Sunday, 31 August 2014


It's all official and live online! It Never Was Worthwhile has just appeared on the publisher's website at It's available on Amazon on the link below.

Now I need to get serious about this writing stuff...

Saturday, 23 August 2014

It Never Was Worthwhile

The WW1 anthology from Malcolm Havard and me now has a title and a cover! We've settled on It Never Was Worthwhile, and it's due to be released on the world around the end of August. Initially it'll be available only as a Kindle download and in its release form will be around 120 pages. Our plan is to add additional stories between now and November - early buyers who set their Kindle to auto-update will receive the new stories at no charge.

The completed work will be something over double this size and will be available in printed form from Penkhull Press.

Both Malcolm and I are excited about this project, and it's been a real pleasure to work with him on creating something that we both feel is rather special.

Lies Told in Silence

I came across a great blog today from Mary Tod, a writer of historical fiction with whom I wasn't previously familiar. You can find it here. She's recently released a novel, Lies Told in Silence, which I discovered while wandering the interweb in search of background information on laundry techniques in the early 20th century - writing historical fiction can make your search history somewhat unique.

Take a look at her blog, it's an example of what an author's blog should be: well-written, wide ranging and appreciative of the work of others. I've also downloaded her book from Amazon, having been hooked by the first few pages. I'll let you know if the initial promise is fulfilled - somehow I feel it will be.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Historic Racism

A piece I'd written for It Never Was Worthwhile was challenged last week at a Renegade Writers meeting. There's nothing unusual about having your writing criticised by the Renegades - they're a pretty forthright bunch - but on this occasion the challenge was one of racism, which gave me pause.
Let me put it in context. The piece in question is written in the first person from the perspective of a deep south white boy. The year is 1918 and he and his buddies are posing for a photograph and 'we all grinned like a minstrel show.'
And there's the problem. That the minstrel shows were a dire manifestation of prejudice and racial stereotypes is undeniable. But when we're writing historical fiction, is our duty to be authentic or to be politically correct? A spirited discussion followed during which, as you'd expect, no conclusions or concord were reached. But all of us came away thinking.
I should declare my position before stating my argument: I abhor racism as one of humanity's vilest and most unjustifiable perversions. And I dislike political correctness almost as much, and for very similar reasons. I forget the correct numbers, but I read recently that black youths are something like 60% more likely to be stopped and searched by the police than white. Yet they're around 25% as likely to be carrying anything offensive or illicit. That's the racism that we have to deal with, not whether it's OK to say 'blackboard'.
But back to the case in point. The short story I'd just read out referred to Yanks and Limeys. This met with no objection, in fact it was suggested that I should change 'Germans' to 'Krauts'. What would the reaction have been had I stayed with my original version of the line: 'we all grinned like niggers'? I self-censored that line because I felt it was moving beyond simple decency, but in so doing I replaced a word that black people use in friendship with an overtly racist institution that was only finally removed from our televisions in the 1970s.
Political correctness is taking us towards racism here, not away from it. If pejorative terms for caucasian races are acceptable then why not for Afro-Americans? And if we rule that all races must be treated equally then where's the authenticity in my text? Writing about the Great War without mentioning 'Hun', 'Boche', 'Jerry' or 'Kraut' is going to be a difficult and ultimately unconvincing process. Had I been writing in the third person in the present day then 'grinning like a minstrel show' would be unjustifiable. But when we write direct speech or narrate in the first person we must be true to the time, circumstances and background of the speaker.
Of course, I could be wrong, unthinkable though that may be. My principal challenger on Wednesday is as repulsed by racism as I am, so our difference is purely in the expression of our abhorence. What you have here is only my opinion - and I've never been accused of keeping my opinions to myself.

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Unexpected Benefits of Surgery

Being part of a writing group means exposing your work to the scalpels of your peers - at least it should be. If it isn't, look for a proper writing group, not a mutual admiration society. Your ego's already so inflated that you believe other people want to read your stuff, so it doesn't need further pumping.

It was my turn t'other day to add my views to the Renegade Writers blog. I was late of course, as everyone expected...

Wednesday, 26 February 2014


Never having been accused of punctuality, I gain a certain satisfaction from approaching this latest task two days late. I learned that I'd been nominated by Misha Herwin and Jan Edwards, two conspicuously talented authors, to take part in the #MyWritingProcess international blog tour. After reassurance that this was not one of those nominations that requires me to neck a pint of Brobat with a (temporarily) live echidna in it I put the task into my to-do pile.

Where it stayed.

I could justify this failure by... no I couldn't. The fact is that no one should ever throw me a ball in the unjustifiable hope that I'll catch it. So with the hope that my characteristic tardiness hasn't derailed the whole process, here's my take on this solitary and seldom rewarding process of writing...

