Kybernos wins award

Kybernos has won a Bronze Medal in the Wishing Shelf Independent Book Awards 2014 (awarded April 2015).

Many thanks to Edward Trayer for his hard work running this competition. Edward is a successful children’s author who writes under the pen-name Billy Bob Buttons so it is doubly generous of him to devote his precious time to helping others up the slippery publishing ladder.

The annual awards are unusual in that they are based on the opinions of two very different reader groups, one formed in London the other in Stockholm. See .


The Harper Lee controversy

The ‘discovery’ of a supposedly long-lost manuscript of a sequel to To Kill a Mockingbird is intriguing. It has certainly got the press excited over the question of whether or not Harper Lee, who at the age of 88 has poor hearing and sight, truly wants to go ahead, given her staunch refusal for fify years to write another book.  It does seem too much of a coincidence that this change of heart has come only after the death of her protective sister.

The manuscript’s authenticity is not in doubt.  As the New York Times has reported, parts of the manuscript were read by family members back in the fifties.  Her oldest nephew is reported as saying: “It definitely was her writing, and it was never lost.  It obviously has been in the possession of the family.”

But does the fact that the miraculous ‘discovery’ of the book has probably been staged to gain maximum publicity mean also that Harper Lee has been pressured into releasing it for publication?  Yes, it is suspicious that her publisher now admits that he has never actually met the author face to face, and all dealings have been via her lawyer.  And yes, I have never heard of a publisher not making at least a courtesy call on a famous author.  But people do change their minds, so why not Harper Lee?  And when you are facing death perhaps it is rather comforting to have a last hurrah.

Many authors give instructions that at death all their correspondence and unpublished manuscripts are to be destroyed.  I think that is rather sad.  A person’s literary reputation is not going to be damaged by other manuscripts that may not be quite so superlative.  One of my favourite authors, J. D. Salinger, was notoriously reclusive, and I really wish he had published more.  His lengthy literary silence was almost certainly caused by a fear that nothing subsequently written could possibly match up to his masterpiece (as if anyone would expect it to).  Almost certainly, he was too harsh on himself.  For Esmé with Love and Squalor remains the second best short story I have ever read.

And of course other authors swing the other way.  My father in his final days made it absolutely clear to me that under no circumstances did he want his massive diaries, covering quarter of a century, or his manuscripts destroyed.  He hoped that one day they would be of value to other writers as background material.  Today, they sit lovingly preserved in boxes under my roof.

Congratulations to Helen Macdonald

Congratulations to Helen Macdonald on winning the Costa £30,000 prize (previously known as the Whitbread Prize) for her acclaimed creative non-fiction H is for Hawk. I haven’t yet read it myself: my daughter asked for it for Christmas and I fully intend to steal it from her when we are next on holiday together.

It really is encouraging that the previously little-known little-understood genre of creative non-fiction is at last making its mark.  Historical fiction, defined as novels with historical settings and involving historical characters but with invented episodes and dialogue, has been with us for centuries, from James Fenimore Cooper to Hilary Mantel via Thomas Kenneally.  Creative non-fiction is something different.  It is strictly non-fiction, so must be absolutely accurate, but it is presented in such a way that it could be mistaken for a novel.

One of the best recent examples of this is from my favourite living author, Julian Barnes (sad to find myself writing that, now that Gabo is dead).  His Levels of Life, the most poignant discourse on grief I have yet read, completely fooled me: I bought it immediately it was published in 2013 sight-unseen, and just presumed it was fiction like most of his other work.  Not until two-thirds of the way through the book did I realise it was non-fiction, a eulogy to his dead wife; nor understand the point of the first two thirds’ descriptions of ballooning pioneers.  When I did, it just completely knocked me back.

Creative non-fiction is a very powerful genre and one I hope people will increasingly seek out and enjoy.  Of course, the fact that the next book I will publish is creative non-fiction has nothing whatsoever to do with my delight that H is for Hawk has won a prestigious prize and raised the profile of this most exciting genre to work in.  Oh, no: not at all.  Come on: you don’t think I’m that blatant do you?  Oh, alright then …

Kybernos e-book

The Kybernos paperback was published on 10 January. The e-book goes live tomorrow, Saturday 17 January. Both are available from Amazon.

