It’s Only Make Believe

So, fantasy novels. As suggested in the title, by ‘fantasy’ I mean speculative fiction that has no basis in technology, no matter how far-fetched the technology might be, and doesn’t fall firmly within another genre, such as horror. That’s still a huge range of sub-genres and I’ll barely be scratching the surface. Incidentally, I don’t know if you’re like me—some people seem to obsess about this stuff—but I try not to stress about into which sub-genre a particular novel belongs. In truth, the only time I pay much attention to these subtleties is when uploading a book to Amazon and having to choose the categories in which it’s to be published and which keywords are to be linked to the book. Otherwise, the broader genres such as fantasy and science fiction will do me, although even then there are stories which do not sit comfortably within just the one category.

I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I came to fantasy at an early age through the works for young children written by Enid Blyton. She was later supplanted by books like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. But I want to mention others I’ve enjoyed from my teens onwards. They include two books that would comfortably make it into my top ten of all-time favourite books in any genre.

Let’s begin with the book that many readers list as their favourite: The Lord of the Rings. I’m not going to say much about this because it will already be so familiar to most, either through the book or the films. Suffice to say, I discovered it in my teens and have read it every few years since. One of my favourite books ever—a re-read is overdue.

At around the same time that I first read LOTR, I discovered another fantasy writer: David Gemmel. I read (over and over) his Legend series, although this was in the dim and distant past and I don’t clearly recall a great deal about them now except how they made me feel: thrilled about escaping to a fantastic and dangerous world, cheering on Druss (I think that was the hero’s name) and fighting his battles alongside him (as if he needed my help).

Another series I enjoyed was Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind. At least, I enjoyed them to a point. I can’t remember how many sequels I read, but think it was at least three, before I moved on to something new.

In my early twenties I read a book called Shadowland by Peter Straub. It was dark, involved magic and entranced me. It contains a line I can still recall today: Once upon a time, when we all lived in the forest… I was already one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers so when he and Peter Straub teamed up for The Talisman, I had to read it. I wasn’t so keen on the sequel that came out years later, but return to the original every five years or so. Another one that’s overdue a re-read. Sigh. Too many new books to read first…

When I was a child I hated sprouts and loved a fizzy drink called Dandelion & Burdock. Now, in my fifties, I love sprouts and one whiff of Dandelion & Burdock makes me want to projectile vomit. Our tastes change over time and that includes our reading tastes. As years have rolled by, I’ve moved away from the more traditional high fantasy of wizards and elves and the like and sought out darker or humorous tales.

They don’t come much darker than The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever. Without wishing to spoil anything, the main character does something dreadful early in the first book which made me loathe him. And he never through the ensuing books endears himself. Yep, he’s a man with problems, and comes across as one of the most unlikeable people you’d never want to meet. Despite all that, I enjoyed the first three books. There is something intriguing about the land which Covenant visits, something compelling about the characters he encounters and the predicaments they find themselves in. And there’s a scene—don’t ask me in which book because I can’t remember—involving the fate of the giants which was so heart-rending it made me want to cry.

I read the second trilogy; with diminishing enjoyment, it has to be said. When I found out there was a final trilogy, I hesitated but I’m a glutton for punishment. The final three books in the series are as heavy as bricks and focus on a character who is possibly, though it hardly seems possible, even less endearing than Covenant himself. I have the ninth book in the series sitting in my bookcase taunting me to read it. I’ll have to psych myself up to do so and will get to it eventually. But I don’t care how many more instalments Stephen Donaldson might write, this will be the last I’ll endure. (Oh, bugger. Thought I’d better check there are no more books before finalising this piece. You’ve guessed it: there’s a tenth book. I know I said that I’m not interested in reading any more, but I shall have to see how much of a struggle I find the ninth book before deciding whether to get the tenth. I mean, I’ve put this much effort in already and if the tenth is really the last one…)

As for the humorous, they don’t get much better than the Discworld series. In my late twenties when I discovered them, I have since read and re-read them. They are my go-to books when I want to escape into a whacky and endearing place where if everything is not possible, it feels like it is. When Sir Terry passed on, it felt like losing an old friend. I’ll post a link to one of my many favourites in the series.

Another enjoyable, light-hearted series involves the adventures of Thursday Next, literary detective, is by Jasper Fforde and begins with The Eyre Affair. Wonderfully imaginative and a great deal of fun.

I still keep my hand in with the more traditional type of fantasy. I’m slowly working my way through Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea quartet. Read two so far and enjoyed them both, but probably won’t be embarking on the third for a while.

Another novel I feel worthy of mention is Audrey Niffenegger’s (try saying that after a few beers) The Time Traveler’s Wife. Although, as the title suggests, this is about time travel, it belongs within my definition of fantasy because there is no technology involved. I found it to be an incredibly moving tale, a love story doomed by the man’s tendency to disappear into another time period, often at the most inopportune moments.

The final series I want to mention is Stephen King’s The Dark Tower. Before I get to the negatives, I enjoyed the early part of the series, probably the first four or five books. By the sixth, I felt a little jaded. By the seventh—the original final book (there has since been another published, which I haven’t read)—I was feeling a little dark-towered-out, but girded my loins and embarked willingly enough along the home straight. So to the negatives. I’m not in any position to offer advice to Mr King as to how he writes his books, but he indulges in such an outrageous piece of author intrusion in the seventh book that it threw me completely out of the story and left me feeling reluctant to continue. I’m guessing he knew he was risking such a reaction amongst his readers and made a conscious decision to take that risk. Well, for me, it backfired. Nevertheless, I pressed on to the end. When I got there, I wish I hadn’t bothered. I’ve mentioned before that I think endings are his weakness. Well, everyone has to have at least one weakness, right? His novels are more about the journey than the arrival and I love most of them, even those where I think the ending could be stronger. But the end of the seventh Dark Tower book? Made me want to throw the bloody thing at the wall. I won’t say any more—if you haven’t read them and you enjoy fantasy, you’ll enjoy this series. You may even like the seventh book. We all have different tastes and different levels of tolerance, thank goodness. The world of books would be a dull, sanitised place otherwise.