1) What am I working on?

After completing The Larks (click here for or here for, I felt I understood the demands of creating a full-length novel. It's an exhausting process and I didn't feel adequate to the task of starting the next. Not just yet anyway. So the project now is to write a collection of WW1 short stories. While researching The Larks I constantly found snippets of unrelated events and recollections, many of which tried to find their way into the main story. Trouble was, most of them just wouldn't fit.

But they were just too great to waste. Sometimes it would be a single sentence, often a personal recollection that would fire off a thought process that had me asking "I wonder, what's the story behind that?"

The collection doesn't yet have a name; that will come by itself, but the process of creating it has been a genuine joy. The Larks is predominantly an aviation novel, but with these new stories I've found myself in the warm, airless fug of a French dugout, driving an ambulance for the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry or - go with me on this - watching a ballet dancer from the freezing squalor of a winter trench. Everywhere I've wandered on these battlefields I've found an irrepressible humanity that shines like a beacon across this short century that separates us.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Does it differ? I don't know. This question worries me a little as it's asked so frequently by publishers and agents. Why should being different be an indicator of worth? And if it is, why do the aforesaid publishers and agents exhibit such reluctance to commission anything that actually is different?

I can think of no other branch of the arts where being different is regarded as a virtue in itself. How does Boticelli differ fundamentally from Raphael? De Niro from Di Caprio? Dylan from Cohen? That they all do differ is undeniable, but the difference is in the complex interpretation of their art, not in an advertising-style one-word USP.

But enough of answering one question with a string of others. If my work does differ then I hope it's in the depth and reality of the characters. Our world is shaped and structured by people, and nowhere is this more sharply demonstrated than in war. When I write I find that my cast of characters take control, so in the case of The Larks, the Great War is a backdrop, not the principal subject. Anyone who buys a war novel is hoping to find graphically described action, and I've worked hard not to disappoint on that score. But even in the most frenzied battle, I'm always asking myself, "How does this person feel at this point?" It's my hope that this makes the experience more real and accessible to the reader.

I've also striven for accuracy, not just in making sure that the aircraft are correctly described and their flying characteristics realistic, but also in the minutiae that populate my worlds. Brand names of the period, as much a part of conversation then as i-Pad is today, crop up, usually without explanation (Would you know what to do with a tin of Zam-Buk?), allowing the reader to gain the meaning from context, and become more immersed in the period.

My aim has never been to be different. In fact the opposite; I wanted The Larks to read like the intense personal accounts of the Great War. That this comparison has been made by several reviewers I take as a great compliment. The WW1 collection should evoke the personal memories recorded in superb works like the magnificent Forgotten Voices series of books. If it does, I'll count the exercise a success, and to hell with being different.

3)Why Do I Write What I Write?

The question should possibly be "Why do I write at all?" It's something I've enjoyed ever since Mrs Coulton showed me this magical code of letters in a small Sutton Coldfield primary school. Numbers, their Teutonic scientific brethren, held no magic; they were simply machinery. But words... these incredible tools were gigantic brushes that could paint the dazzling colours that swirled in my childish brain. But even then it was machines of the air that captured my imagination. Spaceships, moon rockets and aeroplanes zoomed, swooped and rat-at-atted through story after story. By the time Mrs Barnett inherited responsibility for my random and uncontrolled creativity I was ready to lock horns on the correct spelling of "Messerschmitt". When I protested her correction to "Messerschmidt" and was later proved right, the future of my principal writing genre was set in stone. The unfortunate effects of the event on my ego were a by-product that has proved less positive.

But I don't just write about flying. I don't so much choose a subject for a story as discover it. I'll read a passage in a book or newspaper, overhear a conversation on a train or possibly pick up an isolated snippet from a guide in a stately home. Then - very often in the car - a story will arrive, almost fully formed. Once that's happened I have little choice but to write it down.

4) How does my writing process work?

Erratically. It happens when it happens, not when I sit down to do it. I have the greatest admiration for those who can attack NanoWriMo with any prospect of success. Writing 1600 or so words every day is a stark impossibility to me. I understand the principle that it's about getting the words down and going back later to turn it into good writing. But I just can't do it. I'll sit for two hours and write half a sentence. Then delete it. Then spend a further two hours researching where the apostrophe - if any - would have appeared on a bottle of Daddies Sauce in 1916 (Before the "S" by the way).

