Maudlin Mindset and the Alien Terminator Shark

If you’re reading this, which you seem to be, there’s a good chance you and I are acquainted on social media. At the time of writing this post, I’m no longer there.

There may well be a link between creativity and anxiety, so perhaps as a writer I should wear my depression as a badge of honour, or give it a fancy name like ‘poignant melancholy’. But the truth is My Confidence was always an elusive little fella, easily discouraged and quick to take flight, long before I dared call myself an author.

My Paranoia on the other hand, is the perfect organism: its structural perfection is matched only by its hostility. What we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, a happiness-eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is lurk and eat happiness and make paranoia. It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are depressed.

And this Alien Terminator Shark hunts best in the shallow waters of social media. It turns every opinion that differs from my own into a personal attack on me. It shows me every party pic or optimistic update, and tells me that everybody else’s life is better than mine. It counts how many likes my posts get, and defines it as a snub from everybody else. Worst of all, it makes me cling too hard, and lean too heavily, on those who do take an interest, until they are driven away.

So last night, in an act of desperation that swung towards the self-destructive, I deleted my accounts. Trouble is, that’s no biggie. I do it all the time. So it felt like I had to go further, and it was on my pseudonym account that I really tapped into my inner Alien Terminator Shark. 400 friendships ended, one by one, with a touch of the button. Every post eradicated, all those cheeky anecdotes and witty insights, all that camaraderie gone, never to be relived except in my head, albeit now tainted with a tinge of sadness. And every conversation deleted, some messages frivolous, some of them meaningful, but all of them gone, shredded into tiny pieces and cast to the digital wind. So if and when I do return, it will be to nothing, and it hurts to have lost so much, and to have done this to myself, and I think I still have a grieving process to go through.

This post needs some positivity, so here it is, in an abstract kind of way. My worst moment is behind me, I’m still here, and I don’t think I have any further to fall. I am still waiting on a monumentally important decision, which will be either instant redemption or a crushing blow, but even if it’s the latter I feel better equipped to deal with it than I did yesterday. And this here under my feet feels more like limestone than quicksand; it’s not cloying at me and sucking me down, it’s bearing my weight. I absorb the shock on the balls of my feet and bend my knees, tensing my thigh muscles in readiness for the moment when I propel myself upwards and start bouncing back.

I hope this hasn’t been just a whinge post, and that it will be an interesting insight into a certain psyche, or of some reassurance to those with similar difficulties. As for me, right now the sun is shining and the library is open. My walk there goes down a tree-lined path alongside the stream, and the Alien Terminator Shark isn’t coming with me. Goddam right, it’s a beautiful day, and any day can be if you make it so.

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The Story Behind the Cover

I‘ve had a novella ready to go for a couple of years now, a genre splicer that veers from mildly saucy rom-com to dark psychological thriller, about a man whose life unravels when he has an affair shortly after his 40th birthday. The title is (predictably, but aptly) Midlife Crisis, and it draws an influence from What I Know by Andrew Cowan which also begins with a 40th birthday, and works from James Hawes such as Speak for England and My Little Armalite, which see a middle-aged, middle class everyman thrust into crisis.

It’s a work I’m very proud of, and have submitted it a couple of times, but accepted quite early on that its juxtaposition of two very contrasting genres would make it difficult to place with a publishing house: some who enjoy the beginning might find what follows too shocking; those with the strong stomach for the bad stuff might have bailed before they realise this is their thing after all.

So self-publishing became my preferred option for this story, but I knew this meant more work on certain details; and most importantly, the cover.

I had a decent idea of the image in mind. There is a scene in the book where the protagonist shuts himself away from life and builds a beautiful model house, only to snap and smash it up with his bare hands. For me, this was always the enduring symbolism for the story; that which had been built up over so long shattered in an instant never to return; a microcosm of the journey the character was taking.

A Google search for ‘damaged model house’ yielded the perfect result: a bright, burnt-orange structure, standing proud apart from the extensive devastation to one corner. All I had to do then was track down the creator, and seek permission to use the image.

