Monday 30 December 2013

Stephen King ruined my bathtime

Carrie - her bathtime clearly spoilt too.
I've just spent the last half hour in the bath with Stephen King. I don't mean I was in there reading his latest book - he was actually there in the bath with me! And it happens too many times to be just the wacky coincidence he claims.

Most people think Stephen King lives in Maine, USA. Wrong. He actually lives in a council house in Penshaw, just a few streets down from me. In most cases, that should be enough for us never to even see each other, but here he was, once again, trying to sound all casual as he smiled and said, 'I was just passing.' Then he sticks his head in through the door, sniffs and his eyes light up. 'Are you running a bath?' He holds up a loofah and a soap-on-a-rope and adds, 'Care to share?'

A voice in my head is crying out to tell him to get lost. He can't keep coming round here like this. But he's been my icon since I was a kid, so I sigh a reluctant, 'Come on in, Stephen.'

Let me make things nice and clear - bathtime with your hero is not the fantasy you might think. For a start, he's like six foot four or something, which doesn't leave a lot of room for me, but because he's so mega-famous he insists he gets the good end, which means I have to sit hunched up with the taps in my back.

This time, it was too much, so I told him straight. 'You know something, Steve-O?' (he hates it when you call him that). 'If I make it big in 2014, I'm going to build an extension, get a bath fitted and a totally separate combi-boiler, and charge you the cost of the bloody gas!'

He just sneered and said, 'Like that's gonna happen.'

And this is what gets me. The only reason he comes around here is because he thinks we've got something in common. 'Come on, Col. You're a writer, I'm a writer. Why run two baths?'  But as soon as he's all relaxed and happy he tries to belittle me. Every single time.

I'm going to start taking showers instead. 

Sunday 1 December 2013

Puppy Poppy Postpones Publishing

Well, how can you edit when you've got a 5 month pup on your keyboard demanding a walk?

Monday 5 August 2013


Came home from hols to find this.

I am now a black belt Teaching Assistant, capable of putting up bright displays in record time, straightening chairs to 1 tenth of a millimetre and sharpening pencils until they're really, really sharp.

On a more serious note, this marks a lot of hard work. Back in 2005, I was out of work. My son was in Year 1 at the local primary school and they needed parents to help out with a Walkwise Programme - helping children learn to cross the road. My wife suggested I go along, so I did and joined in for about 6 weeks. It was kind of fun, so I wrote up a CV and handed it in to the headteacher, telling her I'd like to do some voluntary work if she had any going. A few weeks later, I got a call asking me if I wanted to help out in Year 5. I can still remember the lesson - Miss Wardle teaching the cross pollination of flowers. I went back, two days a week for the next year. In the following year, I continued as a volunteer, but went to college too, to do a Teaching Assistant course. A year after that, I got a job. Over the past few years, I've done more and more teaching, so my head put me in for this HLTA thing. 
People complain that there aren't jobs out there. Well, maybe they're not falling off the trees, but if you look, and try, and actually knock on doors, you can find them. 

Same thing with writing. Put the work in, send it off, keep badgering those agents and editors and eventually, things start to happen.

Monday 17 June 2013

Arabesque Shortlisted for Award

Arabesque has made the shortlist of the Stockport Schools Book Award in the KS4 section. It is up against Cracks by Caroline Green and Someone Else's Life by Katie Dale.

There is a Q&A interview page on the Stockport site. Click here to take a look.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Review: Brock, by Anthony McGowan

I love Barrington Stoke. I love the feel of the paper, the dyslexia-friendly yellow tint, the left justification, gaps between paragraphs... but best of all, I love that they give reluctant readers, or kids who have trouble reading, bloody good stories. Stories you can really get your teeth into. Stories that the author could so easily hold back, expand and release as a "proper" novel.

But sometimes a novella really packs a punch.  

Brock, by Anthony McGowan is like that. From the author of Henry Tumour and The Knife That Killed Me, Brock tells the story of Nicky, who has a tough enough life with a mother gone, a dad on bail and an older brother who has such special needs, he's little more than a child. Things take a turn when they are dragged along to witness the horrific, senseless killing of a wild animal. But when Nicky saves something from the destruction the other kids have caused, his and his brother's lives are changed forever.

Brock is about as lean as you can get, using simple, effective language to keep a great pace while maintaining atmosphere, tension, action, empathy... look, it's just brilliant, right. It's one of those books that might help kids who hate books, realise that some books are all right. And that's good enough for five stars from me.

Wednesday 10 April 2013

A novel in 7 days?

Sounds impossible, right? Well, Dean Wesley Smith is planning to do just that next week.

Dean is a best selling author, has written over 100 novels and over 200 published short stories. He gets a lot of ghost-writing jobs because he can make such tight deadlines. Editors also turn to him when they have novels that the paid author failed to deliver on, and need it finishing quickly.

This time, he isn't writing to an editor's deadline, but his own, just to prove it's possible. The novel he's planning to write is a ghost writing project for a major name, destined to become a bestseller when it comes out, because as Dean says, "This author's books always are."

And just to add to his workload, he's going to be blogging about every step of the journey.

