This is not “Where do you get your ideas?”
It can take a long time to write a book, but they all start somewhere – with an idea, an observation, something the writer wants to say. I’m not talking about the question every writer gets – Where do you get your ideas? I always answer that question by saying, ‘Honestly, I haven’t the faintest idea,’ and “honestly” doesn’t really belong in that sentence because I do know where I get them, but it’s just too complicated to go into. No, what I’m talking about is the moment we, the writers, start to move the idea out of our minds and onto the page.
The Making of Billy McErlane was unusual for me, because my first draft of the first sentence and, in fact, the first chapter was still there the day the book was published. Usually, those first few pages are the scaffolding that supports the book as it unfolds and they have disappeared by the time the file is laid out for the printer. In the case of Billy Mac, the first sentence I wrote was:
All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers
and that sentence, along with the sentences that made up the rest of the first chapter, made it into the finished book. But, as I say, that’s unusual.
What made me think about this was a conversation I had today with one of my favourite writers, Ali Bacon, about places to stay in Gran Canaria. The reason that’s relevant is that I wrote the original first chapter of my latest book, Darkness Comes, on holiday in Gran Canaria. I’d gone out for a walk immediately after breakfast and I didn’t get back until lunchtime (although I did stop for coffee twice, and on one of those stops I also had apple pie and ice cream). As I walked, I started to have an idea for a book about a theme that has been in my mind for as long as I can remember. And when I got back, lunch had to wait because I had constructed the whole of the first two chapters in my head and I needed to get them on paper before I did anything else. Just in case I forgot them.
I compose my best stuff while I’m walking
The book originally had a different working title. It took a long time to finish, and when it did come out (as Darkness Comes), those first two chapters were gone. I didn’t need them any more. They were on the writer’s equivalent of the cutting room floor. But they still – I believe – have something to say, and so I’m appending them here. Anyone who has read Darkness Comes will recognise what’s going on here. And that theme I mentioned is set out quite clearly.
Read it. I hope you enjoy it. If it makes you want to read the book, you’ll find it here.
The Original Opening of Darkness Comes
You have to have a genre
There’s a question that every writer has to answer about every book. The question is: What genre is it? Readers want to know, because readers have firm opinions about the genres they like and those they don’t. If you ask me, for example, I’ll tell you I don’t like dystopian fiction although it isn’t really true because Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite authors. But it isn’t just readers – whoever is responsible for marketing your book also wants to know what genre it is because that’s the central plank in the marketing platform they build.
So I have been asked the question: What genre is my new book, Darkness Comes? In fact, I’ve been asked that question rather a lot. And I always try to give some sort of answer because that’s what you do. But the fact is: I haven’t a clue. I don’t know what genre you’d call it.
Usually, I do know
When I wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, I was pretty clear that I was writing a coming of age novel. And when I wrote Sharon Wright: Butterfly, I knew it was essentially a book about the criminal classes and two contract killers, so if anyone asked I’d say it was a crime novel. But this one? Darkness Comes? I can’t place it in a genre. Which wouldn’t bother me, except that it makes selling the book to readers difficult. Before they buy a book, readers want to know what kind of book it is. And I suppose that’s a reasonable wish. So let me try.
Horror it is not
When I first uploaded Darkness Comes to Amazon, I was shocked to see that they put it in the Horror genre. Shocked because, however much trouble I have saying what genre it IS in, I find it easy to list a whole bunch that it isn’t in. And it isn’t Horror. It isn’t Romance, either, or mystery, or crime (although there is a lot of crime in it).
So let’s take a look. The hero is Ted Bailey. Something bad happens to Ted Bailey when he’s still in his teens. Then something else bad happens to him when he’s just out of them. There’s no question that those bad things affect him in his later life, but really Ted’s problem is that he goes with the flow. He lets things happen. And the things that happen include fraud, and selling drugs, and living in Marseille with a woman who has sex with other men for money, and working for the French security services, and setting up a company to sell goods at an immoral profit margin to people who should not be allowed to buy them. Not infrequently, those goods are arms and, when he sells them, he’s breaking an embargo. Oh yes – and he kills one or two people. Well, more than one or two when you come down to it.
But while he’s doing those things, he also does other, more normal things. The sort of things that I do and you do. He falls in love – sometimes he doesn’t choose the woman he falls in love with very well, but there’s nothing unique in that. He helps people facing bad times and he tries not to let them know who it is that helps them. And when he has someone he thinks of as his daughter, he gives her all the love and all the care that the best human beings among us could come up with.
