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.

Whoooooshhh!
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.