From following the link I saw that it was – deservedly – a prize winner, scooping the Gauge 0 Guild (Britain’s premier model railway club) award in the Scenery category in 2010. It was made by a man named Ted McElroy, who had also secured second place in the same category, and by both images there was a picture of him, smiling broadly and warmly at his achievement. But what it didn’t have were any contact details for him.

I went through the years: there he was again in 2011, runner-up for Scenery with another damaged house, and after that, nothing. That was a bit worrying: with the few year gap, I had to wonder if Ted was still with us. But although he seemed to be past retirement age even in 2010, he seemed sprightly, robust, and obviously dextrous enough to build the model which had so captured my imagination.

So it was with some hope that I left messages to request contact details for Mr McElroy, but with no certainty as to whether they would have the desired result, or even if they would be seen at all. And after a couple of weeks with no response, I had to try something else.

I experimented with different wordings on further internet searches, until I found something, but it was so shocking and disconcerting that I wished I hadn’t. An unwieldy and incomplete Daily Mail headline: ‘British elderly couple on sightseeing holiday in US hit and killed within …’, which I followed, and there he was, the man I was looking for, arm around his wife and both of them smiling and looking out at me. The story that followed described a loving couple who were enjoying their retirement by taking holidays abroad, only for a trip to America to tragically result in them losing their lives in a road accident.

It was a strange, numb feeling, seeing someone whose work I admired, and who I wanted to get in touch with. And I’d seen a little glimpse into their lives two and a half years after they ended.

My book cover now seemed not to matter at all, but I was becoming increasingly keen on using the image as my own small tribute to them. Tracking down a next of kin would have been near-impossible, but the local news article included the married name of their daughter, who requested people not to wear black to the funeral, and instead use the occasion to celebrate her parents’ lives. It was a brave and refreshing attitude, and one that gave me the confidence to contact her.

I’m glad I did, because this striking image, which takes on even greater resonance now that I know the circumstances behind it, will now grace the cover of Midlife Crisis when it comes out next week. I just hope that my story is worthy of it.

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Passport to Portsmouth Deleted Scene

The scene that follows will never be performed on stage, but I had some fun writing it, so I thought I’d air it here rather than have it lost forever. And given that the scene deals with the people of Portsmouth holding a referendun on whether or not to leave the UK, it’s somewhat timely and topical.

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SCENE 3.

The pub. BRUCE stands behind the bar, putting up a badly handwritten sign which reads, ‘Poling Station’.

Enter VOTER

BRUCE: Good morning, how can I help you?

VOTER: I want to vote in the referendum, is this the right place?

BRUCE points to the sign.

VOTER: Oh, good. So how does it work, then? Where’s the ballot box?

BRUCE: There are two boxes. One for the Ayes – that’s aye for leaving the UK – and one for the Nays, if for some reason you don’t want to break away from a tyrannical regime. I give you a token, and you put it in the box to make your choice.

VOTER: But it should be a secret ballot. I don’t want someone from the other side seeing me cast an opposing vote.

BRUCE: Worried about reprisals? Don’t be: this sign should reassure you.

BRUCE puts up another sign, which reads, ‘No traitor bashing’.

VOTER: Traitor bashing?

BRUCE: No, we’ll have none of that here – it’s expressly forbidden on these premises. Of course I have no control over what goes on in the street outside …

VOTER: Riiiiiight …

BRUCE: Anyway, the two boxes are far apart, so voters for one can’t see the voters for the other.

VOTER: Alright then. So, like, just out of curiosity, what if someone wanted the Nay box?

BRUCE (points): Have to go through the toilets to get there. Unfortunately, we’ve had a rather unpleasant plumbing malfunction, so you would have to wade through a little raw sewage to reach the box.

VOTER: Just a little?

BRUCE: Not too much. Barely ankle deep in places.

VOTER: Okay, so where’s the Aye box?

