Taking a Break: Why I’m Not Doing Social Media

There was a window of about three years when Twitter genuinely seemed like an incredible, transformative force in my life. I’d connected with a number of people via Facebook, but that kind of thing always felt a bit ephemeral and distanced – Twitter was instantaneous, and immersive, like dunking your head in a bucket of conversation. It was addictive and compulsive, and between 2009–2012 it was wonderful. I made friends, I had unexpected conversations, and it genuinely felt like social media was making my life better.

Of course, things change. I had a rough patch in 2012, and social media played into that a little. It’s also sometimes rough when you’re trying to be a writer, and you’re following a lot of the writing/publishing world on Twitter, and every moment seems to deliver another example of someone doing better than you – getting a book deal, finishing a book, making lots of friends. Twitter started feeling more like being at a very crowded party where there’s plenty of conversations happening, but very few are actually happening to you.

Plus, the landscape of social media has changed a lot in the last few years. There are certain points where I’ll have things that I could say on social media, but I don’t because I don’t want the potential hassle. I’ve seen a lot of toxicity and weirdness, and most of the time I’ve ended up thinking that I simply don’t want it – I’d far rather be a little quieter and less controversial, and not be shouting my every opinion from the rooftops.

I trimmed down the list of people that I followed. Then I trimmed it some more. There were still points where it would make me unhappy – whether it was clicking on a depressing article being circulated on Facebook, or witnessing whatever outrage was being complained about on Twitter. And then, about two months ago, I reached a point where I said, “I’m taking a break.” I wasn’t going to make a big thing. I was just taking a break from Twitter and Facebook, and seeing how long I wanted to stay away.

It’s two months, and I’m not heading back yet. I’ve occasionally had a very quick check-in, especially over the last week – it’s rather like peering through a door at a room that you know is haunted by violent poltergeists – and I haven’t seen anything that’s made me want to go back. Especially in the wake of the EU Referendum, social media is just somewhere I don’t want to be right now. And that’s okay.

To the few genuine friends/acquaintances I’ve made on Twitter and Facebook – it’s nothing personal. This is just something I’ve got to do for my mental well-being. I’ll probably be back on them eventually – but right now, I’ve got enough to worry about in the world. Staying away from Twitter and Facebook is making my mental headspace just a little bit clearer, and making me happier. And right now, that’s all that matters.

After the Ball Is Over… (On Ending the Creative Writing MA)

It’s been a long time since I’ve done an update. In the meantime, a lot of things have happened. Including this:


I ended up finishing my dissertation early, partly thanks to an incorrect assessment of how long it would take to bind (it turns out I was allowed to get it spiral-bound, which only takes ten minutes), partly because I had some proofreading work coming up and wanted a clear brain, and partly because sometimes you get to a point where you have to stop or go insane (or, alternatively, stop before you drive your partner insane). I’ll be handing it in on the 7th of September, and then that’s it. My MA Creative Writing course is done.

It’s a strange feeling being finished on the course, but I’m proud of the dissertation, and of how I’ve done. Especially in the last semester, I’ve gotten what I needed out of the course, and it’s given me a serious amount of knowledge to build on. There are plenty of articles out there saying why Creative Writing courses are a terrible idea, and I can’t say for certain that this kind of course would work well with everyone. But I was at a point where I needed to learn and gain some confidence, and it has really helped me. I know for certain that I’m a much better writer now than when I started. And much of that is down to the support I’ve had from Emma, especially when I was fretting about what to do for my second round of Fiction Workshop pieces and ultimate dissertation, and was convinced that I had to do something ‘with a bit more weight’, and she told me to not be so daft and submit Bradley & Hoyle, my romantic comedy fantasy adventure romp. I’m glad I did – it wasn’t necessarily the ‘typical’ thing to do on what’s a very well-respected course that’s strongly oriented towards literary fiction, but it got a lovely (and very helpful) response in the workshops, and it finally made me realise that I need to stop worrying about being taken seriously or doing the ‘right thing’, and just concentrate on entertaining people.

I’d never have come to that conclusion if I hadn’t gone ahead with Bradley & Hoyle, and concentrated on the kind of thing I really want to write. And that, in turn, has made me realise that that’s okay. There are things I’m good at, and there are things I’m not good at, and it’d be much more sensible for me to concentrate on my strengths than feeling somehow inferior just because I’m not writing something DARK and LITERATE and PROVOCATIVE. There are people out there who are great at that kind of thing. I’m not one of them. If you need me, I’ll be over in the corner having fun, blowing stuff up and coming up with the craziest ideas I can possibly manage. Hopefully it’s going to work out.

Future plans? Well, I went into the MA considering a PHd (to possibly go into teaching), but my struggles with longform literary essays taught me that maybe I don’t want to spend a large proportion of three years of my life doing that kind of thing. I am still bearing the teaching idea in mind, but at the moment it feels like the best thing I can do right now is work on getting myself published. There’s all sorts of stuff I can do and plans I can make which will ‘unlock’ if I can actually go from general all-purpose freelance writer/proofreader to ‘published novelist’. Even if the novel in question is blisteringly daft at times. There are no guarantees, of course, and I also know that getting published won’t solve all my problems and will also bring me an exciting collection of new problems, but that feels like the next step. I’ve got around 30,000 words of Bradley & Hoyle that feel pretty much finished – all I’ve got to now do is finish the rest of it.