So, if you want a masterclass on how a novel can be written at high speed, or how an author can work to incredible deadlines under insane pressure, check it out.

Saturday 6 April 2013

Moon Bear: Review

A few weeks ago, I had never heard of moon bears, or bear farming. My first thoughts was, who would farm bears anyway? And why? The answer is utterly abhorrent, and is the base for this powerful, horrible, brilliant novel by Gill Lewis.

Moon Bear is the story of a Tam, a boy whose family is moved, without choice, from their mountain village so the area can be cleared of forest. They are given a new home, but after his father is blown to bits by a hidden landmine, Tam is given a job in the city in the hope of making money for his family.

Tam has never seen a bear farm, and he's shocked by the way the bears are kept, living their entire lives in cages so small they can barely turn around. The cages are up on legs so that waste and urine falls directly to the floor. Tam's job is to clean up beneath the cages, avoiding the swipes of any bears strong enough to attack. Moon bears are a large black bear with a moon-like crescent of white on their chest, hence the name.

A small bear farm, where the bears spend their entire lives.
The reason they are kept like this is Bear Bile. In many parts of Asia, bile from the gall bladder of a bear is considered a powerful medicine, believed to cure anything from a cold to cancer.

Tam witnesses the procedure of the bile being removed, and how the bears are sedated, but not so much that they can't feel the pain of a needle as The Doctor tries to locate the gall bladder and syphon off the bile.

Bear bile - believed to be the cure for... everything!
Things become much more difficult for Tam when a bear cub is delivered to the farm. Tam nurses the cub back to health, and promises, against the odds, that he will find a way to get free and return himself and the bear back to the mountains.

Moon Bear doesn't hold back, without being gratuitous. The language is simple, yet colourful - a deceptively lean style that pulls the reader along. More importantly, it doesn't play to the audience for sympathy, but earns the reader's emotions through honesty, cruelty and hope.

Highly recommended.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Review: Irresistible by Liz Bankes

This is is right out of my comfort zone, being teen chick-lit, and normally I'd never even pick it up, but that's the advantage of meeting the author.

I first met Liz Bankes at an event for Arabesque at Foyles Bookshop, London. Liz was there as a blogger. What I didn't realise was that Liz was also in the process of nailing a job as an Editorial Assistant to an amazing indie publisher. (Catnip!)

We met up again at the FCBG conference where I discovered she is also an author. So I grabbed a copy of Irresistible, but stupidly forgot to get Liz to sign it (doh!). Actually, I came away with loads of books, so I thought I might do a few reviews. Here's the first...

Irresistible is a 1st person YA romance with a sprinkling of black humour. Mia gets a job at a right posh restaurant/club/castle type thing. The sort of place that has £1000 bottles of wine in it's cellar, secret passageways in the walls and gardens to get lost in. Posh! Now, bearing in mind that I'm totally unqualified to review chick-lit, let's put this into terms I understand. Love triangle: Mia, Dan and Jamie. Dan works in the kitchen. Simple, safe. Jamie is the son of the owner, spoilt, good looking and an utter twat.

Erm... I really enjoyed it, probably because what Liz does well is create a believable, likeable, fallible baddie. Jamie is arrogant, controlling and destructive. At first, he comes across as all-powerful and completely condescending, but bit by bit, the power struggle shows signs of shifting and that he might possibly develop some level of respect for another human being, to the point where Mia has him eating out of her thighs hands. Actually, that joke isn't far fetched. I found it very interesting to see how far YA chick-lit goes. At the start, we are given a hint that Jamie can give orgasms just by kissing. At some point, the author had to deliver on that one. Ding dong!

Anyway, moving on... there is a lot of humour in this book - well timed and well delivered, but not enough to make it a comic novel. After speaking to Liz in person, I get the feeling that she's got a lot more to offer in this vein, so if laugh-out-loud, embarrassing, gut churning rom-com is your thing, then Liz Bankes is an author to be watched.

FCBG Conference 2013

The Federation of Children's Book Groups is a national organisation made up of volunteer parents, teachers and librarians who love children's books so much, they actively promote and introduce them to children in their local areas. Each year they have a conference. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited along.

Culford School - big, old, and probably haunted.

I was gobsmacked really, considering other writers included Melvin Burgess, Eoin Colfer, Michelle Paver and Marcus Sedgewick. Well, okay - they were on the main stage and my seminar was on the second floor in a haunted classroom, but it was still cool to be in the same place.

A snow storm battered the country this weekend, which made the drive up to the school postcard perfect. I even saw little deer-things. Like dogs on long legs, so I think they were deer, or deerlets, or something.

The driveway leading to Culford School

Still on the driveway to Culford School, passing a church.

The talks were fantastic. Gill Lewis even gave us a home-made animation, Sally Nichols sold the Black Death as an alternative to dystopian fiction and Melvin Burgess debunked the myth that YA novels are all negative, misery and issues.

Rachel Ward, Graham Marks and Melvin Burgess

I loved Emma Chichester Clark's amazing PlumDog blog (here's a link) which made me want to go out and get a dog (I really hope my kids aren't reading this). Liz Pichon was equally brilliant. The result of these two talks got me to buy a few pencils, come home and doodle - and thanks to a breakfast conversation with Pip from Bounce, I know exactly what I'm going to draw!

