Tuesday, 4 February 2020

What do we authors do in our downtime?


Okay, so here’s today’s big question, as supplied to me by a friend the other night. What do we writers do between books? I shall endeavour to answer that one today, though I can only do it from a personal perspective of course.

In addition, I’ll be reviewing an excellent crime novel set in New York’s Irish gangland, DEAD I WELL MAY BE by Adrian McKinty.

Some of you may only have come to know McKinty through last year’s extraordinarily successful novel, THE CHAIN. However, he had a career before that, and if you want to find out just how good it was, you’re in the right place today.

If you’re only here to check out the McKinty review, that’s fine. As usual, you’ll find it at the lower end of today’s column. Just zip on down there. On the other hand, if you’ve got a bit more time, I will first attempt, as promised, to explain …

What happens in our downtime?

Now, first of all I would probably argue that, as a working writer, I don’t consider that I have very much of what you might call downtime. But there’s no need for sympathy. There is one big difference between this job and others I’ve done, and that’s that I absolutely adore it.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being both a copper and a journalist, but writing fiction as a profession has become my life. It’s one of the few things I live for. So, I rarely take a break from it. By that, I don’t mean to imply that I’m sitting at my computer seven days a week, 24 hours a day, but even when I’m not bashing my keyboard, I’m thinking about it. The seedlings of ideas are planted every hour, new stories are forever in ferment at the back of my head. There’s nothing I can do about that, and nothing I’d want to.

But yes, there are times when the workload is much heavier, and equally there are times when it’s much lighter. So, again, as that friend asked, what do we do in those times when it’s lighter?

Well, I can’t speak for everyone of course. But personally, I try to put any break I get to as much writerly use as possible. I suppose what we’re talking about here is when you’ve delivered the latest draft of your novel and there are perhaps two or three weeks before you can expect to either get it back with notes requesting further work or to receive a letter of congratulation for making the cut.

It’s very difficult to accurately anticipate how many of these intermissions you’re going to get during the working year. It could be one or two, or it could be a lot more. Either way, it should be fairly clear that you can’t just afford to put your feet up. For that reason, I always try to have several other projects on the go at the same time. Some of these may be speculative, some of them contracted, though I think you’d risk losing an employer’s favour if you’d been paid to do a job and only got round to it whenever you could take a break from another. One thing I believe very firmly, though, is that everything you do as a writer during your official work-time, even if it isn’t leading to direct payment, should be geared in some way or other towards advancing your career.

And that even applies to your interactions on …

Social media

I know this may sound a bit mercenary, but social media is an incredible promotional tool, something that even the generation of authors immediately prior to ours couldn’t even conceive of. And it would be a ludicrous waste of an opportunity to ignore it. That said, I’m quite convinced that taking every five minutes you have spare to post online about who you are and your latest book (in the most glowing terms, of course) will only rub people up the wrong way.

I’m not even suggesting that you try to do it surreptitiously. Internet surfers are not a dim crowd; they know when they’re being advertised to and are unlikely to be fooled by missives like:

“Terrible weather we’re having at the moment, isnt’ it? What a coincidence by the way. It pours with rain all the way through my latest novel …”

Or:

“I absolutely agree that that Sinbad film where the cyclops comes out of the cave is one of Harryhausen’s best. Which reminds me, the main villain in my new short story has only got one eye …”

I’m not saying that there can’t be a bit of that online. Especially, for example, if it’s your own blog. I mean there surely isn’t much that anyone can complain about there (is there? … please say ‘no’). But repeated and painfully obvious self-promotion is going to make you a person of much less interest than someone who talks entertainingly about things other than him or herself: other books you’ve read, for example, other movies you’ve seen, places you’ve visited that have nothing whatsoever to do with whatever you’re currently working on, etc.

Okay, maybe a bit of authorial analysis is permissible now and then. That’s only natural. But the trick, I genuinely believe, is to make yourself a pleasing personality who says so many thought-provoking things that those who don’t already know you will be encouraged to come back for more, eventually finding their way to your books under their own steam.

It still sounds mercenary. But publicisation of self is a big thing online. Many of us seek to expand the world’s awareness of our existence. So, it isn’t purely a thing that writers get involved with.

