Saturday, 30 June 2012

A new character - Guillotine! - Men's Adventure, Modesty Blaise and why I wanted to tackle the genre

As a teenager I read quite a few "Men's Adventure" novels. This was a genre which grew out of Westerns and the pulp magazines of the 30s and 40s. Men's Adventure novels are usually short, written in series following the same character and extremely violent. They feature square jawed heroes righting wrongs in a two fisted manner and are low on literary merit and high on stupid fun. If you were looking for a point of comparison from another field I guess you could say they were similar to the direct to video action B movies that were so popular in the 80s.
The publisher I was most familiar with was "Gold Eagle books" who seem to still be going, although not with the same vigour they were in the 80s and 90s. Gold Eagle are I believe a subsidiary of Harlequin, the romance publisher, and that gives a good feel for what the books are like. They're written to a template and churned out quickly, the difference with Gold Eagle books is that the protagonist spends the novel killing people rather than swooning.

Here's a link to what I think is the official Gold Eagle blog.
Gold Eagle
My current "story a week project" (see the post about it here) fits in quite nicely with this style of writing and, as the books were always a guilty pleasure for me, I thought I'd try my hand at a series of my own. My musings on the subject ended up with the character of Jill Teague, a surgeon whose husband has been killed by criminals and who decides to take the law into her own hands. The Men's Adventure heroes often had cheesy nicknames (The Executioner, The Survivalist, etc) and so I wanted Jill to have one of her own. That came, in fact, before her given name did and is of course Guillotine! (the exclamation mark is obligatory).
I very deliberately decided to have a female protagonist because I wanted to avoid at least some of the macho clich├ęs of the genre. Guillotine! also owes a debt to Peter O'Donnell's "Modesty Blaise" comic strip and novels which were also firm favourites of mine as a teenager. The key difference with Jill Teague is that she isn't in any way supposed to be eye candy or an object of desire for the reader.

Guillotine!'s first story, 'Hot Blood, Cold Heart' is available now from Amazon.
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The story a week project

I've published 3 short stories so far this month. It's now the 15th. Now admittedly I started both 'Dear Suzanna' and 'The Doorbell' in April but pretty much all of the later and a fair amount of the former were written in the few days before they were published. The third story, 'Camera/Phone v1', was conceived some time ago but written in the week between the publication of 'The Doorbell' and its own publication date.
The stories are written quickly and intended to be read the same way. They're little slices of pulpy, nasty fun. Stephen King has referred to his own work as "the literary equivalent of a Big Mac" and I'm very much from the same school, although my work is probably a Cheese Burger from the 99p menu.
So, I've been thinking about all of this and the fact that I so enjoy this rapid fire write, publish, write, publish cycle. What I've decided is, that starting in July I'm going to attempt to write and publish one story every week until the end of the year. I can't guarantee I'll hit every week but I'll try my damnedest to.
The plan is that I'll publish every Wednesday and the stories will be available free on Amazon in their debut week. After that they'll go up to 69p/99c or thereabouts. Every 8 stories or so I'll do a collected edition which I'll charge a little more for, probably £1.99/$2.99.
If I don't die or go insane I'll have 25 or so stories done by Christmas.
I will of course post regular progress updates here on the blog. Assuming I have time.
Wish me luck.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

1 hook/3 outcomes - a revision to my "Alternate Endings" project

Having now finished 'Camera/Phone v1' the first of my trilogy of short stories with alternative endings (as outlined in this post, I've realised that the whole concept was maybe a little ill conceived. Bear with me though, I'm not abandoning it, just tweaking the details. My original idea was to write three stories that were essentially the same for the first two thirds but radically different in the final act. The idea being that the differences in the final twist would cast the previous events on a different light. I still think there is potential in this idea, just not for this particular story.
My completion of 'Camera/Phone v1' coincided with me reading a great post detailing Pixar's 22 rules of story-telling. You can read them for yourself here:, but the one that spoke to me and helped me galvanise my thoughts about the 'Camera/Phone' series was number 4:
"Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___."
What that made me realise was I'd been pitching my twist too late, saving it for the "Until finally" section. I think v1 works as a story but to make v2 and v3 work I need to make the break from v1 much earlier. What I'm now trying to do isn't an alternate ending, it's a single opening and hook with three outcomes. The set up goes like this then:
"Once upon a time there were two young people called Alexi and Jackson who loved each other even though they didn't admit it. They used to take things from other people. One day they took a phone from a man and found that it has pictures of a crime on it."
It's after that my three stories start to deviate.
What I could do is use the same opening for all three stories but I'm going to resist the temptation to do that (and it is tempting, because anyone who has followed my work will know I'm very much of the "churn them out and move on to the next story" school). v2 and v3 will each me written from scratch but the premise and the two main characters (Alexi and Jackson) will be identical.
v2 is already underway following that model and I like what I've don't on it so far. The ending is going to be killer too, naturally. :)

Camera/Phone v1 is available from Smashwords and Amazon.


