Hurricane Sandy's A-Comin'

Hello all!

Well, NJ and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard is braced for Frankenstorm. Thankfully where I live is far enough from the coast to avoid the storm surge and high enough to avoid flooding. The quite likely loss of power, though, is a more interesting problem.

Our bookshelves now play host to a (temporary) indoor garden. I think it looks rather fetching, actually.

At first the thought of being stuck inside for a couple of days with no power seemed almost romantic. Of course I realise the realities of power failures - hospitals, the elderly, shops, etc., will all suffer. But with so much of my day job requiring the use of computers, an instant, catch-all excuse to get off work and stay home does seem like the perfect excuse to spend more time writing.

Writing by candlelight in an old journal? There's something to be said for it, certainly. But already - before any power cuts are even a reality, before I write a word - I start dreading what comes after.

Typing up my hand written notes.

I know I speak for myself, and not others, when I say this, but ... one of the reasons I avoid writing by hand so much is because I find transferring all of that to the computer so frustratingly slow.

I know it can act as an initial edit.
I know that my style changes when I write with a pen / pencil.
I even know that computers are making us worse spellers.

Mostly, though, I know how annoying I find it to do.

Still, the hurricane is here, and already outside is looking pretty grim. Prayers for all those in its path. Stay safe, help each other out, and (for those writers out there) if you take this chance to write without our computer, I hope you fare better than me.


Book Giveaway Competition: EXTENDED

The other day I made the rash announcement on Twitter that 400 followers would be enough to prompt a book giveaway. Now, it’s never been about the numbers for me, but at the same time it’s fun to mark writerly milestones.

It’s even more fun to share some of my favourite writers and their books. In fact, that’s probably the best part of all.

Well, turns out I should be careful what I say. With a few retweets from fellow writers, the target was met. And I’m thrilled! Interacting with more readers, writers, and generally fun, creative people is an enormous pleasure. I’m sure the numbers on Twitter will go up and down a bit more, and at the time of you reading this I might have only 4 followers, who are all my mum. 

But hey – BOOKS!

I’m a man of my word, me. Well, a man of many words (Hur hur. See, ‘cause I’m a writer. See? Heh).

So, let’s give some books away.

It only seemed right to me to give out SKELLIG, by David Almond, the first time I did this. It’s probably the one book that’s had the largest impact on my writing life. Almond’s style is simply beautiful; stunning and minimalist and haunting, and his tales are phenomenal. If I can introduce anyone to this book, I've done my job. 

To contrast this – this book I read years ago, and have spent years loving – it seemed fun to also give away the last book I read and loved. That’s Lev Grossman’s THE MAGICIANS. Think Harry Potter meets Narnia, for adults. And, honestly, that’s pretty much it. I read this and its sequel one after the other and I already wish there were a third.

So, easy competition! They'll be new, paperback editions. Whether you're in the UK, the U.S., or any other country, it doesn't matter to me. 

1st Prize - Both these amazing books
2nd Prize - Skellig
3rd Prize - The Magicians

Just leave a comment on this post to enter

I’ll leave it open until 23.59 EST, Thursday 25th October Friday 26th and then I’ll be all old fashioned and put the names in a hat. Share this competition on Twitter and I’ll put your name in twice – what larks. Use the hashtag #BooksFromSimon so I can follow along.

Nothing too serious or complicated. It’s mostly being done as a ‘thank you’ to the community and, as I said, as a convenient way to shove my favourite books into other people’s lives.

Good luck!


The New Book and How I'll Write It

I've reached something of a milestone with the new book - the 20,000 word mark. Since I normally aim for roughly 40,000, I've hit the halfway point. The crux, if you will. Or possibly the pivot. By any calculation, the middle.

Thinking of it as a middle is nice. It makes it seem like I'm into the home straight. It's all downhill from here. As good old Treebeard would say (or possibly not), the second half of a book, like travelling south, always feels like going downhill.
Treebeard as illustrated by Inger Edelfeldt
The action has happened / is happening. There's a problem and it need fixin'. There's a world for it to take place in and an end, eventually, in sight. I'm feeling good about this book.

In fact, the way I work, there's probably only about 10,000 words left until Untitled Draft One is finished.

But Simon, 20,000 + 10,000 is only 30,000. Silly.

For a while this has been how I work. My first draft is way short of the final length. The first run through, for me, is a chance to get the plot points in place. Think of it as a bare bones outline - the wire beneath what will eventually become the float - that I can use to check everything works. 'Beginning, middle, and end' may well be a cliched and ridiculed approach to what is in reality a complex and involved process, but having a decent pace and knowing that everything fits is important. I'll write the book, and it'll be short. 10,000 words short - or more - if it has to be.

