Monday 27 April 2020

Author Self-Coaching (guest post), by Sue Moorcroft

To mark the forthcoming publication of her latest novel, Summer on a Sunny Island, here's a guest post from my fine friend Sue Moorcroft.
In Summer on a Sunny Island, to be published on 30 April 2020, several of the characters stand at crossroads in their lives. From a writing point of view it provides conflict and personal goals, both of which drive the narrative. One afternoon, Rosa and Zach sit up on the roof terrace and try to coach each other into deciding what it is they want next in their lives. It’s not a spectacularly successful coaching session because although they agree they should be looking forward they look back. They wonder whether they should change and, if so, how?

A few years ago I felt at a crossroads too. I wasn’t on a Maltese roof terrace gazing out at the blue Mediterranean and drinking beer with a friend so I coached myself. It had a profound effect on my career as an author.

I’d published about nine novels and a raft of short stories, serials, courses and columns; I was a creative writing tutor and judged writing competitions. It was what’s politely referred to as ‘a portfolio career’. Translation: I would take on most paid tasks if they were connected with writing and some that were unpaid if they might prove useful to my career. This situation had come about after my husband’s career hit a bump in the road and I either had to become more fee aware or get a day job. (I often refer to this as ‘a proper job’. I shouldn’t. Writing is a proper job.)

I wasn’t in a happy place personally and felt over-stressed and underpaid. You could term it a crisis of the spirit or a pity party. Whatever, I assessed everything writing-connected under three headings, each subdivided into good or bad.
I can’t remember all the items I analysed but two things went into all three right-hand columns: being a committee member and vice chair of a writing organisation and writing a column for a Formula 1 online magazine. I was shocked to see the former in all the wrong columns but it was true that an organisation that has brought me a lot of joy and helped me professionally was also sucking up hundreds of hours each year. There was also discord, which brought anxiety. I emailed the chair, who’s one of my best friends, and said, ‘I don’t think I can be vice chair any more.’ To her huge credit, she supported my decision and had me replaced without one word of reproach, though she could easily have felt immensely let down. After that, it was comparatively easy to email the e-zine and gracefully retire from their writing staff.

I felt tonnes lighter when these two items were out of the way. I could read what I chose instead of reading writing that needed appraising for awards! I could watch Formula 1 races without making notes or worrying about the angle my column would take! I think my son encapsulated the situation perfectly when he said, ‘You took two of your greatest pleasures and made them into jobs.’

Spurred by this success I began to cut things that appeared in two of the right-hand columns. They earned me some money but not that much: appraising manuscripts and the least remunerative of my work with creative writing students. The students never made me personally unhappy but the constant flow of work that piled up if I were ill or on holiday did definitely cheese me off. Worse, it kept me from writing my own stuff and the workflow was not within my control. I also began to refuse invitations to judge writing competitions, especially when a writing group ‘forgot’ to pay me a fee that was only ever nominal, even after three polite reminders. These measures gave me significant time for my own writing without losing me much money.

Feeling a lot better, I looked at the other side of the coin. I now knew what I didn’t want - so what was it that I did want?

It was a question I found easier to answer than either Rosa or Zach did. It hadn’t really changed since the early nineties when I began to try and get published.

I wanted to earn a living from writing novels.

How could I achieve it? I needed a publisher who would get right behind me and also get my books into supermarkets.

I thought the best route there was to get a great agent, one who would love my books and be ambitious for me. And, guess what? It worked!

I emailed the late Carole Blake of Blake Friedmann. I knew her slightly from writing conferences and social media. The email began, ‘I know you’re not taking anybody on but I’m going to ask you anyway.’ The short version of what happened next was that I was right - she wasn’t taking anybody on. But, happily for me, she showed my work to the wonderful Juliet Pickering at the same agency and she wanted to talk to me. We met, got on, shared visions … she was enthusiastic about my books. We began working together.

