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.

Sometimes, I hear Bob Geldof

THE WRITER’S LIFE

I’ve never really got the hang of Mondays, so I often use them as transitory days, to clear a few things out of the way before moving on to the next thing or week. This is one such Monday. Sometimes though, when every day is almost the same, any day can be Monday. Everything’s good, but for the constant nagging knowledge that there’s bad news on the way in the post, even when there isn’t any.

Hello Monday

My latest book (Cyrus Song) is at a bit of a limbo stage, being as it’s only recently published. It’s sold a few copies and now I have to be as patient as I was with test readers, waiting for people to finish it. If they then feel moved to review the book, or even just talk about it, then others might read it too and do the same. I’m still confident the book will market itself, organically, with the odd bit of spam here and there from me. There was an early review on Amazon, from a test reader who read the final book as well:

Loved it!

I just finished this, after three days of solid reading. It is a very clever book.

I loved the central characters: The chemistry was one of the most complex and believable relationships I’ve seen in a long time, only mired slightly in our protagonist’s mind by the main supporting character: A reluctant marriage of convenience and amusing tension.

It’s a story which develops slowly, but with varied pace moving the narrative along. It was only part way in that I realised there are so many tributes to people, living and dead, in the many passing characters of the people and animals passing through Doctor Hannah Jones’ animal hospital. There are some fascinating animal and nature facts sprinkled through the book and told in a QI style: It’s informative.

This book is deep. It has sad moments but it’s funny. It ends in a way as original as the rest of the story: Somewhat unusual, not entirely unexpected and very satisfying. It’s a book which doesn’t take itself, nor life, the universe and everything, too seriously.

It’s an engrossing and entertaining read. And a special mention must go to Charles (the rabbit) and Captain Mamba. (5/5 stars).

I also got an email from someone else who’s just finished the book, including this:

Even at microscopic size, Captain Mamba is the most irritable, sarcastic, venomous anti-hero I’ve ever fallen in love with.

I am proud of that character. I’m proud of the whole book but as characters go, Captain Mamba certainly is one. Just as Douglas Adams wrote a companion story to The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Young Zaphod Plays it Safe), I may do the same with my captain. Certainly, there will be a sequel novel, if the first one does well enough.

Meanwhile, I’ve started plotting and researching my next book, Quietly Through the Garden of England (on the Book shelf page of this blog). It’s taking the shape of a part-fiction / part-fact (‘factional’?) local history book: Two characters, based on real people, moving through historical settings, each with their own stories and with lots of factual information therein. And all tied up into a ‘story’, only insomuch as the book has a narrator to guide visitors through that story: Me, the writer.

There was a rather nice review posted just recently on Amazon, for The Perpetuity of Memory. My anthology already had one five star review, which are always nice to receive. But to get a four star review from someone who clearly knows their subject, is just as gratifying, especially when I’m compared to peers whom I admire:

endings (perhaps it’s a genre/age/technology thing) but I have enjoyed the writing style very much.

I cannot pretend to understand all the endings (perhaps it’s a genre/age/technology thing) but I have enjoyed the writing style very much. Do I detect the influence of H.P Lovecraft, Kafka, Stephen King and of course…Edgar Allen Poe? Would certainly recommend ‘The Perpetuity of Memory’. Steve Laker is a writer to watch out for. (4/5 stars).

I’m four stories (of 17) into writing my second collection of shorts, more of which should start appearing soon while I work on the next book in the background. So that’s this week sorted, and probably every week between now and Christmas.

Every day is good. It’s been like that since I was first brave enough to call myself a writer. But depression and anxiety make other days feel like Monday. And every Monday, I have to get the hang of it all over again.

Elk arse vet and more fun with words

THE WRITER’S LIFE

Words are my trade, of course. I use them to inform, scare, amuse and confuse. Cross words and crosswords. Long before I was a writer though, words have always held a fascination for me: palindromes and anagrams especially, and playing around with words for cryptic crossword clues, have always been sources of casual amusement. Obscure word meanings too.

Power of Words

Elk arse vet is of course an anagram of my name, and it’s a rather splendid one at that. Anagrams are one of the many tools of the crossword compiler.