(Before I started rewrites, it was weighing in at 135,000 words, which is far too long. I’m hoping to get it in at somewhere around 110,000. Which will still be the shortest piece of longform fiction I’ve ever managed…)

But in the meantime, I’m grateful for what the course has given me, and for the help I got from the fellow students in the fiction groups, and from the lecturers, especially Geoff Ryman (who was amazingly helpful with his feedback) and Jeanette Winterson (who is an amazing personality and one of the most scarily intelligent people I have ever met). It’s been a wild and fascinating ride. And now all I’ve got to do is sort out paying my Dad back for the money he lent me to actually do the course in the first place…




Update: (7/9/2015) – I wrote the above last week, but didn’t get around to posting it, mainly because despite my sunny conviction that the story was over, it wasn’t. I opened up the dissertation file last Friday to get the electronic submission out of the way… and discovered that the file was corrupted. It turns out that sometimes, using Track Changes on an MS Word document will completely nuke the formatting of the document and, in this case, left me with large stretches of the dissertation that was incomprehensible gibberish. Panic is too light a word for what happened next, and a difficult weekend followed – but it’s all finally been sorted, and after a lot of effort and struggle, the dissertation was submitted electronically late last night, and the physical hand-in will happen today on my return to Manchester. And once again, I have to say a massive thank you to Emma, who offered a tremendous amount of support and help throughout the weekend, and without her I wouldn’t have made it.

And at some point, I am actually going to get to rest…



New Frontiers (The Creative Writing M.A.: Half-Time News)

Time sometimes moves uncomfortably fast. It doesn't seem like that long ago that it was late August 2013, and I was getting myself ready for the adventure that was going to be my first year on my Creative Writing M.A. at Manchester University. And now, due to the way that being a part-time student works… I'm done until September.

Basically, full-time students do two semesters (with two course 'modules' per semester) followed by a dissertation, while people like me only have to do one 'module' per semester, and get the summer off. It does mean that because of how the course is divided up, I'm not actually doing any course-related creative writing work until January 2015, but otherwise I've got the summer to work like crazy on earning money and getting my current book project in better shape.

Things I have learned:

1: I love libraries – proper, full-on academic libraries that you can get lost in, and where you need to know exactly what you're looking for otherwise you'll never find it because BOOKS BOOKS BOOKS. If there's one thing I'm going to seriously miss once the course is over, it's this.

2: Reading a book a week is heavy going – at least, it is when they're heavyweight examples of Contemporary Fiction, and many of them weigh in at 500 pages. Anyone thinking “Ha, a book a week doesn't sound too much like hard work”, go and read GB84 by David Peace (500 pages of aggressively modernist fiction about the Miners' Strike) and then we'll talk, okay? There were plenty of points in Semester 2, where all I was doing was reading stuff for seminars, when I was regularly thanking God that I was doing the course part-time. If I'd been doing fiction workshops as well, my brain may have exploded.

3: I'm a better writer than I thought I was. (But then, considering how my brain works and how I often have a ridiculously low opinion of myself, that isn't exactly hard). But seriously, I feel like the course has genuinely helped me already – I've got some of my confidence back, and I now have a slightly better concept of how I want to proceed, and the kind of writer I am.

4: Academic essays do not agree with me. At all.

5: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a ridiculously fascinating book. It was one of the novels I wrote my essay about, and it's like staring at one of those Magic Eye 3-D pictures – the more you look, the more you find. I want to read more David Mitchell, at a point when my To Be Read pile is not quite so damn terrifying, so that'll probably be sometime around June 2024.

6: I really mean it about the academic essays.

7: Jeanette Winterson is a fiercely intimidating person – so scarily smart it's a bit like staring at the sun, and a bit like being around one of those whip-smart school teachers in whose lessons you always behaved simply because you Did Not Cross Them. She did a selection of voluntary seminars that involved reading a whole load of stuff I'd never have touched otherwise, many of which left me feeling as if I was attempting to catch butterflies with a hopelessly small net, but it was still an experience that was more than worth having, even if I did spend most of them ferociously taking notes while thinking “Oh God, please don't ask me a question, please don't ask me a question…”

8: An off-shoot of the academic essay stuff – I'm not sure a PhD is for me. I was thinking seriously about it, and I've done lots of research and finding out of info, but despite the advantages, I'm not sure if it's something I want to spend three years of my life doing, especially since it ain't necessarily going to guarantee being able to teach at a University level anyhow, and there are different ways of playing that route. And, frankly, I've got loads of writing that I want to do, and I don't want to put it off for three years in order to do something that I'm really not sure I want to do.

There were lots of other things, obviously, and while I've got three months of summer to look forward to, it's going to pass in the blink of an eye. And then I'll be back for another year, heading for next Summer, and my dissertation. I've done my best to make the most of this course – and now, with one year to go, I want to do even better. Only time will tell…



The Proud Highway II (The University Interview, and After)

So. The University interview happened.

It was intense – 25 minutes that seemed to pass in a shot. And by the time I came out… I genuinely didn’t know if I’d done well or not. I was running through everything in my brain (as is my habit), trying to convince myself that I’d said enough stuff that seemed to have gone down well that I must have gotten something right. But, a combination of the aftermath of a fair amount of stress and the sudden realisation of the fact that I might not get on the course (plus the fact that it was probably going to take two weeks to hear back) left me in a bit of a state. My brain flicked back into low confidence mode, and things seemed rather difficult right then.

I went home. I had lunch. I watched the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer from S6 of the show. Then I checked my e-mail.

That was the point where I started saying “WHAT?!?” over and over, and I literally had to hand Emma my iPad in order to show what had happened, because I was too shocked to speak right then.

An unconditional offer. It had actually been sitting there for over an hour, and had been sent about half an hour after my interview ended. All that worrying didn’t need to happen. I’m on the course – for the next two years, from September 2013 to Summer 2015.

