Sunday, 7 May 2017

Where did you get the idea...?

"Where did you get the idea?" is a cliché question for a very good reason - people genuinely want to know. 

And it's a fascinating question to hear the answer to because novels are rarely down to a single idea. Although, I did hear one author answer this question by replying, "There's a shop where I live, and I go in, look at all the ideas on the shelf..." It got a little ripple of laughter, but I couldn't help thinking, Well done. You've just made a fan feel like a twat. 

Because people want the deeper answer. I certainly do. I love this stuff. And so, for those interested, this is the story behind Here in the Poison Garden.

First of all, the original idea wasn't original at all - waking up in strange surroundings, trying to piece together what the hell has gone on is the opening for loads of games and movies. Without even thinking, I can come up with The Hangover, Silent Hill, Open Grave. I love that feeling in a video game where you start off not knowing anything and piece things together bit by bit. But the original idea is just a starting point. The development of that idea is where the magic happens.

The original story was a world away from how it is now. I kicked off by playing with an Escape Room idea. Initially the hospital was a super-sinister asylum with Matt trapped, and knowing he was trapped, and for some reason it was located in Arizona. It was all very "locked box" - what was he doing in a secure hospital in the US? The plot grew and became more and more complicated and... I got bored. As I said, I do like video games, and this was becoming little more than a script for one.

So I started over and tried to think of an innocent reason for Matt waking up with no memory. At the same time, I began playing with other characters in the hospital. As soon as I realised they would have the upper hand, that they would know more about Matt than he did, Ailsa began to develop. I really love how Ailsa turned out - I love characters who are all mixed up, the good and the bad all rolled up in a horrible mess of conflicting traits. Love that. 

Matthew waiting for the water to come on.
Having dropped the conspiracy idea, I also dropped the American location and looked closer to home. I've always had a real love for Alnwick Gardens so I decided to set the climax there.

When we first went to Alnwick Gardens, so many of the bushes were tiny, being trained up and around shaped frames they now fill and obliterate from view. Our oldest son, Matthew had severe cerebral palsy. Alnwick Gardens was magical because we could take his wheelchair right up to the tree house and over the rope bridges, but our most precious memory is taking him into the fountains. I thought it might be fun to slip that moment into the book. It was just meant to be a personal cameo, but what happened was that it changed the scene, causing an argument between Matt and Sally. That single moment had an impact on the whole book. It completely changed the dynamic between Sally and Matt and breathed life into Sally. Suddenly she was a suitable, believable counter balance to Ailsa's neuroses; she was just as screwed up but in a very different way. This is where the real story began to developed - but rather than being plot based, it was all about how Matt's situation affects those around him. This is why character driven plots are more satisfying for the reader: the plot develops naturally, thereby feeling less contrived.

So now that I had a better idea of what I was writing, I went back, started the book over and nailed the first draft. There were two main differences in that first version. Ailsa's solution at the end of the book was quite weak and nowhere near as threatening to Matt, but I didn't know how to fix it. Benjamin Cole was an old man, going to visit his wife in prison. His story felt like it was bolted on - it didn't really sit quite right. In the second draft, I simply ignored those chapters, letting it stew, and went on to develop Oscar. With him, the plot took another turn and the young Benjamin Cole popped up almost fully formed.

My first agent wasn't impressed. She didn't really say much other than, 'There's no glamour in your stories. Young adults want glamour. That's what sells.' 

I was devastated because she'd rejected the book I'd written before this (The Boy Who Buried Dead Things) on exactly the same grounds. 

A few weeks later, while I was wondering how to glitz the two books up, my agent called to say she was retiring. So that was it. Writing career over - my books had no glamour and I had no agent.

Somehow, I got the script for The Boy Who Buried Dead Things in front of an editor. This led to a conversation on Facebook where I got talking to Agent J. She asked to have a look at the scripts for both books and took me on. The Boy Who... got rave rejections (but they're still rejections) and The Mayfly (the original name for Here in the Poison Garden) got similar. I was more gutted about The Mayfly's rejections because so much of it had grown from that scene with our Matthew. I had written that scene in 2012. It was now the early months of 2015 and Matthew had had a very bad start to the year. In March, his disabilities became too much for his body to cope with, and he died. He was 16 years old.

A few weeks later, out of the blue, I got an email from an editor who had seen an early draft of The Mayfly, asking if it was still up for grabs. I put them in touch with Agent J and a deal was made. 

