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...
This is Shola Ameobi. He's a footballer who used to play for Newcastle United.
I like Shola, and here's why.
Back when I was a working full-time (I was a Deputy Headteacher of a large comprehensive school in Manchester UK, up until the summer of 2016) I worked with a colleague who was a Newcastle fan. This dude - let's call him Argyle for the purposes of this post - was a regular and harsh critic of Shola's. Most Newcastle fans were, I seem to remember.
One day, whilst sticking the boot in as usual, Argyle said; "Shola Ameobi, eh? That guy has stolen a living." The phrase has stayed with me.
I knew what Argyle meant - he was referring to the fact that Ameobi had stayed at Newcastle for 14 years as a professional footballer despite not seeming to be anywhere near as good as other players on the club's books. His contract was always mysteriously renewed; he was never the focus of transfer speculation because no-one else wanted him; he holds the record for the most substitute appearances in English football (Shola rarely started a match - there was always a stronger option. You bring him on towards the end of the game when everyone else is weary;) and despite playing as a striker - whose entire job is to score goals - he found the net less than once in every four matches, a pretty unremarkable percentage. And yet there he was, every season, doing his best, working his socks off, labouring in front of goal, stealing a living.
So here's why I like Shola. I like Shola because I am Shola.
Or I feel like him most days. There are thousands and thousands of better writers out there, I think when I'm grouching. I'm stealing a living here, book to book. If the next one doesn't sell, I'm doomed, I think, pacing the spare room in my pyjamas, looking for a poncy metaphor to express my sadness. I'm the sparrow flying through the mead hall, I think, out of the storm and into the warmth for a few seconds before returning to the chaos and darkness.
Somehow, though, Shola kept it going for 14 years. Every week that guy must have thought... my time's up, surely. I've been found out. It's back to League Two football for me. I'm nowhere near as good as these other guys. I'm doomed. I'm like that sparrow in the mead hall, flying momentarily through the - what? New contract? Seriously?! Aw, cheers guys! Excellent news!
I love Shola. It ain't easy being quite good, year after year after year.
As you can probably tell, I'm soon-to-be between contracts. It's pitching time. It's welcome to the Hangfire Smokehouse time.
Shola, be with me.
When I was a kid, The Smiths released a song called Shoplifters of the World Unite.
I was blown away by the title. To give you some perspective, the top 10 selling singles in the UK that year - 1987 in case you're wondering - included songs called Jack Your Body, Is This Love, Heartache, Big Fun and You Sexy Thing. I thought shiny-happy empty-pop was pretty much all there was. Then... Shoplifters of the World Unite. Whoa.
There was more to come from Morrissey. You're the One for Me, Fatty. The World is Full of Crashing Bores. I Have Forgiven Jesus. More recently: Jacky's Only Happy When She's Up on the Stage, Who Will Protect Us From the Police... titles are important, right? I wouldn't have loved The Smiths' best (in my opinion...) album quite so much if it hadn't been called Strangeways Here We Come, and opened with a track called A Rush And a Push And The Land is Ours.
So when my publishers called to discuss what to call my third book, I took it seriously. Titles, man. Titles.
This one hasn't been easy. There's the working title - that's always been Takeback, the name of the politically supercharged heist-meisters at the heart of the story. Then there's proxy-titles like Outlaws, Stealers, Crooks - fast and punchy, snappy as a caffeineated terrier. Then there's Rob the Rich, Stitch the Rich, Swag or Loot. Or pairs; Breaking and Entering, Smash and Grab. Or acronyms: B.P.M. (Bad People's Money) Then there's puns that patently don't work but are fatally attractive anyway - my current fave being Grand Theft Autumn. Then there's the Shakespeare quote approach; the Brave New World or Infinite Jest or The Fault in Our Stars approach. Through the lens of the Shakespeare reference, Takeback would be Our Wild Faction.
Some favourites are emerging for sure, but it's harder than it looks. Takeback is due Spring 2018. Who knows what might be plastered across the cover when it finally arrives...
Last night I saw Logan Lucky. And a damn fine heist movie it is too. Now listen up, people. Takeback, due Spring 2017 (May, I’m told…) is also a heist novel. And because I love heist stories and have wanted to write a heist of my very own for so long, I’ve immersed myself in all-things-heisty for aaages.
So recently, I’ve been thinking: my heist knowledge has accreted slowly over years as I watch and read; it’s been laid down in wafer-thin layers like one of those stalagmite thingies.
But wait guys - what if there was a quicker way? Well, rest easy. I thought of one in the shower and just scribbled it out on the train. (I didn't go straight from the shower to the train, mind. There was an appropriate gap. I got dressed and stuff.) Anyway, it's called R.A.C.E. And without further ado… here it is:
See what I’ve done here? On one axis is time. Recent movies on the right, ancient movies on the left. (Basically, new and old. Gimme a break, folks. I was trying to build a memorable acronym.) On the vertical is adherence to genre. Conventional follows the rules, experimental messes with them. Stick your movies into the grid, and a score out of ten next to them, and you’re laughing. There's some pretty high scores here, you'll note. Like I said, BIG fan of the heist movie.
