Last night I went to bed early knowing I had to be up at 5am for work. By 1:30am I still hadn’t got to sleep.
I was thinking about my books, my royalty cheques, my relative status, my limitations. Payback isn’t out yet, so I have no idea what anyone will make of my little novel but I was fretting about what will happen to it.
The rational part of my brain knows exactly what will happen; it’ll do modest business then vanish. If I’m lucky its sales will earn me almost as much as I banked in a month doing my previous job. Some people will like it and I’ll get a mood-boosting blast of positivity on the days I hear good news. (It’s impossible to underestimate how thrilling it is to hear someone has read and enjoyed your book.) A slightly smaller number will read it and dislike it. It’ll end up at about 3.9 on Goodreads.
But the truth is, it’ll be beneath the notice of most.
I know this.
And yet… part of me still hopes it will do well. That it’ll end up on bookstore table-displays or face-out with a staff review, or a national newspaper runs a small but positive review. Or it gets optioned for a spell, or there’s an audiobook deal or calls for a sequel. Just imagine, right?
It’s managing these two opposing thoughts, the rational and the optimistic, that keeps me awake. Last night it took me getting on for three hours to thoroughly think through the issues I’ve expressed above.
I’m writing this at 6:30am the following morning on a train. Here’s a summary of my current state of mind.
Maybe there is no mass market. It might look like there’s wave after wave of hit books with mass appeal, but those books can only represent 5% of what’s published, right? The rest ticks over in the background. I’d need to write twenty books just to be in with a statistical shout of joining the ranks of the big-hitter.
The rest of us are niche. Thousands and thousands of us appealing to a small group of readers with specialist enthusiasms, and earning a modest living doing so. So if happiness is, as some people say, the result of expectation minus reality, one simple solution is to modulate expectation. To make peace with being niche.
Then there’s this. Once, I was the bloke who got picked. The Poison Boy happened because I was plucked out of nowhere, winning The Times Chicken House Children’s Fiction Competition in 2012.
I’ve already won the lottery. I should pipe the hell down and get to work.
As it turns out once you've broadened your attention, stuff happens.
About a week after the last blog post, someone told me this. There's a high-speed rail link planned in some distant future where we aren't broke. It would connect Manchester and Sheffield, a mate was telling me. I tracked down a piece in the Guardian to check the facts. And get this (the italics are mine):
"David Higgins’s review of the second phase of HS2 endorsed the two planned routes... Higgins said either a new tunnelled high-speed route or an upgraded rail link through existing but unused tunnels through the Pennines were possible options."
That's right. Existing tunnels, closed in 1981. Here's a picture:
Boom. There it is. A group of surveyors are re-opening a bricked up tunnel to begin work on a new rail network. No-one's been in those tunnels for 35 years. Consider the possibilities, folks...
Cold case! Missing kid! Flashbacks to the early eighties! Other stuff!
This is how it happens, friends. Ideas collide with ideas. Maybe there'll be a third thing. I've a feeling there will...
I wonder whether it’s possible to track an idea from it’s earliest germ to it’s final expression in prose.
I’ve thought about this now and again but never committed anything to blogpost before, mostly because I’ve never been hyper-aware enough to catch the exact moment of an idea’s arrival.
Then - FANFARE!! - suddenly I was.
It happened on Friday 25th May 2018 on a train between Manchester, UK and Sheffield, a second city a fifty minute journey away. I was on the 7:57am service. It was about 8:20am.
A spine of hills and moorland sometimes referred to as ‘the backbone of England’ – the Pennines – lies between the two cities. To drive from one to the other would mean using Snake Pass, a winding and exposed road often closed by snow in winter and a notorious year-round accident black-spot. The train service, of course, takes you beneath the hills.
There are, Wikipedia tells me, a number of trans-pennine tunnels but the one I travelled through is, I think, the Disley Tunnel. It’s three-and-a-half kilometres long and pitch black. Here's the entrance -
Now, these are not high-speed trains. Getting through takes a while. When you emerge on the other side, there’s a feeling of entering a new world from out of a dark portal. You quickly pull up at a station, and – seriously – it’s called Dore. As in door.
There it is. My strange tunnel/portal idea at the exact point of conception!! Or EPOC as I will be pompously calling it, ha ha.
