The Napoleon of Crime

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Lionel Atwill as Moriarty in ‘Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon’ (1943)

Yesterday I discovered that my story, Rosenlaui, will be included in Constable & Robinson‘s forthcoming The Mammoth Book of Professor Moriarty Adventures, edited by the venerable Maxim Jakubowski. The story concerns events in Meiringen, Switzerland, on the eve of that momentous confrontation at the Reichenbach Falls.

This is only the second time I’ve ever written a story containing someone else’s creation (I had a story in Stephen Jones’ Dracula anthology – another ‘Mammoth’ book – back in 1997), and I had enormous fun with it. I would certainly consider doing something similar in future (are you listening, Ian Fleming Publications?).

Ghosts and Deadlines

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I’ve been working on a novel with the working title HOUSE OF SLOW ROOMS for the best part of three years. I’ve not been writing it every day, but I’ve certainly been thinking about it every day (which is, some would say, the same thing, or at least part of the job). It has had to take a back seat to a number of more urgent, time-sensitive projects (for ‘urgent, time-sensitive’ read ‘paid’) and because it isn’t part of any publishing contract, it has no deadline, other than those I pin to it. And then reschedule, with depressing regularity.

I like deadlines. I like the sound they make when I meet them. I imagine the sound as the wet splat you hear when Andrew Lincoln kicks a zombie’s head in. I’m pretty good at meeting deadlines and I do love to have a date set in stone that I can work towards. A July 2015 deadline for something else I’ve got to write has provided me with an unofficial kick up the pants for HOSR, otherwise it will go on the back burner for another six months. So I’ve given myself until the end of February to at least knock it into some kind of shape. To at least wrestle an ending out of it, so I can call it a first draft. I’m at the 80,000 word mark and it feels as though there’s not much more to go (although I am retro-fitting a new character and sub-plot, so the word count could swing up into six-figure territory).

Progress Check

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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.

Fancy meeting you here…

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Getting certain characters together in fiction without any hint of contrivance is a challenge for any writer. In Sonata of the Dead, my WIP, I’ve got my lead character, a PI named Joel Sorrell, who needs to link up with another character, a woman with whom he will develop a strong working relationship (and maybe more besides). I don’t want them to meet during some arranged get-together because there are many such incidents where Joel has to talk to a number of different people in a formal setting. I want this one to feel random. But what is good random, and what is bad random? I suppose the bad random is cliché. So out goes the collision in a corridor (especially if she’s carrying a mountain of papers), or the mild flirtation in a lift, or an argument over the last taxi in the rank.

I suppose to a certain degree all genre fiction is contrived (perhaps crime fiction above all) which is where suspension of disbelief in readers becomes important, but writers can smooth the path to some extent by clearing out the obvious moments of coincidence, and any laboured or far-fetched sequences. A scene that is hard to swallow will yank the reader out of the well-oiled, absorbing story you’re striving to create.

Getting characters away from each other is equally important, especially if you’re writing a horror novel, but again, you have to manage it credibly… Okay guys, there’s an axe-wielding psychopath out there somewhere… let’s split up!

Tram: 13.11.14.

That man on the tram. The one who catches your eye. There’s usually someone. Don’t you find that? An anomaly. A jarring presence. Or maybe not. Maybe just someone other. An against-the-flow type. A grit in the grease. This girl with the tattoo. A heart on her hand. For some reason. This guy with headphones. Smiling, tapping his foot. An older chap, all po-faced. Folded crossword puzzle. A glance, then tucked away. A photocopy. Him or it? Your guess is as good as.

You know. That music he’s listening to. You know. It isn’t music. Take the headphones off. Black oil pours from his ears. Or a swarm of flies. Or a nightmare made solid. That tattoo. Does it hide another? Was there an initial once? A previous life. Skin palimpsest. A tattoo always visible to her. A reminder. A threat. Would the replacement remind you too? Would it help you forget? Spare cuts of carpet on stains. A photograph concealing a crack. The razored remains of journal pages.

One across. One down. Cryptic or quick? Prize or just for fun? That face suggests the latter. Or maybe not. The tram stops. Some get off. Some get on. These three remain. Crossword, tattoo and grinning nightmare. You might follow one home. If you had the time. If you burned to know. An address. Some door. An inkling. The way they tend the garden. The colour of the curtains.