The rest, as annoying people say, is history. My self-coaching didn’t end as Rosa’s and Zach’s did, in a hot clinch interrupted by her ex-boyfriend FaceTiming her, but the results were - and still are - pretty exciting.

You can read the second part, "What Happened Next", here

A selfie from Sue, in her beloved Malta
Sue Moorcroft is a Sunday Times and international bestselling author and has reached the coveted #1 spot on Amazon Kindle. She’s won the Goldsboro Books Contemporary Romantic Novel Award, Readers’ Best Romantic Novel award and the Katie Fforde Bursary. Sue’s novels of love and life are currently released by publishing giant HarperCollins under the Avon imprint in the UK, US and Canada and by an array of publishers in other countries.

Her short stories, serials, columns, writing ‘how to’ and courses have appeared around the world.

Born into an army family in Germany, Sue spent much of her childhood in Cyprus and Malta. An avid reader, she also loves Formula 1, travel, time spent with friends, dance exercise and yoga.

Buying links for Summer on a Sunny Island

Facebook: sue.moorcroft.3
Facebook author page:
Twitter: @suemoorcroft
Instagram: suemoorcroftauthor
Amazon author page:

Monday 20 April 2020

Stories Of Hope And Wonder: For The NHS

As the country moves into another week of lockdown, the pressure on our frontline workers (across all areas) is all-encompassing so when Ian Whates (a fine friend, who not only runs the writing group I belong to - the NSFWG - but also the excellent NewCon Press) asked me if I'd like to contribute to an ebook charity anthology he'd planned, I didn't hesitate.  This was last Thursday and the anthology is here, a 695 page collection of 53 short stories from some of the best names in sci-fi, fantasy and horror writing today.

Table Of Contents

Introduction by Ian Whates
Last Contact – Stephen Baxter
Slink-Thinking – Frances Hardinge
Gossamer – Ian Whates
The Feather Dress – Lisa Tuttle
The Man Who Swallowed Himself – Chris Beckett
A Fat Man in the Bardo – Ken MacLeod
Kings of Eternity – Eric Brown
Muscadet Kiss – Michèle Roberts
Dead Space – George Mann
The Trace – Christopher Priest
Golden Wing, Silver Eye – Cat Hellisen
The Golden Nose – Neil Williamson
On Ilkley Moor – Alison Littlewood
About Helen – Tade Thompson
Iphigenia in Aulis – M.R. Carey
Just Watch Me – Lesley Glaister
The Family Football – Ian R. MacLeod
The Grave-Digger’s Tale – Simon Clark
The All-Nighter – Mark Morris
Her Seal Skin Coat – Lauren Beukes
A Conclusion – Paul Cornell
Liberty Bird – Jaine Fenn
The Ki-Anna – Gwyneth Jones
Scienceville – Gary Gibson
The Sphere – Juliet E. McKenna
An Eligible Boy – Ian McDonald
The Quick Child – Jane Rogers
Trademark Bugs: A Legal History – Adam Roberts
Working on the Ward – Tim Pears
During the Dance – Mark Lawrence
Out of the Woods – Ramsey Campbell
Trick of the Light – Tim Lebbon
Roman Games – Anne Nicholls
44: Digits – Robert Shearman
The Fox Maiden – Priya Sharma
Roads of Silver, Paths of Gold – Emmi Itäranta
All Deaths Well Intention’d – RJ Barker
Epilogue: England, Summer 1558 – Jon Courtenay Grimwood
The Christmas Repentance of the Mole Butcher of Tetbury – Aliya Whiteley
Gulliver’s Travels Into Several Remote Nations Of The World, Part V: A Voyage To The Island Of The Wolves – Jonathan Palmer
Barking Mad – Ian Watson
Lady with a Rose – Reggie Oliver
Missing – Blake Morrison
What We Sometimes Do, Without Thinking – Mark West
Events – Stan Nicholls
Wars of Worldcraft – Adrian Tchaikovsky
Fixer, Worker, Singer – Natalia Theodoridou
Witness – Kim Lakin-Smith
Unravel – Ren Warom
Like Clockwork – Tim Major
A Million Reasons Why – Nick Wood
The Road to the Sea – Lavie Tidhar
Ten Love Songs to Change the World – Peter F. Hamilton

As the anthology is digital and the writers have contributed their stories freely, every penny NewCon Press receives will go straight to the NHS.

