Saturday 28 November 2015

The Tale of the Gypsy Queen

Recently, I've been reading a lot of authors who have cited role-playing (RP) games as a key inspiration in their development. I've mentioned my childhood love of Fighting Fantasy before, and online Multi-User Dimentions (MUDs - another word for online RP games) certainly whet my appetite for character development and dialogue.

I was pretty hooked on MUDs from about the age of fourteen to seventeen, most notably one called Realms of Aurealis, using a Pueblo client.

The ROA website often posted short bios where players would write the backstory for their characters. One day, a friend asked me (in character) about my own story, so I decided to write one. A few pages soon turned into a few dozen pages, and I ended up writing over 50,000 words - my first novella.  

It was a bit long for the website, but I shared it amongst RPing friends and with family. It was riddled with the common mistakes of fresh writers: littered with ellipses, aching with adverbs, homonymically humiliating. But it was a story.

I recently decided to dig it up. I've mentioned before about the way my backlist makes me feel, and most of that was written about six years ago. This was written over sixteen years ago! I ummed and aahed about putting it online for quite some time. In the end, I thought - ah, sod it.

So, here's a little insight into the mind of a sixteen-year-old wanna-be author, well before she knew she wanted to be an author. A bookish, geeky, slightly mad teen who loved make-believe. 

And no, I don't think I ever want to talk about it.

Thursday 26 November 2015

Folklore Thursday

Currently reading Ochil Fairy Tales by R. Menzies Fergusson at foot of the Ochils in Clackmannanshire. If you haven't already discovered it, go check out ‪#‎FolkloreThursday‬ (@FolkloreThurs) on Twitter. Every Thursday t'internet gets taken over by a bunch of folklore enthusiasts posting all sorts of interesting links and pictures. Fabulously good fun.

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Cthulhu Lives!

Huge shout out to my publisher Ghostwoods Books. Their anthology Cthulhu Lives! is now available as an audiobook read by Alasdair Stuart and Leeman Kessler. Follow that link for details and to listen to the forward, or head here for the paperback.

This volume brings together seventeen masterful tales of cosmic horror inspired by Lovecraft’s work. In his fiction, humanity is a tiny, accidental drop of light and life in the endless darkness of an uncaring universe – a darkness populated by vast, utterly alien horrors. Our continued survival relies upon our utter obscurity, something that every fresh scientific wonder threatens to shatter... 
The truth is indeed out there – and it hungers. 

Their second Lovecraftian anthology, Cthulhu Lies Dreaming, is due for release shortly.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Scottish Escapades

I've spent the past few days traipsing about the Scottish lowlands with my mate Paul, looking for standing stones. Busy working on his organisation The Northern Antiquarian - good things to come in the not-too-distant future, methinks.

Check out our rambles near:

If you're ever passing Kippen, drop by The Cross Keys, the oldest continuous licensed premises in Stirlingshire. Highly recommended.

Wednesday 18 November 2015

Sir Harry Johnston International School

Had a lovely time this morning talking to Year Seven at Sir Harry Johnston International School (@SHJSecondary), Malawi. 

My friend Col works there as an English teacher and he's started a monthly author talk. Last month they spoke with crime writer Adrian Magson, which made national news. Was a really good session, and the students had prepared some challenging interview questions about my writing process, my influences and background. It was great to hear about what they're reading too: Neil Gaiman and one of my nephew's favourites, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, among others. Hoping to catch up with Col back in the UK over Christmas, and I've been promised a write-up of the interview, which I'll post here on my blog.

If you're an author and you're interested in helping to inspire tomorrow's writers, drop me a line and I'll put you in touch with Col.

Sunday 15 November 2015

The Dabbler

Just wanted to mention a lovely interview I did for Dianna L. Gunn on her blog The Dabbler, where I talk in detail about the inspiration for Rosy Hours.

I think it is always difficult when an author takes on characters with cult status. The Phantom of the Opera is so entrenched in popular culture, it’s so well known, that you run the risk of upsetting a lot of people. Choosing to return to Leroux’s Gothic roots makes things tricky, too. Most people know Phantom from the musical adaptation. Erik is a character who inspires much greater sympathy in Webber’s version – less torture, less murder, less of everything except singing. 
I rather took the other approach – more torture, more murder, less singing.