Of course, I’ve spent the afternoon in a state of shocked amazement, and a whole selection of lovely congratulations have come in from lots of people on Facebook and Twitter. Soon, I’ll have my head in gear and be able to fully appreciate what’s happened (and what I’ve got coming up in the next couple of years). For now, I’m incredibly grateful to my wonderful girlfriend Emma for suggesting this and nudging me in the direction of the course. And I’m exceedingly happy that I’ve got an exciting new direction to explore…

The Proud Highway (Jitters before a University Interview…)

Twenty one years ago. That’s the last time I experienced the strangeness that is a University interview. I can’t remember exactly how many I had – it’s either three or four, and all of them were odd in different ways. (My experience of Bradford – a seven-hour drive from Cornwall, only to find that the course I was interviewing for wasn’t exactly as the prospectus had advertised – is burnt into my brain, but for different reasons). For some reason, more out of habit than anything else, I still have the suit jacket I wore to that interview (complete with embarrassing post-Eighties shoulder-pads). One day, I really will give that thing away to charity.

Not today, though. Today I’m going for an interview at Manchester University, for a place on their MA course in Creative Writing. It’s an impressive course – I went to an open day last November, and that pretty much convinced me that this was something I need to do. I’m aiming to do the course part-time, for the next two years, as I’ve been thinking vaguely about the idea of doing some writing-related teaching for a while, and it’s time to actually do something about it.

Am I nervous? Of course I’m nervous. There’s plenty of confidence sloshing around inside my brain as well, but the nerves are jangling away, and they won’t stop until it’s all over and (aside from a bit of paperwork related to my application for funding) it’s out of my hands. I’m sure that once I sit down and start talking, everything’ll be fine – one thing I’ve never had is any problems talking about writing – and as long as I can give a good account of myself in the time that’s available, I’ll be happy.

The odd thing is that making this kind of deliberate choice isn’t something I’m used to. A big proportion of the big stuff that’s happened in my life – becoming a journalist, getting experience as a sub-editor, becoming a freelance manuscript reader, becoming a proofreader – were all down to simply being in the right place at the right time. People don’t always seem to believe me when I say that I stumbled into being a journalist by accident, but it’s true, and so it feels a bit odd to be in this situation and be wanting something as badly as this. Creative Writing teaching feels like something I can do – I just need help to get the occasional chaos in my brain pointing in the right direction. I’m hoping Manchester University is the right place to be doing this. And if it isn’t? Well, one thing I’ve learned over the years – no matter what happens, even if you don’t know it yet, there’s always a plan B…

A Brief History of ‘Chill Out’ (Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Write My Second Novel)

Some things need to be commemorated. I haven’t been blogging for a very long time (with a lot of effort taken up by my review blog Schizopolitan which, to be honest, is going through a very quiet patch right now). But when something really important happens, I still feel like the occasion needs to be marked – and having just finished my second novel, I wanted to talk about it a little.

(Firstly, the phrase ‘finished’ is a little open here – it’s done enough that I’m sending it to my agent, but I’m fully expecting to be doing some more work on it in a month or so (Hopefully it’ll just be small tweaks, though – I’m really not keen on the idea of having to do even more heavy-duty rewrites, after the stuff I’ve already had to do). Secondly, novels aren’t ever properly ‘finished’ – you just get to a point where you can’t learn any more from working on it, and you know it’s the best you can do at the current stage of your life. ‘Finishing’ a novel has just as much to do with learning when to back away from the keyboard, stop fiddling and leave the damn thing alone.)

Initially, for those tuning in for the first time, I should probably answer a simple question: what actually is my second novel?

Chill Out is a contemporary fantasy story, a mix of weird pulp adventure and emotional drama that could be described as somewhere between Neil Gaiman, Iain Banks, Douglas Adams and the weirder edges of British comic 2000AD. It’s the story of a woman taking her fiance home to meet the family she doesn’t get along with, and how the events of that visit force her to deal with a lot of the issues in her past (as well as putting both her and her family in a ludicrous amount of danger).

It currently weighs in at 178,000 words (which is big, but actually 10,000 words shorter than my first novel, at least), and here’s the blurb:

Don’t call her Chill…

She’s getting married. She’s got a job she enjoys. She’s got a good life. For Jill Baxter, everything should be fantastic. There’s only one problem:

Her family.

It’s eleven years since she left them behind, moved out, and changed her name. She doesn’t call herself Chill anymore – she’s living a normal life, and she likes it. But now that she’s engaged, questions are being asked. Her family want to meet her fiancé. She’s got to take him home for the weekend, to the sprawling country estate where she grew up. And there’s the very strong risk… that he might find out the truth.

The truth is that the world is a much stranger, wilder and more dangerous place than most people ever suspect. Jill’s family know this, and for generations they’ve been living at a crossroads in reality, battling gods, monsters and sanity-bending forces. They’ve travelled to other worlds, other realms, other universes. They’re some of the only people who stand between normality and the gibbering strangeness that lurks just around the corner.

And they’re exceptionally good at messing up Jill’s life.

One weekend. That’s all she’s got to manage – one weekend of keeping her fiancé from discovering the truth, and preventing her family from unwittingly tearing her life apart. But something else is happening, something that threatens more than just Jill’s engagement. Shadowy, terrifying forces are gathering, and before the weekend is out, the girl who used to be called Chill is going to find out that certain things – and certain names – aren’t so easy to run away from…

That’s the book that I’ve just (relatively speaking) finished. And, for those who are interested, what follows are some details on the strange and fairly organic way the ideas for this book developed…

‘Chill Out’ has had a rather complicated journey to the page. It’s a story that has, in certain ways, been lurking around my head since 1997, when I was engaged in a foolish (but weirdly enjoyable) attempt to break into the world of TV writing by a completely unorthodox (and, to be honest, shambolic and rather daft) route. While I was succesful enough to actually get meetings with a few people about my TV series pilot script – an overambitious bit of SF/Fantasy action adventure called ‘Sanity Claws’ – it never went further than that, and it’s probably just as well that it did, as I wasn’t anywhere near mature enough to be a decent writer back then. I did, however, come up with lots of ideas for other potential series, once of which – ‘Chill Out – was planned to be a kind of romantic screwball comedy, with one of its main characters being a punky, bisexual occult troubleshooter in her early-to-mid-twenties, who went by the name of Chill Baxter.