To my final book; the second one that would, along with LOTR, comfortably make it into my all-time top ten favourite books of any genre. I read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld and enjoyed it enough to seek out another of his books, Imajica. Oh, wow! What a breathtaking work of mind-blowing imagination. I don’t want to say too much because, spoilers, so will merely say that if you haven’t read it, hurry and do so. You’re in for a treat. (Unless, of course, your tastes differ from mine…)

To end, that dangerous game (dangerous because I’ll probably forget someone) of a mention of some online friends who write fantasy. I haven’t read books by all of them, and haven’t met them in the flesh, but they come across as mighty fine people in the cyberworld. So, if you’re in the mood for some indie fantasy, check out some of the works of J.D. Hallowell, Jade Kerrion, Ch’kara SilverWolf, P.L. Blair and L.W. Browning. Keep making stuff up, guys!

An Update (with news of a freebie)

The Elevator

I published this short novel (or long novella) in 2016 under the title The Elevator: A Novella. It had been intended as a standalone, but a couple of things nagged at me after it had been published: what happened to one of the main characters, Jack, after the novel ended? And what of the being who appeared as a monk, who seemed to have a hand in most of the weird places visited by the elevator? I wanted to know more and the result is two sequels due to be published in early 2018: Jack’s Tale and The Lord of the Dance.

Having made that decision to publish sequels, I had to rename the original to make it clear it was the first in a series. Long story short, I had to unpublish the first edition and publish a second edition with a new subtitle, Book One. If there’s anyone looking in who has read the first edition, there’s no need to go looking for the new one – nothing’s changed except for the title and the front and back matter. The main body of text is unaltered.

I have taken the opportunity to publish the book wide so it is now available at places like ibooks and Kobo – see the book’s page on the sidebar for links.

Freebie alert: I have also made it available as a free download here. The idea of doing so is that readers who download the book also sign up to my mailing list, which is sorely in need of expansion. (See Marketing for Muppets – Part 3.) However, I have not made signing up mandatory so you can pop along and download the book if you wish without joining my list. Please, though, consider subscribing – you can see my privacy statement and uses I will make of your e-mail address on the side button ‘Stay in touch’, where you can also sign up to my list. (I’ve been running the list for a little over a year, during which period I’ve sent two e-mails. Just two. That will increase shortly when the sequels are published, but you’re hardly likely to be inundated with e-mails if you join.)

Edit: since (perhaps unsurprisingly) most people who’ve downloaded a free copy of the book haven’t joined my mailing list, I’m going to have to change it so that signing up is compulsory as otherwise the giveaway is not serving its purpose. This is the last chance to grab a copy without having to join a list – I’m going to change it tomorrow, 17th November 2017.

Ghosts of Christmas Past & Other Dark Festive Tales

I published this collection of dark, Christmas-themed short stories towards the end of October. It hasn’t yet gained much traction, but it’s early days for a Christmas-themed book. By the same token, the window for such books to gain visibility is narrow. To try to boost visibility, I’m experimenting for the first time with Amazon Marketing Services. I shall report on success or otherwise in a future instalment of Marketing for Muppets.

P.S. No regular post this week because I’m otherwise engaged on Friday afternoon (the time I normally complete my weekly blog post) on a jolly involving food and beer and a talk from an England rugby international from the 70s. I could try to write the post Friday evening, after the event, but suspect that anything I write won’t make much sense (or, if you prefer, even less sense than normal).

Size Isn’t Everything

At the start of the twenty-first century, I had a completed novel (since published as The Village of Lost Souls) and had started writing the second (published as That Elusive Something). This was long before the e-book revolution and the only ways into publishing back then were through the traditional or vanity routes. I had neither the inclination nor the funds to pursue the latter so embarked on trying to break into the former. For those too young to know or too old to remember, this involved querying London agents in an effort to obtain representation. I must have spent a fortune in posting the first three chapters of the novel and the obligatory stamped addressed envelope large enough to hold the chapters on their inevitable return journey. They sometimes thumped back onto the doormat in such pristine condition that I doubt they’d even been read.

But this isn’t a post bemoaning the querying process. In case you’re wondering about the title, neither does it have anything to do with sex. This is about short stories.

During those endless rounds of posting a query and waiting for its return so that I could send it to the next rejector, I developed an itch. (And, no, this still isn’t about sex.) It grew and grew into an overwhelming urge to see a piece of fiction I’d written in print. More than that, I needed to know what it felt like to have complete strangers reading something I’d written.

I pressed on with the second novel. When I’d finished it, I embarked upon the by-then-familiar, but no less fruitless and demoralising, querying process. Different novel, same results. If anything, the thud of the returning envelope hitting the doormat made the itch intensify. I had to find a way to scratch it or go out of my mind. My solution was to write short stories.

I didn’t think short stories were easier to write than a novel, and still don’t, but they are undeniably quicker to complete. And I had a lot of story ideas sloshing around in my head that would not be suitable for the long treatment of a novel, but might make half-decent short tales. Any that didn’t, well, I’d only waste hours writing them instead of the couple of months or so (depending how much writing time you have) of commitment required for a novel.

There was another significant consideration: I don’t know whether it remains the case today, but back then there were a number of small press magazines which accepted unsolicited short stories for consideration. It didn’t matter to me in the slightest that these magazines didn’t appear on the shelf of my local W.H. Smith or that their readerships might only number in the hundreds—the point was to have my work appear in print and be read by people who didn’t know me from Adam.

My first published work of fiction was the short story Celesta. It appeared in the now defunct Cambrensis magazine in September 2002. I can still recall the sheer thrill of holding my copy (my author copy, no less) and seeing my words in print for the first time. It was followed by publication of another four short stories in various small press magazines—I was even paid for a couple of them.

