___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

rendezvous with arthur

The first Arthur C. Clarke novel I read was The City and the Stars. I was possibly 9 or 10 at the time. I remember to this day the young protagonist Alvin gazing out across the desert from the high, abandoned towers of Diaspar, the simple grace of Clarke's concise, clear-as-glass prose, and the wonder of discovery upon discovery as the the plot progressed; especially the flight to the stars and the loss I felt as Clarke showed me a universe abandoned by alien races, with only poor humanity, shuttered from the stars, remaining. For the first time in my life I had encountered someone who knew and loved the mysteries of the night as much as I did. I was lost, heart and soul, in this book. I had discovered Arthur C. Clarke, and nothing was going to be the same again.

I wasn't new to science fiction. Stan Lee had pretty much taught me the rudiments of reading before I started going to school, thanks to his Fantastic Four comics, and one of my earliest memories is of Jon Pertwee turning into Tom Baker at the end of his run on Doctor Who. A year or two before I made first contact with Clarke I'd discovered Clifford D. Simak, E.C. Tubb, James Blish and James Hamilton-Paterson - among others - in the pages of Richard Davies's anthology of SF tales SPACE-1.

This was a 1973 collection of short stories now reissused in paperback and aimed at the youth market (the term YA had not been invented in the late 1970s) and it had made its way into the school bookclub catalogue. The book was in the section for "older young readers", and when I requested the book - a rare treat, as we didn't have much money; but I knew I wouldn't be refused a title from the school book club - my teacher Miss Etherington tried to steer me away from it. She said it was too advanced for someone my age. I was a shy boy, not at all confrontational, bookish and prone to losing myself in daydreams as I gazed out the window during class, but I dug my heels in and insisted that Space-1 was the title I was going to have. A week or two later the book duly arrived, and I received it in class, as all the other kids received theirs, waiting for my name to be called, and walked to the teacher's desk to pick the book up (it was wrapped in a receipt held around the cover with an elastic band), and I was perfectly delighted with it.

As it happened, Mrs Etherington was half right - although I loved gentle Clifford Simak's story, for instance, I was too young to appreciate the importance of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity in Hamilton-Paterson's tale "The Teddysaurs" (more about that in another blog post, I think), but all the same, I read every word and the book still holds a special place in my heart.

But it didn't do to me what the magnificent vision of Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars did. I sought more of Clarke's work out, and found a short story collection with an introduction by J.B. Priestley - Of Time and Stars. Then I found The Deep Range, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, and A Fall of Moondust, and Expedition to Earth (his first short story collection, and to this day an object lesson in the art of writing short fiction), and Rendezvous With Rama . . . and each and every one of them was the best book I had ever read as I read them for the first, and then second and then third times, and I couldn't have picked a favourite but for the one that was in my hands . . .

Over the years, I continued to collect and read Clarke. The first non-fiction book I voluntarily chose to read outside of school, and which was not about dinosaurs and full of illustrations, was Clarke's The View from Serendip. As far as novels went, Childhood's End became my favourite for a while. There was a return to the world of 2001 - nine years on - with 2010: Odyssey 2 (for my money, one of the great haunted house stories of science fiction) as well as a chance to see the what-might-have-beens in The Lost Worlds of 2001. I got to see the films and caught the occasional TV adaptation (I remember a nice New Twilight Zone episode dramatising "The Star"), and there was of course Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, famously parodied by The Goodies, a sure sign of major cultural impact. Clarke was probably as close to a hero as I had and his very name was enough to send excitement and awe through me.

And then I read The Songs of Distant Earth.

A quiet, lyrical book that has become almost lost in the cannon - possibly due to its release between the bestselling series novels 2010 and 2061 and the Rama sequels - Songs was the book that most profoundly affected me as a youth. It solidified my feelings about who I was and my place in the universe, reflected the poetry of my heart and reinforced my views on religion, humanism, love, and loss. It's the Clarke book I return to most often. I read it once every two or three years.

After Songs, Clarke's ill health began to show in his fiction - though he continued to produce books till the year he passed away. 2061 was the weakest book in his Odyssey series. His collaborations with other authors sounded nothing like him and held little of the wonder his solo works contained. In my opinion, the best of them were Garden of Rama (with/by Gentry Lee), and the Time Odyssey trilogy (with/by Stephen Baxter). Less said of the others, the better. There were a few solo books of interest though, following Songs, each shorter than the one before. The Ghost from the Grand Banks, The Hammer of God, and 3001: The Final Odyssey, of which I'd say Hammer is the best and still well worth the reader's time. Even at his weakest, though, awe and wonder are never far from Clarke's pages.