BRUCE (points): Just that way: in the cuddly kittens and puppies plus free beer, wine and barbecue gazebo. You’d be quite welcome to stay on after casting your vote, we have patio furniture there, but there is an eight drink limit.

VOTER: Eight drinks?

BRUCE: I know it’s not much, but we have to be business-like right now. The proper drinking can start after the result comes in.

BRUCE hands over a token.

VOTER: This is a beer bottle top.

BRUCE: I know. I’d be a bloody useless publican if I didn’t recognise that. But anything that fits in the box can be used as a token.

VOTER: Err … thanks, I guess.

VOTER stands for a moment, looking back and forth from the Aye and Nay sides, before heading towards the Aye gazebo. Scene ends.

 

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Litmus Launch

Last night, for the third time, I was part of a book launch event. The previous two were for the Rhondda Cynon Taf Libraries’ Awen – Inspirations anthology series; this one was my turn to be part of the University of Winchester’s Litmus legacy. This yearly release showcases the work of the graduating MA classes, and may be a first step to stardom for some of the writers.

Like the previous two launches, I did a reading as part of the event. When in Pontypridd to read my stories ‘Senghenydd’ and ‘Aberfan’, I declined to attempt the accent of the setting – dw i’n gallu siarad Cymraeg eitha da, but I still can’t do a decent Welsh accent when speaking English.

Last night I learned I can’t do an American accent either. My story ‘Chasing the Sunset’ is set in a dystopian Georgia, so I practised my English Guy Does Deep South voice, a la Stephen Moyer in True Blood and Andrew Lincoln in The Walking Dead. But there’s a reason those guys make the big bucks and I don’t.

 

I wasn’t to trying to sound like a cowboy, although I may have ended up sounding like someone born of the unholy union betwixt man and bovine. I was going for somewhere in between Forrest Gump and K-Billy’s Sounds of the Seventies; I think the end result was closer to the former, and a pretty bizarro version of that. I kept my held buried in the book to avoid seeing anyone’s reactions.

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Those that did react found it comical, when it’s supposed to be a serious story; but I’m cool with that. (Pretentious statement alert!) I think the writer serves as a conduit in these things, and it’s for each audience member to apply their own meanings to it. And at least my current works in progress are set in Southampton and Portsmouth respectively, so I won’t have this problem again: more a case of ‘write how you speak’ than ‘write what you know’.

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Anyway it’s great to be in another book, and even better to be there alongside so many friends. May we all find ourselves back in print, time and time again.

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Ten Things I’ve Learned About Self-Publishing

It’s only been a few days since I introduced my Welsh coalmining disaster story duplex Aberfan and Senghenydd to the world, but already the lessons have been coming thick and fast. Here are ten of them:

 

  1. It’s easy. It really is. I can see why it becomes so addictive. No covering letters, no synopsis, no interminable wait for a reply to your submission. And no wondering if the small press that’s accepted your work will go under, leaving you unpaid and your friends and fans ripped off. But there’s a touch of the Admiral Ackbar’s about this too: I’ve seen writers elsewhere saying things like: “On the last chapter now, book goes on sale tomorrow!” I can’t agree with that: self-publishing should be an option; it should not be a short cut. And being easy to publish doesn’t mean it’s easy to sell …

 

  1. You don’t need to spend. Which is not to say you mustn’t spend, or you shouldn’t spend. Formatting services, editorial consultation and quality cover art can all enhance your product, and I know a lot of trustworthy and talented people offering them. But I didn’t need it on this occasion: the short stories had been workshopped and redrafted until I got them how I wanted. I had a beautiful picture of the Senghenydd Memorial which I’d taken myself, capturing the only blue sky of the day, and with the flowers marking the anniversary of the disaster freshly placed. And I got lucky with the formatting, as the contents of the Word doc transferred seamlessly over.