But that stuff – all of that stuff – is, in a way, beside the point. Because the story opens when Ted has an out of body experience after a heart attack. And what follows is a trial for his immortal soul. You might think, after what I’ve told you about his life, that he has no chance – but Saint Peter has enough doubt about that to send Alex, who was Ted’s fiancée and was murdered for it, back from heaven to conduct his defence. And we learn some things about heaven, and about God, that are nothing like the things humans have been taught for the last 2000 years.
There’s More! The Chat Show
Is that it? Not quite. For reasons best known to my imagination (an imagination that has landed me in trouble many times in the past), the trial takes the form of a chat show. And chat shows have guests. In this case, the guests include Peter Sellers, Barabbas, Henry Blofeld, John Betjeman, Ras Tafar, the one-time Emperor of Ethiopia, and a few other people. Some of the guests are still alive; most of them are dead. When you put all that together, and you say we HAVE to have a genre, you end up (and I did end up) saying that the book is about the supernatural.
So there you are: Darkness Comes is a novel about the supernatural. But this, for me, is the difficult bit. Because what seems supernatural to you is probably what seems quite normal to me. I’ve always been aware of another world on the edge of this one, shading into it and sometimes letting itself be seen. When Ted is in his suspended state on the edge of death, he sees things he’s never seen before – but they’ve always been there. They simply aren’t visible to most of the living most of the time.
The book is available in paperback and for Kindle. If you read it, and if then you know what genre it is, tell me. I really would like to know.
A Just and Upright Man is a crime and romance novel set in the northeast of England in the 1760s. I’m in the process of recording the audiobook version and you can listen to Chapter 2 here.
That’s my voice you’re listening to; the reason I chose to record my own book is that I was brought up in the northeast of England, so I know the accent is authentic 🙂
I am not someone who likes to get up people’s noses. Left to myself, I’d prefer not to upset anyone. Sadly, that isn’t possible. The title of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper comes from a passage in the book – this passage (from the beginning of Chapter 8): I chose the name Billy when I was eleven. It was 1999, I’d had eleven years of answering to the one my stupid mother gave me and I wasn’t going to do it any more. You can imagine the stuff I got. “Zappa’s on the crapper.” “Zappa’s mam’s a slapper.” You can probably make your own up and I’m telling you, I’ll have heard it. Zappa McErlane. I ask you. People home in on stupid names. People in authority. Every time I changed class or we got a new teacher I could see her eye going down the register and she’d be thinking, “Oh, yes. Zappa. He’ll be the one. I’ll have trouble with him.” And if they think they will, they do.
That’s how the book got its title – but a woman told me she wouldn’t read a book with the word “slapper” in the title, and nor would a lot of other women. Well, I hope you can see from the passage above that my use of the word was not meant to be demeaning to women. What’s more, everyone connected with the book so far – three editors and an agent – has been female and not one of them has been upset by the word. And, while I don’t seek to offend, I like the title and I’m not going to change it.
It isn’t only the title, though. You can read the whole of Chapter one here, but this is how it begins:
All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. I wouldn’t have thought, being honest, that that merited a showdown with her brothers.
I tried to explain. She’s a bit on the chubby side, Kathleen, which I like. Not a grotesque fatty; just a bit of a plumper. Real fatties, I don’t care for. I’ve got a pic I took of a thumper sitting on one chair when three would not have been too many. I took it from behind, which is the only way you could really bring yourself to look at her. Great blue denim bulges hanging down on each side. You’d wonder how anyone could let herself get like that. Jessica made me leave that one out of the exhibition. ‘It’s an interesting eye you have, Billy,’ she said, ‘but it wouldn’t please everyone.’
I said, ‘That’s not what the instructor told us in Young Offenders. He said you should nurture your own unique vision.’
Jessica’s eye twitched. She didn’t like being argued with, and she had this ambivalence towards my time inside—it was what made me a celeb but she said it was her job to publicise it and not mine. Which is all very well, but if I hadn’t been in Young Offenders I’d never have got into taking pics. They’d run this course on digital photography (and how stupid is that? To do digital photography you need a digital camera and how did anyone think a Young Offender was going to get one of those once he was back on the street?) and I’d signed up to deal with the tension of not knowing whether I’d get out. I’d loved it.
No, with Kathleen I’d pictured her sitting on a bed in nothing but a pair of those knickers Marks & Sparks had in their adverts when they were going after the smart young people who wouldn’t be seen dead in Marks, you might as well ask them to shop in Milletts. Everyone remembers those knickers. Every man, anyway. Lot of lezzies, too, I should think. The ones coming a couple of inches down the leg and cut square. Nice patterns, interesting colours and a dark edge to waist and leg. And the models they used hadn’t exactly been short-changed in the upper body department.
Lovely. Kathleen would be sitting on the bed in these and nothing else, one leg pointing straight out in front and the other drawn up under her, arms crossed at the elbow and hands clasped so that you saw nothing more revealing than a bit of flesh squeezed each side of the arms. And she’d be looking straight at the camera and smiling. That’s one of the things I liked about Kathleen—that she was always smiling. That and not being skinny. She had a lovely smile, Kathleen.
