I Will Discount You

My collection, I Will Surround You, from Undertow Publications is available now at Amazon at reduced price. For just £13.99 (down from £19.99) for the hardback and £6.99 (down from £11.99), you can get hold of fourteen stories wrapped up in soft or hard loveliness. The perfect Easter gift!


Marathon Man

Lancaster University, 1993. I’m in a class. It’s the creative writing MA. My tutor is Alan Burns. He wrote Europe After the RainBabelDreamerika! He was one of a group of experimental writers knocking around in the 1960s which included BS Johnson. Alan used to talk about cut-ups a lot. And he was fond of this exercise: choose a word and don’t say anything but, all day. See how it makes you think. See what it does to the word. How does it change your perception of what words mean. Fishpaste. He spent all day walking around saying nothing but fishpaste. He had a dream once, in which he was playing in an orchestra and he was sweating because he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. But then he looked to one side and there was Picasso on the cello, so then he knew everything would be fine. Interesting guy, Alan Burns.

Alan Burns
Alan Burns
So this class. I remember he was talking about the OMOHO. The dread of the OMOHO. The impossibility of it. One Man On His Own. He was arguing that you can’t have it in fiction. It does not exist. It should not exist. You try to write a novel containing just one character and you are dead in the water. You need obstacles, you need opposition. You need an ally. You need an antagonist. He referred to Europe After the Rain, in the embryonic stages of which he had created a character moving through a post-war terrain. The idea for the book wouldn’t form. What was his protagonist doing? And then Alan realised, he was looking for his sister. Now he had a story. OMOHO is no story.
That was over twenty years ago. The OMOHO stayed in my thoughts, nagged at it. I wanted to to have a crack, to prove Alan Burns wrong. I wrote short stories about single men in dreary urban dwellings struggling with relationships while the supernatural loomed. Was it any surprise that I would be lumped in with the other glass half-empty slipstream writers that came to be known as the Miserablists in the early 1990s? I even toyed with using OMOHO as the title of a novel. I decided, when I wrote my post-apocalyptic novel One, that I would try writing an OMOHO. But Alan was right. You just can’t get along without other people, even when most of the people are dead. I ended up introducing survivors, until the novel was populated by quite a healthy cast list. So much for OMOHO. I couldn’t even manage it in a world depleted by a catastrophic natural disaster…
In Dust and Desire, Sonata of the Dead and (coming in November 2016) Hell is Empty, I’ve reached a compromise. Of course Joel Sorrell, my PI, is not One Man On His Own. He lives in London for Pete’s sake. But in many ways, he’s completely isolated. His wife is dead. His daughter has deserted him. He couldn’t hack it in the police force and got out, not without rubbing plenty of people up the wrong way, people he now needs to get on side if he’s going to get anywhere with his MisPer cases. Even his own cat treats him with contempt.
I’ve always liked the lone wolf, in both literature and film. Put me in front of any number of 1970s paranoia thrillers and I’m a happy boy. The main characters in these films are not strictly OMOHOs… But… they kind of are. That’s the point of them. Who can they trust? Nobody. Three Days of the Condor (Robert Redford, OMOHO by lunchtime), The Parallax View (Warren Beatty, OMOHO on a bomb-laden airliner), Marathon Man (Dustin Hoffman, OMOHO jogging through NYC), The Conversation (Gene Hackman, OMOHO bugger). And on the page too I prefer the mavericks, rather than the police procedurals. Especially the unnamed Detective Sergeant from Derek Raymond’s Factory novels. Yes, he works in the Force, but he’s in limbo, stuck at his rank because of his obstinacy; out on a limb working at A14: Unexplained Deaths.
I like the romance of the loner. The helpless introspection and attendant self doubt. The vulnerability. I like to see them skating on thin ice and sailing close to the wind. The desperation. I like how the rogue element will push the boundaries of what’s legal in order to make a breakthrough. Not for me the conventional interrogation with a tape recorder and an officer keeping tabs. Good cop, bad cop? No thanks. I prefer questions on the lam, and actual harm if the answers don’t pass muster. Search warrant? No time for that. Rough justice rather than a by-the-rulebook prosecution. My boy isn’t in it for the collars and the kudos. It’s personal for him. He’s in it for the result. The permanent solution. Dead men can’t get off on a technicality. Sometimes you really are on your own.

Penlightenment: TWSBI Diamond 580AL

580Apparently TWSBI is pronounced ‘twizbee’. What does TWSBI stand for though? Totes Wonderful Scrivening Beauty Innit? This Writer Sucks Balls Indefinitely? Actually, don’t answer that.

