Things are moving fast

So, things are moving quite quickly now towards the publication of my novel Song of the Sea God which you can pre-order on Amazon here. I had the proofs of my book through from the publisher Skylight Press – it looks great and I spent a long evening reading through it one last time plus correcting issues picked up by the proof-reading the publisher had done.

Had you asked me before they read it what they would find I’d have said I’d read it and rewritten it that many times it would be fairly clean. And so it was – but there were a couple of howlers in there – and they duly found them!

One was that a character changed his name for an entirely new one about half way through. And the other was that at one point in the book a pair of characters had a discussion about something which had not yet happened – and didn’t happen for another 30 pages.

How did mistakes like that get in there you might ask? Well the simple answer is rewrites. I will actually have written those errors into the text fairly late in the day – while changing and, for the most part, improving sections of text. Luckily, they can just as easily be rewritten again! You can be assured that when the book appears the characters will keep the same names throughout.

Another development is that, on Friday October 5, I read from Song of the Sea God at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. I was delighted to do it – even though it turned out to be a bit of a weird setting. My reading took place in one of the festival book tents, basically a big book shop, at a time when there weren’t that many people around. There were people coming in and out, browsing the shelves, and me sat in the middle on a stage, with no microphone, reading from my book. I felt a bit like I did in my late teens when I used to busk with my guitar in the streets of northern cities. Luckily at that time I learned how to keep on keeping on, even if the interest in what I was doing was fairly muted.

My lit fest gig was an experience to say the least – and I’m glad I did it. It was the first chance I had to read from Sea God to the public, and at a prestigious event – even though my little corner of it was far from prestigious. It was nice of the organisers to find room among all their big stars for an unknown first time author like me.

Exciting Developments!

It’s all happening all of a sudden. After some months of knowing, as an abstract concept, that my novel was to be published, now it feels as though it is actually happening.

One compelling bit of evidence that the birth of the book is imminent is that you can pre-order it on Amazon here.

And I feel I would be failing in my duties as an author if I did not urge you to do just that.
Another particularly big piece of evidence is that the book now has a cover. Here it is on this page. I love it I have to say. Thanks to Rebsie from my publisher Skylight Press for creating it. The moody photo of the beach was taken by an old pal of mine Phil Murray and thanks also to him. How it came to be taken is a tale both ancient and modern.

Modern in that I got in touch with Phil via Facebook – we were mates when we were both in our 20s. I was guitarist and songwriter with a not particularly popular Indie rock combo called the Blaze Heroes, Phil was the bass player. But Phil left town, to get a proper job – with her majesty’s constabulary. And these days he also has a photography studio on the side – he’s a busy man.

So much for modern – now for ancient. Friendship – there’s something that hasn’t changed in a few millennia – and when Phil found he was in a position to do an old mate a favour, an old mate who needed cover photography for his book and couldn’t take a decent snap shot to save his life, Phil didn’t hesitate.

Not only did he insist on taking the photographs but he got up at stupid o’clock in the morning to do it and drove for an hour or so in the dark down the meandering roads of West Cumbria in order to reach the beach at dawn.

The beach in question is on Walney Island, off the coast of Barrow-in-Furness. It’s where I grew up – and where Song of the Sea God is set. Though I hasten to add, I just borrowed the geography from the island – not the people, not the plot. Walney island has an isolated feel, though it is attached to the mainland by a bridge. It is beautiful in a stark, uncompromising way – Phil captured that beauty in his photo, I hope I have also done so in my book.

A final proof that things are moving is that I have my first opportunity to read from Song of the Sea God – at the Cheltenham Literature Festival no less. The Cheltenham Festival is one of the biggest and most star-studded in the UK – packed with stellar names from literature and showbiz. I’m very pleased the organisers were willing and able to crowbar me in down at the very bottom of the bill. I live in Gloucestershire so it’s a local event for me and one I’m very pleased to be involved with.

I’ll be reading in the Waterstones Book Marquee in Montpellier Gardens, Cheltenham, at noon on Friday October 5th. Public readings can be an anxious experience for a writer – but I’m happy to do this as I feel I owe it to the book to give it the best delivery into the world that I can.

Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s one of the questions people most often ask writers – and one of the hardest to answer – Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s tough to answer because there’s no one place, and sometimes we don’t know ourselves where we get them – it‘s like some kind of deeply felt sympathetic magic. Norman Mailer called writing ‘the spooky art’ and this is why. By the time something I’ve written is finished it’s difficult to say where it originated – if I didn’t know the process it took to get there I’d say it just arrived on its own.

For me the fairest, simplest answer to the question where do you get your ideas from? Would be – they evolve.