People often ask where ideas come from, and when I show them the earliest form of those ideas – like in an iphone note or a couple of words scribbled somewhere – they’re always disappointed. Jeez, you see them think. I could’ve done that. Well, yeah. You could, you’ve probably done it a thousand times. I don’t think my ideas are any better than anyone else’s, frankly probably a bit below average. But what I do know is this; something else will collide with that tunnel idea sometime soon – something in some way related, because I’ve now got an open file marked ‘weird railway tunnels’ in my head.
Once idea two meets idea one, it’ll grow and change. When that happens, I’ll throw out a quick blog about it. Just so I can track how this whole thing happens and grows.
Or withers and dies.
Back in the day I read a fair bit of Emily Barr's stuff. I'm a fan of her backpacking travel-thrillers and loved The Sleeper, a train-based psycho-drama that pre-dates Emily Blunt staring boozily at her own reflection in that movie with the killer OST and ridiculous ending.
So it was a real pleasure to announce the winners of BASH 2018 and award the 11+ category to Emily's The One Memory of Flora Banks, a book I need to go out and read pretty smartish.
It was a great day run by a team of super-smart enthusiastic librarians who, mired in the middle of awards season, have handed out so many prizes to so may great books they've forgotten who won what and have to check their Twitter feeds to recall what they were doing last week ;-)
Plus I got to wear my new cap and stand awkwardly next to local dignitaries on one side and graphic artist Nick Brokenshire (Star Wars Adventures Issue 9, no less!) on the other... and a whole crew of fantastic kids eager to share their ideas for novels or pick my addled brains for writing advice. All good.
Also good - close to very good, I suspect - is Payback getting a mention in The Bookseller's July preview section. The Bookseller? Yeah, me too. I'm on Wikipedia right now. It's an industry weekly with 30,000 readers in the trade and it gets eyes in over 90 countries. But we knew that, right?
There I am, folks, mixing it with Reeve and Scarrow. With Crossan and Camden no less. Me and Ness Harbour.
When I get the Payback graphics through from my lovely publishers, I'll go-all out updating the site and de-Lifers the headings and banners.
I know. I bet you can't flippin' wait.
This post first appeared on the wonderful Author Allsorts site, here.
If you're interested in other stuff I've written for them - and hell why wouldn't you be? - you can access a few of my posts in the links that follow:
OK. So I signed up for an online writing course. Screenwriting to be precise. The whole thing was beautifully put together; forums to introduce yourself to other students, introductory videos shot super-professionally, downloadable pdfs of helpful resources, links to screenplays and so on. Best of all? The whole lot was free. So yeah, I couldn’t be more positive about the whole set-up and design of the experience. Top draw, folks.
But as I worked my way through the materials and completed the tasks, I found my enthusiasm waning. Nothing new there, right? Anyone who knows the psycho-emotional experience of building something new is aware we move through different phases of engagement with any project. So I was expecting a petering off of energy and sure enough it happened.
I pushed on, but it got me thinking about rules. About hard-and-fast versus soft-and-slow, if you like. Here’s what I mean, using screenplay writing as my example. Imagine a continuum with one approach at one end and the other at… well, the other.
Hard and fast = You wanna write a screenplay? Here’s how. There are rules – you do this, then this, then this. Here’s an example of it working in practice (insert clip here.) See how the hero refuses the call? Here it is again (clip.) And here (clip.) Now make your hero refuse the call. What precisely do they say? Why? How? What happens to change them? Good. Next…
You get the picture. First principles, rules and regs, examples to illustrate. Basically, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.
The course didn’t go for hard and fast. Nowhere near. It went for soft and slow.
Soft and slow = Everyone’s got a different way. There’s no formula. I’m gonna hint at or imply the existence of rules, sometimes openly discuss them, then contradict, criticise and ridicule them. I’m going use the phrase, “…it all depends,” as often as I can. Then you get to slowly figure out what’s important.
For example, in one video-discussion the four contributors explored the importance of character. One told us an engaging character needs a clear motivation and goal. “Or… perhaps not,” a second said. “Some characters want nothing but stasis.” Characters’ decisions drive the plot forward, one said. “Or maybe not,” said another. “In some screenplays, the protag makes no decisions. Everything happens to them.” Begin your planning by scoping out your characters, one advised. “Or not,” said another. “Begin with theme or place. It’s up to you. It all depends.”
There are advantages here: you get nuance and subtlety, for one. But on the other hand holy cow, folks just gimme the basics so I can figure out how to use and subvert audience expectation.
I guess it comes down to rule and exception. If every rule has an exception, what I need to know is three things. Just three.
Answer those and I’m happy. That’s it.
