Review - A Single Shot, by Matthew F Jones (Mulholland Books, £9.99)
Sometimes you know that whatever you write when reviewing a book isn't going to get anywhere near to doing it justice. And that applies equally to books you love more than, well, maybe not your children, but pretty close, and books that are so bad you'd happily take a scalpel to your brain to erase them from your memory. So I write these words in that knowledge.
I'd not heard of Jones prior to cracking the spine of A Single Shot, although it turns out I was aware of his work, having wanted to watch the movie Deepwater for several years, not realising he wrote the novel upon which it is based.
It's a thing of wonder, discovering an author who writes this beautifully for the first time, more so when you realise there's a skutch of books on his backlist for you to read.
A Single Shot tells the story of a week in the life of John Moon, a lonely, awkward man who's lost his family farm, his wife and child and now earns a crust laying driveways and spending his spare time hunting on the forested mountain where he lives. Out stalking a deer one day, he hears a rustle in the bushes and shoots, a single shot. Instead of a deer, the bullet takes the life of a young woman. Panicking, Moon checks the area - she was holed up in a quarry, and he finds her campground, a stash of drugs and many thousands of dollars in cash.
Moon has a choice - and decides to bury the body and take the cash. He thinks there's nothing to link him to the corpse, and if he possessed a more astute brain, he might be right. But Moon is a simple man, who doesn't always think through his actions. The consequences of those actions bring those who own the drugs and the money after him and soon the hunter is the hunted, having to draw on his survival skills to stay alive. The small backwater town, the forested mountain, the one man trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers; this has a feel of First Blood mixed with Deliverance, as the net is drawn tighter around Moon.
This is a book about choices, and, as a reader, you can't help but make your own decision as to what you'd have done in a similar situation, not you as you live your life now, but if you were in Moon's shoes, experiencing the shitty life he is. Despite his faults, Moon is an intensely proud man, a man of honour driven to desperate measures by the hand of fate and the dark deeds of those around him.
Jones doesn't waste many words, if any. It's a short book, 240 pages, but it packs one hell of a punch. It gets under your skin; the supporting characters, the town, the mountain itself, but none more so than Moon himself, a superb study of a man who has lost almost everything, but is damned if the bastards are going to take what little he has left.
A fine, fine read. It comes as no surprise that the movie is being filmed - but director David Rosenthal and stars Sam Rockwell (Moon), William H Macy and Forest Whitaker have their work cut out to come anywhere close.
I first stumbled across Shan's work after asking some advice over at Litopia. My query was simple - as a spot of research, I needed the names of authors who wrote young adult books that pushed the boundaries in how dark a story can be when written for children. If the book I'm working on at the moment holds true to how I envisage it, it's going to be dark. And bloody.
One of the titles fired my way was Lord Loss, which is the first in a series of ten, the Demonata, and it doesn't take a Mr Spock-like intellect to work out what the books are about.
The book opens with Grubbs Grady - come on, you know you're on solid ground with a name like that - enduring the teenage hell that is family. An elder sister who makes his life misery, parents who just don't get him; poor Grubbs just wants a break.
The break he gets is perhaps a little more than he asked for - his family are killed by the demon, Lord Loss, and his two demonic sidekicks. Grubbs manages to escape, but soon finds himself locked in a padded cell, trying to convince everyone that it wasn't your average Joe serial killer who wiped out his folks, but monsters from another plane.
Grubbs is saved when his Uncle Dervish visits, and seems to accept what he says, and Grubbs finds himself holed up in Dervish's large country house in the remote village of Carcery Vale. There, he befriends one of the local boys, to whom Dervish seems to give the run of the house, and the two of them start to piece together what happened, including the big question - why was Grubbs' family targeted by demons?
That's about all I want to reveal by way of plot, other than to say it's good - well worth a read, and I'll be making a date with book two, Demon Thief. What was of more interest to me was how Shan developed the characters, and just how far into depravity he took his young readers. Whether intentional or not, twenty pages in and I didn't like any of the Grubbs family. I was struggling to connect, not convinced I could tag along with the characters for another 240 pages. Then the demons attack, and literally rip Grubbs' family to shreds. And as the young lad tries to recover in his padded cell, the sympathy - and understanding - came. By the time the enigmatic Dervish appears on the scene, I was hooked.