That was that particular itch scratched. I continued, and continue, to write the occasional short. Novels are my preferred form, but I enjoy the variety, and different challenge, of penning shorter work from time to time. Those early published short stories can now be found, amongst others, in my collection Pond Life. I have another two collections: Strange Shores and the recently published Ghosts of Christmas Past. Others can be found in various anthologies.

But I’m digressing. The purpose of this piece isn’t to publicise my works—though I oughtn’t be hesitant about doing so; it’s my bloody website, after all—but to trumpet the value of short stories and to mention a few of my favourites by other authors.

It’s not very often that we hear of short story collections becoming bestsellers. There are, of course, exceptions. Stephen King’s collections, for instance, usually shoot to the top of most charts. But for the lesser-known writer, they can be a hard sell and often end up being heavily discounted or given away, considered as little more than a means of funneling readers to longer, more lucrative works.

That’s a shame. A well-crafted short story is as worthy of praise as a tightly-plotted novel—the same level of skill has gone into both. And in today’s world of, we’re told, ever-decreasing attention spans and shrinking mobile devices, you’d think that short stories would be the ideal format for today’s hectic lifestyles. You’d think. Maybe their day will come, but I shan’t hold my breath.

Anyway, enough wistful thinking. What about the short stories I’ve enjoyed over the years? There have been far too many; too many to remember, let alone discuss here. I’m just going to mention a few.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that Stephen King is one of my favourite authors. No surprise, then, that I’m going to start with one of his short stories. Survivor Type appeared in his collection Skeleton Crew and tells of a surgeon washed ashore on a tiny, deserted island after a shipwreck. How he attempts to survive—no spoilers, but the clue is in his profession—horrified me in a gleefully fascinated way.

While we’re at it, another of King’s short stories that has stuck with me many years after I first read it is Quitters, Inc, which appears in his collection Night Shift. If, like me, you’ve embarked on numerous failed attempts to quit smoking, this story will resonate.

All You Zombies by Robert Heinlein is a mind-bending tale about the paradoxes of time travel. Difficult to say too much without spoilers so I’ll only say that the number of characters who populate the story turns out to be far fewer than appears at first sight. The story was turned into a film called Predestination, starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook, and a cracking job they made of it, too.

Another Heinlein short that’s stuck in my mind is And He Built a Crooked House. It’s another mind-bender, not to mention space-bender, about an architect who designs a house based on an unfolded tesseract (the four-dimensional analogue of the cube). When an earthquake causes the cube to collapse, Heinlein—and the reader—has great fun with the consequences.

A quick mention of an American short-story specialist, Raymond Carver. I’ve enjoyed a few of his collections, such as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His stories are often little slices of life, usually dark and always poetic—he is also known as a poet and it shows in his fiction writing.

Finally, I couldn’t talk about short stories without mentioning Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. It’s a collection of science fiction stories linked through the animated tattoos on the body of a vagrant. If you like science fiction and short stories, this is the perfect union—go read it.

That’s merely a small taster. There have been many, many more stories I’ve read and enjoyed over the years. There are many, many more I’ve yet to sample. The beauty of short stories is that if you come across a dud, you won’t waste much time on it, and when you come across one of the countless gems hidden amidst the rough, you’re in for a thrill and delight. Happy reading!

(The above links will take you to the Amazon.com store only. I did have a fancy piece of code installed which took clickers to their local store, but it seems to have been lost in a recent upgrade of the site. I shall remedy it shortly. In the meantime, if you’re not based in the US, sorry, but that’s where the links will take you.)

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

The title comes from an REM song that was a minor hit in the UK in the early nineties. It’s a good song by an excellent band, but that’s by the by. It’s the phrase I want to talk about: the end of the world as we know it.

To me, it succinctly sums up the attraction of post-apocalyptic fiction to both readers and writers. The world hasn’t ended in the sense that it’s been blown to smithereens and Mars has become the third rock from the sun. The world is still here, but it’s a version that we don’t recognise.

Apocalyptic events come in all shapes and sizes: meteor and asteroid strikes; deadly pandemics; nuclear war; disastrous climate change; attack by extra-terrestrials; plagues of undead. What they have in common is the wiping out of a large chunk of the planet’s population, and a struggle by the survivors in a world where the previous rules no longer apply.

In the immediate aftermath there is no law and order, no society, no culture, no international boundaries. There are no checks and balances. What morality remains has to struggle to assert itself amidst anarchy. Humankind is reduced to its basest, most bestial form.

There’s the attraction for the writer. A blank page that can be filled however he (or she, but can we take ‘she’ as read?) chooses. The writer may open the story with the apocalyptic event itself. Or he may jump forward a hundred years, or a thousand, to whenever he wants, and leap right in at a point where new rules are already established, new orders have arisen, new currencies are being traded or fought over.

The writer can develop goals and conflicts that are unlikely to arise in the world as we know it. Maybe the acquisition of uncontaminated water will be the overwhelming aim of survivors in the new world; or arable land; or sanctuary from mutant enemies; or dry ground; or a cure for disease; or shelter from deadly solar rays. The possibilities are endless.

The reader will take delight in entering a world where all bets are off. He will relish trying to identify the new rules, if indeed there are yet any, and putting himself in the place of the protagonists. How would he, the reader, cope if thrust into such a world? Might there even be, whisper it quietly, something desirable about inhabiting a world where there are no conventions?

That was how I first became attracted to the genre. I was a young boy, probably around nine or ten, and watched the film The Omega Man on television one Saturday evening. I can still recall the thrill I felt at seeing Charlton Heston enter a department store and pick out any clothes that took his fancy without having to pay for them. I imagined being in his shoes, walking down a litter-strewn, deserted high street, calling into every toy, sweet and gun shop that I passed (they were always toy, sweet or gun shops—I was nine) and simply helping myself. I was the most dangerous sweet-sucking, gun-toting, toy-laden critter in town. Of course, I was the only sweet-sucking, etc. critter in town but didn’t let that get in the way of a good fantasy. My childish self conveniently ignored the downside to finding myself in such a scenario: the loneliness, the desolation, the abject despair.

