Visitors book cover

It is with tremendous pleasure that I share the cover to The Visitors. It looks like this:

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…and I’m utterly thrilled with it. The artist, an outstanding book designer called Leo Nickolls, has captured so many elements of the story in his design. I love the composition, the style, the palette – everything about it.

Most of the story of The Visitors fell into my head while on holiday in Grogport on Kintyre. It’s connected to the Scottish mainland by a narrow isthmus, but it feels like an island. From Tarbert, it’s a thirty or forty minute drive along weaving single track roads to the tiny village of Grogport, which is no more than ten houses and a beach. It was our first holiday as a new family, and we stayed there for a week. Dora was only five months old, and she was unsettled by the change in her surroundings. After sleeping late for most of the previous month, she started waking early – at four or five in the morning. On one of those bleary mornings, we sat in awed silence and watched the sun crest behind humpback Arran, the island pitched into shadow beneath titanic columns of light. I took some pictures. They looked like this:

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The first time I saw Leo’s cover, this image came to me as a jolt. Memories shivered at me; the cold tiles underfoot, the grit in the coffee and the grit in my eyes, the herons on the beach. Even now, I feel a little unnerved at the similarity in the mountains. I scribbled out the plot of The Visitors no more than a day either side of this picture. Unheimlich.

Seeing the cover has been amongst the most surreal parts of this crazy journey. The closer I come to publication, the further I feel from reality. Being so immersed in redrafts and work, this often feels as though it’s happening to someone else.

Foxes

“A young couple trapped in a remote estate of empty houses and shrieking foxes are beckoned from their isolation into a twilight world…”

This is a haunting, excruciatingly tense short film, worth every frame of its fifteen minutes. Metamorphosis and the idea of threshold places – of things having twin natures, existing in two states at once – are becoming increasingly key to my work. A film like this gets my pulse racing and synapses snapping, hungry to write.

2013 and all that

Obviously, the end of every year gives pause for reflection. For me, this used to manifest itself in a range of Top Tens – films, albums, books, gigs – but these days I don’t really do enough of any of those things to justify it. So here’s my combined Top Ten of 2013 instead. They’re not in order.

1. Getting a book deal with Quercus

Securing a publishing deal with the wonderful Quercus Books has been one of the most amazing things to ever happen to me. I’m still waiting for someone to pull the rug out from under my feet, but until they do, I’ll keep enjoying every moment of this exhilarating, terrifying, extraordinary rollercoaster. I feel bowled over by the support for my writing, even as I feel a massive weight of pressure to deliver. I started the year with a manuscript called Riptide Heart; I finished with a rigorous redraft, now called The Visitors. Working with Quercus editor Jane Wood has made my writing tighter and my story much stronger. It has also given me a real hunger to push on with my work – I now have half-a-dozen novel ideas clamouring for my time.

This wouldn’t have happened without the hard work of my awesome agent, Sue Armstrong at Conville & Walsh, and the support of my amazing partner Monica. That brings me to the second thing on the list:

2. New work from Monica Metsers

While she was pregnant, and in the first year of Dora’s life, Mon took time away from her painting. 2013 was the year she really started again, and the results have been amazing. She has a solo show in London next year, and as well as a few smaller paintings and a range of drawings, she’s made these two stunning large-scale paintings, which I think are amongst the best work she’s ever done:

BATALLA DE LOS GIGANTES                                                          BALLENA Y GEISHA

BATALLA DE LOS GIGANTES   ballena y geisha

2013 also marked our five-year anniversary – it’s been a blast.

3. Performing live

I’ve never been good at public reading, and this year I set myself the challenge of improving. I went on to read my work twice at Spotlight in Lancaster, once at Kendal’s Spoken Word, once (performing from memory) at Dreamfired in Brigsteer, and once at the Flashtag 2013 writing competition in Manchester, where I won second place. My confidence grew with each reading, though I still feel I’ve a way to go.

I also attended a spoken word workshop run by the excellent Brindley Hallam Dennis. One of the activities he set has changed everything: he had other members of the workshop read our stories. The lady who read my flash piece ‘Marrow’ performed it at a third of the pace I do. She relished every word, and it was three times better as a result. I haven’t performed since then, but I’m going to practice reading with that sort of gusto at the next opportunity. I’m booked in for a 20-minute slot at Spoken Word in February, and I’d like another couple of events under my belt by then. My goal has evolved a little, too: what I’m aiming for now is something closer to outright performance than simply reading. That will come with confidence, and confidence will come from practice.