This afternoon, before I'd actually finished writing the story, I created a cover for my latest slice of nasty 'Camera/Phone v1'.
I'm really pleased with it and it made me reflect on the other covers I've done. I definitely think I'm getting better at it. 'The Doorbell' one isn't great but I really like those for 'Dear Suzanna' and 'Camera/Phone v1'.
Anyway, the purpose of this post is purely and simply to post a little gallery. Hope you enjoy it.

Update 4th July 2012: Added the covers for Camera/Phone v2 and the first two Guillotine! stories

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Zombies are boring - why the walking dead work better in movies thanbooks

Despite the fact that the modern zombie was introduced in 1968 by Romero in Night of the Living Dead it wasn't until 2006 and the publication of World War Z that there was a big, popular zombie novel (and even then I'm not sure it's that popular).
Whilst many of the big names in horror fiction have tried their hands at other "stock" monsters - vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein's monster, etc I'm not sure that any of them have done a zombie story. Whilst there are now lots of zombie novels out there they seem mainly to have been self-published or are at least by writers who've only written zombie fiction. Aside from World War Z the only piece of zombie fiction of real note is The Walking Dead which of course is very visual - I've always considered comic books to be half way between a novel and a movie.
Why is this? Why has mainstream horror fiction not grasped the zombie in the same way that the movie industry has? Does the fact that the big names in horror haven't written zombie stories indicate that they are hard or unsatisfying to write?

I can think of two things about zombies that make them more suited to movies than prose:

1) Gore is hard to write well:
Zombies are all about the gore. In a movie you can show a horrifically decayed zombie and it takes you a second. Similarly the death scenes work in movies because they're very visual. In prose to capture the same amount of gory detail you have to write a lot of words and the reader has to read a lot of words and that can end up feeling (for them) like a bit of a slog. Most importantly the volume of words slows things down. It gets in the way of the story.

2) Zombies are boring:
The very best horror fiction (for me) is about monsters that the reader can in some way sympathise with. It's tragedy. Think The Shining, Frankenstein, etc.
Failing that it's at least about monsters that are complex and interesting. Creatures or people that have some depth to them.
Zombies have none of this. They're entirely one dimensional, a faceless threat that could be replaced with any one of a number of other monsters - giant killer rats, aliens, whatever - anything that hunts in packs will do.
In all of zombie fiction and cinema I can think of only one zombie that had any character at all. The wonderful Bub in Romero's Day of the Dead manages to be sympathetic and actually get the viewer rooting and cheering for him. With that one exception zombies are entirely interchangeable and boring as characters.

I found both of the above to be true when writing my own zombie story Dear Suzanna. I got into writing a long graphic description of the first zombie the protagonist encounters and I enjoyed doing it but it definitely slows things down. So much so that when it came time for the first death I got it over with very quickly. The zombies in that story are all faceless threat with nothing more to them than that. They exist purely to drive the hero on to other actions. In some ways they could easily have been replaced by a flood or a fire or some other natural rather than supernatural threat.

So, zombies are boring. Agree?

'Dear Suzanna' is available for download from Smashwords or Amazon.
Amazon UK
Amazon US

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Alternative endings in fiction

