Friday, 24 December 2010

That time of year again...

The wrapping is done, Mrs Q has retired to bed and Rudolf has eaten his carrot. It's well past the witching hour again, and this particular night - the early hours of Christmas morning - has always been a favourite of mine, more so now than when I was a kid.

There is something magical about the quiet dead of night as we say goodbye to Christmas Eve. Is it the air of anticipation of seeing the childrens' eyes light up when they walk into the front room in the morning (assuming, naively, that I can get up before them)? Is it the fact there's no work for the next four days? Is it the opportunity to indulge myself in a little bubble of solitude after the usual chaotic run-up to Christmas? The answer is, they all play at part, along with the fact that it is an occasion to reflect on what's gone before and ponder what may come to pass in the next 12 months.

Whatever your circumstances, no matter how busy you are on Christmas Day or how many people you're entertaining, remember to take a few minutes for yourself. Hide yourself away, whether it's in the garage, the attic or the closet. Indulge yourself. Honestly, you'll be forgiven.

All that remains is to wish everyone a merry Christmas and all the very best for 2011. For all writers out there, I hope it's the year you've been dreaming about. And if you're one of the huge army of writers seeking a breakthrough, let me double that. I'll be back blogging early in the New Year, when this place will have had a facelift.

Till then, take care.

Cheers
JQ

Monday, 22 November 2010

Breaking point

Each year, around about this point - a month or so before Christmas - I go into literary meltdown. It's not a painful process, least it won't appear that way to bystanders or those watching me knock back beers at festive shindigs. I tend to mosey on through life as if December was just another month.

But it's not. It's the end of another year, and it marks the end of another slice of life that passes with so many dreams unfulfilled. As the years pile on top of each other, the frustration - and subsequent meltdown - only increases. I look back on the past eleven months, and the end result is always the same - I've never achieved half of what I set out to do. In fact, might as well make that one third (I'm talking literary endeavours here, of course, not family and work).

Sure, there are usually successes along the way. This year, it's been all about Nemesis Publishing, and the progress we've made on that front. It's been a good year over there - our first book published, several other projects developing nicely. I should be happy. But I'm not. There's the Manx Lit Fest we announced recently (separate from Nemesis), and early buzz is encouraging. It's a big, exciting and somewhat daunting project. I should be happy. But I'm not.

Earlier this year I was asked to edit the first issue of the Muse e-zine, a cool creation from those within the Litopia Writers' Colony. It was, by and large, considered a success and drew some fine praise from within the publishing industry. I should be happy with such a result. But I'm not.

You get the message?

Those eagle-eyed among you will have spotted a common theme here. For those who haven't, it's quite simple. What have I written? In terms of fiction? Bugger all. That's not strictly true, as there have been dabblings here and there. A few thousand words of this manuscript, a couple of thousand on that manuscript. But the bottom line is, I've filled my year with so many other projects, that writing has been the very poor relation. Yet again. A little bit like this blog, to be honest.

And so once again I look ahead to another year, a clean slate come January 1, on which I can revise my goals and aspirations and promise myself that, this year, I really will knuckle down and aim for that fiction breakthrough. Am I kidding myself? Are these hundred and one other hats, which I seem to accumulate like the Pied Piper gathering kids, a mask for me, a way of deflecting attention away from my writing? If they are, I think I need to ask myself some harsh questions.

So another few weeks of soul-searching await. I don't have any answers. Hell, I'm not sure I even know the questions. I only hope that I can find some kind of resolution, because this frustration is eating away at me.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Something huge and exciting this way comes...

It's been a while since I was around these here parts. There are a couple of reasons why this old blog has been quiet...

Much of my spare time has been swallowed up by Nemesis Publishing, for which the last month or so has been sufficiently busy to warrant investing in a one-way ticket to the asylum. Our website is now launched and, while still a work in progress in terms of content, it's pretty much there. (The site also has a built-in blog, which means I'll be winding up the Nemesis blogspot, which I must get on to soon)

Meanwhile, Friday just gone saw the arrival in our hands of Pocket Rocket, the first commerical project for Nemesis. The autobiography of 1980s Manx cycling star Steve Joughin is in Isle of Man bookstores now, and (hopefully) should be in selected UK stores before too long (the peculiar pastime that is book distribution is something that the new Nemesis blog will tackle very soon...)

While there's still much to do on Nemesis in the short-term, with the website gone live and Pocket Rocket published the hope is that things will settle down somewhat, allowing me to divert some of that spare time towards writing, and this blog, which leads me to the second reason why there's been tumbleweed blowing around these digs.

I've spent the last few weeks mulling over changes to a) this blog b) my personal website and c) what I get up to (from a writerly point of view) on twitter and facebook et al.

The fact is I've been stagnating, and - largely because of time contstraints - not being overly social in the world of social media. It's something I need to address, and so changes will be afoot over the coming weeks. There will be more reviews on here - including one or two guest reviewers - and more about what I'm writing, and plenty of good authorly info stuff too.

There is something else you don't know about (well, one or two of you might) and that is a rather large project, nothing to do with me writing, but everything to do with books, authors and all things literature. I'm hoping to launch that over the next few days, via a new blog, twitter and facebook. Watch this space. It should be fun.

Until then, I'm off to find a corner where I can quietly grumble and moan about book distribution.

Monday, 6 September 2010

Raise a glass to Vicky the Viking

They reckon all good things come to those who wait. I’m not so sure about that one; there are plenty of things I’ve been waiting a long time for – a Manhattan apartment, an Aston Martin, my own private sun-drenched island – and the postman ain't delivered.

But when it comes to writing, working through issues in your head over a period of time, even if it’s subconsciously, does work wonders. Back in April, I posted about some feedback I’d received on young adult project Quackenbush, which effectively told me that I needed to crack the plot apart and give it a major overhaul. It was at once a wonderful Vicky the Viking lightbulb moment and a tremendous kick in the knackers.