There are a few conventions a good compiler will observe:

  • Cryptic crosswords are typically 15 x 15 grids; concise puzzles 13 x 13 in size.

  • The grid should be rotationally symmetrical along at least one diagonal axis, preferably both.

  • It’s considered bad form to have too many unconnected ‘lights’: a light is a white square – to be filled in – and more than two consecutive orphan lights is generally thought unfair to the solver.

  • Often puzzles have an additional feature or aim, achievable upon completion of the puzzle.

My speciality was always cryptic puzzles and I’d incorporate a little ‘Easter egg,’ in the form of a pun or play on words in the initial two, three or four clues. The title of the puzzle would furthermore hold a clue to the keywords / theme.

Once a grid is filled with words (the solution), the most fun for the compiler is to be had in compiling the clues. Some of my all time favourites (answers to follow):

1. MIX (5,8)
2. GSGE (9,4)
3. (4,3,3,1,4)
4. Powered flight (9)

I still do the odd commissioned or themed puzzle for freelance clients, but fewer of my own. Nevertheless, it’s still fun to play with words when I’m out: I see a word and encrypt it, such is the way of my mind. For example (and any solver of cryptic crosswords will know the conventions, so the compiling rationale doesn’t require explanation):

Original thoughts

5. Five in Christmas story (5)
6. Thoughts confused in aside (5)
7. Authors, pens and pencils (7)
8. Own hospital at end of short road (4)

(There’s at least one anagram in there).

One of the main characters in my latest book (which contains at least two Easter Eggs) has a palindromic name: Hannah. Other, longer palindromes are available, but probably not anyone’s names:

A man, a plan, a canal: Panama! (probably the most well known).
Mr. Owl ate my metal worm.
A santa lived as a devil at NASA
Dammit, I’m mad.
Was it a rat I saw?
Do geese see God?
Satan, oscillate my metallic sonatas.

(That last one is a personal favourite).

A few literary devices aside, I don’t seek to confuse with my fiction writing. I’m not an elitist who uses obscure words for the sake of it, when a more accessible one will do. There are rare occasions though, where a word’s meaning is so specific that there’s no better alternative. In those instances, I’ll explain the word within the context of the story. I’ve yet to use them yet, but these have been a few favourites I’ve discovered recently:

Morosoph: A learned fool. Type of: fool, muggins, sap, saphead, tomfool. A person who lacks good judgement (e.g. Boris Johnson).

Epeolatry: An over-fondness for words.

Lalochezia: Relief derived from swearing.

These are some of the things I do, besides actually writing. I read, I learn, and I write, especially when I’m clearing my mind between books. And today I’m starting to plot the next one: The journey of two quiet and otherwise unknown people, who made a real difference to a lot of others.

Cyrus Song is available now.

Solutions:

1. Roman numerals
2. Scrambled eggs
3. Have not got a clue
4. Escalator

5. Novel
6. Ideas
7. Writers
8. Have

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.

A brief history of anarchy and optimism

DEAR DIARY | THE WRITER’S LIFE

Being an optimist or a pessimist makes no difference to the outcome (especially if you subscribe to predeterminism) but the optimist has a better time leading up to it. That’s one of a few philosophies which have helped me over the last four years.

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It was almost four years ago now that I first found myself sitting in McDonald’s, with a school exercise book and a bookmaker’s pen, starting to write notes. When I look at what’s happened since, it was optimism and activism which got me through.

It’s only in the last few months that I’ve had the security of a rolling tenancy with a social landlord (having passed a “probationary” first year). I had to work for what I now have, and it was optimism and a determination to better my lot that got me here. Having spent three months street homeless, a further six months in a squat, seven months sofa-surfing, then a year crammed into an illegal, overcrowded flat above a crooked landlord’s pub, I feel I’ve earned my modest but comfortable life.