 

  1. Self-promotion is a soul-destroying task. Especially for an introvert like myself. By the third post on my own Facebook page I was getting sick of it, and after a few posts on various groups I found myself apologising for being there, and telling people where they could read the stories for free without buying the book. Nevertheless …

 

  1. Facebook groups that aren’t set up for advertising might not welcome self-promo. Even if the product is precisely what they’re interested in. I joined a group commemorating the Aberfan disaster and posted a link, not even to the Amazon page, but to this blog, where they would have the option of clicking the Amazon link or going back a few pages to where the story is posted on this site. Instead, the group admin chose option three, kicking me out of the group and blocking me from accessing it again.

 

  1. Conversely, Facebook groups that are set up for advertising will never generate any sales. Because everyone’s there for the same reason: they log on, post their link, and go away again. They won’t look at my book, let alone buy it. Why would they? I never looked at theirs.

 

 

 

  1. Not all likers are buyers. I got a much a warmer welcome on the Senghenydd page, where the group members rushed in their droves to give my link the thumbs up. But according to my sales figures, no more than two or three of them could have bought it. Of course, I knew this already: if everyone who’d liked my debut novel announcement and offered congratulations had actually bought the book, I’d be a full-time author by now. Likewise, if I’d bought every book I’d clicked Like on, I’d be bankrupt.

 

  1. Not all buyers are reviewers. Again, this is where I reap what I sow: there are hundreds of books out there that I love but have never put a review on Amazon for. In the last few years I have put reviews on my own site, and before that I never bothered at all. I will rectify this as soon as I have time. As for my book, it still has just the one review, but it is very reassuring to know that it compares favourably to a novelty Father Christmas toilet seat cover.

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/pdp/profile/AT1HEAZ3K7U6Y/ref=cm_cr_dp_pdp

 

  1. It doesn’t take a lot of sales to make it into the charts. I remember an online conversation with Gary McMahon in which he remarked how many authors call themselves ‘Amazon Best-Sellers’ and I said that with so many different charts, anyone could claim that. Well, now I’m an Amazon Best-Seller, having reached Number 85 in the UK History chart by shifting a whopping four copies in 24 hours. And if your chosen sub-genre is niche enough, I bet you could make Top 100 on a single sale. Which is why …

 

  1. I will never earn any sort of worthwhile income by self-publishing e-books. I think I knew this already, deep down, but it’s been proven now. I know some people do, and they deserve every penny they make, because they must be working harder and smarter than I ever could. I never really thought I could make a proper living at this, but right now even making a handy few quid on the side feels like a distant dream. Not that I was trying to make any money on this particular release: it’s just a trial run, I was going to make it free, and anything I do earn will go to charity, but there’s nothing to suggest sales will be easier to come by when I’m doing this for real.

 

  1. End the article with a link to the book. You never know. You might have gained the sympathy of your reader enough for them to take the plunge, or you might be the beneficiary of a lucky mis-click. That’s not so far-fetched: I’ve already heard from my dad that he bought the book, but didn’t actually mean to. Says it all, really.

 

 http://www.amazon.co.uk/Aberfan-Senghenydd-Jason-Whittle-ebook/dp/B01ERUEXPQ

 

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Self-publishing debut

As of today, I am a self-published author, thanks to the release of my short story duplex Aberfan and Senghenydd.

Priced at 99p, with me on the 35% royalty rate, this is unlikely to be a one-way ticket to fame and fortune. Not with a title that nobody outside Wales will be able to understand or pronounce, anyway.

But that was never the point; not this time at least. In fact, I’d vowed not to make a profit on these stories, because of the real-life human suffering involved, and had intended to make this e-book permanently free. But I didn’t do that in the end because a) I wanted to learn more about all aspects of the process, and specifically KDP Select before making more ‘professional’ releases; and b) it was my first time on the site and I couldn’t find that option.

So instead I’ll see that whatever pocket money this release makes finds its way to charity, most likely by adding it to the sponsorship tally when I run another marathon next year.

In the meantime, let’s see how this thing goes. Traditional publishing has been very much my preferred option up until now, but self-publishing might yet become a viable alternative, especially for titles which fall between genres or have less publisher-friendly word counts.