Oh, wait. One more thing – you can’t tell me it all depends.
Pop quiz: name Philip Pullman’s first two published novels. Struggling? OK, an easier one. Name Patrick Ness’s first two books.
Tricky, huh? Both of these wonderful writers started gaining real traction with their third or fourth publication. (Go to Chris Wooding’s site and his list of published work begins with Broken Sky, his third novel. The first two have been redacted entirely.)
Why’s this on my mind? Because Payback, my third novel, is due out in July. Now don’t worry folks. I’m not comparing myself vainly with the writers above, I know my place in the great children’s-fiction-pecking-order. But in a number of important ways, Payback is my first novel too.
I couldn’t do any of the above with Poison Boy – I was an assistant headteacher working 60 hour weeks when I wrote it. While working on Lifers, my four-year old daughter wasn’t sleeping and I was a deputy headteacher trying to find time to finish a textbook I was co-writing for an educational publisher. I love P-Boy and I love Lifers. They represent the very best novels I could have written at the time, given the person I was in the circumstances I was.
But let me share one story about Payback that illustrates how the experience has been so different.
Recently, as the picture above attests, I got the page proofs through the post from the wonderful people at Chicken House. They look flippin’ great. As usual, I was asked to give the mss one final read, highlight any small changes and return them to CH HQ.
I remember to my shame what this process was like for my first two novels. I was exhausted, haunted by work-issues, pausing to take calls from colleagues, finish reports, plan lessons and mark work. I was doing staff appraisals at the same time as I gave Lifers its final once-over, drafting replies to letters of complaint, reviewing student contracts and re-jigging the school calendar for the academic year ahead.
With Payback, I blocked out three days, settled down and read the whole book aloud to myself. Something I was doing for the third time. The third time, folks. There are sections of P-Boy and Lifers I’ve never read aloud. Third time reading Payback (aloud; my laptop asleep, no calls or emails, nothing but blissful deep concentration) I still found things to change. The sound of a sentence, extraneous adjectives, crappy expression.
It made me think: great writers have lots of things us ordinary writers don’t have. Maybe they have a better ear for dialogue; maybe they have a broader vocabulary; maybe they have the eye of a true observer of human nature, or they have a flair for crisp, concise expression.
But maybe they have something else. Something arguably more important than all the other things. Maybe they have time.
During the writing of Lifers I fired off a blog post for Author Allsorts called Little Pockets. It described how I worked back then – stealing a half hour here and there to get some words down. I finish with this: “I sometimes wish things were different…but I know it’s not going to be any time soon. In the meantime, this is what most of us have – little pockets of opportunity in otherwise frenetic days.”
Somehow I made it out. Payback will too; coming your way this summer.
Give it some love – it’s my debut novel. 😉
All around the world, authors' blogs are getting updated with photos from school visits as National Book Day comes around again. And why should I be any different? There I am on the left hand table of the panel. I've been at Notting Hill and Ealing High School with the good people in the pic below. Check it out! Over on the far left, there's Lu Hersey of Deep Water fame! And who's that next to her? Eloise Williams, writer of Gaslight! That's the wonderful Sara Grant in the middle and - hey, wait - is that Eugene Lambert of The Sign of One towering over Kimberley Pauley, writer of Ask Me? Yes it is! And then there's me too.
On a more serious note: the pupils were fabulous and they bought books by the armful. I shifted more copies of The Poison Boy than ever before at an event - the bookseller sold out. Even a YA title like Lifers sold respectably to year 7s and 8s. Kids had their money folded into neat envelopes with their names on and spent it all delightedly. I signed and signed and signed.
Where am I going with this? Well, about this time last year I was at a school in Blackpool. The pupils filed in, listened to me talk and filed out again. No-one bought a book. The teacher was slightly embarrassed and apologised but I didn't mind. The children had been told to bring their fiver in, parents had been reminded... but no-one had any cash on them the day I rocked up.
And it's schools like this second one - and plenty of others - that are struggling to staff their libraries, where borrowing numbers are plummeting. You've seen it all on Twitter, I guess. It's a bleak future for kids if they can't get their hands on books at home and they can't get their hands on books at school either.
Anyway, I'm spending much of the rest of the week on trains. Mostly writing and thinking wistfully about Dirk Gently. Onwards and upwards!
Pitching time again.
Which means I’m living in my bi-annual state of heightened terror.