Those early notes made up the oldest entries on this blog, as I’d go to the library for an hour a day to type them up. Then some of them formed the basis for my first novel: A semi-autobiographical flash fiction tale of a man, looking for answers among lost souls, while dealing with personal demons. Fast forward three years and I’ve published an anthology, an award-winning children’s book, and soon a second novel. My current typewriter is the year-old laptop my mum gave me (“I thought it might help with your writing”). My studio, in this tranquil little village, is just up the road from where George Orwell once lived. It’s all rather splendid. I earned it, I was optimistic, and I worked hard to get where I am. Temporarily at least, I’m happy. But I’m also restless.

Normally, happy people make shit activists: They lack the restlessness which drives change. A world full of them would be a passive and complicit place. But it’s being a commentator and occasional activist which makes me happy and was partly responsible for getting me where I am. And besides, peaceful civil disobedience is fun.

Sometimes when I was homeless, I wished I was a dog, because then life wouldn’t be so complicated. Dogs have such low expectations of life: Take them for a walk, throw a stick, or open a packet of biscuits, and a dog is happy. They’ve got every day nailed. But I’m restless; I question things: If I throw a stick for a dog, is the dog perhaps bringing it to me because he’s humouring me by playing along at what he thinks is my favourite game? In some ways, dogs are anarchists, depending on one’s understanding of the term.

Like my particular brand of atheism (I don’t deny the possibility of superior beings, I deny God in man’s image), my anarchism is refined beyond the stereotype of chaos often used to depict anarchy.

My conventional political standing is one of liberal socialism, but I see how that can be just one small remove from communism. My anarchism has its basis in the works of Naom Chomsky, who defines anarchy as “…a tendency in human thought which shows up in different forms in different circumstances, and has some leading characteristics. Primarily it is a tendency that is suspicious and sceptical of domination, authority, and hierarchy. It seeks structures of hierarchy and domination in human life over the whole range, extending from, say, patriarchal families to, say, imperial systems, and it asks whether those systems are justified. It assumes that the burden of proof for anyone in a position of power and authority lies on them. Their authority is not self-justifying. They have to give a reason for it, a justification. And if they can’t justify that authority and power and control, which is the usual case, then the authority ought to be dismantled and replaced by something more free and just. And, as I understand it, anarchy is just that tendency. It takes different forms at different times.” Anarchy is people working together, where exploration and discovery aren’t suppressed or monetised. Dogs do that really well.

What I’ve achieved over the last four years, I’ve achieved by working with the system, learning how it works and respecting those who work within it. I can’t help thinking though, that it all would have been a lot quicker if those people weren’t employed by government.

Life is like a jigsaw puzzle: All the pieces fit together eventually. But if you follow convention and complete the edges first, you’ll finish the puzzle too quickly. Think differently.

Cyrus Song will be published on or before 17.08.17.

A prelude to the Cyrus Song

THE WRITER’S LIFE

So, there’s going to be this book. I may have mentioned it once or twice. That’s because it’s a good book, and it’s not just me who says so. And everything surrounding the book has just happened, by weird coincidence and by virtue of the number 42.

AuthorBookPosterDate

Coincidences are there to be found in many things, if you look enough. It just so happens that Cyrus Song took about seven months to write. Since then, it’s gone through another two months of compiling, editing and re-reading. In my own eyes, it’s perfect. There are one or two reviews due back from test readers in the next few days, but the reviews so far have been good:

I don’t think I’ve read anything else which is as funny as it is deep.”

A worthy tribute to Douglas, but it’s totally its own thing.”

Very, very clever.”

I love all the little tributes buried in here.”

And so on (names and addresses supplied).

There’s much more besides, happening on my own planet and in the wider world, but I’m pre-occupied with getting this book out. I’m still suffering separation anxiety from my characters while they’re in the care of the beta readers. So what about when the book is published, and Simon fry, Hannah Jones et al, are in the hands of (hopefully) many readers? By then, they’ll be characters I’m proud of enough, and confident in, to send out into the wider world. I love them anyway: They’re people I created, including all their problems, and they’re people I care about. While they’re still with those remaining test readers, they’re still effectively out on approval. They’re like my children on the first day of pre-school.

Many people reading the book, may actually learn a lot. Not just from the story itself, but from all the factual information in there. I always do a lot of research, and that’s certainly true of this book. All the science is plausible, and many of the places actually exist. When it comes to London Zoo, the animals in the book are the animals actually at ZSL Regent’s Park at time of writing: Kumbuka, the silverback gorilla, is real, as are the pair of black mambas in the reptile house. And there are many others, from Aardvark to Zebra.