So I suppose all that’s left is for me to put in a link to the thing. Diolch yn fawr!

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Aberfan-Senghenydd-Jason-Whittle-ebook/dp/B01ERUEXPQ

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Revisiting Firgo

In January of the year 2000, a couple of weeks after the big Millennium celebrations, I went for a drive with a couple of friends, Kieron and Kevin, to visit Kieron’s brother, our friend Emlyn, for a meet-up and a Saturday night out.

He was running a pub in Newbury, and Kieron drove us up from Southampton. We took the M3 past Winchester, joined the A34, and after a while-

BANG!

A blowout, left rear tyre I think, that terrifying zig-zag moment when you think you’re going to get hit, before the car came to rest in a lay-by.

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The only clue to where we were was a signpost to somewhere called Firgo, which we’d never heard of and couldn’t find on the map. It didn’t look like the sort of place you’d want to visit on a winter’s night anyway.

And no matter – we had a spare, which we duly affixed, and after only moderate inconience delay, we made it up to Newbury.

It weren’t a great night, as I recall. We were tired and irritable, tempers were frayed, there may have been a minor scuffle at some point. Boys will be boys.

So the atmosphere was still a little tense next morning. We just wanted to get home, and silently in the car for the journey. Until the silence was filled with an uneven flapping noise, and Kieron was again fighting to keep control of his vehicle.

The spare was no good, so we found ourselves in a lay-by once again, only without a spare this time. And a glance at the signpost revealed that we’d landed at Firgo once again.

We were on the wrong side of the road to go there this time, not that we wanted to anyway – we were pretty freaked out by the coincidence, and Firgo was by now firmly established as a jinx place for us.

We managed to get to the service station at Sutton Scotney: we couldn’t find help there, but at least we had somewhere to leave the car, and we wandered into the neighbouring village on foot.

It soon became clear that it wouldn’t have a garage that was open on Sundays, but at least it had a bus stop and a huge pub, right opposite one another. There was one bus a day to Winchester, and it was due in two hours, so it was a no-brainer as to where we’d wait.

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Maybe it was just because we were so highly attuned to weirdness, but the pub seemed a bit odd. For a start, it had this reverse TARDIS effect, somehow small and cramped despite its vast surface area. And we perceived the Slaughtered Lamb effect, as our entrance brought an abrupt end to the chatter of the old men frequenting the establishment, who turned to stare intently and toothlessly at us instead. And when we went to the bar to see a clock that moved backwards, we were very concerned indeed.

A couple of beers took the edge off it, the bus took us back to civilisation, and we eventually got home some six hours after the car broke down. Kieron still had to go back to Sutton Scotney to get his car fixed, but the crisis was over. Nevertheless, Firgo has been a byword for misfortune and weirdness ever since: to this day I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get past it without anything going wrong. And the weirdness endures, not least from the signs on the busy near-motorway warning of pedestrians crossing there. Who would do that?

*

It was inevitable then, that I would use Firgo as the setting for a story one day, and it turned out to be the shorter of two novellas which comprised my 2012 Nanowrimo campaign. In Escaping Firgo, the car that breaks down belongs to a Banker who has robbed the safe where he works, and we follow the Prisoner-esque story as he tries to get away. The pub in the village is modelled on the one we went to, and the backwards clock remains an important motif.

Three and a half years on and it’s still not published, but the hope is that it will be this year, or next at the latest. And during the intervening time I’ve often said that once it was published I’d make a pilgrimage to Firgo. But the weekend before last, talking to my father, we said we shouldn’t wait until then. Next month became next week, next week became the next day, and in a rare example of spontaneity, we set off.

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I’d seen it from the A34 enough times, so we decided to try and approach it from the other side. We drove up the A3057, through Romsey and Stockbridge, and onto places that even wanderlusters like me had never heard of, Leckford, Chilbolton, and Wherwell. Then it was on to Nun’s Walk, which looked like civilisation on the map, but turned out to be a prohibitively narrow country track in the middle of nowhere. But crucially, it backed on to the dirt road/path which led to Firgo.