Being someone who grew up with an unusual name, I know the kind of effect it can have – so Chill was defined by her name, the same as me. She was designed to be a wild card, someone who functions outside the normal world, and who’d bounce off the other main character, who was someone perfectly normal dragged into a world of magic, adventure and strangeness purely by a twist of fate. (Yes, alright, a lot of this is influenced by the X-Files era, I’m completely unashamed to say). It was a potentially fun set-up – the wild and crazy girl versus the straight-laced guy – and I honestly felt there was some definite possibilities there for something that was commercially viable.

I just couldn’t actually write the damn thing.

It happens sometimes – you get an idea that seems like it should be dynamite, and yet it just doesn’t come together. In this case, it was simply that I couldn’t quite get the character to catch fire and actually start working – I’d thought all I’d have to do is write ‘punky bisexual occult troubleshooter’ and the rest would write itself, but what I actually ended up with was a character who wasn’t that interesting, and was verging on one-note. I still liked her, and tried her out on a number of stories that simply didn’t come together. It’s tempting to speculate what would have happened if I’d learned one of my most important writing lessons back then – simply, that you actually have to finish things – but after a while, it seemed pretty much that Chill Out wasn’t going to happen, and Chill went on the list of characters who I liked, and would at some point find an actual place for.

It wasn’t until late 2006/early 2007 that I started thinking about the idea again – in this case, it was because I was rewriting my first novel (a lengthy process which taught me a lot) and was trying to think up what I could do next. Various ideas were floating around in my head – and one of the things that my first novel, The Hypernova Gambit, had taught me is that it’s always good to look at things from a different angle. The Hypernova Gambit started out life as a proposal for a Doctor Who novel, and for years I thought it was stuck that way, until I finally came up with a way of taking the Doctor out of the story. As a result, the idea of turning ideas on their head was something that at least appealed, but I was mulling things over, throwing concepts at the wall and seeing what stuck.

What actually made it work was, oddly enough, thinking about my sister. She’s three years older than me, her name is Samantha – and, with a surname of Bullock, you can imagine that her time at Secondary School wasn’t exactly a non-stop cavalcade of blissful fun. We both had a rough time at school in different ways – but what really made me think was the realisation that she’d been through a lot of the kind of things I’d been through, only she’d handled things in a different way, and it had – in essence – made her a different person from me. Not a better or worse person, just a different one. It’s very easy to see the way you perceive the world as the way the world is – for example, my middle name is John, and my parents gave it to me so that if I did get to the point where I was fed up of being called Saxon (they were sensible enough to realise this might be a problem), I could switch, and Saxon could become my middle name. Only, I never got fed up with it, and the idea of changing my name to make life easier for myself and suit everyone around me never even occurred to me, to the extent that I was genuinely shocked and surprised when I found out from my parents (at the age of 16) that this was the reason I had John as a middle name.

So, all this was going through my head – the way I’d grown up, contrasted with the way my sister had grown up, the way we’d evolved into different people and gone down very distinctive paths. And suddenly, like a lightning bolt from the heavens, the idea was there inside my head, waiting for me:

What if Chill didn’t like her name? What if instead of being defined by having such an odd name, she’d actually found it an immense annoyance? What if instead of being punky, bisexual and off-beat, she was actually a ridiculously normal person saddled with a name that’s extremely hard to explain, one that she’d legally changed the minute she turned 18 years old?

That was the key. That was the moment when I sat up and went “Ooohh…”, because suddenly, I had a way of doing a story I’d been trying to write for a long time. I’ve got a very strong interest in characters who dwell on the border between the normal world and the unreal – I’ve spent a long time trying to tell those kinds of story, and I love the idea of treating the offbeat and the insane with a very distinct kind of emotional reality. Trouble is, finding ways of contriving for a ‘normal’ person to get involved in weird investigations and adventures isn’t always easy when your normal character isn’t, say, an FBI agent. I’d tried a whole series of solutions that didn’t work, or didn’t play, or simply felt way too contrived (whether it was ‘They’re flatmates’, or ‘They’re old university friends’ or ‘They work in the same bookshop’), and it was always near impossible to come up with a solution to the question “Why doesn’t the normal character just run like hell the minute weird stuff starts happening?”

And suddenly, I had an answer. They would, but they’re connected via family. Someone who grew up as the normal sheep of the family – someone who was raised around weirdness, and all they wanted to do was get away.

Instantly, you’ve got conflict, and you’ve got something that’s emotionally relatable. I soon realised that I was basically planning a family drama as seen through a really weird lens, and to force these characters together, I figured a nice way of doing it would be a ‘meeting the parents’ set-up, where at least some of the story is based around the central character having a fiance who doesn’t know the truth, and building tension around the risk that they might find out. Obviously, there’d be a threat as well (and it took me a while to find the threat – it wasn’t until I finally found an effective set of bad guys that the story felt like it was starting to work), but the plan was to try and keep the emotional drama (and a certain amount of comedy) going all the way through. I didn’t know exactly how I was going to write it, but I figured I was just going to have to find out. The fact that my agent liked it (and said it was potentially a more sellable idea than The Hypernova Gambit), combined with the fact that the editor who I’d had contact with about The Hypernova Gambit also said she liked it, made me think that it was worth pressing on with, whatever happened.

