Wednesday, 27 August 2008

God, the weather and inspirational writers

Remind me never to challenge God to a one-on-one again.

As mentioned in Friday's post, I took the young lad camping on Saturday, up at Sulby Claddaghs in the north of our wild and rugged island. The forecast had said showers from mid-afternoon. Showers. Nothing about raging storms.

We held firm till just before midnight, safe and secure against the driving wind and lashing rain, when a huge gust of wind snapped the two cross poles of our pretty new and snazzy family tent. Not one, both of them. Cue much frantic rescuing of gear and a hasty retreat home in the car, leaving the tent to be salvaged the following day.

Me and my big mouth. I’d wanted the young fella to have some cool memories of his first camp with his old man. Well, he’ll certainly not forget it.

An interesting post today from San Francisco agent Nathan Bransford, asking readers who influenced them most on their path to being writers. This was a commonly asked question while travelling to research The Manx Connection, and it was an easy one to answer.

It comes in two parts. The first books to make me think I want to do this were Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which anyone with the vaguest interest in fantasy will know well. I read them about the age of twelve, and again when I was sixteen and the second time was when it registered – I too wanted to create the magic I felt while reading these epic adventures. As happens, my first effort at a novel also featured a tragically flawed hero, who finds himself in a world he doesn’t understand with a power he has no idea how to use. The plot was completely different, but it took me a while to realise just how influenced I’d been by Donaldson.

That first effort, by the way, stalled at 70,000 words. I reckon that was about the half-way mark, but I’d written myself into more corners than Little Jack Horner. Yet the red folder containing that half a book is never far away from my laptop. You just never know.

The second, and most telling, dose of inspiration came in 2003, when I was lucky enough to interview Irish author John Connolly and the travel writer Pete McCarthy, who is sadly no longer with us. The interviews were just a few weeks apart, and neither of these wonderful interviewees would have had the first inkling of the inspirational wake up call each delivered.

Connolly simply told me to stop talking a good book – that whatever story I had inside me wasn’t going to tap me on the shoulder, insist I sit down with a few beers to watch the footy, and then set about writing itself. He also provided reassurance when he said that every writer, published or unpublished, hits a point – usually somewhere between the 20,000 and 50,000-word mark – when they have a crisis of confidence and believe that their work-in-progress stinks, with most unpublished writers abandoning their work at this time. Write through it, he said. Even if it’s fifty words a day, just keep on going.

McCarthy was in the Isle of Man publicising The Road to McCarthy, his follow-up to McCarthy’s Bar, and it was his pep talk that planted the seed for The Manx Connection, when he told me of his travels around the world in search of the origins of the McCarthy name. Six months later, he was diagnosed with cancer, and nine months after that, around the same time I was embarking on the first leg of travel for The Manx Connection, Pete was dead. He was a funny man, and a fine writer. Life really is too short.

There is another influence on my writing, in terms of a handy dose of inspiration when the muse has lost her voice. It’s called On Writing, by Stephen King, and it has a permanent place on the side of my desk. It’s the most superb book about writing that I’ve ever read. It’s funny, it pulls no punches and it features the most wonderful line – "Writing is magic, as much the water of life as any other creative life," King writes. "The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up."

I’ll drink to that, Mr King.

Still being read this week, thanks to God and his excitable weather:

The Sweet Forever, George Pelecanos

Friday, 22 August 2008

Pain. Dejection. Misery.

It’s happened again.

Must be the fourth or fifth time in the last ten years, and it doesn’t get any easier to deal with, the kick in your gut any less painful.

I was watching The Number 23, the psychological chiller starring Jim Carrey, when the twist was revealed towards the end – I hadn’t seen it coming – and I experienced that awful sensation when you realise the pivotal deceit is one that you’ve been working on, that same twist upon which one of your works in progress hinges.

It’s a feeling of utter deflation, a sense that no matter how much you know that there are only a certain number of plots (depends on who you listen to), and only so many truly original storylines out there, you thought that, this time, you were on to a winner. Again.