The three ARC reviews are positive, which is a great relief.  Now the big challenge is to get the book noticed against the background noise of the many many books published each week.  “Hey, I’m over here!  I’m worth reading!  Truly!”  I fear that may prove more daunting than writing the thing in the first place.

On about 20 January a lengthy new page will appear on this blog-site, specifically for those who have read the book: a sort of after-sales service if you like, giving readers an insight into why things were written the way they were, and also explaining the real science underpinning the story including, yes, retrocasuality.  And there will be a few fun You Tube links too.

Kybernos Launch Set for Saturday 3 January 2015

“The Willderschen, a shadowy alliance of some of the most powerful people on the planet, are dead, killed in an explosion.  But why should that matter to Bertram, a lonely middle-aged Physics teacher, to Anita, an overweight schoolgirl escaping her bullies, or to Charles, a toff with more money than sense who thought he was just out on a boozy stag-week with his mates?  And who exactly are the Kybernos?  And why do they need the help of this motley trio to, quite literally, save the world?”

Kybernos will be launched on Saturday 3 January 2015, at which time a full post-read page supporting the book will also go live.  Initially the book will be available from Amazon and KDP.

“This wry and charming story blends elements of sci-fi and fantasy into a sometimes goofy and often funny caper,  It’s pretty much delightful all around.” – Publishers Weekly

Kybernos was a quarter-finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2014.

Congratulations to Eimear McBride

Congratulations to Eimear McBride, originally from the Republic of Ireland but long-term Norfolk resident, on winning the Bailey Prize (until recently the Orange Prize) with her book A Girl is a Half-formed Thing.

But in particular, congratulations to her for daring to write in an impressionist style with ‘poor’ syntax and disjointed sentences that must have infuriated every formula-obsessed editor and publisher who read it (and of course rejected it).  It is no surprise that, after nine years of trying, she was in the end published by a new, tiny but fiercely-independent local publisher, able to think outside the box and recognise the book’s value.  “I didn’t set out to create a challenge,” she is reported as saying, “But I am not interested in straight writing”. Good for you, Ms McBride.

Mainstream publishers are, she believes, unimaginative, The Times reports.  “They seem to think readers are passive, and that being a reader is the same as being a TV viewer, but it isn’t.  The constant regurgitation — ‘This was successful, so let’s have a bit more of it’ — has a very deadening effect on literature.”

Ay, there’s the rub.

Rage Against the Machine (Part One)

I was in my local supermarket yesterday when I came upon the usual tall display of paperback commercial fiction. For once, I stopped and browsed two of them. One was by someone I had never heard of, called Lee Child, the other was by the respected Robert Harris.  It was strange to the see the two of them sharing the same stand.

This series of posts is called Rage Against the Machine because I am increasingly alarmed at wrong ideas, promulgated by those inside the publishing industry, that are becoming set in stone without challenge.  These wrong ideas are so ingrained now that they almost constitute rules of writing.

I recently saw expressed on a blogsite the guest opinions of a copy editor who claimed to be handling two hundred manuscripts a year.  She provided a list of six tips.  Some of these were sensible, such as the importance of weeding out ‘weasel-words’  (those little recurring words and phrases that a writer unconsciously uses too often, without even noticing).  But three of the six infuriated me with their advice to dumb-down writing.  That is the last thing we need in a world increasingly dominated by mediocrity.  Writers need to be more ambitious, not less.

This post tackles the first of those three: that after direct speech you should limit yourself to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ and maybe occasionally allow yourself the luxury of an ‘answered’ or ‘replied’.  Anything colourful, she claims, should be avoided.  No.  No.  No.

Lee Child, so I learnt from his on-line biography today, is a prolific writer of pulp fiction, translated into forty languages, with one series alone stretching to seventeen books. Flipping through his latest book, I was horrified to find nothing but ‘said’.  I turned over more and more pages, like a god searching desperately for ten righteous people in Sodom and Gomorrah, but could not find a single colourful verb after direct speech.  And I realised that this man is writing to a formula dictated by his copy-editor.  This man writes in monochrome.

