Someone once said to me that it takes a surprising amount of discipline to blog regularly. At the time, I thought they were either taking the mickey, or utterly insane. I mean, seriously, how hard could it be? Well, actually... really quite hard. Turns out it's pretty easy to blog but pretty hard to do it regularly, at least in my case. So, it's best I don't break with tradition here: sorry that it's taken me two months to get around to this. I know, I know. My apologies aren't worth the blog post they're written on. Irony is, I don't even have a really good excuse this time. Last time I blogged I had just finished Book 3 and was fried. This time, I'm between books – sort of; I'm actually editing Book 3 with my agent and editor at the moment (more of which later) – but it's not like I haven't had time to get this page updated.
I guess the truth of the matter is that I've really enjoyed this down time after finishing Book 3 in May. The third Raker novel was a challenge in a way the other books weren't. With Chasing the Dead, it was the challenge of getting it published, of rewriting it and rewriting it even though no one was interested and the rejection letters were piling up. With The Dead Tracks, it was more about handling the pressure. I'm not sure I struggled at any stage writing it – certainly not in the way I might have feared – but I felt a pressure to surpass Chasing, to deliver a bigger, more ambitious novel, and to do something markedly different in terms of the plot.
With Book 3, it was about delivering something better again but, more than that, it was about delivering a manuscript in a shorter time period and from a synopsis I hadn't spent quite as much time with. It was fully developed in the way a synopsis has to be before I can proceed with the writing of the actual book, but I hadn't lived with it in the same way as The Dead Tracks. As I've detailed in previous posts, I was carrying the ideas around for the second book from before Chasing the Dead even got me an agent, but the third came together much quicker. I put a synopsis together in July 2010, signed a contract with Penguin for Books 3 and 4 in the August, and began writing it in September. By Christmas, I was only 150 pages in, and those first 150 pages I'd scrapped and rewritten four times over. If you're putting a book out every year, this is the kind of timescale you work towards, and I knew that from the beginning - it was never the timescale that got in the way, not the story (which, I felt, was pretty strong), not the characters (many of whom were already established in The Dead Tracks), not really anything other than the fact that when I hit some bumps in the road – tiny things like how to get Character A to Point B, or how Character C might react to Situation D – I seemed to stop. Completely stop. Those tiny bumps passed almost unnoticed when I was writing The Dead Tracks, but they got big on Book 3, and the more time I wasted trying to tackle them, the more panicked I got about hitting my deadline. By January, I'd only staggered as far as page 200 – well under halfway in the overall story – and my original submission deadline was the first week in April. By February, it became pretty clear to me that I was never going to hit that deadline, so I asked my editor for an extra month. Graciously, she gave it to me, and it was only March time that things finally started to click into place. Why? I'm not entirely sure – but in the same way the tiny problems had become bigger problems in the early stages, by the end I was whipping through at top speed for no good reason I could see. It was the same story I'd always had. The same characters. Everything was headed in the same direction. But what had been excruciatingly painful to start with seemed really quite easy at the end. Even so, by the time I submitted, I was a bit of a wreck. The challenge of Book 3 was, and still is to some extent, a mighty one.
And so here we are, at the end of July, and I'm working on the fifth edit of Book 3 with my agent and editor. The major bone of contention has been the word count which – in a delicious dose of irony not lost on me – is massively over. Yep, you heard right. A book I struggled to get finished comes in about 20,000 words too long. Er, how did that happen? I have no real idea, but the net result is that we have to hack into it. My editor has suggested some areas that need looking at. My agent had suggested some others. Both sets of suggestions, in their own way, are quite painful as they involve sections of the book I've sweated blood and tears over – almost literally this time round – and have grown quite attached to. But, when I step back and try to see the novel as a reader will see it, I can see they're necessary. So over the coming weeks, I will be getting the scissors out, and we'll see where it takes us. (Given that, sickeningly, agent and editor are almost always right, I'm pretty sure it'll take us somewhere better.)