That’s the truth, it’s a statement more honest than if I’d said I got them from listening to friends, or watching people on the bus, or reading books. Bits and pieces can come from all these places of course, and many more: newspapers, magazines, rock songs, dreams. But the point is that a finished story or book is highly unlikely to have something in it which is a straight lift from art or life – it will have evolved, with time and thought and rewriting, into its final form.

Perhaps that’s why some authors get grumpy about the ‘based on’ question which seems to be the line of inquiry so often these days from people looking to find a way into a piece of fiction. Was this character based on such and such a person? It’s as though writing has to have a direct route back into the artist’s biography – whereas often the reality is that a character in a story or novel is at least partly the way they are because they have to serve the plot – the whole thing is an artistic construction after all, not a personal diary.

In some ways I suppose it’s not where I get my ideas from, but where they lead to which is important to me. But hey – where do you get your ideas from?

Drunken authors

I could never be the sort of author whose reputation is as big as their books, I’m too well-behaved – these days.

I mean I’ve had my moments I like to think, back in the day, when I was younger, I liked a gambol round the paddock. But nothing compared to the titans of the game for whom bad behaviour and a copious appetite for booze was as much a part of the job as a well wrought metaphor.

There was an era of course when being paralytic for much of time seemed to be essential for the man of letters – women of letters maybe not so much, though I’m sure there are those who have given it a go.

So who was the daddy? Who was the drunkest of them all?

An outside bet must be William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies among many other great works. He hit the bottle hard and cut a half-cut swathe through many a literary soiree. He’s certainly not the best known of literary drinkers though is he?

Who do you summon up when you think of the phrase drunken writer? I’m guessing the first name that springs to mind won’t be a novelist at all but a poet.

Dylan Thomas, am I right?

He certainly does have a reputation as an all out toper and he does take some beating. Thomas lived so much for the bottle that it eventually killed him before he reached 40. That’s certainly an incredibly self-destructive effort.

Essentially though, Dylan Thomas was a writer who was an alcoholic. Whereas my pick for number one, the biggest literary drunk of them all, was essentially an alcoholic who managed to produce a book. He was Malcolm Lowry and the book was Under the Volcano.

And what a book. I’d recommend it to you if you haven’t read it. Not surprisingly it deals with someone who was drinking himself to death. They say write what you know. It tells the story of the last day of the life of the ‘hero’ as he staggers from bar to bar during the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Lowry’s fate was as fixed as that of his fictional alter ego. His life seems to have been one long round of drinking whatever he could find which might possibly get him off his face, then making an ocean-going nuisance of himself, then facing the consequences. I remember a magazine profile on him by Martin Amis which revealed that Lowry once drank a huge bottle of olive oil in the belief that it was hair restorer and would get him drunk. I’m not sure which part of that story I find most strange – what he drank or what he thought he was drinking.

A typical day in Lowry’s life was: get up, drink a Jeroboam of Windolene, have a huge fight with the wife or a terrible accident with a chainsaw and finish the day either in jail or some kind of mental institution.

Not surprisingly he managed to drink himself to death too, but not until he was 47 – he must have had the constitution of Keith Richards.

I’ve not even mentioned William Burroughs who shot his wife in the head during an ill-advised game of ‘William Tell.’

I think I’ll stay a well-behaved and relatively sober author. The other kind end up dead too soon and having achieved less than they might have done.

What’s in a name?

The naming of a book or story is a curious thing. Once it’s done, there it is, set in stone – but getting there can be as much of a process as any other type of writing.

Take Catch 22 for example. Joseph Heller thought long and hard about what to call his darkly comic magnum opus about the Second World War, until he finally came up with the perfect title – Catch 18.

Only trouble was, there was another book coming out that year with 18 in the title, one by a more famous author (this was Heller’s first book don’t forget). So the publisher wasn’t feeling the love for the whole Catch 18 thing.

It was back to the drawing board and Heller ummed and arred over various possible numbers before settling on 22 on the grounds that it was more amusing than other numbers. And who are we to dispute the great man on that?

Anyway, the point is that something which seems so set and intractable now – so much a part of the book, and indeed part of our culture, could so easily have been something else.

For my own part, I often start with one title, as a kind of place marker, then change it for something more exciting later on. This early title tends to be quite a basic label – one which describes what the story is or does. Sometimes this title survives into print – other times it gets replaced.

Song of the Sea God for example, spent a lot of its early days being called The Longing. It was even short listed in a couple of awards for unpublished novels under that name. It was only when my publisher suggested I change the title for something more evocative that I came up with Song of the Sea God, which I think is a lot more attractive title have on its cover as it sits in the bookshop window hoping for buyers.

