Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Dark and bloody inspirational

Review - Lord Loss, Darren Shan

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.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Struggling to stay in the game

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.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Here goes nothing...

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...

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Under starter's orders

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.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

80,000 words. 80 days. Game on.

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.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

How are you celebrating World Book Night?

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.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Ass-kicking justice, Reacher-style

Review - Worth Dying For, Lee Child

Ah, Jack Reacher. The 6ft 5in Terminator-like bringer of justice, who's up righting wrongs while Spider-Man and Superman are still pulling on their knickers and fighting over the Weetabix. For his latest ass-kicking session, Child deposits Reacher in Nebraska, where he sticks his nose into the business of the Duncan family, three ageing ex-farmers who rule their home county with a mafia-style grip.

When Reacher busts the face of one of their sons, suspecting him of beating his wife, the Duncans call in their heavies and send them in Reacher's general direction. If you've read any Reacher before, you know what's coming - pain for anyone in Jack's way, and a complex web of intrigue, a dirty great scab the Duncans want to keep hidden, and, well, Jack just can't help but pick at it.

I finished Worth Dying For several weeks ago, but as I started to think about a review, I realised there wasn't a whole lot to say. Not because it's a bad book; far from it, I think it's one of the finest of his fifteen adventures. But if you've already fallen for Reacher's charms, then you know you can't delve into the plot without removing the joy for others of watching the big man piece it together.

No, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to talk about Reacher himself, and what it is that has enthralled millions of readers around the world.

Six years ago, when I read the first Reacher (Killing Floor) and blitzed through the back catalogue at a pace which had me believing I had true stalker potential, I thought of each book as one of my small guilty pleasures. It wasn't just because they were selling by the shitload, and so could be viewed as overly commerical; it was because the writing seemed too straightforward, Reacher a blunt vengeance-wreaking tool, almost superhero-like in his quest for justice. He was Batman, without the cape. And that was fine with me, but the impression I got from reviewers (and punters) was that it wasn't cool to admit it.

As the years, and books, passed, I realised I'd pegged it all wrong. The more I studied writing, and publishing, I began to see the beauty, and subtlety, of what Child was doing.

Sure, it all seems fairly formulaic - Jack gets caught up in some intrigue, sometimes of his own doing, other times because he's in the wrong place at the wrong time, nothing is quite as it seems, there's usually a woman involved somewhere along the line, and Jack is usually two steps ahead of the villains (and three ahead of the reader).

And it's easy to understand the attraction. Reacher is part Bond, part Batman, part Man With No Name, and all hero. In fact, if Eastwood was forty years younger, and forty pounds heavier, he'd be ideal for taking Reacher to the big screen. Reacher wanders the US, moving on once the problem has been solved and justice meted out, carrying nothing but the clothes he wears, a toothbrush and, reluctantly, a bank card.

It's a brilliantly simplistic idea that Child forged and developed. There is something in Reacher's lifestyle that appeals to everyone. MrsQ is no doubt going to read me the riot act, but would I like to live the kind of life that Reacher does? Hell, yes. At least, part of me does. And I defy anyone, man or woman, to say otherwise - even if it's just one per cent, even if you know there is absolutely no chance of you doing so, there's always that thought - wouldn't that just be so damn cool?

What fascinates me about Child's writing is the intricacies of the reveal. I picked up Worth Dying For as I lay in bed one night and when I stopped for breath, even thought about anything other than what I was reading, I was on page eighty. It must have been an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and it felt like ten minutes. It was half two in the morning, I was wide awake (I'd been dead on my feet getting into bed) and I had to keep reading. I eventually quit half an hour later, but only because I knew I was looking after the kids the next day, and they'd be pouncing on my head in about four hours' time.

It's page-turning expertise of the highest order. Child is a master at coaxing you on, not just with another bit of action, or the promise of seeing Reacher taking down a few of the bad guys. It's those morsels of info that he reveals, delicately placed throughout to ensure you're cursing his name when the kids demand a viewing of Spongebob at half six in the morning. That in itself is a prized skill for any writer to attain, and one that - to my mind - puts Child right up there with the best authors working today.

Returning to Worth Dying For, and indeed its predecessor, 61 Hours, I've noticed a change in Reacher. His time on the road might be numbered. Avoiding spoilers, he's focused on one thing now - both books follow his path back to Washington DC - yet, at the same time, his thirst for justice and willingness to put himself in harm's way seems to be more intense. At the start of Worth Dying For, there's a point where Reacher knows he can just keep on walking. He's not embroiled in anything yet, there's no 'event' which lands him where he is. He can avoid everything and not get involved in what he believes to be a domestic situation. But he can't help himself. It's as if the bomb that has been ticking inside him all these years is ready to detonate.

I've no idea what Child has in store for Reacher. When I interviewed him for the Litopia e-zine, Muse, fifteen months ago, he said that as long as people want to keep reading about Reacher, he was happy to write the books. Folk seem happier than ever to read them. But I can't help but feel that Reacher is being steered towards some kind of climax. Whichever way it pans out, I'll be right there with Jack, striding into danger, no matter what time of the morning it is.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

A story worth waiting for...

During the fifteen years I spent as a freelance journalist, trainee and then staff journalist on regional newspapers, I can probably count on one hand the occasions when I felt proud of the work I did. Not those times when I thought I'd written a good story - rather, the times when I thought I'd actually done something worthwhile with what little talent I'd been granted.