The editor who commissioned the book moved onto another publisher, so I ended up working with a freelance editor to get the script finalised. She thought the Benjamin Cole chapters didn't really add much. I didn't agree, but I'm open to ideas, so during the structural edits, I stripped those chapters out to see how it would look. It was horrible - the book lost it's sense of humour and became dreary and downbeat, so when I put them back, I revised them and turned up the volume. Much better! At the same time I solved the problem of Ailsa and that weak ending. Rather than being a mild threat to Matt, she became dangerous, obsessive and totally malevolent. This linked in beautifully with a part of Alnwick Gardens called the Poison Garden, so I wrote that into the book for the first time. It's hard to believe something so obvious arrived so late.

So that was it. Book done. It would be typeset at given a final copy edit, cover design and released. It even had a date. But as that date came and went, and Agent J couldn't get a response from the publisher, things began to look bleak. Eventually the rights reverted, but with already having done a round of publishers, it looked like this book was never going to come out.

A few weeks ago, I left the agency and started playing with the script. Having been through so many edits, there wasn't a lot to do, but I knew I wanted to change the title. I bounced a few ideas about, but it was my wife, Paula, who suggested The Poison Garden. She'd hit the nail on the head. I had already done the swirly illustration thing (exactly a year ago - just for fun) which was based on the leaves and berries of belladonna. So I went back to the script, rewrote the scene that takes place near The Poison Garden and added the poem.

I created the cover in Inkscape. I wanted something very simple with lots of empty space. I don't like things that are too busy and I don't need my name to be larger than the title. Originally, it was just the title and the swirl, but I knew it needed something more. I tried a few photographic elements, cigarettes, a burnt photograph of Sally, drug capsules. But going back to the script, one of the most important details of Ailsa is her eyes - from her staring at her own reflection to the moment Matt first sees her. I drew the eyes directly in Inkscape and added the back page. Then I formatted the text for the paperback, did a final, final copy edit, saved the PDF and uploaded it to KDP.

I had the physical paperback in my hands just two days later.

So that's it. That's the story behind the book. I might not make much money, but as I put in my recent post Life Without a Literary Agent, I'm not too worried about that. The main thing is that the book is out, and that scene with our Matthew is part of it. It's a small way of keeping those precious memories alive.

Here in the Poison Garden has also been entered into the Kindle Storyteller UK 2017 competition. The first round is based on positive reviews. It would be great to make the shortlist.

Thanks for reading.
Colin Mulhern

Thursday, 4 May 2017

KDP Paperbacks

I think I've reached a whole new level of nerdism. I've done a video blog on the quality of a paperback. But, somewhere out there is another equally nerdy writer desperate to know the quality of KDP paperbacks - are they actually any good? How long does the process take? Do they look like real papery paperbacks you find in bookshops.

Hold onto your seats... it's a white knuckle ride on the crazy wild roller-coaster that is Kindle Direct Publishing.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Life without a Literary Agent

Can a writer survive without a literary agent?

A few weeks ago I decided to take a step back from the traditional route to publishing and cancel the contract with my agent. A bit of a leap of faith in one respect, and a bit scary in another, especially when you consider that many writers are desperate to get taken on by an agent. After all, if you want to get a manuscript in front of an editor with a major publisher, the only way to do it is via an agent, right? So why give up that chance?

The short version: I had an agent with my first two YA novels. She retired, so I approached another with two new YA books. She liked them and pitched them out. Meanwhile, I wrote a middle grade book which also went out. Two of the books got nowhere but one landed a contract. Eighteen months in, the publisher breached the contract and it all fell apart. During that time I wrote four other books which the agent liked, but not enough to pitch - this is because an agency is a business, and rejections don't just affect the writer. Agents build up a reputation with sales - rejections are set backs, so pitching a second or third book from a writer that an editor has already rejected is a bit of risk to that reputation. The agent works for the agency first, the writer second. I also wrote a book she didn't like - which I'll come back to. The bottom line is that about a month ago, I sat down and looked at what I had in front of me: a load of books and a feeling of utter frustration.

Bit of holiday reading
And then I ordered something through Amazon - a book written by a friend and published directly through Amazon's Createspace and KDP. No agent. No publisher. Now I'm going to be harsh here because I think it's important. The book has some minor formatting issues and more than a few spelling mistakes but you know what? I absolutely loved it. It's an adult horror bloodbath with a story that entertained me for three whole days. It was brutal, stomach churning and completely OTT - Manga meets 90s Splatterpunk.