Now that the manuscript is otherwise complete, and the book proofed, I can take a stab at a publication date (which adds up to 42): 17.08.17. Whereas – like Douglas – I’ve previously loved the whooshing sound a deadline makes as it passes, this may be one where I can jump off of the train while it’s still moving, and hit the platform running: If anything, Cyrus Song should be released by that date, so possibly before. I’m sure I’ll find a way of making 42 from whatever numbers they are.

And now that the time approaches and I’ve had almost all feedback, I can write a longer synopsis to the one on the back cover of the book:

Simon Fry is convinced that the answer to life, the universe and everything, is in the earth itself. Specifically, he believes that if he could talk with the animals, he’d find the answers. Or at least, the questions which need to be asked for the answer to make any kind of sense. Doctor Hannah Jones is a veterinary surgeon. She has a quantum computer, running a program called the Babel fish: Like its fictitious namesake, the Babel fish can translate any language to and from any other. Elsewhere, Mr Fry considers what might be possible if historical scientists were able to make use of all that would be new to them in the 21st century. Having watched Jurassic Park, he is fairly sure he can make this a reality. So begins one man’s quest to find answers to questions he doesn’t know yet. Cyrus Song is the story of Mr Fry’s ponderous mission to find answers to questions he never knew he had, about himself, life, the universe and everything. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s a story of boy meets girl, but it’s not a love story. But in a way, it is, because the book is a greater story: Animals talk; There are pan-galactic microscopic animals; and there are white mice. There’s a rabbit, because all rabbits always look like they want to say something. We find out the truth about many animals, including what the cats are up to. There’s an accidental human clone, a large supporting cast of characters, and many tributes in cameo roles for people whom I admire. I’ve buried some Easter Eggs in the book too.

And there is an answer. There’s an answer to life, the universe and everything, besides 42 (although 42 does get a mention). It’s a tribute to Douglas Adams and I saved the best review till second-to-last:

This is a worthy offshoot of Douglas’ books, and The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. A tribute, but very much original.” (Name and address supplied).

It’s science fiction but it’s plausible; It’s deep in meaning, and very funny. I can’t say much more beyond the extended synopsis, because of what’s in the book. People may read this book and choose not to give too much away: A bit like the film, The Cabin in the Woods, talking about it could reveal spoilers. That’s what I hope for most: for those who’ve read it to say to others, “You just have to read it.”

Soon my creation and my characters will be out there in the wider world, and I have every confidence they’ll do well. You have been listening to the prelude to the Cyrus Song, brought to you by the number 42.

How the fuck did you think of this? Where did you get the idea?” (With my imagination).

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The Unfinished Literary Agency (First edition)

FICTION

As I continue to write short stories for a second collection, there are two so far in that next book from The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a theme which pops up in other stories, but the agency itself has published four stories so far. This was the first, and it’s in my first anthology…

Horror writer desk

The Unfinished Literary Agency

The Unfinished literary agency was like no other that I’d worked for. In all my years of writing, I’d simply not heard of them. The first I’d ever heard of them was when I received a letter on headed paper. It was a rather fine letterhead: an off-white recycled stock, with the agency’s details die-stamped in blue ink. Intriguingly, the telephone number was prefixed “01”: an old, old London number. The letter said that they had some unfinished work which they would like me to complete: I had been summonsed by – or from – the past. I had neither the time nor the inclination to visit them in person, although I did some research and found that the agency was above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington.

It was a hot summer afternoon when my friends found the diaries. Just in time too, as it had begun to rain and the smell of wet dust filled the air as water hit arid pavements. The diaries were in a battered green skip, outside a building which was being demolished.

There were 126 volumes in all. Some were faux leather-bound journals, some A5 refill pads and even a few school exercise books. Most were stuffed into boxes; one once filled with Xerox toner cartridges. Other books were thrown in amongst the bricks and debris from the building. They weren’t numbered or dated, so I had no way of arranging them into chronological order. They simply sat in boxes in the order they’d been retrieved from the skip by Jasper and Mole.