The period since May hasn't been completely dedicated to catching up on the TV and movies I'd missed during my Book 3-induced captivity, though. I've also been laying down some groundwork for the next book too. I've got some ideas down on paper already, but have mostly been busy on the research side of things, reading, travelling around and chatting to a few very interesting people. It's very, very early days on Book 4 yet (it won't even go on sale until space year 2013) but I can feel already that it's going to be a good deal different to what's come before, and hopefully surprising too. Surprising in good way, of course, rather than surprising like an unexpected gas bill landing on your doormat. Whatever happens, I'm sure it'll be a challenge, just like the others. But hopefully the challenge this time will be making it brilliant, rather than just trying to get it done.
Well, I knew I'd get there eventually.
After seven months of hard graft, I finally sent Book 3 off to my editor, bringing to an end 214 days of high excitement and frequent self-doubt. (Though if I'm honest, there was more of the self-doubt than the high excitement in the last four months.) The manuscript will change again once my editor has had a look (although she did, happily, say she liked it very much when she emailed with an update last week, which is already much better than expected) and it'll change some more as it travels between edits, but the important milestone for me was actually getting to that last full stop in the first place. Because, at points during Book 3's long and arduous gestation, I was genuinely starting to worry it might not happen.
I couldn't tell you definitively why Book 3 was so difficult to write. I've got some theories, some of which I've outlined here in previous posts, but I think, perhaps more than anything, the fact that The Dead Tracks was so easy to write (relatively; it was still hard work, but this piece for Crimetime explains a little better what I mean) probably set me up to fail this time round. I went into it thinking I could get it written in six months (which was how long The Dead Tracks took), and I didn't expect to meet too many stumbling blocks along the way. Instead it proved to be nothing but stumbling blocks. You might be sitting there thinking, "But Book 3 only took a month and a half longer than The Dead Tracks to write, so it couldn't have been that much harder." Thing is, that six months on The Dead Tracks was broken down into the writing of it (four months) and then the editing of it (two months). By contrast, Book 3's seven and a half months was only writing, start to finish. I was writing it up until submission day.
And it wasn't just writing either. Rewriting too. Lots of rewriting. I rewrote the first 150 pages four times; I dropped two storylines (and the characters involved) completely from the book, on account of them slowing the pace and confusing the plotting (total page count left on the cutting room floor: 120); I rewrote the entire ending after reading it back and really disliking it (pages: 45); and then I had a finale which I genuinely had no idea if my editor – or anyone else – would like. Ultimately, it was met with a positive response, but it's very different to the first two books, and whenever you stray out of your comfort zone, you wonder if you've done the right thing.
The one good aspect about all this is that, since submission, I've been enjoying some time off from writing, even if time off always ends up poking me and telling me I should be doing something more proactive. Like writing. Working in magazines during the day (a not-exactly-stress-free experience in itself) means – when I'm on a book – I literally do nothing else (genuinely: nothing else) but write or edit for six-month (or seven and a half month) blocks, so when I'm barrelling towards a book deadline, all I can dream about are those wonderful evenings spent on the sofa doing nothing but nursing a mug of tea and watching TV. Then, after I finally get the chance to do that, as I've been doing these past two weeks, I start to miss writing again. It's insane, really. I was absolutely fried after Book 3, but even a fortnight on I'm starting to get the itch again. I'm trying hard to resist. I promised Mrs W and Weaver Jr that they'd both get a chance to see me in some other capacity than hunched over my computer pulling my hair out, plus I'd Sky+'d about half 2011's TV schedule while I was writing so I've got plenty of catching up to do. (I just finished Boardwalk Empire last night, which I thoroughly enjoyed, though I felt the first half was much stronger than the second. Next up: True Blood. I'm literally years behind.)
And then there's my pile of books.