Those aspects were brought home to a slightly older version of me with the BBC television series The Survivors. I only vaguely remember the original (it was remade a good few years ago), but recall it being grey, gritty and downright miserable. It nevertheless cemented my love of the apocalyptic story.

Around four or five years later, I read Stephen King’s The Stand. This still ranks as one of my favourite post-apocalyptic books (along with Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker and Cormack McCarthy’s The Road—more on them in a future post). I especially enjoyed watching the apocalyptic event unfold and seeing what happened in the immediate aftermath (elements, along with a deadly virus, that I use in my own apocalyptic novel The Cleansing). Having wiped out most of the population of the United States—we never see what is happening in the rest of the world—with a manmade superflu bug, Mr King could have taken the story in any one of a multitude of directions.

There is so much conflict inherent in an apocalyptic scenario that the writer doesn’t need to invent more. The mere struggle for survival is compelling in itself: the competition with other survivors for scarce resources, threats from predators old and new (animal and human), establishment of new bonds that will determine whether the human race can continue. But that’s the beauty of stories about the end of the world as we know it: almost any new element—spiritualism, the supernatural, mysticism, the extra-terrestrial, and so on—can be introduced to add even more spice to an already tasty dish.

Mr King could have shown the surviving humans in The Stand struggling to adapt to their new world without introducing any extra conflicts, and no doubt it would have been a cracking tale. As it was, he opted to have the survivors gravitate to one of two camps (figure-headed by the ancient and pious Mother Abigail, and the charismatic and deadly Randall Flagg) and constructed a ripping yarn about good against evil, while retaining all of the basic conflicts mentioned above.

There are many more books and films in the apocalyptic genre that I have enjoyed, as well as computer games like the Fallout series, so it was inevitable when I began writing fiction that sooner or later I would turn my hand to an end of world tale of my own. Like many writers, I write the sort of stories that I enjoy reading (and watching and playing).

Apocalyptic books, films, games, they all provide the reader, the viewer, the player, with the vicarious terror of experiencing a horrifying situation and wondering what he would do next. Run for the hills? Give up? Fight back? But in contrast to being actually thrust into such a scenario, the reader will derive great pleasure from the journey without suffering the accompanying deprivations and heartaches. He will feel relieved or even smug that he will never, hopefully, have to undergo such an experience in the real world.

And that brings me back to the title of this piece. It’s not quite correct or, at any rate, complete. The full title of the REM song is It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) . Now the title sums up the attraction of the apocalyptic genre more fully. It explains it all.

The writer will pen tales that involve the deaths of millions or billions of people; he will place the survivors in yet more jeopardy (as if the poor buggers haven’t already suffered enough); he may offer them the flimsiest hopes or the thinnest opportunities to escape ever more desperate situations; he may force them to champion the cause of mankind against overwhelming odds (give them a break, for goodness’ sake).

The reader will sit on the sidelines, watching the tale unfold with increasing incredulity or awe or horror. He’ll sympathise with the survivors; gasp as they face each new challenge; root them on when there’s nobody else on their side; laugh and cry with them.

But neither writer nor reader have to die with them. And maybe, only maybe, we end up appreciating the world we know, this world, just that little bit more. Perhaps it isn’t quite as bad as it sometimes seems. The apocalyptic tale shows us that it could be a whole lot worse. It might make us feel, even if only subconsciously, a little better about our world and ourselves.

And that can only be a good thing.

Marketing for Muppets – Part 3

In the last instalment of Marketing for Muppets I wrote that Part 3 probably wouldn’t appear until the New Year. Hmm, so much for foresight. As you’ll see if you read to the end, this wasn’t intended to be Part 3 but sort of morphed into it when the subject of marketing insisted on inserting itself firmly into the narrative like a persistent salesman and wouldn’t be shifted. But on with the post…

In one of the online forums I frequent, a perennial question posed to the indie author community who gather there is, “What does success mean to you?” I don’t normally involve myself in the ensuing threads, but when I saw the question posed yet again it got me thinking.

The answer, of course, will vary from author to author, depending on the reasons why they write and the stage they have reached in their careers.

The person with a deeply personal story they need to tell, or someone approaching their twilight years wanting to share their life story with family and close friends, may regard completing the work as success; selling it to the wider reading public may hold no appeal to them whatsoever.

Contrast the writer with perhaps a dozen or more titles to their name. Success to them may mean nothing less than maintaining a four-figure monthly income from sales of their work.

Then there are the writers who seek validation, for whom only a deal with a traditional publisher will do. There are others who are willing to self-publish or publish through the small press, but for whom reaching the number one spot in their genre is the Holy Grail.

Whatever floats your boat.

I suspect for most writers the meaning of success is a fluid concept. When I first bundled together ten short stories and let them loose on Amazon with only a placeholder cover, short-term success to me meant one person who didn’t know me buying the collection.

However, in the back of my mind where it had been nestling since my late twenties was the desire to make a living from writing fiction. No matter how much my short-term concepts of success have shifted like sandbanks over the ensuing five years, that overarching goal has remained as constant as granite.

“May we give you a hefty wad, enough that you’ll never need work again, for the rights to make movies of your books, Sam?” Of course you may, and thank you very much. But back in the real world I’ll be happy if I can make a steady income, enough to give up the day job altogether and spend the remainder of my working life writing fiction.

If you’re a writer struggling to make your way in today’s over-saturated market, it might be worth taking a moment to consider what success means to you. If your answer is a little vague, like mine, it might help to formulate shorter-term goals, ones that can be more easily quantified in terms of words written, or sales numbers, or new subscribers to your mailing list; whatever works for you. Doing so can inform marketing tactics, ones that might help you reach those smaller goals on your way to the larger one.