Compare that with the book by Robert Harris in the slot above Child’s on that supermarket display.  Harris has a pleasant variety of verbs after direct speech that not only keep the eye entertained but, at the same time, give a hint to the reader of attitude and atmosphere.  A colourful verb after direct speech does the job of an adverb, and concisely.  Thus at one point Harris uses the verb “shrugged” in preference to “said”, and immediately the reader senses the indifference of the speaker, at the cost of just four additional letters.

Now no doubt Lee Child makes an excellent living from his writing, and good for him.  There are many worse ways to put food on the table than writing pulp fiction.  But having achieved an established  position in his profession, it would be nice if Child now broke the restrictive bonds of these received opinions and actually dared to challenge his editor’s dogmatic opinions by bravely adding colour.  I don’t think he would lose any readers.

Harris is a more important writer than Child.  Importance in writing has nothing whatsoever to do with the number of books sold or the royalties earned.  If it did, the most important writers on this planet would be the compilers of telephone directories. You become an important writer when you change people’s opinions.  Good writing holds a mirror up to the reader and says: “Hey! This is my experience of life.  Have you found the same?”

Yes, to get our opinions and ideas across, we sugar-coat them with a veneer of entertainment, and that has always been how we lure readers into our web (hmm: three mixed metaphors in a single sentence — close to a personal record).  But when writers write solely to entertain, then we have become mere hacks, a very sad situation.

So rage against the machine!  Don’t let your writing go down the plughole of mediocrity. Use colourful language.  It’s your story.  You tell it.




I have had two agents in my life, plus an almost-third who although she never represented me was always willing to consider my MSS (a most courteous and considerate lady now sadly lost to us, though from her death has sprung, phoenix like, a remarkable and thought-provoking book by her devastated husband).  I also had a further half-agent, but more of him later.

My first agent was outstanding and it was entirely thanks to her that one happy happy day I stood outside Foyles and looked and looked and looked again at my humble little creation waving back to me through the window of London’s most important independent book seller.

My second agent some years later was useless.  Months past and still she would not tell me to which publishers she had offered my MS.  After a year, I had to sack her: I discovered that she had offered my MS to just one publishing house and, when they had shown no interest, left it mouldering on the shelf for the following eleven months.  All that time I had thought I had representation I had not.  I realised then that she had been going around hoovering up all the new kids on the block, giving them about fifteen minutes of her time and then spitting them out if no publisher quickly snapped up their work.

The lesson I learnt from those two was this.  The one who was outstanding ran a very small two-person agency: because she was growing her business she put in a major effort for me. The one who was useless headed-up a major agency with very big clients: compared to them, I was just an also-ran.

And what of the half-agent?  He was a very strange man, semi-retired, who agreed to represent me but only if I made some changes to my MS.  Specifically, he objected to the route three of my characters took from Paris to the Bay of Biscay and, more significantly, for some unknown reason he wanted the first-person narrator named, something I had purposely avoided to help readers of whatever background to bond with the story.

Very reluctantly I made the changes (though I confess I subverted his intent by only naming the narrator in the very first sentence, and that sentence was just three words long and the very famous opening of a book covering the same topic).  Perhaps because of my thinly-disguised sarcasm in those first words, after all my efforts he declined to represent me. Later I came to realise that he had only ever been on a power-trip: it just entertained him to see how many hoops he could get me to jump through in my desperation to find a new agent.

So my warning to those today approaching agents is caveat emptor.  There are some very good ones out there, but there are also some horrors.

Now at this point I was going to write that you should always go with the small unimportant agent just establishing her business in preference to one of the big names.  But sadly I then realised that this is not necessarily true, for the lovely lady I mentioned in the first paragraph actually headed-up a major agency and was a very significant figure in the industry.  So, sorry: I have no rule-of-thumb to offer.  Just be careful out there.