All politics aside, our wonderful NHS is clearly straining at the seams at the moment.  I have three dear friends working at the frontline (my best friend of 44 years - Nick Duncan - is a fireman who's also now volunteering with the NHS) and the Roberts, David & Julia, who are nurses.  David, who helps me plot the thriller novels as we go for 8 or 9 mile walks weekly with his dog Pippa, is currently recovering from Covid-related symptoms (though hasn't been tested) and it's been frightening to see how hard it's hit him, my friend who's fit and healthy and got me into Park Running.
My personal faces of the pandemic (I daren't include a pic of Julia, she'd kill me):
(left) with Nick in Bristol, August 2019 - (right) Irchester Park Run January 2020 with David (photo by John Woods)
We're in unprecendented times and people are doing what they can - rainbows and toys in windows, making PPE, helping friends and neighbours - and most of it restores your faith in the wonder of human nature, giving us all a chance to help.

On the subject of that, I'll take a moment to point you towards the Just Giving campaign for Captain Tom Moore, the 99 year old war veteran who aimed to raise £1,000 by walking 100 laps of his garden and achieved that on Thursday 16th April.  As I write this, he's managed to raise over £26m for the NHS.

* * *
My contribution, What We Do Sometimes, Without Thinking, was written in 2010 and came about directly because of Ian.  I'd just joined the writing group and he told me NewCon was planning to put together an anthology so, if I wanted to contribute, I needed to get a story to him within a week.  And I managed it.

Even better, the story was good enough he accepted it which led me to attending the launch party where Alan Moore (a rather famous writer and Northampton resident), who'd written the introduction, was in attendance.  I remember thanking him for his kind words and he shook my hand heartily and said "keep it local, boy!".

The story features fictionalised versions of me and Nick and an actual location, the bridge at the end of the Headlands in Kettering, from where Dude & I did used to go train chasing (I wrote about it here).  I like the story a lot and I'm proud to be included.

* * *
The book, all 695 pages of it, is listed at the NewCon site here

Captain Tom Moore's Walk For The NHS

Monday 13 April 2020

Glorious Beasts: A Q&A with Gary McMahon

Gary McMahon & I have known one another for a long time now and I'm a big fan of his writing.  When Peter Mark May told me he was publishing a new McMahon novella (originally scheduled to launch at Stokercon this coming weekend, before the world went into Lockdown) I was thrilled, especially since Pete tends to send me Hersham Horror books to read through before they're released.  So I read the novella and loved it, got in touch with Gary to tell him and he happily agreed to answer some questions for me.

Cable makes his living tracking down bad men. His young son, Walker, is unable to speak, but the boy notices signs and tracks that others fail to see. When they offer to help a woman whose baby was snatched in the night, they realise they might be searching the wilderness for something unlike anything they've seen before. 

When men become beasts, something ancient awakes, and things worse than death roam the land.

MW:   The novella is a tough read at times, with plenty of your trademark bleakness to it. Are you finding that kind of style easier to write as you get older or harder?

GM:   It seems to me that the older I get, the bleaker my worldview becomes. What’s changed is my acceptance of it. I no longer fight that pessimistic side of me; instead, I embrace it. I’m never purposefully trying to be “dark”. I’ve always just been the kind of guy who prefers the sad songs...

People always seem to go on about how bleak my work is, and to be honest it’s become a bit tiresome to me. I don’t think my writing is bleak. It’s sad. It’s melancholy. Shades of grey.

