Wednesday, 30 December 2009


M John Harrison's comments here on the recently screened BBC adaptation of Day of the Triffids (with which I heartily concur - I gave up in disgust after about twenty minutes) started me thinking. I admit this was an effort given the cold, an excess of chocolate, and days of wrestling with an intransigent manuscript and making no progress, but given also the excess of things televisual it was perhaps inevitable that I should ponder on the garbage served up as entertainment.

Some of this was just plain bad, but at least it was original. However, the constantly repeated films and adaptations that pad out the increasing number of channels made me start compiling a list.

Books I would like to see adapted faithfully. Are you listening screenwriters? We don't want you trying to 'make your mark'. We don't want your hang-ups aired using a classic like a clothes line to peg them out in a row. We don't want new characters slotted in because you think the original author just didn't get contemporary life (of course they didn't you total moron, they've been dead a century or more). We don't require new incidents to try to make the story [a] more interesting (if you thought it dull, why did you adapt it?) or [b] slot it into contemporary concerns.

A good book doesn't need you tinkering with it like that. A good book is either not suitable for adaptation, requires a genius to do that, or is suitable and ipso facto does not need changing, merely casting into script form.

Another recent travesty was the adaptation of Buchan's The Thirty-nine Steps. This is a short, pacy book, leavened with genuine wit and centred on an interesting character. He doesn't hang from a railway bridge or the face of Big Ben any more than he gets a girl in that book (you have to read some of the other Hannay books to find out what happens in that respect). So why put all that in?

Where, in Wyndham's Day of the Triffids does someone walk out of a crashed aircraft? Where in War of the Worlds does the central character acquire brats? If you are going to do all that sort of thing, why not a car chase in Pride and Prejudice? Why not a mad gunman going berserk in Dombey and Son? Why not a happy ending for Hamlet?

Faithful adaptations can be achieved. Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes. I know not everyone likes these, but they are at least faithful.

So. Ten books I would like to see adapted faithfully (although frankly there are enough talented writers producing original screenplays to make you wonder why anyone actually bothers to adapt books in the first place):

1 - War of the Worlds - H G Wells
2 - Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham
3 - The Kraken Wakes - John Wyndham
4 - The Drowned World - J G Ballard
5 - The Final Programme - Michael Moorcock
6 - The Borribles - Michael de Larrabeiti
7 - Mythago Wood - Robert Holdstock
8 - Bugs - John Sladek
9 - Mr Fortune's Maggot - Sylvia Townsend Warner
10 – Death And The Penguin – Andrey Kurkov

Some of those have been done before, and badly. Others (to my knowledge) haven’t. And although I have a soft spot for the film of Mary Poppins, I’d like to see that done true to the book as well.

Plus anything Arthurian using source texts and set in the Dark Ages. There’s enough mayhem, magic, and mucky bits there without having to go inventing all the crap you see. If you want to ring the changes on the Arthurian mythos you have to be a genius like T H White (and keep it out of the hands of Disney).

Sunday, 20 December 2009


For anyone who is interested, I reached my target of reading 100 books this year. That was the John Buchan. I've since read another and have a couple more lined up. My to-be-read pile (a full bookcase) has 134 books on it, so I'm running 16 months behind myself (I blame the LHC).

Flags out!

A post without me whingeing.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Monday, 14 December 2009

Bread and circuses

Well… almost. Plenty of circuses. Very little bread. Make we should all just eat cake?

We went shopping the other day. Not the weekly stock-up-the-larder scrum, but a let’s-go-to-the-big-town-and-see-if-there-any-treats scrum. We needn’t have bothered. It was a scrum (no disappointment there), but treats? It’s the same old stuff with a bit of tinsel (and not much of that in evidence – it gets in the way of commercial greed, I suppose).

What I did come away with was confirmation of something I already knew, but which was thrown into sharp contrast. That is, we now live in a society that celebrates mediocrity and rewards failure. I could go on about bankers here (stop sniggering) and their truly sickening whining about how you have to pay lots of money to get the best. Lots of money was paid. I doubt whether it was the best staff they got. Cos the system came to the point of collapse and I, along with millions of others who had never been in debt, find ourselves saddled with an effective overdraft in the tens of thousands to keep those idle, useless, greedy, grasping, fuckwit tossers in a job in this country. Frankly, I’d rather they all did fuck off elsewhere; but like all the other wealthy wankers who whine about tax and how they’ll leave the country if it goes up a percentage point or two, they never do. Because they know this is Treasure Island for the rich and greedy.

Oh. Look. I did go on about bankers. I could do the same for politicians. Corrupt. Greedy. Criminal. Lazy-arsed bastards who sat on their backside raking in the dosh, handing out tax money to all their in-bred chums who run consultancies and investment banks and then whining when they get caught out with their noses in the swill. The Big Stink in London no longer comes from all the sewage in the Thames. It comes from all the sewage at Westminster (and Hollyrood etc).

I’ll get to the point eventually, but if I don’t let off a little steam about all the corrupt ignoramuses who make everyone else’s life a misery, my head will explode. And that would make such a mess of the computer screen.

So. For my birthday I was treated to a set of DVDs of Buster Keaton’s full length silent movies. Now, this guy was not perfect; but look at the work he created. Monochrome. Silent. Without the benefit of CGI or stunt doubles. Working both sides of the (sometimes hand-cranked) camera. You don’t have to like his work to appreciate the fact that he took pride in it, worked hard at it, and produced some of the most influential films of all time. Technically brilliant and innovative, funny, entertaining, popular, and at times thought provoking. And nearly lost to us (but that’s a whole other story).

When we went on that shopping trip, I had Buster Keaton on my mind. Not specifically him or his films, but the notion of excellence, the idea that in all our endeavours we should [a] try to do the best we can and [b] celebrate what is good and reward what is good. When it comes to the arts, tastes vary. I like Buster Keaton but cannot stand Charlie Chaplin (although I recognise he was talented); but it seems we are not longer allowed even that choice. The gatekeepers and arbiters have themselves become mediocre. This is to do with money.

The ‘arts’ have become an ‘industry’. Industry must, first and foremost these days, make a return for its investors and shareholders. The majority of shareholders in the larger corporations are… other corporations and pension funds. Their primary concern is maximising their own investment. They do not care about the ‘product’; as long as it sells, that’s fine. In order to maximise profits, they insist that the people in charge, the ones with executive powers, are people whose expertise is money. They in turn hire people whose expertise is selling.

All of these people think in the short term. They like to find cash cows and then milk them as hard and as fast as they can before going in search of the next cow. They are incapable of considering long-term strategies and the health of the herd. Consequently, the cows are put in a position of competing one with another. Only those with a high yield survive (for the moment).

Yield, in this case, is not the amount or quality of what they produce. It is what that can be sold for. It is the profit that can be made. Profit means producing and marketing as cheaply as possible (in relation to the income). This means working to a well-known pattern, using techniques that have worked before. These are the dog (to shift the metaphor) that wags the tail. The tail? That is the piece of creative work.

The creative work, if it is to be chosen for publication (or recording, production, etc), must now conform to a pattern laid down not by artistic sensibilities, but by marketing strategies and financial considerations that go beyond the basic notion of making a profit. Bringing in a penny more than you spent on producing something is a profit. But that is not enough. Far from it. It has to make profit for the agent, for the production company, for the distribution company, for the storage company, the transport company, for the investors, for the shareholders – all those people with their finger in the pie; all those people leeching off the endeavour of an individual.

Artists, of whatever type, carry a vast weight on their backs. If the work they produce is too far out of the ordinary, the marketing people don’t know what to do with it. If they haven’t a clue, the piece is fucked.

Writers, artists, musicians, performers, are expected to conform, to produce the equivalent of the cheap plastic toy. Bright, primary colours, attractive on the surface (with a sickly cute factor), yet on close inspection, badly made, even malformed. And thrown away after it fails to deliver any depth.

Here’s a case in point. Some time ago I wrote a short story. It was accepted by a print magazine but for reasons unconnected with sales, the magazine foundered. I dusted the story off recently as I saw another magazine that looked like it might be the right sort of home for the piece. The rejection had nothing to do with the quality of the writing (or if it did the editor didn’t mention that). What seemed to concern them were aspects of the story that were fundamental to its structure, the story it was telling, and the point it was making. Change those and you have a completely different story. Change them and you have a dumbed down version.

One objection to the story was that it contained short passages in a language other than English. Well, yes. The sections of the story are each separated by a verse from a Tibetan Buddhist prayer. There are some fairly obvious clues in the text. The story is set in Tibet. One of the characters, near the beginning, starts to say a prayer. The prayer is relevant to the story, one of themes of which is the destruction of Tibetan culture, hence the preservation of the Tibetan language. Not a particularly subtle point, and in this day and age anyone curious could find the prayer online (as I did) and find a translation. That also was part of the intention – to engage the reader and get them to go beyond the story and think about these things. Too difficult for the readers of that magazine? I doubt it.

Another objection was that the story was short. Well, yes. The story is that length on purpose. It is just the right length to tell the story. There is no padding, no fluff. There is no padding in the lives of Tibetans. Their lives have been stripped bare by Chinese occupation. The story was stripped bare. The information that comes out of Tibet is also sparse. We get brief glimpses before our view is closed off again by censorship and lies. That is what the story does – it uses this form to convey that sense. Too difficult a concept to grasp? Only if you aren’t engaged in making sense of what you read.

