How to get published and make a lot of money*

THE WRITER’S LIFE

The joy of writing is in the act of writing itself. To have words appear before you, working together to gradually tell a story, is indeed a pleasure. To be the author of those words, more so. None of us get into it for the money.

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When I got into writing – like others – I bought a load of books (some would call them ‘self-help’), with titles like that of this blog post. Truth is, it’s a rare person indeed who manages to sell enough books to make anything like a lot of money. One book I’ve treasured is I’d Rather be Writing, by Marcia Golub: It’s a humorous ‘in-joke’, about all those things writers find to do to avoid writing. What we seek is a world free of distractions, for as long as possible, so that we may write. But the world is full of distractions, keeping you away from the thing you long to do, including a very entertaining book about exactly that.

As with the rest of the arts, there will be very few who become wealthy from writing. It’s galling when that’s someone who writes little better than an early-learning student (not mentioning any names, but rhymes with ‘Ban Drown’) and they grow rich from work which is mediocre at best, when there are so many superior writers who hardly get a look in to a crowded market, where luck seems to play a big part.

Of course, the big change has been self-publishing. There was a time when it was considered purely a demonstration of vanity (it was ‘vanity publishing’). Although it was true that many authors did – and still do – self-publish for their own vanity (and it’s a label which some people still apply indiscriminately to self-publishing writers), that’s no longer the case. Quite simply, digital printing has democratised the publishing world, and mainstream agents and publishers now increasingly look to the ranks of self-published authors for their next big name. Unfortunately, there are very many of those. Unfortunate for the writers, as it places them in a crowded market. Fortunate for readers though, as there is a lot of talent in literature which wouldn’t have found its way to them before the digital revolution. Those writers don’t fit the mainstream publishing model, which still works on a populist model for the greatest short-term financial return. The problem for the reader, is finding those authors, and for the writers, being found.

I myself have been compared to some truly great writers, for my writing in different genres. Most recently, I was compared with King, Lovecraft, Kafka and Poe (not some sort of twisted Teletubbies) in an Amazon review of my anthology. A national magazine critic compared my writing with that of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton and the Brontës: writers, “…with a heart in their writing, that captivated the reader.” That was for A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie: My children’s book, dealing with life’s changes. For some of my more thoughtful long short stories, I’ve been compared to Paul Auster; for my twisted tales, with Roald Dahl; and most recently, I’ve been complimented by Douglas Adams fans on Cyrus Song. I have documented proof of this.

So, I’ve written the books, and I’m writing more. But how do I sell them? That’s where not having a mainstream agent or publisher can be the problem. But again – and it’s confirmed by the professional press – those people are scouting the self-publishing shelves, and those are crammed full of good books. So in a rather wonderfully natural way, it all comes down to organics: For one person to buy a book, to like it and talk about it. From there, the growth is natural. And that relies on the power of the people, a little anarchy. Buy my books and vive la révolution, or something.

I’m not alone of course, and it’s not just writers. There are famously unheard-of struggling bands, thrashing away in bedrooms and garages. There are artists, desperate and deserving of fame, wondering how to get noticed. I don’t find it difficult to imagine, being a horror writer, some twisted scenario where an artist has tried all that they know to achieve fame, before resorting to the ultimate sacrifice and taking their own life as a martyr to their cause.

With so many voices competing to be heard, shouting the loudest isn’t the best way: Being interesting and original only goes so far. It gets frustrating. I almost wish I could brainwash people, or inject my words into them. Actually, as a horror writer, I’ve done that at least once in a short story. For now, I need people to take a £10 leap of faith. I’m confident enough of my books that I’d offer a money back guarantee.

Whatever happens, my published writing will be here long after me. So even if I’m wrong with my whole quantum belief system, it’ll be true in a way: My soul will live on. It’s writing which keeps it alive in this life.

Unless I suddenly find myself in the right place at the right time, or start writing for a lower common denominator, it’s not going to change. And that’s fine. I’ve done what I can and I’ll keep doing it. If this were an advice post, that would be my advice, but based only on my personal experience.

*You probably won’t. But never give up.

An unfathomable and irrepressible sensation

THE WRITER’S LIFE | BOOK LAUNCH

It’s been nine months in the making: Six months of writing, then three months of compiling, editing, proofing, more editing, re-reading and re-proofing. The final printed book proofs arrived and now it’s good to go. I must admit to a very pleasant sensation of well-being.

LionsPublishing

Douglas Adams had the inspiration for The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, as he lay on top of a pile of hay while drinking cider. I was sitting in my studio, listening to Pink Floyd: The Division Bell, in fact, and specifically the track Keep Talking. It’s the one which samples Stephen Hawking’s famous quote:

For millions of years, mankind lived just like the animals. Then something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination: We learned to talk…”

My learned friend was of course referring to the human invention of language. But I thought (as others have), ‘But what if we could talk to the animals?’ As a big fan of Douglas Adams, I’m aware of the Babel fish and its use as a universal translator. And that’s when Cyrus Song was born.

Cyrus Song is also the alternative track title of Keep Talking. Cyrus is Sol, our sun: one of hundreds of billions in the Milky Way Galaxy alone, which itself is one of hundreds of billions in the known universe. Space is big, really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is.

Cyrus Song is a big book. Well, it’s not a huge tome as such (412 pages), but it’s deep in context and message. It’s “A deep and meaningful book, with a big heart and a sense of humour,” as one test reader put it. Another said, “An absolute joy to experience unfolding,” and a third, “Enjoyable, inventive and thought provoking.”

It’s a good book. Well, I’m bound to say that; I wrote it? But no. I was a writer for two years before I was brave enough to call myself one. I’m pleased with all four of my books but Cyrus Song is the one I’m proud of. It’s the book I would hang my writer’s hat on and be judged as a writer by.

As a part tribute to Douglas, my book takes a few of his ideas and expands upon them, as small parts of a bigger story which has completely original elements. There are microscopic pan-galactic animals, travelling on arks piloted by black mambas, there are pan-dimensional white mice, and there are three main humans in the cast of characters. There are many domestic and wild animals, given voice through the Babel fish, and there are many cameo appearances by people whom I’ve also paid small tributes to (see if you can spot them all, in the human and animal characters). Nothing digresses too much from the plot though.