As I've said in previous posts and alluded to above, writing the Raker novels is pretty time-intensive, and I get worried my concentration will drop if I have my head turned by the brilliance of another writer. So, during the time I write I never, ever read. Ever. That routine always stays the same, but when it finally comes to this post-submission 'down time', it does mean I'm faced with a daunting mix of Books I Really Want To Read and Books I Really Need To Read For Research, all of them bought in the months when I'm head down on my own novel. And it's here I make a dirty confession: I was psyched about tearing into Stephen King's Full Dark, No Stars (the book I set aside before anything else for this period of down time) but I didn't really enjoy it. To such an extent, in fact, that (ahem) I didn't actually finish it. I know, I know. I've let myself down, because A) Stephen King is one of my all-time favourite writers, and B) I'm one of those anally retentive people who has to finish a book even if they're not enjoying it. Oh, and C) I hate criticising other writers' work because I know how hard it is to even come close to putting a book together once a year. But I just didn't like it. It left me cold. So I'm sad to admit I didn't finish it. (Luckily, this is also the man that wrote The Stand, The Green Mile and Different Seasons, three books I love so much I keep them in a special book case in the bedroom as a kind of, er, paper-based second wife.) So I've started the next book in the pile: the Great Depression-set Mr Shivers, by Robert Jackson Bennett. I'll let you know how it goes. Unless you've already read it, in which case you'll know how it goes, and I'm hoping the answer is: it went very well indeed, Tim. (On the not finishing thing, I have to say my attitude has, ironically, softened a touch since becoming published myself. I still really hate not finishing a book, because it seems wrong, but I have so little spare time now, and so many books to get through, I need to be grabbed by something or I start to clock-watch.)
Part of the problem in all this is that I'm incredibly weak when it comes to browsing book stores. I don't look and file away mentally for another day. I just buy. Even though I know they won't be read for months, that I won't have time to get through them all, I just go on buying. I'm sure I'm not alone. I bet most of us have books on our shelves that we've never even got around to reading. It all adds to the mystery and romanticism of books in a strange kind of way: after all, what happens if that novel that remains untouched on your shelf, the one you've yet to start, turns out to be the best one you've ever read? That's probably the reason I keep on buying, above and beyond just a love for the form: the knowledge that, even though I've read some incredible books in my life, ones that made me want to be a writer in the first place, the best might still be to come...
Hello! Just checking in to let everyone who reads this page regularly (or, as my updates have slowed to a crawl, irregularly), that I'm still alive, and still – as always – bristling with intent when it comes to blogging. Trouble is, I'm not just knee-deep in Book 3, I'm neck-deep. About 40 pages from the end in fact. You'll be pleased to hear that, while the first three-quarters were the most painful creative experience of my life, this last quarter has actually gone pretty smoothly. Early March, I was at my wit's end, unable to get any sort of distance on the manuscript, and frightened I'd gone and written 350 pages of utter dross. So I sent it off to my agent to deliver my premonition back to me in the form of an "Er, Tim, I think you might have to start again", but instead it was rather better news. She loved it. The sense of relief was immense, and it's really freed me up to rattle on with last 100-150 pages. Once it's done, it's going to be a big weight off my shoulders: I'll be able to blog more regularly (promise); I'll be able to read books and watch films and TV again (I haven't read or watched anything in five months); and I'll be able to take some time off from Raker. Although the truth is, even when I'm not writing about him, I'm thinking about him. He's clever like that. So: see you again in a month. I mean it this time.
So, once again it's taken me two months to update this page, but - as always - I've come armed with some brilliant excuses. The obvious one is that The Dead Tracks is finally in shops now, and I've been busy doing a few things with that, including interviews and Q&As which I will attempt to link to (as soon as I have them) here. There's also been the official launch night, on Tuesday 22nd February, to think about. That'll be here in my home town of Bath, and anyone and everyone is welcome to come along - if it's anything like last year, it should be a bit of fun.
To be honest, it's always a good feeling to finally be able to talk to people about my books. You end up spending so much time with them – so much time alone with them – that to hear other people discuss them is such a joy. (Less so, of course, if they absolutely hate what they've read but I have to say, so far at least, most people have been very kind about the Raker series.) I think one of the big things I worried about with The Dead Tracks – more even than with Chasing the Dead – was where in the story readers would second-guess me. Maybe it's a perennial fear for writers, especially thriller writers, because thrillers are – by their nature – built to thrill, through surprise and misdirection, but on the second book I got to know the workings of the world so well it became hard to get any distance, and it became harder to critique what I'd written in the same way a new reader could. I bothered my agent and editor over and over about it, and each time they told me it was fine. But by that stage they'd read the book four or five times themselves, so whilst I trusted their view, I was never quite able to let the feeling go. Fortunately, when I finally got bound copies in, I went back through the story and I started to feel better about it. And, after that, the first feedback began to roll in, from readers and reviewers, and it seems my worries were largely unfounded, as they often are.
