Go see Ello

Wednesday, May 28, 2008, 6:34 PM

My blogging friend Ello is hosting an author event and discussion on a timely and disturbing topic. Go and read. Go and comment. Your conscience will thank you.


Sunday, May 25, 2008, 6:27 PM

If you cast your eyes left and down, you'll see I've given my sidebar a long overdue makeover. I've added a bunch of links to blogging friends and/or people I chance upon on a regular basis. I'm certain I've neglected some people, and if so, I apologise. I have a rotten memory and probably couldn't fit such a long list into my head. If your name is missing, just drop me a line here or by email and I'll rectify the situation.

Also, I'm gearing up to changing the name and address of this blog over the next couple of weeks - I'll keep you posted on that.

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Workspace Wednesday (or the Meme Revenge)

Wednesday, May 21, 2008, 7:35 PM

So, here's my idea for a Meme, which I will now inaugurate as Workspace Wednesday. It's inspired by a fascinating article at the Guardian Books website, highlighted by Josie. The article is a gallery of well-known writers' offices and workspaces, with a note from each author on the things scattered around them. Anyway, I thought us less well-known writers could have a bash. There are only a few guidelines:

1) You must take a photo of your workspace and post it to your blog.
2) You must provide a few words about it.
3) You must NOT tidy, clean or otherwise stage the workspace - it must be EXACTLY as it usually is (you can see that I followed this rule religiously).
4) (Optional) You can nominate as many or as few others as you wish.

So, here's my mess (click to enlarge):

As you can see, tidiness is not high on my list of priorities. When I bought my house, having a good sized room for an office was key. This is actually a double bedroom, and as well as hosting my desk and computer-type stuff, it also houses my guitars and books at the opposite end. The pics on the walls are all movie related, including posters for Get Carter (best British movie ever), Withnail & I (a wonderful drawing by Ralph Steadman) and City of God. You'll also see I always have a guitar close to hand, along with various bits of audio equipment. The desk (or rather, misappropriated kitchen table) holds various picks, capos, slides, harmonicas, pens, notepads, books, a bottle opener and a Belfast street atlas (useful for figuring out how you'd avoid the cops if you were up to no good). And I know exactly where everything is. Honest.

So, my nominees are:

Betsy, McKoala, and because it needs another guy (and therefore bound to be as messy), Chris. And Josie too, if she hasn't deserted Blog land yet. :)

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Tagged for a Meme - Damn you, Josie!

Monday, May 19, 2008, 7:46 PM

So, Josie went and tagged me for the latest Meme that's been doing the rounds. Sigh. I'm only doing this, 'cause I've got a Meme challenge of my own coming later in the week. Anyway, the rules of this Meme are:

1. The rules of the game get posted at the beginning.
2. Each player answers the questions about themselves.
3. At the end of the post, the player then tags 5-6 people and posts their names, then goes to their blogs and leaves them a comment, letting them know they’ve been tagged and asking them to read the player’s blog.
4. Let the person who tagged you know when you’ve posted your answer.

What were you doing ten years ago?

As it happens, my driving license is about to hit its ten year expiry, and I was just looking at the photo of the more youthful me:

On this evidence, it seem that whatever I was doing ten years ago involved (a) being much thinner, and (b) having more hair. I was also working in a guitar shop, trying to break my way into writing music for film (I did a little, including a low budget feature - it's a tough racket), and clinging to the belief that at any minute David Coverdale would phone and ask me to be the new guitarist in Whitesnake. I also dreamed up ideas for books. Funny how things work out.

What are five things on your to-do list for today (not in any particular order)?

Seeing as it's evening time, this is a mix of things I will do, and have done:

1) Went to the bank
2) Cancelled an appointment with my accountant at the last minute because...
3) Had a major crisis with one of my biggest clients at work. Very stressful.
4) Shortly, I shall make some dinner.
5) Finally, I will get cracking on some minor revisions to the novel.