He wrote plenty of books that I treasure to this day - and I've barely touched on his short stories, surely the finest science fiction has ever seen - and he is the only writer that I read as a child who I can still read today. I think he'd have liked that. I know I do.

Happy birthday, Arthur C. Clarke. You were and are our brightest star. We'd sing you happy birthday, but this might be more fun, "Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World", by the Divine Comedy.

after jerusalem . . . again

This is just a short heads-up to let you know - in case you missed the tweet - that my short story After Jerusalem is now available to read for free on the Sci Phi Journal website.

Click here if you want to read.

Blessings be upon you. 

driftwood and the wyrd

Autumn. Season to bring the poets out  . . . and writers of weird fiction.

Speaking of which . . .
I have a short story in the first issue of The Wyrd Magazine.  Clue's in the name. But all the same, here’s what they say about themselves:

The Wyrd is an online magazine for speculative, weird and slipstream prose. We publish stories that delve into the spaces between genres, that are steeped in the uncanny, and stay with you long after you’ve read them. The Wyrd is published quarterly and will feature established and new authors who like pushing genre boundaries. Reading The Wyrd should be like going for a long ride down a forgotten country road. You never know where you’ll end up, but it’s bound to be interesting. 

Issue one contains tales by Steve Passey, Joanna Roye, Mark Patrick Lynch (that’ll be me), O.S. Delgado, Henry Szabranski, Douglas Ford and Catherine Edmunds.

Sound good to you? You can download issue one for free in PDF by going here. Steve’s story is available to read online here, saving you the fuss of downloading the PDF (even though you should – oh yes, you really should). If you fancy helping to keep the magazine going and paying the writers, then maybe donate the price of a coffee to them through patreon. Click here if you are able to and want to learn more.

My piece is called “Driftwood” and is one of the short-shorts I’ve been writing when all else – sanity and health, the novel I laughingly call “the work in progress”, longer short stories – breaks down into tiny pieces that look like they are impossible to stick back together. It’s not one of my Horatio tales but it has a similar vibe.

So . . . you know . . . just . . . head on over to the Wyrd and grab the PDF.

tickety boo

two carved pumpkin heads glow in the dark
Photo by Beth Teutschmann
If there's one thing I've had no luck with - or frankly just aren't very good at - then it's competitions. I did win one once, when I was but a pale youth with long hair and flares. That was in a colouring competition run by the local paper, and the prize was an Evel Knievel stunt cycle. It was, to be fair, a great prize back then and Evel was every boy's hero. But when it's come to writing competitions, I have had about as much luck as Evel did when he was trying to jump across the Grand Canyon.

To illustrate why, and because it is October and Hallowe'en is due, here's a short short story that was written for a Yorkshire magazine's local haunted stories competition. I don't think it's any worse than the stories that were selected as the winners - but then I wouldn't, would I?

It's called "Tickety Boo!" and it's about 1,000 words long.