One journal almost audibly begged to be read, with its lurid New York taxi yellow cover. As I picked it up, it felt like I held a life in my hand, or at least a part of one. In bold, black letters on the front cover was the legend: “I hope these are found when I’m gone. Within these covers, a heart once beat.” There was no hint as to who the author might have been: The writer was simply “I”. “I” had seemingly lived and died there, in Upper Street N1, then been thrown into a skip.

I was working on another project at the time, ghost writing an autobiography. I was a blogger by trade and I surely didn’t have time to read through 126 volumes of someone else’s life. What was I to do? Hand the books into the police and be laughed at? After a period of time, the diaries would be destroyed if no-one had claimed them, or returned to me. Would I really miss the tatty old boxes cluttering up my studio? That life in the skip had already passed. What were my friends to have done if they’d not pulled the journals from the skip though? To leave them there would surely have been criminal. So I kept them, as they’d been dumped in my studio. Jasper suggested I might like to write about the anonymous life found in a skip. As a fiction writer, I could be a biographer who didn’t have a clue about who their subject was. I’d get around to them eventually.

Two terrible things happened in the month that followed: Mole, ironically, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and began an intensive course of chemotherapy; Jasper was killed, suddenly and for no apparent reason. Everything can change in a moment, without warning and forever. For several weeks afterwards, I looked at the journals in their boxes and wondered how I’d feel as I read them. They represented a time when all was well, when Mole and Jasper had found them. Perhaps I ought to leave things that way.

The journals languished in their boxes for a year before I finally started to read them. I’d resisted before because I knew that my inquisitive nature would turn the books into a personal mission: who wrote them? Who was “I”? Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I began to read. The journals provided a link to Mole and Jasper. To be honest, I needed an escape into someone else’s life.

It wasn’t the yellow taxi volume I picked up first. The one I started to read was an anonymous black book, much like most of the others, and chosen at random. It started in the middle of a sentence: “…I’m bleeding. I’ve been stabbed. My blood is everywhere…”

I didn’t know who I was reading about and that anonymity meant that each sentence was a story in itself: Who was this? Why was he bleeding? What on earth had happened? Despite the fact that he was bleeding, the writer continued with sufficient clarity as to maintain a tidy style of handwriting: the individual letters were scribed with care; grammar and punctuation were perfect. He just carried on. Occasionally there were dates: days and months but not years. Sometimes the writing referred to events which I could attach approximate dates to – mentions of news events and programmes on TV – but still, there were 125 more volumes to comb through.

Eventually I pieced sufficient volumes together to work out that the stabbing incident had occurred when “I” was 14. But when was this? How had a 14-year-old boy been stabbed and what were the consequences? With no means of knowing which journal to read next, I was drawn into the story: I may have to read all of the volumes to fit things together. There is no recording of the time of day that the stabbing happened. The volume I was reading could even be the last: “I” could have died aged 14.

The text in that particular volume became gradually more rushed. Words clashed with the edges of pages as they hit. The author was trying to fit as much in as possible before the pages – or time – ran out. I was just skimming; hoping to find out. Maybe I should hand these diaries in to the police after all? But “I” hadn’t. It were as though he’d entrusted all of this information to the journals and my job now seemed to be one of unravelling, in private.

I managed to find the volume which followed the book of the bloodshed. I realised that the easiest way to achieve this was to look at just the first page of each notebook: I was simply looking for a sentence which began part way through, because the last page of the bloodshed book ended mid-sentence, with I “…bleeding from my insides, spilling my guts for all to see. How am I to explain something which I don’t understand but which has nonetheless happened? I feel light headed, like the blood is draining from my brain and pouring from the same exit wound…”

And that’s where it ended. He’d bled through a whole volume. An exit wound? Had he been shot? Is this why he couldn’t go to the police? Was this the last chapter? I longed for “I” to take me further. I don’t recall how many first pages I read but the one that stopped me was the one which began, “…and all because of my sex.” Was he homosexual? It mattered not a jot but it was the only thing I could think of.