What are some snacks you enjoy?

Savoury foods are my weakness, rather than sweet. High on the list is Tayto Cheese'n'Onion crisps (the best crisps in the world). Any form of chicken, but have a real weakness for KFC - only allow myself it once a month. And that's it - I lke my food (a lot), but I tend not to snack so much as gorge at meal times.

What would you do if you were a billionaire?

Have Van Halen, AC/DC and ZZ Top to play a private concert for me and some friends. Buy an Aston Martin. Invest in alternative fuel. Pay George Bush and Gordon Brown to go away.

What are five places where you have lived?

1) Born and raised in Armagh.
2) Salford, Manchester.
3) Cheetham Hill, Manchester.
4) Middleton, Manchester (okay, I'm stretching the point with those three).
5) And back to Armagh.

What are five jobs you have had?

1) General dogsbody at a large bakery (I still have one burn scar).
2) Guitar teacher.
3) Film extra (hated, hated, hated it).
4) Music shop guitar guy.
5) Self-employed web developer.

What were the last five books you read?

1) Just finishing up on Jason Pinter's The Mark.
2) The Road by Cormac McCarthy (scroll down for my thoughts on that).
3) Rain Fall by Barry Eisler (a Nat Sobel client - I wanted to see a first novel that he took on).
4) Clandestine by James Ellroy (his second novel - interesting to read a book where his voice was still developing).
5) The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski (I wasn't thrilled with it).

Note - these may not be the actual last five I read, but they're the most recent I remember.

What are five web sites you visit daily (in no particular order)?

I won't include blogging friends in this list.

1) VHLinks.com
2) news.bbc.co.uk
3) ebay.co.uk
4) blu-ray.com
5) icanhascheezburger.com

And that's yer lot. I won't tag anyone else as I think everyone else has been done already. But I will be tagging some with my cunning Meme idea...

Oh, and by the way, my website for THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST is now online!

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Opportunity Knocks: How Nat Sobel Became my Agent

Thursday, May 15, 2008, 9:23 PM

As promised, here's the story of how I managed to get one of the most respected literary agents in the business without sending a query. I didn't realise how long this would be when I started writing it an hour ago, but I've wanted to post about the experience for so long, you're getting a great big burp of it in one go.

Exactly a year ago I was writing the third act of THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST's first draft, then titled FOLLOWERS. If you use the menu on the left, you can even read my journal of the process, along with some other nonsense. At around the same time, I sold my first short story, and my beloved Northern Ireland formed a proper government. In the blog, I wondered if it would stick - it did.

I finished that draft the following June, and did a couple of quick revisions before sending it off to my kind beta readers (waves at Bets and McK).

While they were hacking it to pieces, the novel's protagonist Gerry Fegan kept nagging me, wanting to come out and play again. Just for a little while. As with the novel, I woke from a dream one night with the story in my head. I grabbed the PDA by my bed, started tapping away with my stylus, and knocked out a short story over the next couple of days. I called it THE LAST DANCE, and posted it over at Elektra's Crapometer (which seems sadly neglected these days). It got a mixed reception, from the negative, to "meh", to glowing praise.

I got the notes back from the critiques. A couple more revisions took until the end of August, then the dreaded synopsis needed doing. I never queried very widely on this novel - I'd say half a dozen at most. I'm not sure why. Largely, I think it was because I knew this book needed not just an agent, but exactly the right agent. You see, it's a dark, dark novel with about as troubled a protagonist as you're likely to come across. It's violent, visceral and foul-mouthed. Clearly, this wasn't going to be every agent's cup of tea, and I needed someone who knew how to sell a dark thriller.

We're often told to look up the agents who rep our influences, so because James Ellroy is one of my favourite writers, and one I know I've been shaped by, I found my way to the Sobel Weber Associates website. But I looked at that client list, and thought, woah, way out of my league.