The problems, with hindsight, were obvious. The effect on my sanity, however, led me to shelve the entire project and start something afresh. I don’t know what I was waiting for – I knew exactly what needed to be done with QB, but having jousted with the manuscript for so long, I just didn’t have the willpower to face up to a major rewrite.

The last five months have largely been taken up by events over at Nemesis Publishing, but I managed to knock out 8,000 words on a new crime project. They are decent words too. Plenty of mystery, intrigue, violence and the like for the protagonist to chew on. I was reading through it again last week and something which I’d known all along, but not admitted, became clear: decent though the words may be, they lacked colour. The main reason is that it’s set in New York, and I’ve only been there once, for five days, eight years ago. I know many writers can wax lyrical about places they’re not familiar with, but I don’t think I’m one of them.

A few hours later, Mrs Q mentioned something about Quackenbush that reminded me of its existence.

A few more hours later, I saw a facebook update from a friend and fellow scribe which said that, after two years of writing/revising/editing/polishing, his manuscript was completed and he was about to jump on the submissions bandwagon. I was chuffed for him and impressed that he’d shown such dedication for two years. It made me feel somewhat inadequate. Boot to backside duly received.

And then… a plan started to form. Later that night I began drawing the various strands together in my head, working out solutions to the problems with the QB storyline that would be caused by major surgery.

On the drive into work this morning, it all came together. The buzz was back. No longer did I see the rewrite as an insurmountable obstacle; instead it had me salivating and eager to get going. And, of course, there’s no issue with geography on QB, as it’s set on my doorstep.

I’d love to know how the mind works – my mind, at least – as there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme nor reason for this sudden clarity of thinking. Not that I’m complaining. Will it last? Who knows. I've seen enough false dawns with my writing to know there are no guarantees. But there’s only one way to find out.

Monday, 2 August 2010

A loss of innocence


Review - The Last Child, John Hart

There are few more emotive crimes than the abduction of a young child. On a personal level, it resonates with us because we have children, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews. And on a wider canvas, it brings home to us all just how fragile an innocent life can be. Indeed, it’s one of those crimes that many criminals find abhorrent.

It’s a subject to which novelists continue to return, which for more delicate readers might appear to be somewhat insensitive; and this in turn makes it imperative that a writer treats the issue with care and strikes a fine balance between engaging the reader’s emotions and not sensationalising the story for the sake of cheap thrills. With The Last Child, it’s a balance that John Hart has found with considerable skill.

The story opens one year on from the abduction of thirteen-year-old Johnny Merrimon’s twin sister, Alyssa. The intervening twelve months has seen his father walk out and not return, and his mother languishing in a drugs and alcohol-fuelled pit of despair and now sharing her bed with Ken Holloway, local bigwig entrepreneur and vicious bastard. Johnny, meanwhile, spends his nights trawling the streets, delving into the town’s seedy underbelly, convinced that he will find the person who has his sister.

Johnny’s only allies are his best friend, Jack, who follows him like a faithful hound, and a cop, Detective Clyde Hunt, who has two obsessions eating away at him from the inside – his failure to find Alyssa, and his love for Johnny’s mother.

Out by the river one day, Johnny witnesses a hit-and-run and becomes convinced that the victim was killed because he knew what happened to Alyssa. Everyone else is convinced he’s losing it. When another girl disappears, a lot of people suddenly become very interested in what young Johnny might have found out.

Hart sets up two or three threads early on, and you’re never quite sure whether they will come together, and if so, how. They ebb and flow in their significance, but his plotting is effortless, particularly the way in which the lumbering giant convict, Levi, comes stumbling into the story and impacts on everyone in some small way.

As Clyde and Johnny conduct separate investigations into the missing girl (Clyde because he is seeking redemption; Johnny because he believes the same person has his sister), their paths cross, both in their search for the girl and their bid to save Johnny’s mother from Holloway, who seems capable of just about anything.

It’s rare to find a book where the beautiful craft evident in the storyline is matched by the richness of its characters. On the face of it, the standout is Johnny – he carries the thrust of the narrative and he’s the natural one to root for. However, the real success here is Clyde, who early on comes over as the clich├ęd obsessed cop, and a single parent to boot, complete with teenage son with whom he can’t hold a conversation any longer than five seconds. But that opinion soon fades. Clyde might not be the sharpest cop in the precinct, but he’s dogged, and his dedication to Johnny’s mother – and Johnny – is real lump-in-the-throat material.

Despite the warmth Hart generates with his leads, and the beauty of his prose, make no mistake; this is a bleak story, one in which you will most likely demand vigilante justice several times over. Ultimately, it’s a tale about enduring love, the strength of family and the remarkable resilience of the human heart, and mind, to overcome devastating events. Regardless of how dark it might get, this is a story about hope, and how those closest to you will carry you when that hope fades. Highly recommended.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Crime and self-inflicted punishment

An email popped into my inbox tonight, from Liz Evans, this year's chairman of the Crime Writers' Association's Debut Dagger award. Sadly, it was a circular to her mailing list, and not a sexy little note telling me I'd won and had a horde of panting publishers chasing after me.

I was thinking about the Debut Dagger last night, after reading on twitter that RJ Ellory had picked up the Theakstons Old Peculiar Crime Novel of the Year at the Harrogate Festival for A Simple Act of Violence (congratulations, Roger - he was a gent when being interviewed for the first issue of Muse).

I've entered the Debut Dagger three times (I think). It's awarded to the best opening of a crime novel by an unpublished novelist - 3,000 words, plus a synopsis - and, as it draws several hundred entries a year from around the globe, it's no disgrace not being one of the ten or so shortlisted entries, from which the winner is announced.

I wasn't expecting to win this year. I'd not entered it. That said, I've never expected to even be shortlisted, as my entries have all had three things in common - they were rushed, the synopses were ill-thought out and, because of those first two, I had no confidence in what I was submitting. Sure, there was some decent passages in each, but any writer will tell you - if you don't really believe in what you're writing, then you can't expect anyone else to.