I think The Dead Tracks is a step up from Chasing the Dead. I think maybe it's a little better. I like the characters more, I like the conversations they have more, and I think the storyline is more interesting and, ultimately, more rewarding. But not everyone feels the same way. Some readers have told me they preferred Chasing the Dead, and I don't mind that at all. As long as people continue to have fun with the Raker novels, it doesn't matter to me which one they prefer. But, whatever happened and however people reacted to it, The Dead Tracks was never going to be just another reboot of Chasing the Dead. I was determined to take Raker off in a new direction, meeting (and working alongside) new people, and I wanted to see how he would change as a person (because even with a plan in place, I wasn't entirely sure myself). To try some different things was important to me. The events of Chasing the Dead were so traumatic, there was no way you could replicate that formula without stretching believability. Sure, you have to suspend disbelief in any form of fiction, but Raker needed to react to what happened to him in the first book, and – as he says at the start of The Dead Tracks – make sure it never happens again. I've always said I see the books working like seasons in a TV show: each season is a self-contained story, but each season deals, and continues to deal with, the events of the previous one(s) – even if only in a very, very minor way.
Finally, a quick word on Book 3 (the major reason for this blog being so late): it's coming along. I don't want to say much more than that, really, not because I'm trying to be deliberately teasey, or because I'm attempting to add some mystique to proceedings, but because I'm conscious of getting ahead of myself on this one. Let's just say it's been a struggle... but now, finally, I'm starting to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Phew.
Long-time readers of this page will know that I've always tried to stick to a once-a-month timetable for the blog, but I appear to have missed the entire month of November and just about the whole of December in one impressive swoop. I know I often seem to say this, but I seriously don't know where the time has gone: one minute I was penning the last blog on the 31st October, the next minute I looked up and it was 23rd DECEMBER. (In capital letters to underline my disbelief and slight sense of confusion.) The one happy coincidence is that, from today, I'm now on holiday until 10th January, so – whilst I wouldn't like to guarantee that I'll be any less slack about updating this page in the future – it does at least mean that I've now got 18 days off in which to rattle on with Book 3.
Oh, Book 3.
I have to say, Book 3 has been incredibly painful so far. I always expected The Dead Tracks to be the one that really shook my resolve, but actually – once it got going – it was pretty straightforward to write. Most of that, I think, was down to the fact that I'd lived with the synopsis, the story and the characters, for a long time. Before Chasing the Dead was published – in fact, back in the days when it was being rejected by anyone who strayed within sight of it – I started to work on ideas for the second book because it looked like the only way to get anyone interested was to write something entirely new. So, even when Chasing was finally signed by Penguin, and after, throughout the editing process, The Dead Tracks was always there in the background, ticking over constantly. By the time it comes out on 3rd February, I would probably have lived its world for about 3-4 years, which is undoubtedly why it proved a relatively stress-free project. (Relatively.)
Book 3, though, has been very different. I've only been working on it since September, the synopsis came together very fast, and my submission deadline is Spring next year, which is about six months less than I had for The Dead Tracks. The whole time I've been mildly unhappy with how it's been going. I don't feel like I've had anywhere near enough time to live the world, the characters and the storyline. Which was why, a week ago, I decided to send the first 200 pages off to my agent to have a look at.
I got her notes back today.
They're good notes. Not 'Well done Tim - it's all coming together nicely!' notes, but 'You've got the basis of something good here, but you need to make some big changes' notes. And you know what? I'm really pleased it's the second and not the first: the first would suggest it was all going okay, despite the fact that something was nagging at me, some uncertainty about the book. The second means I was absolutely right to question what I'd put down on paper, and I was right to be worried about the way things were unfolding. Writing a book shouldn't be rocket science. If it doesn't feel like it's working, most of the time it's because it's not working – and that's the point at which you either need to cut your losses and return to the original plan (nine times out of ten, I hit a dead end because I've strayed too far from the original synopsis), or you need to do something even more bold and difficult, and that's tweak the plan itself to better reflect where you've taken the story. The latter would absolutely terrify me, I have to say, but then I'm a particularly neurotic writer. I'm sure there are novelists, and indeed I've read interviews with a few, who just sit down in front of their computers and write. How it comes together, how it resembles something even vaguely publishable, is beyond the capabilities of my tiny mind, but I'm absolutely in awe of them. Not least because, if I had those abilities, I probably wouldn't have to strip-mine half the novel I've just written.
