Learning about Loss

“You’re gonna learn about loss,” growled Robert De Niro in my favourite role of his (yes, even Travis Bickle), playing Max Cady in Cape Fear. Now, a quarter of century later, and even longer since Robert Mitchum may have spoken the line (I dunno), the lesson has reached me.

 

It being the last day of Nanowrimo, this should have been my triumphant announcement, 50,000 words in a month, yay me! But no, not this year. I’ve been Nanoing since 2011, and always book the 30th off for last day finishing – they must think I’m half Scottish at work, because I’m never there on St. Andrew’s Day. And in those years, the only previous non-win was in 2014 when the kitchen was being re-fitted, and I had very little time to myself. No such excuses this year.

Instead, my lack of success was on, or rather in, my own head, as I lapsed into the nasty habit of wallowing in an unhappiness that was largely of my own making. Nevertheless, I stayed in the game for the first half of the month, behind the rate but not insurmountably so, but when it came down to a choice between going all in or giving up, I froze and ended up choosing the latter by default.

And anyway, it’s only Nanowrimo, and not my first time not winning, certainly not enough to learn about loss. So what else have I lost? Well my stiff upper lip for one. After growing up driven by not wanting to show weakness or admit vulnerability, I have lived with untreated depression for all my adult life. That’s now changed: at the start of the month I had my first mental health GP appointment, and at the end of the month I had my first appointment with the iTalk counselling service. That’s actually a gain rather than a loss, but a heavy loss came with it, thanks to my stupidly walking away from that GP appointment without a prescription of anti-depressants. Knowing I needed treatment on two levels, but not yet receiving either, affected me badly and I sank to a pretty low place. Much worse, I was petty and selfish while I was down there, and managed to completely alienate one of my closest online friends. That’s some loss to learn about, right there.

Another friend stepped up, which I will be eternally grateful for, but the cruellest irony is that she herself has now suffered a terrible loss and bereavement of her own. Apart from the heartbreak and the unfairness of it all, it makes me see my little problems in a new light. I’ve lost a writing challenge and a couple of Facebook accounts, but that’s all really. So as much as I’ve learned about loss, I’ve learned about perspective. Now let’s hope I can use the lesson wisely.

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Yes, it’s Somewhat Political

Okay, so I can’t really ignore The Thing That Happened. Nor do I want to go on about it too much. To some, I’m a lily livered bleeding heart who’s ‘butthurt’ at the result; to others I’m the white male enemy who made this happen.

So I’m going to comment as a writer and stick to the creative impact on this seeming global shift to the right. It’s a pisser for me personally, and for many authors of dystopia, as the bleak reality threatens to overtake the worst future we can imagine.

Ever since early spring I’ve been pitching a prospective PhD project on dystopian fiction, twinned with a dissertation on whether it could come true, theorising that right wing politics had already set the wheels in motion. Honestly dear reader, this was a bold assertion in those innocent pre-Brexit, ‘Trump has no chance’ days, but now that the motion of those right wing wheels is so terrifyingly fast, either I have the easiest doctorate ever, or my research is invalid and worthless. And in this era of diminished optimism, I’m seeing the latter as the more likely.

I have previously written on the subject of a reactionary American uprising, but I didn’t expect it to happen so soon. Moreover; I had it down as a result of the apocalypse, not the cause of it. The two sequels to my painstakingly still being rewritten zombie novel The Dead Shall Feed depict an America overthrown by an opportunistic militia in the aftermath of the chaos.

Some five years ago, in making The Blood Shall Spill my Nanowrimo debut, I wrote:

“At first it was just a bunch of rich people protecting their own interests, but then it spiralled out of control, got taken over and turned into this unholy alliance of bigots and haters. The Republicans, the Christian Right, the National Rifle Association, the Ku Klux Klan, the Pro Lifers, the God Hates Faggers, the Holocaust Deniers, the Captains of Industry, the bankers, the oil men, the rednecks, they all got together and formed this Axis of Hatred. They came in the night to take away all the foreigners, then all the blacks, the Jews, the Hispanics, the Asians, the gays, the disabled, the sick, the poor, the unemployed, the socialists, anybody whose politics they didn’t like.”

And written two years earlier, but for the final part of the trilogy, I wrote in the short story / first chapter of the novel The World Shall Know, set in the technologically regressed far future after the overthrow:

The Scriptures said women should be chaste and quiet, and respectful to men. They should have children and look after the home, and cook for their husbands, and never want anything more. The men should work hard; breaking the horses, building the houses and farming the land. They should be vigilant in ridding the world of the Jew, and the talking ape, and the sodomite, who were inherently evil and had brought the plague upon the world.

And maybe it’s not that bad yet, but unless something changes for the better, it feels like the direction we’re headed. And I do feel a little uncomfortable complaining about all this impinging on my works in progress, when it will have a much more direct and serious effect on the lives of so many. So as much as I try to make this blog about the craft and profession of writing, in this instance, yes, it’s somewhat political.

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BristolCon 2016

BristolCon, it’s been too long. Three years in fact, having missed the last two, and missed it badly. And to make this year’s event even more special for me, it marked my long-awaited (by me, if not the rest of the world!) debut as a panellist, discussing small presses.

Before that though, I had the ludicrously early start and the inevitably delayed train. It some ways the two and half hours away that I live is the worst possible distance: too far to be an easy journey on the day, but too close to easily justify staying at the hotel. It meant I arrived after the start of Sarah Pinborough’s kaffeeklatsch in The Snug, but sheepishly wedged myself in for an entertaining and informative talk.

