Wednesday 4 February 2015

Terrors deep under as Holmes goes to Hell

Okay ... where are we up to?

It's amazing how, brief though it is, Christmas always seems to knock everything for six. Personally, I was back at work the day after Boxing Day, but that was me clicking into auto-pilot and driving on wi't yed deawn, as they say in Wigan. Anything that required a bit of lateral thinking, not to mention some pre-planning and perhaps a bit of subtle thought, had first to be fished out of the post-festive mental mush, wherein all good plans, schedules and time-scales get mysteriously lost and distorted.

Anyway, enough excuses. Basically, it's taken me the best part of a month to get properly back on the horse and start thinking about outrageously complex and inconvenient things like blogposts again. That's my reason for neglecting January this year, and to be frank it's the closest you're going to get to an apology, though I promise I share your pain when this column remains empty for longer than it should. 

But back to the original question ... where are we up to?

Well, I have a couple of cool things to report straight away. 

Check the above cover. That comes from THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF SHERLOCK HOLMES ABROAD, a collection of new Holmesian fiction due out in paperback on April 2 this year, edited by the indefatigable Simon Clark. It tells tales of Holmes's adventure in the farthest flung corners of the Empire and beyond, and contains my brand new novella, The Monster of Hell's Gate. But don't just look out for that. Featuring stories by a host of luminaries from the twin worlds of Gothic crime and Gothic horror, this is one I'd strongly recommend you look out for.

In addition to this, I was very chuffed this week to receive my copy of the new audio version of  an old favourite of mine, GRENDEL'S LAIR. First published way back in 2003 by the late, great Joel Lane in his anthology, BENEATH THE GROUND, this story has been re-issued by WHOLE STORY AUDIOBOOKS, and read, as impressively as ever, by actor Jonathan Keeble. 

It concerns a police attempt to strong-arm a vicious prisoner into revealing the grave site of an old murder-victim, which lies somewhere in a network of derelict air raid shelters. The convict eventually complies, only to lead his captors down into the depths of subterranean horror ...

If you follow the link, there is a try-before-you-buy option. In case that fails to interest, here is a brief snippet:

“We’re almost there,” Grimwood answered, a curious half-smile twisting his mouth.
A few minutes later they entered an area of tunnel more heaped with debris than anything they’d so far seen; huge sections of its roof and walls had long ago collapsed. In consequence, this space was the tightest and dingiest yet. A black fungus coated the damp and rotted fragments of wall that were still visible – it seemed to leach away what minuscule light there was, and fuelled the sensation that the party had now burrowed to the deepest point of the air-raid shelters. In that respect, when Grimwood suddenly stopped to think, chuckled and, hunkering down, began to scoop bricks and dirt away from the piled rubble with his cuffed hands, it filled the three cops with revulsion.
“Can you imagine,” Craegan said, “this slimy little toe-rag brought a child down here!” His gun was trained firmly on Grimwood’s back; sweat gleamed on his pallid face.

On a not unrelated subject, anyone who wasn't tempted to swoop for IN A DEEP, DARK DECEMBER, my collection of Christmas-themed ghost and horror stories, which came out in ebook form last November, might be interested to know that it's still up there on Amazon, but that the price has now dropped to 99p. Maybe it's a tall order trying to interest folk in a collection of Christmas horror in February, but all I'll say is this ... when the Christmas buying season actually kicks in again around late September, the chances are the price will have gone back up. Just saying, like.


And now to round off, in case anyone didn't catch it, here is another interview I did recently, this time with Nottingham crime writer, Rebecca Bradley (creator of the tough DI Hannah Robbins), for the crime blog, MURDER DOWN TO A TEA, and the crime book club she hosts online. This one aired on Rebecca's site way back last December, and the subject was that always-so-difficult 'First Draft'. I was quite honoured to be asked about this, actually, because Rebecca has put much the same questions to a number of very distinguished crime writers in the past; it's excellent company to be in. Please feel free to pop over there and have a look. Lovers of crime fiction will find stuff to keep them entertained and informed all day. Anyway, here is Rebecca's Q&A with yours truly as it appeared online last year.  

When you decide to write something new, what is the first thing you do?

In my case, the book needs a beginning and an end before I can seriously start to write it. It works for some authors to just get stuck in and see where the story takes them. Not for me. I need a rough idea what I’m heading towards. Okay, ultimately I may not stick with that ending, but it’s a target of sorts, and that gives me impetus to evolve a workable story.  So before anything else, the very bare bones get sketched out.

Do you have a set routine approaching it?

I don’t know whether it’s a set routine as much as a familiar path. Once the full story is up and running in my mind, or on paper, I divide it into chapters, fleshing it out with more and more details along the way. None of this will necessarily make the final cut. I make lots of changes as I write, but it’s a gradual process of development that I more or less fall into with each new project.

Pen and paper or straight to the keyboard?

The actual first draft starts life on my Dictaphone. Once I know what the chapter is going to consist of, I set off on foot, walking the dog and at the same time dictating into my hand-recorder. It’s partly a way to get away from that computer screen, but also I find that exercising and getting out into the fresh air enables me to concentrate. I usually type it all up later. It’s never the finished version, of course – it always requires lots of nips and tucks, but this active process tends to help create a fast, driving narrative. At least, I feel it does.

How important is research to you?

At one time I used to spend too much time researching, though that was in the days when I was writing a lot of folklore-based horror and fantasy. These days, as I’m primarily writing my Heck crime novels, I don’t need to do quite as much. My police procedural knowledge is still pretty good, but even when it isn’t I like to get cracking with the actual writing these days, so I bash it all in leaving any necessary gaps for factual stuff, which I can research later on.

