In ‘real space’ I live in Stoke-on-Trent, England, and commute to Manchester where I work as a journalist on a trade journal covering (for the most part) the social housing sector. In the virtual world, I can be found at:
2. Other than writing, what is your favorite hobby or thing you enjoy for fun?
These days I can’t say that I have much in the way of hobbies. Sure, I’m an avid reader, I also enjoy watching a good movie, but somewhere along the line I’ve become something of a workaholic.
If I’m not actually writing – or doing those ever-multiplying non-writing jobs that come with the territory – then I am stressing about the writing. What can I say, the words have kind of taken over.
There’s a lot of good television I’ve missed out on because of this. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones, or Firefly (though I did catch Serenity – excellent movie!), or Breaking Bad, or… well, I’ll catch up someday.
At least I’ve still got the books. If the writing ever eats away my reading, then I’ll know I’m in trouble.
So, hobbies are a bit thin on the ground, but there’s always beer and a chat with mates, and I seem to be developing a curious addiction to DIY.
3. How long have you been writing? How many books have you written? They don’t have to be published.
It’s been a long time now, longer if I care to look back at what I often think of as my creative origins.
Around 1986, I got into adventure games for the ZX Spectrum computer and started developing my own, which I sold myself mail order until an outfit called Zenobi Software picked them up.
From this, I guess it was almost a natural progression to turn my head to more conventional writing pursuits. I started writing articles in 1989, having discovered the wannabe journo bug, and the following year I turned my hand to fiction when I wrote my first short story (actually, it turned out to be more like a novella). From there it took off.
Since then, I’ve written four novels and a fair few short stories. The first novel was pretty much an exercise in writing a long piece of fiction. I guess I’d have to say it’s not very good, but I remain proud of it, and it did teach me a thing or two.
My second novel, Citizen Zero, I started writing in the tail end of my student days. After spending years touting it around publishers and agents, I finally released it myself in 2010 as an ebook. It wasn’t my original intention to self-publish, but I felt that outside events had kind of forced my hand.
The novel is a science fiction thriller in the dystopian tradition. From the outset, it was intended to be a cautionary tale about the dangers society faces if we trade in our civil liberties for perceived security, and allow notions of social justice to be abandoned or turned against us. I wanted to set out a warning about how politicians could transform the Welfare State into an integral part of a surveillance society and use it for purposes of enforcing social control on all of us.
Lo and behold, in 2010 the Conservative-led Coalition took office and embarked on its programme of austerity and welfare reform (although in the interests of balance, I should point out that the previous Labour Government did its fair share of laying down the ‘backstory’ for the novel). Since then, as I’ve watched the Government’s policies unfold through the media, it’s steadily come to feel as if current affairs is writing the novel’s prequel for me.
My third novel, Silas Morlock, published by Inspired Quill late last year, is a different beast entirely. It’s an urban gothic fantasy, and something of a homage to Fahrenheit 451, so even if it has echoes, it’s a far cry from the provocative social satire of Citizen Zero. Even so, I trust it’s every bit as thought-provoking.
Like kids, you don’t really have a favourite (do you?) and it’s the same with my books, but out of my current crop I think I’d have to say I’m proudest of Silas Morlock.
That leaves number four still languishing. I’ve been kind of distracted by the publication of the previous two (and the long slog to master the art of writing a synopsis) so I have yet to pick up where I left off and seek its publication.
This book is called “In Workers’ Paradise”, by the way, and I call it my ‘accidental novel’. Originally, it was meant to be a novella, but it kept going long enough to make it as a novel. In terms of describing it, I’m still working it all out. The more I ponder it, the weirder the book seems to me. Anyway, I often refer to it as a kind of ‘future nostalgia’; it’s a fantasy memoir and – off the top of my head – I think it’s the only piece of fiction I’ve written in the first person.
Some day, I’ll pick it up again and try and do something with it.
That’s a difficult question to answer, because I largely write to the idea with the genre – or genres – trailing behind. On the whole, I tend to think of genre as the colours on an artist’s palette, there to be mixed and matched to the vision emerging on the canvass.
Broadly speaking, I’d say I’m most comfortable writing a mixture of science fiction, fantasy and horror. These tend to reflect my favored reading tastes.
Over the years, I’ve got used to referring to myself as a science fiction author, though I remain wary of the term since I know – I mean I really know – that hard science fiction writers could blow me out of orbit. If pushed, I always confess that strictly speaking I’m probably not a science fiction writer; well, maybe I write the softer variety.
The thing is, when describing my work to friends and associates, they’ve tended to respond “that sounds like science fiction” so over the years it’s become simpler to go with the flow and nod my head. The truth is, as I mentioned above, I write for the story and only then do I start to think about what genres might apply.
5. Are you currently writing anything now? If so tell us about it? If not make something up…
Currently, I’m working on a short story that’s been lying fallow for a decade or so. It’s no big deal as stories go, I guess, but I’ve been that busy with servicing the publication of my two novels, and focused on the journo side of my writing, that I feel the fiction has become rather neglected. So this story is a project to get me back into the flow of fiction again.
Also, the short fiction fell by the wayside while I was working on the novels, so I just want to write some more shorter works. They bring a whole different set of challenges. I think I’m a better novelist than I am a writer of short stories, so it will be good to get a few more under my belt.
That said, I’ve got a couple of novel ideas waiting in the wings. I’m keen to get them underway. I think once I’ve got this short story finished, the next short project will find itself in a fistfight with these novels to win my attention. I have no idea which of them is going to emerge victorious.
6. How do you typically begin your projects? Do you create outlines and character profiles or jump in head first with the initial idea? And do you focus on just one at a time?