I started work on a new story, 'Camera/Phone' a few days ago. As seems to be the case with me it started with a single idea for the opening. The concept is simple, two delinquent teenagers steal a mobile phone from a stranger only to discover it has photos of a violent crime on it. As is also generally the case with me I started writing it without any clear idea of where it was going. I've ended up with a beginning that I like and which I hope is quite attention grabbing and with 3 characters who have captured my heart already (this is usually a good sign). You can read a preview of it here:
What I also now have is 3 possible endings. This part is unusual, I often don't know the ending of a story until I get close to it (this was very much the case with my novel 'Sunliner') but when I decide where a tale is going I tend to stick to that. The idea might develop and evolve but it doesn't radically change. With 'Camera/Phone' I have three endings in my head, all of which I like and all of which work for the story. I just don't know which one to write.
What I've started to think is that maybe I should just write, and publish, three different versions of the story. My question to you as a reader though is would that work for you?
Alternative endings have become fairly commonplace in cinema, with DVD special editions of movies giving people the chance to see different versions of their favourite movies. It is I think fairly rare in written fiction though. I know that a few authors have republished extended versions of their most popular works (Stephen King did it with 'The Stand' and I'm fairly sure Jack Higgins published a longer edition of 'The Eagle has Landed'), but examples of authors writing dramatically different versions of a published story seem to be rare. A Google search for "novels with multiple endings" leads to a very sparsely populated Wikipedia entry. It seems, and I wasn't aware of this, that 'Great Expectations' is often published with two endings.
What a few authors have done is write branching novels where the reader gets to choose the path they take through the story. These are in the style of the 'Fighting Fantasy' or 'Choose your own Adventure' game books that were popular in my childhood. Film critic Kim Newman did this in 'Life's Lottery' and Rudy Kerkhoven & Daniel Pitts have published a couple of ebooks that do the same thing: 'The Adventures of Whatley Tupper' and 'The Redemption of Mr Sturlobok'. The flexibility of the ebook format certainly seems very well suited to this kind of experimental story and it's shame that Newman's book isn't available electronically, especially as it's now out of print.
I haven't read any of the books I mention above but as a writer the challenge of writing a story in this way seems to me to be that you can't allow your readers to make informed choices about where they want the story to go without giving away your ending. I very much enjoy taking readers on a journey that keeps them guessing and to give them control over where the story goes isn't something I'm entirely comfortable with.
For my own purposes, then, I'm going to stick to writing three different stories rather than one branching one. What remanins to be seen which version people prefer.  

Thursday, 7 June 2012

The horror of everyday objects

My recently published story 'The Doorbell' is the tale of an everyday object gone bad. There's a long history of horror stories based around innocuous objects and as a writer and fan of the genre I wanted to try my hand at it. Oneof the most famous examples is 'Christine' by Stephen King and it's perhaps no coincidence that King's story of a classic car possessed by an evil spirit was the first horror novel I read as a 12 year old. Screw RL Stine I got straight into the good stuff.
Listing every example of the benign and inanimate demonised in horror would be a fool's errand but here are a few. Note that the titles are often as imaginative as that of The 'Doorbell', making the story or film very much focused on the object:
Cars - 'The Car', 'Christine'
Trucks - 'Duel'
Ambulances - 'The Ambulance'
Dolls - 'Dolls'
Puppets - The 'Puppetmaster' series 
Ventriloquist's dummies - 'Magic', 'Dead of Night'
Televisions - 'Poltergeist', 'The Ring', 'Demons 2', 'The Video Dead'
Tyres - 'Rubber'
Any household object you can think of - The 'Final Destination' series. 

The horror of these tales often comes from the fact that these are things that we have willingly allowed into our homes and welcomed into our lives. They are objects that we trust and that then betray us. The use of such familiar things as a focal point is effective because it makes it easy for the reader/viewer to make a connection with the story. One of the big themes in horror at the start of the modern period (mid-70s onwards) when King and Spielberg were at the heights of their popularity was ordinariness. Following the focus on period horror movies in the 60s (Hammer, Roger Corman's Poe adaptations) and the hysterical, exotic or apocalyptic in the 70s (The Exorcist, The Omen, Dawn of the Dead), 80s horror was often about sinister but localised things happening to normal seeming folk. The families in Poltergeist or King's books are believable and easy to identify with, leading familiar lives until the horrific overwhelms them. This sense of familiarity is often enhanced by references to objects that are known to the audience. King certainly loves to pack his books with brand names and cultural references. I tried to do something similar in The Doorbell. The characters are boringly normal: they bicker, they drink a bit too much, they Sky+ things and eat take always. 
So ordinariness draws the reader in and engages them. The other thing that the demonisation of everyday objects brings though is the opposite. It makes it easy for the reader or viewer to put the horror behind them when the story is over. The cymbal-clapping wind-up toy in King's short story The Monkey is terrifying when you're reading about it. When you put the book down though it's just a toy. Similarly the horror of a story like Christine is of the roller-coaster variety. It's thrilling while it lasts but unlike something like The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre it doesn't linger. It doesn't get under your skin.
I liked the idea of a doorbell as the focal point for my story because it is, on the surface, such a ridiculous notion. So much so, in fact, that unlike conditions like "fear of men with beards" (Pogomophobia), "fear of long words" (Hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia) or "fear of losing an erection" (Medomalacuphobia) there doesn't seem to be a word for it. 
Doorbells, however, can be alarming and annoying when they ring unexpectedly. Just like the shrill ring of the telephone the doorbell can interrupt intimate moments. Unlike the phone though it's very hard to ignore. When someone rings your doorbell there's always a fear that they'll know you're in. More so than ever with the advent of mobiles it is acceptable to ignore the ring of the phone. Mobiles are often set to silent or calls rejected out of hand in the knowledge that the caller can leave a message. A knock on the front door is harder to ignore, even if you know it's someone you don't want to talk to. Opening your front door to someone is a trusting, symbolic gesture, in opening the door you are giving your visitors access to your world. Indeed the motif of monster asking for or trying to enter homes is a common one in scary stories. From the wolf in the Three Little Pigs, through vampires having to be granted admission, to Jack Nicholson in The Shining and the zombies in Night of the Living Dead. The home is very important in horror, representing the normality that the monsters of the story are trying to destroy amd as noted above, the ring of a doorbell intrudes into that space even if no physical invasion takes place.

