A Breakthrough, and a Lesson Learned

Tuesday, March 31, 2009, 9:03 PM

After last week's angst over the difficult sophomore novel, I have hopefully made a breakthrough. Just airing the problem seems to have helped a great deal, as tends to be the way. Unusually for me, taking the more structured approach of mapping out the plot on index cards made all the difference. And a couple big twists presented themselves in the process, so a win all round.

And a lesson learned...

Be very careful about basing minor characters on people you know. They might not find it as cool as you do. In fact, they might find it upsetting and offensive. Let's chalk that one up to experience, shall we?

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A Thank You

Thursday, March 26, 2009, 10:35 PM

A quick post to say thank you to everyone who rallied around after my last post and gave me a series of pep talks. There were some very kind things said, and I'm grateful.

Meeting the problem face-to-face seems to have helped, as it always does. I've always been a seat-of-the-pants writer, so sitting down and mapping things out on index cards goes against my nature, but I gave it a go. And what do you know, it threw up some new plot twists that just shifted this whole thing into a whole new gear. And that includes one twist I didn't see coming that's going to be a real gut-wrench, and have implications for at least one more book to come, and possibly more.

So, back to the coalface.

Thanks again.

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The Difficult Second Album

Wednesday, March 25, 2009, 10:15 PM

I've been threatening to blog about this for a while now, so here it is: I have the Second Book Blues.

Where The Twelve/The Ghosts of Belfast was written incredibly quickly, Book Two is proving a struggle. Seriously, it's like pulling teeth trying to write this thing. And why is that?

There are lots of reasons. Some are practicalities, such as the story being much more complex and less linear, with a larger cast of characters. Another is the problem of having less available time in which to write (and that situation is only getting worse).

But I think the greater obstacles are psychological. For one, there is now a deadline, a date on the calendar for which I am contractually obliged to have this book written for. A while ago, it seemed a lifetime away. Now it feels like it's right around the corner, a problem that's exacerbated by the first book's publication and the attendant hoopla standing between me and there. This means a new ingredient that has never been in the writing process for me before: pressure.

Another aspect to this is the knowledge that this book will be published. The first book was written purely on hope, with nothing to lose but time. It didn't matter if it was any good or not at the time it was being written, so out it came, unhindered. Not so book two. Every single word I write, I know seasoned publishing professionals are going to scrutinise. My agent, my UK and US publishers. This leads to deepening of the already niggling insecurities. What if they find out the first book was a fluke? What if they discover I'm a fraud, that I was never any good in the first place? So now I'm constantly second-guessing myself as I write. And what does that make? More pressure.

Then on top of all that, there's the anxiety of Book One's looming publication. I've had more than one sleepless night about that already. What if it doesn't sell? What if it gets panned? What will my friends and family think if it all fizzles out, dies a death just as it enters the world? And yet more pressure.

I take comfort from knowing that I am not alone in this. A couple of the seasoned professionals mentioned above have told me it's not uncommon to have a hard time with book two. As one told me, I had all my life to write Book One. Now I've got to write Book Two in just a few months. That makes me feel a little better.

And before anyone else raises the point, I know this sounds like whining. I know many writers would give just about anything to have the opportunities I've had. I don't take any of them for granted. But still, it's tough.

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Conduit Takes Manhattan, Part Two: The Return (now with added karaoke)

Monday, March 16, 2009, 11:56 PM

So, I got back from New York about a week ago and I've been meaning to blog about it ever since. Seeing as I've got a miserable cold, I shall reminisce to soothe my scratchy throat and tender nose…

Unlike the last time I visited the great Oz-to-which-we-all-aspire (courtesy of Adam Gopnik) across the ocean, this time I had people to see. It makes a big difference to find friendly faces in a place like NYC, even for a solitary misanthrope such as myself. The people-to-see weren't the reason behind the trip - that was more to do with Aer Lingus having a special offer for flights in March and the Manhattan hotels slashing their prices - but they were a major bonus.

This time I stayed right in the heart of it, two blocks south of Central Park in the Salisbury Hotel. I can recommend it to anyone who wants a Manhattan hotel room with a private bath without having to sell their own house to afford it. A bit dated, slow elevators, but a massive room with this view of 57th Street and Carnegie Hall just across the way…

When I arrived I almost shrivelled into a quivering ball. I have never been so cold in my life as when I was standing on the platform at Jamaica station waiting for the LIRR into the city. I mean like Eskimo cold. Like polar bear cold. Like so cold penguins couldn't take it, even if they huddled. But, it did mean I got to see Central Park in the snow…

I also had more time to enjoy some of the finer things New York has to offer. The Natural History Museum was fascinating, even if the stuffed animals were a bit creepy. And all the little girls screaming "Eeeewwwwwww!" at the Neanderthal men's wedding-tackle. I went on a Friday. Friday seems to be the day all the schools go. I would have given medals to all the teachers keeping the kids under control. Anyway, I also had a good day touring the Metropolitan Museum of Art, during which I discovered that Damien Hirst isn't the fraud I thought he was (really, that shark thing is amazing).

Anyway, on to the highlights of my visit:

Meeting Nat Sobel

It was a huge pleasure to meet my agent (who, I am not afraid to say, changed my life with an email almost exactly a year ago to the day) Nat Sobel. I went to his office-cum-home near Gramercy Park on my first full day in NYC, and it is one of the most wonderful settings I could ever imagine living in. It's a quiet street with beautiful buildings, extraordinarily peaceful, but just steps away from Park Avenue and the maelstrom of Union Square. Nat and I discussed several things, including the economy, my upcoming debut, and of course, my literary hero, James Ellroy. I got to see the cover art for Blood's a Rover (stunning, by the way - exactly what you'd want Ellroy's apparent masterpiece to look like), but Nat also told me something else about James Ellroy which I'm bursting to share. Something that I think will be utterly amazing, and Nat tells me is absolutely extraordinary. But for now, my lips are sealed.

