Publication day!

Today my first children’s novel was published.

The Thieves of Pudding Lane

The Thieves of Pudding Lane is the story of Samuel and Catherine, two children orphaned by the Plague in 1666. When the Great Fire of London breaks out they become involved in a plot to rob the abandoned houses of the rich, but when the gang of thieves discovers a lost little boy hiding in one of the houses, it is split over what to do with him. The book is a fast-paced historical adventure aimed at readers 9 to 12.

I first had the idea for The Thieves of Pudding Lane in 2004, so it really has taken a decade to make it to the bookshelves! The concept came to me whilst watching a documentary about the Great Fire. When one of the historians mentioned that the richest people in London left a lot of their most expensive belongings behind, I wondered whether anyone had taken advantage of the opportunity to help themselves. The title came to me instantly.

I didn’t spend 10 years writing it, of course. I made my first attempt back then, but it ran aground pretty quickly. After a few chapters I realised it wasn’t working. Maybe the idea wasn’t that good after all, I thought. I had this thought several times over the next few years, and gave up on several drafts. Each time I went off for another year or so and worked on many other ideas, and even published three non-fiction books in the meantime.

But the idea just wouldn’t go away. In 2011 I thought I would give it one last shot, finally get it out of my system once and for all. And now it’s been published.

Really, though, the seeds for The Thieves of Pudding Lane were sown when I was the age of my intended readers. When I was that age I loved disaster movies (secretly I still do). My favourites were The Poseidon Adventure (about a cruise ship that is turned upside down by a massive wave) and The Towering Inferno (about a massive fire that breaks out in a skyscraper). They’re entirely made up, of course, whereas my book is based on a real-life disaster of epic proportions.

You can buy The Thieves of Pudding Lane (RRP £5.99, ISBN 978-1-4729-0318-1) through all good bookshops or online retailers, including Amazon.

Bad reviews (and worse reactions)

I’ll never forget the first time I got a bad review. That particular book was due to be published the first week of January, so the day after Christmas I decided to check Amazon to make sure there was nothing amiss. They must have started releasing stock early. This review wasn’t just negative, it was halfway towards being a character assassination.

Or so it felt at the time.

Soon enough, however, I realised that the reviewer wasn’t my mortal enemy, the book hadn’t really ruined their Christmas and the review wasn’t really about me.

The thing is, no review is actually about the author – unless they make it about them.

If you get a good review then that doesn’t mean the reviewer wants to be your new best friend. It just means they got something out of your book – and enough to take the time to write a review. How great is that?! A bad review, meanwhile, just means the book wasn’t right for that reader. It’s about them, not you. So don’t take it personally.

Have you liked every book you ever read? You have splendid pre-judgement if so! Myself, one of the worst books I have ever read went on to be selected by various esteemed publications as their book-of-the-year a few months after I sent it packing to the charity shop. It wasn’t one of the worst books those people had ever read. It just wasn’t for me.

Pick any literary classic at random and then check out the reviews on Amazon. You’ll find plenty of one-star reviews for every single one. One of my favourite novels is Les Miserables, but there are plenty of damning reviews on Amazon of the ‘it wasn’t anything like the film’ variety. I like the film (the musical with Hugh Jackman is better than the straight adaptation with Liam Neeson too, if you ask me), but it cuts out most of the first 200 pages of the novel and covers the rest of them in a couple of songs.

I doubt Victor Hugo is spinning in his grave because of those reviews. And if you get a review that seems just as ridiculous to you, you shouldn’t let it bother you either. Because it is still nothing to do with you.

You don’t have a right to be liked. You are not entitled to receive unanimous praise and ceaseless adoration. That you sweated blood and wept until the marrow was wrung from your bones over your story is ultimately irrelevant. You can’t please everyone. Nor should you try. Your one and only goal is to write the best story you can. If people like it, great. If they don’t, that’s their problem.

Rudyard Kipling referred to both triumph and disaster as ‘impostors’ in his poem If (a great poem for all writers). Treat them just the same. Spend your time working on writing the best story you can rather than responding to people who didn’t like the last one. It’s not like you’re going to change anybody’s mind by shouting at them, is it?

That doesn’t mean you should ignore good advice or bury your head in the sand, of course. But you have to develop a filter to recognise good advice when you see it. There might be some value to what critical people say about your last story. If so, see how it can help improve your next one. A bad review can still be a good learning experience.

