Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Sanity Clause Has Come.

Sanity Clause is Coming

"Christmas is a terrible time for turkeys," as my Dad likes to sing throughout the preparation of Christmas dinner. I do wonder sometimes whether it might be worth finding the rest of the words for him.

But Christmas can be a terrible time for others too...

Don't worry, this post isn't going to urge you to spare a thought this Christmas for abandoned puppies or the residents of Albert Square. This is... noble. Yes, I'm plugging a book.

Ain't No Sanity Clause was published by Fringeworks in late 2012, an anthology of festive frightfulness, wherein all manner of maniacs and monsters managed to murder and mutilate their way through a winter wonderland.

And now, a sequel is here. Sanity Clause is Coming continues the Christmas horror theme with a second dose of Yuletide strangeness. Full of stories that are sometimes gruesome, sometimes hilarious, and often both at once, this new collection delves beneath the baubles to the darkness that lurks within.

If you're the sort of person who spends Christmas Day's fifteen episodes of Eastenders grinding your teeth through the subplot about the comedy characters trying to blag a free turkey dinner, and longing for the bit when this year's expendable cast member finally collapses in the snow outside the Queen Vic, Sanity Clause is Coming might be for you.

My own contribution was submitted for the first volume under the title Full Pastry Jacket (for reasons which I can't even pretend to remember). It appears here retitled as Pantocrime. Strange things are afoot at the dress rehearsal for this year's am dram panto...

As chance would have it, publication of Sanity Clause is Coming coincides with me directing my very first am dram pantomime. I do hope my cast have a chance to read the story. Something tells me they'll be very keen to learn their lines afterwards...

Sanity Clause is Coming is available now in paperback from Amazon.

Friday, 26 September 2014


I'm not really a fan of horror, and I particularly don't like zombie material, with the inevitable exception of Shaun of the Dead (and Cockneys vs Zombies, which you really should see if you haven't already). I think this is partly because of the low quality of quite a lot of the horror writing I've read, and partly because I'm a bit squeamish.

As a writer, though, I often find myself drawn to stuff I don't much like, possibly in an attempt to understand why I don't like it. So quite a bit of my work ends up riffing on horror tropes, whether that's the suburban slashers of Throwing Up With the Joneses, the off-kilter body horror of Gluttony, or the pure weirdness of the short story I'm currently working on, Someone Who'll Watch Under Me.

This has led to me producing no fewer than three zombie stories over the last couple of years. No one is more surprised about this than I am. Even more strangely, while one of them is a 500 word piece of flash fiction, the other two are currently novella length, with the potential to expand easily to full length books.

Strangest still, the longest of these might yet become a series, as inspiration struck on my walk to work the other day for a second adventure.

Whenever I sit down to write a story that deals with familiar tropes, I try to put some sort some sort of spin on it which is, well, perhaps not original, but I hope at least a little unexpected. I think I've found a couple of ways to do that with my approaches to zombies.

Time will tell.

In other news, it seems likely that there will be some new fiction from me in a long-awaited anthology very shortly. You read it here first.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

On Works In Progress

Once again, a month has slipped past since my last post. I'm really not sure where the time goes.

All the stuff I'd finished last month is still bubbling along, but I wrote a new short story for a competition over at the ever-shiny

I've also had my attention drawn to a new anthology, whose theme fits almost perfectly with a short story I'm already writing. As with the Costa competition entry and the Cult of Me short fiction contest, I don't rate my chances, but it's a perfect opportunity to give me a bit of a push to get the story completed.

And that's the problem with being an aspiring writer, in a nutshell. I find that writing breeds ideas for more writing. If I've been contracted to write something, I knuckle down and get on with it, making a note of any other ideas somewhere else. When I'm writing spec stuff, or producing material to self-publish, however, there's no particular reason to prioritise the development of one idea over any other. I tend to float around, doing a few hundred words here, editing a bit there, on any one of half a dozen different projects.

At the moment I have, in no particular order, three half-written short stories, two novellas and a half dozen vague ideas in a notebook. There are also a few short stories that I've started and then abandoned. I might go back to them later, who knows?

The result of this approach is that it takes a lot longer to finish everything. I'm not just messing about, I do serious work on these projects, but I rarely seem to stick around long enough to finally complete anything.

I've usually got at least a couple of short stories that are just a solid evening's work away from being finished. But I need a bit of a push to actually do that solid evening's work. Finding out about a relevant competition, or anthology market, preferably with an imminent deadline, well, that usually does it nicely.