I personally believe there’s a lot of light in my work: a lot of heart, a lot of soul, and a lot of humanity. But a reader has to work for it. They aren’t getting it spoon-fed from me. To get to the light, they have to walk through a lot of darkness.

The world isn’t a very nice place. All people are not inherently good. Love is rarely enough to save you. Your scars won’t fade entirely.

It isn’t my job to reassure you. I’d rather deal in these harsh truths in my work than pretend the darkness doesn’t exist, or that it can be vanquished for good. All we can ever do is push it back for a while, but it always returns.

MW:   I know it’s difficult to pin a story down to a single image, but where did this come from?

GM:   I can tell you exactly which image came first, but it would be a spoiler. It’s the cruellest image in the story, the one that will hopefully make people wince when they read it.

Then I started thinking I’d like to tie in some of the mythology surrounding those big cats some people think are roaming the English countryside. The Beast of Bodmin and its ilk. I’d always wanted to use that in a story.

If I’m honest, a lot of Brexit paranoia probably found its way into the tale. We always use what’s happening around us, don’t we? It’s all meat for the beast.
With the Secret Horror Cabal (we have a sarky Messenger group) at FCon Scaborough in 2016 (see my report here) with me, Alison Littlewood, Gary Fry and Gary McMahon - sarcasm not pictured

MW:   The world is thoroughly well realised (if fleetingly described), did you do much research to get the look and feel of it?

GM:   I did no research whatsoever. I just wanted a world that was slowly winding down. Decades before, there’d been a plague that had wiped out half the population. The ones who survived abandoned a lot of modern technology and started to turn insular and feudal, fighting tribal wars. After those wars were over, beliefs began to slip back to those of medieval times. Things that were once local folklore became real. Witches. Warlocks. Mythical beasts like the big cat.

In this story, the world stopped advancing in 1974. That’s when The Plague Years began. Home computers hadn’t yet been invented. There was no internet. No mobile phones. None of that stuff.

There’s a lot of Mad Max in the setting, and The Hills Have Eyes, and The Road. Julia Leigh’s superb novel The Hunter. A book about the Sawney Bean clan I read when I was a kid. The structure was borrowed from the film Bone Tomahawk. I think it’s safe to say my story wears it’s influences on its sleeve.

MW:   Can you see yourself writing more in this world?

GM:   Oh, definitely. I’d actually like to write a series of novellas set in this world.

I’m sick of having to write mobile phones, the internet, and iPads into stories. It’s boring. I love the simplicity of this stripped back, hard-scrabble place, the characters that live in it, the limitless possibilities of telling simple stories that actually have a lot of substance behind them.
At Sledge-Lit in November 2016 (see my report here) with Gary and Stephen Bacon
MW:   The novella has a brisk style, with wonderfully clipped dialogue and tells the story quickly and precisely. Do you prefer to work in this format, the short story or the novel or does it totally depend on the tale?

GM:   I find it tough to write novels these days. I think I burned myself out on the novel format a few years ago, when I committed to writing so damn many of them in a short space of time. I was also burned by poor sales. You bleed onto the page and nobody cares. It’s a harsh lesson to learn.

Glorious Beasts needed to be told in a spare fashion. The characters speak in a clipped manner because this is a hard, no-nonsense world. There’s no time for messing about with unnecessary niceties: these damaged people are all focused on survival.

I’ve always liked the novella format. I think it suits my clipped prose style. And it isn’t as daunting as writing a novel, as holding that whole world inside your head.

Novel writing, to me, feels so much like a form of madness. I’m a little scared to get back to that mindset. I will go back there, of course, but I’m not in a hurry. I’ll let it occur naturally, once I find a story that can’t be told any other way. I’m a great believer in the story dictating the form. I know there are more novel-length stories inside me, they just haven’t surfaced yet.

For more information on Gary and his writing, check out his blog here.