As I read further, the river of blood slowed to a trickle and was eventually stemmed. Perhaps if I’d been less presumptuous, I’d have realised sooner that the poor young lad had been having his period. He was a girl.

Why wouldn’t I want to pry around a teenage girl’s intimate thoughts? The diaries became more than curios from then. No longer was it just a mystery thriller; now it was eroticism. I had metaphorically tasted virginal, vaginal teenage blood. Now I had an angry angel. I wanted to know who this young writer was, why she had died and been thrown away.

I continued to read the journals in the same random order: just as they’d ordered themselves when they were dumped, as though that was the way the writer had intended. Perhaps I was over romanticising. “I” described things in a way which made me wonder if she ever expected or wanted anyone else to hear about them. But it was manna to a voyeuristic fiction writer with an anonymous autobiography at my disposal.

Although “I” was now a girl, I still didn’t have a name. In a way, I preferred it like that: the anonymity gave the diaries a universality. They were impersonal, so as to reduce the voyeurism a little, and yet “I” wrote of intensely personal things. I figured it was okay to write about these things because she didn’t want her name to be known.

Nothing is certain. That’s the number one cancer cliche. 18 months after Mole’s first course of chemotherapy, the tumours returned. It was difficult to tell which was murdering him quicker: nature or medicine.

My focus now was to try to establish some kind of time line. If I committed to reading all of the journals in detail, I should be able to use the clues I’d previously identified to string things in some rough order. This became an obsession, as I read more and more intimate parts of this girl’s writing. I could almost hear her voice as her pen strokes betrayed her mood. She was always alternately angry and hurried when she wrote of her father. He taunted her regularly, verbally and physically assaulted her. I had to relive episodes with her over and over again, as I placed things in order.

It was her father who shattered one of the biggest illusions for me. Up to that point, I had no idea what “I” looked like but I had imagined her: She was of course small, slim, blonde and extraordinarily pretty. She wore her hair in a pony tail for school and let it down when she got home. She’d sit in front of a mirror and describe herself in her father’s words in her diary: “I’m fat and ugly. I’m useless at everything and never get anything right. I’m stupid and weak. I’ll never amount to anything in my life. When I die – which will hopefully be soon – my epitaph will read: ‘Here lies Vicky Francis, who did nothing, went nowhere and was loved by nobody.’”

Vicky.

I missed the nameless girl of my imaginings. I’d been robbed of my floating abstract, now squeezed into a finite thing. I’d liked this girl with no name, whose every feature was of my own design. I enjoyed her clumsiness, her irrational moments and her occasional desires for outbursts of violence. So what if she was called Vicky?

Vicky had been to many places. In the mid 1970s, she was living with her father in London. From social and current affairs of the time when she wrote, I worked out that she was in her early 20s by then. There seemed to be no-one besides her and the old man and he was drunk most of the time. Vicky paid the bills with cleaning jobs and bar work. The more I read, the more the story changed in itself and the expectations of the reader. It gained greater depth and breadth as first Vicky’s appearance was revealed, then her name. Now it took on some of the period piece, with the addition of a place and time in history: 1970s London, Soho in fact.

Vicky wrote of the seedy Soho of legend in salacious detail: encounters with pimps, prostitutes, punters, gangsters and drug dealers; Hostess bars and clip joints: she didn’t say if she worked in any of them but she wrote with an intimate familiarity, as though she worked around them. She had wild and ambitious plans and was in a hurry to record them in her diary. Some days and hours were dozens of pages long. Vicky would record one day in minute-by-minute detail, then say nothing for a week. I missed her when she was away and would search for the next entry in the journals.

In the little spare time she had, Vicky was working on a project: a biography in fact. She didn’t name her subject but I should like to learn more of him for the basis of a fictional character. The man was a monster: Some kind of tutor but he abused his students when they got things wrong. He was apparently in a permanent drunken state, unable to remember his abuse on the morning after the day before. Very little more is written of this man. Like with so much else with Vicky, once she gets her teeth into something, she disappears while she pursues it. Perhaps it would be dangerous for her to document the details.