I'm not sure if Shan set out to make Grubbs (and his family) as initially unappealing as I found him. It seemed a strange tack to take - the family I could understand, but the hero? Of course, reading is subjective, and maybe it was just me. Yet it worked, ultimately, because Grubbs changes during the course of the story, and that's what all good writing is about - developing characters, watching them grow and adapt to the challenges that are put in front of them. What helps is having strong supporting characters, and Shan has them in Grubbs' new friend, Bill-E, and in particular Dervish, who is one of the coolest characters I've met in children's fiction.
So just how dark does the book get? We're talking headless corpses, blood-splattered walls and bodies split open by page thirty. It doesn't quite reach such graphic violence again, instead changing focus and ratcheting up the tension.
And what does it tell me about my own work? That what I've got planned will (assuming it's anywhere half-decent) work, and, given the success of Shan and others of similar ilk, that there is a market for it. Kids, it seems, want to have the bejesus scared out of them, just like I did when I was a kid. Consider me inspired.
Yet this last point opens another can of cliched worms; should we really be scaring youngsters with tales of demons, vampires, murder and blood-letting? Over at the Manx Litfest Facebook page, there's been a discussion on this very topic, sparked by an article in the Wall Street Journal, which claimed that YA fiction is too dark. I don't see a problem, generally speaking. Kids have always wanted to be entertained by such stories, whether it's Dad telling a creepy story around the campfire, watching the latest teen horror on a sleepover with mates or reading about rampaging zombies eating people's brains.
Of course, there is a limit to everything, although it's hard to say what that is. There's dark, and then there's sick. Or perverse. Or both. One person on FB suggested elements of society are viewing such books as the equivalent of video nasties, with the natural progression to assuming that any kid who reads about a demon killing his sister is going to follow suit. Should we sterilise our writing for children in order to ensure they read only nice, happy stories and are falling over themselves in a bid to help the elderly across the road? There is a place for such positive, happy tales. But I sincerely hope we're not heading down such a restrictive path, where darkness is, well, confined to the shadows.
We're now 29 days into this 80,000 words in 80 days malarkey. Which, assuming my sums are correct, means my word count should be around the 29k mark. But it's not.
I've taken a 10-minute break to make a brew and write this post. The word count on the manuscript has just crawled over the 15k mark. So I'm writing a smidgen over 500 words a day, on average. I know. I'm not going to hit 80k. The good news is that I'm guessing the final word count for this script will come around 60k - so, with 51 days to go, I've got another 45k to write. Which is possible, right?
The bad news is that even 500 words a day is a struggle at times, given so many other demands on time. Not that I'm complaining; they are all of my own doing. But there are times when I check the word counts of other writers attemping this challenge and it's hard not to envy those who rack up several thousand words a day.
So onward I go. If I can hold the average at 500, I'll still have 40k words by the end. And that's 40k more than I would have had on May 1. You see, as with most things in life, it's all about perspective. Least that's what I'm telling myself.
So there's just over an hour to go before the madness descends - 80,000 words in 80 days. I'm feeling scarily confident about the idea, but fear that the lack of time will make this an exercise in futility. But life's about challenges, giving it your best and learning from your mistakes when you cock it up. Worst case scenario, I'll have X thousand extra words by the end of it than I would have had if I'd not thrown my hat in the ring, though there's no guarantee those words will make any sense.
I'm considering a ritual, or superstition, for the duration of the challenge; lucky boxer shorts, refusing to trim nasal hair, only drinking tea from left-handed mugs, allowing myself two shots of absinthe (flaming, of course) every time I hit the 1,000-word-a-day target.
Seriously, though, best of luck to all those who are similarly delusional and attempting the challenge. It promises to be chaotic, stressful, frustrating and emotional. It should also prove to be inspirational and bloody great fun. Let's get this party started...
One of the most important lessons any writer can learn (and it's something you keep refining, whatever level you're at) is the skill of starting a story at the correct point. It applies to chapter openings as much as the opening of the book, or short story. Indeed, it's probably even more appropriate to short stories, given the word count limitations. No point wasting a few hundred words with superfluous drivel at the start, when in all likelihood you'll be scratching around at the end looking to squeeze everything in.
I suffered at the start of chapter two of... oh, let's call it The Mountain. (That won't be the title, but it does feature a mountain, after a fashion. And it's a big one at that). The chapter opened with a mysterious drifter arriving at an inn (I know, that old cliche). There's a kid spying on him from above the bar, waiting for the drifter to leave in the morning so he can follow him. I liked the way it introduced both of these characters, particularly the drifter. He had some cool and intriguing dialogue with the barman, and it allowed me to drop hints of backstory and character into the opening of the chapter.