It’s a story about a man (a writer) and a young scientist. It is not a love story. In fact, I wrote it partly to demonstrate a lot of things about the depths and breadths of love, but which I can’t divulge at the risk of spoilers. But it’s love on a greater scale, like all humans being equal citizens of the earth, alongside the animals. I also touch on a lot of other subjects: Human psychology, evolution, language and communication, and a lot of science. But the science is all researched and it’s plausible, then it’s written in such a way as to make it accessible. There are other galaxies and dimensions, and there are wormholes. There’s human cloning and the aforementioned intergalactic snake crews, ferrying microscopic animals of all kinds to our planet. There’s the Babel fish (a computer program in my book), which translates the voices of pets and wild animals, both in the wild and in zoos. There’s a lot of factual information about animals, nature and the environment, told in a sort of QI style. The named animals at London Zoo are the actual ones living there at time of writing. All the species discussed are researched in their habits to bring forth their personality types through the Babel fish. The space-time travel, human cloning and more theoretical stuff are all researched so as to be plausible.

The book has been on sale now for a whole 24 hours and I’m seeing copies being bought; for now, in the UK; in a couple of days, worldwide on Amazon; and in a few weeks, available from all retailers and available in libraries. I’m hoping that in a few weeks, the early buyers I’m seeing on Amazon, have enjoyed the book and review it, or post on social media. I don’t think I’m being too optimistic to think that feedback will be positive. And so sales of Cyrus Song will grow gradually but exponentially, as word gets around by natural and organic human marketing. It just needs people to read it, to enjoy it as much as I did writing it.

More than one of my test readers expressed an impatience for a sequel. I’ll only know if that’s worth writing if the original story is popular enough. I have at least four months before I can do any more than plot Cyrus Song II, because I have a personal promise I made to myself: To write a modern historical book, about two people who made me a writer, and whom I can think of no better way to thank than to use the hands they gave me to write something for them. I speak, of course, of my parents.

Like my children, my parents are proud of what I’ve become. Cyrus Song is a multi-generational book and both generations either side of me are keen to read the book when I give them copies. I hope others will join them.

I do know how I feel, actually: I feel how those beta readers said they did at the end of the book: Calm and tranquil. At peace.

Cyrus Song is available now on Amazon.

And you’ve been so busy lately (time in the think tank)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

If I could hang my hat on a short story I wrote, it would be Echo Beach. If I can hang my hat on a novel, it’ll be Cyrus Song. If anyone were tempted to read one article on this blog, I’d point them here for now.

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There are many more short stories planned, as well as whole new books. But recently, I’ve had to move things around a little. I’m planning what I think is a very appropriate Christmas gift for my parents (and I’m out of the horror market for now). When you’re given the opportunity to look forward five years, certain plans take shape.

In my last blog post, I mentioned a book which I was planning for my dad. Now that I’ve had time to start plotting it out, it’s going to take longer than I originally thought to put it together. But I’ve resolved to make this book before I move onto the next one. Why would I post this here, in a public forum, and now indelible? The reasons are as simple as the ones I have for writing the book: To hang my hat on a blog post, step forward and offer the chance of final judgement for those who still hide in the background, and who will remain there.

I don’t seek forgiveness from any false deity, nor do I repent for my sins in the eyes of an unseeing God. My debts on Earth are repaid to the humans who matter to me, and those who will come after them. And they will attest to this, but not in a kangaroo court.

What went on (that would be me going into meltdown), is all squared with family and real friends: I got drunk. I was addicted (I’m still an addict, and always will be), I was on anti-depressants, which, combined with alcohol, can result in blackouts. But I re-live it, as it is not to be denied. I’ve got a medical record which convinced two tribunal panels that I am mentally ill, but otherwise well in the situation which took so much effort to win, and which now sits around me: A modest, secure home, with a social landlord, meaning long-term security. Now that I have that, I live as a diagnosed functioning alcoholic with chronic depression and anxiety. But I live: Perhaps some people will never be happy with the outcome. Finances are still lacking, so I have to make things. But I digress.

My mum (always affectionately referred to as ‘The Mothership’ here (Hi mum), because she gets me: she was a conspirator in making me), sometimes reads this blog. So am I spoiling a surprise? No. What this post does (if The Mothership reads it) is make a promise to her, in public. She trusts me now, based on the last three years of drawing ever closer as a family. So she knows that I won’t break my promise. And I know that I will be able to refer back to this post in five months or so and be vindicated in the eyes of remaining doubters. To be honest, those people bother me no less than an infection which can be ignored. My point with all of this, is to raise two fingers, with a sharp chop to my inside elbow and a reflex raising of my left hand. It’s my cure for cancer.

Will mum tell dad? Maybe. It doesn’t matter. The book I’m planning is one which they can both look forward to seeing in print. I’ve expanded my research a little, just into the history of the house and village where my mum lived, before she and dad lived together. The rest of dad’s life was spent with mum, in the same places. What occurred to me at first as a way to give a temporarily fading memory something to hook onto, has become more as I’ve plotted it. Now it will be a story of two people and how they left marks together, like names carved in a tree.

Every fine garden which my dad created and tended, will always bear his footprint. Every meal which my mum cooked, back in the family unit day, fed labour, and the imagination of a kid. My parents created the means to tell their story. I am that thing which they made, and this book seems an appropriate way to give something back and say a simple thank you.

I can write, compile, edit and publish a book, all from my desk. There will most likely be only a few copies given away, but the book will have an ISBN as part of the publishing process. My parents and those who know them will have a book. Anyone will be able to buy the book; a slice-of-life story from the Kent countryside (beware of spoonerisms). The bottom line is, I can immortalise my parents: I think that’s a nice gift from a writer, who was given the gift of writing (albeit unwittingly) by his parents. It’s something they can share. They gave me this IQ of 147, and now I know what it’s for.