The man sent to photograph ghosts arrived just as evening stole in on the last day of October.
          After a long whining hum that seemed to chime in the air, the railway-line rattled with his coming. Gusts of leaves turned and lifted, falling like a shroud or a sigh, and for a moment there was a sound that might have been an old steam locomotive piping out a trill whistle in the autumn air. But surely that was just the phantom echo of a past age.
           I’d been assigned as the photographer’s tour guide and told to be sure that he went away with what he most wanted. Among my kind – which is to say those of us who still have some influence on this particular night – I wasn’t considered too distracting to play the part.
           If the photographer didn’t match my own preconceived notions when he stepped from his train, then I’m certain that I, sombre and funereal, fitted none of his as I stepped off mine. A short sturdy man who squinted behind his eyeglasses, he wore his hair short and was dressed in corduroy trousers and an open-collared Oxford shirt beneath a v-necked jumper. His jacket was grey and understated and wouldn’t, I thought, offer much insulation for the time of year. A digital camera was looped over his shoulder and he carried hand luggage in the event of an overnight stay. He looked distinctly harried as he left his carriage.
             When the other commuters had faded away, the trains had left, and he stood alone on the platform, I called out to him.
          “Mister James?”
          Startled, he spun around. He had a small nose, but his glasses slid to its curled end as he peered over their frames in my direction.
          “You surprised me,” he confessed, holding up a hand. “I didn’t see you there.”
          I glided from the smoky shadows and presented my card. “Han Duet.”
          He studied the card and then looked me over. “It says here you’re a watch repairer, Mister Deut.”
          “Who better to guide you around the town? It means you won’t be late getting back for your train. Have you been here before? John Betjeman says the station’s architecture is the most splendid in the country. Just tickety.”
          “I’m here to take pictures of Huddersfield’s supposed haunted byways, Mister Deut. And I don’t have a lot of time. This is my last stop in Yorkshire and so far I haven’t captured so much as the suggestion of an apparition on camera. It’s late in the day and you’ll understand if architecture’s not high on my list of priorities.”
          “Of course, of course. That’s tickety.” When I reached for my old pocket-watch and flipped the lid, he lifted his eyebrows in surprise. I tapped the dial and said, “Let’s be on with the tour, shall we?”
          As the thick burn of sunset spread across the sky, we passed beneath the Corinthian pillars of the portico, into St George’s Square, and walked beyond the statue of the former Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The streetlights glowed to life as we proceeded toward Kirkgate. Of course, the stores and restaurants had been decorated for the ghoulish festivities, and already children were to be seen in garish make-up and plastic fangs. The more adventurous had opted for face paintings and the wicked fakeries of terrible scars, as indeed had more than a few adults. The presiding colour-coordination was black and red – the bloodier the red the better. As the night progressed, Mr James the photographer seemed to be the one whose clothing was inappropriate and not my own.
          “The town hall is reputedly haunted,” I told him after we’d exhausted the more famous examples of the town’s supernatural history and had been left wanting for a ghostly materialisation. I delivered a slow, knowing wink. “But the real spirits are only said to come out when the council meets.”
          “Right,” Mr James said disconsolately. “Maybe I’ll just take some shots of these people dressed up for the night. It’s probably the best I’m going to get.”
          “Why, yes, that’d be a tickety idea.” I made sure to stand beyond the reach of his lens and not to get in anyone’s way.
          Mr James photographed some youths who were dressed as Dracula, the Frankenstein monster (complete with neck bolts), and an unravelling Egyptian Mummy. “Say cheese,” he told a woman partygoer next. She pouted rouge lips through the mouth-hole cut in her simple white sheet costume, and an unseemly length of bare leg was revealed as a furry-faced wolfman embraced her. She squealed with delighted laughter as the wolfman howled and the camera flashed.
          But before long even the Hallowe’en revellers were heading home or weaving uncertainly from one pub to another. They were friendly enough but decidedly not in the mood to be captured for immortality’s sake after imbibing a couple too many light ales.
          I led the photographer back to the station. The frontage was lighted to spectacular effect at this hour. It was still a little while to midnight by my watch. As we waited on the platform, Mr James grumbled that his time in the county had been a waste. “Whitby was all wind and rain from the sea. York was stuffed with too many tourists. Harrogate too posh, and Leeds full of students. You’re the only person I’ve met who looks genuinely spooky. You dressed for tonight, I’ll give you that.”
          “Then the least I can offer you is a picture,” I said, mindful of my instructions to see he got what he wanted.
          As he angled his lens to take my portrait, I thought about how puzzled he would be the next morning, when Hallowe’en had ended, to find my profile faded and gone from his picture. We spirits have but our single night a year, and our images do not last beyond it; alas, poor Mr James would be left with nothing more than the backdrop of the railway lines on his camera tomorrow and a host of questions that would never be answered.
          “Say cheese,” he instructed.
          “Oh, I’m not really much of a one for cheese. I’m not a big eater these days.”
          “Then say something else, just be sure to smile. And look … kind of … dead.”
          “Now that’s easy,” I said, perfectly truthfully.
          “Tickety,” I said. And then posed. “Boo!”

we shall make monsters . . . audio version

A few years ago – quite a few years ago – I wrote a sort-of steampunk, sort-of tongue-in-cheek horror SF piece poking fun at the then newish trend of manufactured “boybands”. You know the sort, the four or five-piece set of healthy-looking young men with a gleam in their eyes and a polished smile beneath carefully styled hair. They’d dance, sing – sometimes well, sometimes well enough – and be pretty much indistinguishable from all the other boybands that did exactly the same thing. You’d even confuse the names of the bands and be unsure which of them was singing which song.