 

It begins…

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‘Nothing ever begins.’
Clive Barker, Weaveworld

In fiction an arresting opening line seems de rigueur:

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me. (1)

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. (2)

It was the day my grandmother exploded. (3)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (4)

Here are some more:

The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. (5)

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. (6)

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. (7)

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. (8)

Increasingly I view any sort of creative writing as a series of problems to solve. One of the first will occur as you embark on a new piece of fiction (we’ll ignore all that prefatory plotting, freighted as it is with its own peculiar difficulties). The problem for me is that I want to draw readers in, I want to hook them, but I don’t want it to look like a hook. I don’t want it to look like a starting point. More and more I prefer novels that begin without reading like they’re beginning, if you see what I mean. As an example I give you the opening line of my second novel, London Revenant:

It was so late, it was early.

It’s too writerly, I think. It’s too beginny. It waddles under the weight of author intrusion. It tells you something in an over-complicated way. Part of the magic of reading, for me, is becoming lost to a text to the extent that hours go by without my realising. There’s nothing worse than being yanked out of that delirious fugue by something that reminds you that what you’re reading has come from someone else’s imagination. And here it happens on line one. Shoot me now.

Not that I’m saying that Burgess, Plath, Banks and Orwell should be tarred with the same brush. There’s a balance to be had, I suppose. and what those first four examples show is how to hook brilliantly while being very obvious first lines. I prefer the second set of examples, however. They inject you into the narrative; they have an in media res quality about them, a feeling of the writer having settled into his story already, despite this being page one, line one.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received (I can’t for the life of me remember where I first heard it, but I urge writers to try it whenever I take a class) was to start work on a piece of writing and then, after you’ve written a couple of pages, dump your opening paragraph. It’s worth a try. Sometimes you can see a join between where the piece has started and where you’ve found the voice – more relaxed, more fluent – to tell the rest of it. Losing a paragraph or two at the start can give you a more natural opening and reduce the risk of looking as if you’re trying too hard for that killer first line. You’re suddenly deep into it, awash with story.

Don’t let your incipit be insipid. But don’t let it be too beginny either. Actually, thinking about it, if you want to avoid that starting feeling it would seem prudent to avoid any sentence that begins ‘It was…’.

1. Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess
2. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
3. The Crow Road, Iain Banks
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
5. Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
6. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
7. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
8. The Road, Cormac McCarthy

Shadows & Tall Trees

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On October 7th I posted a blog about the Gothic Manchester Festival, and how I was hoping to write a new short story in time for a reading I was scheduled to perform at the International Anthony Burgess Foundation along with Ramsey Campbell and Stephen McGeagh. I intended to write something “brisk and baleful”, around 1500 words. Well, I didn’t. Not brisk, anyway. It ended up being around 6000 words, and I ditched my original title, Way Out Via 30 Steps (although I like that title too much to discard it completely). It is now called Shaddertown, and it will be appearing early next year in the excellent Shadows & Tall Trees (edited by Michael Kelly), alongside Alison Moore, Kaaron Warren, Myriam Frey, David Surface, CM Muller, Robert Levy, Charles Wilkinson, Tara Isabella Burton, VH Leslie, Brett Cox, Michael Wehunt, Ralph Robert Moore and Ray Cluley.

Talking about it

‘Writers speak a stench.’ – Franz Kafka

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There comes a time during the creation of a novel when I feel the urge to discuss what the book is about, especially (as is currently the case) if I’m mired in problems surrounding the ending. Though I’d really rather not – I’m uncomfortable about discussing any issues I have with a piece of unfinished writing, because rambling on about something that was meant to be written can make the premise itself sound ugly (but also because I’m not the most articulate speaker on the planet) – I find it can help to unblock the old pipes and render evident a solution that seemed otherwise intractable. I’m not one of those writers who is able to keep everything close to their chest from conception until delivery.

Sometimes the poor soul (or souls… today I explained the plot of my novel to a captive – if not captivated – audience in the shape of my third year creative writing students) don’t need to say a word. The simple act of verbalising the problem I have might be enough to dislodge its solution. Those third year writers (themselves involved in trying to unpick the knotty intricacies of plot holes and narrative logic) were very helpful, and offered numerous suggestions and possibilities, some of which could turn out to be helpful. Although I did hijack their session somewhat, it was a helpful exercise for the students too and it led to a discussion of their plans for the piece of writing they’re expected to submit at the end of the year. A number of interesting offshoots appeared in relation to their own work once they’d opened up about it. It’s a little bit like magic, this conjuring of ideas from the simple act of batting words back and forth.