A few weeks back I was also reading an article in which they asked acclaimed authors what had most surprised them about the writing life. One of my favourite answers was Linwood Barclay (who I was fortunate enough to see at Cheltenham in 2013):

The biggest surprise I think is that becoming an author has afforded me the opportunity to experience humiliation in ways I never knew existed. You think, 'Wow. I'm a published author, now.' Then you go to a bookstore event, and absolutely nobody comes. The only thing worse than nobody coming to an event, is if only one person shows up. If nobody comes, you just go to the nearest bar. But if one person is there, you have to talk, and maybe even sign a book, if one manages to get sold.

I've seen this happen to friends, and sat through a book signing of my own where not a soul came. It's been a huge relief this time around that people have turned up to talks, venturing out in the dark and the rain. Really means a lot to writers to meet their readers.

Friday 13 November 2015

Kendal Library Talk

Had a fabulous time at Kendal Library in the Lake District yesterday. Thanks hugely to Kinga and Janet for making me so welcome, and to all who ventured out in the rain to talk Mazandaran in the mid-1800s. The feedback was truly lovely, glad to have fun and inspire. A copy of Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran is now available in the library.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Dead Letter Chest

Apparently writing on behalf of a “mutual friend”, a Dutch opera singer who left for Paris, the letter details of the singer discovering of her pregnancy and appeals for money to make a return trip home...
The letter itself is marked “neit hebben”, meaning the merchant (and most likely the father of the child) declined to accept it...

It reminds me of a film called Dead Letter Office:

Alice's father left when she was a child. She continued to share her life with him in letters that she sent not realising that he never received them. Eventually, they all come back with "Dead Letter Office" stamped on the front. As an adult, she becomes consumed with a desire to find him and takes a job with the Dead Letter Office, convinced that she can use them to fulfil her romantic notions of a reunion with her father. What awaits her at the DLO is far more than that. -  Peter Webb

Since that film I've always been a little fascinated by the idea of lost letters, and a DLO. A graveyard for missed opportunities, hopes and desires.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Live Tea and Jeopardy

If you haven't been following Emma Newman's Tea and Jeopardy podcast, you can catch up here. She's just uploaded two live episodes from Octocon, Dublin with author C. E. Murphy and FantasyCon, Nottingham with Brandon Sanderson. For those who don't know, Emma is the voice of Those Rosy Hours audiobook. Check out her latest release, Planetfall.

The Butler Did It

Well, in the last ever episode of Downton Abbey (bar Christmas shenanigans), the butler really did do it - to himself.

If you haven't seen it yet and don't want spoilers, go read somebody else's blog for a bit.

I'm not a mad Downton fan. I don't dislike it either. It's just sort of become one of those background programs like Doc Martin and Midsomer Murders which is so quintessentially British that it quietly reaffirms our heritage in the background whilst we're running a bath and contemplating what's for tea.

But this week the long-foreseen-unless-partially-blind plot inevitability came about, whereby tortured, lovelorn Mr. Barrow the Butler, gay in a time when you got jailed for it - and narrowly having avoided just such a fate in previous episodes - finally decided to pack it all in and top himself.

Actor Rob James-Collier played it so well that you understood it was headed that way, but I still found myself a little dismayed.

"I really like Mr. Barrow. He's my favourite character," I said. 
"Why?" my friend replied. "He's an arsehole."

Well, yes. But arseholes are often the most interesting characters.

He's always been so very:

Not exactly evil - well, yes, sometimes a little bit evil - but perfectly understandable. I like arsehole characters because they're complex, and complexity is the closest constant of the human state. Open your mouth and what comes out is not necessarily what you meant to say, but it defines you in the eyes of others.

Poor Mr. Barrow. So much ambition, trapped in a place where you must know your place. Think most of us know what it's like to dislike our job, miss out on advancement over personality clashes, be misunderstood, feel unloved, ashamed or embarrassed. I think he's the most human of the lot.

I think, as writers, that's what we're always looking for - the reaction behind the action. What are characters reacting to in order to behave the way they do? What triggers them, what pushes their buttons, what effect does that have on those around them?

