[Thought I’d have a bit of rant every now and then to liven things up. I’d be interested to see what you think.]

We live in strange times. William Boyd’s Bond novel, “Solo”, is just about to be published, following in the footsteps of – amongst a surprising number of others – Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver. Sophie Hannah has recently been commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new Hercule Poirot novel. This isn’t by any means a new phenomenon. After all, “Virginia Andrews” has churned out considerably more novels since her death than prior to it. (BTW Did you realise there were quite that many? I didn’t. Whew.) But there seems to be more of it about now than there used to be.

Here’s what’s bothering me.

I have no problem with the idea of taking an existing character or set of characters and reusing them. It’s what literature has done ever since people started telling stories to while away the hours sitting around the campfire. But the whole point of creating stories is to add value to the material – to bring in something new. And I worry that any work generated to meet the demands of a dead author’s estate is necessarily going to be limited in terms of what the new writer can bring to the party.

On the contrary, I would argue that the only truly creative way to go when writing any sort of sequel, prequel or whatever is to mark out your own territory by heading off in a completely new direction.

The initial germ of an idea for “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens” (ah, here we go) was actually a creative writing consequences game in which I started playing with the idea that, a couple of years post marriage, the Darcys hadn’t had any kids yet and that Wickham might not necessarily be quite such a bad guy. Then the alien concept came along, and that immediately opened up the possibility that Wickham was a hotshot deep cover alien hunter. In this new worldview, the elopement with Lydia was actually to protect her from alien kidnap and all the concomitant probing and stuff. The entire plot of “Pride and Prejudice” was henceforth up for reinterpretation.

I’d like to think that Jane would have approved. But I’m actually not that bothered. As I’ve said, my main concern was to use her characters as a starting point, not a straitjacket.

In fact, all the best Austen spinoffs are the least reverent and most outrageous ones. I normally try not mention “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” (because of all that, you know, daring to turn up in print while I was still writing mine), but it’s surely got to be more interesting proposition than “Murder at Pemberley”. Best Austen film? Got to be “Clueless”. And so on.

I realise there are copyright reasons for all of this and that, at least outside the dark and weird worlds of unpublished fan-fiction, you can’t just grab anyone’s work and do whatever you like with it. But if you can’t do that, I do wonder a little what the point is, especially when there are big-name authors involved. I hope I’m wrong, and I wish the likes of Boyd and Hannah well (although I will admit to continuing to harbour ill will towards Eoin Colfer – I mean, how could he?)

All the same, I would still love to think that one day the Fleming estate will give the nod to someone like, I dunno, Jeanette Winterson and say to her, “Go on, do what you like. It’s all yours.”

Oh dear. Another blog gap. Let me try to explain…

I think I may have learnt something important over the last week or so. For various reasons, not all of which I want to reveal quite yet, I’m in a bit of an odd place with my writing. The thing is, despite having had two books published (and several more, if you include the software ones), I’m no closer to working out what kind of a writer I am. Now it’s true that this matters less and less these days – you’ve only got to look at the CVs of the likes of Naomi Alderman and Steven Hall on the Granta Best Young Novelist list to see that – but it would still be nice to have a bit of a clue as to what I’m doing instead of stumbling around in the dark.

So lately I’ve been looking for Signs, and as luck would have it last week there were two opportunities for Signs to appear. Unfortunately, neither Sign bothered to show up. The first one was the announcement of the shortlist for the Venture Award for poetry pamphlets. Now, I didn’t hold out much hope for this one, but a small amount of hope was nonetheless present (because otherwise, why had they put me on the longlist?). However, it wasn’t so much the fact that I failed to make the cut that bothered me, it’s the judge’s remark that many of the collections that fell short had too many weak poems padding them out. My problem is that I haven’t a bloody clue which ones are the weak ones and which are the strong ones. But then again, maybe this means that I’m not a proper poet yet. Either way, I’m no nearer finding out if I’m ever going to be one.