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The route was barred by a locked gate. Of course it would be; those Firgoans are a secretive bunch who don’t like outsiders, and care nothing for the legality of prohibiting access to a public thoroughfare. But my father and I were not to be deterred, and walked parallel to the Firgo path in an adjoining field. Until we saw two black-clad figures looking down at us from the hill at the other end of the field: the welcoming committee, come to chase us away. And now we were feeling a little bit deterred.

We decided to make a retreat, no questions asked, no bother, but the two men gave chase. We had a big head start, but they had access to the path while we had soft, uneven ground to contend with, and weeds grabbing at our feet and ankles, pulling us back. Besides, my father is awaiting a knee operation and walks with a stick, and I couldn’t just leave him to his fate. The two men caught up well before we got back to the car, and with flight not having worked, I turned around, ready to fight if necessary.

It wasn’t. They were ramblers, just like us, only better organised and dressed for the part. They had cagoules and backpacks, and maps, and proper hiking boots. I had boots right enough, but the polite description of them would be ‘well-worn’. They looked like the kind of footwear Estragon would struggle to put on, or Simon Cooper would wear to a London nightclub, depending on your cultural reference point. I accessorised them with blue tracksuit bottoms, a yellow Chester FC away shirt, and an orange hoodie. But the ramblers didn’t judge; they showed me a map with Firgo on it, confirmed that the track led there. They also assured me that it was an easy walk (which spoiled the mystique a bit), and that the reception at Firgo was friendlier than across the A34 at Tufton Warren, where they didn’t like visitors. They also told me, unwittingly, just who these people were who tried to cross the four lanes of dual carriageway on foot.

Thus the plan was hatched: I would go it alone, follow the track, and see all that Firgo and the path through it had to offer. My father would go back to the car and drive round to join the A34, and we’d meet on the other side of Firgo.

So off I strode, and it was a pleasant walk on a sunny day, the rutted tractor wheel path cutting a swathe through the dominant greenery. Until the large and unsightly buildings of Firgo came into view. It wasn’t a community as I had envisioned, nor the hamlet which Wikipedia described it as; it was just a farm. Not quite sure what kind of farm: there were no obvious crops around (understandable in March?) and definitely no animals of any kind. Just buildings and machinery, which I snapped for this blog post.

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At which point I did get a welcoming committee, albeit a one man one, a young and lanky man in a hoodie, and not happy to see me. He demanded to know why I was taking pictures, seeming to suspect a link between this and the recent rash of break-ins he claimed to have suffered. I suppose I should be flattered that I’m still seen as robust enough to be a potential threat in such a way.

I apologised and walked on, and decided against taking any more pictures, which was a shame because I came to a solitary, large and attractive white-walled dwelling, with its double-double garages side by side. As I made for the A road, my new friend, who was glowering malevolently at me the entire time, went into one and emerged in an angry red car, which he drove past me too fast and too close to be anything but an act of aggression. Good job I didn’t go to the less friendly Tufton Warren.

While waiting for the rendezvous with my father, who’d had to drive the long way round, I was amazed to find a bus stop there in the lay-by. It seems unlikely enough that a bus would even follow that round, and absolutely unfeasible that there would be any demand for it to stop at such an isolated outpost.WP_20160314_12_03_41_Smart.jpg

The last leg of the odyssey was to revisit Sutton Scotney village, and the little wooden bus shelter and the big pub opposite were the first things we came to. I investigated the bus shelter first, because I’m sad like that, and found we were lucky way back when – there’s no Sunday service at all these days.

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And finally to the pub, for a well-earned sit down, meal and pint. But the reoccurring memories weren’t done yet – to my delight, the backwards clock was still there! The main symbol of both the book and the real incident, the big link between the two, and it’s still there. That on its own would have made the whole trip worthwhile: the sense of adventure and renewed optimism for the novella is a felicitous extra.

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