Jessica said I had a fantastic eye for a pic, “a real intuitive grasp for composition,” which was exactly what the instructor at Young Offenders had said. And that’s all it was.
But I’d said it out loud and some mischief-making twat had told Kathleen’s brothers and they were offended. Or pretended they were.
So there you are. I’ve probably outraged fat people, thin people, lesbians and who knows who else? Maybe people who don’t smile. But it can’t be helped. It seems to me that a willingness – in fact, an active desire – to be offended has become part of our culture; people go looking for things to complain about. And what I had to decide was: am I going to write what I want to write in the way I want to write it? Or should I tailor my writing to make sure I don’t offend anyone? I think there’s only one answer to that question. It will probably lead to a lot of one and two star reviews from people who want to take revenge for what they see as a slight, but I have to let Billy tell his story his way.
‘A very enjoyable read. The plot is superb and the writing is lively.’ Male reader, aged 43
‘The criminal element of the book, mostly set in Newcastle, is very well described. I liked how the character developed and the ending was satisfying. Billy is a wonderful character to follow, from his life as a kid to life in prison. Often, it’s rather shocking but the author keeps the reader with him till the bitter end. Fantastic cover too.’ Female reader, aged 28
‘Very, very different to A Just and Upright Man. I loved every page of this novel. The pacing is perfect and the message the book sends out is strong and relevant. Although it should be a sad book, it wasn’t; there was a lot of hope in there too. A big publisher needs to sign up this author soon.’ Female reader, aged 47
‘It’s always fun to find a book by an author who knows his readers and what they want.’ Male reader, aged 24
Writing Style 10/10
Of the 32 readers:
31 would read another book by this author.
28 thought the cover was good or excellent.
20 felt the best part was the writing style.
‘A powerful, unrelenting page-turner. Highly recommended.’ The Wishing Shelf Awards
A Just and Upright Man is the first in the five book James Blakiston series of romance and crime novels set in northeast England in the 1760s. The second book in the series, Poor Law, should be published by September 2015; in the meantime I’m recording the audiobook of A Just and Upright Man and you can hear an extract by clicking on the link above.
If you’d like to be informed when the audiobook is completed and available for purchase, email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Preparing A Just and Upright Man for publication as an audiobook – an audiobook in which I, the author, am also the narrator – has brought me closer to the people behind the text than I’ve ever been. Sometimes I empathise; but sometimes they make me laugh. Take this passage, which is part of what I dictated today:
Blakiston stood in the dark looking out of his window onto the silent, deserted road outside and thinking about the day. The dreadful sight and smell of Reuben Cooper’s burnt body. The strange interview with Martin Wale. Claverley’s account of so many children, all to be investigated if the death turned out not to be the work of malign fate. A man wandering the roads, who might be Irish or might not, and might be a killer or might not, but who at any rate must be found and questioned. The looming shadow of enclosures. A drunken farmer and an idle one, both to lose their livelihoods if he had anything to do with it.
And, underlying all, the painful recollections that never quite went away, of the woman he had expected to marry and the hurt of his loss. He would never allow himself to love again. Of that he was certain.
So, James, you’ll never love again? Listen, mate, this is a Romance. Capital R. Which I am writing. You, my friend, will love whoever I tell you to love.
That Kate Greener’s a nice girl – don’t you think? What? Not your class? Get outta here.
I think this, from JJ Marsh, is the most warming review I’ve ever received.
You can read more about the book here.
You can listen to the opening of Chapter 1 of Sharon Wright: Butterfly by clicking on the link above. This is the beginning of what will become an audio version of the book, but it should also help those who prefer paperback and e-book reads to decide whether this is a book for them. It’s read by Lucy Lowe, who makes a splendid fist of the South London accent – but she does much more than that.
At the Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival, I read an extract from the book that includes this exchange:
‘What did you mean,’ Buggy said, ‘about Carver being peculiar?’
Mitchell stared across the table. ‘You’re right. The man kills people for a living. Nothing strange about that. Just your loveable English eccentric.’
Carver is, of course, as mad as a hatter. He is a hired killer who believes that he is normal and everyone else is nuts. I wasn’t sure how successful I had been in showing that, but listening to Lucy’s reading it comes across loud and clear. I’m also delighted with the way Lucy gets into Sharon’s head – Sharon is another character who doesn’t fit with most people’s idea of “normal” but Lucy gets her perfectly.
I hope you enjoy the reading. You’ll find more about the book here.
Oh — and if you like downloads you can listen to, you’ll find here the first story I ever sold to the BBC.