I had a great time recently being interviewed by MADELEINE D’ESTE for her podcast WRITE THROUGH THE ROOF. It’s an excellent show designed for writers who want to improve their craft. Each episode, a different writer shares their tip for what took their writing to the next level. Previous guests have included Gareth L. Powell, Dave Hutchinson and Garth Nix. Please listen in!
A clickbait post title if ever there was one, but there’s a genuine point to this so bear with me. It begins many years ago, when I worked as a manager in a processing centre for a bank, looking after around 100 staff as we wound our centre down to a close. The work we did was being farmed out to newly opened sites overseas, where it could be done at a fraction of the cost, leaving my team and I redundant. I’m glad it happened, all things considered, because leaving the bank gave me a chance to take Infected Books to the next level and turn my part-time writing hobby into a full-time career.
But that’s not what this post is about. I was working on AUTUMN: PURIFICATION at the time, and having to deal with the redeployment of so many people in the real world brought unexpected benefits to my writing. I was able to release my stresses on the page (ever wondered where the inspiration for Samurai sword-wielding Harry Stayt came from?), and if I found myself becoming frustrated by my bosses, members of my team, or other people I was having to deal with at the time, I’d often picture them as a zombie and give them a particularly gruesome death in the book (without mentioning any names, of course, as I’d already got enough to deal with without being sued by anyone who took objection).
My new book which came out last week, ONE OF US WILL BE DEAD BY MORNING, has again reminded me of the usefulness of creating characters based on facets of people you know or who you’ve had interactions with. I find that it really helps keep them grounded and real, and if the characters in a horror novel are believable, it can add an enormous amount of weight to the emotion and impact of the vile situations you drop them into.
At the weekend I went away with my wife, and on the way home we stopped at Crosby Beach near Liverpool where Antony Gormley’s spectacular ANOTHER PLACE is installed. If you’ve not come across it before, it’s a series of 100 cast iron figures placed facing out to sea across a 2 mile stretch of beach. We visited on an ice-cold, exceptionally windy day, and that added to the impact of the sculpture. There’s something really affecting about seeing so many motionless (and emotionless) figures being buffeted and beaten by the waves. It felt quite dystopian, and the picture I took which I’ve posted here reminded me both of Danny McCoyne in THEM OR US, and Matthew Dunne at the beginning of ONE OF US WILL BE DEAD BY MORNING. These characters are the intentional antithesis of each other, and both play pivotal roles in their respective trilogies as you’ll discover as the new series progresses.
When I was at a particularly low ebb a few years ago and my creative spark had been snuffed out, my wise wife said to me ‘how can you write about people anymore when you don’t know any?’. She was right, of course. I’d become a bit of a recluse, and my writing had suffered. I went back to work in an office, intending to stay there for a few months, and I’m still there after more than 3 years (and just by way of an aside, I now manage a team doing pretty much exactly the job I had Danny McCoyne doing in HATER all those years ago!). Though I have less time to write, the writing I produce is far, far better now that I’m mixing with other people on a daily basis again, and dealing with all the emotions of those interactions, both positive and negative. For me, the benefits of having a completely separate day job are clear, and right now it’s something I wouldn’t want to be without.
And that’s the reason for this post, I guess. ONE OF US WILL BE DEAD BY MORNING has been my first major release for some time, and it’s the first novel in which I’ve used characters inspired by the people I’ve recently worked with. Being around such a wide range of people while I’ve been writing the new HATER novels has been bizarrely therapeutic. I don’t really advocate killing your work colleagues, but do take inspiration from them. If you’re anything like me, it’ll help you in both your writing and non-writing careers. It’ll improve the quality of your characters, and it’ll help you get through those challenging business meetings as you imagine the horrific ending you’re going to give to the person currently giving you an ear-bending…
So thanks to the real Ronan Heggarty and Paul O’Keefe, for the inspiration they’ve both unwittingly provided. You don’t know who you are, but I do!
Just a few chapters left to go now in the free serialisation of STRAIGHT TO YOU at WATTPAD. The second of this week’s chapters is now available to read, and Steven begins to realise the full enormity of what’s happening to the world around him (hence the clickbait title of this post). Click here to read.
In other news, I’d like to make you aware of a great new edition of the THIS IS HORROR podcast wherein a load of great authors (and me) offer up their most valuable piece of writing advice. Listen here or click the graphic below.
Stephen King’s ON WRITING: A MEMOIR OF THE CRAFT was first published in 2000. Part-biography, part-toolbox and instructional manual, and part-something else entirely, it’s a unique read. But I’m guessing you already know that. I’m assuming many of you may have already read it. A lot of fellow horror/ suspense/ thriller writers visit here, and of those of you who are more interested in reading than writing, I’m sure a large proportion are die-hard King fans. So why am I recommending it now?