4. Seven Seals – Plan of Salvation

After a whopping 18 months, I finally finished making this music video for amazing psychedelic synth punks Seven Seals. They’re an extraordinary band, and it was an honour to be involved. They’re working on new material, which will hopefully be available in 2014 for their ten-year anniversary gigs.

 

5. Amy Hempel – The Dog of the Marriage

Quite simply, the finest collection of short stories I’ve ever read. Hempel’s writing is so sensitive, so honest, that it infuses her stories with devastating grace. Unmissable.

6. Les Revenants

This French drama is the best thing I’ve seen on television in years, remarkable for its intrigue, restraint and power. It delivers on every level, exploring an extraordinary narrative without needless exposition to unravel the mysteries of the Returned, all of whom are troubled in different but connected ways. The locations and cinematography are stunning, while the soundtrack by Mogwai is my album of the year. There’s a startlingly surreal lucidity to the conclusion, and I think they could have left it there; but I’m delighted to see a second series in the works. Here’s the trailer for season one:

In TV terms, an honorable mention also goes to Game Of Thrones. Tyrion Lannister might be the finest character ever committed to screen, and the Red Wedding haunts me even now.

7. Success for friends

It’s been a good year for many of my friends and peers, too. Iain Maloney landed an agent and a book deal with Freight, Kirstin Innes found an agent, Anneliese Mackintosh got a book deal, Kirsty Logan landed a book deal and won everything in the world. Friends Andy and Gemma had a baby boy called Miles, and Ali and Iona had a little girl called Inka. There have been a lot of richly deserved congratulations this year. Good work, team.

8. Cats

Yup. Two of them. I wasn’t sure, at first, but then we met these two cats in the Wainwright Animal Rescue Centre, and it was an easy decision. They came to us with the names Remus and Teddy, which we’ve kept. They’re brothers, about three years old, and half-Persian. They’ve been an amazing addition to our house. They are incredibly relaxed and friendly, and they actively seek our company. That’s especially welcome when I’m having a writing day alone at home.

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9. Holiday in France

We were overdue a break, and this fortnight in France was exactly what we needed. We camped in half-a-dozen places, the best of which was Green Venice, a vast network of canals, ditches and overgrown waterways, crawling with vines and willows, alive with dragonflies and katydids. It was an extraordinary landscape. I read more in that fortnight than I’d managed in four months. Best of all, the holiday gave me enough mental space to plan my next novel, which will be called Grisleymires. That’s now blocked out on Scrivener, waiting for my next writing day.

10. Another year with Dora.

In their first year, babies are basically little puddings. Awesome little puddings, but puddings nonetheless. In their second year, they gather the basic tools to discover the world. And in year three, that toolkit expands exponentially; physically, vocally, intellectually and emotionally. Going through that with Dora has been nothing short of a joy. Seeing the world through her eyes has made me reevaluate so many things for myself. Her conversations leave me in stitches, and everything about her makes me smile. And she hasn’t been to A&E this year, which I consider something of a triumph. Though there’s still a week of 2013 left.

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So that’s my Top Ten. It’s been a good year, and 2014 is alive with possibilities. I might even pop some resolutions up in a few days.

Flash fiction challenge: Graffiti

Okay, folks. Here’s round three of the writing challenge I’m working on with performance poet Simon Hart, also known in certain Mafia circles as BigCharlie Poet. This is how it goes: we take it in turns to choose a picture, both of us write a response around it, and we post the results up here. Round one was Cathedrals. Round two was Libraries. For round three, it was my turn to pick the image, and I opted for this doozy from my Pinterest short story board:

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Although I had some inklings, I didn’t entirely know where to go with this at first. I was also embroiled in a marathon redraft of The Visitors, and so the challenge slid by the wayside a bit. Simon was finished in two days, the swine. Anyway, when I had a chance to work on it properly, the ideas came fairly quickly. My first story was well over a thousand words long and barely halfway in when I decided to put it on ice. It’s going to be a good piece, when I’ve time to finish it, but it’s not right for this. My second attempt was finished in a single session, plus a few tweaks the following day. As with my Libraries story, this feels like it could be the start of something much bigger; since finishing it, I’ve been brewing on a full novel about the characters and their situation, and I have some exciting ideas starting to spark. I think I’ll be taking it a lot further in the future.

It’s interesting, as well, that Simon and I had fairly similar responses to the picture. Our work in the first two challenges was quite diverse; I don’t know whether this image is more specific, and therefore limiting, or whether it actually offers more themes, and we simply happened to choose the same one.