I’ll be honest here about influences, as well. I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to influences – I’ll grab stuff from anywhere I find it, and as a result ‘Chill Out’ has ended up a bit of an eclectic blend. First of all, there was Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman – I’d read it and enjoyed it relatively recently, and I liked the way that it mapped normal emotional problems onto a fantasy story – after all, it’s the tale of a family reunion that gets out of hand, and I wanted to try and do that with the book, combine crazy fantasy with emotional reality so that no matter how weird it gets, it’s always based around something relatable and real. Then, there was Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel by Susanna Clarke – a book I absolutely adored, one of the most immersive fantasies that I’d read since Lord of the Rings, which made me really want to work on the history and size of the world I was creating. I love stuff that feels like it stretches out beyond the confines of what you’re reading, and I adored the convincing background and sense of myth.

Another influence was the comic series Planetary, by Warren Ellis and John Cassady, mainly for the way it explores pulp fiction as history. I’ve always liked the idea of building whole universes, and being able to do stories where anything can happen, and Planetary’s left-field approach to adventure fiction sent me in a lot of odd and interesting directions. There was also – rather more surprisingly – the comedy series Arrested Development, whose energy and oddball setup (the one normal member of a ridiculously rich family tries to keep his relations on the rails) gave me a road map on certain ways I could handle the story. There was the 2008 film Rachel Getting Married – directed by Jonathan Demme, it’s a harshly emotive drama all about family dysfunction with a stunning performance from Anne Hathaway, and there’s one particular scene – where Hathaway’s character is confronted and emotionally torn to shreds by her sister – that had a massive effect exactly how real I wanted to play the emotional side of the story.

Most of all, though, there was Grant Morrison’s head-spinning run on the experimental superhero comic Doom Patrol. Possibly my favourite superhero comic, it’s packed full of energy, ideas and weirdness, as well as being one of the few superhero comics that are genuinely about being a freak – the Doom Patrol are fascinating characters, but they’re also damaged people who you’d never actually want to be (unlike the mostly far more photogenic X-Men). Re-reading stories like The Painting that Ate Paris and the whole bewildering Flex Mentallo saga really gave me a handle on the tone I wanted to go for, as well as showing me what bad guys I should use. (I resurrected a team of bad guys I’d used in various attempts at stories, but – showing that I may have at least learned something – I pared their ridiculously complex motivation down to a one-sentence pitch line, and they’re so much better as a result).

The other influence is more of a general one, and is also more of an influence I was reacting against, than anything else. In short – urban fantasy and ‘paranormal romance’, especially the first-person driven tales of kick-ass heroines who ride the line between mundane reality and wild fantasy. I’ve read a number of these books (mostly thanks to work), and one thing which had always goten to me was the way they were always based around very strict fantasy rules – specific mythologies, specific references – and I liked the idea of trying to do an emotive, character-driven adventure story with a strong female central character, but which also has the kind of anything-can-happen storytelling that appeared in the kind of crazy comics that I grew up with (2000AD being a major touchstone here). I wanted to do something that would play a little on that side of the line, but which would also subvert it and deliberately not go in expected directions. (I’ve also ended up with a novel that features a whole selection of strong female characters, so thinking about what would appeal to a female audience wasn’t exactly insane…)

All these influences came together over the period of around two years – and it hasn’t exactly been easy. I didn’t even know if I could write Chill Out, so I started without having fully planned it out (mainly because it was the only way I was ever actually going to get started). Yes, I got the joy of improvisation, and there’s a lot that happened organically (like the way an off-hand idea about a supervillain trapped in a section of my main character’s house evolved into one of the most emotive threads in the book), but it also meant that I ended up going down a few blind alleys. One thing that I have learned thanks to Chill Out – which confirmed something I was told by an editor in relation to my first book – is that you’ve always got to stay focussed on what the book’s actually about. You can have lots of stuff surrounding your central thread, but that central thread itself needs to be strong and clear. I once again ended up with a book that was a little too busy, into which I was cramming too much stuff – and the end result was that I spent a big proportion of the last 6-9 months doing a massive rewrite, and taking out two characters (one of whom was a minor supporting role, the other of whom was previously a character I’d thought was vital). It was a slog, and I want to avoid doing it on my next book… but Chill Out is stronger because of the changes I’ve made.

It was a slightly loopy choice – to do a book that was part fantasy adventure, part comedy, part intense family drama (something I had no experience whatsoever of writing), and while I am hoping to do more books in this sequence of stories (it’s planned out as a five volume series), the other stories would be extremely different, bigger in scale, and hopefully a little less intense. Because while the initial story was pretty simple, and I kept the action confined mostly to one weekend (with a handful of flashbacks), I still managed to get a pretty damn big book. I’m aiming for my next book to be shorter, by golly – as books these size are a major, major slog to get right (and I want to make sure that I’m having fun while I write).

And yet, I’ve learned a hell of a lot. Pushing myself into unfamiliar areas has actually helped – I’ve had to work on the characterisation of this novel harder than anything I’ve ever done writing-wise before, and it’s made me want to go back and work on The Hypernova Gambit again simply because I want to be able to use what I’ve learned to make that book as good as is humanly possible. There have been plenty of times when this has been an incredibly difficult process – and, to be honest, I also found myself going through some major insecurity issues last year.

