A very quick guide to the 1980s – yes, even Kajagoogoo

kajagoogoo

My novel BASIC Boy: A digital ghost story is set partly in the 1980s and includes many references to that august decade. Upon its completion I realised that the young of today, poor deprived souls, will be largely unfamiliar with Margaret Thatcher, Yuppies, Dungeons & Dragons and even Kajagoogo. (Just to set the record straight, I am not, and never have been, a Kajagoogoo fan. Got that? I included them mainly as the epitome of a certain type of eighties boy band with cataclysmically bad hair – see the picture for the damning evidence. Not that I’ve got anything against them. Too Shy was a good song in a school disco kind of way.)

Anyway, from BASIC Boy, here is my contribution to the education and enlightenment of today’s youth: A Very Quick Guide to the 1980s. Warning to US readers: it’s quite UK focussed – no Ronald Reagan or Michael J. Fox – but I’m sure, if you’re old enough, you’ll recognise a couple of things. And possibly wince.

Revealed! My Writing New Year’s Resolution for 2014: I’m going to, er … write …

Idea

OK I admit it’s a bit late, being nearly the end of January and all that, but believe me it took a full month of heavy-duty mental gymnastics to come up with that one.

And yet, all joking aside, it’s not quite as obvious as it sounds. During the past three months or so I’ve been wrestling with the reality that being a self-published author involves a lot more than writing. Or more precisely, a lot more than writing the ‘real stuff’, the stories and the books, those things I always wanted to write which is why I ended up doing all this in the first place.

Those of you who also self-publish will know what I’m talking about. It’s not just the editing, the cover design, the setting up and optimising your books’ online presence. It’s also the other bits and pieces – author platforms, review requests, blogging, the general trying to get your writing noticed.  Of course you can pay for someone else to do some or all of this stuff, and I’ve no doubt there are many skilled and enthusiastic people who will do a decent job of that. But I’ve also realised that there’s no sure-fire way of making people buy your books, at least not without spending more in the process than you’re likely to get back in sales.

I confess that while beavering away at my first two novels, I cheerfully ignored most of the above. I just concentrated on making my books the best I could make them, and that was time-consuming enough without worrying about anything else. But all that ‘else’ was always there – the elephant in the room, if you like.

And then, soon after completing and publishing BASIC Boy, that hulking great cliché tapped me on the shoulder with its trunk, said ‘Excuse me? Haven’t you forgotten something, old chap?’ (Yes, it was a talking elephant. Bear with me.) It then proceeded to scare the cat, ransack the refrigerator, and finally sit on my laptop and refuse to move until I’d promised to create an author profile on Goodreads.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve found I quite like having my own website, and I’ve very grateful to those who’ve liked my posts and followed my blog. But I’m under no illusions that I’m creating more than the tiniest ripple in the huge Pacific Ocean of the Internet, and – bottom line – it all takes time. And so I haven’t written very much – you know – real stuff recently.  A couple of short stories, yes, but that’s all.

I’ve begun to feel a bit like a car factory, the owner of which had the bright idea one day of taking almost its entire staff off the production line and sticking then in sales, marketing and publicity. Which quickly led to two big problems.  First, too many people tripping over each other, not really knowing what they’re doing because they’re skilled at welding or painting or electronics and don’t know a thing about selling stuff. Second, no-one’s making any cars any more. Which, ironically, really becomes a problem if and when, somewhat miraculously, the people who don’t know much about sales actually start getting quite good at it, at which point they’ll be taking orders they suddenly can’t fulfil. ‘Result? Bankruptcy all round!’ (That’s a quote from the superb 1951 Alistair Sim version of Scrooge, one of my favourite movies of all time. Yes, my brain really is that random.)

I have tried to write. I’ve had three or four new novel ideas bouncing around inside my head, but none has kept still long enough to do much with. For each one I’ve got as far as sketching out a rough outline, even writing the first few hundred words – and then it’s gone. My enthusiasm for the idea, that is. It’s ridiculous, because I know I can do it. I have written two novels already, after all. I know how many hundreds of hours of work it takes and I’m not afraid of that. I enjoy the process, however much of a slog it might be at times, and I get a real buzz from it.