One word of warning though, especially when talking to non-writers, or family and friends, is that you beg a boundary be drawn before a word is uttered, born of bitter experience. Please, you might ask, please don’t just say: what a shit idea.

Hit me with your Twitter stick

Somewhere under Manchester...

Somewhere under Manchester…

As part of the Gothic Manchester Festival I’ll be reading (alongside Ramsey Campbell and Stephen McGeagh) at an event run by the excellent Twisted Tales people (27th October). The evening is an opportunity for us to talk about why we have chosen to set so many of our stories in Manchester. It was lovely to be invited along, but after confirming my attendance I began to have a bit of a panic. How many stories had I actually set in Manchester? I went through my files… plenty set in Warrington and London… a handful set abroad in the Charente-Maritime, in Venice, in the Northern Territories of Australia… but Manchester? Er… one. Which is fine, I suppose. I could read a bit from that (Late Returns, set in Didsbury, if you’re wondering), and try to relax this idea of boundaries to include Warrington while we discussed our reasons and motivations.

A Warrington skyline, 2006

A Warrington skyline, 2006

But I thought I’d use my Manchester shyness as a spur to write something new. And something audience-friendly. By which I mean short. Something brisk and baleful, under 1500 words if I could manage it.

I’d been on a tour of Manchester’s subterranean tunnels and long wanted to use that as a location in a story, but it was only while travelling back from Ormskirk last week, when I saw a sign at a railway station (WAY OUT IN 30 STEPS) that I made connections and felt the prickling of an idea. There was every chance it would simply end up on an index card under a pile of Urgent and Pending and Do this NOW you complete sac-head. So I started posting it on Twitter, deciding that I couldn’t cope with the shame of not finishing a project that I was releasing piecemeal to the public.

It’s first draft, warts-and-all, so please be gentle with me if you decide to tag along. You might hate it (you might even enjoy it), but remember first and foremost it’s there to act as a fire under my backside…

…from my cold, dead hands

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

Many of us have jobs. Full-time jobs, part-time jobs, weekend jobs, holiday jobs.

I’ve done my fair share of grim jobs. I’ve delivered pizza. I’ve worked in one of the busiest bars in Warrington on New Year’s Eve. I spent one bewildering day trying to sell kitchens. I sorted out an oncology department filing system at a London hospital into three piles: Living, Dead, Dying. I’ve lugged heavy firecheck doors all around a Hackney warehouse. When my dad was an Investigator for a security firm back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was offered the chance to spend my summers between college and university terms working as a security guard, usually on a construction site, for £2.50 an hour (thanks, Dad… why couldn’t you have been a chocolate taster, or the owner of a boutique hotel?). Invariably this would involve sitting in a Portakabin or, if I was unlucky, a car, for up to 16 hours a day, mainly ensuring that kids didn’t come to play in the piles of sand.

One summer I wrote the first draft of a novel and soaked up a very nice tan while ostensibly acting as a deterrent in serge on a patch of waste land off the M56 near Appleton. With hindsight I was lucky to have that job, even though it didn’t pay well, because it gave me huge swathes of time to write, or read, with impunity. I wanted to do nothing but be a writer, and I remember being in a froth of panic at the thought that one day I would probably end up with a proper job that stole the hours I would otherwise spend making things up.

When I did get a proper job, my fears came true and I grew so desperate to get my own fiction written that I set the alarm clock for 6am so I could get some pages down before I went into work.

Now I’ve been lucky enough to write full time for a few years. It’s likely not to be a permanent thing, but I’ll take it where I can. It’s all I really know and what I love. I imagine this cycle of writing and work will continue until I’m too decrepit to know the difference between a pen and a mug of Complan (if indeed I ever did). Essentially, I couldn’t stop writing even if I wanted to. It is as much a part of me as my heart or my backbone. I was writing before I realised you could be paid for it, and I think that is key to the kind of writer you eventually become.