I salute anyone that can stick to one project and see it through to completion without deviation...

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Large update

I've been a little quiet here for a while, as I try to decide what to do with my blogging, really. But there's stuff on the horizon, and stuff that I've already done.

First, Story of My Escape and Something Nice both have fantastic new covers, courtesy of Lawston Design. If you're putting together a book, you should totally get in touch with my sister-in-law Rachel and see what she can offer.

I've continued to post drabbles sporadically at Drablr. They've been good to me this year, and there are a few really good writers producing quiet little gems on that site.

The Costa Short Story Award is probably the biggest contest I've ever entered. I shouldn't think for a moment I'll get anywhere with it, but the deadline spurred me to complete a short story that had been hanging around for months. I now have enough short stories to produce a follow-up to Something Nice, but the timing of that depends on a few other bits and pieces.

A Goodreads group I frequent is putting together a collection of children's stories, so I submitted a story about my cat, Buscemi (or Bushimi, as I renamed her for the story). I feel this means I've become everything I've ever hated, but never mind. Readers so far have enjoyed the tale, and I look forward to the anthology's publication. At some point.

I'm also awaiting the publication of one of my short stories in Sanity Clause is Coming! This follow-up to 2012's Ain't No Sanity Clause was due last year, but was postponed quite late in the day. All being well, this should hit shelves in September 2014.

On a similar note, I'm hoping that Grimm & Grimmer: 4, which includes a science-fiction fairytale from me, will be coming out in early 2015.

I'm also about halfway through an exciting translation project for somebody. It's about as far from Casanova as you can possibly hope to get, but as far as I can tell it will again be the first time the book has been published in English.

On top of that, I'm also tinkering around with a zombie tale, of which I have about 5,000 words written. It started as a short story, but a lengthy action sequence dominates the story so much that it's going to need to be novella length at least. Which starts to make you wonder, how long could we go?

The conclusion was the first bit I wrote, but the nature of the zombie threat, and its setting, have got me thinking that it could be possible to have two or three narrative strands, if only to break up the exposition a bit.

Oh yes, and I got engaged and I moved house and I'm directing a panto.

It's good to keep busy.

How are you?

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Anatomy of a Drabble

On Saturday night, I had a silly idea for a bit of flash fiction while I was waiting for a bus. After the bus actually arrived, I mulled it over for a few moments, and then made a very brief note on my phone as a reminder.

I still haven't checked to see what that reminder actually was, because at 6:30 on Sunday morning, chased from my bed by a combination of insomnia and a demanding cat, I got dressed and wrote the whole thing as a drabble (a short story of exactly 100 words, fact fans). By 6:59, it was written, edited and published on

Drabbles have been around for a while, and it's a form close to my heart. In the late 1990s I was a member of the Birmingham University SF Society that has been credited with 'establishing' the format (it's on Wikipedia, so it must be true), and one of the earliest drabble collections was Drabble Who, a charity "fanthology" produced by Doctor Who fans in 1993, which I did try and enter (I was 13 at the time, and had no word processor, so the endless manual word counts, crossings out, and retypings were all too much for me). By the late 1990s, I began posting my own Doctor Who drabbles to various Usenet groups, and though some of them were awful, I'm actually quite proud of a few.

In the last ten years, flash fiction has become a thing, because people can read them on phones. Like that's a good thing. But anyway. The point is that flash fiction has become popular because it's easy to read. But also, I suspect, because it seems very easy to write. Which means that drabbles, which used to be precision-crafted little pieces, are now in danger of becoming a bit rubbish, churned out with no real thought beyond getting to the required word count. So here's a breakdown of my most recent effort, with a blow by blow account of my thought processes, word choices and general waffling. Now, you may think my effort is rubbish, but I promise you I can find far worse examples without blinking. So now's that's out of the way, without further ado:

Time Stoppage


Red or blue? Wayne Rooney snipped the blue wire, and released a breath he didn't know he was holding. Two minutes left.
Van Persie punched the air. "One more and it's disarmed! Manchester saved!"
Wayne's dextrous fingers blurred over the bomb's spaghetti innards, but he was shaking his head. "No good, I need three more minutes!"
With a soft click, the countdown flashed back to five minutes.
"Impossible! Unless..." Both men turned to the dressing room door, where a figure stood bathed in light.
"I come back to you now," said Sir Alex Ferguson, "at the turn of the tide."