Keeping confidence in yourself when writing is hard, especially when you’re working on big projects. Publishing always moves slower than you want it to – and when it got to the point when I realised it had been three years since I’d gotten my agent, and I still hadn’t finished my second book, things did start to get to me a little. I’ve been hanging out on Twitter a lot as well – and while some sides of social networking can be great, there can be something a little dispiriting about constantly, every day, being reminded about all the progress that everyone else is making, and all the wonderfully exciting things they’re doing, while you’re still slogging away on the same book you’ve been working on since the end of 2009. That kind of thing can very easlily feed insecurity – that you’re not good enough, that you’re not fast enough, that your book isn’t sellable enough, and add to that some complicated life changes (like the fact that I moved house last year, and that my girlfriend has been suffering from some pretty major health issues for the past few months), and it’s easy to get downhearted – when the truth is that sometimes, life gets in the way. And that’s okay.

It’s been a hard road keeping myself going on this, especially since the end result is… well, it’s extremely me. I’m very proud of it, though – it’s better than the book that I set out to write, and even if this one isn’t the one to get me published, I’ve learnt even more from writing Chill Out. I’m going to keep going. I’m going to keep writing. And one of these days, I am going to make it.

Anyhow – my current plan is to take a few days to do some practical-related stuff, get a few things sorted, and then knuckle down to some serious work on my next project – a romantic comedy adventure, set in the same universe as Chill Out, currently under the title of Bradley and Hoyle. I’m planning it as a short and fun screwball adventure, something that’s hopefully going to come in at about 120,000 words maximum (unlike the 178,000 word behemoth that is Chill Out’s current draft). I’ll work on that until my agent gets back to me with everything I need to do to Chill Out in order to fix it (I’m expecting the list to be pretty big), at which point I’ll hopefully just have to do a final polish, and then Chill Out will be out of the door – and I graduate once more into the world of waiting to see if the next e-mail I receive is THE e-mail. Once that’s done, I’ll trek onwards with Bradley and Hoyle – once that’s done, my next project is rewriting The Hypernova Gambit. And once that’s done? Well… if by that point I still haven’t gotten a bite (figuratively speaking…), I’m going to take a risk and work on the incredibly dark, female-oriented and sexually explicit fantasy series that I’ve been developing. Because, frankly, the idea of writing it scares me (it’s a pitch-black story), and sometimes I think being scared is a good thing. I guess we’ll see…

But for now, Chill Out is done. It’s been an adventure. And I hope to get to share it with more people soon.

Marking the Changes

At some point, I am going to do a life-related update to make it clear that I have been doing a few other things than just watching Doctor Who for the past six weeks. But for the moment, all I want to announce to all and sundry is the news that the first draft of Chill Out, my second novel, is done. It’s not necessarily very good (lots of it is vague and sketchy, lots of it is bad, lots of it is just plain wrong), but it’s done. The whole thing weighs in at 168,000 words, which means I have managed a first draft that is smaller than my first draft for The Hypernova Gambit, something I’m very grateful for. It’s the first step along a long road – the rewrites I’m going to have to do on this are going to be brutal, but I’ve got a much better idea of what I need to do to get it into a readable state. And, frankly, it’s nice to get to one of those points in life where you can simply throw your hands up in the air and holler “I did it!”

Phase one is done. Now comes the tricky bit…

Remind Me

It’s the end of April, and it’s all gone by rather fast. And talking of rather fast, in a few minutes I’ve got to make my way into Manchester to hop on a train and complete the final phase of my action-packed April, where I voyage down to London for the yearly adventure of the Clarke Awards. I’m looking forward to it – I’m even flirting with the idea of (shock! horror!) buying new shoes on the way in.

The short version of the last couple of weeks is that London Book Fair was good (if quiet, thanks to the Icelandic Volcano gods), and I’ve spent most of the last week doing a combination of working on the book and reading various manuscripts for book reports. I’ve actually reached the beginning of the big action climax of Chill Out, and it’s a little bit scary – but looking back at the rest of the book, I can see traces of the novel I’m going to eventually shape it into. I think it has the potential to be something fun. And maybe not as barnstormingly huge as The Hypernova Gambit…

I’ll also be doing a more detailed write-up of last week’s Doctor Who once we’re past Saturday – I figured doing it as a double-post and tackling the whole thing would be the sensible route. The short version? I really, really enjoyed it – not completely blown away, and there were a couple of minor niggles (particularly the way Alex Kingston spent most of the first twenty minutes being staggeringly arch), but also Who at its most filmic and exciting. It’ll be interesting to see exactly how they finish this off on Saturday, and where the show goes after this…

Right. No more time. I must voyage. See you soon…

This Too Shall Pass

Ah, freelance work. You barely call in January, hardly a whisper. Was it something I said?, I thought to myself. And then, February heats up. And now, I’ve got two and a half crammed weeks ahead of me, which is probably going to significantly reduce any chance of blogging more than “Urk”. (It’s one of the things I like about Twitter – I feel like I can be a lot more free-associative and random over there, when I’ve only got 140 word entries to play with. It doesn’t feel right to not put something vaguely significant here. Or maybe it’s just me…)

Being busy is good, although it does mean I’ll be slowing down a bit on the book. I passed the 100,000 word mark on Chill Out. And I’m nowhere, NOWHERE near done. I reckon there’s a good 40,000 words to go before I’ve got the entire story down. Once that happens, there’ll be trimming, and streamlining, and hopefully it’ll be a relatively sensible size. I’m still having decent ideas – only today, a bit of the climax that I’d choreographed in my head that was still bothering me suddenly resolved itself, and it means I’ve got a nice bit of action that’s also emotional and only takes a small amount of setup. I’m still aware of the fact that this is going to be a truly massive amount of work once the first draft is done… but I still feel like there’s something there, something that’s a bit more characterful than The Hypernova Gambit (of which I am still planning on final, devil-may-care rewrite to get it comfortably under 150,000 words. Or maybe lower. I’m feeling daring…).

