Friday, July 22, 2011

If Agatha Christie Wrote Science Fiction . . .

Two years ago my first novel, The Hotel Galileo, was published by Wolfsinger Publications and one of the back cover blurbs declared the following: "If Agatha Chrsitie had written fiction she would have stayed at the Hotel Galileo . . ." (Thank you, David Boop). After pondering that sentence for a while it struck me that what I was really trying to do with the book (and consequently the series) is what all writers do: create something they can't find in the current market.

How many times have we enjoyed a certain book or film or tv series and said afterwards, "Yeah, I really enjoyed that . . . but what if they did it this way, or in this type of genre, or with vampires?" For me, The Barclay Heath Mystery Series (which now includes The Hotel Galileo and The Vanished Race) was borne of a love of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries and an underlying desire to do something different with the genre. I loved the traditional 'Britishness' of Christie's tales, the gallery of suspects, and the genius plots; but at the same time, I also love science fiction - aliens, faraway planets, mystical objects, and everything that goes along with it. It took me several attempts (and a lot of sleepless nights) before I struck on the formula which is the basis for the Barclay Heath series: that of a 1920's-set mystery series set in an alternate universe. What if, I pondered, mankind had ventured out into the stars at the end of the nineteenth century? And what if Twenties values and attitudes had remained unchanged? Imagine a traditional British gentleman detective hopping around the galaxy solving all manner of mysteries. Wouldn't that be so much fun to write?

The answer, I can tell you, is yes it was.

Of all the works I've written so far, the two Barclay Heath mysteries have been the most enjoyable to write. And the third adventure is well under way. Writing should be fun. Otherwise, why bother doing it?

I grew up in Torquay, the birthplace of Agatha Christie, so her influence has been all around me for as long as I can remember. Her legacy is exceptional. I believe she is still one of the best-selling authors of all time. I loved the recent episode of Doctor Who, 'The Unicorn and the Wasp', in which he meets Agatha Christie on the night she went missing; and I particularly love the end of that episode when the Doctor pulls out an old trunk in the Tardis and finds a copy of one of Christie's classic paperbacks, Death in the Clouds. The Doctor remarks how, even in the far-flung future, Agatha Christie is still the best-selling authors of all time.

And rightly so.


The Barclay Heath Mysteries:
The Hotel Galileo
The Vanished Race

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Healing Power of Stephen King

It's happened before. Many times. When I'm feeling down, moping about in what Dorothea Brande called that 'slough of despond', there's only one tonic I can rely on to reinvigorate the creative juices, to fight off the shackles of despair and stop the old Muse from draping herself languidly over a metaphorical sofa like a pampered tart with a headache. The name of this miracle tonic? Stephen King.

In tough times I've always turned to one of King's books. Non-fiction works are just as good as novels. On Writing always helps relight the fires. As does Danse Macabre. But anything from the opening passages of Carrie to the epic conclusion of The Dark Tower is usually enough to drag me from the pit of despairing writers and hoist me, breathless, onto safe ground. This latest bout of fear and self-loathing has been a pretty protracted affair (months rather than weeks or days), and even the surefire King cure-alls failed to work. But in the end, I found the pill I needed. (All right, enough with the medicinal metaphors!) The book I needed was Cujo.

I know, not hailed as one of his classics, but when you’re a fan of King, all his works have a place in your heart. Cujo is one of those books I bought back in my early teens when I just couldn't get enough of SK's work. I had fond memories of that paperback. It was the Futura edition released shortly after the movie came out with the kid recoiling in horror as the 'BADDOG' lunges in for the kill. I know I read it way back then, but I couldn't remember anything apart from just a few key moments early on. So it was nice to get hold of a reasonably good copy of this little gem off Ebay (sadly not quite the same Futura edition) and to sit down and soak up King at his creative height. And as I was reading I felt the old creative juices beginning to flow again, and within the first fifty pages I had already decided to tackle the difficult second half of my own stalled novel and to complete the unfinished short stories in my 'To Do' list. Once again, Doctor King has worked his voodoo magic.

What would I do without him? Honest answer: Without King, I probably wouldn't be a writer. 'Nuff said.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

What is a Slow Learner To Do? Guest Post by Lee Thompson

I remember when I was younger, all the hours I put into martial arts and how people thought it came naturally. But I lived it, breathed it, dreamt and caressed it. And then in my twenties playing guitar and having other musicians around Detroit say I had something unique going on, something really special, while I let my soul bleed through my fingertips. I wish I was a natural at a lot of things but know I’ve never been with anything (except maybe daydreaming.)

So yeah, I’m a slow learner. My buddy Ken made a blog post recently about discipline, how he wished he had more of it. That’s one thing I’ve always had, luckily. Whether I was imagining, training, writing songs, or whatever, I was committed and they were a priority—those things occupied space in the forefront of my mind even when I was doing something else. I’d work out the images, the motifs, the substance and structure constantly and consistently.

Something I read a long time ago that I think has a lot of benefits if put into practice, especially if you’re a slow learner, is Visualization. The big V. Powerful stuff. Ground shaking creators use it, Olympic athletes, and so many others who are at the top of their game. I don’t care for Donald Trump but I think I read that he used it frequently.