Yet another reason given was that the story was fragmented. Well, yes. For the reasons given above, that also was on purpose. It wasn’t because I couldn’t be bothered to pad out a lengthy narrative that gave us all the details and added a sugary message of hope. I am using language and the structure of the story to convey the fragmentation of Tibetan society.

The editor who rejected the story saw what I had done, but didn’t seem to get the idea that it was done on purpose; that a message can be conveyed by the form of a piece of writing as much as by the words themselves. I am showing, not telling.

Perhaps the readers of that magazine prefer to be spoon fed. Perhaps they are intellectual babies who need pap pushed into their minds. I doubt that is the case, but an editor is deciding for them, instead of allowing them the opportunity to engage with the work and find it difficult and wonder why I have used certain techniques.

Like everyone else, I like to read as a form of relaxation; but even then I want that writing to be of good quality (which is why I like Jack Trevor Story’s Sexton Blake novels – fun, entertaining, and well written). But I also like to read challenging stuff; stuff that jams a spanner in the cogs of my brain and makes me re-assemble things in a different order to get it all working again; things that make me think, challenge my preconceptions, get me wondering about why the author did something in a particular way. Because I know that authors sweat over this kind of thing. They don’t just hammer out words… Well, given the content of book shops these days (with notable and worthy exceptions) you’d be forgiven for thinking that that’s exactly what happens.

I was further exercised by some comments made recently by a literary agent. If you are writing fantasy it had better be between 100,000 and 120,000 words or no one is going to be interested. It explains a lot. It raises a hell of a lot more questions. It certainly explains why we have all those bloated fantasy epics that have clearly been padded out from rather thin short stories… It certainly explains why most fantasy is just so fucking dull, endless bloody re-writes of Tolkien; all that faux renaissance fayre tweeness; all those bloody talking dragons; all those texts that read like someone has vomited the contents of their thesaurus across the page.

A book should be the length it needs to be to tell the story. If that is 60,000 or 70,000 words, that should be fine. If it is 250,000 words – great. To dictate the length… Well, who decided that? Who decided that fantasy should be between 100,000 and 120,000? Some marketing nonentity, I would guess; some pillock who can’t tell the difference between quality and quantity. These people shouldn’t be in charge of editorial decisions. And if they are, they should be shown the quality fiction of the past – fantasy novels (or any other genres if it comes to that) all over, done, and dusted in 180 pages. 180 pages with quality writing, exciting stories, not a single ounce of fat; all of it leaving the reader wanting more.

I know writing is a commercial enterprise, but who let the bean counters in? Why are we letting them get away with it? Why are agents acquiescing in this? Why are we celebrating mediocrity? Especially when the big publishers are shedding their mid-list authors. Why aren’t we celebrating them, instead? All those hardworking writers who produced sturdy, competent, and often very good books. Why have they been given the elbow only to be replaced by the drivel that hack ghosts turn out for the ‘celebs’? And even worse (as most ghosts have some skill) why are some celebs given a free hand to write their own books?

Nobody would think of signing me up as a premier league footballer. Is the publishing industry in the hands of such idiots that it cannot see the revolution that is coming. That real writers, the ones who have honed their skills over years, the ones who have written their million apprentice words and can turn their hand to producing well-crafted, lean, interesting books, now have the power to produce their own books. Readers will eventually get tired of the gaudy, badly made toys being thrown in front of them – some of them already are. They will start looking elsewhere and they will find those authors rejected by the publishers because they didn’t fit the mould. They will find them and they will buy directly from them. The authors will be happy. They won’t sell as many books this way, but they won’t have to because they won’t have to pay all those hangers on – all the leeches who contribute nothing to the creative process yet take the lion’s share. Readers will be happy as they will find new, interesting, and out of the ordinary books.

There will still be all the standard genre works along with a flowering of experimental writings. There will still be crap. But at least we will know that the crap isn’t soaking up all the money and squeezing out the good stuff.

See what happens when I don’t come in here for a while. It builds up and then boils over. You’ve heard it all before – especially from me. So next year, when I have fulfilled current contractual obligations, I will be putting my money (if the piggy bank is full) where my large mouth is. Watch this space for news of progress towards the launching of my works of fiction.

Oh yes, and if you know an artist (preferably a monkey as I’ll only be able to pay peanuts) who wants to do some cover artwork, please point them toward me. That way they’ll know just who to avoid when the begging bowl gets put out.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009


Suddenly. 9 November 2009. May she rest always in sunshine.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009


I have probably mentioned this before, but music is very important to me. I listen to it a lot, especially when I'm first drafting. Finding the right stuff to key a mood or emotional atmosphere is very important. It's one reason I have a fondness for instrumental pieces. Lyrics can be distracting, although with songs I know well I can put them in the background, even sing along without it interrupting the flow of my own work (figure that one out for the man who can lose a thread if the door moves or the cat walks in).

It doesn't have to be orchestral, although I do enjoy a full-out symphonic work - Mahler, Beethoven, Sibelius, Rachmaninov... Film music is also good as it is written specifically to accompany pictures and evoke emotional responses. Again, it doesn't matter if I know the film. It can even help, providing a visual texture into which I can tap (Although whether this ever makes it into my writing is another matter).

I also enjoy contemporary instrumental work - Ozric Tentacles, Shpongle, Tangerine Dream, that sort of thing. But other artists and bands can hit the spot. Some (like Rammstein) provide energy and a post-apocalyptic industrial background that informs some of my work (Engel is a perfect example), others are very good at unlocking surreal trains of thought (or derailing ones going in the wrong direction - it's a harsh battlefield in my head, sometimes).

On the whole, music also keeps me emotionally balanced. I can indulge feelings by proxy, saving me those occasional tumbles off the edge into darkness. It doesn't always work, but I know I'm on the mend when I can put the headphones on, turn the volume up, and make my fingers sore typing in rhythm to the music. Like now.

All is not right with the world. But some things are better than they were and where I was recently clinging onto the precipice, I'm now enjoying the view and beginning to write some of it down. Funny things heads.

My love of music was inherited from my mother. It flowered in the late '60s (and has been stuck there ever since, some would say). I was a serial concert goer, travelling all over (and much further than my parents ever knew - but if you wanted great gigs, sometimes you had to get up to London). I cannot remember now how often I saw some bands. Pink Floyd, Nice, Incredible String Band, Free, the Bonzos, Hawkwind, Edgar Broughton, Strawbs, Fairport Convention, Hawkwind, Leonard Cohen, Traffic, High Tide, Third Ear Band, John Mayall and various incarnations of the Bluesbreakers, Colosseum (always better live than on their studio albums, I thought), Family, Van Der Graaf Generator, Roy Harper, Hawkind, some more Roy Harper, Moody Blues, Led Zeppelin, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Hawkwind (did I mention them?). All of that has provided a soundtrack to both my outer and inner life . I suspect a lot of it (and I know for sure some of it) has found its way into my writing.

Sometimes when I'm reading, I hear music. No. Don't ring for those men in white coats (not just yet). It's always a tune I know, and I often wonder if that or something similar was playing when that sentence or paragraph was drafted.

I know some people find it impossible to work with music playing. I cannot do major editing. That requires the kind of silence you get at two in the morning when the rest of the world is asleep. But for the rest of it, I am grateful such a magic exists.

Monday, 19 October 2009


Writing and depression. Not easy bedfellows, even though artistic endeavour does seem to have some connection with extreme states of mind.

Depression is a dark cloud muddying the waters, all the filth that you hoped was lying undisturbed on the bottom, compacting into immovable layers, gets swirled up by some passing thought or incident. There is no real way of knowing what is going to do it. It’s not always the large things that disturb the detritus. Small things flitting past, inconsequential things that flip their tail and loosen just enough to set of a landslide that gathers speed down some subterranean slope and before you know it vast clouds are swirling up to choke you and the beautiful waters of your existence.

Yet in all that garbage, all that filth, all that choking misery, are the diatomic particles that provide food for the ever hungry imagination. I was swept away recently by just such an upsurge. I live in a fragile world. Poor physical health means I cannot do many of the things I would love to do; cannot be many of the things I would love to be. Like financially independent.

And trying to make something of an artistic talent (well, I think it is a talent) means you are climbing out on a thin branch over a long drop. Magnificent view. Great potential for a world of hurt. Artists are dependent on others. Not for their talent, but if they want to put food on the table, a roof over their heads, and contribute to a decent standard of living for their loved ones, other people have to like and buy their work.

That involves other people. Most of whom don’t give a shit about you, your talent, or your desire to live an unassuming life somewhere warm, dry, and with food in the pantry. These days the situation is more difficult. Not only is publishing largely in the hands of bean counters, but there is an increasing number of people who have grown up thinking books, music, movies, TV, and the like should be free; that the people who create their entertainment shouldn’t actually get paid for the hard work they put in.

At the same time, artists who try to go it alone are looked down on. If you self-publish, it is considered a ‘bad move’. Can’t think why. It’s the ultimate test. Writers are increasingly expected to do all the work. Not just write to the best of their ability, but spend time that could be spent writing another book on marketing, publicity, writing blurbs and press pieces, organising events. All of that out of their ten per cent (sorry, nine per cent, because if they have an agent, they will be taking their cut).

Can you blame a writer for getting tired of this and deciding they will do the lot and take all the proceeds? Easier, of course, if they are already well known and have a fan base. But they sink or swim on their own efforts and do not have to rely on others, especially all those others who don’t give a shit.