Okay, that’s one way we can usefully fill our so-called downtime. But what about these other projects I mentioned? What about stuff that might actually earn us a crust or two? Well, as I said, I always try to have a few of these on the go in some shape or other.  

Short stories

I was once reasonably well known for my short stories, most of them horror, but that was when I had a day-job and wasn’t so eager to make a living from writing. I hate saying this, really, because it almost sounds demeaning of short-form fiction, which I would never do willingly, but unfortunately there have been very few of us, certainly in modern times, who’ve been able to live purely off the proceeds of short stories, or even novellas.

The short story market, particularly when it comes to genre writing, is dominated at present by the independent press, who while they tend to pay well these days and bring out great-looking products, only publish anthologies now and then. Alas, the major publishing houses, at least in the UK, don’t seem to want to know about the short form in a way that would make it viable for us to churn submissions out nine till five. There are genre magazines and websites who will also buy short stories, but you’ll still struggle to make a living from this alone.

However, that doesn’t mean I don’t write them. I don’t write as many as I used to, but I’m penning many more now than I was a couple of years ago, first of all because I love doing it so much that, when purely concentrating on novels, I’d begun to feel that I was neglecting a certain type of artistic output that had always satisfied me emotionally. In addition, I was worried that my name was being forgotten in those other corners of the writing world where once I was so active.

There are other reasons too why short stories are a good option. I personally consider short-form fiction an essential training ground. It teaches us to produce crisp, succinct text, and to say much more in much less. We’re none of us the finished article. Continuing to write when you’re between books should be the natural way of things, in my view, if you want to keep refining your craft. It’s also nice to pepper those barren stretches between novels with further publication credits.

My recent personal experience of this is fairly illustrative, I think. My last book, STOLEN, was out in May 2019. My next one, the title of which I still can’t give you, is due in August this year. That’s a 13-month hiatus, which is a long time to be off the bookshelves. However, by making use of editing breaks, my stories The New Lad and Mr Kipper have appeared in EXIT WOUNDS and TROUBLE AND STRIFE respectively during that time, while between now and August I’ll also be appearing as follows: What Did You See? in THE ALCHEMY PRESS BOOK OF HORRORS 2, and Branch Line in AFTER SUNDOWN.

And yes, these extra credits, small though they are, pay you in real cash-money. So in all kinds of ways it makes sense to go out and chase them.

Other novels

Okay, everyone … go on, admit it. You’ve all got a novel or two in the cupboard that you’ve never felt was ready to send out. You’ve all got something half-written that you never seem to find the time to get around to finishing. You’ve all got a thick file of ideas for novels of a type that none of the major houses currently seem to be buying and yet which you feel in your bones would rock the literary world if you could only get around to writing them.

Well, for me, breaks between contracted novels are the perfect time to resurrect these speculative projects and throw yourself into them with gusto. I know that it never feels the same when you’re writing something on spec, when you come wearily to the end of the working day and instead of feeling that you’ve done a real job for which you’ll rightly be rewarded, it simply bugs you that you’ve spent tiresome hours hammering something out that no one ever asked for and no editor may ever see, let alone a reader.

But if you have a professional attitude when it comes to writing, you’ll recognise it as a gamble that is probably worth taking. It’s an obvious comment to make, but a piece of written work is so much more saleable when it’s actually been written and isn’t just an idea.

So, my opinion is get the damn thing finished. Even if you only do it in fits and starts, even if it’s currently ages off completion, why not use these breaks to advance the project to a point where you can start showing it around? It’d be a nice thought, wouldn’t it, that while you’re doing everything your contract requires, writing and editing a series of crime novels for example, at the same time you have written something completely different (romance, horror, historical, who knows?), thereby adding a completely new string to your bow, which could go on to attract a whole new audience to your work?  

Another alternative, of course, if you’re already contracted to write further books after the one you’re currently waiting a response on, is that now might be a good time to start drawing them up. This is a potentially more problematic use of your downtime, because your publishers may want you to discuss these future books in detail with your editor first, and it’s highly probable that for the time being, he/she would rather focus on the one at hand. In that case, I wouldn’t recommend that you get cracking, because whatever you’ve got in mind may from the very word ‘go’ be the opposite of what they’ll be looking for. That said, you may have an arrangement wherein you have a much freer hand, in which case go for it. Again, wouldn’t it be nice if the first book in the contract is done and dusted and your editor greenlights you to start on the next one, and that is already close to completion?