Monday 6 April 2020

Five Years Of The Crusty Exterior

Another round-up post (following the Mixtape one a fortnight ago and last weeks Q&A one) as we continue in isolation and hopefully stay safe and healthy.  Out of everything, one thing I've really missed is interaction - yes, I've been online, I've spoken on the phone, I've video-messaged - but none of those compare with standing next to a good friend and having a chat.

To that end, on the fifth anniversary of our first gathering, here's a round-up of meetings with friends who mean a great deal to me (moreso now, because it seems like we might not be able to get together this year).
At the Southbank Book Market, London, April 2015 - James, Phil, Steve and me
The Crusty Exterior is a group of friends, united in their love for the horror genre, books and, of course, a good curry.  The core of the group - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve Harris and me - met up for the first time at Andromeda Con in 2013 (see my report here), though Steve & I go back much further, first corresponding in the late 90s when he ran a newsletter called The Inner Circle.

At Edge-Lit 3 in 2014 (see my report here), we were talking about how good it was to see one another again and made plans to meet up at some point nearer to Christmas, though with Mrs Sloman and Mrs Everington giving birth as the year drew to a close, those plans were put back to 2015.  So we finally managed that first meet (organised by Phil) on April 13th 2015, starting at the Southbank Book Market and working our way through the capital's 2nd hand bookshops during the day.  It was great fun.

You can read the original post here (it's been very popular over the years, constantly in the top 5 of all-time viewed).

In Victoria Park Leicester, April 2018, with (from left), Steve Bacon, Phil, Jay Eales, John Travis, me, Linda Nagle, Steve H, Tim Jarvis and James (thanks to the nice lady walking her dog who agreed to take the picture!)
It would be three years before we managed to properly get together again (we all met up for Steve's 50th in 2017), though we'd all attended various conventions in between.  I organised this gathering in Leicester (the city has some great 2nd hand book shops and curry houses!) and our increased ranks had a cracking afternoon (incidentally, this was Linda & Steve's first date and I'm happy to say they're still going strong!).

You can read the original post here.

In Ye Olde Trip To Jerusalem, Nottingham, April 2019 with, from left, Wayne Parkin, Penny Jones, Simon Jones, me, Ross Warren, Phil and James
The Crusty Exterior struck back in 2019 (with even more members), meeting in Nottingham (arranged by James), where we enjoyed the local pubs and bookshops, visited the Paupers Graves, played Horror Top Trumps and had an excellent curry.

You can read the full report here.

Me, Phil and James in Covent Garden, 2015 - Phil & I are NOT goosing the Highlander
Ah, curry.  In the Tavistock Tandoori - we don't know why the waiter chose to cut most of Steve off...
In The Rise Of The Raj, Leicester 2018, with from left Phil, James, Linda, Steve, Tim, John, Steve B, me, Jay
Central Nottingham, April 2019, with Wayne, Simon, Penny, Selina, Richard, James, Phil & Jay
Phil in Nottingham 2019, taking great delight in a local brewery name...

In addition, three quarters of the founding gang were involved in the Hersham Horror Books launch at FantasyCon-by-the-sea, in Scarborough, September 2016 (I wrote about it here)

Celebrating birthdays - Steve Harris' 50th in Wolverhampton, May 2017 and my 50th in Leicester, February 2019
In the curry house at Wolverhampton with, from left, James, John, Steve, me, Phil, Steve B
Carluccio's, Leicester, with, from left, me, Sue Moorcroft, Linda, Steve, John, Steve B, James, David Roberts

We also did our own variation on the mixtape, with a compilation of our favourite horror films for Halloween 2019.  You can read the full post here.

In case you were wondering, the name of the group comes from an off-hand comment made at Edge-Lit.  We were sitting in the cafe comparing scars (or, more to the point, the worst rejection letters we'd ever received) and, following Steve's newsletter, Phil said "we're not the Inner Circle, more like The Crusty Exterior".  That made us all laugh so when he set up an FB group to organise the meeting, that's the name he chose!

Stay safe, people and here's to many more meet-ups in the future!