Here’s what Simon has to say about the picture:

“What a difference an image makes! Last time out I (we) struggled a bit under the weight of a well-mined seam of creation for us with my choice of a library pic… I’m glad to say that the responsibility of the choice for this challenge came from Mr Sylvester, and, from my perspective at least, I think he should pick them all! To say that the creation of this piece contrasts with the last process would be underselling it somewhat… I also know that despite the complexity of trying to describe this picture to an audience, I really want to perform this.

This poem came about very quickly and with a very clear idea of what I wanted straight away, and I think it has delivered what I wanted from it. Seeing the image for the first time, I was struck how old monsters are never really old monsters, and they always find their way back somehow. They may change their locale and era, but they continue on…”

With that said, here’s Simon Hart’s response to the picture:

Urban Myth
by BigCharlie Poet

I started my life as a hasty scrawl
Daubed in white paint on a houses side wall
An innocuous way for me to be born
Not really planned, just hurriedly drawn
Against the time constraints of another coming dawn,
The sun creeping almost afraid of my form
And boy did I grow!
There was no way that they could ever know
What i would become, the strength i would show
And each feed of paint gave me a new glow
Though my home was a wall, i still reached for the sky
Never once did i ask for the reason why
I became a creature that makes young kids cry
Which the ancient greeks locked in a maze to die
That people turn their heads away hurts, i won’t lie…
But soon i was so big that single cans of paint didn’t suffice
When you’re twenty feet high, with the head of a bull, who do you turn to for advice?
I couldn’t exactly stroll into a restaurant and say “give me whatever’s nice”
So i had to come up with a solution of my own making
And because i couldn’t do any great british baking
I looked around and saw souls, ready for the taking…
I mean, it’s not as if you lot even notice they’re missing
You still stumble through each day like you’re barely living
Not looking away from what your tv is giving
So now, when you try to open your mind
And use your soul for guidance, you suddenly find
Yourself empty, and you don’t know the reason
But you convince yourself it’s because you watched another season
Of “I’m a Celebrity, get me out of here!”
Or you drowned your brain cells in far too much beer
That i am the culprit will never be clear…
So thank you for giving me what i really need
A simple, quick and nourishing feed
But i won’t let myself give in to my greed
I’ll satisfy myself with the odd soul waiting for a bus
The business professional in too much of a rush
The guy who’s become a 3pm lush…
Just enough to keep me going
After all, this wall doesn’t leave much room for me growing…

…and here’s my response:

Vanishings
by Simon Sylvester

We assembled at dusk and waited, scanning the skyline, binoculars flitting between the sunset buildings. Half the squadron wore night vision goggles, for all the good they’d do. It was only my third year with the division, and I was already the oldest. The kids were tense, but they struggled with all-night shifts. By two in the morning, a couple of them had dozed off. Dew glistened on their spray suits.

“Contact! Contact!”

As the radio crackled into life, slumbering officers stumbled to their feet. I checked the chamber on my gun. It was clean.

“Where are they, Jenkins?”

My voice was calmer than I felt.

“Corner of Gresham and Moorgate.”

I could hear her panic.

“Stay calm, Jenkins. We’re on our way n-.”

Even as I spoke, her scream clattered in my earpiece.

I gestured to the others. Grim-faced, we lined up and marched out, trooping along King William Street at a jog. At Bank, I gestured for the squad to slow and break formation. They fanned out, torches sweeping beams of light across the deserted road. I took point, and we stepped in silence through the Old Town.

Halfway along Prince’s Street, prickles ran down my spine. The feeling turned my bones to ice, but I knew better than to ignore it. That feeling had kept me alive for three years. I raised my fist, signalled to freeze. The squad halted at once. Nothing moved but sheets of paper, cartwheeling through the night.

On the wall ahead was a perfect, life-sized painting of Jenkins, caught mid-scream. I grimaced. She’d only been in the division three weeks. Some animal instinct made me raise my torch and scan the buildings above. The cone of light crawled up the wall into darkness.

I peered into the gloom at the edge of the light.

The top third of the building was graffitied with a gigantic white minotaur. It loomed above the street, unmoving, and for a heartbeat, I thought it was already dead. But then the minotaur grinned, and a fist clenched in my guts. Behind me, Stevenson shrieked and loosed a burst of fixative. The minotaur was too quick for him, melting back into the bricks even as the web of glue spattered across the wall. The beast darted around the corner of the building, pouring across the stone, the molecules of paint sliding from brick to brick. Splashes of fixative showered the empty wall.

“Hold your fire!” I bellowed.

The squad gathered closer together. In my earpiece, someone was hyperventilating.

“Shit! Jenkins has gone west.”