And they are a proud couple, with every right to be. They are proud of me, and I will always give them every reason to be. They are proud to have such as a strange thing as a writer. I write bedtime stories for my kids now. So I can write a book which tells a brief history of how it all started.

All of which means I’m able to agree with myself that my future publishing schedule should go something like this(ish):

Cyrus Song: Now late August / early September, with 12 days left for final test reader comments.

Quietly, Through the Garden of England: Now the working title, being as it’s the journey of two people who would otherwise have gone unnoticed, but who made such a difference. I’m resolved to December publication.

Reflections of Yesterday (still the working title for an anthology): July 2018. I’m writing the fourth of 17 shorts for this: Longer stories, written in different personal circumstances from The Perpetuity of Memory‘s 25 tales. 42 in total.

Cyrus Song II: December 2018. If my confidence in the original is vindicated, this would be the right time.

Infana Kolonia: July 2019. This is still planned as a sci-fi epic but the current plot takes it to 1200 pages, so it needs some work.

Forgive me No-one: May 2020: My uncensored autobiography, if it’s noteworthy. And that all depends where eight published books gets me if I make 50. I don’t seek forgiveness from any false deity, nor do I repent for my sins in the eyes of an unseeing God. My debts on Earth are repaid to the humans who matter, and those who will come after them. Despite what’s in my head sometimes, with this plan in place, I hope I live to be my parents’ age. Maybe then I’ll be half as wise as them.

In the meantime, The Afternaut is shaping up into something really quite original, but which still sticks to the brief sent into the Unfinished Literary Agency. It should now be out in the first half of August, and I think the idea donor will be pleased: Not just with their idea being turned into a story, but knowing that it’s out there and that anyone could read it, if they had time.

And you’ve been so busy lately
that you haven’t found the time
To open up your mind
And watch the world spinning gently out of time
Feel the sunshine on your face
It’s in a computer now
Gone are the future, way out in space…

(Out of Time: Blur, Ben Hillier, Marrakech, 2002).

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The waiting game (long- and short-game strategy)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Over the last four years, there are four personal philosophies which I’ve learned to follow for a reasonably contented life:

  • If you’ve done something wrong, you have a moral responsibility to put it right.

  • Being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it.

  • Try to be the best that you can, at something you enjoy.

  • Don’t put off till tomorrow that which you can do today, because if you do it today and you like it, you can do it again tomorrow.

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Since my breakdown, those rules and others have served me well in life.

The first rule is one which can be applied to mankind and the damage we’ve done to our host planet. This and other themes are covered in my upcoming sci-fi novel, Cyrus Song. The book is still out with test readers for the next couple of weeks and I’m hoping that no news from them is good news.

I’m waiting on two more beta readers, with two having already reported back positively. There have also been a few comments from others who’ve read the manuscript in a “non-official” / friend capacity:

The weirdest, most intriguing story I’ve ever read: I fucking love it!”

Douglas would be proud.”

You’ve written a new fucking bible!” (Well, I suppose if I add another six simple rules to my four at the top, I’ve written ten suggestions (I’d never command)).

Where the fuck did you get the idea? How did you do this?”

You are part fucking alien!”

That, is one very funny, very deep book. It made me think, a lot. I don’t know anyone else who writes like this. It’s very deep, very clever and very satisfying. I cried!”

(Names and addresses supplied)

Obviously, most of these can’t be printed on the cover, although they are encouraging. But the two opinions I’m waiting on are from people I’m involved with contractually, so I need to wait for those before I can do anything more with the book. I’m expecting only minor changes between now and final publication, so September is still looking good and I’m confident the book will do well. Like all writing, its success will be down to word-of-mouth. If I can move publication forward to the end of August (without detriment to the story), it would be rather poetic, as that’ll be nine months after I started writing the book.

I’m assuming no news is good news from the remaining beta readers, because I don’t imagine it would take anyone this long to give negative feedback (the manuscript has been with the readers for three weeks now). If I were in their position, I’d have opened the manuscript as soon as it arrived, if only to have a nose at the first page. And it’s that first page which is all important when writing a book: The first line needs to hook the reader; the first paragraph, intrigue them; and the first page has to have “Turnability”: If a reader doesn’t want to turn that first page, I’ve not got them. Based on that assumption, I would imagine the test readers are indeed reading the manuscript, as opposed to not reading it. I’m speculating, and time will tell: The next couple of weeks in fact. Apropos of nothing much, here’s the first page only (from the 8 x 5” paperback):

Chapter 1: Two little things

This perfectly plausible story begins very unexpectedly, with a decimal point. As with many stories, this one involves something being out of place. In this case, that was a decimal point.

I’d left my desk to make some coffee, and as I came back into the study, I thought I saw something move on the sheet of paper in my typewriter. I was writing a little fantasy science fiction story for a magazine and I’d hit a bit of a block near the beginning, so I’d taken a break. It’s funny how things work in fiction sometimes and having that little pause was what I needed to start the story properly.

Before I continued writing, I re-read the little I’d already typed: something wasn’t right. I checked my research notes, wondering if I’d misinterpreted something but nothing sprang out. I looked back up at the paper in the typewriter and that’s when I noticed a decimal point had moved. I looked more closely and my original decimal point was still where I’d put it, so this other one had just appeared. Then it moved again: The one which had simply materialised, walked across the page. It didn’t have discernible legs but it moved nonetheless.

I picked up my magnifying glass from the side table to get a closer look at this little moving thing.

It’s more aesthetic in layout in the printed book, with the paragraphs indented and less spaced, like you see in a book. Hopefully, that first sentence will hook; the first paragraph, intrigue; and the reader will want to turn to page 2. After that, I’m hoping the book is as enjoyable to read as it was to write.

I posted recently in a writing peer forum about suffering separation anxiety from my characters and among the coping mechanisms suggested, one was “Write a sequel.” I’m already planning it, and should start actually writing it once I’ve gauged the reaction to Cyrus Song itself. The sequel will most likely be called Cyrus Song II: Because I’m so radical and original, but also because I have confidence in the first title.

And while I’m waiting, I’ve been writing, which isn’t entirely surprising.