In Vicky’s story, this older man was a full 30 years older than her main protagonist. Her character is also 14. The man has much in common with Vicky’s father but he doesn’t abuse her directly. The tutor allowed a young girl’s adulation to get out of hand. Vicky’s father demolished her confidence and ruined her ambitions, over a period of at least a decade. It was an intense and abusive period in her life.

After 1985, the story became vague. The content of the diaries grew gradually more sketchy, as though an outside influence was distracting Vicky, or indeed the character she was writing about: the stories had merged together.

Toward what now appeared to be the end, when Vicky was in her 30s, she was homeless. She was scavenging food from supermarket bins and using a single hob to cook. A typical meal was the one she cooked herself for her birthday that year: an out-of-date chicken madras microwave ready meal, which she over-cooked “to make it a bit safer.”

Mole was nearing the end of his time too. He implored me to step back a little, to stop reading the 126 books so intently and focus – as I was supposed to – on putting them into some sort of order; to form a backbone for the story, then add the bones and fill in the gaps. Maybe then it would take on life. I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I needed to see the whole of Vicky and not selected highlights of her eventful life. I suppose I’d resisted because so many of my assumptions about Vicky had been false. How many others were?

I hope I die as peacefully as Mole did. The sudden but not unexpected ending of one life shone a light into the gaps of the one I was writing about. Vicky revealed a secret so massive that I was momentarily thrown and yet she didn’t write a word about it. After plotting a timeline of the period of her life which I held, I realised what a small part it was. The late 1970s, the whole of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s were missing. Those stories from 1995 still seemed to be the end though.

I estimated that the 126 volumes I’d still only skimmed over, amounted to about 15,000 pages, or 5 million words. Using that as a benchmark for number of words per year and knowing roughly the period of Vicky’s life which I knew about, I calculated the size of the diaries including the missing years. Using this very crude method, I reckoned that there could be close to 1000 journals somewhere: 40 million words, waiting to be heard. Vicky was a very prolific diarist and it would be a lifetime’s work for a biographer to record her life. In which case, a partly remarkable life is lost. And so I had to continue.

But how would I find all of those missing years? Why were there only edited highlights in the skip? I couldn’t believe that Vicky would have stopped for those periods. She always found time to write, whatever she was doing otherwise. If she’d married or got a job, she’d have written about it. It wasn’t so much the sudden ending of the diaries which intrigued me as those big gaps in the narrative. A life which was missing the 80s was a tragedy. Vicky came back afterwards, so where had she been in that defining decade? As a fiction writer, I could fill in the gaps but there was too much of the real story holding me.

I simply couldn’t think where those missing years might be. I didn’t even know exactly where Jasper and Mole recovered the original diaries from because at the time, I’d been so wrapped up in my own world that I’d not bothered to collect them myself. I hadn’t even thought to fucking ask. I’d lost my two best friends, and the one who confided her diaries to me. So I returned to being a fiction writer.

I resolved to confront this man, these men, the people in general, who had made Vicky’s life, so many lives, intolerable. I’d written about many such people: Evil but charismatic; the antagonists in my stories sometimes, but more often than not, the narrators. People who charmed their way into lives, leaving indelible marks. Characters so calculating as to ensure those scars were only on the inside: no-one could see the real harm. Characters whom I’d made anti-heroes and whose appealing looks and personality disguised a black heart. Invisible people.

Just as it is impossible to find someone if you don’t know where they are, it’s easy if you know who you’re looking for. Not only did I know who he was but I knew exactly where to find him.

We had a very pleasant evening together and I was seated at this very writing desk as I poured our last drink. In fact, this very manuscript of Vicky’s and so many others’ unfinished stories, was protruding from the top of my typewriter as I looked through the open curtains in front of the desk, out into the night at the street lamps. A sheet of off-white paper, bearing an unfinished story, the end of which would be determined by me, as I pressed the keys and the individual letters embossed themselves on the sheet. One keystroke, a metallic hammer into a soft surface, changing the story forever.

I stared back at myself from the window as I typed and reflected on such a tragic life, like a rabbit in the headlights:

“The end…

© Steve Laker, 2016

The Perpetuity of Memory is available now. My publishing schedule is on the book shelf page of this blog.