The other Sign that failed to make its scheduled appearance was the shortlist for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize. Now again, it was an unlikely proposition, given the unprecedented strength of the field this year, but the hope was always there, and as John Cleese’s character says in Clockwise, it’s not the despair – I can cope with that – it’s the hope I can’t stand.

The important thing I have learnt from this is that it’s pointless as a writer to wait for external agencies over which one has no control whatsoever to provide a direction. To be strictly accurate, it’s not actually something I’ve learnt this last week – it’s something I’ve remembered again. After all, I’ve never had a mentor and I’ve always made up my career as I’ve gone along. Back in late 2010, against advice from some people, I started blogging Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens as a direct reaction to my frustration at not getting a short story collection accepted. Two years later, they’d both been published and it didn’t matter that they were two totally different books. Maybe I just need to find another project that I can love and get stuck into it, without worrying about what kind of a thing it is.

The good news is that the week ended with a couple of nice acceptances. The first of these was from Josephine Corcoran’s splendid And Other Poems blog, which specialises in re-publishing poems that haven’t previously appeared online, for “Pants Outside Trousers, Big Letter H On T Shirt, Here To Save The World.” The second was from the Ilanot Review for my short story “Oddly Enough, It Wasn’t About Larry Walters At All.” Coincidentally, out of everything I’ve ever written, I think those may be two of my favourite titles.

Every now and then, I Google my own name. Sometimes I can go as long as an hour before I feel the need to do it again. This is of course, absolutely essential practice for a writer; it is, after all, of vital importance to know what one’s readership is thinking about one. Sometimes, for a change, I even use other search engines (DuckDuckGo‘s pretty good, if you want to stay clear of the Google data-harvesting machine) and different spellings. And every now and then, odd things pop up.

Like this, for example, written by a teacher who went to the launch of the 2011 Bristol Short Story Prize. Here’s my favourite extract:

Mr. Pinnock read the funniest story I have ever heard about a drunk, some vomit and a dog.

Of course, as was pointed out to me on Twitter, there is a crucial missing comma there, potentially reducing the population from which the sample is taken to somewhere in the region of one. Still, it’s a great quote. And also, oddly, a great name for a band if I ever decide to form one. I can just imagine Stuart Maconie announcing the latest release from ” A Drunk, Some Vomit and a Dog”, can’t you?

The other mention I found was a little more outré. Did you know there was a regular event in New York called “Naked Girls Reading”? Nope, me neither. But there is, and it is exactly what it says on the tin. Here’s the slightly NSFW link to it.

Now if you can somehow manage to skip past the tab labelled “Photos” and select “Past events” instead, you will notice that in January, one of the works read was “The Amazing Arnolfini and His Wife” from “Dot Dash”. This resulted in several conflicting reactions:

  1. (Flattered author self) “Wow! Someone in America has actually read my book and actually likes it!”
  2. (Legalistic self) “Hmmm. But they didn’t ask for permission, did they?”
  3. (Inner 12-year-old self) “Naked women! On stage! In New York! Reading my stuff! Phwooarr!”

Well, I’ve tweeted them regarding 2. Whether or not it was deliberate, they need to know it was a bit naughty. And yes, I did think (or at least my inner 12-year-old did) of asking them for a video as payment. But then it struck me that it might come across as a bit creepy. Look at me, being all mature and responsible.

This is what I love about being a writer. The unexpected, random stuff. You really never can tell what’s going to happen once you put your work out there.

The very wonderful What The Dickens magazine have just produced a really cool promotional video for their current fundraising campaign, featuring loads of writers and other creative people, including – if my eyes aren’t deceiving me – none other than Hugh Bonneville (I think he’s been a few things on the telly). Oh, and that’s me at around the 2:27 mark. In case you can’t read the word that I’ve made, it’s “happen”.

So do take a look. And maybe make a contribution? Go on, you know you want to.