But the more I re-read it, the more I realised I was slowing everything down. The single most important aspect of the chapter is that the lad is about to do something stupidly dangerous - setting off into the wilds in pursuit of this drifter, who may as well have death and violence stamped across his forehead. So I hit the fast forward button and the chapter now opens with the drifter in the bar, preparing to leave in the dead of night. He's still talking to the barman, and I've still managed to throw in some tantalising snippets. The moment the drifter opens the door to leave, the young fella is out of his spy hole and in pursuit.
Maintaining the pace, and intrigue, is vital, especially when you're writing for a younger audience. Chapter one ends with such a bang, that the last thing I wanted to do was slam the brakes on and have the reader judder to a halt. Yes, the opening to chapter two does slow things down in terms of action, but the what-the-hell-is-going-on-now intrigue is there from the off. At least I hope it is.
I see a lot of writers falling prey to the wrong starting place syndrome while reading submissions for Nemesis. They focus on too much backstory too early on, instead of hitting the ground running. You need to start the story as late as you possibly can, engaging readers from the get-go. You can fill them in with background as and when they need it as the story unfolds.
Having said all this, I'm not convinced that chapter one opens at the correct point. I've opened it late, but I've a nagging feeling that, on this occasion, a little earlier would work better. I'll let that idea ferment for a little while longer. At least I know how chapter three opens, once I find my way there.
I know what you're thinking. He's been gone for ages, and he said he'd be around here more often. Godammit, he said he'd write.
It's been a busy start to the year - I say start, but we're nearly a third of the way through already - and the vow I made of focusing on me, of making 2011 the year I cut all the bullshit and dedicated myself to fiction, is lying curled up in a corner, kicked and beaten into submission. There's been lots on, in particular meetings and planning for Manx Litfest, and much behind-the-scenes shenannigans over at Nemesis, where we're working on an anthology by members of the Litopia Writers' Colony, as well as working with a few writers to develop their manuscripts towards publication. We've also just launched the Debut Novel Competition 2011, so if you're a writer reading this, get yourself over there and check it out.
But a couple of weeks ago, something stirred. I've been eyeing up two potential projects for the last six months or so, and dabbled at starts for each. In my mind, they are both strong projects, so much so that I'd reached stalemate - every time I opted for one, the other would stick it's nose in.
After some friendly advice (read boot up the ass), I had one of those rare moments where the trees miraculously part and you can finally see the wood. Inspired, I took the plunge and started working up ideas for the chosen project and rewrote the opening. It's brewing nicely now.
Earlier today I got a steer via Facebook to a blog - http://80kwords80days.blogspot.com/ - which, if you click and read, you'll see does exactly what it says on the tin. The goal - from May 1, over 80 days, you bang out 80,000 words. Job done.
So, that's the target. I know what you're thinking (part two) - he's said this kind of thing before. You're right, I have. But this time I mean business. I know, I've also said that before. Oh, well. You'll just have to take my word for it. Again. Come on, God loves a trier, at least that's what the old dear tells me.
I will endeavour to blog about this little experiment. Honest. I might even post a teaser about the plot. Maybe.
It's World Book Night, and what better way to celebrate it than by joining other bibliophiles at a bookstore to talk about the wonders of the written word.
I've been kindly invited to the Bridge Bookshop in Port Erin by proprietor Angela Pickard and one of the books that will be given away on the night is Yann Martel's Life of Pi, one of those novels that everyone has heard of, and which I've not read.
I'm told it will be an informal affair, so not sure exactly how the night will pan out, but I'm really looking forward to it. If you happen to be out and about this evening around Port Erin, feel free to drop in and talk books.
One topic we will be discussing is Manx Lit Fest - you'll be able to find out more about it and sign up for a newsletter and email updates.
If you can't make it, do try and get involved with World Book Night in some way shape or form. It's a fantastic initiative and will hopefully go from strength to strength in future years.
Books and stuff. News. Reviews. Interviews. Writerly angst. Feel free to praise and criticise. The former costs nothing, the latter ten quid a throw.
I've written a couple of non-fiction books, now focusing on fiction. Founder of Nemesis Publishing, and heavily involved behind the scenes over at Litopia Writers' Colony.