Hell is Empty

Here’s the completed cover for Joel Sorrell III…

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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.

Why Blonde became Dust

In the mid-90s I read all five of Derek Raymond’s pitch black Factory novels: He Died with His Eyes Open, The Devil’s Home on Leave, How the Dead Live, I Was Dora Suarez and Dead Man Upright*. I’d been of a mind to write a crime novel of my own for some time, and had dabbled with the odd short story here and there, but I wasn’t sure how to attack it. Reading Raymond unlocked the handcuffs. His nameless, profane (but intensely compassionate) Detective Sergeant was the grit in the grease of the police force, but he ground out results, identifying with the victims and immersing himself in the psychology of their killers to an uncomfortable degree.

Illustration by Paul Millner

Illustration by Paul Millner

I didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of police procedurals, and decided my rogue element would be an ex-copper with a weakness for missing persons. I wanted it to be gritty and grimy, harrowing and horrific, and Derek dark.

I wrote Blonde on a Stick in 2003, the first in a planned series in which my protagonist would come to terms with the violent death of his wife and the subsequent disappearance of his teenage daughter.

I struggled though, to find a publisher, despite the enthusiasm of my then agent. The rejections were full of encouragement, however, and one or two houses had almost bitten, which kept me optimistic. But it wasn’t until my wife noticed a Facebook post by Maxim Jakubowski referring to the news that he was overseeing the launch of a new crime imprint – MaxCrime – at John Blake Publishing, that I felt my confidence return. Maxim had known Derek Raymond; indeed he had acted as Raymond’s agent for a spell (and still represents his estate). The stars were in alignment, it seemed.

I was thrilled when Maxim bought Blonde for his list and my mind turned to future books. At last Joel Sorrell was on his way…

blondeAlas, more bad fortune was to follow. John Blake is a publisher of repute, but its bread and butter is in non fiction. This first foray into novels lasted less than eighteen months before the list was cancelled. However, they had only purchased UK rights so it was not inconceivable I might be able to resurrect the series with another publisher. Luckily Titan Books showed an interest in Joel Sorrell towards the end of 2013. They agreed to publish two more books in the series, but they also wanted to reprint book one, albeit under a new title.

I was very attached to that original title, but Titan’s argument was that it didn’t quite sit comfortably with the content. It needed a more elegant name, so I came up with one and they produced a striking cover to go with it. I was happy with the decision (all three novels in the series so far are quotes from literary sources – William Faulkner, Samuel Beckett and William Shakespeare) and excited that finally, over ten years on from his conception, Joel would be able to reopen the file on his missing daughter.

I worry a little that people who have read Blonde will pick up Dust and Desire thinking it is a new book. It is not. It has been revisited, spruced up, modernised, but it is not substantially different. A brand new Joel Sorrell story – Do Not Resuscitate – set shortly after the events in Dust and Desire is included, along with a Q&A. Not that many people would have chanced upon the initial MaxCrime version – I only ever saw one copy in one bookshop and that was positioned ‘spine on’ – so I doubt much confusion can arise given that there was no worldwide or e-book release.

I believe the novel deserves a second chance and I’m grateful to Titan Books for granting it.


Two weeks until Dust and Desire


There was something about her shadow that just wasn’t right, but I was too pumped up to understand. Until I looked at her directly. I took in what was left of her for maybe a second, if that, then I turned off the light and sat in an armchair, just me and her in the darkness. Me and her and the ghosts of violence thickening in my mind.



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.

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).