A few weeks ago, an idea slip was posted for my Unfinished Literature Agency. It was a big brief for a short story but I’ve got it all into what will probably be a 6000 word fable. I’ve been on and off of it for the last week and now I’m buried in it, and loving writing it. It’s kind of an ancient aliens / time-travelling voyage of discovery and evolution, spread over 8000 years (no, really) and with a paradoxical biblical sub-text. The Afternaut (working title) should be published on my favoured web zine in about a month, then possibly in their print quarterly later. I’m grateful to the donor of that idea, and hope they’ll enjoy reading their published story.

And for anyone who’s read this far, thank you. Because this is also a public thank you to all my friends and families, from all eras of my chequered life; old and new, readers and followers, who are still here and who continue to support and encourage me since I emerged from my darkness and decided I’d be a writer.

Thank you.

Postscript
I’ve been wearing a black headband now for over a week and it’s become a part of me and the way I look: More myself. I own a headband 🙂

Why do rainbows look sad?

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Zippy and George

Despite life in general being pretty good, depression is always just around the corner, waiting to piss on my bonfire. No matter how well things can seem on the outside, those suffering from anxiety and depression are always expecting bad news in the post. We know it’s coming, even if it isn’t. A rainbow is a beautiful thing, but it still looks like a sad face. Such is life.

On the flip side, there are of course situations which look worse than they are. I’m not a pessimist. I realise that being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome, but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. So despite suffering chronic (as in, life-affecting) depression, I do tend to look on the bright side. But the dark dog is always skulking in the woods somewhere: One of many ways I describe the perpetual anxiety I have. It’s subjective, it’s as unique as the individual, and others would describe it all differently. We’d all describe it as “a bit shit” but I try as a writer to convey more than that generalisation (true though it is).

Of course, it’s always nice and life-affirming, when something which initially doesn’t look good, turns out to be okay: A bit like someone offering a plate of Russian Roulette sandwiches, where all look the same, but some are filled with Nutella and others with shit. That’s kind of what happened this week, when a lady I know from the council knocked on my door. She’s a very nice lady and part of the team who housed me at my studio when I became vulnerable. My landlord is that rare angel who works with the local authority to offer homes to benefits tenants. As I’ve said before, my studio as a flat is pretty “unusual”, being very small (a bedsit with a separate small kitchen) and with an off-suite toilet and shower room (for my exclusive use). But as an office, it’s feckin’ ace. And seeing as my work is also my life, that’s how come this small living space / cool workspace became known as Le Studio Chez Moi: It fits me and vice versa. The point is, it’s not the kind of place which private renters will be falling over themselves to occupy, even though it’s in a quiet location in a peaceful village. So my landlord rents out the lower end of their portfolio to people like me, who are grateful of somewhere to live. Something I’ve always lacked though, through many years of renting, is a sense of permanence. This is not to be confused with a sense of entitlement, which is something I lack. But for my own personal well being, a permanent home has always been my wish.

When I moved to the studio 15 months ago, I was put on a one year tenancy agreement and the council raised a bond to cover my deposit. At the time, I was told that my landlord may grant a longer tenancy at the end of a first year, depending on how that year went. I’m a good tenant and the first year was without incident. So when that lady from the council turned up at my door, brandishing a manilla C5 window envelope with my name and address peering out, my heart sank (what was I saying about being an optimist or a pessimist?). As it turned out, my deposit bond has been renewed and I’ve been granted a rolling tenancy: It’s the nearest I will ever get to having a permanent home. Council tenancies for life are a thing of the past, but what I have now is the nearest modern equivalent. So that envelope, that potential shit sandwich, turned out to be one filled with chocolate spread, which was nice.

I’ve said before that I don’t want to politicise this blog, and that’s still true. But beliefs are part of what makes the person, so I’ve made it clear in the past that I’m a Labour voter. My day-to-day observations on politics and everything else in the world are on my public Facebook timeline, but I will say a little about recent political events:

I voted Labour and I’m pleased that at least the Tories didn’t get an overall majority. The next few weeks will see more disruption, with coalitions and co-operatives formed. It’s all too complicated to call at the moment but in modernising politics, coalitions will play a part. I don’t see Labour forming a coalition (although I think they should with the Liberal Democrats) but Nicola Sturgeon has said that the SNP will work with any progressive parliamentary party. Progressive is what politics is finally becoming, and that’s a good thing.

Even unilaterally, Labour have a voice in parliament now, which will throw a spanner in the works of Kim-Jong May. The Imperial Dictator called the general election egotistically. She assumed (wrongly) that she would win a landslide majority, giving her the green light to steamroller through her hard Brexit, unchallenged. Under this “no plan” of hers, she was seeking to make the UK an annexe of Trump’s US, with cheap labour (no minimum wage), which could be exploited by employers who’d get tax breaks for investing in UK PLC. Either that, or she called the general election because she was shit scared of Brexit. Both have been equally divisive. Whatever happens next, in the short term at least, I predict increased civil unrest, as the far-right get more marginalised. And May has shot herself in the foot, just like her predecessor.

Social media is a minefield in times like these, with fake news spread by the ignorant. Some of the levels of ignorance I’ve seen have been frankly mind-boggling. I’m talking about those who thought Brexit meant “Immigrants out!” and “Muslims out!”: Fascists, who are probably low-earners and who should naturally vote Labour, but who vote Tory because they think Kim-Jong May will goose step all “Immigrants” out of the country, like some pied piper of the apocolypse. It’s hilarious that most of these people wouldn’t even be allowed entry into some “Pure Aryan race”, when one of the prerequisites for such a twisted fantasy would surely be a high level of intelligence. These are the people who wake up in the morning, see a couple of milk bottles on the doorstep and wonder how they got there. Now there’s a pint I’d like to spill.

So, two weeks ago on Facebook, I predicted a hung parliament. Just over a week ago on this blog, I noted that I sensed an uprising and a lifting of the veil: I stand by that and I’ll watch what happens next with great interest.