In the space of 100 words, I've made three jokes, referenced two films, and exhausted my knowledge of football completely (seriously, I had to check Google to find out whether to call it the "dressing room" or "changing room", not to mention checking whether Rooney even still plays for United. The first "draft" paired him with Beckham).

  • Red or blue? A double reference here, partly a nod to the rivalry between Manchester United and Manchester City, but mostly a reference to Lethal Weapon 2's famous opening scene (one of those which is so famous you don't even need to have seen it due to endless parodies). The scene is set in just three words. There's a bomb to defuse.
  • Wayne Rooney snipped the blue wire, and released a breath he didn't know he was holding. Two minutes left. Yes, a football player most famous for looking like Shrek, and for visits to horrific-sounding brothels, is disarming a bomb, and the clock is ticking. Some readers may start to snigger at this point, but I've not played it for laughs. The incongruity is obvious without needing any extra highlighting.
  • Van Persie punched the air. Van Persie being the only other current squad player I judged famous enough to be recognisable to the general public, and yes I did have to use Google again for the current squad's names. Worth using a whole extra word for his surname.
  • "One more and it's disarmed!" One more what? Detonator, presumably. Is Van Persie actually helping Rooney, or just standing around info-dumping for the reader's benefit? I don't know, and neither do you. But I suspect you didn't give it a moment's thought until I mentioned it.
  • "Manchester saved!" I hate those clunky two words, perhaps I should go back and change them. "Manchester's safe!" perhaps? Anyway, they tell us that the bomb is big. And dangerous. A nuke? Some sort of chemical weapon? Again, that's pretty much up to the reader.
  • Wayne's dextrous fingers blurred over the bomb's spaghetti innards, but he was shaking his head. I'm still not playing Rooney's unlikely proficiency at bomb disposal for laughs exactly, but there's a bit more detail here to convey the fact that he's not just poking the thing with a stick. And why not, after all? He's a disciplined sportsman at the height of his powers, used to making split-second decisions and dealing with the stress that comes with competing at the highest international level, and I presume his hand-eye coordination is excellent - there are worse choices.
  • With a soft click, the countdown flashed back to five minutes. This is the first and only time I make it clear there's a visible countdown clock, presumably with flashing red digits. You have 100 words, you only need to say things once. The reader knows what a bomb defusing scene looks like and will fill in the gaps themselves.
  • "Impossible! Unless..." Both men turned to the dressing room door, where a figure stood bathed in light. In my head, this echoes the moment in The Christmas Invasion, David Tennant's debut as the Doctor, when characters realise they can once again understand alien languages and look towards the TARDIS to see the cured Doctor for the first time. That's not particularly evoked by anything in the actual writing, but there's the same sense of shared realisation here.
  • "I come back to you now," said Sir Alex Ferguson, "at the turn of the tide." The punchline. First and most obviously, a direct quote from Gandalf's grand entrance in The Two Towers. Also a possible allusion to Manchester United's inevitable difficulties following Ferguson's recent retirement. And finally, as signalled in the title, a reference to 'Ferguson time', that curious phenomenon which many allege helped Manchester United to more than their fair share of victories under Ferguson's stewardship.
When editing the piece down to fit the word count, I pruned away a suggestion that the bomb had been planted by MU's sacked manager David Moyes, and a reference to a nearby coach full of orphans on a trip to Old Trafford. I don't miss either.

I've said before that writing a drabble is a lot like telling a joke. You set it up, develop it, and then end with a twist/punchline. So while I was happy to slip the odd Doctor Who and Lethal Weapon reference in there, and indulge in the surreal absurdity of Manchester United's forwards defusing a nuke in their dressing room, I played it straight until that final revelation, so as not to detract from the ending.

The 100 word limit is a blessing, not a curse. Every single word has to do something useful. I used four adjectives, and all of them further the story, whether it's "dextrous" to convey Rooney's unexpected aptitude, "spaghetti" to convey the complexity of the device, or "soft" to suggest that the crisis is now resolved.

At this point, if I was analysing someone else's work, someone would tell me I was reading too much into a story barely a paragraph long. So the real reason I chose to dissect my own drabble is this: I can assure you that all of the above really was going through my head while I was writing the story.

The 100 word limit can be expanded by mining the cultural baggage you share with readers. I said above that "Red or blue?" both sets the scene and makes two cultural references, cinematic and sporting. The closing line is similar. The use of references is a great shortcut to cramming extra detail into a drabble. All three characters here are people readers have probably seen on telly, so there's no need to describe them. Everyone has seen either Lethal Weapon or a James Bond film or well, something where there's a ticking clock and a bomb. Every word matters, make each one work harder.