They were rushed because I left it far too close to deadline, which was a hangover from my days as a journalist. Hell, that's a hangover that still hangs around, regardless of how good a boy I am at any particular point in time. I vowed that, for my next Debut Dagger entry, it would be as polished and planned as I could make it. I even chose against entering the 2010 award because the closing date was looming. Instead, I started planning for next year, when I assume the deadline will again be around mid-February.

I mulled over an idea for a long time, before taking the plunge a couple of months ago. I wrote the first 3,000 words, then put it to one side and went back to it ten days ago. I'm intent on completing the manuscript ahead of the Debut Dagger - in fact, I've set myself the ludicrous deadline of first draft completed by the end of October. Seeing as I'm only just shy of 8,000 words right now, that has to be right up there near the top of the list of dumb Quirk ideas.

In terms of the deadline, at least on this occasion I'm well ahead of the game. However, that email from Liz Evans was a sucker punch. It wasn't the email itself, of course, but what it contained - details of this year's winner, and the highly commended, along with a quick blurb of each. The problem? Yeah, you guessed it - after reading them, I went back and read through my effort so far. And then looked at the overall concept and plot. Outcome? Wasn't happy. Felt like I was wasting my time. Needed to start again.

Am I alone among writers in feeling such utter desolation? What am I saying - of course I'm not. It's a natural reaction, I'm told. So I've filed Liz's email away to be read again only when the first draft is completed and the synopsis is at least in decent shape. Only then will I be able to take a step back and, hopefully, judge whether what I've created has any real potential.

For now, it's on with finding an average of one thousand words a day for the next three months or so. Wish me luck. I'm gonna need it.

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Sold out...?

I was in the local Waterstones the other day, doing a spot of research on Manx books for Nemesis. As I scanned the shelves of local books, I realised that they weren't stocking any copies of The Manx Giant or The Manx Connection. The latter wasn't a surprise - it was published three years ago and, while it's still selling in dribs and drabs, it's a bit long in the tooth. The Giant, though, is still relatively new, particularly in terms of the local market.

My first reaction to there being no copies of Giant was, 'great, at least it's still selling'. Once that fleeting moment of pride had passed, my mind changed tack; if the distributor isn't on the ball and ensuring that shelves are remaining stocked, I'm losing potential sales. That same night, as coincidence would have it, I heard from other sources (honest - I'm not in the habit of stalking bookshops counting copies of my books; at least not yet) that the Giant was out of stock in WH Smith and St Paul's Bookshop in Ramsey. I dropped the publisher of the Giant a line to let them know, and hopefully it will be sorted one way or another.

What the last few days has brought to light, with my Nemesis Publishing hat on, is the need to ensure that we don't fall into the same trap, either as a publisher or in dealing with distributors. As an author, you deliver the final draft of the manuscript to your publisher and then you're often out of the equation, other than the launch, signings and talks; in terms of the nuts and bolts of ensuring the books get into the right places, it's all down to the publisher and distributor. As the mere writer of a book, you can feel a little out in the cold. For that reason publishers have a duty to look after the interests of their writers. As we continue to look into distribution, it's an issue about which we're becoming increasingly aware.

Leaving all that to one side, I'll be packing up the life-size cut-out of the Giant and heading to the Tynwald Day celebrations on July 5 (that's the Manx national day, for those non-Manxies reading this), where the kind folk at the World Manx Association have put aside a table in their Homecomers' Marquee for me to sell my wares, including The Manx Connection. If you've been hunting high and low in vain for a copy of either book, I'll happily scribble in a copy for you. Assuming you hand over some cash, of course.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Shunned and overlooked

A few weeks back, I was in the audience at the Erin Arts Centre for Mannslaughter and Mayhem, which saw three leading Scottish crime novelists entertain a full house with plenty of insight (and no little wit) into the life of a writer.

Stuart MacBride, Donna Moore and Allan Guthrie were brought to the Isle of Man thanks to the efforts of Chris Ewan, Island resident and author of the Good Thief’s Guide novels, and the support of the Isle of Man Arts Council.

It was a fine night, despite the fact that I’d not read any of the authors’ books (something I’m in the process of remedying), but I don’t think it is essential for such an event anyway, particularly if you are as fascinated by writers talking about writing as I am. (This, of course, is not the same thing as a journalist turning up to interview an author and not having read any of his material, which should be a shooting offence)

First up, kudos to Chris (and his team of helpers) for pulling such an event together; it worked very well, particularly the nice touch of having the children’s crime writing award results on the same night, with the youngsters present. I’m not sure whether this is the kind of event Chris wants to repeat on a regular basis, but the full house at least showed the Manx public’s hunger for such events is there.

It’s a shame, then, that the Island’s literary scene is so poorly served. You can’t seem to swing a guitar around your head for fear of hitting a music festival, we have a thriving theatrical scene and artists have their exhibitions. Mainstream bands and singers are brought to the Island, along with a regular supply of comedians.

But when it comes to us lowly writers, there’s barely a ripple in the Manx literary scene, if indeed there is a scene in the first place. Maybe sitting listening to authors talk about writing and reading out extracts from their books isn’t considered sexy when compared with comedians forcing you to cough up a lung, or jumping up and down screaming and throwing your knickers at some heartthrob singer. But, hey, us fanatical readers – and writers – can get just as excited, in our own little way.

I can only hope the Manx literary scene is better served in the years to come. Hopefully, Mannslaughter and Mayhem will be just the beginning. I have one or two ideas of my own, but that's all they are for now, vague notions. But one day, by Manannan's mighty sword, we'll show 'em.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

On European tour with the last of the summer wine...


In the words of the late, great Richard Harris, immortally committed to moviedom in Eastwood's classic, Unforgiven, I can say only this. 'Eat shit and fried eggs...'

Today, after what seems like an eternity, but in fact was only ten days, I can finally sense an end to the pretty miserable, depressing and shattering rottenness to which I've been subjected. And if there's one thing a blog is good for, it's allowing the writer an opportunity to drag everyone else down to share in that misery.