The first time it happened, I was three pages into a film script for a ‘big concept’. I opened my TV Times one night, and there it was, a two-part drama starting on ITV, and it even had the exact same title. The setting and storyline were poles apart, but the core idea and the main character (the actual person...) were exactly the same.

Still, I was a mere whippersnapper back then, and in hindsight I should have realised that particular storyline was whizzing around the minds of numerous writers. No great loss.

I had two similar kicks to the gut within a few weeks of each other a couple of years back. The first was a crime story I’d been playing with, and had knocked off about 10,000 words. On this occasion, it wasn’t the plot – but the main character, or rather the character’s background. I picked a book up in Waterstones, the debut novel of a British author, and read the blurb, felt sick to the stomach and nearly dropped the hardback on my foot. I held on to it, though, and lined up to hand over my cash. A damn fine read it was too.

It hasn’t reduced my idea to a train wreck, as the setting and plots are different enough, but there are several similarities in the main characters and what they set out to do. Again, looking at it with hindsight, the character’s background isn’t as original as I’d first thought – it’s incredible how precious you can be about something that doesn’t warrant it.

The second of these quick fire incidents was a jaw-dropping moment; a really hideous event during which I somehow managed not to make a complete halfwit out of myself.
I had to step in at the last minute to interview an up-and-coming children’s writer, and I had no idea what kind of books she wrote. It’s an awful situation to be in – imagine interviewing a musician and never having heard one of their songs.

It’s always best to be up front about such things, so as soon as we’d shaken hands and were enjoying a brew in Waterstones – one floor up from the previous kick to the gut – I came clean and explained that I’d not read any of her stuff. I had done a bit of swotting on the internet, but obviously not that much. She was fine about it, and we chatted about what got her started in books and she quickly proved to be a fantastic subject, easy to talk to, funny and very self –effacing.

“So,” I said. “Can you tell me about your latest book?” And she did. And I hated her. With an absolute passion.

At that time, I’d been working on a young adult novel for about two months. I was about 15,000 words in, and had the whole thing plotted out. Hell, I even had the outlines for books two and three in a trilogy lined up. The basic premise, I believed, was stunning. I used to smile when I considered how clever it was. I won’t do that again in a hurry.

As she told me about her book, which was to be one of a series of four, I’m not sure what my face looked like. I like to believe that I was professional enough to keep up the pretence and not let my horror (and hatred) show through. I like to think so, but chances are she went back to her friends and family and told them about the strange journo with the manically weird expression who had interviewed her that day. “Nice bloke and all, even bought me a coffee, but man, what a freakishly contorted face he had...” It was another ‘big concept’, and this seemed to be exactly the same as the idea I was working on.

I went home that night, utterly dejected. My better half, as always, soon knocked me into shape. We looked on the internet, read a bit about the book, and she insisted that, while the basic idea may have been similar, the stories and characters, even the target age group, were substantially different to matter not a jot.

The next day, I returned to the store and bought a copy of the book. To this day, I’ve not read it through, but I have skimmed parts to get a general idea. I don’t want to read it, because I know I will return to this project, within the next year or so, and complete it. And I don’t want to compromise my writing by reading her book. I will do so afterwards, to check there are no glaring similarities, but I believe there’s room for both stories.

I’ve not gone into the details of which authors and books have been involved in causing me such grief, pain and misery, as there is nothing to gain by mentioning them. This is more to do with the process of realising that if you think you have THE NEXT GREAT IDEA, think again. Because the chances are, someone out there is busy scribbling away on the same concept.

As for We Walk In Shadows, the project which has been Jim Carrey-fied, I’m not sure what to do. The characters, the setting, the storyline all still work and have nothing in common with The Number 23. It’s just the fundamental twist that the whole thing hinges on, or at least does so in its present format.