So, still wondering who to turn to, I started other projects (I've got a hard drive full of first chapters here), including submitting a couple of the short stories I had knocking around my computer. One of those was THE LAST DANCE, which I submitted to Thuglit. Lo and behold, on my birthday (was that a portent?) I got an email from Lady Detroit telling me I'd be in the next issue. Cool. So, the story appeared at the end of February. I updated my website, got a few shout outs from other writers, felt pleased with myself, and got back to a particularly busy time at work.

On March 10th, as was normal at the time, I was working late at my office. I casually checked my personal email, and there was a message from a Nat Sobel. The name was familiar, but it didn't click just yet. I read the message, and I remember certain words popping out: "I read your story … literary agent … Followers … interested in reading the work … James Ellroy … Joseph Wambaugh."

*Nat, if you're reading this, I'd ask you to skip the next few paragraphs as I fear it might diminish the cool and professional demeanour I've presented you with so far*

I've quipped to various friends that I fell off my chair, but it's not far from the truth. I had to read the email several times to get it to sink in. I spent about an hour pacing, re-reading it, hyper-ventilating, and Googling Nat Sobel. Turns out his favourite way of finding new writers is through short story publications. He found Richard Russo and FX Toole that way. Hmm, thinks I. So much for query letters and slush piles.

So, I sent off a partial, fully expecting Nat to reject it. To my shock and delight, he expressed some reservations, but requested the full (and in record time). I duly sent it off, again fully expecting Nat to realise it was all a terrible mistake, and reply with a thanks, but no thanks. Instead, and again to my amazement, he came back in less than 48 hours and said, given some substantial revision, he would like to represent me.

At this point, I felt a mixture of excitement and terror I've never experienced before. On the one hand, here was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to snag one of the industry's best agents, and on the other, a chance to blow that opportunity. I don't mind admitting, I was scared. Thankfully, I had some great friends to turn to for support and encouragement (including talking me down from a fit of madness that almost saw me stripping out the novel's central premise), and I can't thank them enough.

So, this is the reason I dropped off the radar around mid March. The revision took the guts of two months, and throughout the process Nat was available for advice, and the occasional stern warning that the results better be good. Working under Nat's guidance has been one of the greatest learning experiences of my life, and as the local saying goes, he is a gentleman and a scholar. What's more, even as I worked on it, I could see how much better, bigger, and deeper Nat's input was making the book.

Three critiques from my blogging friends and another bit of polishing later, the manuscript was turned over to Nat. Cue exactly one sleepless night. Less than 48 hours later, I have one of the most respected publishing professionals in the world representing my book. How does that feel? Strange, and scary, but terrific.

Now things are moving fast. I already have a holding page up at www.theghostsofbelfast.com, and more revisions and general business to do, so it'll be a hectic few weeks. Once again, I want to thank all my blogging friends for your encouragement and support, not just in recent weeks, but throughout my brief writing career. I would never have gotten this far without you. And thanks to everyone who has stopped by to congratulate me, I'll be visiting you all in the coming days.

There'll be a few more blog posts in the near future, if I have time, where I will pontificate on the importance of short stories, my view on finding an agent that "fits", and how absolutely essential getting good critique is. Thanks for reading. :)

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Introducing my agent, Nat Sobel

Wednesday, May 14, 2008, 9:00 AM

I am thrilled to announce that I'm now represented by literary agent Nat Sobel of Sobel Weber Associates, New York. Nat Sobel is one of the longest established and most respected agents in the business, and his clients include: James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia, American Tabloid), Joseph Wambaugh (The Choirboys, The Onion Field, Hollywood Station), Pulitzer winner Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool, Empire Falls, Bridge of Sighs), F.X. Toole (Rope Burns - adapted for the screen as the multi Oscar winning Million Dollar Baby - and Pound for Pound), Robert Jordan (the Wheel of Time series), Tim Dorsey (the Serge Storms series), and many more.