Me? I’m half and half on this. There’s a book I really want to write, which may or may not become part of my current contract. I’ve not even got around to having that discussion yet. But hell, I’ve still started writing it. Somewhere down the line, I feel I’ll be able to make use of it. Maybe sooner rather than later, but if it’s later, it won’t be the end of the world.

Back catalogue

So many of the authors I know have been ploughing this furrow for at least the last two decades or more. It can be a thankless career at times, because so much of the material you’ve slaved over never hits paydirt, in fact is never even read by anyone. But you know what? It’s all still there and we should never regard it as a wasted effort. On top of all that, there is the material you wrote that did find a publishing home first time around, but which is now out of print and has slipped from memory. 

To my mind there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t, first of all, retrieve all your work from that second category, dust it off and select those items that may still have legs (and which you still own, of course). And when you do, why not put it out again, yourself if necessary? It’s not expensive to produce an ebook. It’s not even that expensive to produce a paperback. I should say at this point that I’m not advocating self-publishing. If you want to go that way from the start, that’s fine; it’s up to you. My view is that it will prove a tricky road. 

But if the work you’re proposing to republish has already been through the hands of an editor once, and therefore has been thoroughly policed, then I can’t see an ethical issue. You may well have a new readership who didn’t know anything about your earlier works, who will now be delighted to gobble them up.

I have no shame about this, myself. Last year I put out a novella, SEASON OF MIST, in time for Halloween. It had previously been published as part of my third AshTree Press collection, WALKERS IN THE DARK, in 2010. I’ve also got hundreds of short stories that were published in previous decades, which I’m now going through with a fine-tooth comb, looking to pull out those gems that I can reissue in brand new collections.

All that said, I’d be in less of a hurry to self-publish stuff that was rejected back in the past. Only do this, I think, if you’re willing to give it a good going over and are prepared to work out what went wrong the first time. I suspect that any author, even a real high-flier, would leave a bitter taste in his/her readership’s mouth if they dredged up their earlier failed efforts and just put them out there again without having done anything to fix them.

Movies, TV, stage-plays etc

The other good thing about having an extensive back-catalogue is that you can raid it for ideas as well, and when it comes to this, nothing should be off-limits, even the stuff that didn’t sell, because there’s nothing to say that those ideas weren’t great in themselves and that the problem lay with the execution.

So, what exactly do I mean by ‘raiding for ideas’?

Well, every movie that gets made is based on an idea that someone pitched, an original and thrilling concept that was usually extrapolated in a few concise sentences.

Now, bear in mind that there’s no copyright on ideas. So, you have to be careful just chucking things out there. But again, if you’re prepared to take the time to work your way through your mountain of good stuff, selecting those bits and bobs that you feel can fly in a different medium, why not use your breaks between novels to do some development work on them, to create professional standard treatments that you can send out as potential film or TV (or even stage) projects?

In case you’re wondering, I’ve not got the time and/or space here to lay out the ‘cannot fail’ treatment. First of all, there’s no such thing. But secondly, there are lots of resources online where you can look up the necessary advice. It wouldn’t do any harm, though, if you’ve got quite a lot of spare time between books to not just knock out a treatment, but maybe to write a first draft script as well. Again, it’s the law of having something real to sell rather than something as yet imaginary.

I’ll now be honest. The chances of this bearing fruit are slim. There are independent production companies everywhere (especially online) and though we now have more entertainment platforms than ever before, seemingly producing a floodtide of high-quality drama, the competition has never been fiercer. You won’t just need to do an incredible job pulling this thing together, you’ll then need to be lucky enough to hit someone who has the time and inclination to read it, the interest and nouse to take it further than that, and the money to make it happen. And that’s a rare combination.

But then again, as I’ve said repeatedly, if you don’t try you’ll never know. You’ve got to be in it to win it. And the alternative may be putting your feet up between paying projects and watching daytime TV for several weeks. Surely, when I put it in those terms it’s a no-brainer?

So, there we go. Some quickfire thoughts on what we writers do or could (and maybe should) do between publications. I guess, in simple terms, it’s just about expanding your repertoire, attacking on multiple fronts, throwing as much mud at the wall as you can. Any of these metaphors will do, and most of them probably get closer to the point more quickly than I have in this column.