This is why drabbles lent themselves especially well to fanfiction, taking established character and plot elements and telling a whole new adventure in just 100 words. But it's also why so many "straight" drabbles, frankly, fail. There are only so many times you can read about a boring character who, shock twist, turns out to be a murderer. Or people who are running away from zombies. Or people who murder their partner over dinner.

If I had one piece of advice for regular drabble writers, I'd suggest that it's worth waiting for a decent idea to come along.

Happy drabbling.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Very nice... but is it true?

Casanova's escape from the Leads prison is the stuff of legend. Passing secret messages between prisoners, tunnelling out of cells, improvised lamps... it's all very compelling. But is any of it actually true?

Much of what we know about Casanova's life comes from his memoirs, primarily Story of My Life. It's fair to say that he's not the most reliable narrator. With regard to Story of My Escape, sceptics have long maintained that he probably just bribed his way out, and this has even made it on to the Wikipedia entry that mentions the adventure. Several readers of my translation have already got in touch to ask to what extent his account is reliable. Is this one story that's just a little too good to be true?

Perhaps. But this much we know.

Casanova escaped from the Leads. That much is certain. He was not simply released, and he wasn't pardoned until 1774.

While in prison he did, however, have the support and friendship of Count Bragadin, his former patron, and Casanova mentions receiving food and clothes from this powerful man at this time. Bragadin was himself a former member of the State Inquisition and we can assume that he would certainly have known which strings to pull, and which people to bribe in order to spring the libertine from his cell. The problem is, there really doesn't seem to be any evidence for this.

We do have evidence, though, that the cell ceilings needed to be repaired after Casanova's escape was discovered, which at least partially corroborates Story of My Escape's account of events.

Not only this, but there's the view from the roof. Casanova explores the roof thoroughly over the course of a couple of hours. And he reports its details extremely accurately. Seriously, fire up Google Earth and take a look. It's all there, the domes of Saint Mark's Basilica, the dormer windows (which I translated as 'skylight' for readability, possibly something I'll change in any future edition of the book), even the gutter, and if you're an obsessed translator you can even trace Casanova's journey around the roof.

It's circumstantial perhaps, but to my mind it's all pretty clear. He had to have been up there.

And if we accept that he was on the roof, and we accept the physical evidence that the ceiling of his cell had to be repaired, the reasonable conclusion is that Casanova's account of his escape is broadly true.

Perhaps bribery played a part. Perhaps his improvised tools were smuggled into him. His gaoler clearly knew about his lamp (in a prison where artificial light was forbidden to prisoners) but did nothing. One of his cellmates even suggests that it was common knowledge that Bragadin had promised to pay the gaoler a huge sum in the event of Casanova's escape. It's very possible, even likely, that his escape attempt was facilitated, with or without his direct knowledge. We'll never know for sure.

Giacomo Casanova is an unreliable narrator. For me, though, this unreliability is visible more in his stream of consciousness than in the physical details of his adventure. Though his foreword professes humility and a love for the city of his birth, and mentions that his conduct 'needed correction', Casanova's stay in the Leads did little to alter his unique nature, as his subsequent travels around Europe reveal. His decision to publish the story, though framed charmingly as an attempt to relieve himself of the burden of having to describe the adventure to friends, was very clearly an attempt to cash in on the celebrity and notoriety that the exploit brought him.

At several points, Casanova also protests that he has no idea why he was arrested and imprisoned, as he can think of no crime he had committed. This is disingenuous in the extreme, as his exploits at the time had included not only the possession of the 'forbidden' books of magic that he alludes to in Story of My Escape, but peccadilloes such as exhuming a corpse to play a practical joke on a fellow Venetian. That's the reasoning behind my blurb: "Imprisoned for a crime he probably committed. The question is, which one?"

Perhaps surprisingly, the only detail of Casanova's escape from the Leads that really turns out to be questionable is the Venetian myth that after his escape he enjoyed a cup of coffee in Saint Mark's Square before making his getaway by gondola. You can only assume that this flourish would have appealed to Casanova, who was not averse to perpetuating his own legend, but his account makes no mention of it, instead he heads straight to the gondolas (and later even threatens to murder his co-escapee when Father Balbi nips off for a hot chocolate).

Story of My Escape. Truth? Fantasy? A mixture of the two? Read the translation, available here, and let me know what you think.