As far as I could work out, these bands seemed to have been born out of the manufactured hits of the late 80s, those awful sound-alike songs of Stock, Aitken and Waterman. I pretty much stopped listening to Top 40 radio when these songs dominated the airwaves, and back then Top 40 radio was pretty much all there was when it came to music on UK radio stations. (Remember, kids, this was before the internet and almost unlimited choice through streaming services. We had an AM and an FM dial, and if we didn’t mind excessive crackle, we could find some foreign longwave station looping in and out of tune depending on the atmospherics in the evening.) But those SAW songs were everywhere, and you couldn’t avoid them. If they weren’t on the radio, they were on the TV; if they weren’t on the TV, they were in the clothes store or on the speakers of the supermarket.

I got to thinking that it was all a bit Frankensteinian, and remembered – or misremembered, I’m not entirely sure – a line from Frankenstein: “We shall make monsters.” It seemed a neat little phrase that tied into the idea of the most popular records in the charts being referred to as “monster hits”. When such ideas hit you, you don’t have much choice. Go forth and apply pen.

So I did, and for a laugh called the boy band “Stepfor’d”, a contraction of Step Forward and a nod to Ira Levin’s satire on male insecurity The Stepford Wives. I think at that point, I had stopped caring that I was riffing on the back of one of the most celebrated books in history with Frankenstein, so was happy to nod at a modern classic. What was I thinking? The answer is I probably wasn’t. I was having fun. With that in mind, I’m sure that it is entirely coincidental that the first-person narrator of the tale has the initials S.A.W. 

Anyway, the tale was picked up for publication by Mad Scientist Journal and is available to buy in the Spring 2014 edition for ebooks.

If, however, you would like to listen to the tale, then the lovely people at Sage and Savant have produced an audio edition, in two parts, that can be accessed free via their site and/or which you can download from iTunes. You can either listen online or download the piece to keep. Sage and Savant is a great little site, with a cast production of an ongoing series podcast that, at the time I write, is up to episode 203. If fun SF with a steampunk bent is your thing, then this is the place to be. As well as the series podcast, S&S also has a set of short stories you can listen to by, amongst others, Harry Turtledove, Allana McFall, Greg Bear, and Alan Dean Foster. You can't do much better than that.

Composer and Sage and Savant cast member Chip Michael was generous enough to apply his talents to my tale. Thanks, Chip! If you’d like to, you can listen to Chip’s reading of my story here.

after that, this

I’d just come off the back of a big book that I was then calling HEARTSTONES TO ALAEDORNIA. It was a fantasy novel, and it was complicated, and it had hurt my head to write. The first draft was just over 200,000 words long and if it was ever going to look like something anyone would want to read – including me – I was going to have to do a lot of work on it. It was a messy first draft, but okay, at least it was something to work on, and something to work on is better than nothing.

Over the next year, as I continued to write new short stories, I did do that work. I found the thread of the narrative and pulled it tight, pared away the excess (including the TO ALAEDORNIA in the title), and got the book down to a leaner 136,000 words. I polished it. Buffed it up. Then I started to send it out.

During the time HEARTSTONES was collecting rejections, I started on a new book. After all, that’s what you do if you write, isn’t it?

(I mention this because I have met a few people who write their first book and then sit on their hands while they send it off to agents and publishers – and they wait, and they wait, and they wait. Uhm . . . No. Don’t do that. Write the next thing you have to write while the first book is going out. After all, if the first people who see it accept it, you’ll be expected to write another one anyway. So why waste your time? Get on with it. Write.)

HEARTSTONES was a pretty serious piece of work. In my mind, at least, it tried to do all the things that I thought a good book that aspires to be more than disposable entertainment should do. It had themes and subtext, a challenging narrative, a complicated set of characters who grew and changed over the course of the book, and a resolution that felt like it had always meant to be that way. It was technically challenging to write, in that it was really only a one-character point-of-view piece but took place over different times in the characters’ lives and in some unusual locations. But it was a pretty satisfying experience for me, and I thought I had done a good thing in making it, even if it wasn’t perfect. Because, after all, no book is perfect, however hard the writer works on it. I was probably as pleased with it as I could be. Somewhere along the way the book had become the book it wanted to be and not the book I had wished it had been, and that is fair enough and something I have learned to accept when it comes to writing books. They often know what they want to be more than the writer knows.

But . . .