Away from political punditry, my next novel is almost complete. In terms of publishing, that means I’m about half way through the whole process. Cyrus Song itself is 90% complete: I wrote the ending a long time ago, and the narrative is now approaching that finale. If I pull off the two “Easter Eggs” I’m planning with the word and page counts, there’s about 10,000 words to go. And that’s a book, written. In first draft. At the end of this month, the manuscript goes out to beta readers, all of whom have signed non-disclosure agreements. I’m hoping I’ll get their feedback by the end of July and in the interim, I’ll be poring over my own copy of the manuscript and tidying it up for the second draft. Then there’s editing and checking spelling, punctuation, grammar, tenses, perspectives, continuity etc. After that, the actual book can be compiled and indexed, then there’s acknowledgements, references and a load of other stuff to write before it’s finally ready for publishing. Barring events which even the finest heirophants couldn’t predict, Christmas is probably now at the far end of my publication window. At the moment, I’m aiming for October. 

So it’s all good. But up above the streets and houses, a rainbow still looks like a sad face.

A return to Echo Beach

THE WRITER’S LIFE | FICTION

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(Image: Pinterest)

For those familiar with the title, this is not a re-write. For those not acquainted (and those already familiar), if there’s one story I’d like to be remembered for, this year or any other, I think it’s the story I told when I was on Echo Beach. Someone very close to me just read it for the first time and commented simply, “Wow. Just wow.” That comment, from that person meant a lot to me for many reasons. All of those reasons are on Echo Beach.

A version of this story will be in The Perpetuity of Memory. Until then, the original is a gift: Chill out with Theo and Hugh, then escape for a while.

I started writing when I drank myself into homelessness. With quite literally nothing but a Sports Direct bag full of clothes, I was in the darkest place I’ve ever known. I could easily have died. Among the many things I did out on the streets, I begged money to buy exercise books and stole some bookies’ pens. What’s happened since has been quite a story.

Now, I’m a writer. I’m a freelance copywriter and ghostwriter for private clients and I get paid modest fees for all that work. After a long battle, my benefits have been reinstated in recognition of my depression, PTSD and alcohol dependence as disabilities. I still write stories which are published under my own name but I’m not so keen to sell them now that I’m being paid from other quarters, when to do so would limit my fiction’s audience and my exposure.

The stories I write for competitions and those which I do sell, obviously won’t be published here. Where I’m giving away a story, I grant one-time web publishing rights and first print rights. My usual partner in this arrangement is Schlock! web zine: They have a very talented stable of writers and the editor has been of enormous help to me as a friend. Schlock! is a labour of love and if this blog gets the ‘zine and my stable mates noticed, then I’ve returned the favour. And now that this latest story is in the public domain, I retain secondary self-publishing rights.

This is Echo Beach…

Echo Beach

By Steve Laker

It was the only sea shell which didn’t contain the ocean. When held to the ear, it was silent. Every shell, on a beach or miles inland, carries a recording: The last sound, to be played back innumerable times if anyone listened. But one shell contained nothing when he held it to his ear. A vacuum. It fitted perfectly into his hand. The size of an adult thumb, his fingers clasped the shell tightly as he walked along the beach.

He shooed some gulls from a discarded bag of chips and sat down to eat with his invisible partner. The birds strutted around, like impatient waiters keen to get home. The chips tasted of the sea: salt. If the ocean had contained none, he would gladly have drained it.

The water played tricks, as though enticing him to drink it: Small and gentle waves merely caressed the beach, like spilled pints of beer in a desert. The water was brown and the moonlight sparkled on frosty suds on the surface: A cola float. A plastic bottle was pushed temptingly towards him, but it was empty; not even a note inside.

The boy looked out over the sea. There were no lighthouses; no ships in the night. Just the spectral light of the sun reflected from the moon. It was silent. It was still. It was beautiful.

Clouds moved slowly across the sky, like the last sheep returning home after a storm. They cast shadows on the shore as they passed in front of the moon and were lit up like candyfloss. Then a figure walked from the shadows: A man, wearing a tall hat and a long coat, silhouetted against the moon, his shadow stretching up the beach to cover the boy’s feet.

The man scooped the plastic bottle up and turned to the boy: “Hello son.” The boy said nothing. He didn’t even look at the man. He just stared at the beach. The man spoke again: “Hello.”

“Hi. I’m not your son.” The boy still looked straight ahead.

“Of course you’re not. I’m so sorry”, said the man. “I’m not your father.” The man sat down and placed the bottle beside him. “What would you prefer?” The boy just stared at the man’s boots: Black pixie boots, with probably two inch heels. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Maybe you only know certain words.” The man stood. “I’ll write some down for you, here in the sand.

“Friend.

“Brother.

“Human?”

“I like that one.” The boy pointed. “Human”.

“Do you have a name?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know your own name?”

“I lost it.”

It is often said, when something is lost, ‘Try to think back to where you were when you last had it.’ And the internal dialogue retort: ‘If I knew where that was, I wouldn’t have lost it in the first place.’

“Do you have parents?”, said the man, sitting back down.

“I think so.” For the first time, the boy looked up. “They were out there.” He pointed to the sea.

“There are many things out there,” said the man. “That’s where I used to live.”

“On a boat?”

“No, beneath the waves. So much quieter.”

“But how?”

“In a kind of submarine.”

“Where do you live now?”

“I don’t.”

“You’re homeless?”

“Not really. I’ve made a place. Wanna see? Get a drink, have a smoke?”

“Is it far?”

“About five minutes away.” The man stood again. “If you don’t trust me, then you should thank your parents. I’m a stranger. Your parents aren’t here. If you like, I can just go and I’ll bring you back fresh water. You can wait here. But I have a story to tell you. If you don’t hear it, then you’ve lost nothing.

“You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything. This is what we call a paradox. Are you with me?”

“Who are you?”

“My name is Talus: Theodore Anthony Nikolai Talus. You can call me Theo.” The man looked at the sand. “I’ll call you Hugh.”

“Why?”

“It’s short for human.”

