time, ends up at 3.9. Using Goodreads, a site I love, to verify the theory finds this: The Great Gatsby’s two-million plus reviews even out at 3.9. A Midsummer Night’s Dream? 3.9. King Lear? Macbeth? Henry V? 3.9 apiece. The author Margaret Atwood gets an overall rating of 3.9. Current zombie favourite The Girl With All the Gifts scores 3.9, as does my last read, King’s Bazaar of Bad Dreams. What about the novel most claim is the finest ever written, George Eliot’s Middlemarch? You guessed it.
(Before I get irritating, let’s be serious for a moment. I’m patently not trying to argue that everything gets a 3.9, or in my opinion deserves a 3.9. There were plenty of searches that just missed the mark. I was gutted to find Hamlet comes out at 4.0, for example. And Wuthering Heights gets a 3.8, though Bronte can comfort herself knowing she’s out-performed Great Expectations by 0.1; Dickens’ novel comes in at a mystifying 3.7.)
Anyway. I s’pose what I’m trying to say is this – write what you want, and try your best to love what you write. Because if and when it’s published, this is what will happen: some people will like it, some people won’t, and you’ll most likely end up with a 3.9.
So if, like Wooding, you’re battling with a project that feels so doomed you’re planning on running your hard-drive over an electro-magnet…. Don’t. Keep going. Out there are people who are going to love it – and one of them is likely your future self.
Oh, and one more thing. What about Wooding’s Storm Thief itself? What did that score?
Well, as luck would have it…
Normally on the middle Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of August I'd be in work, sorting through the previous year's A level results, interviewing students, enrolling kids on courses, running the clearing process, placating parents and preparing reports.
This year, I'm packing for Edinburgh. I'm at the Book Festival on Thursday at 5pm, then doing a ten-at-ten reading the morning after. Check out the details, and lists of fabulous other events and authors, here.
It's a hell of a way to mark a change in direction and I'm thrilled to be surviving as a full-time writer thus far. It was a shift that, at times, I didn't think I'd be able to push through; one that was years in the planning. And advice on what to do was hard to come by - not because people weren't willing to kindly offer their thoughts, but because their circumstances were so different from mine. "Ah!" some would say after telling me how they did it. "You're the main breadwinner are you? Oh. That makes it harder." Or, "Oh, and you've got a daughter to look after as well? Right. That makes it different."
Still, it's done now. And I won't be pulling the ladder up behind me - if you're planning something similar and want any advice, just ping me on twitter here or leave a comment below; I'll be happy to share.
And if you're in Edinburgh tomorrow or Friday, come and say hello. Or maybe you're heading to the Wigtown Book Festival in September - see you there! Or you might be on the Isle of Wight in October... hurrah! Me too!
A happy anniversary indeed.