How do you go about researching?

I have loads of textbooks relevant to the stuff I write. I also have loads of contacts who are only a phone-call away. Failing all that, there is also the internet – which, as far as I can see, is just about the best research tool we writers currently have available.

How do you store everything; ideas, research, images that catch your eye?

I store them both online and in hard copy format, in organised files. In regard to the latter, I’m probably a bit old-fashioned – I literally have shelves groaning beneath the weight of folders and ring-binders. Even then though, it all gets a bit out of hand. I have so many idea files now that, even though I store them in very orderly fashion, and more importantly as potential stories, novels or screenplays – sometimes with rudimentary plots attached, I lose track of stuff. But it’s better to have it all there somewhere than to forget it and lost it forever.

Tell us how that first draft takes shape?

It isn’t a tidy process, I’ll tell you that. It’s strictly done on a chapter-by-chapter basis. But even then there are certain scenes I find easier to write than others. Character interaction, especially if there’s lots of dialogue, tends to come very naturally to me. I’m quite fortunate in that regard – my characters do tend to speak for themselves. Anyway, those scenes are generally easier, so if I’m tired, I tend to write those first. Descriptive work often comes later – that requires more thought in my case. But most complex of all are the action sequences. There are an awful lot of those in my Heck novels, but they don’t spill out naturally. I need to craft them, paying as much attention as I can to the syntax and the pace. Even when completed, they need to be relayed onto tape and then played back – I need to be absolutely sure they have the desired impact and don’t overrun or, God forbid, drag. It may sound a cumbersome process overall, but as I say, it happens chapter by chapter … so piece by piece, the book gets built.

Are there any rituals you have to do or items you must have with you while writing that draft?

Not really, but I do have indispensable tools of the trade. My Dictaphone is vital. I don’t go anywhere without it … better than a notepad for me, especially when I’m out walking the dogs. Also my laptop. I don’t want to create the image that I work around the clock, but most evenings when I’m sitting in front of the TV with my family, I like to have my laptop on my knee, mainly so that I can catch up with admin and marketing stuff, but also to potter around on the latest project – try to patch up any bits and bobs that maybe didn’t work out during the day. 

(Pictured above-left is one such dictation trip on Dec 27 last year - I assure you the dogs were there with me, but something more interesting caught their attention just before the shutter clicked).  

Does the outside world exist or are you lost to us for a period of time as the magic works?

Better ask my wife about that. I do get lost a little bit, but that’s also because I tend to wear earphones when I’m writing – either because I’m working from a draft I recorded earlier, or because I’m giving myself a musical background to help create mood; not specifically to isolate myself.

What does your work space look like?

Not as tidy as I’d like. It’s our spare bedroom, and always has been. It’s furnished as a fully operational study, complete with desk, book-packed shelves, computer gear, bulletin boards, phone line etc. But it’s not always easy convincing the rest of the family that it isn’t also a lumber room. There are times when there are way too many boxes taking up the floor-space.

Edit as you go or just keep getting words out?

Bit of both, to be honest. I try and keep it tight – I don’t regard writing the first draft as some kind of sprint to the end. It’s a lovely feeling having broken the back of the job by getting it all down on paper. When it happens, I suspect we all share that great feeling. But also, how cool would it be if that first draft was also your final draft, and something you didn’t have to rewrite in its entirety because you’d been too quick off the mark before? I try and go for a happy medium. But inevitably, no matter how careful you are, stuff slips through that needs extra work. So there’s no hard rule in my case.

I see many writers counting words in a day. Word counter or other method of keeping track of progression?

Like everyone else, I have to work within word-count limitations, so though I’s easy to say I like to give a project whatever it’s worth, it’s also the case that I have to be disciplined about it, though that’s usually for later. Though I dislike busting word-limits, at first draft I don’t worry about it too much. Hence I don’t worry about the word counter too much at this early stage. Once the first draft is done, I calculate how much I’m going to have to excise in order to get it under the limit. Often it’s many thousands, but that doesn’t worry me. Nothing was ever written that couldn’t stand a bit of trimming. I find it’s a rarity when all the fat is gone and I still have to cut some of the meat.

So, that first draft is down. Roughly how long did it take? And what shape is it in?

I’m under contract to write two Heck novels a year, so there isn’t much time for artistic temperament. Though I produce and develop ideas all the time, the actual work must be conceived and completed within six months. Writing the first draft is only a part of that, of course, but as you can imagine I can’t afford to let it run over three months. I’d prefer two if possible. What shape is it in? That depends on how many sets of rapids I’ve hit en route. Ideally it will be very close to what eventually will be the last draft, and sometimes it is – but it’s different each time.

In what format do you like to read it through, ereader, paper or the computer screen?

I usually read it aloud from my laptop screen – preferably with an audience: my wife, Cathy, who will happily chip in if any issues arise. If Cathy isn’t available, I read it aloud to an empty room and must trust myself to note anything that doesn’t work.

What happens now that first draft is done?

The second draft basically. Thanks to the previous read-through, I should have a pile of notes with which to work, but it will still necessitate a another complete read-through and, if the work is significantly overlong, a far more vicious editing job – taking out every single word and phrase that doesn’t help create the impact I’m aiming for. After this, it’s then got to go to my editor at HarperCollins, and an even more thorough cutting process will commence.

Thanks for digging into the depths of the first draft. It's been a pleasure having you.

You’re most welcome. Thanks for having me.