And, following what’s becoming a faintly regular feature of posting cool music-related stuff I’ve found, here’s the latest video from off-beat US rock band Ok Go. I found out about them purely because of their video for ‘Here We Go Again’, which is a brilliant bit of lo-fi filmmaking that just consists of the four members of the band doing an intricate bit of choreography on a series of treadmills and – this being the key to the whole exercise – it’s all done in one static shot. I can remember watching the video and being incredibly impressed that they actually got away with such a looney idea – it’s also the kind of thing that’s difficult to top, and can easily turn into the one thing that band is known for. Well, with their latest video, This Too Shall Pass, I think they’ve actually managed to top it – it’s a wonderfully demented idea. Admittedly, I’ve seen something in this ballpark before – there’s a video by The Bravery called ‘An Honest Mistake’ which is based around a fairly big Rube Goldberg-style setup, but most of it’s generated through clever editing. Here, it’s all done for real, in one take (there’s one point where there may be an edit, but it’s really difficult to tell), and it’s a thing of nutty beauty that’s worth enjoying:

And, for completion’s sake, here’s a link to the Here We Go Again treadmill video.

Right. Lots to do. And not much time to do it in…

The Beautiful Ones

It’s Saturday night. It’s also been nearly a month since I’ve posted here. I’m not sure if I’m losing the blogging habit, or if it’s simply that I’ve had one of those months where my days have been a certain routine, and measuring time gets kind of tricky (with whole weeks seeming to go by in a flash). It hasn’t been completely short of incident, however, so – in the manner of my last post – here’s a few updates:

News Nugget 1: I’m up to 92,000 words on my latest novel. Now, it has to be said that this is 92,000 words of a draft that pushes the word “first” as far as it will go – a shambling thing that I’m going to have to do an awful lot of work on. However, there are some very good bits in there, and I think I’m gradually figuring out how to write this thing (which is another proof of the writing theory I stick to (borrowed from Neil Gaiman), that you only know what you’ve got with a story until you’ve gotten to the end). I’ve also got an interesting reversal of the situation on my previous novel – with The Hypernova Gambit, I had a log-jam of exposition in the middle of the book, whereas here I’ve got a log-jam of characterisation. I’ll figure it out, but I think writing this as a much more character-centric piece is definitely paying dividends.

News Nugget 2: Partly as a result of this progress, and of various thoughts I’ve had… the next project (or, more accurately, an ‘inbetween’ project before I start the next proper project) is going to be a rewrite of The Hypernova Gambit. It’s more for myself than anything else, and the knowledge that through the last rewrite (and getting distance from it), I think I’ve worked out what I need to do to it. One of the things that always bothered me is how bloody long it is – 188,000 words is a bit too much for something that’s supposed to be a fun romp, and I’ve had some significant ideas on streamlining it, sharpening it up, and getting it under 150,000 words. It may not improve the chances of it getting published in any way whatsoever – but I feel like I owe it one last try. (This will, however, be the very last pass on the book. After this, it really does head off to the ‘Completed Projects’ file, and I’ll be onto my next adventure – I still love The Hypernova Gambit, but it’s only got a little bit left to teach me.

News Nugget 3: I’m finally getting out properly in Manchester, as a result of my regular Thursday Comics nights. To explain: it’s a chance for a select band of customers and friends at my local comic shop to lurk around the shop after hours, eat nice food and talk about comics. It’s run on most Thursday nights, I started going last October, and it’s turned from an occasional event into a regular occurrence. On top of this, a couple of weeks back I went out with various people from the Comics Nights, and had an absolutely fantastic evening – it featured some of the most hilariously powerful cocktails I’ve ever had in my life, and ended at a Karaoke bar with me doing a rousing version of “What You Waiting For” by Gwen Stefani. I even ended up tagging along to a small-scale live gig as a result of this week’s Comics night, with a couple of bands I’d never heard of, in an authentic Manchester rock club (you could tell it was authentic by the hilariously awful nature of the toilets…). And we’re already planning on heading out next Friday. I’m flirting with the idea of “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen, if Karaoke once again becomes a factor…

News Nugget 4: In an act of sheer wanton abandon, I decided to go to a ‘tweet-up’- a meeting of people organised on Twitter, for people who work in the book business. It was called ‘Twinter’, it was happening in London, so this meant me doing an impromptu voyage to the Big Smoke. And it actually went rather well – it was held in a posh bar in Belsize Park (one of those ones that make you laugh at exactly how expensive the drinks are), and while I spent the first hour or so feeling horribly out of place, I finally managed to mingle, make some acquaintances, and have some very nice chat (and even – shock! horror! – give out my business card a couple of times). It all went extremely well, although getting accomodation at a central London hostel was… well, it backfired on me thanks to the ‘specifically assigned’ bed being very poorly labelled. I came back to the room at past midnight, ready to collapse into bed, only to find that (a) my ten bed dorm was horribly, horribly stuffy – the kind of stuffy you can only get by putting nine people in a non-ventilated room, and (b) there was someone in the bed that I’d made up earlier that day. Thankfully, I did get something sorted, but it involved me having to take a top bunk (not exactly ideal), and I was up again at 5.30am. Thank heavens it was only one night…

News Nugget 5: As a result of My Twinter Adventure, however, I’ve decided to say “Why not?” and go along to the London Book Fair in April. It’s happening a couple of days after a very good friend of mine is having a birthday party in London, so I’m combining the two. I don’t know if it’ll be specifically useful to me in my new life as a proofreader (and writer), but I figure I might as well go along and find out.