So, it's back to the drawing board (in a way), but whilst it might make for more work now, it'll save me a whole lot more heartache at the end. For me, it's important to show progress: it's personally important, to feel like I'm learning and evolving as a writer, and I think it's important for readers to see that the books are progressing, that they're each their own entities, and that Raker, as a character, continues to grow more interesting, rather than less interesting, as the series progresses. If I'd tried to power through with Book 3 as was, I'm not sure any of those things would have happened.
Finally, before I sign off for the last time in 2010, I need to say a repeat thank you to everyone who regularly (or irregularly) reads this blog, and especially to everyone who went out and bought Chasing the Dead. May you have a fantastic Christmas and an absolutely storming New Year!
If you read this column last month, you'll remember I was finding it hard to get going on Book 3, and while this month it's gone better, it's not been an entirely smooth run. For a start, the final corrections for The Dead Tracks ended up taking a lot longer than I'd planned, not because I was tearing it to pieces, but more because I wasn't. It seemed – dare I say it? – pretty much okay, save for my usual doubts about whether I'd signposted some of the twists too early. I'm sure that must be a perennial worry among all writers: after you've read your manuscript seven thousand million times, it's impossible to get the distance you need in order to see the plot, and the way it unravels, from the point of view of a new reader. Does it work as a story? I don't know. Is it actually any good as a thriller? I don't know. The one thing I'm certain about is that I didn't change much in the read-through, at least compared to the mega-edits I made in Chasing the Dead.
Once The Dead Tracks had gone back to Penguin for the final time, I had to go through proof-reader notes for the first two chapters of Book 3, as they'll be running as a teaser at the back of The Dead Tracks. It actually turned out to be quite a lot of work, despite the fact that they only run to 12 pages, mostly because they haven't been through any sort of editing process at all. Not even mine. (A case in point: my laser-eyed copy editor pointing out that I'd got the amount of time David and Derryn were married completely wrong. Whoops.) The other reason it took longer than it maybe should have done is because I felt it was important to get the balance right between what the story revealed and what it didn't. You're only talking two chapters, so it's impossible to give more than a very brief taster of what to expect, but that taster shouldn't try to cover too much, too soon.
And then, after that, it was finally back to Book 3... except 120 pages in, I decided to make one massive change, and that required me to return to the very beginning and start re-editing chapters to make sure I wasn't missing anything. I can't really blame anyone else but me for the delay that's put on things, but I think it'll make for a stronger novel in the end. Part of the reason I never originally had this particular storyline planned out was down to the fact that my synopsis for Book 3 isn't quite as detailed as the synopsis I had for The Dead Tracks, and – in my experience – that tends to affect the early stages of a novel more, as you're building and introducing plots and characters, rather than unravelling them. The lack of a definitive, all-encompassing synopsis has never concerned me, though: although The Dead Tracks had a longer, more detailed plan, I never stuck to it rigidly. In fact, the last quarter of the book bears no resemblance to the last quarter of the synopsis at all, and is, I believe, much stronger for it. I purposefully left Book 3's synopsis a little looser, because I wanted the opportunity to do that again... but, as I discovered, there are downsides.
Still, at least I'm finally on with Book 3. And next month, hopefully, I'll be able to tell you about how brilliantly things have gone. Er, hopefully.
Blimey. Is it the end of September already? I never thought there would be an occasion in my thirties where I got to roll out the question, "Where has the time gone?", but now seems as good an opportunity as any: so, seriously, WHERE HAS THE TIME GONE? One month on from the last blog post and it feels like I've crammed in about three years worth of work.
Or maybe I'm just out of practice.