Hugh stood up. Theo offered his hand and the boy held onto his thumb: it was bony and gnarled; twisted and covered in callouses. As they walked, it became clear in the moonlight that the beach was a cove: Sand bordered by ocean and overhanging cliffs. Hugh felt safe, as though physical contact confirmed Theo to be real. He looked up at this man from the sea, the man who’d emerged from the shadows. As though sensing his gaze, Theo looked down. “How old are you, Hugh?”

“Nine.”

“Haha!” Theo stopped and grinned. Everything was quiet and a wave broke on the shore. “Hahaha! Sorry. I just had a thought.” Two more waves broke.

“What?”

“I just said to you, back there, do you want to come back for a smoke? And you’re nine!? I’ve just got this phrase in my head: ‘Act your age and not your shoe size.'” Theo looked down at his feet.

“I just need a drink.”

“Of course. Sorry. Not far now. About twenty Mississippis or elephants, I’d say.”

“What?”

“Seconds. A Mississippi is a second and so is an elephant. In fact, as one Elephant drank from the Mississippi, another one saw it. It walked over to join its friend and then there were two elephants. Others saw them and soon there were twenty elephants, drinking from the Mississippi. And here we are.”

Theo lead Hugh into a cave at the foot of the rock face. A wave broke on the beach; a Mississippi and an elephant; then they were at a small wooden door, marked ‘No. 7 ⅞’.

“No-one ever comes here. This cove is permanently cut off by the tide.” Theo opened the door and gestured Hugh inside.

“What does the sign on the door mean?”

“Nothing really. That’s just what was printed on one of the pallets I made the door from. Quite a few wooden pallets wash up on the beach. I just tell myself that this is life number seven and that I’m seven eighths of the way through it. Anyway, come in young Hugh man.”

Inside was like the interior of a wooden cabin, complete with an open fire in one wall. The walls and ceiling were lined with lengths of wood from pallets, and sections of wooden boxes. More boxes and pallets had been made into shelves which lined the walls and every shelf was full of items apparently washed up and collected from the beach: Bottles, tins and cans; sea shells, mermaid’s purses and petrified starfish; driftwood, fragments of metal and plastic.

“Could I get a drink now?” Hugh asked.

“Of course. Sorry. Wait here. I’ll just be a moment.”

Theo walked through a second wooden door at the back of the cabin and Hugh heard water being poured.

Dried seaweed hung over the shelves and there were two oil drums on either side: Both were filled with carrier bags and plastic drinks collars. The oil drums were marked, “IN” and “OUT” in white paint. Theo returned and handed Hugh the plastic bottle.

“That’s what I do some of the time,” Theo said, pointing at the drums. “Break the ties of the plastic things, imagining they’re the necks of the bastards who threw them away.” Hugh just nodded his head as he gulped from the bottle. “Sorry if that’s a bit warm. Nowhere to plug a fridge in, even if I wanted one.”

“It’s okay. It’s water; no salt.”

“Take a seat.” Theo motioned towards the wall opposite the shelves. A couch had been fashioned from packing crates and fishing net. To one side was an up-turned fruit box with a set of scales and sea shells on top, and on the arm of the sofa was a book. Assuming this to be Theo’s spot, Hugh sat at the opposite end.

Theo stoked the fire with his boot and pulled some dried seaweed from the shelves. He screwed the seaweed up in his hand and sat next to Hugh. “Smoke?”

“No thanks.”

“Mind if I do?”

“No. It’s your home.”

“Mi Casa, su casa.” Theo tore a page from the book on the table and used it to roll a cigarette with the dried seaweed. “Let me show you something.”

“What are you gonna show me?”

“I’ll show you how much smoke weighs. Watch.” Theo pulled the table towards him and pointed to the scales. “These are liberty scales. On the one side here, we have a crucible; a bowl. I’ll put this cigarette on there, like so.

“Here on the other side, we have a flat plate. It’s empty, so it’s up in the air. Now I need to balance the weight to the cigarette.

“See these shells here? Lots of shells; Lots of shapes, sizes and densities: Many different weights. The bigger ones, they look like shells, but the others? You’d be forgiven for thinking that some of them were just large grains of sand. But if you look really closely, they’re tiny shells. Think how many of those might be out there on the beach and no-one would know. And all of them were once somebody’s home.

“So, by adding shells of different sizes.

“With trial and error.

“The scales should.

Should.

“Take some off, and the scales should.

Balance. There you go.” Theo sat back and pointed at the scales. “So, there you have my cigarette, perfectly balanced. Do you have a light?”

“Er, no. You have a fire though?”

“Of course. Excuse me.” Theo picked up the cigarette. The plate of shells dropped but none fell off. Theo lit the cigarette from the open fire and cupped his hand under it as he returned to the sofa. As he sat down, he tipped a few flecks of ash into the bowl of the scales. The scales moved just a fraction, as though caught in a gentle breeze. Were it not for that brief movement, the plate of shells may as well have stayed at their lowest point. The scales had tipped, barely discernibly.

The smoke from Theo’s cigarette transported Hugh: The burning seaweed conjured images of a roadside Chinese food market; Of flames doused with salt water. A burning street washed away by a tsunami.

With every draw on the cigarette, Theo carefully tipped the ash into the crucible and the shells rose, fractions of a millimetre at a time. When Theo had finished the cigarette, he supported the crucible from underneath and stubbed out the butt in the bowl. He slowly moved his hands away and the shells rose to balance the scales.

“You see? Almost nothing. That’s how much the smoke weighs. The same as the words on that page: Almost weightless as they just sat there in the book, but now free. Out there.”

“That’s quite philosophical.”

“A lot of the words in the book were. But I’ve been trapped here in this cove for long enough now that it’s time to let them go.

“That book was a journal when it was washed up on the shore. It can’t have been in the sea for long because it was still holding together, but the pages were just one pulpy lump. I could tell it’d been written in because the edges of the pages were streaked with blue ink. I hoped I might be able to read those words; someone’s diary or manuscript; someone lost at sea.

“So I hung it out to dry. Every couple of hours, I’d go out there and gently manipulate the pages, hoping they’d all become separated and that there were some words left; something to read, something to do. But when it had all dried out, it was nothing but blank pages.