It started as a cough, so I took some cough mixture. Then a sore throat, so I bought some Strepsils. There followed headaches, and pains in legs, so I took some painkillers. Then a draining tiredness, so I took a day off work and took to my bed. There then followed the weekend, during which I realised this wasn't a bug I could shake off in a couple of days. So last Monday I did what I hate doing, and went to see Doc. He told me I had a chest infection, and a touch of bronchitis for good measure. So he gave me some antibiotics. 'That should do the trick,' he reckoned.

By Tuesday night, with the bronchitis now picking up the baton and leading from the front, I just wanted to curl up with the wheelie bins and let the refuse collectors deposit me somewhere. Back to see Doc, and some extra-strong tablets. And an inhaler. Three days later, and I'm now managing a whole hour, on occasion, without coughing my guts up. Result.

So there you have it. And all this just two weeks after I turned forty. All those well wishes, cards and presents, and 'life begins at forty' rubbish - you can take them back. I've reverting to mid-thirties. So there.

While there's no such thing as a good time to get sick (apart from when I broke my collarbone playing footy just a few days before World Cup 2002 started, resulting in three weeks off work), the last couple of weeks have been particularly bloody frustrating.

First, I'm now way behind on editing the Steve Joughin autobiography over at Nemesis Publishing, with all manner of deadlines looming. Second, I had just caught the buzz for a new writing project, and was all set to dive in. Not even dipped my toe yet. Third, there are 101 other jobs that need doing, including finishing the Nemesis website ready to go live, a backlog of books to review on this blog, and a cooker to clean, although the latter has been on the to-do list for so long that I think MrsQ may just have forgotten about it.

That said, it's not all been doom and gloom. This weekend I get to print out and proofread the first issue of MUSE, the new literary e-zine over at Litopia, which I've edited. And it looks mighty fine, too. The launch should be in the next week or two.

Also, I took a call yesterday from the new president of the World Manx Association, which next year celebrates its centenary. He wanted to know if, given the research I undertook for The Manx Connection, which saw me globetrotting to the various Manx societies, I would be interested in being co-opted on to a special committee set up to organise the centenary celebrations. Naturally, I said hell yes.

Finally, at least the infection and bronchitis didn't start this weekend, just as I prepare to head off on Monday night to Crete. I'm leaving MrsQ, MasterQ and BabyQ behind and heading to the land of minotaurs with my old dear Ma. My late grandfather was part of the Manx Regiment, the British Army's crack Ack-Ack gunners who battled the Germans at Souda Bay on Crete in May 1941.

Eight thousand troops were killed in about ten days of fighting, roughly a 50/50 split between Allied and German forces. My grandfather was one of the 17,000 Allied forces captured when Crete finally fell to the Germans, and he spent four years in a prisoner of war camp. I went to Crete as a youngster, but never visited Souda Bay. Ma has never been there - indeed, she's not been abroad since 1975 and is now 76, so this is very much a pilgrimage for her, and my aunt and uncle, who are coming along for the ride.

So, I'm heading away with three relatives in their mid-seventies, none of whom are exactly light on their feet or overly mobile. I'm there to drive them around, lug their bags in and out of hotels and generally make sure they're okay. More than one person has commented that it has the potential to turn into an episode of Last of the Summer Wine. My main worry is this - if the bronchitis isn't sorted out in the next 48 hours, it will be them looking after me.

But regardless of how I'm feeling, it promises to be a pretty emotional time. I'll let you know how we get on, with a few photos for good measure.

Monday, 12 April 2010

A momentous day, in more ways than one

It's been quite a day. Our little girl has, on the third night of asking, fallen asleep in her first proper bed without the need to get in and out of it sixteen times in the space of twenty minutes. I am a relieved man, and yes, I'm fully aware of the dangers of speaking too soon.

Moreover, I managed to finish cooking the tea tonight without burning the joint of roast pork to a cinder, an achievement on a par with me managing to put up a blind over the weekend without a) cursing; b) injuring myself; and c) flouncing off in a DIY-induced huff. Not only am I a relieved man, I'm a changed man too.

That's not all. Two fairly momentous things happened over the last 24 hours. First, I finished a short story - yes, as in complete - for the first time since, oh, dinosaurs last walked the earth. I actually finished writing it a week ago, and have spent several days fretting about how crap it is and trying to polish it. More impressively, this evening I took the plunge and submitted it to a competition. It's only a small affair, and I've only done it to get a taste of entering stuff into competition, but it's a start. There are some pretty big comps coming up in the next few months, and I want to enter at least a couple. From small acorns, and all that.

The second momentous happening involves Quackenbush, the young adult adventure novel that is enjoying a longer gestation period than the frilled shark (three and a half years, apparently). Regular visitors will know I've been having a bit of a tempestuous relationship with QB. The first draft has been almost complete for some time, but other projects saw it put on hold, and I've recently been trying to edit and rewrite large swathes of it, without, it has to be said, a huge amount of success.

One of main problems with it has been the setting - it's based in and around the Isle of Man, and draws on Celtic mythology. I wasn't convinced that was anywhere near sexy enough to catch the eye of an agent or publisher, regardless of how strong I felt the characters and plot were. So I asked a contact, someone with oodles of experience within publishing, what he thought.

Isle of Man? No major problem. Celtic mythology? Might be a little old hat, but could work. Can you give me the basic plot, says he? Here you go, says I.

He came back to me with two points - and each of them had me laughing. Not because they were ridiculous; no, they were so bloody insightful that I couldn't believe I'd missed them. The suggestions? One is based around the background to our young hero, Tom, who up to now has been a local Manx lad - in a nutshell, the adventure comes to him. That in itself might not sound like an issue, but think of all the exciting adventure yarns you've either read or watched on the big screen - the vast majority feature an outsider turning up in an unfamiliar place. As my advisor said, as the reader you're effectively seeing the story from the hero's point of view - so you are experiencing the story as it happens to them. That's point one.