But numeral uno for a slow learner is discipline. Everything else stems from that.

Discipline spawns consistency, which in turn bears the fruits of results and knowledge.

But like any exercise (steps toward higher ground), just going through the motions isn’t enough. From my experience the best way to hone any skill is to focus on one thing at a time.

With boxing you can have a ten minute session of nothing but combinations, another segment for footwork, another for defensive skills like bobbing and weaving; with guitar, running scales over chords or learning how the modes fit in key, finding the right notes, learning to read music, learning by ear, learning new rhythms. And in writing: having a day to study structure (or experiment with it), or focusing on finding every area where the description in a WIP is so run-of-the-mill you want to knock your teeth out, and instead take those areas, highlight them and be creative (all the while training yourself to put more of yourself into it instead of just hoping someone will get something out of it; learning how you see the world, whether drab or beautiful or both instead of just bland. Actually, I’m convinced that writers whose stories are flat stems from their view of the world as flat and one dimensional, each little thing a chore instead of an opportunity. The only cure I know for that is to adjust your perspective, not an easy feat, but doable.)

I think a lot of my characters are slow learners. It’s what I know and live. It’s painful, but once a lesson is hard-won and you bear the scars of those dark moments you don’t forget them. Those kinds of memories are vivid, a blast of cold air on sunny days, a blaze in the dead of winter.

I think that we train ourselves to fail, to give up too easily, to believe the lies we tell ourselves. We make things harder than they really are. We over-think instead of following our instincts and intuition. I’m not you and you’re not me, but we’ve got patterns that work for us just like we do stumbling blocks we throw ahead of us because we’re frightened; things that move us; things we hate and adore; experiences we can draw from and use to make our writing powerful, immediate and unique. Let’s do that. Not everyone will get it. But we have to do our best and settle for nothing less. Stop thinking your competition begins and ends with everyone else. It doesn’t. It begins inside.

Search out ways to discipline yourself, to be honest with yourself, to dig deeper than you ever have before and ever thought you could.

Never quit searching, asking questions, or striving.

--Lee Thompson

Nursery Rhymes 4 Dead Children is available for iPad and iPhone (click image below to go to store).

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Live to Write, Write to Live

By any standards, being a writer is not a sane life-choice.

It takes a monumental feat of perseverance and self-belief to achieve the goal of being published, usually over a long (sometimes considerably long) amount of time with no promise of success at the end of it, save of course for the personal satisfaction of having written and, hopefully, having been read. Whilst pursuing this crazy dream, the writer must also juggle the usual demands of a modern life: family, work, studies, and many other responsibilities; so finding the dedication to apply themselves in whatever limited free time they have to sit down in a room and write takes incredible self-discipline, especially when deep down we would really rather be relaxing, enjoying a Babycham or two, or, just for once, sleeping. But for those bitten with the writing bug the dream, and the will to succeed, is so strong that despite the madness of it all, we just have to do it. As Samuel Lover said, "When once the itch of literature comes over a man, nothing can cure it but the scratching of a pen". It's an oft-quoted maxim that a writer must write at least a million words before they reach a publishable standard (no shortcuts here, Mister!), and I think that over the course of that long, long period there is a real danger of the writing losing focus, that they may end up living to write, not writing to live, which is how it should be. And is it any wonder? To spend so much of your time and energy fighting for those few precious hours, to sacrifice sleep and relaxation and 'downtime' to put pen to paper, when everyone and everything around you is screaming at you to do this, that or the other. How much pummeling will your self-belief take before you throw your hands in the air and say, 'Okay, I give up. No one cares about what I'm doing here anyway. This is all just a pipe dream, so forget it.'

But we don't. Somehow we find a way to carry on doing it, and then, one day, out of the blue, those gloomy old clouds break, and you find someone who really likes your work and who wants to publish you, and then, before long, you are published and you're frantically working on the next book and starting to make plans and although you still don't have that much free time it all just seems to be easier, the writing seems to be flowing these days, and - oh wow, just got some feedback from someone who has read your book and they're saying how much they loved it and can't wait for your next book and the one after that. And God bless them. Things like that make the whole crazy journey worth it for a while. And then, with any luck, you're able to achieve the real dream - writing to live. That is, being successful enough to start enjoying life, maybe even giving up the crappy day job and just being paid to write. My, that's a great dream right there, isn't it?

Anyone who comes to writing and thinks it's an easy ride to fame and fortune is either naive, seriously ill-informed or simply deluded. Maybe even all three. And now, of course, with the advent of self-publishing platforms such as Kindle and Smashwords it has become much easier to get published, but the maxim must not be forgotten: no matter how good a writer thinks they are, they must still write at least a million words before their work is ready for the world. In that respect, there are no shortcuts. An apprenticeship must still be served.

Yes, being a writer is not a sane life-choice. But for those willing to put in the work and the dedication (and if they're lucky - luck is always a major factor) the rewards can be great.

Keep writing. And keep dreaming.