And if you’re incapable of having that level of ex post facto objectivity, then there’s only one solution – don’t bother reading any reviews at all. At all.

Unfortunately there are some trolls out there, people who like nothing better than tearing people down. It seems quite inexplicable behaviour but there’s not much you can do about them. Certainly don’t stoop to their level. They want to get a reaction. Ignore them and they will probably get bored and move on to their next target (there probably will be one, alas). Meanwhile, you should be writing the best story you can and when it finds the right readers you won’t have to worry about the odd bad review from the wrong ones.

The end of the beginning

This blog entry will teach you how to write a book that sells thirty thousand copies.

That got your attention, didn’t it? Because that’s the conventional writing wisdom, isn’t it? It’s number one on the list of commandments issued by every creative writing class you will ever take, every book about writing you will ever read. Thou shalt write a killer first line.

This blog entry isn’t really about how to write a book that sells thirty thousand copies. It’s about how we writers sometimes take the first commandment too literally, become fixated on that first couple of dozen words, and then fall into the trap of thinking a killer first line buys us some leeway with readers.

This is, of course, completely wrong. The first line is only the most important line until you get to the second line, and the second line is only the most important line until you get to the third, and so on. You don’t have much leeway with readers at all. There is really only one commandment – keep the reader reading. And that’s just as important in the eight hundredth sentence of your story as the first. Perhaps more so. Novels rarely lose me in the first sentence (one of my favourites, Les Miserables, has a pretty terrible first line), but fifty pages in, if I’m not yet committed to finishing the thing, there’s every chance I probably won’t.

I’ve been thinking about beginnings a lot lately because I’ve been working on two of them simultaneously. My children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane, has been going through final edits, and I am currently revising the beginning of my latest work-in-progress after receiving some fantastic advice from the literary agent I recently signed with.

I tell people that The Thieves of Pudding Lane only went through two drafts, though if I want to make a joke of it, I say it went through two and a half. And, beginning to end, that’s true. Beginning to just-after-the-beginning, however, it went through a dozen drafts, a dozen literal false starts where I realised it wasn’t working and started again from scratch.

In the very first draft, I detailed the main character Samuel’s journey across London to the Old Bailey courthouse. It was full of lovely descriptions of the city and included prose I would still be proud of today. But I knew something was wrong. At one point I even fell into the trap of getting fixated on the first sentence, so threw in some desperate and inconsequential threat by having Samuel sit in a boat that’s rocking a bit too roughly as it crosses the River Thames…

That scene, that subplot, indeed the entire character relationship underpinning that beginning, no longer features in the story in any form. But I wasn’t to know that would be the case at the time, a point I’ll come back to later.

Many drafts later I was sure I had nailed it. I had written a dramatic opening chapter in which Samuel’s father throws him out of the house in the middle of the night because Samuel’s mother has become sick with Plague. An editor liked the beginning enough to request the rest of the book, and then make me an offer for it.

And then she cut out that chapter in its entirety.

And the story works better because of it. Because a scene, a character or a twist might be what starts us writing a story, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the best place for a reader to start reading it. Everything that happened in that prologue is covered elsewhere in the story. My novel is not about how Samuel became an orphan on the streets of London in 1666, it’s about what he does and what happens to him afterwards. The prologue was just set-up, and set-up always, always has an addiction to killing the pace of your story. My beginning is now shorter, faster paced and, ultimately, better.

I always like to view editors as teachers rather than critics, so I told myself I had learnt my lesson and would not make the same mistake with the beginning of my next project. And I didn’t. I made a completely different one.

My current work-in-progress originally started with the main character, a teenage girl, learning her mum has died (it’s a bit of a common theme, I know). Before she has time to process that, however, she quickly learns several terrible truths about other people she knows.

The beginning is fast paced, was the verdict from everyone who read it at the literary agency who took it on, but at the expense of really, truly connecting emotionally with all the characters before they descend into their terrible ordeal. In my first draft we never met the girl’s mum before she died – she was just this abstract concept of ‘mother’. So from having the beginning cut from one story I went to being asked to write a new, longer opening for this one! And, as with The Thieves of Pudding Lane, once it was done, I saw it was the right thing to do, and couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

At the risk of sounding like some hippie writing guru for a moment, you should take a holistic approach to beginning your story. Don’t view it as some separate part of your story that needs to be given special attention, above and beyond what you give the rest of the story. Everything that happens at the beginning must have a direct impact on everything that happens in the rest of the story, not just in terms of character and plot but pace, setting, tone and other elements too.