Point two: what the hell do you need this Quackenbush character for? For background, QB is a bit of a legend, a cool dude who doesn't take shit from anyone. In the draft as it stands, Tom and he team up - but today's puzzler was, why? Why give Tom a partner who is so tough and cool, it's pretty bloody obvious from the get-go that they're going to succeed. Where is the sense of danger in that, the excitement?

Nowhere, is the answer. Why can't Tom take on the villainous adults on his lonesome? Have him endure all manner of hell and pain and come out the other side? Absolutely no reason whatsoever.

So, I have some thinking to do. If I'm going to follow these new directions, it will mean wholesale changes to the manuscript. The plot itself can remain reasonably unchanged - but huge chunks would need to be scrapped, other sections totally rewritten and several characters removed entirely from the story. In other words, a major, long-term project.

Right now, it's all a bit fresh. I don't know if I can face restructuring the story at this moment in time. I'm itching to write, not rewrite and edit. So it may be that I turn my focus to another project for the time being. I'm not sure. Either way, I don't want to rush it. As we say in Manxland, 'ta traa dy lioar ayn' - there's time enough.

Still, at least I've got the short story machine finally firing. I'll focus on churning out a few more of those while the old brain decides what it wants to do with QB. I can't wait to find out. The suspense is killing me.

Monday, 5 April 2010

John Quirk - an obituary

Today marks the first full day of my fifth decade on this planet. That word, fifth, is mighty bloody scary. Reaching forty is bad enough, but realising that you're now marching towards fifty gives rise to a particular dread if you're someone who is petrified of dying.

When I fired up the the laptop yesterday, the big day itself, to check emails, a few were my daily deliveries from Google alerts - I've set a few up, including one for this blog, two for Manx Giant and Manx Connection, and my name. It's good to have a heads up if someone is ripping you to pieces, and nice to be able to thank those who link something nice to you.

I checked the first few yesterday and there was nothing of note. But then I clicked open the 'John Quirk' alert. On a day when I was already subjecting myself to the great 'what I have done with my life so far' scrutiny, and was only too aware of my advancing age following an accident involving our little princess, a trampoline and my back, the one link in the alert did nothing to cheer me up.

The title read: John Quirk Obituary

It's really not the kind of thing you want to be reading on the day when everyone says life begins. Morbid curiousity made me click on the link to see which poor sod had died. It turned out to be a John C Quirk, 72, from Minnesota, so he at least enjoyed a reasonable innings. What it did strike home is the fact that, assuming I too am lucky enough to enjoy a decent innings, the chances are I'm around halfway through that innings, and quite probably over the halfway mark.

It's a sobering train of thought. I'm not going to inflict more pressure on myself by vowing that 'this will be the year when I make that fiction breakthrough and strike a publishing deal'... blah blah blah.

I've done it before, and it doesn't work. You've just got to keep chipping away, and hope that one day your big break will arrive. There is, however, a sense of purpose forming in my mind, unlike anything I've experienced before. It's a determination to work even harder to achieve my goals. That's not to say I've not worked hard in the past, but I'm my own harshest critic, and there have been years I've wasted.

As the years slip past, you realise there will be fewer opportunities to do the things you want to do, so in turn you have to make sure you don't waste them. When the call does come from the Big Guy upstairs, the one thing I don't want to do is click on my obituary from whatever heavenly internet cafe I'm in at the time and feel that I've not achieved what I set out to do. Because that would really piss me off.

So, it's time for action stations. Time to get cracking. Or it will be, when this bloody back sorts itself out...

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Rediscovering my missing urge

A few days left in the month, and it's been a mixed one for writing. I signed up for the National Novel Editing Month in March, in attempt to rediscover my mojo for the near-completed young adult manuscript that is Quackenbush.

NaNoEdMo tells you that you need to rack up 50 hours in the editing hot seat in order to get your Noddy badge, a sense of satisfaction and a warm glow inside. I knew from day one that it was a no-hoper; an average of 90-120 minutes a day? Forget it.

But I went with it anyway, knowing that whatever hours I clocked up would at least be hours working on the project, which is what I'd been missing for far too long. As it is, I've registered twelve hours so far, and should hit twenty by the time March 31 knocks on the door.

An honourable failure? Hell, I wouldn't even go that far. In terms of hours, I won't even make the halfway mark. However, the experience has more than proved its weight in gold, because I've fallen in love again with the book.

It happened last Saturday, when a gang of us from Skeealleydern writers' group descended on a library for a day's workshop. Six hours solid, and I've got the bug back, the itch to sit down and edit/rewrite, because I can see where I'm going. And believe me, I was beginning to wonder whether that would happen again for this particular project.

The plan is to crack on with QB, but there's also the consideration that a lot of my time will be taken up during the next few months (on the other side of our front room table) with Nemesis Publishing, which is entering a major phase in its development.

It's vital that I press on with Nemesis, but I certainly don't want to have my urge for QB go missing in action again, not after we've just declared undying love for each other. Again.
We seem to have broken up and reconciled more times than Ken and Deidre. Of course, I'm sure that this time it's forever...

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

I heard it on my radio...


I was all set to post tonight about how Muse, the new Litopia e-zine, is with the designer and maybe talk about the process involved in pulling the first issue together.

Then I logged into Litopia for a quick browse to see what was occurring, and discovered all hell had broken loose. The reason? Let's come to that in a moment...

I first stumbled across Litopia in January 2008 while researching literary agents and their submission guidelines. On Redhammer's site, run by London-based Peter Cox, it suggested I try this writer's colony, through which Peter would - after I'd shown a bit of dedication - accept submissions. I logged in, and discovered Litopia.

I've spoken of the merits of Litopia several times here in the past, but I don't think I've ever explained just what makes it so bloody good. There are two levels of membership - those who sign up begin as grade members, who have access to several forums, including Cafe Grande, where everything and anything about writing is discussed. After a period of time, you submit a piece of writing for full member status, and if it's up to scratch, you're upgraded to full member... and suddenly the whole colony opens up to you.