There’s no reason why I can’t alter the ending, or not even the ending, just the deceit which affects the reader. For now, though, it’s firmly on hold. There’s the Manx Giant to finish, and camping to be done this bank holiday weekend. It will, of course, rain. This being the Isle of Man, we’ll most likely get a blizzard thrown in for good measure.

But we’ll be barbecuing whatever the weather. Come on, God, do your worst.

Being read by torchlight this week:

The Sweet Forever, George Pelecanos

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Shouting it from the rooftops

Writers, by and large, tend to be fairly reclusive characters, not given to bragging and self-assurance.

For years, if someone discovered I was writing a book and asked me about it, there would follow feet-shuffling to shame Michael Flatley and a series of grunts that only Darwin could have translated.

I wanted to be a writer, and I wanted people to know I was writing – but at the same time I was so embarrassed about it (or rather, petrified that what I was writing was no bloody good) that the thought of actively promoting my work, or, God forbid, letting people read and critique it, was unthinkable.

That attitude changed over the years. With age comes experience, and with experience comes the knowledge that you’re getting better at what you do.

When I set out to write The Manx Connection four years ago, I knew I had to try and build word-of-mouth before the book came out. It was only ever going to be a short print run of a book that was very much in a niche market, so early publicity was a must. I set up a website dedicated to the book, which didn’t betray my reluctance to self-promote too much, as it was about the book more so than about me.

A few months ago, with the Manx Connection in the shops, work underway on book two – The Manx Giant – and the web hosts looking for more cash, I ran an idea past Ady, a writing friend who knows a bit about this here internet malarkey: ‘How about scrapping the Manx Connection site,” I suggested,’ and creating a new one about me, my books and future projects?’ A little internet shop window to help get my name known. After choosing a template, Ady got to work, and a few weeks later the site was launched kicking and screaming onto an oblivious world.

There was much inner conflict as to whether I should have bothered. I doubted that anyone – close friends and family excepted, and they probably just to keep me off their backs – would give a rat’s arse about my low-key publishing credits and aspirations to break through in fiction.
I guess I didn’t want to come across as pretentious. I also didn’t fancy checking the number of visitors to my site and blog and finding tumbleweeds clogging up the system.

But then I had an epiphany. And I thought: ‘Bugger it. Why not.’

I researched other writers’ websites and blogs, both published and unpublished, and I realised that writers without a web presence, particularly those aiming for a breakthrough, are putting themselves at an immediate disadvantage. The internet is so fundamental to writing and publishing that my only regret is not having started the site and blog sooner.

A recent thread on posed the question - authors as bloggers? – and asked how essential is it for writers to blog or have a website, indeed, would the time spent blogging be put to better use on a work-in-progress.

I devour the musings of other writers, published and unpublished, and publishers and agents in equal measure. It’s partly for inspiration (not, I hasten to add, for ideas), but also to continue learning about the industry, about the genres in which I write. A large part of it is to learn how not to do something. Publishers and agents are swamped with submissions, and some of the tales you read leave you wondering whether you, by association as a writer, are also a complete half-wit.

The amount of advice, information and experience to be garnered from such sites is quite staggering, which is why I was a touch bamboozled by one contributor to the thread, who said they don’t read writers’ blogs or look at sites because they have no interest in what a writer has to say about writing, or anything for that matter, nor do they have the time to read them, even if they wanted to. Each to their own, of course, but I can’t help but feel that those with such an outlook are missing out on so much.

Finally, and a little off track, our Bump finally landed on Wednesday afternoon, hence the delay in updating the blog. Little Gypsy-Mae weighed in at 9lbs and 1oz and I’m still at the stage where I can’t stop staring at her, although I’m not sure whether that is out of pride, or bewilderment that I could be responsible, albeit partly, for something so beautiful.

What’s that? A deadline looming in mid-September? That ain’t looking so clever...

Keeping John company during sleepless nights this week:

The Joshua Files: Invisible City, M.G. Harris