There was one thing I kept coming back to, though, when I thought about the book. That fantasy novel, it was pretty serious, I kept thinking. It was quite grim in places and pulled very few punches. There weren’t many moments of levity in it.

For my own sake as much as anyone who might read it, I decided the next book should be a little lighter. The tone should be easier, even if darkness crept in – which, seeing as I was writing it, I suspected it would.

I didn’t have a title or a plot. I had vague ideas about a couple of characters, including one of their names: Rusby Once. The location for the first part of the book would be the country lanes in which I used to play as I’d grown up, and I wanted to use an old folly in the area as the basis for something, some plot development, some important part of the narrative. That’s about all I knew. Apart from one other thing: I knew I wanted the prose to set up the way the book might come across. I like long sentences, and have to fight with myself not to go on and on when I write. So, with that in mind, I decided to do something a little more punchy than usual. Shorter sentences, shorter book, I was probably thinking. And more dialogue to convey ideas. Make it more easily accessible than HEARTSTONES.

I had an opening line, and like most of the lines that I write, I had little idea where it had come from. But I went with it anyway, deciding to follow where it led to. Here’s what I had for the opening:

Weird 24.

That’s all. But it felt right. I carried on from there, trying to keep things sharp like that, while allowing room for the characters to introduce themselves. In relatively quick time they did, and when the characters come alive then some sort of plot inevitably follows. After a few months that stretched to close to a year (with a few months’ break in the middle thanks to pesky old real life interfering in the process) I had a first draft – what I like to call the story draft – of about 90,000 words and I thought it hung together pretty well and had some nice light moments in it, and yes, some dark ones too.

My girlfriend read the book, while I went back to sorting out what was going on with HEARTSTONES (after a few rejections I did yet more work on it to make it a little shinier, a little more polished, so I could submit it to a few other places). Anyway, the good news was she liked it. She made a really good suggestion, too. That I should up the age of the leads. In the first draft they were 11 and 12. She thought that, by beefing things up a little, the book would be better served with them as older teenagers, and the moments of darkness wouldn’t be traumatic to any younger audience that the book might naturally have picked up with protagonists of more tender years. I thought about this and realised she was quite right, so Gideon Sawyer became 16 years old and Rusby Once fast-forwarded through a few summers at the flick of a pen to become 17.

In the meantime, as HEARTSTONES continued to pick up rejections, and on the back of finishing the first draft of the new lighter fantasy, which at this point I was calling “the Rusby Once book”, I had a sudden window of good health and energy and, in a fit of pique at the fantasy novel getting rejected so sorely and surely, I wrote what would become my first published book, HOUR OF THE BLACK WOLF. It was written at break-neck speed and first drafted in 10 days, and like the Rusby Once book, had some lighter moments in it. It was about 56,000 words long. It was accepted on first submission, on condition I made some revisions. So I did, and it went through the all the usual steps of being professionally edited and proofed and published without a hiccup. It even picked up a couple of good notices when it came out. If there’s a moral to this, or a life lesson to take in and abide by, then I don’t know what it is.

Baffled but pleased, I went back to sending out the big fantasy, and started on the rewrite of the Rusby Once book, wondering if it and HEARTSTONES would find a publisher as easily as HOUR OF THE BLACK WOLF had done. All I was sure of was that I could breathe out now, that I was finally someone who’d had a book professionally published. The rest would happen as it would. Or wouldn’t. But for a working-class kid sending out his own untutored prose, I thought I had done well.

As it happened, HEARTSTONES found a publisher, and then wasn’t published. Because of me. But that’s another story. And I found a better title than “the Rusby Once book” for the Rusby Once book. I decided to call it A CLASH OF ICHOR AND BLOOD and I sent it out to the few agents who’d made nice noises about my earlier books. They made more nice noises but that was about as far as it went. I didn’t have the heart to go through the dreary task of hunting out new agents only to be turned down by them. It felt too depressing and time-consuming. (After all, if you keep repeating the same actions you’re going to get the same results, and I really didn't want the same results.) So I decided to do something different with A CLASH OF ICHOR AND BLOOD.

In future posts we’ll get on to what I’m doing, have a guess at why things have turned out as they have, the good and the bad and the ugly, and what I’m doing about it.

one of these things first

Some things take longer than you expect them to take. Just under three years ago I started work on what I hoped would turn out to be a new book. I knew my time for this project would be limited, and that the book would have to be written in sporadic bursts that might, if I was lucky, amount to a month here and a month there.