“He’s big. He’s big, sir-”

“I’ve seen worse, son. Be calm. Keep your wits about you. He’s somewhere close.”

There was another yell behind me. I spun round to see the minotaur reach out of the building, pour onto the pavement and swing his vast arm across the road, knocking half my squad to their knees. Redmayne lay closest to him. In two dimensions, his paint poured across the tarmac, wrapping around her ankle. She screamed and kicked, but the paint held fast. The minotaur yanked her to the ground, and began hauling her towards the wall. The rest of the squad were firing indiscriminately. Wherever splashes of the fixative caught the minotaur, fragments of paint were trapped within the brick, but he was big enough to shrug them off, leaving patches of himself behind. Redmayne was almost at the wall when I found a clear shot. I raised my gun, aimed and fired off half a tank. The glue showered across the beast in a net of spray, pasting his entire head. He juddered to a halt, mouth fixed in a permanent, silent roar. His painted hands continued to sweep across the bricks, scrabbling for purchase, but his head was stuck fast. One by one, my squad found targets, and soon every part of the monster was stuck to the wall. Redmayne scrambled free, sobbing, and backed into a knot of her comrades. We gathered together and looked up at the beast.

He was easily four storeys tall, made with gallons and gallons of paint. His creator had been a talented artist. Even fixed fast to the wall, the minotaur wriggled with life. His horns came to wicked points, and despite the fixative now coating his body, veins and muscles still pulsed on the brickwork. He must have taken weeks to make, back in the day. In a sense, he was even beautiful.

It was hard to remember a time before the paintings came to life.

The Cleaners arrived within the hour, all dead-eyed and paint-smeared with their mops and detergents. We watched them scrub the minotaur from the building, watched him dissolve into suds and drip into the sewers. Then they washed Jenkins from the wall, too. I didn’t watch that part. When they were done, we walked back to the depot. The new trainees looked shellshocked. The older squaddies looked harder, meaner. Redmayne wasn’t talking. She was one of my best officers, but this would be her ticket out. Poor Jenkins hadn’t even made it this far.

Every step of the way, ghosts watched us from the walls. The Cleaners worked hard, but every day, new faces stared out from the brick. And no matter how hard they worked, they couldn’t wash the faces from my nightmares.

 

A million histories

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I absolutely love this: the British Library have just released a million historic images under Creative Commons, meaning they are free to download, copy, modify and use for any purpose, which is just amazing. You can browse their Flickr stream right here. I can drift through thousands of pictures without getting bored; it’s an endless stream of other worlds, of curiosity and of wonder, brought to life in pencil sketch, wood cut and sepia. I’ve already found images I’m going to use on the cover of Marrow. That stream is unbelievable treasure.

I’m just blown away at the scale of the archive they’ve made available. The variety of images is wide enough to be near enough limitless. It has extraordinary potential for artists, writers, historians and internauts of all kinds. What an amazing resource for the world.

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What’s in a name…

This post is about names for stories. Sometimes I come up with a title first – I have a story called You Don’t Talk To The Driver, The Driver Talks To You, which developed entirely from the title. And sometimes the title is really obvious – The Lion Tamer’s Daughter couldn’t be anything else. Sometimes it’s lifted from a phrase in the story, like The First Time I Died. Sometimes it evolves after a struggle, like my novella The Year Of The Whale (which I will finish one day). And sometimes, I just can’t think of anything at all. And all this is relevant because we’ve just changed the name of my novel.

I’ve been calling it Riptide for the last six months, but my novel has had dozens of different names. I went through bucketfuls of working titles – occasionally to the point that I was changing it two or three times in a single writing session. Nothing stuck. I’d reached a point where the novel was finished, and I wanted to send it away, but it didn’t have a name. After another few days dedicated only to looking for titles, I called it Riptide Heart because it had to be called something, then sent it to some friends.

“Love the book, mate,” came one of my first responses, “but the title’s balls.”

In the end, a lot of people said pretty much the same thing. But no-one had any better ideas, so I sent it off to Sue as Riptide Heart. I used Dora’s grubby paw to click the send button. A week later, Sue got back to me, and here we are – a year has passed, and once more I’ve been driving myself up the fucking wall looking for a name for the book.