Now, I am well aware that there are plenty who do care, who work hard to get good books into the book shops and maximise sales. I’m not sure they’re on the winning side at the moment.

Like banks, publishers have approached the recent financial crisis with that always useful approach of: more of the same! Which is obtuse. I talk to people about books and like me they are hungry for new, good writing. It doesn’t have to be heavy, literary stuff. But all we seem to get from the world of entertainment at the moment is an incestuous mix of celebrity produced/endorsed ‘reality’ (like any of them know what the real world is like). There are good books, films, plays, works of art, and so on. But do we really have to pay the price we are paying to get them? Do we really have to sift through all that garbage to find something nourishing? Maybe we do.

So what has this to do with depression? No idea. I’m trying to write myself out of one at the moment. It isn’t helped by seeing trite garbage paraded and lauded as the next best thing since the last best thing; by successful people forever telling me I can live my dream (it’s only materially successful people who say that, isn’t it); by having to rely on others who really don’t care (because many of them are fighting the same battles as you – whatever happened to good old socialism? how did we let those few greedy bastards get away with it?).

Often, the only way I can do it is by venting the same old arguments and asking the same old questions. Maybe one day I’ll find some answers. If I do, I will share them. I could keep them to myself and get rich on the back of them. But I’m not like that. I’d rather spread the happiness around a bit. Because that’s what I really want. The security that brings happiness. Nothing more. Nothing less. Somewhere warm and dry. Food on the table. Loved ones safe and protected.

OK. That was one step up toward the light. Thank you for indulging me.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Reading habits

Well, that’s another short ‘review’ over on grumbooks. And while I was writing it, it struck me that my reading habits go through cycles. Sometimes, as now, I have several books on the go. I read a couple of chapters of one, move on to another, read a bit of that, then pick up yet another book. They are invariably variable. If I have three or more on the go, one will be non-fiction, one a children’s book, and the other something for adults.

I haven’t been reading a great deal of non-fiction recently, and what I have been reading has fallen into the vague category of research. I’m dipping into several tomes of late Anglo-Saxon history at present to refresh my memory (with the possibility of using this as a historical setting for some stories). Prior to that, I had read a lot about the home front during the Second World War. And now I am beginning to bone up on the period between 1955 and 1975.

Fiction… well, most of what I am reading is re-reading, and has been for three or four years now. I read new stuff, but that is mostly from authors I already know. I also try new work, but I have to say I find the vast majority of it that is classed as ‘literary’ to be dull, self-absorbed, and occasionally pompous. Anything exciting, anything that has something insightful to say about life, anything that plays with language, tends to be genre based or arrives in translation.

Perhaps it comes from having read so much, but I often pick up the latest sensation and think, ‘Oh yeah, so and so did that in the ‘50s, or someone else did something similar in the 60s – and they were so much better.’ In large part they were better because they were shorter, punchier, and not afraid to experiment. These days, books feel bloated. And safe. But maybe it’s just me. Perhaps I read too much (gives that two seconds thought and decides the answer is ‘no’).

Other times I can only read one book at a time. Which suggests there may be a larger cycle to my reading and that when I have had my fill of re-reading I will go in search of new stuff (or maybe there will be new stuff out there to suit my taste). I think my real problem is I like books that do something new. Genre, style, subject… But once they establish a trend, the books that follow rarely have the energy and sense of excitement of the ones that take the first steps (even if they are flawed).

That is why it amuses (and saddens) me to see something like ‘slipstream’ cited as a genre. Perhaps it is now. But the whole point of ‘slipstream’ was that it applied to books that had no genre. Now it is defined and people set out to write slipstream books. And they fail. Pretty much like any arts movement that starts with or develops a manifesto. The moment they do that, they kill themselves.

Art, writing, music, theatre – these are dynamic. OK, a finished product is a finished product, but even a piece of writing can, if it hits the spot, continue to evolve in terms of its relevance and interpretation. But that sort of writing (or other art form) does not come from a formula. It may use or subvert a formula, but what gives it a living core is its transcendence of what has gone before.

I’m not saying that books that stick to a formula cannot be and are not well written. Some are. Some are excellent, make you weep that someone is so talented. These are the swans. Their work glides sedately and gracefully along because of all the hard work they have put into it. I admire that. Which is why I admire the risk takers even more. Because they do all that hard work on something that has no easily reached audience because it is new.

Anyway, I’m rambling. Procrastinating as well, as I should be working on something else.

A story.

All the bits are there, but I can’t see, yet, how they fit.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


Goodness. A new keyboard (one of those compact ones that does away with all those numbers on the right hand side you never use) and a new monitor stand that puts the monitor at a comfortable correct level. The trouble is, I have become so used to leaning my head forward to look down toward the monitor, I'm getting a neck ache by sitting in the correct position. Plus, it's further from the keyboard to the screen, so my neck is also getting tired with all the swivelling. Perhaps I will finally dig out that touch-typing course I have on disc somewhere. Then I'll be able to type like Fran Katzenjammer.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Would you look... the state of this place. You leave it alone for a few weeks and what happens? Dust, damp, colonization, the growth of civilizations, empires, conflict, war, mutually assured destruction. Carbon dust glows in the dark. A breeze blows some of it into the air revealing the remains of a city. The particles spark in the dim light like stars, swirling, slowly coalescing. I decide to withdraw as I see the dust beginning to collapse into its own gravitational well. It could go either way. New star. Black hole. Whatever the outcome, I'd rather watch from a safer distan

Friday, 4 September 2009

Literary procrastination

As I have nothing interesting, provocative, saucy, or useful to say just now (brain wiped out by all the writing I’ve been doing), I thought you might enjoy the following that myself and some snuggly friends composed in a fit of literary procrastination a little while ago.

The premis is simple. Look at book titles. Remove a single letter to change the title and add a pithy resumé of the new book.

For example, The War of the Worlds might become The War of the Words – Martians land in Surrey and become involved in an argument.

Some titles are repeated but have different resumés. And be warned there are a couple of rude words! Read, enjoy, and have a go yourself.