Writers are – let’s make no bones about this – an odd bunch. No surprises there – we all know that. Moreover, what is particularly fascinating about writers as a group is the sheer diversity of their oddness.

However, there is one particular subgroup that I can’t get my head around, and it’s the writers who read out their work to a group and then put it away in a drawer for ever. The ones who, when you say to them “Hey, that was really good – why don’t you try to get it published somewhere?” say, “Oh, I’ve no idea where I could send it to” or “There’s nowhere to get anything published these days, is there?”

I have met a surprising number of these people.

The fact is that – thanks to places like Niteblade – there has never been a better time to get your work out there. Yes, I know you can self-publish, either for free on your own blog or on Kindle if you’re feeling more ambitious, but unless your amazingly talented AND amazingly lucky, you’re not going to build up much of a reputation that way.

Small magazines like Niteblade play an absolutely crucial role in bridging the gap between complete anonymity and getting your work in front of the general public. First of all, if you manage to get something published by them, you are getting anonymous validation by a complete stranger – someone who has absolutely no interest in you as a person and is prepared to assess your writing on its merits, and – crucially – someone who has seen an AWFUL lot of writing (and that last adjective is moveable, incidentally). Secondly, if you don’t happen to make it through to being published, you’ll get your first experience of dealing with rejection, and in some ways that’s the most important lesson to learn if you’re ever going to get anywhere.

Almost a year ago I wrote a guest post on the blog of Niteblade’s editor, the lovely Rhonda Parrish, as part of my tour to launch my first book “Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens”, and it amplifies a lot of what I’ve said above. One of the things I said then was that a lot of these small magazines fold after a short time (I was particularly sad to see the end of Dog vs Sandwich, if only because it had to be the daftest name ever for a publication), but some of them keep on going. And some of them, like Niteblade, even get to see their fifth anniversary. So go and take a look. Buy a copy. Submit to them. Keep those small presses turning over.

Happy Fifth Anniversary, Niteblade!

(You can find the previous link on this blog train at Amber Stults’ blog, and the next one will be back at Niteblade‘s site itself.)

What with promoting Mrs Darcy and so on, I haven’t done a lot of submitting stuff lately. But I sent a few things off the other day and I was very pleased to get a quick acceptance from Ink, Sweat and Tears for my poem Lost for Words. I’ll let you know when it appears.

What else? Had an unexpected sighting of Mrs Darcy the other day, courtesy of the lovely Sarah Salway (that’s Sarah-Salway-who-gets-cover-quotes-from-Neil-Gaiman-and-recently-shared-a-platform-with-William-Gibson, in case you were wondering). At a poetry reading the other day this chap was apparently enthusing about the book, saying that there were “lots of belly laughs”. I’ve no idea who he is, which makes it even better.

I’ve now added a 404 page to the Mrs Darcy website. Try going to a non-existent page like this one and see what happens. I should do something similar to this place, too, whilst I’m at it.

I’ve also restarted my Too Many CDs project – the one where I listen to every tenth CD in my collection and give my impressions. We’re now up to number 100, which happens to be the splendid “Remedy” by Basement Jaxx.

And finally, if you haven’t been keeping up with the increasingly bizarre and unpleasant Brit Writers Award story, this post – and the comments under it especially – will tell you everything you need to know. Wow. Just wow.

Which will, of course, look a bit odd to those of you who aren’t on Twitter (amazingly, there are still a few holding out). Basically what it means is that I am once again back writing, having spent two or possibly even three months using the necessity of promoting Mrs Darcy versus the Aliens as an excuse for not pushing the work in progress forward.

As excuses go it was a reasonable one, but one that became increasingly untenable as October stretched into November, until I was finally forced to face up to it at the weekend. What it was was this: I was quite keen on the first 3000 words, but I really was completely stuck on what to do next. Then I suddenly hit upon a neat narrative device that took the story to what I think will be a whole new level. And I’m now suddenly desperate to write like fury to get to the point where I can use that device, because I really think this will be something quite different.