Then I'll set it aside. A lot's been written about setting aside a first draft to 'cool', and all of it, probably, is true. In my case, it's also a good time to mull over the general feel of the thing.

I'll eventually read the whole thing again, and this is where the new words will come in. Sentences will need extra words; paragraphs, extra sentences; chapters, extra paragraphs. Adding 10,000 words by adding small clumps here and there? Easy. Fill the balloon with helium, then see how big it is.

File:Konstruktion des Freiballons LA2-Blitz-0246 blank.png

Once that's done we're moving towards a workable book. Let is sit and cool again, and then attack with fresh vigour. This time, edits. Cut words down. Trim the fat and kill your darlings, kind of thing. Hand in hand with this is a broader check. Does it still make sense? Is it interesting every chapter? Do the characters' voices remain consistent? 

The introduction will almost certainly need redoing. After spending months with the characters, I can write them more naturally, and so rewriting the first few lines now makes it much more convincing. The first baby-deer-trying-to-walk attempt will be replaced.

But ... all that's still to come. For now I have 20,000 words, and hopefully some of them are good.



An Open Letter to Writers

I'm a writer. That much I have no problem with. I get paid to write and I've no shame in using that title. And I'm an author, too - I'm just not a published author. There's a difference, there. Not forever, I hope.

I have a lot of friends and family at different stages in their writing. Some are just making their first forays into writing. They're finding out that it's hard, and that books don't always write themselves.

Some have ploughed through, taking months - or years - to get that story down, and now they're facing revisions and edits and criticism and more input and more writing. And they're probably finding out that it's hard, then, too.

Some have just started sending their books to agents. It's a nervous time, all that waiting. It takes a different kind of work - professionalism and patience and knowing the industry and networking.

I know some people who are self-publishing. I can't even fathom the amount of work that's going to take. It's impressive.

And then I know some people who have contracts with publishers, who have advances, and advanced copies, and covers, and see their book - their story - in shops. It's joyous, and then it's followed by more work. The next book. The hope of a life doing this.

I know a lot of people, all doing the same thing in different ways. And sometimes it's easy to lose sight of what it is we love doing, instead of what it is we think we should be doing. With all the talk of social media and trends and the Next Big Thing and sales and platform growth, the writing can get lost.

Perhaps we trick ourselves into thinking that it's sales and fans that prove your story is worth writing. That's wrong - it really is. Getting to the end and having a book you're happy with is the goal. Anything after that is trimmings and extras and shouldn't really be the target. 'Cause writing is hard, and you have to love it - love it with something that goes beyond interest or curiosity or even enjoyment - to stay sane. Well, sane-ish. I also know plenty of writers who are certifiable and all the better for it.

So that's what I'm trying keenly to keep rooted at the heart of what I do. Love of words and language and tales, and letting that be what I focus on. es, I want to sell my book. Then I'll have the means to keep writing without having other things to do. But realistically, if the book never sells, or if publishing as we know it ceases to exist, will I keep on going? Of course. For the stories, and for myself.

It's hard, but at the end of the day, it's the only thing I really want to do. And that, I think, is enough.


Worldbuilding, not Micromanaging

I've been adventuring a bit more recently. Last week saw me up in the Adirondack mountains, upstate New York, and the week before was Washington D.C. - both impressive and beautiful in very different ways. Some of the monuments in D.C. - Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, Martin Luther King Jr., the Korean War Vets. - are simply stunning. On the other hand, the peace and tranquility of mist rising over a lake in the mountains really takes some beating.

I love that the same country has such vastly different landscapes - and different approaches, too. One is wild and preserved; the other controlled and gentrified.

Can I apply this clumsy metaphor to writing? Oh, I'm gonna try.

The idea of "worldbuilding" - a term generally used to describe and encompass the entire setting of a book, the entire fictional universe in which the story takes place - has at its center the key to what it means. Building. The best stories take place in worlds that are complete, living, with standard rules and a logic, of any sort, which remains consistent. Tolkien, JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Diane Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett ... they all understood the importance of this and they all put in the effort required to make a complete world, stretching far beyond the borders of the action. The smallest details and the largest cities all get the same treatment: they have to work, make sense, and be self sustaining without too much authorial management.

In a way that's a good way to look at it: don't be a micro-manager. Once you've set them up, worlds should keep ticking without you stepping in too much to explain away inconsistencies, leaps in logic, and flaws.

Wild worlds still need rules. Calm, gentrified worlds still need danger and darkness.