The Ill On The Floss - exposé of addiction in the dental industry.
Lucky 'im – envy and avarice in the Cockney underworld.
Harry Otter and the Philosopher’s Stone – river mammal thinks about a pebble it found.
Madame Ovary – woman donates eggs to prostitute.
Little Omen – even smaller child is a bad influence.
Harry Otter and the Philosopher's Stone – Son-of-Tarka finds treasure in a river.
And Then There Were One – a guide to common mistakes in the English language.
The Rooked House – wicked estate agent deceives MPs.
Death on the Ile – murder in Paris.
The Cunt of Monte Cristo – nasty man gets locked in dungeon.
Avid Copperfield – novel about a very keen young man.
My Air Lady – Concorde stewardess plays hard to get.
One with the Wind – embarrassing guest at a house party.
10 Dalmatians – carnage in a dogs' home.
Lien Resurrection – ancient legal claim starts inter-galactic war.
EMA – busybody girl gets education grant.
The Coning of Joanna May – sextuplets forced to dress up as motorway bollards.
Little Omen – four sisters have a feeling something unpleasant is about to happen.
Voices in the Ark – Noah develops paranoid schizophrenia.
Ride and Prejudice – steamy love story.
Leak House – study of the Welsh assembly.
Liver Twist – cooking for the impecunious.
Ale of Two Cities – German and Suffolk towns fight over whose bitter is best.
The Lighthose Keeper – man hoards beige 10 denier stockings.
The Cricket on the Earth – David Attenborough's latest.
The Lord of the Rigs – British Peer fights takeover bid for North Sea gas.
A Roo with a View – baby kangaroo peeps out of pouch.
The Man in the Ion Mask – chemistry professor robs bank.
Mutiny on the Bunty – girls’ magazine staff go on strike in the 60’s.
Huckleberry Inn – blue hound takes up tenancy of hostel.
Tits Groan – Mervyn Peake’s epic tale of one man's quest to design a better bra.
A Stud in Scarlet – Sherlock Holmes investigates the seedy underworld of male escorts.
The Tin Man – Dashiell Hammett’s version of The Wizard of Oz.
The Cow – Ted Hughes early career takes a different direction.
The Rapes of Wrath – memoirs of a Viking plunderer.
Bleak Ouse – the story of a Fenland river.
Beak House – a study of parrot keeping in the UK.
He Hobbit – long-awaited follow up to 'Me Tarzan' and 'You Jane'.
Lice in Wonderland – a tale of a dream quest for personal hygiene.
Lack Beauty – show them brains are longer-lasting.
Travels Round my Ant – Graham Green's very short travelogue.
The Return of the Naive – Hardy's epic tale of the foolish going home.
Far From the Madding Crow – Hardy's treatise on how to avoid crazed corvids.
Brighton Roc – mythical bird is discovered in seaside town.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cod – a fishy tale.
Anne of Green Gales – strange weather afflicts a young woman.
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Ma – woman struggles with artistic ambition whilst raising children.
The Way of the Wold – William Congreve's script for Emmerdale.
The Wastelad – T S Eliot’s poem about an apprentice dustman.
Twelfth Nigh – the tale of a weary golfer who still has a lot of holes to play.
The Holy Bile – a study of religion and the gall bladder.
Two Years Before the Mat – R H Dana's tale of the everday life of a carpet salesman.
Mad Marian – T L Peacock's tale of a dotty woman living beneath the greenwood tree.
King Ear – a laboratory mouse takes control of the animals.
Ales from Shakespeare – The Lambs list the drinks mentioned in the Bard's works.
A Tram Abroad – an attempt by Twain to rival the success of the Rev Awdry.
The Wave – Virginia Woolf's little known attempt at a disaster novel.
An Veronica – in which Wells proves he never got the hang of indefinite articles.
A Christmas Carl – Dicken's tale of a medieval peasant.
Pint Counter Pint – Huxley's experiences of working behind a bar.
Oral Island – adventures of a group of shipwrecked dentists.
A Par of Blue Eyes – Hardy recounts a round of golf with Sinatra.
Onan the Barbarian – (enough said).
E – Zamyatin's dystopic tale of Yorkshire folk.
Rendezvous with Ram – A C Clarke's sequel to Do Androids Dream of Electric Shep (Dick's tale of a robot border collie)
Anima Farm – revolution on a Jungian health farm.
Swallow Ale – Ransome's children go off the rails and start boozing.
Lice through the Looking Glass – disaster novel about a particularly virulent strain of glass-eating bugs.
Liver Twist – Dickens writes a Hannibal Lecter story.
Wallows and Amazons – a hippopotamus puchases books online.
Wild Wans – pale people run amok.
I, Root - an android researches his family tree.
OU of Africa – the Open University takes over tertiary education in Africa.
Jams and the Giant Peach – Delia launches new preserve cookbook.
Charlie 'ad the Chocolate Factory – East End drug dealer holds Belgium to ransom.
Trough The Looking Glass - a pig-breeder's guide to using mirrors to fool stock into eating less.
'Ot Of Africa – Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells goes on Safari.
Middle Arch – tales of the dodgy car dealer.
Birdson – novices guide to budgie breeding.
Gone with the Win – crime mystery about lottery syndicate leader's sudden disappearance.
The Testament of Gideon Mac – fantasy tale of a raincoat's romance with a feather boa.
The Canterbury Ales – local pub guide.
The Coming Of The Ing – a Dutch bank's success story.
Middle Marc – a study of birth order among boys.
Iddlemarch – Caesar's oracle's unfortunate speech impediment.
2001: A Pace Odyssey – how I completed the London Marathon eight years ago.
The Tree Musketeers – Forestry Commission's guide to firearms training.
Goodbye Mr. Hips – a man's guide to slimming.
Lady Chatterley's Over – women cricketers of the twentieth century.
Tar Wars – the MacAdam Clan's battle to name a road surface.
Midsummer Night's Dram – holiday guide for whisky enthusiasts.
Chronicles of the Canonate – Scott's stories of a churchman's epicurean adventures.
Gulliver's Ravels – how a traveller got in a tangle.
A Severe Head – failing school gets new management.
The Pizza Tales – Melville's collection on Italian cuisine.
Plan Tales from the Hills - Kipling's account of his attempt to get permission to build a conservatory.
Around the World in Eight Days – an abridged version.
The Ploughman's Ale – Chaucer's drinking song.
The School for Sandal – Sheridan's popular shoe shop comedy.
Regauntlet – epic search for a new glove.
Silas Maner – adventures of a hairdresser.
The Gapes of Wrath – speechless with anger.
The Maser of Ballantrae – mad scientist builds super weapon in small Scottish village.
Vanity Fir – Scot's pine thinks a lot of itself.
What Maisie New – Maisie has a makeover.
The E-public – Plato for the 21st century.
Language, Ruth and Logic – an account of marital arguments.
Cold Comfort Arm – the case against sleeveless dresses.
Who's Afraid of Virginia Wool – why we should import American knitting.
Pus in Boots – a guide to foot infections.
The Hack – journalist encounters God in a log cabin.
War and Pace – workout video for the armed forces.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Seep – post apocalyptic horror story where robots battle to save their energy supply.
Gulliver's Ravels – a collection of knitting patterns gathered on his journies.
Heat of Darkness – A level physics manual.
Life of i – my soon to be finished autobiography.
Uncle Tom's Cain - past life regressions.
Harry Potter and the Goblet Of Ire – Harry, in his cups, Gets Very Angry!
Hard Ties – neckwear for real men.
The Prince And The Paper - HRH William caught reading Daily Express.
The Rave - partying with Eddie Poe.
The Ouchstone – how to sue when a brick lands on your head.
Whit Fang – Bank Holiday fun for vampires.
Robin Hod – brickie becomes an outlaw.
His Last Ow – detective stubs toe, tumbles over waterfall.
The Terminal Bach – Ballard’s tale of the last days of the great composer.
Rash – a cautionary tale of what to expect if you insist on that sort of behaviour in a car.
Unlimited Dram Company – distillery discovers it has a magic vat.
Super-Canes – what Max Mosely got up to in the south of France (allegedly)
Fahrenheit 45 – nice day for a bonfire (now, what can we burn?)
A Clockwork Range – wind-up cowboys.
The Reel – Camus’ treatise on fishing.
Shadow Dane – Angela Carter’s Scandinavian spy story.
The Magi Toyshop – they spent a long time in there before going next door and blowing it all on gold, frankincence and myrrh.
Artemis Owl – nocturnal bird takes to crime.
Omo – Michael Ende’s fantasy about washing powder.
Win in the Willows – Ratty enters the woodland olympics.
Our Ma in Havana – Mum’s trip to Cuba.
Rave New World – the US party scene.
The Tailor of Panam – get your trousers mended in-flight.
Absolute Fiends – le Carré’s horror story.
The Ox of Delights – bovine dispenses happiness.
The Sow Spider – genetic experiment goes horribly wrong.
Bedknob and Broomsick – witch discovers she has no stomach for flying.
Woman on the Edge of Tim – woman tries to attract man’s attention.
The Rouble with Harry – Russian financier is found dead, comic mayhem ensues.
Three Men In A Boa – fashion for the gay ménage a trois.
Hat Katy Did – young woman takes up millinery.
Hat Katy Did Next - young woman milliner joins forces with fashion chain.
Hat Katy Did At School - young woman opens Youth Training Scheme in millinery.
Stranger In A Range Land – a travellers' guide to Texas.
Dun – long, boring tale about the colour of desert sand.
Due – long, boring tale about the cost of desert sand.
Une – long, boring French tale about desert planet.
The Greatest Story Eve Told – first woman reveals all.
Rime and Punishment – ice-cold retribution.
The Boo of Common Prayer – supplications from the disaffected.
Close Encounters of the Third Kin - distant relatives in near miss.
Of Mice and Me – true confessions of a rodent fetishist.

And, yes, I'm aware there are a few film titles in there. They've all been novelised (if that counts), but who cares.

Friday, 14 August 2009


Re my previous post, I have just gone through my bookmarks and deleted my links to the culture/literature pages of the daily papers.

It was liberating and depressing in equal measure. Depressing, because it reminded me of just how low these sections had sunk (and just how few of them there were in any case). Liberating, because if I want to go and wade in the sewerage, I will have to make a bit more of an effort - one that will give me time to reflect on what I am actually doing and thus turn aside. After a couple of weeks, the habit will be broken completely.

The last straw?

Time and space given to discussing the autobiography of a talentless air-head who isn't old enough to warrant an autobiography.

This is time and space that could have been given over to a talented but less well known writer, someone with something to say and the skill to say it.

Liberating because now, every time I get the urge to see what is happening in the arts in general and in literature in particular, I will employ my time more sensibly by (a) creating a bit of my own and (b) continuing my search for that mythical website/forum where talented and off-beat writers are reviewed, discussed, and given a bit of the exposure they deserve.

It will be a long quest.

I may be gone some time.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009


I've been very busy over the last few months (and more). Writing. So I've not had a great deal of time to write about writing.

This morning, however, while doing my weekly major back-up, I did what I usually do - trawl through the book sections of the websites of the more respectable UK newspapers. I do it once a week and, to be honest, I don't know why I bother any more.

Quite aside from the monotonous exchanges in the forums (same old people saying the same old things and never actually 'listening' to or thinking about what anyone else has to say), the content of the book sections is so depressing it makes me weep.

Because the content matches those self-same commentators. It is the same old stuff (which, presumably, people are paid disproportionate sums to create). Reviews, on the whole, are dull; and the books that are reviewed are, on the whole, 'safe'. Articles are often poorly researched and make huge assumptions about the world of books that could only be made by those comfortably off and living in the literary ghetto. Opinion pieces... well, you hear more interesting stuff from that slightly grubby drunk that is propped up by the end of the bar.

I have tried looking elsewhere, but haven't had the time of late to spend on an extended search. But where, oh where, are all the lively, open (and polite) forums that present and allow discussion of good writing? Places that welcome outsiders, places that are truly interested in stretching the boundaries of writing and can manage to do this without mentioning: the Booker (or any other prize), Kindle (or any other e-reader), Twilight, The Wire; or any of those other topics that people feel the need to throw in and which demonstrate a paucity of imagination and unwillingness to engage with things beyond the mainstream. Is there such a place? Is there a place where people don't care about genre because they understand it is mostly a marketing convention that makes it easier for people to find the kind of story they like and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of writing? Is there a place where people are happy to admit they enjoy the Beano just as much as they enjoy Beckett; where it's not a crime to admit to reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and William Burroughs; where good craft is the key?

I hope there is. And if anyone out there knows of such a place, I do hope they will let me know.