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Preview of Camera/Phone

It's become something of a habit/tradition for me to post a preview of new stories when I get to the point where I feel they're going somewhere.

Here then, for your reading pleasure, is the opening of my latest effort, 'Camera/Phone'. Enjoy.

Jim was a vicious cunt, prided himself on it in fact, but even he was shocked when he saw the pictures from the phone. The kids who had found it had snatched it off some yuppie walking down the street. He'd been happily tapping away on it. Twitter or Facebook or some shit like that, and they'd had it out of his hands and away in the blink of an eye.
Why people felt the need to be in touch with each other every fucking second of the day escaped him. He spent most of his time trying to avoid people, another way for them to get hold of him was the last thing he needed. Christ, he'd chuck his mobile in the bin if it wasn't so important for his business. That was how the kids had found him today. Or at least how he'd come to hear that they were looking for him, he didn't give his number out to every spotty prick roaming the streets nicking and trying to make a name for themselves.
Danny had texted him. Danny was trusted with his number. He was one of the good guys.
The text said some kids had been to see him and they had something Jim might be interested in. A phone. He mentioned their names in the text, Alexi and Jackson, but Jim didn't know them from Adam. He was shit with names though so maybe he did know them.
He called Danny back, his fat fingers made texting a pain and talking was more his style anyway.
"Dan, what the fuck do I want with a phone? I've already got one. If it's worth something just sell it and give me the cash."
"No Jim. It's not the phone, it's what's on the phone. Pictures, mate. The kind of pictures someone would pay a lot of money to hush up. Let me send you a sample."
Jim hung up and waited for a second and then his phone vibrated and beeped to let him know he had a message. He didn't have one of those posh smartphones. Just an old Nokia, but it had a colour screen and showed photos well enough. When he opened the picture he almost wished it didn't. Still, Danny was right, there might be some money to be made from this.

Alexi was bricking it. Jim Watson had a reputation for toughness and he liked to reinforce it every once in a while by having the shit kicked out of some unfortunate pleb who displeased him. Of course Alexi and Jackson hadn't done anything to displease him but from what Alexi had heard that didn't always stop him. Having any sort of dealings with Watson was bad news as far as he was concerned. There might be rewards but the risks involved far outweighed them. If it had been down to Alexi they'd never have approached him, but of course Jackson had other ideas, as she so often did. "This is our chance, brah," she said. "This is just the kind of thing that twisted old fucker likes. That rich cunt we took it off has serious wedge." She pronounced it Sirius like the binary star system know as the the Dog Star. Only she said it like a snake would say it, lengthening the s's into two sibilant hisses. Not for the first time Alexi wondered why he hung around with her. Then he looked at her tits and remembered.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Dear Suzanna is finished

I posted a preview of this story a while ago thinking it would be wrapped up soon after and then hit a brick wall on it. That wall was soundly smashed this weekend and I rattled through the rest of it. The result is something I'm very happy with, a complete departure from Sunliner and something of a tribute to two legends of the horror genre, George A Romero and H.P. Lovecraft.