“But Martin,” I hear you cry, “not only have you scored the movies incorrectly – I loved The Lookout, dude, what are you thinking? – temporally speaking you’ve placed them slightly incorrectly relative to each other!” Well yes, possibly. It's from memory. The Italian Job probably came way earlier than The First Great Train Robbery. But it’s the spirit that counts, yeah?
Oh, and no-one can challenge my ten-on-ten for Logan Lucky. That movie is the boss.
p.s. About that blatant click-bait title. All you have to do is choose five movies from disparate sections of the grid and watch them all. I've assumed two hours a movie. Simple.
I finished ITV's The Loch last Sunday night. It was a pretty good show. Thing is, it had started so well – the mist-shrouded landscape, the implacable gunmetal grey of the water, the chain of lochs and queues of boats, the cast of quirky characters and a great pair of leads – that it couldn’t help but disappoint. For a second or two towards the end of episode one, when the eyes of the bedridden boy snap open, it almost had a Twin Peaksian feel to it; a macabre weirdness that was borderline supernatural.
Eventually though, stuff got so crazy the touchstone became not Twin Peaks but Lost, millennial society’s go-to example of a show collapsing under its own complexity. The Loch’s characters, having served their purpose, suddenly evaporated. The Mancunian dude with the shady past? He was vanished in episode four along with his childhood mate. The manipulative teacher? Sidelined by six. The maybe-gay Doctor having an affair? Dispatched in five. The students involved in the shooting? All weirdly absent by the end. None of the poor buggers got screen-time again.
This week I took a long train journey – I’m typing this in Carriage C, seat 3 on the way back home – and sped through Terry Brooks’ account of his writing life, Sometimes The Magic Works. I have fond memories of reading Brooks’ work as a kid, and he has some interesting stuff to say about endings (particularly, I reckon, to those of you familiar with King’s advice in On Writing.) Brooks asks us to consider stories that suffer from “a plot element that seemed never to go anywhere…” or whose “first three-hundred pages were wonderful than everything fell apart…” or – crucially, given The Loch – stories which “involved you with a character who wandered off somewhere along the way and never returned.”
“I’d suggest all these problems are organisational in nature,” Brooks points out. His answer? Outlining. “Let me give you my thoughts,” he says, “on why I think outlining is a valuable tool that doesn’t have to deflate your excitement.” What follows is a decent chapter of helpful advice I know I’ll be drawing on.
It’s the way of these things to sometimes cluster or arrive in threes. I’d got onto Brooks’ book having heard it recommended on Hank Gardner’s Author Stories podcast, and on the train I dipped into an episode with Chris Paolini, the Eragon dude. I should point out I’ve not read the Inheritance Cycle (anything, in fact, described as a cycle or chronicle since I was sixteen come to that…) But wouldn’t you know it Paolini too espoused the necessity of outlining; almost urged aspiring authors to map out their books, build blueprints, complete chapter by chapter synopses. He outlined the whole cycle, it turns out, before returning to each individual book to outline them again in detail.
Is the universe trying to tell me something?
Maybe. With Takeback submitted, I’m in The Hangfire Smokehouse ruminating over a couple of possible ideas. At the moment, I have an A4 synopsis for both.
If Brooks and Paolini are anything close to right, I’ve got a long way to go yet.
One of the most enduring features of TV drama scripts has to be the ‘Seemingly Unrelated Anecdote’, a trope so important it will henceforth appear in both bold and italics, people. Whenever it shows up in TV or film I give a little cheer. I love it. And once spotted you see it everywhere. They must teach it in script-writing school or sump’m.
Anyway. Here’s my handy ten-part guide to making a correct identification… and perhaps even using it in your own fiction.
Sample script illustrating Seemingly Unrelated Anecdote
The ‘student’: Frank is 32, a recently widowed young father learning leadership in difficult circumstances following the outbreak of a deadly virus.
The ‘sage’: Alberto is 67; Mexican, a wizened Psychology professor from humble beginnings.
Frank: We’re trapped in this compound. The guards mistakenly think we’re criminals. My boy’s out there somewhere and I can’t even begin to search for him. What the hell do we do?
Alberto: (beat) When I was a child, my father was a fruit farmer. One night after school he took me out into the fields. The wind was up, singing in the caged branches of the pines. It was a dark night festooned with glittering stars. He’d been working the fields all day. As he took my hand I remember feeling his calloused skin, seeing the dark circles beneath his eyes. The sleeping field of ripe fragrant watermelon perfumed the air. We walked to the middle, where he stooped to examine the fruit and together we split one open. We ate. (Alberto opens his hands and stares at his palms) The melon was sweet and the flesh was smooth. But the seeds – I’ll never forget the seeds. They were like bullets. So hard; so unforgiving. I knew then I could never work the land the way my father did.
Perhaps you too are no farmer.
Alberto turns and leaves.
Frank: (beat) But wait – what?