There’s only one word to describe me – a ‘pantster’. The truth is I am an ill-disciplined writer. I tend to dive in head first with the writing and then plan and outline as I go along. Often as not, the outlines become drafts in themselves as situations take shape in my head, and then dialogue starts spilling out of my characters’ mouths, so in many respects the outlining and planning is difficult to untangle from the actual writing.
I find that writing has much in common with doodling, at least in the earliest phases. A lot of ideas emerge out of the ether when I just play around with half-formed notions that flit through my head. Occasionally, these crystallise into some kind of shape strong enough to grab my attention, and before I know it the doodling becomes serious writing.
On the whole, I need a trigger. When an idea detonates in my head, or else a doodle takes sudden form, that’s when I find myself pulled into a world of writing. I almost have no control over it; indeed, exerting some kind of control can subdue the flow of ideas if I’m not careful (that’s a mistake I made with a couple of projects I put to one side a few years back, but fortunately not before I got that first rush of outline and drafting done so that I’ve got something solid to pick up and run with).
The trigger can be anything: a character who pops into my head, or a scene, a line of dialogue, sometimes even a title has been known to trigger a writing project. Some of these need more background work than others to devise plots and broad story arcs, but I usually have a good idea of where the story is going when I make a start, even if I don’t know how I’m going to get there.
Take Silas Morlock, the idea popped into my head in the pub as I was downing a pint. I often joke that the idea slithered down my neck with the dregs of the beer. The trigger was the sudden notion of two people meeting in a bar to conduct a transaction for contraband material. In this case the ‘drugs’ were books. Quite why books were being traded in this illicit fashion, why they were illegal, and who were the two people involved in the deal were the questions that took me into the heart of the book that subsequently emerged.
As I said, I’m a ‘panster’ so Silas Morlock was outlined and plotted and written simultaneously. And a delightfully dark journey it was too.
7. What aspect of your writing do you consider your strength? Your weakness?
In all honesty, one of the greatest weaknesses in my writing is probably also one of its greatest strengths. That is, I’ve been told my work is rather introspective. My characters are frequently misfits and outsiders, thrown into situations and events outside their immediate control, so they are often getting to know themselves and their circumstances just as much as the reader is.
This introspection no doubt reflects me – I’m quite an introspective person – but I also think in some respects it’s a reflection of the way I write. I’m big on using multiple points of view (POV) throughout a story (with suitable scene breaks when the POV shifts), where the narration is conducted from the perception of the character concerned. In some ways, it’s kind of like riding piggy back inside their heads; putting it another way, when I’m writing it often feels like I’m acting out their part in my head.
I like to think my work has layers and hidden depths, there for the reader to discern if they feel so inclined. Hopefully, my stories can be read for entertainment value alone, but it’s my aspiration (at least) to have a little something to say, to challenge readers to dig a little deeper into the narrative and be, well, challenged.
I’ll defend to the hilt, the freedom of an author to write stories that set out to straight up entertain and nothing more; I’ll also defend the freedom of an author to delve deeper into the human condition, to set out to philosophize, to provoke thought, to say something, and take their story beyond just entertainment.
I guess I’m confessing to literary aspirations, but I loathe that imposed division between ‘literary’ and ‘genre’ that raises the former on a pedestal and tries to demean the latter as trivial. I’ve read plenty of thought-provoking material on serious matters in works otherwise dismissed as genre. On the flipside, I’ve read enough pointless drivel praised as literary to find the snobbery tedious (but, hey, I guess that’s me just showing my ‘hoi polloi’ mind – I just didn’t get it). But this isn’t the place for that discussion; it’s an essay in itself.
To give a more conventional answer, I’ve been complimented on the strength of my dialogue in the past. Now, that’s great to hear because I do regard dialogue as a potential weakness in my writing, but it’s also left me wary of stumbling over my characters’ words in future. So, I face a little extra trepidation there.
Beyond that, well I don’t know if it’s a weakness as such, but I’d have to say I have never yet written a first sentence that I’m entirely happy with. I don’t know how many writers would say the same thing, but I certainly remain in pursuit of that perfect opening line. Maybe I’ll find it someday. Then again, maybe it’s something I should never find – it’s the chase that keeps us moving.
What do I typically do when marketing my novel? Make a mess of it, mostly. I am hopeless at promoting my work. Marketing is largely a mystery to me. It’s something I’m still picking up and trying to make sense of it all, so I am not the best person to ask for marketing advice by a long shot.
To be honest, I don’t quite feel comfortable with the marketing side of things. In fact, I downright distrust it. It’s a journo thing, I guess. In the day job, I often have to fend off marketing types trying to pass off non-stories as news just so they can get some free advertising for their clients. It’s the newsroom equivalent of cold calling salespeople trying to flog you double glazing you neither want nor need.
9. What advice would you give a writer who is starting out?
This is a tricky one to answer, but with the last question still echoing in my head, I’ll make a potentially rather subversive suggestion: don’t subordinate your writing to the marketing. Or to put it another way, don’t write for the ‘market’ and don’t write for the ‘reader’ – these are both abstract generalizations.
We can’t second guess all those millions of flesh and blood people out there who read fiction, be they novels or short stories, no matter the genre or style; we can’t predict how they’ll respond to our work, all we can do is write to the best of our ability and stretch ourselves so that we grow and develop as writers.
Marketing crunches the numbers, it mines the data and the demographics, it trawls the waters of what’s been published to build the models and abstracted generalizations it hopes will provide it the means to sell more books and stories (or if you want to be cynical, help reach into people’s wallets). In short, it’s trying to second guess the future by quantifying the past. In so doing, I’d suggest it tends to end up clipping the wings of the present.
As writers, we’re creating something new. And the new cannot be quantified until it has spread its wings and flown. So, I’d say to a writer starting out, be true to yourself and to your writing; write for the story, write for the ideas that fire your imagination, write to see where it takes you.