What a difference a year makes

As 2012 counts down its final minutes I find myself reflecting on what an extraordinary year it’s been; not just in terms of Queen and country (Jubilee, Olympics); not just for family (one brother’s film spent the year racking up awards, another launched his debut art exhibition and had a piece selected for the National Biennial, our late mother received a posthumous parenting award from the great and good of my birth nation); but for me personally.

When the year started I was an underemployed freelance consultant who had taken the uncharacteristically irresponsible step of bunking off for most of 2011 to, of all things, write a novel. It was an itch I needed to scratch, an intellectual and artistic exercise, a labour of love. In the hope that someone besides me and a few friends might want to read it, my first task of 2012 was sending it out to agents, in the sure and certain knowledge that interest (if there ever was any) would be long in coming and publication (if it ever happened) wouldn’t happen for a good long while. I popped the packages in the post and told myself sternly to forget about it for now and get back to doing some real, i.e. pay-the-bills, work.

I’m ending 2012 with that novel less than three months away from publication, it’s sequel two-thirds written, and a third book due after that.

I think that when I tell people this was unexpected they think I’m being modest. I’m not. This has been a gobsmackingly, flabbergastingly, never-in-my-wildest-dreams sort of year.

So I want to say thank you – to the first few friends and family who said I wasn’t crazy to skive off and write, and to the wider circle who later read and commented and encouraged; to Rachel Dench who made a particular point of recommending me to Ian Drury, and to Ian for listening to the new girl in the office, reading the manuscript and offering to represent me; to Jo Fletcher for buying not just the book I’d written but two I hadn’t – yet; to Nicola Budd and Lucy Ramsey and the rest of the Quercus/JFB team for all the work they’ve done and will do behind the scenes to polish and package and promote my books and help me learn the things I’ll need to know; to the truly lovely people I’ve met in the SFF community, who are friendly and welcoming and full of lore and wisdom; and finally to everyone I’ve met, or who has stopped by the blog or the Facebook page or the intermittent Twitter feed. Everyone who’s said, ‘Wow, that sounds cool. I’d like to read that.’ You have all made this my best year ever.


GEMSIGNS cover blurb

My publisher asked if I wanted to have a crack at the jacket copy for Gemsigns. This is, of course, hugely important; how many of us decide to buy a book – or not – by picking up a likely-looking volume, flipping it over and reading the back? (Or the inside flap of the jacket if it’s a hardcover.) You’d think it  wouldn’t be too difficult, but it turns out that 2-3 short, punchy paragraphs that capture the essence of the story without giving too much away, that are enticing enough to hook a prospective reader, are not simple to construct at all. I’ve read my latest draft so many times now it’s a blur. So this is an attempt to crowdsource opinion. Would you buy this book?


Humanity stands on the brink. Again.

Surviving the Syndrome meant genetically altering every person on the planet. But norms and gems are different. Gems may have the superpowers that once made them valuable commodities, but they also have more than their fair share of the disabled, the violent and the psychotic. And a legacy of servitude, to which they will not return.

When the gem Gaela finds an abandoned child with an unregistered ability, events are set in motion that will drag every element of her fractured world into conflict: the vicious intrigues of the gemtech that created her, the holy war of the godgangs, and the fears and prejudices of the norm majority. Ruthless executive Zavcka Klist will do whatever it takes to retrieve little Gabriel. Deformed, unaccountably formidable leader Aryel Morningstar is hiding secrets of her own. Only norm scientist Dr Eli Walker can be trusted to navigate this treacherous terrain, in a desperate search for the truth.

Likes and/or comments much appreciated!

The City’s Son shines

I’ve just finished reading one of those books that grabs hold and hangs on and gets in your way until you’re done with it; or until it, possibly, is done with you. The kind that interrupts my own writing and even my sense of place; I’ve looked up a couple of times over the last couple of days, slightly dazed to find myself in a sunny garden in Devon instead of a wintry, smelly back alley in the Big Smoke in the company of garbage gods and warrior cats. Urban fantasies of alternate Londons are almost a genre of their own now, what with your Neil Gaimans and China Mievilles and Ben Aaronovitchs and … I could go on, but you get the picture. You’d think there wouldn’t be too many new takes on the idea, not too many opportunities to seduce a fairly jaded reader like myself. You’d be wrong.