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Waiting for...

Hmm. Sounds like that might be a title worth developing.

Living in limbo just now. Waiting for this. Waiting for that. Everything placed in the hands of other people who then decide your fate.

But never mind. I am still writing, so I am remaining relatively sane.

That's it, really.

Enthralling stuff, eh?

Sunday, 19 July 2009


...not drowning.

Again, just passing through. I'm making the most of the urge to write and, consequently, not spending much time keeping this blog up to date.

Having just put a quarterly magazine to bed, I'm back to the latest novel. There was a moment I faltered because the word count looked exceedingly thin. But then I realised that all I was doing was transcribing a screenplay I had dashed off the year before. A quick re-read has confirmed that much of the scenery is still in my head. By the time I do a re-write and make it a proper novel, it will have reached a decent length.

I'm also beginning the the complex task of planning The Mirror That Is Made (Charlie's second novel). This is difficult because it involves keeping dozens of plates spinning and painting a coherent single pattern on the lot of them. In other words, a series of interlinked short stories, each of which is coherent in itself and which read as a whole tell a further story with the whole lot based on a core theme. Plus all the research to get that late 1950s funfair feel authentic.

At the same time I am plotting the second Jeniche book in which she travels north and becomes involved in the intrigues behind installing a young man as the High King of... Sections of this are already outlined and by the time I finish the first draft of AG5, I will be able to sit down, pump up the volume on the Ozrics (thanks guys for the soundtrack to these), and hack out another 70k.

As if that wasn't enough, I am reviving ideas I had some years ago for a series of historical mystery novels. Not exactly a sparsely populated genre these days, I do have an interesting angle and setting (and that's all I'm saying for now). Lots of background research to refresh my memory of a period I know well. It all depends now on coming up with four or five good plots to get the series started. If I can come up with those (and they'll need to grow out of the research), I'll have yet more to work on.

And after breakfast...

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Checking in

Busy doing things with words (or possibly to words - they do seem to be cowering in a corner and whimpering at the moment).

Suffering from the heat (this is Scotland, dammit, it has no right climbing into the 70s).

Checking out...

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

The psychology of writing or tnhtmb*

Not much pyschology, actually. Poking around inside my head is more akin to trying to unblock the waste disposal unit, unpleasant (and certainly not somewhere you want to be sticking your fingers) but necessary if you don't want all that gunge backing up and an evil smell lingering about the place. In a manner of speaking.

Creatively, I've had a good year so far. A whole novel drafted (even if it isn't exactly 'literature', but who cares, 70k is 70k and I had fun). Plenty of research done (and I don't mean the sitting-with-your-feet-up-and-eyes-closed type). Lots of books read (I'm on number 51). Reviews written.

I was getting all geared up to start the draft of another novel, with the aim of having that finished by the end of the year. And no problem as I have lots of notes and the first half (possibly two-thirds) already written as a screenplay. I was looking forward to it. Really looking forward to it.

Then... Well. Let's say the spirit is willing but the flesh is... droopy.

I probably need a bit more time off. The heat doesn't help (we're not used to it here). And I keep thinking of other projects - not least The Mirror That Is Made.

Which got me thinking (see, there's the problem). I never get anywhere with these thoughts, but I do wonder what is happening in the old bone dome when stories ferment or come to the boil. I try not to interfere too much. The mind is a marvellous place and quite capable of sorting these things out without the conscious part of myself sticking its fingers into the mechanism.

Some of the elements and underlying themes of the books I write are easy to trace, but what is it that makes me combine them in the way that I do? What strange byways have these thoughts, ideas, and images wandered before meeting again. Often metamorphosed and melded. And what is it beneath them all that makes me want to turn them into stories?

Is it arrogance? Millions of people read books (hurrah, and please write to all your favourite publishers asking them why they don't have me signed up). A very small percentage of them have any urge to write the damned things (hurrah again, the less competition the better). Do I have a subconscious thought that I can do it as well as if not better? Actually that's not very 'sub' - I know I'm not up there with the best, but there is some truly dire stuff gets into print and it's a matter of psychic self-defence to believe I can write better than that. So perhaps it is discontent; never having quite found the exact sort of book that I would like to read. On the other hand... I have shelves full of books that I have read and re-read because they seem to me to be perfectly in tune with my psyche (yes, I know, there are some weird books out there). I know for sure it has nothing to do with money. You don't get rich from writing unless you are the exception.

Clearly, I wish to express myself. But why writing? I am reasonable at graphic work, can draw and paint and would probably be fairly good if I worked at it with the same zeal I give to my writing. Music? Two left ears and short, arthritic fingers that learned a long time ago they weren't designed for my favoured instrument (bass guitar in case you are interested).

So I use words to express myself. It may be why I chose Drama as a subject I wanted to teach, along with Theatre Arts. There it was certainly true that whilst I enjoyed acting and the use of Drama as a method of teaching, it never quite hit the spot. It took a few years to find that out and I had a ball along the way.

I have written since I was about seven; began to take it seriously when I was about sixteen (and by seriously, I mean that I started to think about (a) how to write and (b) how to improve. Forty years on, I think I might just be getting the hang of it.

I'm still not sure I know why. Something inside me perhaps requires a release. Writing is the safety valve, like the one you get on pressure cookers, rattling away whilst everything cooks nicely inside without actually exploding.

Perhaps one day we'll discover what the meal was and, with any luck, we'll also discover it was quite tasty and worth the wait.

* - That's never happened to me before.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009


I have just the first draft of Stealing into Winter. 31 January to 27 May. 69,181 words. I think that deserves a cup of tea.

Thursday, 21 May 2009


Salt Publishing. One of the good guys. They publish high quality work. They publish in areas neglected by many other publishers. And they have been hit.

If you go here, you’ll see the details and how you can help.

There has been some discussion about whether they should have been so frank. Well, for what my opinion is worth, I think they have got this just right. They are being honest and transparent (something some other publishers could learn from). They are asking for people to do nothing more than buy a book. It’s what publishers do. Sell books. It’s what we should be doing. Supporting good publishers. Because if these good publishers go all we are left with are the corporate dinosaurs who are more interested in the size of their profit and the dividend to their shareholders than they are in the quality of the work they produce.


Add a little savour to your life.

Get some Salt.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Don't panic!

It seems that certain sections of the publishing industry are worried. About bloody time, you might think. Unfortunately they are not worried that they are over producing and that much of what they are pushing onto the shelves of bookstores is pap. That would be too much to hope for. No. It seems they are worrying that a certain, prominent ‘book club’ run on a daytime TV show by a couple whose names I cannot bring myself to mention is no more (or likely to be no more – it’s all a bit uncertain at the moment and may just be a bit of a bleat to try to drive up viewing figures from the abysmal 8000 to which they have sunk).

Far from being worried, they should be rejoicing. They should be thinking: “Bloody hell, how did we become so dependent on the title choices made by one person to prop up our industry?” £158 million worth of books apparently, with six authors made into millionaires.

Wow, you might be thinking. That’s good.

No. It’s not.

One person chose those books. If that doesn’t constitute a distortion of the market I don’t know what does. And as with the Rowling effect, once the golden goose stops laying, all that’s left, apparently, is goose shit.

As a business model this is wrong on so many counts it is difficult to know where to begin.

Let’s take the blatant and breathtaking contempt it shows by those worried publishers for all the authors who weren’t on the list of the chosen few. Are you really saying that without one person choosing books for a chat show to wax lyrical about (and we won’t even consider the allegations of editing out negative comments about the books from guests and reading groups) your other titles are insufficient to keep you in business? Are you saying the other authors you have put into print are producing goose shit? Are you saying an author is only worth the candle if their books sell enough to make them millionaires and your company huge profits? Well, probably not directly, but that is what is implied.

Another implication is that you have come to rely on those books to keep you afloat. What kind of business acumen is that? Can you handle the truth of that? It means you are shit at business. To strain the metaphor, you are putting all your eggs in one basket. Rather, you are putting all your golden eggs in one basket. And now there are no golden eggs, all the other eggs, all the other books, all the other authors… Goose shit. Not enough to keep us out of trouble.

Are those other books and authors really the equivalent of goose shit? To listen to me sometimes you might think I would agree that they are. Well. Some of them are. Slimy excreta. But the majority are not. Most are workaday pieces of entertainment and popular non-fiction that are written to the best of the author’s ability and which probably earn them a few thousand pounds. Occasionally there are flashes of brilliance.

But the market has become distorted. Not just by the ‘book club’ effect or by the black holes of publishing that hoover their way through the book universe depriving others of resources, finance, and the light of publicity (no names mentioned). A lot of the mainstream publishers have become craven in the face of supermarkets and big book chain stores who now dictate what gets published.

And many smaller publishers are pretty much the same, even those with jazzy (and painful to read) websites who exude a false street cred and talk about a ‘new’ approach to publishing.

The tail is wagging the dog.

There is sufficient leeway at present for decent books to get through and onto the shelves, but exciting experimental stuff, high quality writing that pushes at the bounds of literature (and bursts through them), is becoming harder and harder to find. And please don’t point me in the direction of any of the CW MA clones, or of any book that is basically science fiction even if the publisher and/ or author won’t admit it (probably because they would then also have to admit it was all done by more competent writers back in the middle part of last century).