As eagle-eyed readers of this website's News section will already know (as well as Facebook and Twitter friends - join us if you haven't already!), I've signed on to do two more books with Penguin. That's two more after The Dead Tracks – which is, by the way, sitting on the table next to me here in full-on typeset form, looking just like a real book. There's always a flutter of excitement when you receive the typeset proofs – well, there is for me, anyway – because, for the first time, the book's no longer just a Word document full of editorial notes, comments and corrections, but a properly constructed, professionally laid out novel. In a weird way, it seems to bring the whole thing alive, turning the story you know so well, the story you've edited, re-edited and read through countless times, into something new.
There's a certain amount of pressure attached to this final read-through, though. It's the last chance to spot errors, grammatical or otherwise, the last chance to make adjustments to dialogue or scenes, the last chance to adjust the ending you might not be sure about. But I have to say, for the most part, I'm pretty happy with The Dead Tracks. I don't for a minute think it's perfect, and certainly don't expect everyone to love it, but I think it's the best thing I could have written at this point in time. Maybe two or three books further down the line, I'll look back and pick it apart, but for the time being I think it shows an improvement on Chasing the Dead, has better storytelling and plotting, and that's good enough for me – for now.
I mentioned being out of practice right at the start, and I say that because – as well as The Dead Tracks proofs – I've been beavering away on Book 3. And you know what? It's been hard going. I took a whole lot of time off from writing after finishing the rewrites on The Dead Tracks because I was exhausted. From the moment I signed on with my agent in March 2008, I basically wrote constantly for two years, every evening 7pm - 12am, and then went to work the next day. First Chasing, then The Dead Tracks, with no break. I needed some time off, so from April this year until July, I didn't really do a lot. I dabbled, but not seriously. And, to be honest, I think I may have left it too long. I got to read tons of great books, watch loads of movies and TV shows, but coming back to Book 3 has been a rude awakening. It's not just getting back into the groove of writing every night, although that's a big part of it, for me it's a confidence thing. I'm about 75 pages into Book 3, and I'm having doubts every night, about the tiny, tiny things I never even considered on the first two books. Already I'm re-reading chapters and wondering if they're good enough, if they improve upon the second book in the way the second book improved on the first. But when you're writing regularly, I think there's less of that. You get an immediate sense of what works and what doesn't, and as things flow, you adapt quicker: you add to the synopsis, take the story in directions you hadn't planned, and often that's when the best bits of the book happen.
Don't worry, I'm not having a nervous breakdown. Well, not yet anyway. But it's been a lesson well learnt for the future, and that lesson is: never ever take a single day off, ever. Er, or: keep writing, even if just a little.
It's been quiet on The Dead Tracks for quite a while now, but about a week ago, I heard from my copy-editor at Penguin, who has been busy going over the manuscript with laser-guided eyes, picking out my bad grammar and even badder plot inconsistencies. Writing books really is quite an odd process at times. You spend so many months with a story, working on it, shaping it, editing it, rewriting it, editing it again (and then – in my case – completely losing all confidence in it), but then once it has finally been given the thumbs-up by your editor, it just vanishes, at least for a time. Between The Dead Tracks getting sign-off from my editor, to the time the copy-editor got the manuscript across to me today, it has been, give or take, five months since I even as much as looked at the book. That, I'm sure, will be both a blessing and a curse when I finally start looking over it again: on the one hand, I'll be able to approach it with fresh eyes, having forgotten some of it, or mis-remembered other bits; on the other, I worry that time away from the manuscript will make me realise I hate it.