Even contemporary, real-world settings don't get to rest on their laurels. Setting your book in modern day New York City? Great! But you still need to know which type. Believe me, there's more than one NYC. The characters inform that. Bankers don't move in the same world as single moms. Street peddlers don't see the same city as heiresses. You start from that one point, that ground zero, and you expand out, creating, writing, fact checking, and keeping things steady and consistent.

I've said that more than once, now, but it's important; far more important than making things believable (this is a story, after all) is making things consistent. A world shouldn't break its own rules simply for the sake of plot. That's lazy, in my opinion. I wrote about that a few posts back.

So, build your worlds - don't just plonk characters down in them.


P.S. Absolute Write October Blog Chain still going strong, and churning out some really great short stories.If you're reading this on the main page of my blog, just look at the post beneath this one. If you're reading it through a direct link, my own contribution, and the list of other contributors, is right here. Thanks.


AW October Blog Chain - Otherworldly


This story, right, makes me sound crazy,' he said. 'I get that, so don’t ... don't worry.’
I looked at him. ‘I’m not worried,’ I said. I sipped my drink. The barman had called it a Blushing Sunshine with a Twist, as if that classed it up. Hey, that’s not a problem with me. Vodka is vodka. I’m not an idiot.
‘Not saying you were,’ said the man, tapping the table with a finger. He was drunk – on beer, by the smell of it. Nice. Oh, a girl can dream.

He’d just sat down – half collapsed, honestly – and asked if I minded. What did I care? Having him here made things easier. No one likes a bar where a woman sits alone.

‘I’m not crazy,’ he said. He swayed. Very drunk, then. He won’t even remember me tomorrow.
‘So?’ I said, arching an eyebrow. Impress me, bozo. Let’s see what you've got.

He nodded, once, twice. He coughed. ‘I was just walking home,’ he said. ‘From work. Normal, honest work. I’m an accountant. I … I account.’
Drunken chuckle. Very sexy.
‘There was this girl,’ he said. ‘No. Not a girl. Woman. Wo-man. Let me tell you. Face like a  … like a doll. Legs you wouldn't believe. Man.’
I took another sip. So. A woman. It normally was.
‘Well, I talked to her. Not, not creepy, like. I mean in a nice way. In a friendly way. Asked her what her name was.’
‘Practically gallant,’ I said. Urgh. Men. Why were they always so clueless?
‘She was nice.’
‘You mean hot?’
‘I mean nice!’ he said, his voice getting louder. A couple at the bar looked over. I smiled at them. Nothing to see here. I got this.
‘Her name was Lana,’ he said. ‘The woman. She was a model. She took me home.’
I cocked my head. Well, this story went downhill fast.
‘No,’ said the man. ‘No, not like that. No! She wanted to show me something. We’d been walking for a while. She had something to show me.’
‘And what was that?’
‘Wait,’ he said. ‘No. Let me finish.’
‘We went back to her house. But it was weird. Wrong. That house. I … I don’t know, if felt wrong. Even when I first saw it. You know the bank on Fletcher Lane? Next to the Donut Dive?’
‘Oh, yes.’
‘It was there. I mean between them.’
I looked at him for a second. ‘There isn't anything between them,’ I said. ‘The bank and the Donut Dive share a wall. They’re bang next to each other.’

The man practically started crying.

I know,’ he said. He dragged that last word out, like it was all he had to hold on to. He looked terrible, like some sad, lost puppy.

Oh, grief. Was that my mothering instinct? If this was a pick up line, it was the greatest play in history.

Well, the history of this bar, perhaps.

‘That house was bad, man. Like, evil,’ he said. ‘That’s all I know. I didn't want to go in. I told her. She just smiled. Come in with me, she said. I said, no, I was going home. Come on, she says. She pulled me. Her hands were like ice. She clawed at me. She scratched my arms!’
He rolled up his sleeve to the elbow. Nothing there. Big surprise.
‘No, no,’ he groaned. ‘She scratched. There was blood! But I said, no. I pulled away. That house was wrong, it was all wrong. And I guess … she slipped. She slipped on the kerb. And she fell. And she … and I saw …’
‘She shattered! Like ice, but worse. Like glass. Like the safety glass in your car. Tiny, tiny pieces. Millions of them, spread out in the road like water.’
He laughed without smiling. I finished my drink, ‘And?’
He swore and reached into his coat. He dropped something on the table. Pebbles, maybe, but jagged, like diamonds. They were white, red, black, and some pink, the colour of skin. Lana, eh? The man was shaking.
‘I didn't push her,’ he said. I reached over and took his hand.
‘Hey,’ I said. ‘Hey.’
‘I didn't’
Didn't even ask how I knew his name.Wow. Seriously.
‘I believe you.’
He managed to focus on me. ‘Thank you,’ he whispered. Men. Hold their hands and what won’t they do?
‘Daniel, come back to my place,’ I said. ‘I have something to show you.’
He looked at me, straight on, for perhaps the first time. The bar was empty. I smiled, reached forward to stroke his cheek – so warm, by the way – and brushed the glass from the table.