So who cares about all this way out stuff? Everybody should. Because every so often the cosy, comfy world needs to be shaken up by a revolution. Cosy, comfy establishments need to be challenged, because if they become too cosy we end up seeing the same thing over and over, the same stuff from the same authors (and their chums) with a different title and a cover pretty much the same as every other cover on the shelf. If its gets too comfy it gets bloated and lazy.

Now, I am the first to admit, there is a place for books that are simply well-written entertainments. And people like stuff they know they are going to enjoy without having to read it first. Again, nothing wrong with that as long as writing standards are high. But we cannot exist on that alone. Without a vanguard, without explorers, we will end up with books that are so homogenised and anodyne there will be, quite literally, no point in taking any of them off the shelves. People will give up on books.

That, for me, is a nightmare scenario. It is a truly dystopian future. Imagine it: a world without books. Call the firemen!

So. What’s to be done, dear publishers? Well, stop panicking about the loss of that fecking ‘book club’. It might have shifted product, but I doubt it did much to turn on huge numbers of people to reading who didn’t already pick up a book or two. Then start looking for that backbone you had surgically removed around about the time the nba ‘collapsed’ (did it fall or was it pushed?). Once you’ve had that stitched back in, kick out some of the accountants and hire more editorial staff – people who can tell a book from a hole in the ground. Don’t get undergrads on work experience (especially those whose daddy can afford to give them a private income). Don’t get anyone who has been within a hundred miles of a university that has a CW MA programme (because you’ll end up with them signing up their chums). Sign up new talent (which will mean cutting out obscene advances to people who need editors to write their books for them). Nurture your new talent. And then, armed with good new stuff and a backbone, stand up to all those retailers who want to flog books as loss leaders, who want obscene discounts, who want to dictate content and cover design. Tell them to fuck off.

People will still buy books. They will probably buy more, especially if you drag yourselves into the 21st century and make intelligent use (yes, I said ‘intelligent’) of modern technology; especially if you have new and exciting content to offer them. The publishing industry – especially the big mainstream publishers – cannot afford to carry on like Walmington on Sea’s Local Defence Volunteers. Yes, they always muddled through. But that’s all they did. Muddle through.

Stop panicking.

Get sorted.


Friday, 8 May 2009


Here's something that has puzzled me a lot over the years.

How long does it take an agent/editor to decide whether they want to take on a book or not? I only ask because they can sit on your submission for months, yet the minute you send a letter/email asking if they've had a chance to look at it yet you invariably get an immediate reply saying the book is not right for them.

Or is it they just don't like authors who have the temerity to send a polite reminder?

Just wondered.

Monday, 4 May 2009


I've not posted much of late as I've been busy drafting Jeniche. This has been using up all of my limited supply of energy so not much else is getting written.

It is an interesting experience as it is very much 'seat of the pants' writing. I set an artificial structure for the book. Three parts, eleven chapters in each part. This worked fine for the first two parts, but when I came to sketch the third part it had big holes in it. Chapter 4, for example, was blank and Chapter 5 was just plain silly. But as the story has progressed, these spaces have revealed themselves to be waiting for the action that was unfolding.

It's not a high concept fantasy that is unfolding. There are no kings in waiting, magic rings, or world changing characters. It is about the lives of mostly ordinary folk caught up in the events developing around them in a world that has its own secrets to reveal. And I'm thoroughly enjoying it, with thoughts beginning to shape up for the second volume.

The only drag is that I don't have the energy to push this forward at a much faster pace. Drat ME and all its minions.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

Another one gone

James Graham Ballard
15 November 1930 - 19 April 2009

My thoughts are with his devoted partner Claire Walsh and with his three children: James, Fay, and Beatrice.

We have lost a truly remarkable writer whose work outranks, by far, that of any other British writer of the latter part of the twentieth century.

Saturday, 11 April 2009


A short story of mine has appeared here in OFF Magazine. Some of the formatting went AWOL towards the end (a heading should be in bold and isn't), but it's mostly intact.

Great story (of course it is, Graeme) and the magazine is well worth a look as well.

Saturday, 4 April 2009


Having just finished re-reading J G Ballard’s The Crystal World and spent a morning looking at new books, blogs, reviews, and the like; it struck me that writers no longer have time.

Ballard didn’t really hit his stride as a novelist until Crash (having already found a unique voice as a short story writer), which was his fifth, sixth, or fourth novel (depending on how you define ‘novel’ and whether you accept Ballard’s rejection of his first novel – which I don’t, sorry Jim). Whatever the facts of that may be, he was allowed the time by his publishers to develop. And he had the outlets in which he could hone his skills.

I know I bang on about magazines like New Worlds, but that was a publication that gave us a huge number of excellent writers and which took the time to look at new talent as well (thanks, Mike).

Let me reiterate a point I have made before. I do not believe there was a golden age of publishing; not in the ‘60s or at any other time. I do think things are getting considerably worse. Because I doubt very much whether any publisher would allow an author so much time to develop these days.

And there are other ways in which writers no longer have time. Unless you are extremely talented, highly motivated (bills to pay and sure knowledge that someone will print what you write), you are not going to turn out a novel in a week. It has been done and some of them are very good. On the whole, however, it takes a great deal longer.

I am powering through a pot-boiler at the moment and it will probably take me four months. If I was healthy and knew there was a publisher waiting, I would probably have it oven ready in the same amount of time. That is: drafted, re-written a couple of times, proofed and ready for the printer. More ‘serious’ stuff with a complex structure takes longer. It can take a year to eighteen months just to get a first draft on paper. All the rest: another twelve months. Then another year before it gets into print (if you have a publisher – or did I already say that?). It takes time. And rightly so.

Writing is difficult. Doing it well takes a huge amount of effort. Most writers are lucky if they have a room of their own in which to work (don’t be fooled by all those wonderful pictures in The Guardian, they don’t bother looking at mid-list and genre writers (unless the genre writer has some unwarranted mystique attached to them). Most writers have to do all the domestic stuff and then fit their writing in as and when they can. To get a novel out in a year in those circumstances is nothing less than miraculous. Added to which most authors are lucky to get an advance big enough to pay for a slap-up meal to celebrate getting an advance.

On top of all this, writers are now expected to do a great deal of their own marketing (which is a whole other discussion I’m not getting into just at the moment as I’m too tired for a rant). This takes time. Discussions, liaison, travelling, talking, signing, answering questions, most of it in out of the way places where you consider it a success if half a dozen people turn up. In addition, there is all the blogging (yes, I know, this is a blog), social networking, Twitter (not ever going near it), and all those bloody online games sites (I try to stick to word games on the premiss they are relevant to my calling, although my poker has improved enormously in recent months).

Then there is the endless round of submissions to agents and publishers (you know what I think about that – I don’t stop telling anyone who is prepared to listen). Courtesy, people, that’s all I ask. Like today’s rejection. Hand written on headed paper. Polite. Rejection still hurts (my book was perfect for their agency – honest), but I respect their decision.

If you do get published, there’s all the other stuff you have to do, including accounts and tax returns and all that wonderful stuff (unless you hit the best seller lists, then you can afford an accountant).

There are other distractions as well. Programmes on the radio about writers and writing. Ditto the television (silly me, when was the last time there was a really decent, in-depth, intelligent series about writers and writing – one that didn’t use the same old celeb pseudo-intellectuals to fawn over the same bunch of dull literati? when was the last time there was a really good, writer driven series?). Oh yes, and books. You are expected to keep in touch with what is happening in terms of literature (that is, wondering how the hell so many talentless idiots get into print in the first place and then warrant large marketing budgets, television interviews, and so on).

When, oh when, is there the time to write? When, oh when, is there time to sit and think about how develop one’s skills as a writer? Who is going to allow a promising writer the time to write? Who is going to ease the pressure of expectation from the writer whose first book is puffed to give it good sales figures and whose second book (written more quickly than the first ever is under all sorts of different expectations) is something a bit different? Who is going to have the courage to turn round and say: sod the big advances and celeb titles; sod the ritz and glitz; sod the supermarkets, big book chain stores (and behemoth online sellers) and their impossible demands. Let’s spend our money building up a good author base and promoting our author’s books so they have time to write, let’s give writers time to develop and experiment, let’s recognize that without good writers earning a living (i.e. enough to pay the rent, put food on the table, and look smart when occasionally shambling out into the light of the real world), a varied talent base, and new writers being brought on, the publishing industry (and TV, radio, film, newspapers, magazines, cereal packets, schools, colleges, and universities) will all collapse.

Let’s give writers time. Proper time. They will reward us.

Friday, 27 March 2009


Just passed the halfway mark in my latest effort. Going to put my feet up for the rest of the day.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

They just keep getting better

Had another… well, let’s call it a rejection. At least I know who the tosser is who scrawled illegibly on my covering letter, because they did it on my covering letter – which had their address on it.

Today I had a submission returned. My covering letter wasn’t in with it. Just my synopsis, writing CV, and sample chapters. No illegible scrawl. No letter saying ‘blah di blah, not right for us in the current climate, cliché cliché etc’. Nothing. The postmark is no use, either. It is the central sorting office in Glasgow. I have not submitted anything to anyone in Glasgow.

That’s me taking the time to print everything up according to the standards expected of a professional. I enclosed the correct postage for return. The envelopes were labelled with printed labels. I took the time and the money.