This didn’t start out as a post about marketing. Its original title was The Meaning of Success, until I got this far and realised that it’s difficult to discuss success without touching upon marketing since, after all, in most cases one is likely to be the precursor of the other.

As I might have mentioned previously, I’m not good at promoting my own work. Useless. A muppet. Yet, it seems impossible to escape the bloody subject. I guess we have to suck it up and get on with it. And this is an opportune moment to state the third proposition I believe to be true about marketing:

Proposition 3: When a writer defines success to include any element based upon level of sales, marketing is inexorably linked to that success.

To try to achieve my measure of long-term success, I’ve broken down my aims into smaller, achievable ones. For instance, publish more works. With a Christmas-themed collection of horror stories coming out today, and the final two novels in a trilogy on course to be finished in time for January publication, that’s going okay. But it’s only one of my short-term aims.

Another one, the most pressing it feels right now, is to build my mailing list. It’s all well and good publishing new works, but without a sizeable body of readers willing to be informed about them and to help make them visible, they will quickly sink to the murky depths, rarely to be seen again.

Despite my misgivings about giving away work in return for signing up to a mailing list (see Marketing for Muppets – Part 2), I’m going to give it a go. Wish me luck. I shall report back in a future instalment.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

On 20th October 2017, I am releasing a new collection of short stories: Ghosts of Christmas Past and Other Dark Festive Tales. As the title suggests, each story has a Christmas theme and each is from the dark side. It will only be available in e-book format, but can be purchased from most mainstream online retailers (see links below).

Here is the cover:

Within you might encounter the occasional ghost, perhaps a vampire or two. Oh, and zombies. One tale is set in the Earth Haven universe, at the time of the start of The Cleansing. And there’s a bonus story, one which has previously been published in a Christmas anthology, also set in the Earth Haven universe.

Here’s the blurb:

‘Four festive tales of the supernatural, apocalyptic and blood-sucking variety—an antidote for anyone who occasionally finds Christmas overly sentimental or commercialised and likes to escape to somewhere darker.

In Ghosts of Christmas Past, a newly-wed couple spend every Christmas in the same remote country cottage. It’s their ‘thing’ and they’re not about to let tragedy get in the way.

In I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, a small boy creeps downstairs to see his mother in the embrace of a crimson-robed stranger. But Jake’s not convinced: since when did Santa have long teeth and red, glinting eyes?

In Rottin’ Around the Christmas Tree, Nia decorates the tree while her parents look on. But this is not just another Christmas—it is the time of The Cleansing, the time when family life and the world as we know it are ending.

In Christmas ‘Midst the Zombie Apocalypse, two survivors sit out winter on the edge of an overrun city. Their efforts to enjoy Christmas Day as normally as possible turn out to be a mistake; a potentially fatal one.’

Finally, here are the links to purchase:

Amazon

Kobo

itunes

Barnes & Noble

Ho, ho, ho!

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1

Firstly, I must apologise for the groan-inducing title. Yes, this is a post about grammar. And, yes, there may be more to come. A post about grammar? Part 1? Yawn.

Don’t be like that. I don’t intend them to be dry, technical posts. Rather, I want to talk about the idiosyncrasies of grammar and, occasionally, of those who use it.

Caveat: I do not hold myself out in any way as being an authority on grammar and its usage. If you want authority, refer to one of the style guides, like the Chicago or Oxford manuals*. Alternatively, visit an online forum related to writing and post something like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive’—you’ll soon be swamped with authority or, at least, those who believe they speak with it. I am not claiming to speak with authority. I have, however, been around the block a few times and have published more than half a million words of fiction, so I ought to know a little about the subject.

I’m going to start with one of the most bemusingly controversial of topics: the Oxford comma. It’s also known as the Harvard comma or serial comma, which always puts me in mind of Jack the Ripper. (Or should that be Jack, the Ripper? You have my permission to call me rude names.)

Now, I doubt whether the average reader has even heard of this unassuming little fellow; I’m almost certain that he couldn’t care less about it. For those who aren’t sure what it is, take this example:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips, and peas.

The Oxford comma (OC) is the second one, the one that separates ‘chips’ and ‘and’. Here’s the sentence without it:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips and peas.

In case there are any grammar pedants looking in, I know that some will feel that the sentence should contain a comma after the word ‘dinner’, but I’m making the style choice not to include it. So sue me. (I don’t consider there’s anything wrong with pedantry, by the way. I have a strong pedantic streak in me, but find as I get older that I care less and less about what others choose to do. You should try it; it’s liberating.)

Back to the example. Neither sentence is grammatically incorrect, but I prefer the second one. The OC adds nothing in my eyes and the second example looks less cluttered.

So it comes down to which style a writer prefers, then? You’d think, but there are a surprising number of people out there who will argue vehemently that either the OC should always be used, or that it should never be used. It’s difficult to think of another example of grammar usage where writers (not all, it has to be said, but many) are so polarised, supporting one position to the exclusion of the other.

Whenever I’m visiting a writing-related forum and see a thread started about the OC, I can guess what’s going to happen. Before too long, someone will come along who will declare that the OC should always be used. It clears up ambiguity, they argue. To back up their argument, they’ll post some (often ridiculous) example, like this:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

See? they’ll say, without the OC the sentence reads like the narrator is saying his (or her, but for the sake of brevity I’m sticking with his) brothers are Laurel and Hardy. Therefore, they’ll say, the OC is always required to avoid such ambiguity, so that the example should read:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

And they are right, up to a point. Unless the narrator wants to say that Laurel and Hardy are his brothers, the OC removes that ambiguity. But with most of the examples (possibly all; I haven’t tested) that get bandied about in support of this position, it only requires a little tinkering and the OC will produce the opposite result, i.e. it will create ambiguity. Take the Laurel and Hardy example. Now change ‘brothers’ from plural to singular:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brother, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

Now it sounds like the narrator is saying that Stan Laurel is his brother. If that’s not what he intends, the OC needs to go.