Another cafe for full members to shoot the breeze; Ask the Agent forum; Ask the Editor forum; monthly competitions; critique 'houses', separated into genre (the major benefit for writers); and, last but not least, the Pitch Room, where you submit your work direct to Peter (after having taken it through the relevant 'house'. And in return, Peter gives you a 25-minute or so video of feedback. Direct from an agent's mouth. Seriously, this is invaluable stuff for an unpublished writer. Gold dust, in fact.

I joined at a fortuitous moment; the Colony was going through an overhaul, I put my name forward to get involved behind the scenes and was asked to be one of the moderators looking after membership submissions. Next thing I knew, I was an occasional panelist on Litopia After Dark podcast, and writing the home page news stories for the Colony, based largely on members' achievements.

I've continued to stay involved behind the scenes, and it's fair to say that I wish I'd stumbled upon Litopia fifteen years ago, when I was a wet-behind-the-ears halfwit who thought he knew about books and publishing. As it turned out, I still knew next to nothing two years ago. That's no longer the case, and that is all down to Litopia.

It's not just the masses of advice and information that is available; it's the camaraderie between members, the understanding that, while you might be banging away at your keyboard hammering out your manuscript in the dead of night with not a soul around... you are not alone.
You're surrounded by writers, and publishers, and editors, and agents, and agents' readers, and successful, published authors. I really can't recommend it enough, but with one proviso - only join if you're serious about your writing. It's not a playground, even though there is plenty of fun to be had.

So, where am I going with this?

Today, Peter officially announced Radio Litopia. Using Peter's own words: 'Radio Litopia is a radio station devoted to writing, reading and everything inbetween, a logical extension of the highly successful podcasts we've been producing for the last two years. Our station, like thousands of others, is an online radio station. We broadcast over the internet rather than air waves. All our shows will be available as podcasts, too - making the audience even bigger.'

Potentially, this is huge. An entire radio station devoted to the written word? Any writer's number one fantasy, and yes, that's including what you think I'm thinking about.

As has been routinely discussed on the Daily and After Dark podcasts, publishing is undergoing something of a radical transformation, and Peter is positioning Litopia at the forefront of this changing climate, and Radio Litopia is just the next step.

There are two other factors which make Radio Litopia such a mouthwatering proposition. First, it's the fact that Peter has opened the entire programming up to members of Litopia to become involved with, be it as programme producers, panelists, reviewers, interviewers, technical support - or all of these. In the few hours since the announcement was made, the response in the 'Backstage' forum has been incredible.

The second factor, which goes for Litopia as a whole and not just what is happening with the radio station, is Peter's damn infectious enthusiasm. This man is seriously crazy about writing, authors, publishing - in fact, anything to do with books. Some might say he's just plain crazy. Yet it's an enthusiasm which is very difficult to escape, and certainly brushes off on my involvement, and I know I'm not alone in that.

So, Radio Litopia. It's here, it's groovy, and it will kick ass. Queen might even sing a song about it.
For now, you can download the existing podcast shows as normal. But over the course of the coming weeks, you'll start to see a heavier programming schedule appear. Make sure you check it out; if you're serious about writing, you'd be a fool not to.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Harry Carpenter - legend

Harry Carpenter. Damn, sometimes you don't realise how much you think of a 'celebrity' until they've departed this world.

Old 'Arry was with me as far back as I can remember, watching FA Cup fourth round fifth replays on Sportsnight in the late 1970s; you know, when footballers were real men, and didn't get too tired at the thought of running around for 90 minutes two or three times in the same week.

He was also on Grandstand and presented Sports Personality, but it was boxing with which he will always be most fondly connected. I loved watching boxing as a kid - I remember seeing Jim Watt win the world lightweight belt in 1979, and even before that, John Conteh was a favourite. For most of those fights I watched back then, Harry would have been in the hot seat. He was a consummate pro, incredibly charismatic and funny as hell when he wanted to be.

And yet, it was only when I read that he had died did I think back and recall those moments - I hadn't realised the impact he'd had on my childhood, much in the same way as Paul Newman's death hit me a couple of years ago; celebrites die, be they authors, actors or TV personalities, and you may think it's a damn shame, but that's as far as it goes. Yet there are some whose demise really shakes you. Harry Carpenter was one.

Thanks for the memories, Harry.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Coz we got a great big convoy...

I have a problem. No, not that one. Another one. Just one hour into editing Quackenbush last night, and I had to put the manuscript aside. Out came the notebook, and I tried to resolve the issue I realised had been there from very early on.

There's a gaping hole, not so much in the plot, but in the motivations of one set of characters. Throughout the story, they set themselves against both our heroes and the villains, trying to foil them. I feel, although I could be wrong, that they are crucial to the pace and tension, certainly in the second half of the book. And while there are vague reasons why they do what they do, I had a moment of dawning realisation - or, as Homer would put, the moment of 'Doh!' - and know, deep inside, that I could drive a convoy of huge monster trucks through their motivational holes.
How serious is it? Pretty. It's making it bloody difficult to focus on the job at hand, which is editing.

Yet I don't think it's terminal. There must be solutions that just haven't come to mind, but it's damn frustrating. Fortunately, there is much that can be done while I wait for this issue to resolve itself in my mind. And while the clock may be ticking, I also know it's not something I can rush. It has to feel right, it has to feel like a natural progression, otherwise I won't believe in the motivation, and I might as well give the manuscript to the kids to make paper airplanes (assuming they haven't nicked it already).

On the plus side, I was pleasantly surprised after that first hour of reading. Sure, there are some clunky sections which need a damn good polish, but, after more than a year away from the manuscript, it was a relief to find that there are some real nuggets in there.

Ultimately, the whole process just reinforces that sound piece of advice given to unpublished writers, but which applies equally well to all writers - once you've finished your first draft, put it to one side. For as long as possible. A few months minimum, six months if you can manage it. Then go back and read it with fresh eyes. It might be cliched, but you won't find a more worthwhile piece of advice in publishing.