It's harder to do that with real people. Characters allow you to slow things down, rewind, and consider the situation from different angles without being embroiled in the plot. Whereas Real Life (tm) drama rarely gets a rewrite, and our own characters play out before objectivity has a chance to step in and rescue us.

Anyway, I'm glad they fished him out of the bathtub in time.

On another note, I also caught London Spy. I gave a little squee of delight to see Ben Whishaw and Jim Broadbent together (total Cloud Atlas fan). As someone tweeted, it was refreshing to see a lead gay man where his sexuality was just him, rather than the be all and end all of his character. I think we are seeing this more and more. Telly is getting more complex over sexuality with things like Black Sails, Last Tango in Halifax and that traumatic ending of Outlander. When I think back to what I used to watch round the box with my parents and grandparents - we're living in interesting times. Possibly the most fabulous time ever to be a writer.

Monday 9 November 2015

Remembrance Sunday 2015

Posted elsewhere about Remembrance Sunday. You can watch a video clip of our village march there. Some more pictures of Nana and Great Granddad Tom on this blog.

Saturday 7 November 2015

Amazon by Numbers

Amazon has recently opened their first high street stores in India and the US:

Amazon will stock about 6,000 titles, with the selection based on reviews and sales data from The price of books in the store will be the same as on the website.

It has been nauseatingly explained by the Chief Executive of the Publishers Association, Richard Mollet:

“This is a vote of confidence in the physical book and the physical book store,” he said. “Book stores have been imperilled in recent years, but even Amazon has seen the benefit of a physical browsing experience.”

I'm sorry - a 'vote of confidence' in the 'physical browsing experience'? 

Sounds very much like rubbing salt in the wounds of all those high street bookshops that have been forced to close because they couldn't compete with Amazon.

Especially when you explore Amazon by numbers:

>50%: The decrease in the number of independent bookstores over the past 20 years. There used to be about 4,000 in the U.S.; now there are fewer than 2,000. 
<10%: The proportion of books now sold through independent bookstores.

Friday 6 November 2015

35k of Secrets

Well, day five of the routine and things are going well. Both new stories up to 2,500 and Secret Order up over 35,000. 

Thought I'd share some very short, rough snippets. The first is from Secret Order:

Once her hands were untied, Suzan began rubbing her wrists to restore circulation. The girl didn’t untie her feet, though. 
“What is this place?” she asked, her eyes now adjusted. “Some sort of library?” 
It was a relatively small room, but made all the smaller by towering bookshelves against each wall. Hundreds of thousands of books. Mighty tomes and slim paperbacks, not a gap between them. Even the ceiling was decorated with book spines, old leather with faded gold and silver onlays. 
“The world is a library,” the man said. “This is but one small corner of it.” 
“You like books?” asked the girl, smiling. 
Suzan nodded as she continued to cast her eyes across the myriad covers. 
The tall man reappeared carrying a dainty china cup on a saucer of white and blue. 
“How rude of us,” the girl said, collecting the cup and bringing it to Suzan. “We haven’t introduced ourselves. This is Aesop,” she said, indicating the dark sprite in the corner. “Grimm,” the tall, bald man. “And I am Evangeline.”  
“Are those your real names?” 
“Perhaps not as real as yours, but they are the only names we have.” 
“Well, it has been an absolute pleasure to meet you,” Suzan said, sounding far calmer than she felt. “But, really, I must be getting home now.” 
“I’m afraid that won’t be possible,” said Aesop. He came to crouch before her, staring up from her lap where the teacup trembled against its saucer. “You see, Suzan, you are a very special person. Our very special guest.”  
“And I appreciate your hospitality, but—” 
“Truth is, we need you.” 