So why do (some) writers get so bent out of shape by this and insist that the OC is always, or never, required? Beats me. It also amuses me in a head-shaking-sadly sort of way. For me, the OC is simple, so simple that I’m going to state this in bold:

If the intended meaning of a sentence is improved by inclusion of the OC, use it. If the meaning is obfuscated (man, I love that word) by inclusion of the OC, omit it. If the meaning isn’t clear with or without it, rewrite the sentence.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all there is to say on the matter.

That’s all for this week. I’m in the middle of trying to get a collection of dark Christmas-themed stories ready for publication in time to catch the festive market and I need to crack on. Till later…

* I mention the Oxford and Chicago manuals because they are the ones which seem to be most favoured by writers (I have a copy of The Oxford Manual of Style sitting on the bookshelf above my writing desk) and both of which happen to be in favour of the OC, but there are other guides which aren’t.

(P.S. I’m including this addendum because I realised after posting that I said at the outset that this is a post about grammar, then proceeded to talk about punctuation. I am hereby redefining ‘grammar’ for the purposes of this series of posts to include punctuation, spelling and anything else loosely related to the mechanics of writing. So there.)

Marketing for Muppets – Part 2

I posted Marketing for Muppets – Part 1 in July so thought it was about time for Part 2.

Quick recap: these posts are not, emphatically not, about me offering advice on how to market books. Why would I presume to offer anyone advice? I might have mentioned that I’m an absolute muppet when it comes to marketing. No, these posts are merely my observations, such as they are, on marketing and a chronicle of my attempts at becoming better at it. A little like a hen blogging about her efforts on learning to play the flute.

Since that first post I have been on a two-week cruise around the Med, and very nice it was, too, thanks for asking, and posted six times here. You can see them by scrolling down, but to save you the bother there were a couple about movie adaptations, one each on horror novels, science fiction novels and children’s books, and one about words that readers don’t know how to pronounce.

I said at the end of Part 1 that I’d report back on whether regular updating of my blog has any effect on sales. Well, nothing of note to report yet, but it’s still very early days to judge whether it’s an effective approach because, by its very nature of trying to slowly build an audience by providing (hopefully) interesting content, it’s a longer-term tactic. I shall keep at it and see what happens. If nothing else, I’m having a lot of fun writing the posts.

On, then, to other marketing tools writers can employ. More specifically, one tool in particular, regarded by many as the most important tool we have. High time for another principle:

Proposition 2: The received wisdom is that a mailing list is an indispensable marketing tool for authors.

When you buy advertising slots with marketing sites like BookBub, you are in effect paying to use their mailing list of thousands of readers to advertise your book. Not all those readers, even if they read in your genre, will necessarily be interested in your book. The idea of building your own list is that you have a way of reaching readers interested in your work without having to pay a premium or having to rely on third parties spreading the word about your latest release or promotion. In theory, it’s like having your own private BookBub without the expense.

I resisted setting up a mailing list for a long time, not because I didn’t think they are a good idea, but for a couple of other reasons. Firstly, I’m not a technophobe but find learning new applications vastly time consuming; I preferred to spend my limited spare time writing than sussing out Mailchimp and sorting out a PO box address. Secondly, with all the junk e-mail that keeps popping into everyone’s inboxes these days, I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to receive e-mails from me. I wasn’t far wrong about that. Anyway, long story short, I eventually set up a mailing list in October 2016, with sign-up forms on my Facebook page and website. I included a link in my most recent release. We’re approaching the list’s first anniversary and so far I have fewer than twenty subscribers. (See? I told you I was absolutely pants at marketing.)

The thing with a mailing list is this: it’s all well and good having one, but how do you encourage readers to sign up for the bloody thing?

And isn’t that the whole marketing issue in a nutshell—it’s all well and good having published a book, but how do you encourage readers to read it? So, for me, creating a mailing list has merely created another layer of something to be mildly fretful and feel vaguely helpless about.

There are various methods for increasing the subscribers to your mailing list. These seem to be the main two:

—giving away free short stories, novellas or even novels in return for the donee subscribing to the list. Kudos to those who succeed with this method, but I have my doubts as to how effective it can be. Before you start thinking it, I’m not too much of a skinflint to give work away—I’ve given away thousands of copies of The Cleansing as a way of giving readers a cost-free entry into the Earth Haven trilogy. It’s that I wonder how likely it is that readers who sign up only to take advantage of a free offer are going to buy the next release. No doubt there are many readers on these lists who are genuinely into the authors’ works, but there must be many who aren’t. Still, perhaps it’s nevertheless worth going down this route to find readers who may become converts to your work.

—taking part in cross-promotions with other authors, which involve e-mailing readers on other authors’ lists. Again, good luck to those who find success with this method, but it’s not for me. The thought of sending promotional e-mails to readers who haven’t subscribed to my list makes me, like any form of cold-calling, shudder. Besides, I promise on my sign-up page never to share subscribers’ e-mail addresses with anyone. I also promise not to contact subscribers unless it’s to share news of a new release or promotion.

To date, I have sent one e-mail to my list. Just one. But, then, I’ve only had one release since October and no promotions of note. That will change soon when I’ve finished my current works-in-progress—the final part of a trilogy where only the first part has yet been published, and a quartet of dark Christmas stories. I intend to make available all new releases to subscribers at a discounted price (or, occasionally, as a gift) to express gratitude to them for their interest in my work and to reward them for their loyalty. In today’s world, the value of loyalty should never be underestimated.

But I urgently need to do something to build up my list. Despite my doubts, I have come to suspect that giving away the first instalment of the new trilogy in return for subscribing may be the way to go. I’m taking it out of Kindle Unlimited—its last day in KU is 5th November—to give me that option. If I decide to try that, I’ll report back in a later instalment.