Word Count Dependency

I tend to measure my day-to-day progress on a project by the number of words I’ve accrued. It’s easy, straightforward, quantifiable. You know where you stand. If you’re in the hunt for an agent or a publisher, the likelihood is their guidelines will tell you you need to write between 70 – 100,000 words (probably more if you’re writing a genre novel). So you know that if you eke out 1000 words every day for three months – hey presto! – you’re in novel territory. It’s a handy guide, but it can also be somewhat punishing if you’re not careful. Your ‘segments’, if you don’t sand the edges, can have ‘thousand-word chunkiness’, for want of a better description. The joins might show. Also, you feel in thrall to the limit you set yourself, so for example, you might dash through a thousand words and think, that’s my work for the day done, where’s the beach? You switch off. Even if you decide to stick around and do more, internally, you’ve clocked off. Or you might find you’re having one of those days when the words come slower than a legless turtle in a puddle of treacle.

But it’s difficult to get out of that mindset, especially when you consider that many of the legends that went before us worked in the same way. Although not all of them enjoyed it. Graham Greene stopped writing as soon as he hit the 500 word point – his manuscripts are dotted with handwritten numbers where he has counted his output, eager to hit his mark so he could go off to play Russian Roulette or spend the afternoon with a prostitute. What are the alternatives for a writer, someone who is eager to amass a clutch of pages at the end of the day to prove that some marvellous alchemy has occurred?

I asked Adam Nevill, my old editor at Virgin and a superb writer of horror in his own right (check out Apartment 16, The Ritual and Last Days), what his methods were, remembering a discussion we’d once had regarding word counts and work routines, and he sent me this pithy response:

“My lack of awareness of the word count led to a situation while writing LAST DAYS when I noticed I’d hit 140K on the first draft, and remembered there was something about a 120K word length in the contract. And I still had a fair portion of the story to write too. This could have had a major impact on the publisher’s costings for pagination with a print run, so I went hot and cold and informed my editor, who said it was fine and 120K was only a guide (just as well!). The book eventually hit 160K. But that really revealed to me just how little attention I pay to word volume these days. So, I don’t word count and sense that I have harboured a vague prejudice against the practice over the last few years. So answering this question has made me think a bit harder about why I don’t observe a word count now.

Photo: Tania Glyde

Photo: Tania Glyde

“Though it’s not always been the case. I once wrote nine series fiction novels under another name, one per year, to strict deadlines and they could not exceed 80K words or fall much below 75K, so I once watched the counter like a hawk and it was an uncomfortable experience because my tendency was to either go over 80K or under 75K. After one carefully revised and balanced novel hit 86K I was asked to cut “something out” (preposterous!). Also, I remember closing on 70K and knowing another 10K would not be sufficient, and once thinking a story should stop at 70K. Nonsensical. My problem with word limits is similar to my problem with word counts, in that stories cannot be told in the same amount of words, just as they can’t all be told in the same way, and neither can the individual scenes I hope to write in each writing session. So I can’t recall word counting on a novel since 2005 and no word limit has ever been imposed on my horror novels. Instinctively, I always know when a scene, and eventually a story, is finishing. And as every year goes by my inner reader gets better and better at judging pace, so my internal pace measurer is more useful than a word counter. If I counted words, I suspect that going under target on a poor day at my desk would create a lingering indigestion.

“So I approach writing a novel incrementally; I keep in mind what I need to achieve in each new scene, scene by scene, and each new scene has the life and implications of the last scenes within its DNA. But how I reach the end of each respective scene has no relation to the length of the scene in actual words. So I judge the progress of what I am writing, as I go along, by what each scene achieves in relation to the entire story that has past, and what I anticipate is still to come. Each session’s writing is judged by how strong a scene feels and if it works for the story. If a scene comes out quickly, I tend to go away and think on what it means to the next part of the story, rather than blasting straight into the next scene because I feel I am on a roll. So an afternoon or evening thinking about the next scene I need to write, and making notes, is more useful to me than writing continuously. Ultimately, I also don’t trust anything I’ve written until I’ve been through it like a customs official goes through a car that smells of cannabis at a ferry port; the final draft usually occurs around the last month of a deadline, so how many words go down each day until the end is largely irrelevant to the way I think about putting a novel together.