Other writers in the chain:


Why You Should Keep Your Old Manuscripts

On a trip to Washington D.C. this weekend I visited the National Archives of the United States - where, among many other millions of things, they have the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. No photos, I'm afraid, so you'll have to take my word for it, but trust me, they're impressive. Also, very large. Nothing lends import to a letter quite like having it be five feet across.

I've seen other great documents over the years. The Beowulf manuscript, Sir Gawain, the First Folio, the Magna Carta (three of them, now), various original Brontes, Austens, Dickens, Darwin, etc, etc. There's something special about standing right in front of the first copy, the book you love. To see the handwriting of John Milton or Andrew Marvel or Chaucer suddenly brings them to life, makes them actual people who lived and wrote and died, in a way few other things can. The physical process of writing - paper, ink, time, mistakes, etc. - is clearly something our culture still treasures. The wording of the Constitution has been reproduced countless times, but this document was the first one, the original, the history that must be preserved.

I would always encourage literary tourism, if it's done right. Going to the houses of famous authors, lifting them up to the level of historical celebrities, can be eye-opening, inform an incredibly different reading of their work, and bring home how human they were, how many mistakes they made, how many corrections and versions and abandoned projects they had - and that's an ego boost for any struggling writer.

It's also worth remembering, in the age of saved .doc files and e-mail, that having a manuscript, whether hand written or typed out, is a solid, physical reminder that it's a book you're writing. I do keep my old print outs and notebooks, and I go back to them even years later to see what the original germ of an idea was, or whether I made a note for myself then than I can use now. Having the first ever opening line you wrote be right there in your hand is a special thing - and if that opening line gets printed and read by millions, it's even more special, isn't it?

The first time EREN appeared in one of my old notebooks (and back then it was ERIN) was many years ago, and years passed before that quick, unfinished short story turned into the book that's out there now - but still, that original, proto-EREN is special to me at least, and I'm glad I kept it. I have some earlier books, written by my 13 year old self, that I truly hope no one else ever sees - ever - but there's at least one copy of them all saved, just in case, for some reason, it's needed (And good grief, but they're bad).

So, when it comes to old writing, old stories, and old scribbles on old napkins (as long as the napkin's unused), I'm going to take a line from none other than Gandalf. And that, of course, is this:

Keep it secret, keep it safe.



What I'm Reading

Life's got excitingly busy recently, with work developments and travel plans all coming together around the same time. I'm off to D.C. today - my first trip there - for what I'm sure will be high jinx and, if we can manage it, shenanigans.

I've been busy reading, too. I like reading a variety of books - different genres, different styles, different audiences - and often do so in different ways. Certain books I read on the bus into NYC. Certain one I keep at home. Others I read for a time, let sit untouched for months, and then dive back into again. It's a way of reading that works for me - it's not for everyone, I know - and I like the spread.

So what's been on the cards this week?

First up is Lev Grossman's THE MAGICIANS, following a recommendation from a London bookseller I started following on Twitter - and that only happened because she's friends with my agent. These things happen, but finding new books is amazing however it transpires.

It was sold to me as adult Narnia meets adult Harry Potter, and honestly, that's a bang on description, yet still not enough to quite cover it all. The blurb for this one is:

Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he’s still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery. 

He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn’t bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin’s fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.

The magic is dark, believable and somehow still not the real focus for the novel, which is fun to see. It does sound very HP-esque - a magic school, a 'yer a wizard, 'Arry! Quentin!' moment - but the focus on the kids' realistic reactions, emotional lives, sex drives and near nihilist approach to life after education makes this a much meatier, more original book. I got the sequel, THE MAGICIAN KING, out the library straight away. (Side note: How amazing are libraries? I walked in, did a quick search on the catalog, and five minutes later walked out with the book for free. That's real magic.)