For this reason, if you’re worrying about your beginning, my advice would be: don’t. Don’t get caught up on writing a perfect beginning at the expense of not writing the perfect middle and perfect ending. Indeed, get to the end, look back at your story from there, and you might well find your perfect beginning waiting for you, wondering how on earth you missed it at the start.

UPDATE: the excised prologue was later reinstated in the final version. Make of that – and what it means for everything I’ve said in this blog – what you will!

Work in progress

It’s now been a couple of weeks since I put the finishing touches to my latest work in progress. I say ‘finishing touches’ but the process never ends, to be honest, and at some point it will be time to stop fiddling and tweaking and pick-pick-picking. Too many strokes spoil the painting, and all that. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be a comma (misplaced or otherwise) that decides its fate.

This one is quite different to anything else I’ve written in the last few years, being a fantasy story about Scottish clans and past lives. Like many ideas, it was born of two separate half-ideas (one of which first came to me many years ago) clashing and fusing into a whole. And like many ideas, that creative nuclear fusion happened whilst I was sitting on a commuter train trundling through Essex. I don’t do that any more, but fortunately it’s not had a detrimental effect on the flow of fresh ideas so far.

Though this isn’t the first time I’ve headed a blog entry with ‘Work in progress’. Just under a year ago I wrote about finishing another project I felt very happy with. I’m still very happy with it today, but it will never be published. I submitted it to a handful of literary agents and several asked to read it, but ultimately each had a perfectly reasonable explanation as to why they didn’t think it would sell. I couldn’t disagree with the last one, actually, and so didn’t submit it to anyone else afterwards.

So Papercut, the story of the aftermath of a stabbing from the perspective of a teenage boy, becomes the one that got away. But it’s not the only one that did that. Other books (non-fiction about pirates, a general maritime history for kids, and a disgusting food cookbook) have all fallen by the wayside at one stage or another. Yet my page on Amazon makes it look like I write one book a year, and have no trouble getting published, whereas the truth is it’s always an uphill slog, and I have to start from the bottom each time.

It does make me wonder about other authors’ ones-that-got-away, though. And whether the rise in digital self-publishing will change that in future. And whether that would actually be a good thing, anyway.

Stand By Me

I’ve noted before that I’m a child of the movies, and that it was two movies in particular that drove me to write, even if it was novels, not films, that appealed by way of form. The first film was Jaws, which I saw when I was about 6 or 7. I wrote my very first story the next day. The other film was Stand By Me, which I saw 20 years ago this weekend.

Stand By Me is based on Stephen King’s semi-autobiographical novella The Body, which is about 12-year-old boys growing up in small-town America in the 1950s. The main character is Gordie LaChance (played by Wil Wheaton), a quiet boy whose much-loved older brother has recently died, and who dreams of being a writer. His friends include damaged Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) and wannabe rebel Chris Chambers (River Phoenix), but it is the wholly innocent Vern Tessio (Jerry O’Connell) who sets the story in motion. He overhears reports about a missing boy, suspected of being hit by a train somewhere out in the woods. Gordie and his friends set out on a quest to find the body.

Stand By Me is the only adaptation of a Stephen King story that he himself says improved on what he wrote. The changes are very subtle. Indeed, the dialogue is lifted almost entirely from the novella, and even most of Richard Dreyfus’s narration comes from the prose. But the screenwriters changed the focus of a key scene near the end, giving Gordie the gun instead of Chris. It shifts the story emphatically into being Gordie’s rite of passage, accepting his brother’s death and coming out from his brother’s shadow. Gordie’s brother may have become the famous football player everyone expected him to become, but now Gordie’s going to become the famous writer.

I decided I would become one too (and shortly thereafter permanently set aside my other goal of inventing time travel). I was already writing by then, of course, and had already sent one silly seven-and-a-half-page novel to a publisher, but it was seeing Stand By Me that made me realise there was a subtle difference between writing and being a writer.

The same day I watched the film, I started keeping a diary which I have kept to this day. From the very first entry I made it clear to posterity this was going to be the log of adventures I would seek, with the attention of one day mining them for wonderful novels. I had somewhat missed the point of the film, of course. It’s not really about finding a dead kid’s body. It’s not even really about looking for it. It’s about the things Gordie and Chris say to each other on the way, things that can’t be unsaid, and how those things change everything, and forever. Looking back at them now, that’s what the diaries would ultimately become too.