Tom Pollock’s The City’s Son is a delight. Nominally aimed at the young adult market, I think all you have to be is young at heart to appreciate this beautifully written, cleverly constructed tale of a city whose very fabric is alive and vital – a city of sodium-light dancers and tower-crane demons and the ghosts of trains, a city where the Pavement Priests are made of stone and bronze and the Mirrorstocracy are, quite literally, no more than reflections of former glory. Into it stumbles graffiti artist Beth Bradley, fleeing tragedy at home and trouble at school, only to find herself in the company of Filius Viae, abandoned son of the city’s absent Goddess. Together Fil and Beth must find a way to save their city from his mother’s ancient enemy, Reach, the King of the Cranes. And that’s as much of the story as you’re getting from me. All I’ll say is that the outcome isn’t obvious; Pollock, like Mieville, has a fondness for turning tropes on their head. That’s not all he’s got going for him; his characters jump off the page at you, fully realised and recognisable in the space of a few words (not unlike Gaiman, and believe me when I tell you, coming from me that’s very high praise). And like Aaronovitch, the story is full of snarky humour and a palpable love of London.

Are there flaws? Of course there are, but they are few and forgivable. The speed with which Beth’s dad and best friend accept the altered reality in which they find themselves seems a bit unlikely under the circumstances. The friend, Pen, is subjected to horrific ordeals in both Londons but the one in the ‘real’ world, although an inciting event for much that happens later, is pretty much glossed over. And I found myself wondering how the cataclysmic events in the ‘other’ London were perceived and explained in ours, and why the police didn’t seem to be involved in the hunt for two missing teenage girls. In a lesser book these would have been real problems; here they are quibbles. Pollock’s prose flows so beautifully it would disguise far greater sins. I’ve read a fair few first novels recently that are long on story but short on storytelling, in which the craft of writing seems neglected by writers in love with the tale, but not the telling.

The City’s Son works the way all magic works; by paying attention to the details that seduce and misdirect, using turns of phrase and moments of imagery to channel emotion and imagination. Tom Pollock didn’t just tell a great story; he’s a great storyteller. I’m looking forward to the next one.

GEMSIGNS cover reveal!

A few weeks ago I reported with much excitement on the cover meeting I’d had with Jo Fletcher Books. As I said then, the concept they came up with managed both to fit the brief perfectly and to be not at all what I expected, to reflect the story while giving nothing away. I was stunned and delighted and I couldn’t wait to share it with you. And now … I can.

The first book of the ®Evolution

Gemsigns will be published April 2013


Thoughts on Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’

For once it’s easy to choose Goodreads 5-star rating for a book, given that the rollover reminds us this means ‘it was amazing’ rather than the 4-star ‘I really liked it.’ Lolita was amazing. I’m not sure I really liked it. I’m very glad I read it. I doubt I’ll ever read it again.

I suppose the most astonishing, and uncomfortable, single aspect of a generally astonishing and uncomfortable book is that for 350+ pages it locates us squarely inside the mind, the emotions, the urges and the actions of what must surely be one of the most venal, vainglorious, pathetically evil characters in all of literature. Humbert Humbert is intelligent, educated, witty and eloquent, and as such his confession/memoir, delivered through the veil of his own justifications and excuses, is shockingly seductive. In the course of our time with him we find ourselves laughing at his jokes, agreeing with his assessments, recognising his dilemmas. When his true nature shines through – and this is a negative shine, as it were, chinks of purest black in the light, bright armour of his self-aggrandisement – the pure horror of it is so overwhelming that it is, paradoxically, easier to ignore than to focus on. We don’t want to go there. We don’t want to comprehend what those flashes of unvarnished truth tell us is really happening to Lolita. His endless expositions of undying love and amused observations on the idiosyncrasies of early adolescence are so much easier to bear. And because he is unable even at the end, when the horror he has wrought can finally no longer be concealed even from himself, to acknowledge that his Lolita was never more than an innocent victim, and he never less than the most guilty of predators, he remains, for me at least, irredeemable.

Because in some ways his greatest crime is this: Lolita is never a person to him, never an entity in her own right, never a being entitled to any rights. She exists only in relation to him. He defines her nature, implicitly, in terms of his own reactions to her. The notion that he might be, indeed should be, completely incidental to her is not one he can countenance. And the greatest tragedy of the book is that because he never challenges, never wants to challenge, his own duplicitous perception, he makes of it a reality. Lolita is, in the end, what he has made her, and no more. We are unable to know her except as he has known her. Her life is truncated by his understanding of it.

It’s easy to see why Lolita is on virtually every best-book list since the middle of the 20th century. It deserves to be there. It’s a book that should be read, and talked about, and thought about. Should it be enjoyed? Well yes, for its mastery if not its subject matter. Nabokov’s achievement is superlative. The style and structure of the thing, the framing devices and concatenation of tales, the pearls of prose, the characterisations, the sheer thrust and power of the narrative, are literally breathtaking. Readers talk about being transported, and it is a book that is deeply moving in every sense. For a writer it is an awe-inspiring work, an intensely difficult story to pull off in the purely technical sense made to look easy by the sheer lyrical bravura of the author. There is much for us later generations of wordsmiths to learn here – and be intimidated by.