You, whoever you are, couldn’t even be bothered to make a scrawl on my letter, couldn’t be bothered to check you had put your rejection letter or compliments slip in the envelope (always assuming you had bothered to write one in the first place). You now rate lower than the semi-illiterate who managed the scrawl. I didn’t think there would be anyone lazier, more contemptuous and more contemptible than that. I was wrong.

Ironic really as these last few days I have been saying to myself, ‘you really must post something a bit more positive’. Fat chance.

I really didn’t expect agents to be falling over themselves to take on my book. It falls outside the parameters of safe work in these deeply conservative times (though goodness alone knows it is hardly innovative stuff – how a Beckett or a Robbe-Grillet would fare in these times I dread to think). However, having taken the time to read up on agents and submit only to those who might be interested and submit exactly what they ask for, I do think I have a certain right to expect I will be treated with courtesy.

All I can say to these agents (well, there’s a lot I could say) is get your acts together. Mistakes get made, but never ever forget that you are dealing with people who have put heart, soul, tears, and time into what they have sent you. The very least you can do in return is make sure you let them down easily, politely, legibly, and on a bit of headed notepaper – like the professional agents out there.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009


These days, if you want an agent or editor to consider your work (especially if you are an unknown like me), the manuscript has to be word perfect. Don't you dare have a spelling mistake, or a typo, or the teensiest bit of iffy grammar. Don't even think about bucking convention and daring to use anything so out of fashion as dialect (despite the fact that this faddish dislike amongst agents has left us with a slew of books that sound like a bunch of 1940s RADA trained actors doing lower class accents). Try any of that and your submission will spend about six seconds on a desk before being shunted along to the shredder (or the post room if they can be arsed to slip your work into the prepaid and addressed return envelope, which some clearly aren't - do they steam off the stamps and use them elsewhere? isn't that theft?).

On the other hand, if you can raise a $5m advance for the US rights on your second book, guess what? Your agent and your editor will work on it for you. Allegedly.

How does that happen?

Sounds to me a bit like a few people got pissed over lunch, added a few too many zeros to the cheque, sobered up, thought 'Shit!', and are now doing what they can to the manuscript to justify such an obscene amount of money.

Yep. No other word. Obscene. Kick in the teeth to a lot of hard working midlisters. Crap from a great height on all the hardworking writers who do get it word perfect and celebrate with a box of chocolates if their advance looks like it might cover last quarter's electricity bill.

If this book is such a sure-fire bestseller (apparently literary and commercial, as if that has never been done before), why not a reasonable advance on US rights ($100k) and let the writer earn their money from royalties? Because it seems to me, OBSCENE (just in case you hadn't got the point) advances are going to make a writer lazy. Really. Why bother when you are now a millionaire and you know that other people are going to do all the boring re-writes for you?

I have no objection to writers earning a decent living and raking in the royalties on a popular book. I do get kind of pissed at this way of running the industry. You spend that kind of money on an advance, you are going to make damned sure you do all you can to sell the book. It will have a huge marketing budget, lots of exposure, lots of sales as a result (and lots of almost immediate re-appearance in second hand book and charity shops), and all the tossers involved will slap themselves on the back convinced they know how to spot a good book. Self-fulfilling. In the meantime, all that money that has gone round in a big circle and done nothing but pay for itself could have gone round in scores of more modest circles and given us a great deal more genuine choice. For that kind of money we could have had 100 new books (each with a very respectable advance) and of that 100, one could have been this so-called best-selling comlit work, and a whole range of other stuff including some genuinely innovative work.

OK. The needle's stuck. I'm sure you must be bored hearing me go on about this. But every time we get a story like this touted as some sort of success, I will snap back about the blatant hypocrisy of it all. Because it is time that people in the publishing industry stopped behaving like all the merchant bankers out there. The government ain't gonna bail you all out when your business goes belly up. Most politicians wouldn't know a book if it bit them in the arse, and those that recognise what they are really don't give much of a f*** about them (unless they are on the receiving end of one of those OBSCENE advances). No. When the publishing industry goes belly up, those of us at the bottom end of the food chain, the ones that do all the work, will celebrate their freedom from all the leeches who feed off their hard work. Then they will make use of modern technology to carry on doing what they love - writing and selling their work.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

They're at it again...

I don't know what Twitter is (other than a vague sense of something electronic) and I don't much care. I have enough trouble keeping up with new-fangled stuff like pigeon post.

However, it appears that a number of literary agents have been using Twitter to play a 'game'. They have been publishing (anonymously) the worst of the pitches they have had for books. Apparently the intention is to educate, not to humiliate. Yeah, right.

Well. Seems to me the agents who took part in this tacky display of unprofessional behaviour need to keep a few things in mind.

There is a thing called copyright. By publishing extracts from letters sent to you without the permission of the person who wrote them, you have stolen that person's work. And it is no good saying it was a quote for the purpose of education, because it is accepted practice to cite the source of any quote. What you have done is broken a fundamental trust that needs to exist in the world of publishing; namely that work submitted to an agent or publisher isn't going to get published without a contract expressing right and remuneration.

There is also a thing called professionalism. Agents and publishers constantly bang on about how people who submit to them need to be professional. This extends well beyond decent layout and the inclusion of return postage. If you want to be an author, you have to treat it seriously in all respects. Agents and publishers have made a lot of money writing books about this sort of thing (although a lot of them clearly don't take their own advice). Well, people, it is a two way street. If we authors have to be professional, so do you. You probably do get a lot of submissions that simply haven't a hope in hell of ever being a commercial success. Learn to live with it. It's the profession you chose (I doubt anyone was ever forced to become a literary agent). Don't make fun of these people. They might not be much good, but they have put heart and soul into their work and to turn round and mock them is reprehensible in the extreme.

It is no wonder that writers are looking for alternatives to the current publishing model. Print-on-demand; social networking; direct access to distribution networks; and other recent developments mean that authors can become independent, keeping a great deal more of their hard earned cash. It won't be long, dear agents, before authors are able to turn round and say to you: "We like your work, but in the current climate..."

Saturday, 7 March 2009


Well, I may not be able to sell them, but I can write them.

I have just finished the first draft of the first part (of three) of my latest work. 23000 words in four weeks - with lots of interruptions. Once I get my head straight, I might get even quicker.

And I'm beginning to wonder if I might not manage to draft two novels this year (having already prepared detailed notes for another).

I am now going to go and soak my hands in something soothing. And possibly soak my insides with something soothing as well.

Friday, 6 March 2009

The rules of writing

It’s Charlie’s birthday today. And another rejection for her book flopped through the door and hit the porch floor with a smack that sounds just like the palm of a hand making contact with a cheek. To add insult to injury (or maybe someone somewhere has a dark sense of humour) the only other post for me was Help the Aged trying to tout a funeral plan. Reminds of that witty riposte, “Fuck off and die.” Probably not one of Oscar’s.

So. These rules.

I can hear people perking up. Is he, they wonder, going to let us into the secret of how to get into print? I wish.

The rules, such as they, are not about helping you to produce good writing so much as they are rules for how to not produce bad writing.

Look at any How-To book (or CW course material) and you will soon pick out the basics. These books are written by writers (and CW teachers and agents) so what they say must be true. They, of all people, must know what they are talking about.

So why, oh why, is it so hard to find a new book these days that abides by these rules? I’m not talking innovative, ground-breaking stuff that re-writes the rules on its own terms. I’m talking about all that run of the mill stuff that packs the shelves of book stores.

A case in point. I was recently a book to review. It was the third in a crime series. The first book had, according to the blurb, won prizes. The fact that I had the third book must mean that an agent and a publisher thought it was worth getting into print. Yet it broke all those rules. It was a crime novel – you know, one of those books in which a detective uncovers what happened – yet we were treated to a lengthy prologue which, presumably (I say presumably as I gave up on the book and sent it back) helped to set up the story. It was dull, plodding (all the sentences constructed the same, the same length, with events being laid out one after another), and apparently pointless. The first few chapters were much the same. After that I flicked through, just in case it got better. When I came across a paragraph that told me a character proceeded to explain something and told me what that was and how they did it; then followed up with several paragraphs of speech in which the character did the explaining, I knew this was a badly written book.

Yet it was in print

I looked up the author. Ah. Light dawned.

I’ll give another example of a book I saw recently that promised to tell me all the secrets of successful screenwriting and how to get my scripts taken up by movie companies. After an hour of searching I could find no screenplays credited to this author – produced, in production, or found as shreddings in the bottom of a hamster’s cage.

So how did this one get into print? I’ll give you a guess.

Another example in the making. A few days ago, a well known actress announced that she wanted to write some short stories. Not that she had written some, or was trying to, or was taking a course. Simply that she wanted to. And I bet within minutes of making the announcement, publishers were falling over themselves to offer a contract. Never mind there was nothing on paper, or that short story writing is a highly specialized art, or that established writers have trouble getting their short stories into print.

See a pattern?

I do.

I am not saying the whole of publishing is like this. That would be an insult to the many very good writers out there who slog their guts out on a daily basis and get into print. I know some of them. I admire their tenacity and, yes, I am sometimes jealous of their good fortune. Which is perhaps unfair. It’s not like I haven’t had books of my own published.

The trouble is, there is enough of this ill-considered mutual grooming going on to make the whole thing look like a sleazy, incestuous gravy train.

Perhaps the average person browsing in a bookstore doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care. Perhaps it has always been like – although I seem to remember a time when there was a greater variety of work available despite their being far fewer books making it into print.

And the point of all this?