One such instance was the £30,000-odd we raised in a month for breast cancer research, with the high point a world record-breaking chain of bras - 3.2 miles long - along Douglas Promenade (yes, the bras were empty at the time). All done in howling wind and pissing rain, but there was one hell of a sense of achievement when all was done and we were in the pub celebrating. Other moments were few and far between.

Then last night I heard some news that made me smile. And I'm still smiling now, twenty-four hours later. As a trainee on the Chorley Guardian, I received a letter from a woman called Diana Curren, highlighting the plight of a ruined historic building called Bank Hall, which stands by the River Douglas in the nearby village of Bretherton. The shell of the building remained, but it was crumbling away as the years passed and the grounds were wildly overgrown. Diana asked if anything could be done to raise awareness of the hall and protect if from any further deteroriation.

I met Diana at Bank Hall and instantly fell in love with the place. You could live a few hundred yards away from it and spend your entire life unaware of its existence. The hall dates back to the early 17th century, and you can read about its history here. It was the kind of place - both the building itself and the extensive grounds - for which the words moody and atmospheric were conjured.

Tall chimneys and a spectacular clock tower remained, but gone were the lime trees which once lined the drive to the front door, likewise the stone lions that guarded it. The building had been devastated by dry rot and the sheer weight of years of neglect.

Spurred on the by the visit, I wrote a feature on the hall's history and current plight. We asked for views from the public, and I wasn't expecting the strength of emotion the piece generated - particularly from those who either knew very little of Bank Hall, or were completely unaware of its existence.

I arranged a meeting (in a local pub, naturally) of interested parties and from that meeting was born the Bank Hall Action Group. I stayed active within the group, covering developments as a plan was formed. It led to the Chorley Guardian running the 'Save Bank Hall' campaign, which won awards. The strength of feeling within the community was astonishing. Over the next twelve months, meetings were held with the owners. Access was established, to the grounds if not the building, and - after what seemed like an age - some initial stabilising work was undertaken.

But then the campaign seemed to stall. There was little indication from the owners and the council of any real desire to come up with a solution. Some schemes were suggested, but never came to fruition. In September 1996, I left Chorley and returned to the Island.

The following years saw further work carried out - ivy was stripped away, trees growing out of the foundations were removed, and the garden was cleared of the jungle that was strangling it. More of the grounds were opened to the public, a visitor museum was built and each year a calendar of events was organised. I managed to stay in touch from time to time, one day hoping that the building could be restored in some way.

As the years passed, I lost faith. I shouldn't have. The Bank Hall team continued to work tirelessly behind the scenes. The website was created , a Facebook page appeared, the campaign to save the building continued to gather pace. The hall was also in with a chance of winning the first series of BBC's Restoration, which saw derelict historic sites vying for the public's vote.

Last night I heard the news that planning approval has finally been granted for a project that will restore Bank Hall, if not to its exact former glory, then at least to what should be a decent version of it. There will be apartments, and a visitors' centre in the clock tower and main hall/porch, a walled heritage garden (back to how it was in its pomp) and conversion of the greenhouse and potting sheds into a visitor entrance and cafe.

In this day and age, it sounds like a fair compromise. The news brought with it another rare feeling of pride from my time in journalism, five years after I left it. The wait has been worth it. What started sixteen years ago, with me as a wet-behind-the-years rookie trying to find a feature with which to fill a page gap before deadline, has ended - all being well - with a victory for people power.

I write these words not as a self-congratulatory pat on the back, but as a tribute to the folk who took up the fight in those early days and those who continued to carry the baton as the years passed. It also serves as a reminder that, whatever it is you want in this life, most of the time you have to work damn hard to get it - and if you give up on your dreams, you won't live to see them come to glorious life. And that's particularly apt within the world of publishing.

My thanks go to everyone in the Bank Hall Action Group, past and present. A fantastic achievement.

(My thanks also to Bank Hall tour guide John Howard for allowing me to use his photographs - if you want to see more cool pics, visit - and like - the Hall's Facebook page here)

Monday, 24 January 2011

A nip here, a tuck there

So here we are. I know what you’re thinking – he’s looking a little different. Maybe a haircut, or the loss of a few pounds around the midriff. Or has he been spreading cream on those wrinkles? If I’m honest, it’s all of the above, although don’t be telling Mrs Q about using her cream.

The real change, of course, comes with this blog. It’s nothing radical. Just a few tweaks here and there.

First up, the theme. When I started The Witching Hour a couple of years ago, it was to document my occasional up and several downs in writing, based around the fact that the main time I get to indulge my artistic bent is when other sane people are in bed, doing whatever people do in such contraptions. The blog grew from that, but as time went on it became clear that with other commitments (mainly to Nemesis Publishing), my posts were becoming somewhat sporadic. And what’s more, I doubted that anyone would be remotely interested in a daily account of my struggles to find some words and put them in the right order.

So I stepped back late last year and took stock. The result is this – Quirkipedia, a little corner attic of the internet where I can talk about everything to do with the written word, be it book reviews, interviews, publishing news, my own writing, works in progress, scripts…you name it. And you’re more than welcome to join in the fun. Just make sure you bring a bottle. As it happens, after putting writing on hold for the best part of 2010, I’ve promised myself that this year the focus will be back on writing. Yeah, I've heard that one before too.

For this blog makeover, I’ve revised the gizmos and gadgets on the right hand side of the page, added a few more blog links and authors and the like.I've a raft of books to review, sent to me by kindly publishers, and at this rate I'll need to take on a reviewer.

So enjoy the decor, put your feet up and stay a while. If you have any ideas for the blog, or for a particular post, drop me a line - johnquirkbooks(at)gmail.com