This time, though, I’ve called in the cavalry. I’ve asked for more help over the last month than I have in the previous couple of years put together. Asking for help is scary and you don't need me to tell you why. All of us are - to some extent or another - fighting the inner voice that keeps telling us we should be arriving fully formed; skilled and talented, brimming with ideas all ready to be expertly executed. The need for help runs counter to this narrative. If I'm having to ask, I must be struggling, right? Shouldn't this be easy? Other people don't seem to have these problems...
And feedback can be bruising too. Over the last three weeks I've had an edit on Payback from the mighty folk at Chicken House. But not content with that, I'd also tasked two beta-readers with pulling every last issue apart in the book. So I had three versions of the mss to contend with, all bristling with comments in metaphorical (...actually, sometimes literal) red ink. I had a couple of weeks to do it all. It was a tough edit, folks, I'm not gonna lie.
That wasn't enough though. I also decided it might be good to send a pitch for a new book to two published writers of MG and YA fiction, asking them how it might be strengthened and lining up phone calls to hear the bad news. Then I sent it to my agent for a further beating. I've scribbled all over it, torn it apart, stormed around the house in an impotent rage and had waaay too many baths. Dry January didn't help, I have to say. My policy on sorrows is generally: drown them.
But I end the month feeling pretty good. Payback is looking tip top. And you wouldn't believe what I've got planned next. Ooooh, it's exciting. It's thrilling. Picture a Frank Darabont prison-break figure-skating with a John Hughes buddy comedy on a frozen lake of cheap champagne and broken dreams.
There are no spoilers in this piece.
Except this: there's a Chewbacca and a Plastic Chicken gag. Yes, in a movie already over two and a half hours long - a bloated beast so mighty I was yawning and checking my watch during the final boss battle - the director sees fit to keep a gag involving a wookie getting guilty at roasting a bird.
It's symptomatic of a major Star Wars problem. Who is its audience? When Lucas tried reminding us all it was for kids in the prequels - you know which character I mean, folks - it was horrible. Why should it be any different now?
No-one in the cinema laughed. And it was a pretty full cinema. In part that's 'cos it's a crap gag. There were better. The "no-one's from nowhere" line was a rib-tickler, I admit, but that's because it's linguistic, not based on wide-eyed mini-penguins designed purely to shift mega-units of plastic tat.
I was twelve when Return of the Jedi came out. I loved it of course, but I remember even then a nagging sense that the Ewoks were rubbish. It begs the question: who are the mini-penguins and plastic chickens for? Not movie-savvie twelve year-olds, that's for sure.
So it's an OK instalment. Pretty good, even. But if you want to know why Rogue One stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the franchise... well, among a thousand other reasons, I pick this one: no plastic chickens.
Over at Pick My Y.A., a killer stateside reading recommendation website, I was interviewed following Lifers' release in the US. Apologies for the picture. The guys over there have got hold of my staff photograph from back when I was teaching - and I'm a gurning monster in a supermarket suit. Anyway, during the interview I recommended, as authors always do, reading reading reading to become a better writer. I aim for 40 books a year, I said. And I do.
This year, though, has made me plan a change of policy for 2018. Here's why. I started in January of 2017 with:
Fellside by M.R. Carey
Finders Keepers by Steven King and
Ways to See a Ghost by Emily Diamand.
In February I did:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and
Revelation by C J Sansom
The Trespasser by Tana French
The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo and
Different Seasons by Steven King (the first time I'd read four stories I know well together in sequence.)
Velocity by Chris Wooding
I Saw a Man by Owen Shears and
So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson.
You get the picture. It was clear I was falling behind schedule. I didn't want to miss my target. I started choosing shorter books. Thus November, which was:
The Adversary by Emmanuel Carriere
Thin Air by Michelle Paver
Star Wars Moving Target by Castelluci and Fry
Set in Stone by Robert Goddard.
Sitting on my shelf is The Fireman by Joe Hill. I'm desperate to get started, but I can't tackle it. It'll take me a month. I want to re-read The Stand too. I fancy some of Brandon Sanderson's epic fantasy. Chris Wooding's Ember Blade as well.
So 2018 is gonna be the year of BIG BOOKS. Reading target suspended temporarily while I tackle the longest stories I can find. Just FYI.
Oh, and my fave book this year? Paver's Thin Air, a wonderfully spooky spine-chiller set on the roof of the world. Stupendous stuff, sparsely written, vivid and frightening. You'll be pleased to hear its rating on Goodreads is 3.9, a score so important I've written a whole blog about it...