Of course, that time apart doesn't magically fill holes that you'd forgotten were there. But at least you're coming at it from as neutral a perspective as you're going to get inside that mind of yours.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

A giant research problem

On the Litopia After Dark podcast last night, one of the subjects was research, and how important it is for a writer to get the facts right, even in fiction. With The Manx Connection and The Manx Giant: The Amazing Story of Arthur Caley under my belt, both non-fiction, host Peter Cox asked if there was point where I had to say, okay, enough already.

I agreed - with both books, but particularly The Manx Giant, I could have carried on with the research for another year. Or two. Maybe even three. And I still wouldn't have found out everything there is to know about Caley. The problem I faced was that after he was reported dead in Paris, aged 28, no one knew he was alive - so he spent the next 30-odd years in the US under another name, Colonel Routh Goshen. It was only when Goshen died that it came to light that he and Caley were one in the same.

Most of the information about Caley/Goshen was found in snippets here and there, most of them online. Just when I thought I was done, I'd google his name... and find another piece of research. And so it went on. Eventually, I held my hands up and agreed with the publisher to call it a day.

From the moment the book came out, I've been waiting for emails and phone calls to say, hang on Quirk, how come you missed this fact out?

When I mentioned this on the podcast, I completely forgot that, earlier the same day, I'd received a Google alert advising that a photograph of Caley/Goshen was for sale on Ebay - you can see it here - and, as it turns out, it's a picture we weren't aware of, either myself or the descendant of the Giant who approached me to write the book. It's an impressive photograph, too, with the other two men in the picture providing some scale to appreciate Caley's height and build.

So, it's started. I don't doubt for one minute that it will be the last picture or piece of information to come to light. Now, if lovely readers can ensure the first print run sells out, I might have the opportunity to revise the manuscript for the second edition...

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Needed - one Big Red Pen & short-term insomnia


Right. Enough faffing about. It's time.

Quackenbush, one of the young adult novels I've been working on for the last few years, has been sat gawping at me from the top of the bookshelf for the last four months, ever since I put the Manx Giant to bed and vowed to jump back into QB.

It's at the stage that many writers will understand - first draft almost finished, but in need of the mother of all edits to knock it into shape. An edit so daunting that the mere thought of it has me itching to crack open a four-pack and stick The Good, The Bad and The Ugly on the DVD.

It's not like I've been putting it off. Okay, it's a lot like that. But there has been other stuff on the go, so it's six of one and half a dozen of the other. Yet the fact remains; unless decisive action is taken, the bloody thing will most likely be staring down at me in six months' time.

So, I've made a decision. Well, that's not strictly true. I've been bullied into making a decision, by a writerly friend. Pippa, who blogs here, is a friend from the Skeealleyderyn writers' group. Earlier today she blogged about how she was shedding her procrastinating skin and getting her act together by signing up for the National Novel Editing Month in March, the sister event of the novel writing month held each year in November.

The goal - to log 50 hours editing during the 31 days of March, which, so they say, is a reasonable amount of time to edit a book of 60,000-70,000 words. I'll take their word for it.

I had a go at NaNoWriMo back in 2006 - in fact, QB was the project, and I somehow crawled over the 50,000-word mark with a few hours to spare. I've not attempted NaNoWriMo since, because other commitments haven't allowed. I've never even been to the NaNoEdMo website, but earlier today I found myself having a quick skeet. And then it hit me; this is what QB has been waiting for. And Pippa didn't waste any time twisting my arm.

So I'm going for it. Not out of any great desire to earn myself a little NaNoEdMo badge or logo to stick on this here blog. And not out of a need to band with like-minded souls, because there's more than enough over at Litopia.

No, I'm going to sign up because I just need a focus - a deadline to set my sights on, because deadlines work. I haven't the first clue where I'm going to find the time to do this during March, but what the hell. It's got to be done. So, here we go. Watch this space, and I'll keep the updates coming. Feel free to fire over words of encouragment. I'll surely need 'em...

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

A close encounter of the spectral kind

What follows is a true story. It happened three or four months back, but I resisted the urge to write about it at the time, wanting to allow 20/20 hindsight to come up with some logical explanation. It hasn't. So here we are - I've not dressed it up in any way whatsoever; it happened exactly as follows:

A regular route of mine when out on a jaunt to clear the old cobwebs takes me down towards the back of the Kentraugh Estate, which overlooks the sea just along from Gansey beach. Kentraugh is one of the most intriguing estates on the Isle of Man. I'm not sure how far it dates back, but certainly two or three hundred years, and Kentraugh Mill is mentioned in records dating back to 1506.

As you approach from the rear, the entire estate appears to be shrouded in trees, the skyline broken only by the mansion house. The road leading to Kentraugh forks at the very back of the estate, with the two roads winding round to meet up with the main road that crosses in front of the estate, with tree-lined driveways at both east and west boundaries.

From the rear of the estate, the left fork in the road takes you past some huge decrepit old gates, beyond which you can glimpse what I imagine are old farm buildings. In years past it must have been a bustling hive of activity, but now looks like the kind of place you'd expect to see Peter Cushing sticking a stake through Christopher Lee's heart. I've never set foot in the estate, but have long wished to.

One chilly night last autumn I set off about nine o'clock to walk to Kentraugh and do a lap of the estate, before returning home. I'm not, it has to be said, the kind of person who spooks easily; by the age of ten or so I'd pretty much devoured the entire catalogue of Hammer horror films, including all the Cushing/Lee Dracula yarns, and by the time the early 80s arrived, with their slasher movies, I sat oblivious, as a young teen, to the gore and supposed chills served up by the likes of Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street.

The autumn night in question was dry, but overcast, with not a star in sight. I'd done about half a mile when I realised that I'd forgotten to bring a torch, which isn't normally a problem on my walks, as the roads I usually trek at night have streetlights. But this night I had my heart set on a lap of Kentraugh, and I knew the two roads that encircled the estate would be pitch black. No worries, I thought. I knew the place well, if I took it slowly I'd be fine.