Here endeth Part 2. Part 3 isn’t likely to be written until the New Year and I have no idea what it will be about—hopefully my successful efforts at building my mailing list and using it to effectively launch the forthcoming sequels—but I’m not holding my breath. And if that sounds negative, a little doomy and gloomy, it’s because that’s generally how I feel about my feeble promotional efforts. But that’s okay. I’m a determined bugger and if I never manage to make a full-time living from my writing, wholly or partly because of my woeful attempts at marketing, at least I’ll know I didn’t fail from lack of trying.

When I Was Three, I Ate Mud

There’s a meme doing the rounds on social media that goes something like this: the average three-year-old can switch on an i-pad and stream videos; when I was three, I ate mud.

Makes me chuckle every time. Not that I can recall eating mud as a toddler, but I might have. I can certainly recall, at about that age, munching on dog biscuits. Never did me any harm. Rowf-rowf. Whatever ways I found to entertain myself when three, I was soon to discover a new form of delight that has never left me since. I refer not to eating chocolate, but to reading.

In earlier posts, I’ve touched upon some of the books I loved as a child. There are so many, I thought they deserved a post of their own. These are the books I grew up reading. There were plenty more, but these are the ones I still recall clearly all these years later and which must, therefore, have made a profound impression on me back then.

Let’s begin, as it began then, with Enid. A few years ago, I wrote an article for Mass Movement magazine, which I called Enid Bloody Blyton. In the article I called her books for younger children ‘insufferably quaint’ and wondered what she had been stirring into her tea while she wrote them. Although it might sound like I was having a dig at her, in fact it was quite the opposite—I felt then as I do now: I owe her a great deal of gratitude for opening my eyes to the unboundless possibilities of the imagination and to the delights that can be found within the pages of a book. That sense of wonder has never left me and is as strong now as it was forty-five and more years ago.

As soon as I learned to read—I’m guessing at the age of four or five—I began to devour her books. The Enchanted Wood, The Magic Faraway Tree, The Folk of the Faraway Tree and Adventures of the Wishing Chair. Read them over and over until they began to fall apart. Bought new copies for my first-born and read them to her.

I graduated to her books for older children. She wrote tons of books aimed at children between the ages of six and ten, but there were two particular series that I adored: The Famous Five books and the Adventure stories.

Five on a Treasure Island is the first of twenty-one books recounting the adventures of Julian, Dick, Anne, George and Timmy. In case you didn’t know, George was a tom-boy whose full name was Georgina and Timmy was her dog. (One of the books involved George being captured by the baddies who made her write a note to the others whom they also wanted to capture. George alerted them to their peril by signing the note ‘Georgina’, something she’d ordinarily never do. That so struck the six-year-old me as a clever ruse, I remember it still.) At the start of each school holidays I’d nag my parents to take me to W.H. Smith, where I would spend my pocket money on the next book in the series. Some of those books cost as little as £0.30. Inflation, inflation. I’d take the book home and finish it that day. I collected the entire series and, again, read them time after time.

The Island of Adventure is the first of eight books in my other favourite Blyton series. (Yes, I can have two favourites—it’s my website.) These stories were about four children—Jack, Lucy-Ann, Philip and Dinah, the obligatory pet sidekick coming in the form of Jack’s parrot, Kiki. I had all eight books and, you’ve guessed it, read each of them umpteen times.

Looking back with the cynicism of adulthood, the plots of these books were outlandish, involving unlikely spy rings and treasure maps and, memorably, anti-gravitational wings being secretly manufactured in the depths of a hollow Welsh mountain—you know, I’ve lived in Wales for most of my life and haven’t once heard anyone add the words ‘look you’ to the end of a sentence like the Welsh characters did in The Mountain of Adventure. But never mind the ludicrousness of the storylines or the stereotypical supporting characters, I was seven and lapped it all up.

Not, I should add, that I was a boy for spending all my time indoors reading. I played outside with my friends at every opportunity. We played football, went hunting for slow-worms, scrumped apples, built dams. But this is the UK; we can have weeks of continuous rain, even in summer, so there were ample opportunities for reading. And even during sunny weather, there was always bed time. I was the sort of kid who was more than happy to go to bed half an hour earlier in order to read.

That’s enough about Enid. There are too many others to mention. Books like The Wind in the Willows and Watership Down, wonderful stories about car-driving toads and talking rabbits. The works of Roald Dahl—amongst my favourites were Danny, the Champion of the World and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The heartwrenching time-travel tale Tom’s Midnight Garden and a story about two boys, a yacht and the rescue of stranded soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, The Dolphin Crossing.

I enjoyed the Twain adventures starring the eponymous heroes Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and the Jennings series by Anthony Buckeridge about a boy’s adventures in preparatory school in the 1950s and 60s. I also dipped into the Just William books, but didn’t take to them as well.

Run For Your Life by David Line is a paperback I have no recollection of how I acquired, but is a book of which I have the fondest memories. It’s about an unlikely friendship between two boys. When they witness a murder, they are forced to flee across the wintry Norfolk countryside with the murderers hard at their heels. No matter how many times I read it—needless to say, rereadings occurred frequently—the tale never failed to grip. I just checked on Amazon and it appears possible to pick up second-hand copies. Whilst there, I checked out the reviews: the reviewers mostly seem to be of the same mind as me—a fantastic read for boys of around the age of ten. I wish I knew what has happened to my well-thumbed copy because writing this is making me want to read it again. Nothing like a bit of nostalgia.

When I was nine, one afternoon in school our teacher gathered the class around, took out a book and began to read it to us. It was about four children who are sent away to the countryside as evacuees in World War II to stay with an eccentric uncle in a rambling old mansion. I was instantly captivated. The book was The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and so began my lifelong love affair with C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. I couldn’t wait for the teacher to finish the story in class; I had to get my hands on my own copy. When I discovered there were another six books in the series, I probably went into raptures. I’ll never forget the teacher who introduced me to them: thank you, Mrs Davies.