“It was quite beautiful actually. Where the ink had run and dried out in different ways, some pages looked like sheets of marble; Others were like blueberry ripple ice cream. Pencils wash up on the beach all the time.”

Theo stood and walked to the shelves. He pointed to a box. “Lots of pencils. My favourites are the Staedtler Noris range: the black and yellow ones.” He picked some more seaweed from above the fire. “My preferred pencil is the Staedtler Noris 120: That’s an HB, or grade 2 in America.” Theo walked back to the sofa. “Even better than that though is the 122: The HB pencil with an eraser on the end. All wooden pencils float, of course; but it’s like the 122 has a little life preserver to help it to shore.” He sat down next to Hugh. “That pencil needs to be written with. And there are so many stories in a single pencil.” Theo tore another page from the journal and rolled a cigarette. “Can I get you anything, Hugh man? Another drink? I could probably rustle up something to eat if you like.”

“No, I’m okay. Can I use the bathroom?”

“Mi casa, su casa. It’s right out there.” Theo put the cigarette in his mouth and nodded to the front door. Hugh didn’t move. “What, you expect me to be all en suite?”, Theo continued. “All that’s out back is a store room: Go check for yourself. I’m here on my own, the cove is a cove and the cave is cut off. So, just do what you need to do out there.”

“On the beach?”

“Would you go to the toilet on your own front lawn?”

“I don’t have one.”

“Neither do I. So, do what you have to do out there, near the water. I normally go right where the waves break but I don’t want you getting washed away or anything dramatic like that. Nature will clear up behind you. There’s plenty of seaweed out there if you need to wipe but bring it in here and throw it on the fire when you’re done. I don’t want to smoke it.”

“I only need a pee.”

“Oh.”

As Hugh stood in the moonlight, he could appreciate why so much from the ocean was washed up in front of Theo’s cave. With the tide only about twenty feet from the front door, it swept debris along the curved edges of the cliffs stretching out to sea in an arc on either side. He could already see some of the next day’s haul: Plastic bags to go in the oil drums; Wood and paper to be dried and burned; Empty bottles and drinks cans to be used as storage or perhaps to make a sculpture; Dead fish to cook and eat; seashells and other things for the cabinet of curiosities.

Inside, Theo sat on the sofa with the cigarette still in his mouth, unlit. “I don’t suppose you found a light?”

“No. Even if I had, we’d need to dry it out anyway. May I?” Hugh took the cigarette from Theo’s mouth. He lit it from the open fire and took a drag before handing it back.

“Thanks.” Theo took a draw on the cigarette as Hugh sat back down. “You sure you won’t have one? I won’t tell.”

“There’s no-one to tell.” Hugh slid down on the sofa and gripped a wooden box between his feet. He manoeuvred it closer, then rested his legs on it. “Su casa, mi casa.”

“Mi vida.

So, I started to write things down. First with a 122, then later I switched to a 120.

“Of course, the writer always has freedom with a pencil. The eraser gave me more freedom. I was writer and editor. Maybe I wrote that 122 down to a stub: I don’t recall individual pencils.

“In any case, I decided that the 120 would permit me yet more freedom. Even though it lacks the eraser and although I could still rub out the words if I really needed to, the fact that I couldn’t allowed me to write more freely. The editing was out of my hands.

“I filled that book with memories: mine and those of others.

“And when I say I filled the book, I mean, it was full. Towards the end, my writing was so small that you’d need a very good pair of eyes, a magnifying glass or strong glasses to read it. The odd pair of glasses wash up on the beach every now and then but it’s usually just the frames. So I could look sophisticated perhaps but someone would only have to poke at my eyes to see that I was a fraud.

“Once the last page was filled, I started again; in the margins and at the top and bottom of each page.

“Every day, I’d hope for a new delivery of writing paper. Lots of paper gets washed up but it’s all newspapers and magazines.

“Newspapers just disintegrate: They’re the lowest grade of pulp paper and revert quickly. Magazines are so heavily polished and covered in pictures that they don’t wash. I needed a certain kind of paper. I needed another notebook.

“But nothing got delivered. And that’s when I started smoking.”

“So the book with all your notes in…”

“Stories. Many stories. And there were many more left in the pencils but I had nowhere to write. So I smoked it.”

“Can you remember any of the stories?”

“All of them. I lived them.”

There are as many pictures in words as there are words in pictures. A good story is only one tenth in the words. If the writer chooses the words well enough, the other nine tenths doesn’t need to be written because it’s already there, in the words: It’s the images which the writer conjures; the dreams; the dark matter which makes up most of the universe. Every story ever written has a part of the writer within it, whether it be the author inhabiting a character or a story on the fringe of experience.

“Will you tell me one of the stories?”

“A bedtime story, at your age?”

“Something to connect me to the sea.”

“How about a story with no ending, until you fall asleep?

“It is a story with no ending, because the ending may never and will never be told nor heard. It concerns a man who has outlived his children, his grandchildren, and who will outlive every generation which will come after him.

“Ever since he was a boy, he was curious. So much so that his curiosity got him into trouble when he started to find answers. But his curiosity was eventually rewarded. He was given the means to find out anything he liked. But it was a poisoned chalice; a curse. There was a condition: He may not speak of his discoveries.

“This is just the beginning of that story. In fact, this is merely a summary of the first chapter; A synopsis.

“A synopsis tells the whole story on one page: Just a few well-chosen words which contain many more words and images within themselves; The stars visible in the sky: Cosmic pinpricks in the dark matter.

“The boy lived in the ocean, in a city deep beneath the waves. His parents told him everything they knew about the world around them. The more stories they told him, the more inquisitive he got.

“He was fascinated by the surface. Everyone said that there was nothing above the surface. In fact, even talking about it was forbidden. Travelling there was impossible. But the boy was convinced that beyond the surface, there was something else. And beyond that, something further still. He wanted to build a tower to the surface, to break through and be witness to what was above.

“The surface wasn’t the only taboo. Speculation about anything outside of generally held beliefs was frowned upon. Imagination was effectively illegal. But there were rebels: Those who would meet in secret to defy the thought police.