For some reason, it reminded me of the early copies of VIZ, back in the eighties when the illustrations were messy as hell. VIZ wasn't about quality or pleasing some third party; it was about laughs and an audience that wanted something utterly insane. VIZ had the feel of a punk fanzine. In fact, VIZ was punk as fuck.
VIZ, issue 5. One of the first I read.

Which got me thinking about punk music and the bands I liked as a kid. I grew up on a diet of Sex Pistols and Stiff Little Fingers. When I hit my teens I developed a thing for thrash metal, then speed/death metal, indie punk, grunge and industrial goth.

That stuff was never about the sales, never about the big deal. While my older brother followed the likes of KISS and Bon Jovi who could fill arenas, I was into Napalm Death and Gaye Bykers on Acid. I loved the underground stuff: the smelly bars and sticky floors, the weird looking fans, photocopied fanzines, moshpits, murk and meyhem. I used to go to gigs where the place was nearly an empty room - I once saw Extreme Noise Terror with only about fifty people in the audience, but they were amazing. If there is a literary equivalent to the 90s indie music scene, then it's Pray Cathal by Stephen Brown. This isn't about the big deal or agencies or publishers - it's punk. It's a bloke writing the stuff he likes for the sheer horrible hell of it.

And that's why I left the agency. I'm not really bothered about the dream deal anymore because I'm never going to be Bon Jovi or KISS - I just want to find the fun in writing because really, deep down, that's what's important. And the book my agent really didn't like - for some mad reason, it's my favourite of them all.

Can I survive without an agent? Hell yeah. I've got KDP and Createspace and a load of books all ready to go. I've got Facebook and Twitter and blogging. Will I make any money? Probably not, but I wasn't making any anyway. Will I have fun? Too bloody right I will, because fun is subjective. It's personal to your own tastes, not what you think will please others.

Dance like no one's watching.

Write like no one's reading.

Added - The first of these books is out. Here in the Poison Garden is available in paperback and ebook from amazon.

Colin Mulhern

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Notes on Grief

Have you ever seen those model houses with an old woman and an old man that come forward to tell the weather? The old woman means it's sunny and nice; the old man means it's stormy and cold.

Today was my first day back at work after the break. I work in a primary school and I like it. Usually, I'd say I love it (especially Fridays - on Fridays I work in Reception and Nursery. I could write a load of posts on that alone).

Today I was talking to a colleague about Christmas. She initially said she'd had a great Christmas, then added how it was, in fact, pretty bad. Grandparents and falls and broken hips and hospital. That sort of thing. So not really a great Christmas at all. I made a joke that people are inclined to say they've had a good Christmas because that's what people expect to hear, but actually, if you've had a shit holiday, it's good to have it acknowledged from those who understand, because Christmas is a pretty tough time for some.

This year is our second Christmas without Matthew, but things started getting heavy for me around October. I've dealt pretty well with things up until now. I mentioned this and said that I sometimes feel like one of those old models with the old woman and old man. When I'm at school I play a role of the old woman - all sunny and bright. I have fun and genuinely mean all the jokes that get me through the day. But inside, a storm is brewing.

When I get home, I can put the old woman back in the house. The old man steps forward and the bad weather comes with him. And that's not a bad thing, because in all honesty, sometimes it's nice to be the old man. It's nice to allow that side out.

Grief is hard. It comes in waves of different sizes, waves where the dips and peaks can last for months or days, or hours or minutes. Happy times come with their counterparts. What the hell do you call that? Bipolar grief?

One day, I'd like to write a story about this. Not a memoir, but a story, based on all of this. No holds barred, no emotion caged and I'll call it Notes On Grief.

But not yet. Not for a long time. For now, I'm content that I can be the old man in the comfort and safety of my own home, because that means tomorrow, I can be the old woman, and the sun will shine again.

For a while.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

The Girl With All The Gifts

Finally saw the movie. I read the book a couple of months ago and loved it. I first heard about it when it was shortlisted for the 2015 August Derleth award (alongside Station Eleven and that year's winner, the completely brilliant No One Gets Out Alive by Adam Nevill). It took me a long time to get round to it but it was worth the wait.