Angst and the second book

It’s been a month since I said I’d try to post at least a couple of times a month. Heigh-ho. There’s one rash promise scuppered a-borning.

The book is going well, I think. I probably won’t know for sure for another month or so, when I can see if where the opening I’ve constructed is taking me is where I intended to be. Or is even remotely interesting. (I assure you that these are quite distinct, though hopefully not mutually exclusive outcomes.)

I keep thinking it’s harder than the first book, although looking back that one certainly didn’t feel easy at the time. But it is a technical challenge of a different order entirely. I have to reintroduce a world and characters that I’ve already established in Gemsigns, in sufficient detail to orient new readers and to remind those for whom some time may pass between books; but not in so much detail that I am essentially repeating huge chunks of Gemsigns. I have to try and preserve at least some of the secrets of Gemsigns, so that this book doesn’t entirely spoil that one for those who may come to this first.

Some of those secrets so fundamentally inform what happens next – what I’m writing now – that I can’t post excerpts without undermining the pleasure that I hope you, my potential, prospective readers, will get from Gemsigns. I’m meeting with my publishers in a few weeks, and I’ll talk to them about posting a few extracts from Gemsigns now and then. Which, in addition to hopefully generating interest and feedback, will also boost my blog output with little or no extra effort on my part.

Yes, I know that is a completely self-serving and cheeky reason, but don’t beat me up too badly. Please. I was novel-writing until 1 o’clock this morning, and I suspect I may not have had enough coffee.

(Progress report: 20,000+ words, chapters 1-6 complete, plus another long-ish and crucial scene which will go … somewhere. Soon. All major and most minor characters – some of whom are new to this book – have been introduced; plots and sub-plots are up and running. Fairly happy with the prose, although I do have to watch out for seepage: I read a Philip Pullman novel a few weeks ago and for a moment I too was writing retro Victoriana; then an Iain Banks novel and suddenly there was a fair bit of existential angst; now GK Chesterton and an invasion of Edwardian rhetoric. The good news is I can spot and block it pretty quickly. But it is interesting.)

Writing, not blogging

It feels faintly ridiculous to write a blog post about not writing more blog posts, but that’s what this is. I’m working on my second novel, and I tend not to read or write much of anything else when I’m in that mode. I guess I turn into even more of a recluse than usual: an intellectual hermit, sealed into my own little bubble of creation. When I was writing Gemsigns last year I’d go days without talking to another soul.

I suspect this isn’t all that healthy, so I’m going to make an effort not to become entirely uncommunicative. There’s also the little matter of the editorial, production and promotional processes leading up to the publication of Gemsigns next March. Indeed, I’m lucky that I do have another book to write by then (manuscript due in April), otherwise I think I’d be completely distracted by what’s already happening and what’s to come. As it is I can’t help feeling a little stunned by something like this. Thank you, Jo Fletcher Books. It makes me feel … it makes me feel … well, wonderful. And like I’ve got to really make sure the second book lives up to the first.

So if you notice me not writing here, rest assured it’s because I’m writing elsewhere. I’ll try to pop in at least every couple of weeks to let you know how I’m getting on, wrestle out loud with literary problems, and share any other news and views. I may post a bit more often to my Facebook page; I’d be chuffed to bits if the people who like this one liked that one as well.

(Oh, and in case anyone’s interested: not counting the reams of notes, character sketches, random phrases and lines of dialogue, the word count for the new book currently stands at 4,800. That’s Chapter 1, most of Chapter 2, and a crucial scene that will form the core of Chapter 3. Given that the target is roughly 100,000+ words and 30-ish chapters, it’s still very early days.)

I’m going to be published! I’m going to be published!

Well, I’ve given it away with the headline, haven’t I?

The radio silence for the past several weeks has been because I wasn’t yet allowed to talk about the only thing I wanted to talk about: the fact that I’d received an offer from a publisher, not just to publish the novel I’ve already written – which would have been unbelievably amazing in itself – but to publish three books. That’s right, the one I’ve written plus two more I haven’t. Yet. I am now in possession not only of a Book Deal, but of Book Deadlines.

That’s fine. I can do deadlines. I’ve just about managed to come to terms with the fact that my book, my baby … which started several years ago with a fleeting mental image, which generated a concept, which grew into an idea, which then acquired characters and a narrative, but which still got written more-or-less by accident only last year … is going out into the world next spring, there to stand or fall on its own 400+ pages. I’m still a bit gobsmacked by that. I thought I’d get it out of the house eventually, but so soon? It’s a big enough thing to wrap your head around that once you have done, the thought of having to provide it with a sibling a year for the next couple of years is not actually as daunting as it probably should be.