If you'd like to know more about Nat, check out the Sobel Weber Associates website. You can also read an excellent in depth interview that recently appeared at the Poets & Writers website.

There a few blogging friends I must thank for their support over recent weeks:

Sex Scenes at Starbucks - Betsy, without your encouragement and belief, THE GHOSTS OF BELFAST (like the new title?) would never have been written, and your recent support has been above and beyond the call of duty.

McKoala - From the first draft, through to the latest, your insights have been invaluable.

Josephine Damian - Where would I be without your tough-love critique and booty shakes?

And also, a shout out to Moonrat, whose advice came at just the right time.

How Nat came to be my agent is a story in itself, and I'll post about it in the next day or two (clue: it wasn't through the slush pile). Stay tuned...

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THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy: Love it or hate it?

Sunday, May 04, 2008, 4:40 PM

In my previous post, I mentioned The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Having finished it in record time (but about a year after the rest of the world), I must say I was completely blown away by this book. I know opinions on it range from the glowing, to the ambivalent, to outright hatred, so I've been trying to put my finger on what I loved about it.

And I've mostly failed.

All I can say for sure is it hit me right in the gut like no other book has for a long time, the last being Ellroy's American Tabloid (which I think has the very best last line of any novel I've read). The Road hit me so hard, in fact, that I actually dreamed about it for a couple of nights after it was done. The one aspect I can specifically name as affecting me was the relationship between the boy and his father, the depth of their love and dependence, and the terrible choices that love might mean for them. Essentially, that's the core of the book. The post-apocalyptic setting is, to me, a secondary consideration. Their journey could just as easily have been through the American South during the Depression.

The high-water mark in end-of-the-world stories has always been The Day of the Triffids, for me. And there are many other books within the broad sweep of speculative fiction that tackle this kind of scenario, I am Legend being among the most notable, along with movies like 28 Days Later and various tales of life after nuclear war. Can The Road be compared to any of them?

Well, yes, of course it can. It must be, simply because it will be labelled as a genre piece, even if its genre is incidental, rather than fundamental, to its story. But, honestly, those other post-apocalyptic tales didn't enter my mind as I was reading The Road. A big difference is that while books like Day of the Triffids explore the new desolation as part of the storytelling, The Road simply gets on with its primary business: the relationship between father and son. While the mechanics of their survival are part of the story, they are not the spine of it.

Here's a question, though: If The Road was a first novel, would this Pulitzer winner make it over the transom to an agent or editor?

My opinion - absolutely not. Any agent or editor would respond with a form rejection. And you know what? They'd be dead right. This award-winning, Oprah endorsed, triumph of a novel would be an insane choice had it been a debut.

Here's my reasoning: an author of Cormac McCarthy's skill and experience has earned the right to stretch and break the boundaries. No punctuation, flip-flopping point-of-view, unmarked dialogue, no chapters, episodic structure, fragment sentences, a bleak and desperate theme - all lunacy in a novel, and an agent or editor would rightly run a mile if presented with these in a debut. When a reader opens a book, they are entering into a contract of trust with the author. In return for their investment of time and brain-power, the author will guide them on a worthwhile journey, confidently and skilfully, to a satisfying conclusion.

An author of Cormac McCarthy's stature has earned that trust. New authors have not. This is why new authors arguing that they can depart from certain conventions "because McCarthy did it" are entirely wrong in that assertion. McCarthy can do it because he has earned the trust that new authors haven't. Another example is Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand, with its stuttering fragmented prose - you need to pay your dues, prove you can do it, before making such stylistic choices.

And one last note on The Road's style - I don't know if it's by design, or just a side-effect of the structure, but a big part of its page-turning power is down to those constant breaks in the narrative. We all know the psychology of the short chapter -- if there's only a few more pages, the reader will keep going -- but McCarthy has stretched that idea even further. At every moment that I considered putting it down, I looked ahead and thought, well, the next bit's only tiny, so I'll keep going.

And going, and going, and going…