As I approached the fork in the road, I left the streetlights behind and plunged into the darkness ahead. There are some cottages at the fork, so there was a bit of light, but this was soon lost as I turned left, heading down the slight incline towards the ruined gates and farm buildings. I had to slow to a gentle pace, almost feeling my way ahead with each step. After about fifty yards I glanced up and saw what looked like a figure to my left, walking by the wall, heading in the same direction as I was. I was in the middle of the road and as I drew nearer I got the impression it was a little old man, walking very slowly. This was merely guesswork, because all I could make out was a shape, a black outline against the dark grey/black of the wall and the night.

I don't know why I thought it was a man; something about his gait, perhaps, but I just knew it was a man and not a woman. And he had to be old to be moving at that speed; either that or he was a younger man on his way home after the mother of all sessions at the Colby Glen pub.

As I drew nearer, I kept glancing between the figure and what I could make out of the road in front of my feet. I was keeping an eye on the man because I didn't want to scare the bejesus out of him, so was waiting till I was up level, at which point I planned on saying a measured 'hello' as I passed. I'd almost reached him when the tall old gates appeared on my right. I looked at them, back down at my feet and then up at the old man. I was right up by his shoulder now. I took another look down, then glanced back up, preparing to greet him as I drew level.

When I looked up, he was gone. It remains the only time in my life where the phrase 'stopped dead in my tracks' can apply. I looked behind, and ahead, and then back at the wall where the figure should have been. Nothing. Then, what felt like every single hair on my body began to tingle. Back of the neck: check. Along my arms: check. It felt like there was electricity running down from my shoulders to my forearms. I looked around again, at the other side of the road, and moved over towards the wall where the old man was just a moment before. Nothing. I even checked along the ground, to make sure he hadn't fallen over.
'Hello?' I said, turning around in a full circle once more. 'Hello?' Silence.

At this point I wasn't sure what to do. So I did the only thing that made any sense; I started walking again, past the old gates and out towards the main road. The rest of the walk was spent trying to come up with an explanation as to what had happened. When I completed the lap of the estate, and stood again at the fork in the road, I was tempted to head off on a second lap, to see if I encountered the man again.

Something made me head home. Was I scared? I don't think so, but I was certainly unnerved. I'd never seen anything that could be classed as a 'ghost'. The nearest thing to a supernatural experience came in 1995, when I was staying the night at an inn in Blackburn, which a friend of mine from the town had told me was haunted. I was playing pool in the bar, one of those rooms with chairs lined up along each of the walls, and it was a busy night, with most of the seats taken as I played a game against one of the locals. It was about halfway through the game, and I was about to take a shot down at one end of the table. I could see the black out of the corner of my eye, and needed to screw the white past the black to get down to the other end of the table for my next shot. As I was about to hit the cue ball, I saw the black move. It rolled for about an inch, maybe two. It wasn't on a spot, so hadn't 'rolled off'. There was no one else anywhere near the table, there was no breeze blowing in from an open window, and my arm wasn't near enough for me to have hit it accidentally. I looked up at my friend, who, along with one or two of the locals, merely gave a wry smile and shrugged, as if to say, hey, told you so.

Other than that encounter, I'd never experienced anything like the events that occurred at Kentraugh. Nothing physical, nothing visible. My initial reaction was that it had been my shadow, but when the figure disappeared I checked; it was overcast, there was no streetlight, or moonlight, and besides, you know when you're looking at your shadow. This wasn't it.

Maybe it was merely a trick of the night, or perhaps my eyesight, which was strained with trying to see potholes and obstacles in the road, saw something that wasn't there. I've always been somewhat skeptical about folk who regale others with tales of ghosts and other supernatual encounters, which is why I've left this tale to stew for a while.

Yet it won't go away. And it could be because of this; the day after it happened, I shared the tale with a few work colleagues. They suggested I do some research on Kentraugh. I said I would. When I got in that night, a colleague's wife had beaten me to it. She sent me a note on Facebook, suggesting I check out a website link. I did. It told the story of a ghost that supposedly haunts Kentraugh and the surrounding lands. Again, I felt the hair rise on my neck and arms. What kind of ghost? A white lady? A headless horseman? A pale little girl in a flowery dress?

Of course not. It is an old man.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

The List

Okay, okay. I've put it off for two weeks, I can't fight it any longer.

This time last year I posted a list of goals for the year, a review of which a few weeks back showed I'd been somewhat optimistic/deluded.

Undeterred, here is the list for 2010. In no particular order:

  • Finish Quackenbush young adult novel. Rewrite huge chunks, edit all of it. Run it through the houses in Litopia. Edit and polish a few times, then submit to agents. I really should end this list right here, at least that's what Mrs Q will be thinking...
  • Nemesis Publishing - I should have a separate list for this over on this blog, but I'll summarise here: Get Vertigo anthology to print in time for Easter launch; Edit and design book three, a biography, for release in June; develop two further ideas for release in time for Christmas 2010; finish text for website and get it up and rocking; Launch a competition for first-time novelists
  • TV script - another hold over from last year, but this time we're already up and running. Writing buddy and I are penning a six-part drama, and I reckon we can have them completed by year end
  • Short stories - this was a miserable fail last year - but it really has to change. Aim is to write three or four cool stories and get them off to comps or submitted to mags
  • Get back to reading regularly - struggled to get into anything for the last couple of months, but need to get 113 Supposedly Greatest Books Ever Written back on its feet. Also have a list of books which I've read that need reviewing for this blog
And that's it. There are other things I'd like to have completed, or at least developed, by the end of the year, but I'm forever taking on too much, so enough is enough.

Unlike last year, if I get to the end of 2010 and one or more of the above hasn't been ticked off the list, I'll be gutted. I've promised myself a lot over the last five to ten years - it's about time I delivered.

So there you have it. One of the other jobs for the year is to blog more regularly, both here and over at Nemesis. So please tag along for the ride. It'll be frustrating and painful, but hopefully glorious. And funny, occasionally. Maybe.