“The boy joined a fringe society: They called themselves The Biblical Dead. They broke the rules, discussed and even wrote about things which only existed in imagination.

“The Biblical Dead would meet in a den outside the city. They’d smuggle in words they’d written and read their stories to each other. The Biblical Dead had a members’ code: What is said to the dead, what is heard by the dead and who is seen with the dead, remains with the dead.”

Hugh was asleep, so Theo rolled a cigarette and stood outside on the beach, surrounded by the cove.

“And you must not hear the end of the story, young Hugh. The curious boy was unable to contain his ambitions and he betrayed The Biblical Dead, simply by referring to them in a story he wrote and which he lost. The society found out about this and he was banished.

“If he wished to tell stories, then he must do so only to himself. But he must have stories to tell. And so the legend has it that the curious boy was sentenced: To live every life which has ever been lived and all which will come. He must learn for eternity, as every human and every animal which ever roamed the earth and every creature that still will.

“But he must never speak of it.

“You never know what’s gonna happen next. And the moment you think you do, that’s the moment you don’t know anything.”

***

Hugh lived alone in his new home for many years. Every day, he would continue Theo’s work, collecting things from the beach. The fire was kept burning by a regular supply of wood and he collected many curiosities for the shelves: Shells, mermaid’s purses, tins, boxes and bottles. None of the bottles contained messages.

He quickly learned how Theo had made fresh water with a simple desalination plant: a saucepan of salt water, boiled and the steam collected in a funnel overhead. As the steam condensed, it rolled down the inside of the funnel and collected in a tray underneath the saucepan.

Most nights, Hugh would cook dead fish washed up in the cove. Occasionally, an expired crab would make a gourmet treat. There was a plentiful supply of seaweed, to boil, fry or smoke.

The supply of pencils was maintained by the tide but the paper was newsprint and magazines; only good for the fire. There was never another notebook: Just the remaining pages of Theo’s, with writing so small that Hugh couldn’t read it and so he smoked the pages just as Theo had.

If Hugh had had the means to write, there were two things which he’d like to have made special note of: an unbroken jam jar and a shell which scuttled across the cove one day as he was beach combing.

The intact jar, placed to his eye, would make an ideal magnifier. He picked up the walking shell and studied the homeowner inside: A hermit crab, perhaps looking for a new home.

Hugh took the jar into his shack. He placed shells inside which were larger than the crab’s then arranged them in a line on the beach. He went back inside and read the last pages of Theo’s book through his new magnifier.

The next morning, he checked the shells he’d laid outside. As he suspected, one had disappeared and a smaller one lay in its place.

Hugh picked up the discarded shell: It fitted in his palm like a gnarled thumb. He placed it to his ear and it made no sound.

(C) Steve Laker, 2016.

A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie (Review)

THE WRITER’S LIFE

cover-wip2

About two years ago, I wrote a very important story. I was crashing on the sofa of a family of friends and during my stay, a little cloud disappeared: He was a dog. He was part of their family and he was my friend. I decamped to the local pub for a couple of hours and I wrote something which I thought might help. It was the tale of a young girl and a talking dog, who imparted some wisdom for his human friends.

The story has touched the hearts of everyone who’s read it. My nine-year-old daughter was so taken by it that she offered to illustrate it. It won first prize in a national writing competition and it’s available as an ebook in my Kindle store.

It’s always nice to get feedback from readers and peers, especially from those in respected positions; And even more so when I’m compared to “…Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Agatha Christie, the Brontes, Enid Blyton…many others…”.

I am a tart, a whore and a slag; and I will unashamedly share such feedback:

Hi Steve…

I don’t usually email people who’s stories I read, but I felt I had to write to say how much I enjoyed your winning story in Writing Magazine: “A Girl, Frank Burnside and Haile Selassie.”  

These days, so many winning stories in writing competitions are miserable reads — so many being about lingering death, Alzheimer’s Disease, child-abuse — either that or they’re written in such a way that they’ve no heart in them because the writer has tried too hard to display his/her cleverness to the judges. All of this is understandable, of course, when writing for competitions, but for me, they are very boring to read. Half the time I don’t even finish them — just skim to the end to see what the outcome of the tale is — if I’m curious enough that is. 

But your story was different. Yes it was a bit sad, but in a good way. It actually moved me to tears, which is difficult to do at my age (70 years old) and after having read what must be thousands of books in my time. There was a bubbly quality to it, as picked up by the judge, but there was also a readability to it, which is rare in short stories today, and it’s readability that is the sign of a good author. You made me remember all the dogs I’ve had in my life and how I loved them, and how… I know… they loved me, so I cried, but it wasn’t a sad cry, it was a sweet, happy memories cry and that hasn’t happened to me in years.

The best thing,  I thought, was the Voice. I don’t mean the voice of your character (Ellie), although that was brilliantly well done. No, I mean your Authorial Voice. Of all the books I’ve read over the years, whether they were classics or popular fiction, the stories that have stayed in my mind have all been written by authors who had a distinct, individual style …Jane Austen … Charles Dickens… Agatha Christie…the Brontes… Enid Blyton… many others…  and there was a heart in their writing  that captivated the reader. Well, I found that your story captivated me in much the same way as theirs. I think you have, at least the beginnings of, a great Voice and a very readable Style that is all your own and — and yes —  heart! 

So,well done and do  carry on with your writing.  And I wish you all the luck in the world. 

Amanda Carlisle, Writing Magazine (Warner Publishing)

I must admit, I was temporarily taken aback. As I’ve said before, writing is a lonely game and it will only make a living wage for a rare few, but I do it because I love it. Like most other writers, I’m used to submitting a manuscript and not even receiving an acknowledgement: That is standard. Better than nothing at all is a rejection slip: At least then you know that someone’s read your work and you might get some constructive criticism. To receive a comment like this, from a busy sub-editor is pretty amazing: Ask any writer.

Should any talent scouts be reading this, you might be aware of the person who sent me this praise, so feel free to check up. I also have the original email as proof.

(In memory of Jake, 2000 – 2015)