So what’s the problem? I’ve concluded that I just need to give concentrated blast of good, solid time to at least one of these idea, to really get my teeth into it, to keep pummelling away until it starts to morph into something I can really work with. Last year, between the last two drafts of BASIC Boy, I did make a good start on a third YA novel. I churned out a fairly detailed outline and nearly 20,000 words of the first draft. That’s a pretty solid start. So why didn’t I stick with it?

Because I started obsessing about the fact that BASIC Boy, despite positive reviews and encouraging comments, wasn’t selling. Neither was its predecessor, Falling Girl. I’ve done much in the intervening couple of months that’s been of value. I’ve now got the website, the Goodreads presence. But so have zillions of other people, and I keep feeling that I’m running like hell and still falling behind. I really don’t have a clue how to sell more books. It’s not a nice feeling.

I could of course give up on selling books and write for the sheer joy of the art, which is basically what I’ve been doing anyway. But my dream is to write full time, which would mean giving up the day job, which means selling lots and lots of books, which isn’t happening.

So I’m going back to that third novel, at least unless and until I have a better idea. (It’s a dystopian virtual reality fantasy; provisionally title Upland, but I that doesn’t really grab me and I’m hoping I think of a better one.) And if I get any bright ideas about how to promote my writing in the meantime, I’ll follow them up. I know I can’t just ignore that side of things.

But in 2014 I’m going to write more and worry less. I just hope that elephant sits quietly in the corner and behaves itself.

 

The Last Letter: a story of the First World War

First World War

2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in Europe. Much has been written about this monumental, calamitous, blood-soaked, mud-splattered conflict, one that’s become a byword for the black futility of war. And much more will undoubtedly be written over the next four years. This is my first contribution, a flash fiction piece called The Last Letter. (It’s 1,000 words – and I know that some of my more hard-core fellow flash fiction practitioners would regard that as practically a novel, but there you go.)

Snow White: what happened next …

Snow White

After my diatribe about Morrissey a few days ago, I thought something a bit less serious was called for this time.

Recently I entered a competition to write a story with a maximum of 1,000 characters. Yes, that’s characters – it worked out at just under 200 words. The flashiest of flash fiction basically. I struggled to crow-bar my story into such a tight space and had to perform major surgery on it to do so. The theme incidentally was ‘happily ever after’, and I probably wasn’t the only person to immediately think of a fairy story.

So here is the original, extended version of And they both lived … – still pretty short but I hope you like it:

Aagh!! Morrissey’s writing a novel! Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now …

Morrissey

New year, same old nonsense. Today came the depressing news that yet another celeb, famous for something not remotely connected to literature, has decided that they’ve got a novel in them and, by God, we’re going to have it whether we like it or not.

(Fair warning: I’m not usually given to good old fashioned rants, but this is going to be one. I can’t help it; this has been building up for a while and I’ve got to get it out of my system.)

He’s well known in the UK, but for those unfamiliar with the legend that is Morrissey, he’s best known for being the front man of 80s band The Smiths. Since then he’s remained famous partly for his solo output but mostly due to an uncanny knack for self-promotion. He’s vitriolic, entertaining and never found short of a controversial quote. Many people are very interested in his opinions, especially him.

Seriously, I’ve got nothing against Morrissey. I don’t agree with everything he says – some of his views are crazy or worse. But he seems to be a thoughtful and intelligent person whose ability to string more than two words together was demonstrated by his best-selling autobiography last year. I haven’t read it myself, but by all accounts it was pretty good and well written. It was certainly well reviewed. All of which should in theory give him a useful advantage over the majority of celebs who decide that a novel is a pretty neat idea when they get bored of doing whatever it is that they’re actually good at.

Morrissey’s novel might even be quite good – if he works very hard at it. Which almost certainly means much harder than he yet realises. Apparently he’s ‘midway through’ writing it. But halfway through what? The first draft? If so then you’ve got an awfully long way still to go, Mozza my lad. Of course he’ll be offered plenty of editorial help by his publisher, which he’ll take if he’s wise. (I’m not totally convinced of this however – he’s kind of strong-willed to say the least.)