This bit's from my novella, with the working title The Wolf in the Woods

Sometimes, whilst we worked, Grandma would tell stories.  
She talked of the Ondines who lived in the river, their silver hair causing light to dance between the waves, and of Sylphs who floated on the summer breeze, carrying bees and butterflies between the flowers to collect pollen. She told me stories of the clouds, and the adventures they had seen beyond the purple mountains, and spoke of the Gnomes who lived beneath the earth and pushed up daffodils in spring.  
Every now and then, once a moon or so, Grandma’s brow would furrow and her tales turn darker.  
When this happened, she would gaze into the hearth, flames flickering in her ancient eyes. Her lips would tighten and she’d speak of things I did not understand.  
“But Grandma,” I would say, calling her back. “Tell me again of the Healing Tree and the Upstanding Oak. Tell me of snowdrops and marigolds, and how you collect the lucky heather.” 
She would look at me for a moment, then nod. Reaching for the silver bowl beside the fire, we would pop lemon drops and peppermints into our mouths and suck. 

And finally, my mystery in progress, Creeper's Cottage

Adam turned to flick her the bird, but the fog was so thick she’d already been swallowed. He continued down his lane. At the bottom you could usually see Capstone Reservoir, but he practically had to run his hand along the buildings to count the houses. He couldn’t remember a time when the clouds had ever been this heavy. They’d had a few pea-soupers when he was a kid. He remembered his mum driving like a granny one evening, bringing him back from a guitar lesson in Halterton, but this was something else entirely.  
Part way down, the buildings ended and he stepped off the curb onto the road. Pausing to listen, he couldn’t hear anything coming, so started to cross.  
He kept crossing, one foot in front of the other, but no curb came into sight.  
For a moment, Adam wondered if, instead of crossing the side road, he’d accidentally wandered out into the middle of the main road. He panicked, stepping sideways and back, trying to locate the white line, but it wasn’t there.  
“Shit,” he said to himself.  
He took a few more paces forward, but still couldn’t find the curb.  
A sound caught his attention. Something was coming.  
“Hey. Hello! I’m in the road. I can’t see where I am,” he shouted, feeling like a total prat.  
There was something odd about the sound. He’d been expecting an engine. A slow-moving car; hopefully so slow-moving that if it hit him, he’d just bump the bonnet. Though the more he listened, the less like a car it sounded. In fact, if he had to place a bet, he’d say it was a horse approaching.  
“Hello? Can you hear me?” 
Everything went quiet for a moment. He took a step in the direction he thought he’d heard the sound.  
A large black shadow rumbled past, causing him to leap back. It was a few feet out of view, cloaked in cloud, but he swore it was the shape of a carriage.  
He stood perfectly still until the sound faded away.  
Shaking, he looked at his shoes. They were caked in mud, but they were angled down, following the slope of the road.  
The carriage hadn’t moved down. It had moved straight ahead. 

So, that's what I've been working on. Likely have to take a break for a few days as I'm headed up to Scotland, but pleased with my progress. 

Thursday 5 November 2015

American Literature Lost

I feel this went highly under reported: American Books Dropped From UK School Curriculum

In an effort to make British reading lists more British, the UK department of education has dropped favourite American classics from its syllabus, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men.

I'm in my mid-thirties now, but back when I was in secondary school I remember studying both of those books well. I believe the fastest way to put kids off anything is to force them to study it at school. I didn't enjoy To Kill a Mocking Bird at all, despite my English teacher tearfully extolling its virtues and telling us it was the book she most wishes she had written herself. The only thing that made it partially bearable was the Boo Radleys releasing Wake Up Boo! the same summer.

On the other hand, I loved Of Mice and Men. I'd practise reciting sections of it - reduced me to tears every time.

Honestly, I don't reckon it matters a bit where those books were written. The geographical location of an author has little bearing on how engaging or moving a book is.

At that age, I had my nose firmly pressed to a Point Horror, a Terry Pratchette or a Stephen King. Those were the books I chose to read of my own volition, and I was a bookish kid. Imagine the large proportion of (often male, though this is worth reading) kids who could be damaged for life by inflicting Austen on them.

I watch my twelve-year-old nephew. He loves reading. He reads full YA works, but especially loves manga. More and more boys and girls are soaking up graphic novels nowadays, and I reckon it should be taken seriously. We're not talking The Beano. We're talking tales of high adventure, complex relationships and whacking, bish-boshing quantities of onomatopoeia.