When I signed my first major publishing contract back in early 2008 (I’d worked almost exclusively by myself until that point, and the contract I signed for the first version of STRAIGHT TO YOU definitely was not major), I began to mix with a large number of fellow authors from many different walks of publishing life. A number of them suggested I should read ON WRITING, and I duly followed their advice. I ordered a copy and devoured it quickly. I took on board a lot of King’s sagely advice, and thoroughly enjoyed the read. And then I put the book on my over-crowded shelf and left it there.
A few months ago, though, while looking for summer holiday reads in advance of getting on a plane and doing bugger-all in the sun around a pool for a week, I picked it up again. I read it voraciously in a single day, and it was revelatory.
I’ve been meaning to write about characters and plotting as a ‘What Works for Me’ piece for some time. When the brilliant Suzanne Robb and equally brilliant Emma Ennis interviewed me on the subject for their Fresh and Untitled podcast, I decided it would be easier to link to their video instead of writing a post from scratch. Thing is, we talked… and talked. A three hour interview has now been cut down into handy twenty minute segments, the first of which is here:
Three more to follow shortly!
I’ve been intending to write this piece for a while, but I didn’t know how to start or when to post it. Today’s the day. Today, if you didn’t know, is Time to Talk day and like thousands of other people, I’m taking five minutes to talk about my experiences with the aim of breaking the silence (and stigma) around mental health. Please don’t switch off. Please read through to the end.
You see, last May, my world fell apart. My personal life, my relationships, my health, my career – everything crumbled and collapsed. None of it made sense anymore, and I couldn’t see a way to start repairing the damage. Hell, I didn’t even know if I wanted to fix things.
That might sound overdramatic, but that’s exactly how it felt. One day everything was fine, the next… Well it still makes me go cold thinking about those days. I’ve spent hours, days, weeks and months since then trying to put everything back together and make sense of what happened, and if there hadn’t been such a stigma about mental health, I think that perhaps my meltdown could have been avoided or at least lessened.
I’d always been the big man. I’d done pretty well in everything I tried to do. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, it’s just the way I am. I work hard. Sometimes too hard. Five years ago I felt invincible with a great family, good health, a lovely home and a career that felt like it was skyrocketing. A couple of years back, though, something changed. We moved house, and I fulfilled my writing obligations. Then, all of a sudden, nothing. Bigger bills, no book deals. I felt increasingly disconnected from everything and everyone, and became increasingly reclusive. My mood changed. I was banging my head against a brick wall. The words didn’t stop coming, but the flood of books I was producing reduced to a slow trickle. I stopped being excited by writing, and it began to feel like a chore. Stories remained uncompleted. Ideas were shelved. I spent more time thinking about what I should have been doing, than actually doing any of it.
I’ll cut a long story short: I was pretty seriously depressed, and I had no idea at all. Or maybe I did know, I just didn’t want to accept it…
Last summer everything came to a head. And contrary to how it felt at the time, being diagnosed with depression wasn’t the end of my world; instead it was a chance to press reset, to get myself back on track, and to learn to love myself and my world again.
Forgive me if that sounds a little saccharine and cliched, because it happens to be true. Thanks to an incredible family, a great GP, and a bunch of other wonderful folk, things are moving in the right direction. I’ve gone back to non-writing work to make sure I mix with other people, and I’m loving the buzz of spending time with folks again. I was worried it might have meant the end of my writing, but I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve written the first draft of a new novel since 1 January. There’s progress on a number of long-gestating projects. Infected Books is growing exponentially. I’m more excited by writing than ever.
As I said at the beginning, it’s Time to Talk day today (find out more about it here and here), and the aim of the day is to reduce some of the stigma around mental health. Lots of people suffer, and a large number continue to suffer in silence. I think I’d known for a long time what was wrong, I just didn’t want to admit it. Bloody hell, I wish I’d been more honest with myself. It would have saved me (and the people I love the most) a heck of a lot of pain and heartache.
I’m a writer, and this site is supposed to be about my books and films, so I’ll finish this piece by bringing it back to the business of writing. Regular visitors here will remember my series of writing articles ‘What Works for Me.’ You might have noticed they dried up around the same time I imploded last spring. It’s been incredibly interesting to look back at the books I’ve written over the last two years or so in light of what I’ve discovered about myself, because if I wasn’t outwardly honest with myself about my health, I definitely had some inkling of what was going on as I’d been writing about my problems all along. I only have to look at the male characters I’d created… there’s Steven Johnson from STRAIGHT TO YOU – a man who is on the verge of losing absolutely everything because he can’t bring himself to face his own demons. There’s Stuart from THE COST OF LIVING – a belligerent, stubborn bugger who’s set on his course and who won’t listen to anyone else, even when they’re clearly right and he’s so very obviously wrong. And then, finally, there’s Scott Griffiths from STRANGERS. I’ve had a huge reaction to Scott, not least because he’s an absolute shit: a total, wretched scumbag who outwardly appears to be dedicated to his family, but who has a seriously warped view of right and wrong and no appreciation of how his behaviour affects those around him. I was terrified and stunned when I read the book back just prior to publication and realised I’d been writing about aspects of myself.