Even then, they’re only thoughts. Feel free to take note, to ignore, or to spew out your scorn and indignation, though hopefully, if you’ve read down to this point, you won’t be feeling the latter.
More thoughts on this in further blogs, as (or if) they occur to me. Speak soon.  


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.

by Adrian McKinty (2003)

It’s the early 1990s and the Good Friday Agreement has not yet been signed, so Northern Ireland is beset by the Troubles. When ex-soldier and low-level Belfast hoodlum, Michael Forsythe, is caught working at the same time as claiming Unemployment Benefit, he faces prosecution or a lifetime without Government assistance. Neither option looks promising, so instead, he accepts an offer to enter the US as an illegal immigrant and work in New York City for Darkey White, a gangster of Irish lineage, who is looking to recruit new men with which he can fill in the gaps left after the collapse of the New York Mafia.

At first glance, Forsythe’s experience of life isn’t greatly improved. He seems to have exchanged one tough neighbourhood for another, lives in a shabby, roach-infested apartment, and is one of the few white faces on his block, which means that he is regarded with suspicion and hostility by all those around him. Meanwhile, Darkey’s gang is relatively small, and their turf located in Harlem and the Bronx, where there are rival crews of many ethnicities who are constantly trying to wrest power from them – so the Irish boys need to be ever-vigilant.

For all that, Forsythe doesn’t have much love for his new accomplices. Darkey, himself a lieutenant for overarching Irish kingpin, ‘Mr Duffy’, and Sunshine, his number two, are old-stagers, traditional dockland bruisers, proud of their Celtic heritage though neither of them has ever visited the Old Country and both are now getting old. Immediately above Forsythe is Scotchy, a ‘fellow Mick’ and a guy full of tall tales and foul-mouthed tantrums, while the others, though more than willing to use violence, are slow, dull-witted and mostly boring. When not on duty, they spend their time hanging out and drinking, though there are limits to how much fun they can glean even from this, as all consider that they are very underpaid and yet are so grateful just to have a job that they do nothing about it.

In the midst of this uninspiring crew, Forsythe is emerging as an unofficial leader. But perhaps his natural boldness is going to be his undoing. He’s only twenty years old, and though he served in the British Army, it was for a short time, most of which he spent locked up for striking an officer. So, despite his intellect and his ruthless streak, both of which serve him well, maybe a more experienced and prudent guy would not opt to start filling his long, depressing days by courting the beautiful redhead, Bridget, who also happens to be Darkey’s girlfriend. In due course, Bridget succumbs to Forsythe’s charms – he’s a handsome lad with a cheeky sense of humour, as well as being a psychopath – and they commence a clandestine affair. This is dangerous territory for both of them, but on the surface all goes well, especially when Forsythe avenges the severe beating of one of his crew by punishing the suspect with a ‘Belfast Sixpack’, a bullet in each ankle, each knee and each elbow. Darkey is so impressed by this that he talks airily of promoting young Mike, which earns the new lad the admiration and envy of his fellow gangsters, including Sunshine and Scotchy.

However, Forsythe is increasingly suspicious that Bridget is being followed by someone and that at some point their covert relationship will be discovered. He’s therefore relieved when another job comes along that will take him out of NYC altogether. It’s down in Mexico, where the boys are advised they can have a holiday once they’ve picked up some contraband for Darkey.

Assuming the cargo will be drugs, but not anticipating trouble as everything seems to have been well planned, Forsythe, Scotchy and a couple of other lags travel south. But once they’re in possession of the goods, they are ambushed in a Mexican police sting, which has clearly been in the offing for quite some time. Denied legal representation, denied even a trial, they are transported to a hellish, swamp-begirt prison on the Yucatán Peninsula, where they are shackled together, starved, beaten by both guards and fellow prisoners alike, and where it gradually comes to dawn on them that they have been condemned to a living death.