Because, as my prescient (and proficient) agent Ian Drury foresaw during our very first meeting, my little 2011 writing project has become the lead novel of a science fiction trilogy; and as predicted in my Working Title post (written before any of this happened, I swear), the name of the novel as of this writing remains unconfirmed. Its original title, ®Evolution, will become the name for the series. (Although poor Ian has, I think, been calling it the Morningstar trilogy at London Book Fair, given how undecided it all is, and Morningstar being the name of a key character – but it’ll be the ®Evolution trilogy, or saga, or chronicles, or something. I promise.) Book One has for the moment been rechristened Gemsign, and I’ll be posting lots more about it in the months to come.

For now, many many thanks to Ian and to my (brand new!) publisher Jo Fletcher Books for their enthusiasm for the figments of my imagination, and their faith in my ability to keep on making stuff up. I’m in good hands; JFB is the science fiction/fantasy/horror imprint of Quercus, 2011’s Publisher of the Year. (No, I don’t know what you have to do to be Publisher of the Year. I’m assuming it includes Selling Lots of Books and Being Nice to Authors.)

Oh, that reminds me. I’m an author now. Officially.

Charlie Hill’s Literary Fiction Manifesto

I’m Pressing This amusing, perceptive and heartfelt post on the state of and prospects for literary fiction; it deserves a discussion I think. I’ve already added my own comment.

writers’ hub – Literary Fiction Manifesto – Charlie Hill.

Working title

A few fellow travellers in the online community have asked the title of my recently-completed novel – so that they can spot it when it arrives in their local bookshop. Charmed though I am by the sweet confidence of this request (of course it’ll get published, of course it’ll end up in a Waterstones or Borders somewhere near you … do you know what the odds are, people?!), I remain unsure of whether or how to respond. That’s because while I know what I call it, it’s not at all certain that a publisher will want to stick with my moniker. I sympathise. At this point I’m not even sure I want to stick with it, for reasons that will become clear. But I do need to respond, maybe spread the dilemma around a bit. Here goes.

To tell this story properly I should start at the beginning, with a quote from the 1967 preface to The Book of Imaginary Beings by the incomparable Jorge Luis Borges:

“We are ignorant of the meaning of the dragon in the same way that we are ignorant of the meaning of the universe, but there is something in the dragon’s image that fits man’s imagination …”

That struck me when I first read it several years ago as a wonderfully elegant metaphor for what it is we do when we read and when we write – we take something completely invented, and from it try to extrapolate a recognisable truth. When I started writing my novel almost a year ago I knew I didn’t know what to call it yet, so I filed those earliest drafts as The Meaning of Dragons. I suspect I will use this again and again, as an obtuse but portentous working title, until I know what it is I’m really writing about.

As happened with the current novel. Ten thousand words or so in I had the principle characters, events and narrative arc, and had set the various parallel plotlines off and running. I knew what it was, and I had a new working title that actually captures what the story is about: ®Evolution. Yep, you got it. The book is about a revolution in terms of an upheaval; and revolutions in terms of repeating cycles of events; and the artificially engineered evolution of the human species by massively powerful corporations for equally massive financial gain. The circle around the ‘R’ to create the commercial registration mark both tells you there’s a mercantile imperative at work, and subtly hints at an orbit, the sense of something revolving. I wasn’t sure at first, but as the chapters rolled past and the story took on the weight and heft of truth, it felt right. I was writing about the ®Evolution.

The problem, of course, is that it’s a visual quip. The triple entendre only works when it’s read, not spoken. Say it out loud and you lose two-thirds of the meaning. Plus, verbalised it’s no longer unique. As my agent put it, there’s a lot of revolutions out there.

Had I thought of any alternative titles? Just, you know, in case.

So, I’ve been trying to. It’s been tough. I’m committed to the ®Evolution. But having had to think about a potential two more books to follow the first has helped, because now I can envisage them as a sequence of stories which together would chronicle the ®Evolution. I could make it the omnibus title instead of the name of one particular novel.

On the off chance that that’s how it pans out, the title of my first book might end up being Gemsign, which also encapsulates many of the key elements of the story. And before you ask, I’m not going to even begin to explain the significance of that word to you – not yet, anyway. Feels like tempting fate. When I know it’s really on the way to a bookshop near you, I’ll tell you what it means.

By which time, it might be called something else.

  • I love stories.
    My new novel, Sacred, is all about them. Publication info will be posted as soon as I have it.

    In the meantime check out Gemsigns, Binary and Regeneration, available wherever good books are sold.

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