By that, I mean time that was wholeheartedly and selfishly mine, during which I could commit to being in the same place, getting up at roughly the same hour, and getting the space – physically and in my head – without too many outside disturbances, to put the work in on the book. Concentration and effort, in other words. Focus.

It hasn’t been easy. And it’s no one’s fault. It’s just the way that things have fallen. You can read as many self-help books as you like, telling you all about visualisation and believing in something enough that it will happen – these same books tend to have a no refund policy and are apt to tell you that if something doesn’t work out then it’s because you haven’t been trying hard enough and didn’t really want it in the first place – but the real truth is what the Ancients called Fate has a hand in our lives. We don’t get to decide if we’re struck by a particular illness (or a car as we walk down the street, for that matter) or if and when our loved ones need our help, or even when the computer you’re writing on is going to explode and you can’t afford a replacement. These things are flung at us by whatever Gods we may or not believe in. What I have found is that these things are not usually conducive to writing a book.

The book I’ve been working on, then, was written in patches, and was a dog to get back into after every time I was forced to break away from it.

But, persistence . . . you know?

I did get back into it, each time, even if it did take colossal reserves to do that, and I found myself enjoying it, getting back into the lives of these people I’d come to know. It was hard work, but fulfilling in many ways.

Today, coming off the back of a particularly nasty bout of the flu, I finally got to the end of the first draft of a book that, really, should not have taken anywhere near this long to write. I’ve written more words in shorter spans of time in the past, that’s for sure. But I’ve also been healthier and had, in some ways, fewer demands on me when I’ve been writing those other words.

Anyway. This is where I stand now. I have a working title – THE CHURCH OF WOLVES – and a fair few words to work with. 201,913 of them if MS Word’s word count is to be believed. And that’s good, because it’s easier to fix 200,000 words that are in the wrong order but on a page than it is to have to start from scratch and put them on a page and then fix them . . .

Right now the book feels disjointed, in need of quite a lot of work. It will – the Fates allowing – get that work from me. But not for a while. I need some distance from it – so I can come back and see it with clearer eyes. I’ve already made a few notes about things I need to fix, include, go back and retrofit into the manuscript. So I’m not without a clue as to what needs to happen. It’s not simply a case of writing an instruction to myself like “make this better”, tempting though that is. And it’s a first draft, and first drafts are allowed to be a bit saggy in places and underdeveloped in others. The characters’ names can change throughout as well. They’re pretty fluid things, first drafts.

I tend to think of my first drafts as “story drafts.” It’s where I sit and put words on the page and find out who the characters are and what happens to them and what happens because of them. And if I’m lucky I also learn why it happens and why they’ve done what they’ve done. Some sort of plot resolves itself.

Thus, a story draft.

I don’t pre-plot. I’m not one of those writers who sits down with a flow chart and copious notes all neatly lined up to tick off as I go. If I’m feeling a little bit professional, I might jot a note down on a stray piece of paper that I inevitably lose somewhere down the line. Otherwise, it’s follow the first sentence and see where it leads. I might have a theme in mind – past themes in my books have been identity and duty and doors – or a certain mood I’m hoping to achieve through the book, say awe or fear. Or a question I want to explore, a sort of grand What If . . . or What Does It All Mean? But aside from that, it’s pretty much all that I have. As far as plots go, I never really seem to come across them; at least, not before I set off on the journey of the first draft.

And it is a journey. To me writing a book is like heading out on an expedition. I’ll set off into what I think is a trackless forest armed with a candle and a couple of characters and beat through the bushes until it looks like we know where we’re going. The first draft is learning what happens in the forest, and how we get to the other end of it. Subsequent drafts are about illuminating the path the characters have taken, enjoying the scenery, and making sure everyone’s feet land where they ought to. By the time I get to the final draft, before the endless rounds of polishing and buffing up take place, then that initial course through the forest should look like it was always going to lead to where it leads, an inevitable track to an almost predetermined destination – despite all the swings and turns it makes along the way.

So. Where am I now? I’ve just got through to the other end of the forest.

I’ll go back. I’ll see more. The characters’ voices won’t be as difficult to hear or their needs and desires as obscure or as distorted as they seemed when they first acted how they did. I know who they are, now. I’ve been on a journey with them.