Of course, having said that, I duly spent a fair bit of my writing time today coming up with a post for The View From Here. So this new momentum may yet stall. Hope not, though. I quite like this one.

In other news, there are now nine reviews for Mrs Darcy up on Amazon, every single one of them with five stars. So oi there, you national dailies and magazines, I’m over here!

Oh, and one more thing. If you’re a writer and you haven’t read all the stuff about the Brit Writers’ Awards yet, take a look here, here and here. You need to know this.

Back in early September I spent a fascinating hour or so crammed into a tiny studio in a basement somewhere off Baker Street recording a programme for National Short Story Week, along with such short story luminaries as Emily Bullock, Stuart Evers and Linda Leatherbarrow. The interviewer was none other than Sue Cook, who expertly guided us through our conversation.

I haven’t dared listen to it all the way through yet, but here it is in case you’re interested. If (as is likely) I sound like a complete git, please do keep it to yourself:

I’m slowly coming to the conclusion that I’m nothing more than a shallow attention-seeker. On the negative side, this is not necessarily a truth that a bloke of my moderately advanced years likes to come to (I was hoping for a bit more gravitas by now, frankly), but on the plus side, it does at least align itself very well with my nascent writing career. Because every now and then one is called upon to read something one has written in public, and this tends to work better when one is enjoying it.

Which is one of the reasons why I jumped at the opportunity to nip down to Bristol yesterday to attend the launch event for the 2012 short story competition. One of the other reasons was of course that the BSSP is rapidly becoming one of the top short story prizes in the country so I was very honoured indeed to be asked. Also, Joe Melia, who pretty much is the BSSP, is a top bloke and it was great to see him again. Oh, and did I mention that none other than Tania Hershman was also on the bill?

The event seemed to go very well – there was certainly a good-sized audience and some excellent readings. Emily Bullock (nice to see her again too!) started the evening by reading an extract from this year’s prizewinning story, “My Girl”, a wonderfully visceral piece of writing. She was followed by Alan Toyne, who read an extract from his shortlisted story from the first year of the BSSP, “Tuesday Night”, a very wittily-observed description of a male bonding ritual. Then I did my bit – I’d decided to read a couple of whole stories rather than extracts, so I went for “Canine Mathematics” and “Advice re Elephants”, which seemed to go down OK. Then Tania wrapped up proceedings with four utterly wonderful flashes – I knew (and loved) a couple of them already and the other two were equally beguiling.

Then we all mingled for a while and drank a glass or two. It was lovely to see Sarah Hilary and Nastasya Parker again, who were both in the audience, and it was also great to meet Twitter chum Chris Wakling, whose latest book “What I Did” I’ve just ordered. Oh, and Foyles had also ordered in a dozen or so copies of Mrs Darcy, half of which went on the night, which I don’t think is too bad considering it wasn’t her event at all. I also signed the other half, so if there’s anyone in Bristol who’s after a copy with the tentacle signature, get down to Cabot Place now.

And the fun continues tomorrow night, where I’m going to be sitting alongside the awesomely-talented John Harding (whose “Florence and Giles” may well be the best book I’ve read this year) on the Firestation Book Swap sofa. Do come along – it should be a good evening. To whet your appetite, here’s my pre-swap interview with the lovely Emma Buckley of Beat Magazine.

This is rather cool. I had an e-mail today from Mike French, the editor of ace literary magazine The View From Here asking if I fancied a spot as a regular contributor. Obviously I said yes, and within minutes my profile was up there on their website, alongside fab writers like Claire King and Elizabeth Baines, literary agents Simon Trewin and Annette Green, and recent blog visitor / host Scott Pack, whose launch party I had a fab time at last night (buy his book, BTW – it’s triffic). Exalted company indeed.

Now I’ve got to think of something to write about that doesn’t involve self-promotion. Well, it’ll make a nice change, whatever it is.

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