I also got to meet Nat's excellent assistant, Julie, who made me feel quite at home.

Nat then took me to lunch at a very beautiful restaurant on Park Avenue where we met his wife and business partner Judith Weber, who is one of the most charming and elegant ladies it has ever been my pleasure to encounter. She kindly took the time to write out a list of restaurants in the city that I should check out, some of which I did - Trattoria Dell'Arte is a fine Italian bar and restaurant on 7th Avenue, just around the corner from my hotel. Thumbs up from me. Anyway, it was a lovely afternoon, and Nat and Judith were wonderful hosts.

Meeting Soho Press

I had a brief but fun meeting with the folks at my American publisher, Soho Press, on the morning of my departure. Laura Hruska, the head of Soho, is charming, vivacious, forthright, formidable and very, very nice. She strikes me as a whip-smart and passionate publisher, and it's no wonder her independent press is held in such high regard around the world. I also met Sarah Reidy, Soho's publicity whiz, who was ready to take all my questions about promoting The Ghosts of Belfast stateside. Unfortunately, my mind went blank when it came to it. But it was still great to meet the people who will be publishing me in the US; I'm in good hands. And they sent me away with a bagful of free books, which can't be bad.

Meeting Moonrat

This is where it all goes downhill
We all read Moonrat's blog. Along with Nathan Bransford's and Janet Reid's excellent corners of the interwebs, Moonrat's is one of the most informative and entertaining publishing blogs out there. Thing is, you probably have some image in your mind about our dear beloved Moonrat. Perhaps you think she is a quiet, bookish young woman. Thick spectacles, likely a quiet demeanour. Demure.

Dear God, Moonrat can suck back cheap wine and wail ABBA like no one I've ever met before.

I met Moonrat at her office (more free books!) in a nondescript building somewhere downtown. I got a quick tour, met some of her charming co-workers, before being whisked off to a local pub. A pub which appears to be frequented by all the extras from The Sopranos. I'd never heard the phrase "you guinea fuck" used in actual conversation before, but I have now.

So, a few pints of Bass, some chicken strips, and a pizza later, we head off in search of a liquor store. We need the liquor for the next stop on my bizarre night in NYC, which is at a karaoke … something. It wasn't a bar, because we brought our own booze. I don't know if it was a club. It was more like what I'd imagine the inside of a bordello to be like. It was on 34th Street (I think), and it was an anonymous door between some shops. We climbed several flights of rickety stairs at the top of which Moonrat raps a door. A gentleman answers, Moonrat utters the password, and we are ushered through corridors until we enter a gaudily painted room with tattered couches, lots of alcohol, and around a dozen or so very drunk people singing into microphones while a selection of AOR classics plays out on a big projector.

After that, it all gets a bit hazy for a while. I remember the young ladies whose party it was, and thanking them for letting me tag along. I remember one of them wanting a song by "Spand-oo Ballet". I also remember Moonrat's hot friend Marie (from Boston, I believe) chiding me for not liking U2 while she demonstrated her novel methods of storing Guinness, which involved her getting cold bosoms. And Moonrat herself, who knows her way around a karaoke machine. She also out-drank me by a ratio of approximately two-to-one.

To round off the night, Moonrat, one of the party's hostesses, and another gentleman whose name I can't recall (but he was a teacher) and I went to a Korean restaurant where I had some sort of spicy pork broth-cum-stew which I made a fool of myself with by attempting to eat it with chopsticks. Bear in mind, KFC is considered exotic where I come from. I have to say the appeal of the cinnamon tea at the end of it all was rather lost on me, but it was quite a night.

So, that was my trip to New York. No wonder I was so exhausted when I got back.

My First Review!

I was a little terrified to find the first proper review of The Twelve this evening. By "proper", I mean one that isn't an author quote or someone I know - a real-world reader. I needn't have been, though, because someone called Bibliobeck was very kind. Five stars of kindness, in fact. :)

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Recent Events in Northern Ireland

Tuesday, March 10, 2009, 10:11 PM

I've just returned from a fantastic trip to New York, a city so far removed from where I grew up in every conceivable way that it seemed like some make-believe place when I was a kid. I met some wonderful people, ate food whose names I can't remember, and felt like Jimmy the Biscuit because I gave a pretty waitress a stupidly generous tip (there was drink taken, you understand, and she flirted very well).

In all this splendour, I checked the news from home. Two soldiers shot dead over the weekend as they took delivery of pizza, and the Polish immigrant workers who delivered the pizza were injured (the Real IRA, who carried out the attack, claim justification because the delivery men were servicing agents of the British state - you couldn't make it up). On arriving back in my home town I heard further news that a police officer had been murdered last night as he attended an emergency call from a distressed woman.

Quite a come down.

Gerard Brennan expressed it very well here. And that feeling is shared by the vast majority of people here. But the vast majority isn't enough. There has been much debate over whether or not the actions of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, republican or loyalist, could be understood (or even condoned) given the social, political and historical context of the times. I won't go into that other than to say I know where I stand, and anyone who reads THE TWELVE/THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST will be left in little doubt of my feelings on the issue.

But today, this week, this month, this year, this decade, this century, there can be no case argued for this kind of mindless killing. And if somehow you can make a case for it, then you are a sad, twisted individual, and you have my pity.

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I'm Feeling Delicate...

Saturday, March 07, 2009, 9:20 PM

And it's all Moonrat's fault. More to follow...