I read a few early reviews that were quite severe, stating it was an original idea that fell into cliché territory once the main characters left the compound. I can understand the frustration because neither the original cover nor the blurb gave any indication that this was a zombie story. And as zombies are the the modern day luvvies of the horror world, this particular area is getting a tad tedious (but thank god the romantic vampires finally slipped away).

There was a lot I loved about the book. More than anything, the detailed look at zombies at the physiological level. This approach, for me, means The Girl With All the Gifts does for zombies what the Necroscope series did for vampires.

The movie, by comparison was pretty good. It kept very close to the book with two unusual changes - the skin colour of girl and her teacher. For some reason they swap. It doesn't really impact, and anyway, Sennia Nanua is amazing as Melanie. I didn't recognise Glen Close till halfway through, which was round about the time I realised Sergeant Parks was Steve from The World's End. I did like the change in the way the movie dealt with the spores near the end, having them growing up the post office tower rather than filling the streets.

All in all, great book and pretty good movie.

And then I wrote some stuff. 700 words on Daniel's Daughter and 700 on another - more about that in another post. For now, I'm just playing with scenes.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Why you should write really bad scenes

Most writing guides focus on writing good scenes, getting the conflict and tension in there. A bit of detail to add colour and location, good dialogue. I'm going to put forward the argument for bad scenes - the stuff that gets cut.

The problem with focusing on good scenes and top copy is the moment you write a dull scene, you have a good idea that it should be cut, so you cut. And you start again, which leads to frustration and the feeling that you're getting nowhere. I certainly feel that way. And then I read an article by a YA author who said she had to write nearly half a million words to get one particular novel right. If an average YA novel is 70,000 words then that's 430,000 words not needed.

Does that mean they could be avoided?

Well, it got me thinking to how I wrote Clash and Arabesque. Clash actually started as a very different book, something called Get Even, Get Girl, Get Lost, and the story of Kyle and Alex was really just the opening of the book. It wasn't until I came to rewriting the entire novel that I realised Alex was really interesting and the rest of the book paled compared to those first few scenes. Two thirds were cut right there. About 40,000 words, and nothing of that was reused or reworked. It wasn't particularly bad, just nowhere near as strong.

So I began rewriting to develop those first scenes further. The majority of that first chunk was either rewritten or ditched. I think only two scenes of the original draft survived, and both were developed further and rewritten several times over. It was months before I had enough scenes to take a step back and be able to work on the plot.

I couldn't have planned Clash, and I couldn't have written it straight off. It was a mish-mash of good and bad scenes that were eventually hammered into shape.

Yesterday I wrote a scene for my current project (I'm going to call it Daniel's Daughter from now on, just as a working title so I can refer back to it), As a scene, it's okay. It was fun to write. It's got conflict and tension, it fires off questions for the reader and ends on a cliffhanger. But now that it's written I can't help thinking, 'What if...?' and approach the opening a different way. Over the past year or so, this has stumped me again and again and made me rethink, replan and start over. It's that fear of taking a wrong path that has held me back. It's that fear of writing bad scenes - or at least, unnecessary scenes - that holds back development of new ideas. The result of this is a book with lots of good scenes, but not a lot of development - no depth. I've written some clangers over the past few years!

So maybe writing those bad scenes has its place. I know that yesterday's scene probably won't make the final cut, and today's scene might not either. But I do think that writing them is the springboard to the good stuff.

So for now, the scenes stay, and Daniel's Daughter moves a step forward.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

ZERO by Matt Brolly

I don't read a lot of crime fiction, but the mild dystopian/sci-fi slant of ZERO grabbed my attention. And the cover... I just love the texture on that yellow text.

ZERO is set in the near future where authorities have adopted a zero tolerance policy towards crime. If found guilty, regardless of the crime, there is only one sentence: execution. And without giving any spoilers, it's the manner and delivery of execution that has more than shock value - it really resonates throughout the book. There are no flying cars, no robots or spaceships, but ZERO holds an unsettling atmosphere reminiscent of Bladerunner.

The story kicks off with the kidnap of a judge, which at first doesn't seem particularly surprising. The events and investigations that follow build up slowly, leading to a fairly complex, but convincing plot. Underpinning this is the conflicting turmoil within the main character as she digs deeper.

Again, no spoilers, but the result is a novel that avoids the quick fire twists and turns and cliches of pulp crime and instead, delivers a dark picture of social control and authoritarian hypocrisy.