“Writing is an incredibly intense experience too, so I would not want to suffer a conflict about hitting word targets, or find another reason to flagellate myself on the office floor. If I am in the zone I write more; if I take a long time to get into the zone, or life overruns my position, I write less. I always tend to revisit a scene that I am dissatisfied with at the start of the very next session on a first draft, so I don’t need to know how many words are in that scene, because it’s going to be changed. Through good and bad days I eventually finish a novel to my satisfaction and I make sure I end a book feeling excited, as well as feeling a trepidation at having taken risks. I don’t think, wow, I’ve worked so hard I’ve written 160K words this year. I’ve seen a few people on Facebook announce that they have hit one million words in one year; I’m still not entirely sure what that proves.

“On good days the pages come and I lose myself in them, and eventually every part of the story, over successive drafts, will have to be rewritten on a good day; that’s my assurance and word counting would miss the point for me, because volume is subordinate to value, and there is always another way of writing something you know is no good, and everything has to be rewritten. I suspect I actually write better because I don’t count words. Who wants to run a marathon with a stone in their shoe? We’re all different.

“I suppose my equivalent of word counting is an on-going, internal time and motion study. I do reflect on time a lot; how much time in a day, and even a week, I am able to write unimpeded (usually as I am trying to sleep) in lieu of my eventual deadline. I evaluate my progress on the quality of the concentration I had in each session, and how much time I claimed for writing, and how well the scene turned out, not the amount of words that came or did not come. I also often write long hand too, so I couldn’t really count the words anyway.

“So my cold-sweat fear is a valid one: not having enough time to do my best on a book within a year, which is the amount of time I have to write each new book. It’s a good chunk of time. But the terror is good because it makes me find enough time to do my best to finish the best book I can. This is why I more or less stick to one novel a year that I can work on nearly every day, and two short stories each year. Not an arbitrary objective; just the way it has worked out since 2009. This work rate gives me a sense that this schedule is manageable and that I am maintaining quality control. Before I was contracted for one book a year, I didn’t look at the calendar either; I’d know when it was done. So quality writing time and sufficient preparation time is something I do measure mentally on a work in progress, (I would guess for the same motive that some writers count words), because it’s those two things that will decide whether a book is any good or whether it risks failure, not the book’s length. Let’s say I could write 100K words in three months; without putting it to the test, I know it would never be as good as the 100K I could write over a year.

“Short stories are a different case, and most editors seem to want stories at 5K. I struggle to write less than 7K on any story and have even panicked when I notice I have hit 10K. It’s like everything starts evolving into a novel…

“I bet Conrad wished I’d looked at the word counter as I wrote this.”

Another friend, and writer I admire, Michael Marshall (Smith), who is responsible for such novels as The Straw Men, The Intruders and We Are Here, has this to say (excuse the bum-numbing length of his comment):

“I never worry about quantity because I know that, when I’ve worked out what the hell I’m doing, the words and paragraphs will flow easily. Prose and characters seldom if ever give me any trouble once I’ve found the backbone to hang them on. I know I can write 3-4k in a day if I know what I’m doing, so I don’t mind – in fact, I thank God for – the days on which I write seven words, but finally get a sense of what’s supposed to happen next… My writing process is like a very drunk man trying to cross a motorway on foot: long stretches of weaving, watchful stasis, interspersed with chaotic dashes.”

Photo: Steve Double

Photo: Steve Double


Many thanks to Michael and Adam for their time…

Word count matters, obviously, otherwise we’d all write Proustian novels that, well, never ended. There’s some instinct within (or more likely contractual obligation enforced upon) a writer that helps to portion a story, give it its rhythms, its peaks and troughs, creates a narrative arc that rises and falls and finds a natural end point within that magical 70-100,000 word zone. It would probably look rather beautiful if you plotted it on a graph. The end result is the important thing, a novel that hopefully reads well and contains all the good things we look for in a story.

What methods do you use?