I like demonstrater pens (a ‘demonstrater’, for those who do not know – and likely do not care – is a clear pen allowing you to see the workings within). My first, and one of my daily workhorses, was a Lamy Safari Vista. I still use it a lot. It was relatively cheap but it writes smoothly, is well balanced and it has a fantastic fat clip. I prefer to write with a fine nib (I spend most of my writing time inside notebooks on the small size) but I bought the Lamy with a medium nib, because I wasn’t convinced it would be as smooth with a fine. I still don’t know if that’s the case, but the nibs are interchangeable so I might experiment one day, if I’m feeling particularly daring.

Anyway, I ordered the TWSBI with a fine nib, because I suspected quality wouldn’t be compromised, given the price. And it wasn’t. It’s butter smooth. It’s a lovely pen to use, and I use it most days even though I was at first worried about taking it outside in case I lost it. When inspiration abandons me, the pen becomes an object to fiddle with, and it does a great job then too. My pen, as you can see, is adorned with some attractive orange sections (the orange version has been discontinued, apparently, making mine not only a thing of beauty, but of rare beauty).

I like to watch the ink sloshing in the faceted barrel. The TWSB can hold quite a bit of ink (current load: J Herbin’s Poussière de Lune – ooh, get me.). The pen transmits its quality through its heft and smooth finish. It even makes a nice noise when you screw the cap back on… In short, it demands to be fiddled with. It even comes with its own little spanner and some silicone grease so you can fiddle to your heart’s content while you give your pen a service.

My only gripe is that you can’t really post the cap. Well, you can, but then you run the risk of hosing yourself with ink when you try to take it off again. The end of the pen has a piston mechanism that you twist to draw ink into the barrel. Twist it the other way and it forces the ink towards the nib. I guess the designers didn’t expect customers to want to post the cap, as it does mean the pen becomes quite large. So best to keep it off, but be careful you don’t lose the thing.

TWSBI also offer a similar model of pen in a mini version and recently released a model called the Eco, which gives you a competitively priced fountain pen. If I come across any of these items in the future I’ll be sure to post a review, but for the time being I’m happy with my 580AL in hard-to-find orange (the green does look good too though… sigh).


Chess, gloves and ‘up your nose’…


Thanks to Litro Magazine for running a Q&A with me recently. You can read it here.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know…

Detail from 'Red Dragon'
Detail from ‘Red Dragon’

Thanks to the excellent My Bookish Ways, who agreed to host a blog by me this week on the heels of Dust and Desire‘s publication. You can read it here, a little piece about creating a memorable villain.



There’s some good can come from waking at 5.30 am with a full bladder, or an accidental kick in the shins, or the cat deciding that your head is the place where it wants to sit. This morning I drifted in and out of consciousness, now eyeing the LCD of the clock radio, now fending off a cat tail like a supersize feather duster, and ideas accumulated. Swathes of dialogue, scenes, plot points, possibilities. I opened my mind and sucked it all down. The drawback, of course, is that you then have to get up and write it all down, or risk dropping back into sleep and forgetting the lot. I usually have a notebook and a pen by the bed. This morning? Of course not.

Progress Check


I worry (just a little bit) when the writing seems free and easy, when the next scene shapes itself and solidifies before me as I’m about to wrap up the scene-in-progress. I fret (a tad) when I know what everyone is going to do and say, just before they do or say it. The words fly by; the pages stack up. It’s a nice feeling, and one that happens so rarely. So why would I warn against it? If it writes quick and easy then it will read quick and easy, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

I don’t want to come across as the tortured scribe, extolling the virtues of agonising over every phoneme; polishing each word, phrase and clause until it all shines with the self-righteous glow of punishing labour (I certainly don’t work that way). And I definitely don’t yank on the reins when I’m at a canter. But I do tend to cast a more critical eye over what I’ve produced. Writing at speed (usually) means a falling back on the cliché crutch, in idiom as well as location or character trait or behavioural tic.

In the same way that the Beatles, say, produced simple, apparently conventional songs that sometimes pulled the rug from under your feet with the appearance of an unusual couplet, or unexpected chord changes, so a piece of writing can be lifted to a rarefied plane thanks to the inclusion of a plot thrust out of left field, or sparkling dialogue, or idiosyncratic characters who behave like human beings, i.e. spontaneous, random, odd.

I love unpredictable writers and writing, and crave them even though novels and short stories contain their own conventions and formulae. Within that fixed trinity of beginning, middle and end there is an infinity of possibilities. An easy path from A-Z might get you to your destination more quickly, and more safely, but it might make for an uninspiring journey.