News Nugget 6: TV-wise at the moment, I’m enjoying the hell out of Season 6 of Lost – the last couple of episodes haven’t quite reached the out-of-nowhere craziness of the season opener, but it’s still thoroughly entertaining stuff that’s throwing so many narrative curveballs I can’t help but be swept along by it. What I’m also doing, though, is watching The Twilight Zone – not any of the colour versions or imitations, the classic B+W version. I’ve gotten the first and second seasons on DVD, and it’s fantastic stuff. I’ve always had a liking for anthologies, but they don’t always work – I’ve watched a lot of The Outer Limits (again, the Sixties version), and while there are some great episodes, they do feel a little stretched at 50 minutes. The Twilight Zone, on the other hand, is 25 minute episodes, and the format is perfect for the televisual short story. With the first season being made in 1959, naturally there’s plenty about the show that’s dated – and yet, the spirit behind the show hasn’t. There’s a wonderful darkness to The Twilight Zone – it has a handful of whimsical episodes, but for the most part it’s a wonderfully bleak look at impossibilities, magic, science fiction and cruel twists of fate. Serling’s style is occasionally overwritten and slightly over-laconic (especially in his opening/closing voice overs), but it’s also got a tremendous amount of heart, and a level of grit and realism to the characters that really makes the whole thing stand up remarkably well. At heart, The Twilight Zone is like a collection of nuggets of the best of Fifties/Sixties black-and-white cinema, unafraid to be profound or intelligent or provocative, and unafraid to push into some very dark territory. (It’s also crammed to the rafters with familiar faces – I’m a long way from William Shatner’s famous turn in ‘Nightmare at 20,000 Feet’ (that’s in Season 5) but we’ve already had Patrick Macnee, Jean Marsh, Martin Landau, Rod Taylor, Martin Balsam, and later on in other seasons there’s everyone from Robert Redford and Charles Bronson to future Bond villain Richard Kiel).

News Nugget 7: I’m extremely glad I’ve figured out how to make my Xbox 360 playable – after spending a good chunk of January working my way through Batman: Arkham Asylum (which is a fun but odd game, a mix of absurd camp and over-extreme horror, but also one of the best mixes of combat and stealth I’ve seen, where the combat is thrilling and the sneak-around-in-the-shadows stealth is genuinely tense), and then I fell back into the world of Mass Effect. This is a SF roleplay adventure I first played back in 2008, and I enjoyed but wasn’t bowled over by it, mainly because it seemed to be over very quickly. Turns out, that was simply because there was a whole bunch of side missions I didn’t know about – and after doing a replay (going for more of the ‘Renegade’ options – the game gives you varying ways to play the story that do genuinely effect what happens), I was finally tempted into picking up the recently released sequel, Mass Effect 2. And wow, I’m very glad I did – it’s an example of a sequel that improves in almost every respect on the original game, and the level of characterisation that’s gone into the story is incredible – this is an SF world that it’s very easy to be lost in. It’s hilariously derivative, essentially playing as a slightly more hardcore interactive version of Babylon 5, but the dialogue features a minimum of cheesy one-liners, there are some genuinely funny moments, imaginative aliens, beautiful design, and some of the best voice acting I’ve ever heard in a game (trust me – if there’s one thing that can catapult you out of an immersive game, it’s characters sounding like bad actors standing in a studio reciting dialogue). I’m 15 hours into my first play-through (fitting it in around tons of proofreading, writing, reading and reviewing) and I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s one of the few computer games I’ve bought for full price, and in this case I haven’t regretted it in the slightest.

News Nugget 8: Some things I’ve seen – there’s a new trailer for the upcoming season of Doctor Who online at the BBC (after airing tonight):

And initially I was excited to see it, until I realised it was one of those slightly dreadful ‘concept’ trailers that they’re occasionally in the habit of doing that don’t feature any actual footage from the show, and fall into the “Well, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time” category. I like the opening, though, and am still curious to see what’s what. And it’s saying ‘Easter’, so there’s the strong possibility it might be airing the same weekend as Eastercon (which would make a nice follow-up to last year’s Planet of the Dead screening).

Another thing I’ve seen – a three minute ‘teaser’ for a show that doesn’t actually exist yet. One of the more interesting aspects of the internet is how things that wouldn’t normally have been seen outside the industry can build up a momentum all of their own. In this case, it’s what’s referred to as a ‘sizzle reel’, which has been put together to show what an episode of proposed SF caper/heist show ‘Slingers’ would look like:

As teasers go, I have to admit that I rather like that – I’m definitely liking the stylised Sixties version of the future, and I can see the whole Rat Pack/Oceans Eleven thing working well in an SF environment (probably better than the Western elements of Firefly; I know there are tons of people out there who adored the show, but coming to it after the fact, I found the Western elements to be the bits of Firefly I liked the least – it worked best when it dropped the space-six-guns, bar fights and ‘Hey, let’s help the hookers out’ plots and just tried to be a gritty nuts-and-bolts SF show). There’s some fun stuff in this teaser – there’s also certain shots that push the low-budget stylised look into sheer incomprehensible abstractness, and the storytelling could be a little clearer (I think the characters are hi-jacking some kind of A.I., but it’s hard to be sure…), but I’d definitely be game for checking this out if it ever makes it into the land of the produced.

I’m not actually watching very much TV at the moment. I’m slowly catching up with Glee, which manages to have enough genuine fun to make up for the painfully forced moments and the chirpy musical ibe (it’s from the creator of Popular, a high school show which was a similar mixture of really good characterisation and absolutely thunking unsubtlety), but otherwise there’s little on the horizon until New Who starts. I may have to start getting those other Twilight Zone sets soon…

* * *

And that’s where I’m standing. With plenty to do, and a determination that 2010 is going to be a better year for me. So far, the results are not too bad. Here’s hoping…