Quick aside: I often stayed with my grandparents as a boy. Their spare room contained an old wooden wardrobe. Yep, I used to step into it, remembering to leave the door ajar behind me since sensible children never shut themselves inside wardrobes. (Crikey, it must be fifteen or more years since I last read The Lion… to my younger daughter, yet that line popped into my head as though I’d read it yesterday.) I’d push through the clothes hanging there—never fur coats; my grandparents weren’t rich—and tap forlornly at the wooden back, hoping it would give way beneath my fingers and become a chilly passageway leading to fir trees and snow and fauns and white witches who handed out Turkish Delight. It happened every time in my imagination.

When I was three, I ate mud. Maybe, but when I was five and upwards, I devoured books. I only hope that despite all the modern distractions that I didn’t have, there are children today deriving as much joy from books as I did as a child.

Reach for the Stars

It is so long since I read my first science fiction novel that I can no longer recall the title or author. It was something to do with space travel to a distant planet, possibly Mars, and that’s about all I can remember. However, I do recall the way the book made me feel: it fired my ten-year-old imagination, struck me with awe not so much by the suggestion of man reaching for the stars, but of the boundless possibilities for inventing stories about such exploits. Whatever that long-forgotten book was, it made me fully realise that even if there are limits on what we as a species can achieve, there is no limit on what we can imagine and convey through fiction. I’d like to say that this was the moment of epiphany, when I realised that I had to become a writer as nothing else would ever feel as fulfilling, but I’d be lying; that wouldn’t come until years later.

Here’s a mention of some of my favourite science fiction novels; at least, of the ones I can remember.

There’s a crossover between science fiction and fantasy—sometimes the line between them is a blurred one indeed—but I’m confining myself to stories where the fantastical element is based on some form, no matter how far-fetched, of technology, as opposed to magic, or mythical creatures like elves and centaurs, or imaginary worlds reached through magical portals. Of course, aliens and imaginary worlds reached through faster-than-light space travel qualify, which just goes to show how artificial these distinctions can be.

Oh: as usual this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list— there are too many books I’ve read, let alone the thousands I haven’t, to even attempt such an ambitious undertaking. And these are my views, based on my tastes, with which you are free to agree or disagree as you wish. Just don’t take it personally if I happen to like a book you hated, or vice versa.

Oh, part 2: I’m excluding apocalyptic and dystopian novels because they’ll get their own piece at a later date, along with fantasy and a few other genres.

Oh, part 3: I don’t want to say too much about any of the books I mention in case I inadvertently spoil it for those who haven’t yet, but intend to, read them. So, of necessity I talk only superficially about the works.

To the first book, then, a perfect illustration of the marriage between science fiction and fantasy: Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. How can this be science fiction, do I hear you ask? It’s about gods of eastern mythology, like Buddha, Vishnu and Krishna. And so it is, yet their powers (or ‘Attributes’) in Zelazny’s wonderful imaginings are technology based. I read this recently and wondered why I hadn’t read it years earlier. It’s the sort of book that’s so breathtakingly good, most writers will read it in awe and wish they’d written it.

Despite some rather antiquated (that’s putting it mildly) outlooks on women and their place in society, I’ve enjoyed most of the Robert Heinlein books I’ve read. (There’s a notable exception: Farnham’s Freehold; as well as his usual misogynistic touches, there are some aspects about race that make uncomfortable reading to a contemporary audience.) Here are some of the better ones: Stranger in a Strange Land, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, The Door into Summer, Tunnel in the Sky.

In a previous post, I mentioned Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, probably my favourite book of his I’ve read, but another I enjoyed was The Man in the High Castle. It’s a dystopian tale presenting an alternative reality in which Germany and Japan have won the Second World War, and are competing as the world’s superpowers. I didn’t find it the easiest book to get into, but am glad that I persevered.

I haven’t read a great deal by Arthur C. Clarke (too many books, blah blah blah), but one I thoroughly enjoyed is Childhood’s End. It slightly depressed me, with its gloomy outlook for the future of the human race (I don’t always like to be reminded of man’s fallibility when reading for pleasure), but is a greatly entertaining read that also makes you ponder, and despair, a little.

Apologies to any hard science fiction fans looking in, but that branch of the genre doesn’t overly interest me. (‘Yeah, anyone who’s read your books can tell that, you techno-doofus,’ I hear someone say.) Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed works of hard science fiction, but pages of detailed exposition on how a plasma blaster or anti-gravitational device works tend to make my eyes glaze over. I’m less put off by detailed world building, however, politics and all. I’m thinking of two tremendous series I’ve dipped in and out of over the years: Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Iain M. Bank’s Culture series. If you’re a fan of science fiction which involves power-struggles and cultural clashes and political machinations on an intergalactic scale yet have never read either series, you’re in for a treat. (I suppose I could include the Dune series, but didn’t enjoy that as much after the first book.)

The next book was written by an author who some readers boycott due to his controversial views. This isn’t the place to go into those views; suffice to say I strongly disagree with them, too, but that didn’t stop me greatly enjoying his novel Ender’s Game. The whole book was good, but the ending, which I completely didn’t see coming, was a real Wow! moment.

I couldn’t write a piece about science fiction without mentioning The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It became a ‘trilogy’ of five books, but it’s the first one that I am fondest of and re-read from time to time. It’s wacky, irreverent and pure genius.

Finally, a quick shout out to some fine indie authors I have met online who write science fiction: T. Jackson King, Linell Jeppsen, John Patin and Michael Brookes. (The trouble with doing this is that I’m bound to forget to mention someone. If that’s you, I apologise from the bottom of my absent-minded soul. Feel free to send me a rude e-mail.)