Next time I come back to this book I get to shine a light on them, to make things as clear as glass. And I’ll know what lies ahead of us as we go in to the dark woods, and what we’ll find there. I know the darkness, and want to make sure you get an idea of it too. In time, we’ll see if I can manage that.

not another duck

I’m pleased to say I have a new short story available in/on (still not sure how that should go) the fiction webzine With Candlelight. The guys running the zine have got a really great set-up, with a nice easy podcast, and interviews on the site, as well as plenty of stories, mainstream and genre (and those fuzzy bits in between as well as some flash fiction too). It’s well worth a visit and a look around.

My tale is called “Not Another Duck!” and is about 1,500 words long, if I remember correctly. It’s not the first of its kind, so I wanted to say a few words about what’s been going on.

For a while now, when I’ve either been too tired to write anything longer or wanted to write something that could be finished in a single sitting, I’ve been working on a series of pieces featuring the nameless protagonist of this tale and his three-legged dog, Horatio. The series – if that’s really what it is – came about by accident . . . which seems to be the defining feature of most of my writing output.

A good few years ago I wrote a 3,000- word short story called “Walking Horatio.” It didn’t fall into any easily defined genre and wasn’t really mainstream enough to be published in a mainstream venue. But friends who read the piece enjoyed it and that made me want to see it in print. I toyed around with it, adding a crime element to see if it might be possible to sell somewhere. But the tale felt dishonest like that and I reverted back to the original version. I showed it to a couple of mainstream magazines, and the responses were positive, but no money changed hands and the tale didn’t find its way into any of those good publications. So, in the way of these things, I put it aside a little sadly . . . and forgot about it. 

Or at least, I thought I did.

Turns out the characters didn’t want to leave me alone, even if I had thought we weren’t seeing each other any more. I wrote another story about them, thinking when I’d finished that there would probably be a final tale written some time in the future to wrap up a little trilogy of pieces.

Again, I was wrong.

I wrote another tale, and there they were again – one slacker and his dog, Horatio – but it wasn’t the final tale of the loose trilogy I’d imagined it would be.  Okay, I thought. That’s interesting.

Four seemed like an odd number (even though it’s even, as my nameless protagonist would probably point out) for a trilogy, and so, after resisting doing so, I wrote another tale. And then another. Both featuring the narrator and Horatio. I started to think of them as “The Horatio Tales.” But they weren’t the only things I was writing at the time. I wrote a couple of books which you can probably find on eBay or Amazon Marketplace for a penny each, some that you won’t be able to find because they didn’t make it into print, and some other short stories too (some of which have been published, some of which have not). For a  while – maybe a year or more – I didn’t go back to our hero and his dog. After all, although they were fun to write and didn’t take long, I wasn’t selling them . . . or even sending them out to magazines that might have published them. They were beginning to feel like an indulgence. But then, between chapters of novels, or at the end of drafts of other pieces, or just on the occasions where I’d no strength to write something new from scratch, I found myself going back to see how these guys were doing.

Slowly, over the years, new characters made their way into the tales. They kept popping up in other pieces, and I realised I’d got quite a cast of oddballs and sweet innocents I genuinely enjoyed spending time with. Indulgence or not, the reason why you write, ultimately, is for yourself, and I have been doing exactly that with these tales.

I have maybe twenty pieces now, and I still haven’t written the tale that I thought would make up that original trilogy. It’ll happen, I think, possibly later this year or early next, and when it does it won’t be long until I write another couple of Horatio tales to round things out. Then I’ll revise (because you always have to revise) and gather the tales together in a short collection. I’m looking forward to it.

“Not Another Duck!” is one of the Horatio tales. It was written – or at least first drafted – in a single sitting, as most if not all of the Horatio tales has been. I think it’s one of the more recent pieces, written in the last year or two. When I saw that Brandon and Roger were asking for tales that didn’t really fit anywhere else for With Candlelight, for some reason I flashed on this piece and thought it would be worth sending to them. I don’t know why. But I did.

They agreed it was, and you can find it here now. Just scroll down the page and you’ll see it there. Read it for free. And enjoy it. One way or another, there are more of them to come.

library thing

I've been reminiscing lately, for all sorts of reasons, some happy, some sad, some just melancholic.