We moved on from Riptide Heart fairly quickly, and I was fine with that. Everyone involved has been calling it Riptide, because that’s better than ‘the book’ or the ‘the novel’. But the closer we’ve moved towards publication, the more important the title has become. Sue and Jane and I have been searching for a month. Churning through endless combinations of possibilities has turned my brain to mush. I’ve ransacked the manuscript half a dozen times and tried literally hundreds of potential titles. Last week it reached a point where not only could I not think of anything better, but I was no longer capable of judging other suggestions. That’s one of the reasons I’m fortunate to be working with such professional people at Quercus and Conville & Walsh. Linking wonderfully to the stunning cover art commissioned by Jane, I’m delighted that we’ve finally settled on a name which I’m happy with – my first novel is now and forevermore called The Visitors.

So, what’s in a name? A rose would smell as sweet, and so on… but a novel is like a child, and you spend so much time with it as it grows, learning what it wants to be, getting to grips with its tantrums and moods, guiding its ambitions, and being constantly surprised and amazed by what it becomes… I can’t imagine Dora by any other name. Knowing that Riptide was a temporary title hasn’t lessened the jolt of losing it; after so many months, it had become Riptide.

The Visitors grows on me by the day. It has the human element I wanted so badly, and it has a ghostly feel which I love. As my friend Iain pointed out, I spent so long looking for The Best Name Of Any Book In The World Ever Ever Ever – which doesn’t exist, of course – that I stopped being able to consider what was right in front of me. I’ve often used the idiom of not seeing the wood for trees when discussing writing – and writing novels in particular – and it’s proved true for this title search as well.

I can barely express my relief of being out of those woods…

Jane’s editorial notes have arrived, and I’m really excited about some of her ideas. Next stop: the final draft.

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Here Be Monsters

My amazing partner Monica brought this to my attention today: The Monster Engine, a series of children’s nightmares made ferociously lifelike by talented DC comics artist Dave Devries. His skill as an illustrator makes the imagination of these kids all the more fantastical, and all the more frightening. These are just astonishing – and their naivety, their anatomical awkwardness, makes them so sinister. This is true horror:

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You can see more of The Monster Engine here. I’m going to try and get the book.

These images resonate very strongly with me, because I don’t remember much of my dreams or my childhood. I remember virtually nothing before the age of ten – just scraps of memories, like the time I snapped a penknife shut on my finger, and the time I didn’t realise I was standing in an ants’ nest. I do remember some of my nightmares, though I can’t attach them to any sense of how old I was, or where. I remember watching the shadow of a man stalking up the stairs towards me, infinitely slowly – even though the door was closed and there was no way I could see the stairs. I remember a white face watching from a mezzanine. I remember lying in bed, early one morning, frozen with fear while a fog boiled from the bottom of my cupboard.

This sounds daft, but I sometimes wonder if I write precisely because I don’t recall my dreams.

If dreams are how we interpret the world and remember events, perhaps we need access to that process of recording and interpretation, just to be reassured that we have been alive despite it all. That access comes from remembering dreams, or scraps of dreams. I don’t remember mine, and so I’ve found another way to interpret my life. It probably doesn’t work so simply, but writing, for me, is the wax crayon drawing of things that might have happened. Reading is what makes them spring to life, and growl from underneath the bed.

 

The horizon

What a couple of weeks. The start of college has been a bit rough, but we’re getting there. I’m spread fairly thin at the moment, and it doesn’t feel like I’m getting much done… but in the background I’ve completely redrafted my flash fiction collection Marrow, so that’s ready for typesetting when I find the time to get to grips with InDesign. Paragraph Planet published a 75-word story from that collection last week, too, which is pretty cool. I’ve also redrafted the longer short story I talked about in my last post, and started blocking out my new novel in the excellent Scrivener.

Even more exciting, Riptide is beginning to gather pace. I’m expecting notes from my editor this week, so I can start work on what should be the final draft, and I’ve just had a sneak peek at a rough of the cover art, which is scintillating. While I’ve been so busy drowning in real life, just trying to stay afloat, seeing the cover has been a timely reminder of what I’m working towards. The artwork is simply perfect, but I’ll wait for a final version before I share it.

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The 200th Spotlight Club in Lancaster is looming on the horizon. It feels like only last week I was reading at their open mic night. I’m excited about performing there again, and hopefully catching up with old friends Rich Turner, Dan Haywood and Paddy Garrigan (pictured above) – Paddy’s playing out the night, which should be a blast. I have two or three new pieces lined up. I’m going to start with a short story about guinea pigs, and finish with a very short 75-word piece about avocados. I think there’s probably time for another story in between, but I haven’t decided what just yet.

After Spotlight comes the Brewery open mic, if I can get a spot, and then Dreamfired in October. By happy coincidence, my storytelling uncle Rich Sylvester is up from London that night. I don’t get to see Rich very often, so if we’re organised enough, I’ll try and knock up a quick video of one of his stories.

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