Which brings me, somewhat circuitously, to the point of this post. In recent times I’ve stumbled upon (what I consider) strange behaviour among established writers, chiefly Jim Crace and Alice Munro. Both have taken the decision to retire from writing, as if it was, you know, just a normal job and not some ravening compulsion. Crace, clearly, is not what you might call a born writer. He considers writing to be something one should be paid to do and believes that once your popularity wanes, you should pack it in. In an interview in 2008 with the Guardian, Crace first broached the subject of his own retirement. An author’s lot is predicated on bitterness, according to him, resulting in “the elderly novelist who may be writing his/her best books but whose day has come and gone. S/he is no longer fashionable and can only find a marginal publisher and command a tiny advance. The book receives few reviews and is ignored by the public. Bitterness.”

Munro’s situation is all the more baffling because previously, in a Paris Review interview, she’d expressed concern at the thought of calling it a day. You get the sense, though, with Munro (who is 81 compared with Crace, in his mid-sixties), that she feels she’s written everything she wanted to write, that she is, in effect, spent. If that’s the case, then good luck to her. I hope to hell that never happens to me.

I contacted two writers I admire immensely – Ramsey Campbell and Peter Straub – both huge influences on me as I was developing, and both of an age that in other occupations would see them being handed the gold carriage clock and a goodbye handshake, yet both are still going strong.

Ramsey is as prolific as ever, perhaps even more so. Over a career that spans fifty years, he has published such genre classics as The Face that Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun and The Grin of the Dark as well as hundreds of short stories.  This year sees the publication of The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, which is, unless I’m mistaken, his 33rd novel.

Photo: Peter Coleborn

Photo: Peter Coleborn

“I can’t imagine ever retiring as a writer unless that was somehow enforced, say by an illness that left me unable to write,” Ramsey says. “Ideas – I have notebooks full of them, and some have been lying dormant for years, even decades. Now and then I have a browse of them and often discover how to develop one that failed to inspire me at the time. Not long ago I discovered that my original notes that led to my writing ‘The Companion’ forty years ago are so remote from the actual story that there’s actually a complete other tale to be had of them, and I may well get around to it. As to the future, well, they’d better leave me a pen inside the coffin in case I need to scribble a last tale or two.”

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Peter Straub, arguably one of the most influential modern horror writers, is the author of Ghost Story, Shadowland, Floating Dragon and Koko. Recent books such as lost boy, lost girl and In the Night Room have garnered awards and critical acclaim. His latest novel, A Dark Matter, was described by the Guardian as ‘understated, literary horror, all the more terrifying… for what he keeps from the reader and for his brilliant psychological portraits of innocents caught up in events beyond their control and understanding. Gripping.’

Photo: Kyle Cassidy

Photo: Kyle Cassidy

“I’ve never thought for longer than a couple of seconds about retirement,” says Peter, “but Philip Roth retired this year, and if he can do it, I certainly can. I guess the real motive would arrive one day when I would have to realize that I really was not as good as once I was, and my books really did seem to be growing weaker. For long time now, writing fiction has seemed to be my most dependable way of achieving stability, contentment, inner peace. Yet now I am seventy, and writing has become more difficult, and it goes a lot more slowly. I’d like to think I might have three or four more novels in me. The presence of ideas or the lack of ideas does not trouble me, because I almost never have ‘ideas’. I spin everything out of its own materials. This is a very absorbing process. However, the certainty of embarrassing myself in public would be a powerful incentive to walk away from my desk.

“I don’t think one can think of writing in the same way one would medicine or the law, or any conventional business. It is riskier and scarier, also less tangible than most occupations. And you have to spend so much time alone. It is a very strange, small, displaced aperture through which to see and experience the world, also to explain what you find in the process. On the other hand, it is so unimaginably rich.”

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Ten years ago I interviewed Christopher Priest, and at the time he said something about writing that resonated with me. He said writing was like ‘drinking water’. It was just something he did, natural and essential to his life. He could no longer stop doing it than he could stop breathing. And most writers I know feel the same way. Because how do you switch off the tap? Or is it a case of no longer answering the ‘What if?’ questions, ignoring the moments when you think: that would make a good story. Turning away from the fantasies, refusing to engage with the voices in your head – to me (at the moment) that sounds more like death than the real thing.