It's available free on Smashwords with all major formats supported. A Kindle edition should be up on Amazon in the next day or so.

Edit: Kindle edition is now available
Amazon UK
Amazon US

I'm also quite pleased with the cover.

Sunday, 3 June 2012

The 87th Precinct Project update 1

The first book is in!
Thanks to a very kind tweep I have, completely free of charge, a paperback copy of one of the last books in the series (and one I don't think I've read), The Big Bad City.

Buy Sunliner for non-Kindle devices (iOS, Kobo, Sony Reader)
Buy Sunliner for Kindle (UK)
Buy Sunliner for Kindle (US)

The 87th Precinct Project - the full list

As described in this post The 87th Precinct Project, I'm trying to collect paperback editions of all of Ed McBain's wonderful 87th Precinct mysteries.

I thought it would be useful to post the full list so I can mark them off as I go. Titles in bold are ones that I have managed to track down.

I'll also re-note here the rules I'm sticking to:
1) Books must be softcover
2) Books must be secondhand
3) I'm not after first editions but the closer I can get to the original publishing date the better
4) My preference will always be to buy from a brick and mortar store. I'm only going to resort to the interwebs when I really start to struggle.

Cop Hater (1956)
The Mugger (1956)
The Pusher (1956)
The Con Man (1957)
Killer's Choice (1957)
Killer's Payoff (1958)
Lady Killer (1958)
Killer's Wedge (1959)
'til Death (1959)
King's Ransom (1959)
Give the Boys a Great Big Hand (1960)
The Heckler (1960)
See Them Die (1960)
Lady, Lady I Did It (1961)
The Empty Hours (1962) - collection of three short novellas
Like Love (1962)
Ten Plus One (1963)
Ax (1964)
He Who Hesitates (1964)
Doll (1965)
80 Million Eyes (1966)
Fuzz (1968)
Shotgun (1969)
Jigsaw (1970)
Hail, Hail the Gang's All Here (1971)
Let's Hear It for the Deaf Man (1972)
Sadie When She Died (1972)
Hail to the Chief (1973)
Bread (1974)
Blood Relatives (1975)
So Long as You Both Shall Live (1976)
Long Time No See (1977)
Calypso (1979)
Ghosts (1980)
Heat (1981)
Ice (1983)
Lightning (1984)
Eight Black Horses (1985)
Poison (1987)
Tricks (1987)
Lullaby (1989)
Vespers (1990)
Widows (1991)
Kiss (1992)
Mischief (1993)
Romance (1995)
Nocturne (1997)
The Big Bad City (1999)
The Last Dance (2000)
Money, Money, Money (2001)
Fat Ollie's Book (2002)
The Frumious Bandersnatch (2003)
Hark! (2004)
Fiddlers (2005)

Buy Sunliner for non-Kindle devices (iOS, Kobo, Sony Reader)
Buy Sunliner for Kindle (UK)
Buy Sunliner for Kindle (US)

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing and how badly I break them

I'm a huge fan of Elmore Leonard, the American crime and western writer, and read with interest his 10 rules of writing when I stumbled across them recently. I break many of them in Sunliner so reviewing them, especially when I admire Leonard's work so much, was something of a sobering experience.

Here they are, with notes to indicate how badly I've strayed from them.

 1. Never open a book with weather.
Phew - this one I didn't do.

 2. Avoid prologues.
Whoops - although in my defence the prologue was on the advice of someone who works in publishing and I think it works.

 3. Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue.
This is a great one and something I'll definitely do in future...I really didn't in Sunliner though.

 4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said”…he admonished gravely.
Another black mark for me and Sunliner...

 5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.
That ratio would mean I could have no more than 3 in Sunliner. Pretty sure it's more than that! Way more!!!

 6. Never use the words "suddenly" or "all hell broke loose."
Bollocks, I think I even have a "suddenly all hell broke loose"

 7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
I don't think I break this one, unless you count the 50s hardboiled style of speaking that everyone in the book uses as a regional dialect.

 8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
I spend a bit of time describing JJ when we first meet him but not, I hope, too much.

 9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.
Woohoo - I stuck to this one.

 10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
I think (and hope) I managed this one. Unless my readers like to skip car chases.

I'm going to give myself 5 out of 10.

Buy Sunliner for non-Kindle devices (iOS, Kobo, Sony Reader)
Buy Sunliner for Kindle (UK)
Buy Sunliner for Kindle (US)