Imagine trying to tell a school under the current government to include graphic novels on the curriculum? You'd get dropped faster than a cat on a hot tin roof. Yet it's been shown that comics and graphic novels do utterly incredible things for literacy rates and vocabulary acquisition.

We just can't seem to shake this idea that for literature to be worth something, it needs to be 'highbrow'. That there's some form of merit in bashing your face against Shakespeare or beating a kid about the head with D. H. Lawrence. 

School is not the only route to literature, nor should it be. In this exam-obsessed, clasroom-crammed, overall cock-up of an education production line we've constructed, we've completely overlooked the importance of love of learning.

If you can instil a love of literature in people, they'll go off and find the classics under their own steam, when it means something to them and when it holds relevance. Reading is an entirely intimate act. Part of the pleasure is feeling as though you've uncovered a secret. 

Nobody does that in a room full of their overly judgemental peers, rife with hormonal insecurity, under the watchful eye of an authority figure.

Contemporary literature is a gateway drug to classical literature.

If we valued learning at all, we would ask kids to find the books they love and introduce their teachers to them. If this article is to be believed, it would greatly expand the minds of the establishment: Do children still need to read the classics of English literature?

The thing that needs examining is: what are we actually gaining from forcing kids to read classic works rather than contemporary? 

Is it for the benefit of young people, or to satisfy some whimsical sense of nostalgia on behalf of their parents? (Or great-great, long-dead, grandparents in the case of many of these authors).

And - why British?

What on earth makes British authors somehow more important than the likes of Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville or Mark Twain?

I assume that if we're demoting American literature, we're also demoting all fore'n literature?

Plus, if Scotland ever gains its independence, we should steer well clear of Robert Louis Stevenson.

I fail to see the educational merit in teaching that those authors are somehow less worthy of our time.

Many of our greatest stories come from abroad.

Making curriculum decisions based solely on a misplaced sense of nationalism, rather than on literary merit, is an insult to authors - and readers - the world over.

What a hideous group of hooligans run rampant over the minds of our youth.

Tuesday 3 November 2015

30k of Secrets

That's it. I've officially fallen down the rabbit hole.

I've been struggling with Secret Order, my first trilogy attempt, lately. I've just managed to heave myself over the 30,000 mark. Things are starting to pick up again. There's lots of interweaving character and plot lines. It's been a struggle to remember which thread is tied to what, whilst trying to work out where everything is headed.

So, I thought the best way to help myself would be to start two more novels.

Yup. I'm now writing three novels at the same time.

Well, two novels and a novella, as I reckon one of them - interesting as it is - is unlikely to have enough juice in for more than around 50-60k.

I've started a writing routine: 1,000 a day on Secret Order, 500 each on the other two. The idea being that my main project should always progress by at least 1k a day. The others just need to progress. That way, when I finish with my main project, my next one will at least be far enough along to keep the momentum up.

It's not something I planned to do, it just sort of happened. There's an idea I've been toying with for a couple of years - the novella - and then there was a sudden bolt of lightning, brilliant idea, that I was afraid of losing unless I started writing it down. 

The other rule I've brought into the mix, since I'm on holiday and have nothing urgent work-wise to deal with, is that I'm only allowed to check my e-mails once a day, after I've finished with all three projects. 

It's only day two, but so far, so good. I know my 1k a day routine didn't last long before, but what I'm really loving about this method is that each of the books are so completely different in genre: quirky fantasy, adult fantasy, mystery-thriller. If I'm struggling with one it's not long before I can switch to something else. Hopefully they'll all have their ups and downs on different days, so at least I'll get some sense of satisfaction from one of them each day.

Yes, this may all be the writer's equivalent of a fad diet, but I'm willing to believe in it for now.

Children of Lir is still months off publication, but I'm hoping that by the time we get there, I'll have something else to present.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Beautiful Books

I went into Waterstones today, and now I have no money.

I'm such a sucker for beautiful books. I'm not even a particularly big fan of A Christmas Carol, but I couldn't resist this hardback edition. Rough and oldy-worldy to the touch, without a dust cover. And A Thousand Nights is sumptuous. Someone suggested on Twitter that it might just be the most beautiful book ever made. Look at that page edging.

Any other contenders for the title?