I expect it was the first time I properly considered a title in terms of something which might entice people to read my work – rather than as just a tag. Previously when I’ve had stories published in anthologies and so on they’d been ‘paid for’ in terms of competition prizes – the title had not been there to attract readers or buyers – just to indicate what the story was about or convey a feel for what it contained. At that stage it never entered my head that, essentially, what you call your story or book is an exercise in marketing.

Perhaps the writers out there could comment on how you find your titles – and how important, or otherwise, you think they are in the finished work?

High tech future for the written word?

I’m going a bit off-piste with this one so do bear with – I’m sure we’ll get mugged by something approximating a valid point down near the bottom somewhere.

I was just thinking how little I now know about the world around me – the man-made world that is. Technology has bounded along at such a lick that it’s left the average man or woman in the street trailing in its wake I’d say.

Not that I’ve ever really been up to speed. I mean, when it comes right down to it – I don’t even know how a radio works. I’ve got the headlines of course – if it came up in a pub quiz I’d know that it’s got something to do with waves and they travel through the air – but beyond that – nothing. I mean – these waves – are they everywhere? Are they all around us now? Do they pass through us? Who knows – not me, press a button, music comes out – that’s it.

So you can imagine the towering level of my incomprehension when it comes to what might loosely be termed ‘new technology’. Take this laptop I’m writing on – how does that really work? Microchips and things yes – binary code, noughts and ones. But how does it come together? And the internet? Twitter? This blog? Frankly I haven’t a clue.

When people – well, you know, nutters – say that it’s all alien technology, reverse engineered from a crashed space-craft found at Roswell, I don’t think ‘Oh – how absurd!’ I think: ‘Well – it’s a theory.’

Things have moved so fast. If I was able to talk to myself as a kid, and show him what we’ve got in the way of gadgets now, he would think I was showing him some distant science fiction.

“Never mind that rubbish you see on Star Trek with the clam-shell phones – that’s so 1995 – take a look at this iPhone. With this thing in my palm I can access every fact in the world – or at the very least someone’s opinion on that fact. I can speak to anyone on the planet who is willing to speak to me – yes on the phone, the way you have to go down to the corner and use the pay phone to do, but also on TV face to face. I can listen to any song on any record in the whole of HMV on the high street – and millions more they haven’t got. Yes, even 12 inch singles. I can watch any movie – the ones you have to go to the cinema to see. And when you get in the car – this thing can bounce a signal off a satellite up in space and tell you exactly where you are in the world and give you directions to where you have to go.’

Even supposing young me wasn’t freaked out by old me just appearing like that and going on at him like some deranged salesman from Phones 4 U he would doubtless be amazed by how quickly things have changed.

But now imagine me as a kid, going back to see my dad when he was a child – say 30 years earlier. I wouldn‘t really have had that much to tell him. ‘You know TV? Yes – well we still have that, but some rich people have colour ones – and you know telephones? Well several people in my class have them in their actual homes.’

Yes – it’s since the 1970s that things have really taken off. I think I was about 12 when Pong came out – that precursive video game based on batting a white dot from one side of the screen to the other between two paddles. I imagine that was the first bit of technology we reverse engineered from the Roswell Aliens. It’s all gone haywire since then.

Now let’s look at literature. (See, told you there was a point). How has that changed in the same period? Well, I’m tempted to bluster and make up some stuff but the truth is, it’s hardly changed at all. Styles come and go, fashions wax and wane, but we still have novels, poetry, short stories. Nothing revolutionary has happened.

It has been suggested that the changes in technology could prompt a revolution in the way we write. That the more open access of the e-book era might allow people new latitude to reconfigure what counts as a piece of creative writing. It might smash open the boxes into which writing must fit to get past publishers and agents and make it into print under the current orthodoxy.

Removing the constraints of the solid, physical book and the expensive process of printing might lead to unexpected and radical change in the forms writing takes.

Is this what’s going to happen? Or will ebooks simply lead to mass piracy and mean that authors struggle even more to get paid for their work?

Who knows? The truth is it’s a revolution – and in a revolution nobody knows what the outcome is going to be, not even the people who start it.

Long story short

427px-Ernest_Hemingway_1950_cropChallenged to write a short story in just ten words Ernest Hemingway managed it in six. His story read:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

He later said it was the best thing he’d ever written.

And there is a skill of course in brevity. It’s a lesson you learn in newspaper journalism, where space is at a premium. Writing a good News In Brief is an art in itself, as is a tight story intro. They can become quite poetic in the right hands

The legendary newspaper editor Harold Evans offers up a cracking intro in his book Newsman’s English. His example, from the New York Sun, reads:

Chicago, Oct 31: James Wilson lighted a cigarette while bathing his feet in benzine. He may live.

Though not quite as compact as Hemingway’s shortest story it has the same function of carrying a whole world in a few words – of distilling the tale right down to its bare essentials.

That’s about it for today. A short blog this one – naturally.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.