For some reason I got to thinking about the library of my boyhood, a single room of books in a terrace house owned by the local council. This was in an old village on the side of a hill in Yorkshire. I'd go there with my dad first of all, before I was old enough to go by myself, either walking down the hill and back or, if there was petrol in the car and the car was running, driving down. To get to the heavy library door you had to cross a slab of old stone, worn and weathered, and often slick and dangerous in the wet. Beneath the stone slab, was a darkness, leading to the cellar. The library door took some opening, and inside there was a narrow square of hallway with bare, painted steps leading up to a place I knew was out of bounds. Instead of going up the stairs you turned right, through another heavy door with a  circular knob that rattled for all the years I remember using the library (before it was closed and the books taken in some odd amalgamation with the newer community centre), and there was that certain smell unique to libraries, there to greet you along with the silence of dreaming books. 

There was a grill fire in an old chimney breast, and the fire smelled when it was lit. Rosemary the librarian's reception counter stood in the middle of the room. There was a microfiche reader that looked magnificently science-fictional and took up more space than was probably good for it, and there were white walls with shelves up to a boy's head, and on the shelves were books. Lots of books. More books than I'd ever seen. Many were old and grubby, but still had a shine to them because of their protective covers. They were all special to me, things to be amazed about.

Even though it was a small library, I'd be lying if I said I read everything in there, but I certainly got through everything in the small children's section. Often more than once. 

I thought I was smart back then, so figured that if I looked at an adult title or two and pretended to put them all back on the shelves but really kept one for myself, I could sneak that title into the children's corner, and then - criminal genius - make a louder show than usual of taking it out of the children's section and over to Rosemary.  I'm sure I wore a most convincing expression of innocence as I presented her with some horror novel or violent thriller.

I used to think Rosemary was a stern fearsome person, but looking back, I realise now that she was looking after me. With only the odd raised eyebrow behind her glasses, she let me take out more titles from the adult section than she might have done. I read a lot of yellowback Gollancz SF, thanks to Rosemary, long before I truly understood them. And plenty of middle books in fantasy sagas. (For some reason the library never had book one of a trilogy or series. To this day I kind of prefer reading book two of a series before book one. A hangover from those days, I suspect; though to some extent I do think the second book of a trilogy is more interesting if you haven't read the first one.) I read a lot of everything.

But there was, quite appropriately it seemed to me, more than a little bit of myth and legend about the library among us kids. I mentioned that beneath the library was an entrance to a cellar and it looked very much like a cave. The rumour went that there was a passage from the library, running underground, to the ruined old folly of the criminal Black Dick, and that his ghost walked the passage during the day, until sundown, when it haunted the ruin itself. 

One day I would dare go down there, I told myself, and see if I could find the tunnel. I would take my best friend and my brother and his friend, and we would use a torch like the posh kids in The Famous Five did, and explore, and probably find buried treasure and be chased by a ghost. Or a man disguised as a ghost, which was often what ghosts turned out to be in detective fiction and on Scooby Doo on the television. It all seemed possible, beneath the library, as if the secret worlds in the books had slipped out of the pages and been pulled down by gravity into the cellar and the secret tunnel. We would have our adventure and it would be scary and exciting.

One day we would do that.

But of course, we never did.

after jerusalem

Okay. It's 2017 (why do all years feel like science fiction titles these days?) and it hasn't been a great one so far, for all sorts of reasons. The details are too grim and upsetting to go into, so I won't linger on them. Let's just say I'm not going to forget this one in a hurry and can only hope it gets better as the months pass. We take our happier moments where we can, and we should remember to cherish them. 

And so . . . with that in mind: I have a new story out. Which is always nice to say. It's a quiet little science fiction piece called "After Jerusalem" and was actually written quite a while ago. (I've a feeling it could be ten years old.) It's one of those tales I've always been quite fond of but never been entirely sure what to do with; and so, while deep in prevarication, hadn't really done anything with it . . . for a long time.

But then I found Sci Phi Journal, and the old story popped into my mind as sort of appropriate for the publication. I thought so, anyway. I found the file, gave it a quick polish (look, something ten years old must be improvable in some respects), and emailed it off . . .

. . .  not realising I'd missed the open window for submissions by a week or two.

Luckily the lovely people at Sci Phi Journal promised to read the tale anyway. This is called going above and beyond the call of duty and is a rare gift in publishing. That kindness alone was enough to make me feel the world was a better place than I'd previously feared it was. I just hoped I wasn't wasting their time by giving them yet another tale to read that wasn't approriate and was wasting their time . . .

Fortunately they liked the story enough to want to publish it. (This sometimes feels like it's even rarer than acts of kindness in publishing.) Naturally I was delighted, and am pleased to say you can read it right here. If you can, then please do so. I hope you like it.

Take care.

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