The intervening five months hasn't been entirely wasted though. I've got a synopsis locked down for Book 3, I've even started Book 3, and I've done an immense (immense for me anyway) amount of reading. This past week Family Weaver and I have been holed up in a very nice holiday cottage in South Devon (it only rained twice: once, while I was unpacking the car; and the second time, when I was packing it again), which only added to the opportunity. In just under nine days, I finished Michael Connelly's The Scarecrow, Stephen Leather's Nightfall, Mo Hayder's The Devil of Nanking, Simon Beckett's The Chemistry of Death and Garth Ennis' The Boys Volume 2. (Not strictly a book, but as it involves reading words, I'm including it.) The best? Probably The Devil of Nanking, but only by a sliver. I enjoyed The Chemistry of Death more in a lot of ways: it was brilliantly written and consistently gripping, but whilst I'm loath to become one of those annoying people who trumpet joyfully that they guessed who the villain was a long time before the end, I have to say I, er, guessed who the villain was. Did it make a huge difference to my enjoyment of the book? Absolutely not. The thing that tempered my enjoyment more was the villain's reasons for doing what he did, which never seemed completely convincing, at least to me. Ultimately, though, it was still a high class thriller, expertly handled.
The Devil of Nanking (née Tokyo, and another book I'm very, very late in arriving at) was equally well constructed, but considerably more upsetting. I talked a little in the last blog about The Treatment, and its gut-wrenching subject matter, and Devil definitely comes from the same kind of area, this time using the very real Rape of Nanking to propel its plot. It really is an exceptional piece of writing: creepy, gory, tense, bizarre and, ultimately, devastating in its delivery of the events, it's a book that sits there with you for days afterwards because you know, at least in part, it all happened.
For now, I expect my reading to slow up a bit. The Dead Tracks copy-edits await, and I really should be powering on with Book 3. My biggest worry is dropping behind schedule on a novel, and having to rush it, so I always try to make a good, early start on things, allowing myself editing time at the end to knock out the weak bits. On the flipside, staring down the barrel of a third book has brought with it the exact same doubts as the first two: is the story any good? Have I got it in me to write another book? What if it's rubbish? What if it's average? What if it's only good? I don't know if I worry more or less than other writers, but I worry enough. And if that means I can turn out something even half as good as The Devil of Nanking or The Chemistry of Death then I know it's probably a handy mindset to be in…
I've been thinking a lot about violence in books over the past month, and
in particular the violence in Chasing the Dead. What sparked me off was a talk to a reading group I did at the end of June, in which one of the people gracious enough to listen to me for an hour asked, "Is your book gory?" I got the sense that if I'd said "Ooooh, yes – very!", she would have run for the hills, but – equally – I didn't want to lie to her. After all, anyone out there who has read Chasing the Dead will know that it has its fair share of violence, particularly later on in the story, and to suggest otherwise would be massaging the truth. So, in the end, I told her it was no more or less violent than the books of Stuart MacBride, Mo Hayder or Karin Slaughter.
It's an interesting question, though, and one that's given me a lot to mull over. Until people started writing about Chasing the Dead on the internet, in newspapers and via my email inbox, I honestly never had it pegged as a violent novel. That may seem amazing to some people. But, apart from one (admittedly pretty brutal) 20-page section, there's a couple of quick flashes, a lot of perceived threat and not a lot else. Or am I just remembering it wrong? I've grown to know the novel so well, there is, I suppose, the danger I've become desensitised to it. And yet, every act of violence in Chasing the Dead is a reaction to circumstances, and to fear: the fear of someone hurting you first; the fear of someone dismantling what you've built; the fear of dying before your time is up. And the other thing: perhaps with the exception of one character, no one in that book enjoys being violent. In fact, it's usually a last, and desperate, act.
It's a very personal subject, this, because it depends entirely on what your horror is. What horrifies you? How much is too much? For some people, it may be a man having nails hammered through his fingers, but for me that doesn't come close. Straight off the bat, I can list the two books I struggled to finish, not because they weren't great books – they were – but because the subject matter was so horrific: Stuart MacBride's Cold Granite, and Mo Hayder's The Treatment. The common theme: paedophilia. Cold Granite in particular was so unrelenting in its descriptions of the children's bodies, of the disgusting places they were left, and of the subsequent autopsies, that – once I'd finished it – I had to watch the Disney Channel for a day just to get back onto an even keel. (I'm not joking either. Imagination Movers is highly recommended.) Even before I became a father, the idea of writing about paedophilia – about young children as victims – never appealed; but once you have kids yourself, I think the world takes on a different hue and it becomes even harder. These days I get emotional watching sick kids on Extreme Makeover Home Edition, so I know for a fact I'd never be able to face down a 500-page novel. The idea is just too horrific. The violence in
it would be too gut-wrenching. The experience would be far too upsetting. And yet, for other people, violence against kids, a loss of innocence, of a young life, may come a distant second to nails being hammered through fingers. That's the way we're built. And that's why, basically, it was near-impossible to answer that lady's question. She could have found Tea Time for the Traditionally Built a little dark – or she might have counted the rat scene in American Psycho amongst her top ten literary moments. Everyone reacts differently to violence and tone, which is why it's hard to judge.