My own seminar went well. It covered time management, family stories, warts, blood splatters, acoustic guitar and the reason I'll never be a rock star.

To end this post, here's a photo of the toilet I found when I got lost. It was installed in the school back in 1905 to get ready for a Royal Visit and has since been referred to as the King's Toilet.

The King's Toilet - a 100 year old bog!

Sunday 24 February 2013

The Magic of Facebook

When I was 10 or 11 years old, me and my best friend decided it would be a good idea to get well and truly lost. We walked for miles and ended up a wooded area on the far side of the West Park in South Shields (in reality, it wasn't that far, but in the days before mobile phones and having any real idea where we were, it was far enough). This is the only photo I've got of us at that age.

Me and Wardy in our first year at Harton Comp

We were mucking about in those trees, sliding down the mud slopes and climbing on the rocks down the bottom part of the bank when my friend just disappeared. I could hear him laughing, but no matter where I looked, I couldn't find him. Eventually, he lifted up a small curtain of ivy that was hanging over a rock. He'd been hiding in the space behind.

His name is Layton Ward - Wardy to me, back then - and I haven't seen him for over twenty years. The story of what he did that day stuck with me and ended up inspiring a good chunk of Clash. So much so, that I wrote about it in the Author's Note at the end of the book, not really knowing whether he'd ever see it.

I'm dead chuffed to say that now he has. He found me through Facebook, heard about the book and ordered it online. He also posted that photo of us in our first year at Comp - age 11!

Computers are ace!

Saturday 23 February 2013

Playstation, Scooters and Short Novels. Fight!!!

So the new Playstation has been announced, and that affects YA authors how..? Well, if you don’t know your audience, how do you expect to write for them? The PS4 is the first of the new generation consoles, machines with so much power the games look more like interactive movies. But is this really what modern kids are after?

Killzone: Shadow Fall on the PS4
Back in September, I appeared on Litopia After Dark with internet legend Frank Edward Nora. Frank is a modern day Samuel Pepys, recording his observations of humanity on thousands of podcast diaries. He is convinced that as technology advances, we’re going to be lost in a virtual work, unable to separate reality from the digital universe, and it looks like the PS4 marks the next stage of that development.

Scary stuff if you buy into it. But I don't, and here's why.

Personally, I am quite excited about the PS4, possibly because I’ve followed the rise of video games since the PONG of the seventies. I spent my youth spent playing arcade games, followed the development of early computers from the ZX81 to Atari ST and eventually found myself working as an artist on 3D virtual reality games.

But my kids are more interested in iPods and those mini app games, so much so that we have an XBOX 360 and widescreen HDTV gathering dust while they move an iPod left and right to roll a ball about the screen - spending chunks of spare time on games that have the most basic of 2D graphics. A Facetime call comes in, then suddenly it’s "helmets on" and they're all off to the skatepark with stunt scooters. In between stunts, they’re pulling out iPods and iPhones, filming each other, (or “doing edits”), updating Facebook and streaming video. They’re not lost in a virtual world at all; they’re merging modern technology with their fun, exciting, busy lives.

Jack, doing a flying tail-whip (whatever that is)
And that’s the problem. Teen lives are busy as hell and console games are far too demanding. The average console game costs around £50 new and takes a good 60 hours to play through. You can’t simply shove it in and shoot stuff, you have to go through the standard tutorial level, then build up skills and weapons as you go. App-games, on the other hand, are cheap (many free) and so simple, you just need to see a few seconds and you know exactly what to do. Take Temple Run or Fruit Ninja. Both free, both simple, free and bags of fun. Turn on, play. Friend calls. Grab your skooter, a can of coke and voooooom, you’re off, with the game in your back pocket.

That’s what YA authors have to compete with, not the PS4.

So, is there a literary equivalent? If certain games are getting simpler in order to attract attention, can the same be done with the novel?

When I was a teen, I was a terrible reader. I could never finish a full novel. But then the Fighting Fantasy series came along and I was hooked. It was reading, and a game, all in one. But best of all, each time I read, it felt like I’d reached the end of the story.

I’m not suggesting these make a return, but I would like to see more short novels for teenagers, rather than doorstops that seem to be the current trend. Books like The Hunger Games, Northern Lights, Gone or The Enemy would have scared me shitless when I was a teen, just by their sheer length, even though the content would have been spot on for my tastes. That’s probably why, back then, I read more James Herbert than Stephen King.

The bottom line is that teens have so many easily accessible, bite-sized bits of fun screaming for their attention that they don’t have time for long games, let alone novels. The publisher that realises this, and captures the attention of the iPod crowd is going to make a lot of money. Maybe it’ll be another kind of adventure book, maybe it will be compact novellas or a modern take on chapbooks. I don’t know, but I’ve got a hunch that a new wave of short, exciting and accessible titles could be one way to grab this young, exciting, and very busy audience.

Writing Round-up and a Look ahead to 2024

2023 was a busy year writing-wise because I rewrote my first romcom in 1st person and relaunched it under a new title, Trust Me, I'm a L...