I then went into a very crowded and humid Room Two, largely to scope out the venue and get into place for my panel that followed (I was pleased to find it had a microphone each, instead of the pass-the-kouchie communal one of FantasyCon). It was an interesting and lively panel, focusing on diversity, with Dev Agarwal on top form, and helped take my mind off my growing nerves.

The crowd thinned out for my panel, but I expected it with the line-up in Room One, and I wasn’t complaining. I had fellow Grimmies Sammy Smith and Joanne Hall either side of me, with Cheryl Morgan and Adrian Faulkner completing the line-up. It was nice atmosphere, and felt just like an informal chat between friends, who just happened to have microphones in front of them. Sitting alongside the very knowledgeable Cheryl Morgan was an education, and when I remembered the presence of the audience I extolled the creative freedom and family atmosphere of the small presses, and encouraged the support of Crowdfunder and Patreon campaigns to keep them going. I can’t remember what else, but the 50 minutes absolutely flew by.

I needed down time afterwards though, and found it at the Grimbold stand in the dealers’ room to enjoy seeing my name on a banner for the first time, and pick up signed books by Frances Kay, Joel Cornah and Steven Poore. Further relaxation came in the Lego Room where I took a tea break with Steven, audiobook narrator Di Croft, Jo Hall and Isha Crowe, who I’ve been wanting to meet for years after we went through Open University Creative Writing courses together and she went to the two BristolCons that I missed.

I then settled into Room One for an extended stay, starting with cookies and cake at Rob Harkess’s book launch and BristolCon favourites Juliet McKenna and eventually Gareth L Powell signing books for me, followed by Anna Smith-Spark and Dolly Garland starring in the Murderous Woman panel, Sarah Pinborough’s excellent Guest of Honour interview, and finally a panel on the practicalities of publishing which was capped by a brilliant reading from Sammy Smith.

I went back into Room 2 for one last panel before I had to get my train home, Fangorn being an engaging presence even when discussing monster poo, but I was already tiring by this time after a long day. I made my exit straight after, stopping to book my place for next year, when I might well book into the hotel, and to take the nameplate from my panel as a souvenir.

It was a great con and I’m already looking forward to the next, but I have to add a big thank you to Jo Hall, who’s stood down from organising this brilliant event after eight great years. It might not be the biggest convention out there, but it’s one the best.

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FantasyCon 2016 Report

I write this immediately after my return from Scarborough, the remote but admittedly beautiful setting for this year’s FantasyCon.

After previous times going as an aspirer, a socialiser, and a would-be self-promoter, this year I decided I would go unashamedly as a fan, and thus adding to my sixty-strong signed book collection became a priority. I packed a load of unsigned books from my collection, along with a fullish wallet for buying new ones.

But the wallet was already stretched by the distance, which meant an expensive train ride and the necessity for an extra day of travelling either side, which in turn meant a four night stay as opposed to the two I can get away with in Brighton. So I saved a bit of money by avoiding the much-criticised Con hotel in favour of a much less expensive, and TripAdvisor acclaimed guest house a mile away, which would come back to haunt me later.

The six hour journey up left me with little energy for anything other than a little walk to find my way around, and needless to say I got hopelessly lost and had to ask a local for directions – a big step for a shy boy such as myself. But at least it meant I could find the Grand Hotel with no trouble on Friday, to take in a panel on ‘selling out’ and more importantly take in the launch of my fellow Grimboldians Joanne Hall, Steven Poore and AJ Dalton, while Joel Cornah, the talk of Westminster because of his Miliverse Twitter feed, gallantly manned the book stall. But carrying a heavy bag of books made the disco awkward, and my attire made it impossible. Last year I suffered an unfortunate low-flying wardrobe malfunction; this year it was the burgundy trousers themselves threatening to slide their way down my hips and around my ankles. At least it shows my recent return to running has shifted a couple of pounds, but I must remember to wear a belt with those from now on.

I took a chunk out of Saturday to watch my beloved Chester FC in their cross-border derby with Wrexham, and although the 0-0 draw was a decent result, the lack of entertainment on offer made me wish I’d stayed put. But I returned to get the most important signatures of all, Derek Landy on my son’s two Skullduggery Pleasant books. Then after the obligatory post-apocalyptic fiction panel (one day I need to be on one), it was on to the David Gemmell Awards, a glitzy occasion somewhat undermined by the absence of the actual trophy! But at least it had free wine, of which I had enough to make me forget I can’t sing, so apologies to anyone who had to listen to my terrible Nik Kershaw rendition when the karaoke followed in the same room.

Highlight of Sunday was the candid and humorous Joe Hill interview, before the BFS Awards. It was dreadfully overcrowded, but there were plenty of worthy winners, my favourite being Priya Sharma, who I never saw properly this year, but who should be glad she avoided my karaoke. But the hardly seeing people, or not at all, was my only disappointment this year, the two hotel format, and me being perma-tired from dragging heavy book bags around cutting down my opportunities. Still, I did get triathlon advice from Tim Lebbon, a good chat with Neil John Buchanan, more bonding with the Grimbold lot which will continue at BristolCon next month, pole position to see Ross Warren’s panel debut, and a recurring rendezvous with Stephen Bacon in the gents (!), along with various other all too brief encounters.

Last thing before I left the Con was watching my other team Southampton beating West Ham 3-0 away, a good end to a great weekend, tempered by the revelation of a health scare to long-time online friend and Crystal Lake Publishing founder Joe Mynhardt, but latest news is that isn’t too serious.

So now I hope that rumours about it being in Daventry next year turn out not to be true (no offence intended to any Daventrians reading), but first I have BristolCon next month and maybe – just maybe – my own panel debut. But whether I’m sat in the audience or facing the audience, I can’t wait.

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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.

Damaged Matchstick House.jpg

 

 

 

 

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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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