Things are good today. Thanks for sticking with me. There’s some really exciting stuff on the horizon.
It’s been several months since I last posted anything in my What Works For Me series of writing tips/ thoughts. There are several very good reasons for that. Most importantly, I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to work out what exactly does work for me.
You’ll probably have seen endless debate online over the last few months about the merits of independent versus traditional publishing, and also about the position/ value of indie authors as highlighted by the ongoing Hachette vs. Amazon debacle.
I started out Indie. I was Indie before most. I’m so old school that I genuinely used to email pdf and Word versions of AUTUMN to interested folks back in the day. I did well from it, and if I hadn’t done what I’d done, I’d probably have never written HATER and it might not have found its way onto the desk of the folks who passed it on to Guillermo del Toro all those years ago… When Thomas Dunne Books of New York made an offer for the publishing rights back in 2007, I didn’t hesitate to accept.
So now we’re another seven years or so down the line, and the marketplace has changed beyond all recognition. Indie authors are in a better place now: more accepted, and with better tools and technologies at their disposal.
THE COST OF LIVING proved to be a turning point for me. I’ve been stunned by the success of my little ebook – it’s sold remarkably well and has opened my eyes to the full potential of independent publishing again. With the recent relaunch/ rebranding of INFECTED BOOKS, I feel like I’ve regained the control you inevitably lose when you publish traditionally, and I’m ready to take full advantage of that.
So, to stop a long story getting any longer, I’ll just say this: for now, although I’m technically what you’d call a Hybrid author, I feel 100% Indie again. So what does this mean? Well, for a start you should watch for another surprise release later this week (you can pre-order it now – I’ll tell you more tomorrow), and then look out for STRANGERS – my brand new, full-length novel, coming from Infected Books in November this year.
In today’s What Works For Me post I wanted to clarify a point I made in the very first of these articles back in January. I was talking about planning, if you remember, and the process I follow to turn an initial spark of an idea into a finished piece of writing. I was talking specifically about the ground rules I set myself to get my first novel finished back in 1994, and the fourth of those rules was don’t force it: if you’re not in the right mood to write, walk away and come back later.
A few folks took exception to this, and I can see why. I don’t think I explained myself properly, and some clarification is in order.
Writing is hard. Bloody hard. There are days when the words flow, and there are days when they definitely don’t, when you feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall. You know what it’s like when you’re reading and you realise you’ve been looking at the same paragraph for the last fifteen minutes, maybe even the same sentence… I get that when I’m writing too. I occasionally reach a point in the day when I just can’t write another word, when I’ve stopped being productive. It can be a physical thing, not a mental thing.
THIS IS NOT THE SAME AS HITTING A PROBLEM WITH A STORY.
Here’s another in my irregular series of posts about writing and publishing. As always, feel free to completely ignore everything that follows because as the title implies, this is just what works for me. Today I wanted to talk about something which I didn’t think about enough when I started out, but which makes an immeasurable difference to any creative project.
Ever put down a book or walked out of a cinema and felt disappointed because what you just read or watched didn’t live up to your expectations? Maybe it sounded like a good idea, but the author/film-maker’s execution of that idea left you wanting? When I started writing, dumb as this might sound now, I don’t think I fully appreciated the difference between a story and a concept.
You’ll hopefully have noticed a couple of recent film recommendations here (well, one recommendation and the other a less than enthusiastic write-up). On Saturday I wrote about ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and on Monday just gone, THE PURGE. It struck me when I sat down and watched these two movies in quick succession that there’s a commonality between them I hadn’t appreciated before: they both deal with variations of the same basic concept, but take them in wildly different directions and with varying degrees of success.
Both films start with a similar premise – crime rates in the USA have exploded, and the authorities have been forced to take radical steps to try and bring things under control. In ESCAPE, Manhattan Island has become a maximum security prison, walled off from the rest of the country, once you’re in you don’t get back out. In THE PURGE, all crime is legalised for a single twelve hour period each year. So far, so good… both approaches sound like decent starting points for dystopian movies (provided you don’t think about the practicalities of either ‘solution’ for too long). So why is ESCAPE hailed (by me) as a classic and THE PURGE hailed (again by me) as a misfire? Well, I could write for hours about the relative merits of both films, but I think much of it boils down to concept versus story. ESCAPE starts with a cool concept which it explores through the use of interesting characters and an engrossing story. THE PURGE doesn’t.
I know I’m being unfair and overly simplistic here and there’s more to THE PURGE than I’m letting on, but I think it’s an important distinction to make: a good concept alone does not an interesting book or film make.
As I said at the beginning, when I started writing, I didn’t fully appreciate the importance of this differentiation, and until I did understand, I didn’t get anything decent written.