Part of the problem is that I'm not a structured writer. I can't write by building the scaffolding first and filling in the gaps. When I develop a plot it's a very vague sketch because I find that often my characters won't cooperate in taking me where I intended to go. That probably sounds hideously pretentious - in fact it is hideously pretentious, but it's true nevertheless. They become as real to me as members of my family, and they operate according to their own personalities. If I try to force them down prefabricated corridors they lose definition (I'm talking about my characters here, you understand, not my family). To me a novel is a fragile reality that bursts apart as soon as someone acts outside their character. I know things about my people that never appear in the story, but that govern their every reaction. It's the water they were boiled in, and it makes them unpredictable, even to me who created them.

So the plot doesn't always go where I intended. Some years ago I began a screenplay based on life in an advertising agency. It was intended as a sit-com, based on my personal experiences in such an environment. It ended up as a drama series about the rise and fall of an amateur band, because these buggers I'd invented insisted on strutting and fretting their own hours. Before you ask, it disappeared into the commissioning maw of Channel 4 and never emerged from the other end, but you get the general concept. 

I start out with only the roughest idea where we're going, and let my actors lead the way. Like one of Douglas Adams' characters who follows people who look as if they know where they're going, we rarely end up at the intended destination. But we often arrive somewhere far more interesting.

So there you go. Job done and baton retrieved from under the sideboard. I'd now like to pass it on to a writer I've admired for some time, and with whom I hope to cooperate on a forthcoming short story collection, the splendid Malcolm Havard. Give him a few days - he's a busy chap, but I can promise that what he'll contribute to this tour will be worth reading.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Carry on the Potters (Part Two)

Never let it be said I don't respond to criticism! I am well rebuked, and here's part two...

Well, the balloon had to go up, and it did. First of July we went over and I never saw the like. Explosions going off everywhere, so you were ducking rocks and stones as much as bullets and bombs. I heard as how one of our mines went off with such a bang that the rocks landed in our lines and one poor lad lost a leg. Three days of that and we were mixed up so much we didn’t know which way we were facing.

I got a piece of shrapnel or rock or something – don’t know what – just under the rim of my tin hat. Everything went black and white and I wandered around a bit, bumping into people. Then I opened my eyes and it was dark. First off I thought I was blind, but then a flare went up and I knew I could see. My head was banging like the Shelton Bar, but I raised it and looked around. I was on my own, and I could see I was a good hundred yards from the nearest trenches. Trouble is, I didn’t know if they were ours or theirs. So I tossed a coin in my head and made for the one that was the shortest walk.

I say walk, but I went most of the way on hands and knees. Both sides kept sending up flares, and you showed up like a shilling on a sweep’s bum every time. 

Well, I’d gone a little way when I heard a voice say, “That you, Bob?”

I looked round and there was George, lying in a shell hole. “Hello mate,” says I, “What you doing here?”

“Oh, just taking the air, watching the moon, nothing much.” says George, which was swank because now I could see he was hurt bad.

“Let’s have a look at you,” says I.

Well, I could see straight away he’d copped more than just a Blighty one. The front of his battle dress was all bloody, but when I opened it he just sort of came to bits. He was looking at me the whole time and said, sort of hopeful, “Is it bad?”

“Not too bad,” I said and buttoned him up again. “Wait here and I’ll get a stretcher.”

I started for the trenches again, still not knowing if I was heading for home or Hell. That was when I saw something white waving about fifty yards ahead. Some silly beggar of a stretcher bearer was standing up, in full view, waving a piece of cloth on a stick. Well of course, I should have known it would be Jimmy. When I got there he was standing on the edge of a crater you could lose a bus in. All round the rim there were men lying, fanned out like the petals of a daisy.

“Glad to see you, Bob,” says Jimmy, pointing around, “There’s work for us here.”

I pointed back at No Man’s Land, “George is out there. Help me get him.”

Jimmy shook his head, “Jerry’s letting us off while we’re close to our own side. He won’t be so kind if he thinks we’re advancing.”

“But he’s hurt bad!” I said.

“So are these, and there’s a lot more of them.” He pulled my arm. “Come on, pal, these lads are potters too.”

He told me after that he’d been called to the crater by Major Wedgwood, who’d been cut to pieces by shrapnel. The last words he’d said to Jimmy were “Carry on, the Potters.” Well, we carried a few that night, back and forth from the crater to the trenches, and Jerry never fired a shot.

We never did find George. I saw his name in, let’s see, 1984 I think, when I visited the military cemetery at Bapaume. I’d found the Major’s grave soon enough, then saw a name as I turned away. There was George, further from Shelton than it’s possible for us to be.

And now we’ve got a new millennium coming and Jimmy’s gone the same way as George and the Major. It’s nearly time for me to go too, where my friends went, where Wedgwood went, where our pride went, and where I hope it can still be found.

Carry on the Potters.