The second book is one that I have, in fact, just finished; Alexander McCall Smith's BERTIE PLAYS THE BLUES, the latest in the continuing 44 Scotland Street series:

I've gone on about these a bit before, but honestly, they're some of the most relaxing stories I've read. The tranquil, gentile lives of middle class Scotland - hardly sounds like award wining stuff, eh? - but the human touches, the twists of fate, and the fact I find myself getting annoyed when bad stuff doesn't happen to the bad characters, all comes together to make this a series I will diligently keep on reading. Blurb for this one:

Domestic bliss seems in short supply at 44 Scotland Street. Over at the Pollocks, dad, Stuart, is harbouring a secret about a secret society and Bertie is feeling kind of blue. Having had enough of his neurotic hot-housing mother, he puts himself up for adoption on eBay. Will he go to the highest bidder or will he have to take matters into his own hands? Will the lovelorn Big Lou find true love on the internet? And will Angus Lordie and Domenica make it up the aisle? Catch up with all your favourite faces down in 44 Scotland Street as we follow their daily pursuit of a little happiness.

So, very different to the above, but that can be a good thing.

Next up: BREADCRUMBS, by Anne Ursu.

This one, I've only just started - rather suspect the main action hasn't happened yet, since I'm roughly two chapters in - so no comments to make yet, except that it sounds great:

Once upon a time, Hazel and Jack were best friends. They had been best friends since they were six, spending hot Minneapolis summers and cold Minneapolis winters together, dreaming of Hogwarts and Oz, superheroes and baseball. Now that they were eleven, it was weird for a boy and a girl to be best friends. But they couldn't help it - Hazel and Jack fit, in that way you only read about in books. And they didn't fit anywhere else. 

And then, one day, it was over. Jack just stopped talking to Hazel. And while her mom tried to tell her that this sometimes happens to boys and girls at this age, Hazel had read enough stories to know that it's never that simple. And it turns out, she was right. Jack's heart had been frozen, and he was taken into the woods by a woman dressed in white to live in a palace made of ice. Now, it's up to Hazel to venture into the woods after him. Hazel finds, however, that these woods are nothing like what she's read about, and the Jack that Hazel went in to save isn't the same Jack that will emerge. Or even the same Hazel...

I shall certainly let you fine folk know how it goes.

There are more books, of course - always more - but these three have taken up more of my time than any others this last week.

Them and the writing. The new book is growing, slowly but surely. More to come...



Wednesday's Inspiring Book (and, soon, film)

Morning / afternoon one and all. No Monday post this week due to hectic work schedule, but things are calming down now, and it's time to return to regular programming.

Writing this week's gone well - the new book, which only has a tentative title right now, creeps over the 15,000 word mark - 5000 more and we'll be roughly half way there (and livin' on a prayer). Exciting stuff. I love writing in autumn, as I've mentioned, and just walking around the city, or even a nearby graveyard, makes me excited to get back to the book, to try to capture the feeling in the air. A lot of writing is like that, I think - one exact experience, and years of attempting to recreate it for others.

Today, though, is Wednesday, and around here that can only mean another edition of Wednesday's Inspiring Books. Hold on to your hats, now.

Today, I'm looking at CLOUD ATLAS, by David Mitchell.

The Simon-approved version of the cover
I read this book in Japan after owning it for a while but never making it through the first few pages. Sometimes that happens, and it's OK. The mood doesn't take you, and you have to wait. I don't know what eventually inspired me to begin again, but I'm glad I did (and thankful to my good friend Justin for first recommending this book to me back in the lost world of university days).

CLOUD ATLAS is a complicated book, and very Murakami-esque. I'm not the first to draw that comparison. Set up as a series of stories piled inside one another, Russian dolls-style, it covers thousands of years, but only a few lives - and that's one of its secrets, I think. Mitchell seems capable of broad sweeps and epic narratives, but it's the human angle and their voices he really captures. The underlying themes, of loyalty, love, and the power of our lives to touch those we never meet, are never forced, but woven in with a pretty magic subtlety which leaves you wondering what the themes were, exactly. By that I mean they're not heavy handed - there's a very definite ephemeral nature to the plot.

Later this year the film of this book is coming out:

It looks like they've focused much more on the reincarnation angle than the book does, but it's understandable, and can still work. I'm excited by this movie, but nervous at the same time - book to movie transitions can go horrible wrong, and it's sad when they do.

So how'd this book inspire me? I

t's one of those books that I keep picking up because I remember a certain scene, a certain chapter, a certain character, and I want to read it again. Most times, not the entire book - I skim till I find the story, read a few pages, and leave it again. Mitchell's writing is good enough that these encounters, these turns of phrase and settings and lives are impressed on my memory and simply come to me, unsought for, every now and then. That's inspiring. If I can write a conversation, or a character, or a place, that just pops into readers heads years after they read the book, I'll die a happy man. And maybe I won't really die at all...

So that's today's inspiring book. And, thankfully, it will be inspiring on other days as well, in the future, in the past, etc. That's book magic, that is.