The weeks pass, their suffering only worsening, and Forsythe realises they are going to have to escape soon otherwise they won’t have the strength even to look through the window. A plan is thus put in motion, and an indescribably torturous ordeal follows, filled with pain, anguish and death. Only one thing keeps Forsythe going: the knowledge that someone back in New York decided to sacrifice the entire crew for who knows what reason, and that this someone is now going to face payback on an epic scale …  

The first thing that struck me on reading Dead I Well May Be was how poetic it is. Adrian McKinty is a naturally talented author, and constructs singsong prose in his efforts to convey time and place. We get the most vivid portrayal of Belfast during the Troubles, followed in short order by the most vivid portrayal of uptown New York. We also get intricate depictions of day-to-day mob life, so much so that we readers feel sated with whiskey and cigarette smoke just flipping the pages.

The same applies to the main character here, Michael Forsythe, who as the narrative progresses is laid out for us in the most complex, multi-layered fashion.

Bit by bit, we assess this young man from almost every angle, soon understanding that though he’s intelligent and wide-read, he’s cynical and hardbitten beyond his tender years. He grew up in war-torn Ulster, after all, and has learned through his own experience that the gun is mightier than the pen, and that if the gun isn’t available, a club or fist will do just as well. When he first arrives in the Big Apple, he fully and willingly participates in the underworld conflicts of Darkey White, because while in an ideal world he might seek another way, he knows that it isn’t available here and that, at the end of the day, he has to get paid.

Forsythe is numb in various ways too; he is affable, reasonable and, when it suits him, pleasant. But he’s also cold. He lacks both charity and pity, and rarely empathises with anyone at more than a superficial level. You might argue that this is another natural trait of someone who’s never known peace, but it still makes him a mechanism rather than an actual person. Oh yes, the title of this novel, Dead I Well May Be, is just as applicable to its central character as it’s a reference to any of the events that may occur in this first installment of the Michael Forsythe trilogy (for the record, the two follow-ups are The Dead Yard and The Bloomsday Dead).

The next thing that struck me about this novel was that it’s very much like two books banged into one. We have the slap-in-the-face portrait of day-to-day living in the grimy backstreets off the Shankhill Road, followed by the equally powerful picture of life on the fringes of society in the upper New York badlands, which then feeds into a warts-and-all analysis of life as an operational criminal in the heart of a teeming city. All of this is compelling enough in itself and is certainly the product of either real-life experience or some very intensive close-quarter research, or both. Then we have the ‘other book’ so to speak – the suspense aspect, because Dead I Well May Be is also a hard-as-nails revenge thriller.

I don’t want to say a lot about this part of it because I don’t want to give anything away about the second half of the novel, except to say that the full fury of a man betrayed is unleashed, though coldly, carefully, and not without shocking consequence. But at no stage in this latter period of the novel does McKinty’s renege on his style, hitting us with graceful, dreamy prose, scenic descriptive work and constant but never boring dollops of street-philosophy courtesy of the thinking man’s rogue that is Michael Forsythe. But the pace and tension are definitely upped, and suddenly we’re in much more familiar crime novel territory.

If I had any problem it was perhaps with a couple of the lesser characterisations. I never quite ‘got’ Bridget, who seems to be all things to all men for much of the novel, speaking with different voices depending on what scene she is in. That perhaps would be acceptable, but she then undergoes a bewildering metamorphosis near the end, which jars quite badly for me – though it’s a small complaint and it may well be resolved in the later sequels.

Aside from that, Dead I Well May Be works perfectly, the overall ‘compound’ of the novel making for an exhilarating if at times horrific read, which genre addicts as well as students of the literary school should lap up delightedly.

And now, as always, I’m going to try and cast Dead I Well May Be in anticipation of the inevitable film or TV series (especially as it sounds as if McKinty’s latest hit, The Chain, has already been optioned). Just a bit of fun, of course. Who’d listen to me anyway? But here we go:

Michael Forsythe – Jack Reynor
Bridget – Katie McGrath (doesn’t have a lot to do, but should add weight of character)
Darkey White – Colin Farrell
Sunshine – Eoin Macken
Scotchy – Emmett J Scanlan

(The picture used at the top is lifted freely from The Independent. The photo of the unpublished novels was taken by Simon Petrol on Unsplash. The pic of the happy writer comes from Katherine Bolger Hydes blog and the lady buried in her slush pile from Claire Kings page. Any or all of these images will of course be taken down immediately if the original creators object to their use).

2 comments:

  1. Quite agree about downtime - i.e. it seldom exists. There is always something to be worked on even if its a walking meditation on plots and story arcs.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bang on, Jan. And it's not always taxing.

      Delete