What I can say with absolute certainty is that Fast Food Nation (yes, yes, I know I'm late to the party on this one), is truly the scariest book I've ever read. I'm halfway through now, and I'm never going to eat again...
I always hoped I might blog more often than once a month - certainly that was my intention - but the demands of a full-time job, the equal demands of writing thrillers and, latterly, the distractions of the World Cup have seen to that. In truth, with my writer's hat on, most of the past month has been about trying to pull together a detailed synopsis for Book #3, something I never did for Chasing The Dead (which is probably why it took ten years to write!), but did do second time round for The Dead Tracks. I found it made an enormous difference to the writing process: I wrote faster, felt more assured in my plotting and characters, and never hit the constant dead ends I did in the first book. Because of that, I'm keen to get as much of a plan down on paper as I can for the third book, even if I ultimately end up – as I did with The Dead Tracks – not always sticking rigidly to it. (Part of the fun with writing the second book was exploring whole new areas on the fly, whilst having the assurance of the synopsis there in the background.)
One of the odd things about planning Book #3 is that technically Penguin haven't asked me to write a Book #3. As it stands, I have a two-book deal with them, and I delivered the second one a month ago, so I'm now in something of a no man's land; effectively between contracts, although that assumes Penguin even want to offer me the chance to write more books. (Believe me, I'm not taking anything for granted. My editor would probably welcome the opportunity not to have to answer countless Weaver emails!) It is a strange feeling, though, and one that reminds me of where I was before Chasing The Dead was picked up. Over the past two years, I've regularly been knee-deep in planning, researching, writing, editing and more editing, as I flitted between Chasing The Dead and The Dead Tracks. But now The Dead Tracks has been through agent and editor, the only thing that remains to be done are the copy edits, which is where an eagle-eyed, super-brained Penguin sub goes through the manuscript correcting my terrible grammar and zeroing in on plot inconsistencies. Beyond that, I'm not sure. This is all new to me. So, I'll just keep everything crossed.
An obvious benefit of being caught in this strange hinterland, is that I've continued to catch up on my reading. Admittedly, the book pile by my bed doesn't seem to have got that much smaller (and being the world's slowest reader probably hasn't helped) but I've made some impact on it. I finally finished The Raw Shark Texts (which I very much enjoyed, even if its supreme oddness eventually started to grind a bit) and I also polished off The Hundredth Man by Jack Kerley. I can't say Kerley's writing style was quite to my tastes, but the book was the dictionary definition of a page-turner and I recommend it to anyone with aspirations to write fast-paced, commercial fiction. Now I'm midway through mammoth graphic novel, The Walking Dead, which is basically an amalgamation of every zombie film ever made (as well as the opening of The Day of the Triffids), but bravely places characters right at the forefront of its story, sacrificing action and pace in the process. Despite its over-familiarity and lack of surprises, I like it, and I can see why it's currently being turned into a TV series.
Talking of TV, I've been catching up on some of that too. After the finales of 24 and Lost, it was on to Spartacus: Blood and Sand. Is anyone else out there watching it? I have to say, it's probably the most ludicrous show on TV, full of silly dialogue and ripe acting, but I'll guiltily confess I can't stop watching it. Mrs W just shakes her head when she looks over and sees a man being scythed in two, but it's so preposterous and over-the-top, that it's kind of charming in its complete ridiculousness. To achieve some sort of equilibrium, I've also been watching Breaking Bad, which is – unlike Spartacus – utterly brilliant. I don't have any guilt recommending that.
P.S. Thank you to everyone who continues to get into contact, in whatever form. It's lovely to hear from you, and I'll always make an effort to reply.
Author of the David Raker novels