If you have gone through all those How To books or been on CW courses and learnt all the rules, then forget them. You stand just as good a chance of getting into print and you’ll save yourself a lot of money and effort.

Oh yes, and make sure you know someone in publishing. It helps.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

I'd like to thank...

Gosh. Two shiny awards from two lovely people, Sue and Cathy. And even better, they are not for being curmudgeonly or grumptious.

I would like to cheat a bit and, for all the support they have given me, offer the Friends Award to the Novel Racers - a finer bunch of... well... racing novelists, you could not hope to meet.

And the Best Blog Thinker Award goes to Alison Shaffer for her two blogs which always keep me on my mental toes.

See... can be done.

Another rejection today (they are coming in thick and fast).

But this one one was printed with my name handwritten in at the top (and spelled correctly) and an apology for it being a standard rejection.

It will have taken that agency no longer to produce than an illegible scrawl, yet it showed a level of courtesy that helps soften the blow (although I had no real expectation that this particular agency would take me on, but you don't know until you try - and I'm nothing if I'm not trying).

Tuesday, 24 February 2009


Another rejection today from an agent. Well, I assume it is a rejection. My submission came back exactly as I sent it with the addition of an illegible scrawl (some of it crossed out) across part of my covering letter. Hence the sigh. For all I know it could be an offer to represent me.

Now, this makes me cross. And it is not the first time I’ve had this in a long career of writing. It makes me cross because, as a writer, I am forever urged to be professional, to take great care over my submissions to agents and editors, to be clear and concise. That, I am forever being told, is the way to impress and the way to get on.


But tell me.

Why the hell should I play that game when some of the people I am contacting apparently don’t give a rat’s arse about their own presentation? What message does it send to authors and publishers?

Well, all that scrawl told me is that the agent who wrote it has treated me with contempt. If they did not like my work, fine. I am well aware of how subjective this game is, especially when it comes to fiction. But it wouldn’t cost more than a few pence per copy to type and run off an A5 letter. That and a signature would at least let me know the work had been rejected.

If that piece of scrawl is an acceptance… Well, sorry, but there is no way I would wish to be represented by someone who cannot make the effort to ensure their message is legible, who cannot be arsed to be clear, who cannot even make the same effort I did in approaching them.

I might be a ‘nobody’ (after all, I’ve only had ten books published – one of the novels with glowing praise from two of the world’s best sellers in the genre); they might be a ‘busy and important’ agent (possibly); but that is no excuse for not observing the common decencies of human communication.

This is pretty much the written equivalent of a conversation I once had with an agent. I phoned them to see if they were accepting submissions. The person I spoke to questioned me about my writing background and then asked me to tell them something about the book I intended to submit. Remember that. They asked me to tell them. So I did. Well. I started to tell them. I wasn’t long-winded. I didn’t have time. I’d been going for less than a minute (and wouldn’t gave gone on for much more), when they sighed very loudly and hung up on me.

Perhaps I have a lousy telephone manner. Perhaps I use the wrong kind of paper to print my submissions (and I know for sure my letter and synopsis could be better – those are things that can always be improved and I work on them all the time). But there are times I get heartily sick of the whole business, because whilst there are a lot of good people in publishing (most of them authors), it is riddled with arseholes – hence all the shit it produces.

Monday, 23 February 2009


This might be a joke. It might not.

I am an addict. I am addicted to writing. And to reading. The reading bit I can cope with (apart from the times I pick up a book that is poorly written and rant about how such a piece of garbage ever made it into print). It is the writing bit I have problems with.

And today I am desperate for a cure. I want to be free of the compulsion that drives me to sit down and string words together. Not because this is inherently bad or detrimental to my health per se. I want to be free because it eats me from the inside out. It uses up all my physical and psychic energy. It uses up vast amounts of my time. It turns me into a boring and increasingly bitter husk. Because writing isn’t the end of it. You then feel compelled to expose it to other people.

I have fine friends who tell me they love my writing and to them I am eternally grateful. There are agents and editors who tell me my writing is good, but in the current climate… (this being the latest phrase of choice) they are not taking on new clients/prepared to take a risk on unknowns.

You get to the stage where you wonder what the point is. Why string words together if no one is going to buy them and see them (and make me enough money so I don’t have to choose, for example, between heating a room or running the dehumidifier to keep damp at bay – that bit’s not a joke).

This may seem like an awful whine. Maybe it is. But I have always worked hard. I have always lived well below the official poverty line. I never bought into the system that is now crashing about people’s ears. I don’t mind being ‘poor’. I just want to get rid of the voices in my head that keep me on this soul-destroying treadmill.

But, of course, there isn’t a cure. Like every other writer who suffers from depression, I have to sit this out, tell myself that writing is a therapy and will make me happier, suppress the urge to moan about things, and just get on with it.

My best hope for today is that this post might dissuade people from thinking that writing is [a] easy and [b] financially rewarding (the average annual earnings of a writer in the UK have crashed from the princely sum of £7000 to £4000). If you are hooked already, you have my deepest sympathy. If you are dabbling, step away now before it is too late.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Oh, what the hell. Here's waving at you.

I'm writing another novel (yeah, all right, hardly a surprise is it). I had intended to plunge straight into The Mirror That Is Made, which is the second of Charlie Cornelius's books. But it requires extensive research. I'm doing some of the background at the moment, but I'm going to need to do some very specific stuff as well. And at the moment, the money and the energy just aren't there (it will involve travel).

So, to avoid wasting endless hours playing games, fretting over how the submissions of Thin Reflections are doing, or getting into sickening and socially reprehensible habits like dusting, I decided to write a book. The ultimate in procrastination, if you like.

Charlie Cornelius exists in other planes of reality (how could she not). One of her alternates, is a young woman called Jeniche. She lives in a city and makes a living by relieving the rich of all those pretty trinkets they don't really need and selling them back to jewellers, who break them up and use the prcious metal and stones to make more pretty trinkets to sell to the rich. A great deal more honest than being a banker (cheap shot of the day).

I have nothing invested in the book other than having fun in writing it (well, fun is a subjective word, but I have no intention of getting angsty over the thing). It is a fantasy adventure. It might have wizards (but, probably won't), there will be mysterious happenings and Jeniche does, of course, have a mysterious past. So mysterious I certainly have no idea what it is. I've also a rough idea for a second book, which makes a trilogy inevitable, really.

And, yes. I am having fun with it. I'm also learning things about writing, trying new ways of doing things, and desperately (bugger) trying to avoid words that end with -ly.

I'm not doing too badly with it. I started on the 31 January and then stopped for just over a week. Now I'm back with it and have about 11,000 words on paper, aiming for a modest 70,000. Who knows, it might even be saleable when it's finished.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

I'll be glad when this year's over

By god, it's dusty in here. Cobwebs in the corners. Woodlice partying along the skirting board.

I have, to put it bluntly, had a bastard couple of months. I have been writing, but not felt much like coming in here and waving it about in public - so to speak.

Not only have I lost my brother, my beloved little cat was discovered to have had a tumour - the sort that you know nothing about until it is too late. We had her put to sleep and she now rests in our garden.

Given that she was my constant companion over the last seventeen years, especially since I became ill, the loss of her has been hard. So, here's to Catkin who was with me when I got my first contract and who was with me with every book I have written since.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

25 things...

I am not, in the usual run of things, a meme/list person. I mean, have you seen The Guardian's feeble attempt at 1000 books we should all read? Pathetic. How can you have a list of must-read crime books without a mention of Margery Allingham? And that's not just because I like her books. She has long been acknowledge as one of the four queens of crime fiction and was certainly the most inventive of them. Anyway, before I go off on a rant about lists and lazy journalism/TV programming, I did this one as it is entirely subjective (it's 25 random things about me), endlesslessly fascinating (remember the 'about me' bit?), and it gave me something to do instead of taking a 9lb lump hammer to my intransigent computer.

Also, I'm supposed to tag 25 people, get them to do the same. Well, I'm not. If you want to do this, fine, but I'm not tagging you otherwise the whole universe will soon be listing 25 things about itself and we'll never get anything else done.

1 – rarely goes a day without listening to some Hawkwind.
2 – is to computers what icebergs are to Olympic class passenger liners.
3 – used to have waist length hair (man).
4 – loves Barbara (yes, Catkin, and you as well; and Tilly).
5 – was a horse in Equus and thus one of the few people in Birmingham not to see Jane Wymark remove her clothes on stage.
6 – venerates the hare.
7 – wishes Boudicca had won (it was close).
8 – prefers, on the whole, the company of women.
9 – did inhale (man).
10 – believes that writers are magicians.
11 – recognizes his success as a writer, but would not refuse more.
12 – is blessed with all the friends who live in his computer.
13 – has myalgic encephalomyelitis and fibromyalgia.
14 – likes green and silver (and is partial to Green & Blacks).
15 – is vegetarian.
16 – dislikes politicians.
17 – still remembers his first proper bike with great fondness (cheers, Alan).
18 – was approached, when 17, by a band who wanted him to be their manager.
19 – underwent the first stages of recruitment to MI5, but withdrew.
20 – would like to be slim enough to wear waistcoats again without looking avuncular.
21 – has lived on a farm.
22 – used to do tapestry until polyarthralgia made it painful to hold the needle.
23 – is a Druid.
24 – will be coming back.
25 – wrote this listening to Live Chronicles (it was Hendrix live at the Fillmore East when I originally wrote the list).