But that’s not the point. Because, let’s be honest, it doesn’t matter if his novel’s good does it? There’s no mention of a publishing contract at this stage, but does anyone doubt that he’ll get one? No doubt the kudos of his successful autobiography helps, but mainly to lend a fig-leaf of respectability to this latest literary prostitution. Hell, even Katie bloody Price has published ‘novels’ to her name (the poor girl doesn’t write them unaided of course; it’s just possible she hasn’t even read them). 

At this point, you’re probably thinking this is little more than the bitter and twisted outpourings of an unknown writer, venting his spleen in an unedifying display of naked jealousy at the ease in which the already-famous get the publishing breaks. And to that I say: damn right.

Not for Morrissey and his ilk the perils of the slush pile. It’s not necessary for him to produce something so extraordinary that it will outshine 99.9% of the competition to catch an agent’s or editor’s eye. And then hope they get a publishing deal (not guaranteed even then), and then that their professionally-published book actually sells in any great number (because very many don’t). Nor do they have to join the torrential rush to self-publishing, to fight to get their work noticed, let alone sell, against odds no less daunting than those faced in the more traditional process. The bottom line is, Morrissey’s novel probably won’t be especially good for the simple, brutal fact that it doesn’t have to be.

I realise of course that plenty of stuff written by the non-famous doesn’t get published because it doesn’t deserve to be, because it’s not really good enough. I also concede that much of what is self-published isn’t up to much. But a lot is. There’s a great deal of talent out there; and every time a starry-eyed publisher lobs a contract at another celebrity, that already tiny crack of an opportunity for real writers narrows still further; the odds inch ever higher into the stratosphere. Even though plenty of those writers are producing wonderful work which totally embarrasses the sausage-machine output of the celeb fiction factory.

I mean, what is it with fiction? Why do so many famous people think they can write a novel worthy of publication? It doesn’t often happen the other way around. With very rare exceptions, you don’t get novelists (I mean proper ones, who got published by being actually good at writing) decide to record albums, take up professional ballet or go for an Oscar. And there’s an extremely good reason for that: they’re good at writing, not singing, dancing or acting.

I happen to think I can write. It’s one of my very few talents, and quite possibly the only one. I’m not saying I’m magnificent at it, not claiming to be the next big thing, but I can do it. Whereas my acting is bad, my singing is worse and you really don’t want to see me in a tutu.

Back to Morrissey. What makes it even worse are the reasons he’s given for trying his hand at the old writing game. It’s doesn’t seem to be because he’s got a great story to tell. Basically, it’s less to do with literary ambition and more about a great steaming Mozza-style hissy fit. Apparently the music business is hopelessly in thrall to hype, marketing and an obsession with shallow celebrity. Well fancy that. Like it hasn’t always been? And as if the publishing industry is much better when it falls over itself to publish the almost-certainly-mediocre-at-best offerings of people like him?

I know publishers have to make money and it will always come down to how many books they think they can sell. And Morrissey’s novel will probably sell. (Although celeb offerings don’t always; discount bookshops are the final destination of many an over-optimistic print run.)  There is also the argument, I suppose, that such high-profile publishing deals can help subsidise the riskier investments in genuine undiscovered talent. It’s just that I see rather more of the former than the latter, especially as mainstream publishers seem to become ever more risk-averse.

So – yes, I am bitter, I am fed up, and on behalf of all the unpublished and unsuccessfully self-published of the world I say: celebs, please stop ticking that box that says ‘I know, I’ll write a novel next! My agent thinks it’s a good idea and, I mean, how hard could it be ..?’

Of course I know they won’t stop. But I had to get that out of my system. And having done that I’ll keep writing because that’s what I do, I enjoy it; it’s part of me. If I ever achieve any kind of success it will be a bonus, and I know my own efforts and talent (along with a fair dollop of luck) will have got me there. Not singing ‘Shoot the DJ’.