It’s impossible for me to watch the film objectively these days. Every time I see it I still think it’s perfect. It may just have been the case that I was the perfect age for it when I first saw it – the same age as the characters. It didn’t matter that it was set half a century before. Twelve-year-old boys hadn’t changed, and I doubt they have in the last couple of decades either.

Words and Women

I encountered many inspirational writers during my time at the University of East Anglia, some of them – Paul Magrs, Bernardine Evaristo – there to teach, but others there to learn alongside me, such as Bel Greenwood. I read her children’s fantasy novel earlier this year and I look forward to the day when it’s in bookshops so you (and/or your kids) can enjoy it too. Anyway, Bel has remained in lovely Norwich, and she’s involved in various grassroots writing projects, both with kids and adults. I’m therefore happy to share details for a competition one of her groups is currently running for female writers living in Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire.

The Great Fire of London

Today, 347 years ago, was the day a terrible blaze on several London streets turned into a major disaster that would consume the entire city. The fire had broken out the previous night in a bakery on Pudding Lane. The long hot summer of 1666 had left this wooden metropolis bone-dry, its wells almost empty, but whilst these were factors why the fire proved unstoppable, the reason it spread so far was the easterly gale that started blowing on the evening of the 1st and didn’t stop blowing until the 5th – the day, uncoincidentally, that the fire finally burnt itself out.

For much of Sunday 2nd, the fire was an exciting spectacle watched from the apparent safety of balconies several streets away, an amusing piece of gossip – heads would surely roll once the incompetence of those failing to extinguish the fire after several hours was revealed publicly! By the evening of the 2nd, the fire was no longer an entertainment. Those on the ground found throwing water at the flames ineffective. The wind blew so hard that it carried burning embers across streets so that new fires would break out behind the volunteer firefighters, forcing them to retreat.


From Wikipedia

The fire burned so hot that dry wooden surfaces facing the heat began to spontaneously combust, even without help from the wind. As all these separate fires grew, they were absorbed into a single burgeoning inferno, a wall of fire that spread west into the heart of London. Nothing could be done to stop it. They even tried blowing up buildings in its path and removing the rubble so that the flames couldn’t spread, but those flames were now so large – several times taller than a man – that the fire was even able to cross the River Fleet without much difficulty.

Night on the 2nd threw the true extent of the fire into terrible relief. By sunrise on the 3rd, civil order had broken down, the amateur firefighters had abandoned their attempts to get the conflagration under control, and tens of thousands of people were attempting to flee the city. By the evening of the 5th, over 80 per cent of them would be homeless.

The action of my forthcoming children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane (Bloomsbury, October 2014), takes place almost entirely on the 2nd, but I have used a little creative licence and accelerated the spread of the fire slightly. Much of the final act of the story would probably have been more likely to take place on the 3rd, but I couldn’t exactly have my characters hanging around an extra day.

Though some 13,000 houses were destroyed by the Great Fire of London, the area the inferno consumed is actually only a handful of stops on the modern Circle Line. It took quite a long time to spread as far as it did, and almost everyone had plenty of time to get out of the way. As it was, only 6 deaths were officially attributed to the disaster, though I suspect it was much higher. Then as now, London was a world city, home to countless transients and indigents. They died in one of the worst fires in history – of course it didn’t leave many bodies to count.

Mi furst book

This is the cover of the first book (indeed, the first story) I ever wrote. As you can see, I was a big fan of the bespoke, handmade approach back in those days (circa 1987), but quickly learnt such personal attention did not quite go hand in hand with an initial run of 3,000 copies.

I quite presumptuously named the book The Stories, as you can see, as if I had not just written a bit of fan fiction, but had invented literature. In my own little way, I suppose I had! Hopefully the writing has improved a bit since, though.

If you’ve spotted the shark’s fin on the cover, you can probably guess what happened in The Stories. The day before I wrote it I had seen Jaws for the first time and when I woke up on the morning I became a writer, the world seemed just a little different somehow. I set about writing my sequel to Jaws, which involved Chief Brody’s kids narrowly avoiding being eaten again (this is actually the plot of Jaws 2, as it turned out).

Here are some sample spreads (publishing term for you – are you impressed?) from inside the book. As I am sure you agree, it was quite a suspenseful tale. However, I can reveal that poor Hannah was indeed confirmed dead on the next page.

To be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever written dialogue any better than this Hemingway-esque exchange:
‘Mike, go with Jo to the USA.’
‘No, no, I am not going to the USA with Jo.’
‘Why?’
‘Well, you go to the USA.’

If you’re wondering what all those DD-DD bits are about, I asked my dad how to write out John Williams’ Jaws theme…

I went on to write plenty of other fan fiction sequels before I started coming up with my own ideas. My most notable sequel was probably the postmodern follow-up to The Towering Inferno in which all the actors from the movie (Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, Fred Astaire… and O J Simpson) get caught up in a real burning skyscraper.

Yes, I am very much a child of the movies. Who knows, if my family had had money and a video camera, I might have ended up making films instead.

Work in progress

The last three months have been the most prolific of mine in the last seven and a bit years. In the meantime I’ve often used working full-time as an excuse as to why I don’t manage to write over 100,000 words a year any more. Apart from the last week, I have been working full-time for all of 2013, but I decided to take advantage of the Easter bank holidays to get 10 days’ holiday for the price of 4.

Because I wanted to finish my latest work in progress. I only started it just after Christmas, but it completely took over. I arrived at the end on Friday morning, reaching the quarter-way mark of a sixth WHSmith exercise book (a sort I have used so long I can reasonably estimate the story is pretty much exactly 63,000 words long in its unedited form). Of course, quality is more important than quantity, but it does go to show working full-time never was a good excuse.

Post-It plotting

Whether anything comes of this story or not, it will always be something special to me. In a way it is a culmination of something I have been trying to write for about 14 years now. Perhaps that is why it was fit to burst out so rapidly; it’s been waiting all this time. I won’t go into specifics at this stage – perhaps it is already tempting fate to even mention it – except to say it is a teen novel, one about ‘issues’, but one which I was always conscious to make an awkward and funny story about growing up. As such it’s an entirely different barrel of chipolatas to The Thieves of Pudding Lane, which could be either a good thing or a bad thing. Writing it involved raking over a lot of old coals, but in a cathartic way.

I wrote this slightly differently to how I’ve written things before. I gave up using a computer to write first drafts in 2011. I can type faster than I can think, which ultimately proved counter-productive. I spent more time fiddling (not to be confused with editing, though that’s what I often convinced myself it was) than writing. Writing long-hand, thinking faster than I can loop my Gs and Ys, proved successful for The Thieves of Pudding Lane. And it did so again here. However, whilst I have always written from a plan (however flexible), with this story I eschewed anything of the sort – beyond the Post-It notes in the photo above. This story was more complicated, with a lot more characters to handle, and these notes were not so much points on a map as mile markers by the roadside. As I passed each one, it got consigned to the recycling.

If anything comes of the story, I will obviously be writing a lot more about it here. Otherwise, this may be the only post I will write about it. Whatever happens, the characters and the themes will invariably make themselves known in other things I write. It’s just that kind of story.

The Thieves of Pudding Lane

Today I signed the contract for my first children’s novel, The Thieves of Pudding Lane. Now starts the exciting part of the process, when words that were only fountain pen scribbles in four silver and orange WHSmith exercise books last summer are either cast in iron or thrown down the well, and the story takes its final form. The book is currently scheduled for publication in February 2015, ahead of the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London a year later.

The Thieves of Pudding Lane is the story of twelve-year-old Samuel. Orphaned by the Great Plague, Samuel has to learn how to steal to survive, but unfortunately for him he’s not very good at it. When the Great Fire breaks out and begins to engulf the city, Samuel and his fellow pickpockets see it as a great opportunity to rob the abandoned houses of the rich, but when they discover a lost little boy hiding in one of the houses, the thieves are split over what to do with him. Meanwhile the wall of flame is quickly closing in.

Aimed at 9 to 12 year olds, it’s a fast-paced adventure set during one of British history’s most exciting events, but it is also a story about friendship, moral complexities, greed and self-respect.

Naturally, I will be writing a lot more about the book in the months to come. Indeed, it will be over ten years by the time it is published since I first had the idea, and the story of writing the story is another blog post in itself. But for now I will simply link to one of the paintings that inspired it all.

The Great Fire of London