The Nameless Horror

The Darkerness Insiderer

Behold! Out now, steaming fresh, entrails so warm you’d think the words were still alive, you can now find the second Alex Rourke story in the newly-upgraded series. Why not purchase The Darkness Inside: Writer’s Cut at your local e-mporium in the Colonies or dear old Blighty for really very little indeed?

Day Zero

And isn’t it just dandy?

Of the three former Penguins, this was the one that changed the least way back when, probably because its central concept was a solid one. (He said, segueing nicely into a “what’s the book about?” paragraph.)

When the weeks and months roll by after a child is snatched and isn’t found, and especially on the (thankfully) rare occasions when there’s a spate of such crimes where the corpses of some of the victims are discovered, or when a confessed murderer is caught, we naturally assume that all those taken are dead, waiting to be found perhaps long after the event, perhaps never.

But what if you make that assumption and you’re wrong?

(The actual proper jackety blurb can be read at the Amazonian links, of course.)

I was expecting it to be less work than The Touch Of Ghosts since it didn’t need many major changes - there are a couple of scenes deleted wholesale but none of the en masse chopping and carving the last book needed - but it turns out changing the tense and cleaning up the text on a 90,000 word novel takes forever. (Especially when your entire family has stinking colds and you’re in the run up to Christmas. I’m still dreading having missed a few tense changes in all the to-ing and fro-ing.)

The main issue with the original TDI was, in fact, that hardly anyone ever got to read it because of its spectacularly botched release. The core book was always the strongest of the originals. It was also interesting to see how my writing style had changed from TTOG. This one didn’t always get there, but the voice was far closer to what eventually settled into the style I use for the Cregan books: the tendency to drop pronouns and/or verbs from sentences, the chopped descriptions, all very different to how I’d written before. OK, so some of the writing was ropy as hell where it hadn’t quite worked, and I’ve put some of those pronouns and verbs back in, but I was clearly on my way to my grown-up style back then.

So yes, it’s out and about. Go and buy it. That’s four novels released in the space of two months (in addition to one copy-edited for someone else), two of them needing major edits. The third writer’s cut will follow after the holidays.

(Aside: I also note that Amazon UK has tied the new version to the originals for no apparent reason, hence a 2008 review appearing for it. Also note that I did briefly release the original in the US a couple of years ago so you might, for all I know, see two Kindle editions appearing on some lists even though the old one is long-unpublished. Because, y’know, it wasn’t very good.)

Finally, the becoming-traditional cover photo mention: it’s this by the very swish D Sharon Pruitt (why yes, I did recolor it by hand, since you ask), along with a couple of glass textures by jinterwas, all tweaked and amended by yours truly.

Enjoy! Or not!

But please enjoy!

In Which I Destroy Philadelphia

I know what you’re thinking: it’s been at least a couple of weeks since you last released a book, John, so what gives? I know, mysterious stranger. Crazy, huh? So, as part of my plan to win at self-publishing by sheer force of numbers, here’s DAY ZERO for you - in the UK, the US, and Kobo, with other outlets to follow in the fullness of time.

Day Zero

There it is. Lovely, no?

(And yes, this should’ve been happening yesterday because Saturday is a poor time to do anything online, but both sites were grindingly slow at letting stuff go live so time slipped. Be prepared for annoying “reminder” tweets to compensate on Monday as people return to work. Sorry.)

You may have noticed that it’s not the next writer’s cut novel but another Sean Cregan, and well done for spotting that. A run of colds and other minor illnesses, and extra work shifts for my wife last week, made it less likely I’d have the editing on the next Rourke done in time for Friday, while this book - the book formerly known as Submission Thing - needed only a final proof and a cover. The cover meant flexing my rusty matte painting skills (and the resources available to them; I’m sure there’s another post there on the topic of jacket design/production), but I got there in the end. The second recut Rourke novel will follow very soon.

So what is DAY ZERO?

It’s YA, it’s sci-fi, and it’s about three 16-year-olds caught up in a sudden, overwhelming alien assault that destroys Philadelphia and leaves most of the city’s people dead, fleeing in panic, or, in the case of its children, taken. It’s about surviving the apocalypse as it happens. It’s about facing the loss of everyone you ever loved and forming new bonds in the aftermath.

It’s also about human greed and ambition cut free of society’s restraints, and about one of the invaders coming to terms with what he is, what he’s doing, and how he might stop it.

You can see the official movie-announcer-voice jacket blurb type material at yonder ebook emporium if you’re so inclined.

And why didn’t it make it on submission? Is it just rubbish?

Mostly it fell down at marketing rather than editorial (everything being done by committee at the moment, it seems): principally because it was perhaps too ‘crossover’, too much adult-centered material from the POV of the human villains to be true YA, or because it wasn’t world-buildy enough. Which in fairness it’s not; this is world-destroy-y; creating the new order of things, explaining and developing the reasons for what’s happened, that all comes after.

Further random factoid: only when I came to give it a final proofing so soon after finishing TTOG did I realize that several partial character names are reused here. By sheer coincidence - mostly I take my names from footballers (surnames) and “popular/unpopular boy/girl names for year X” lists. But the main threesome contains the “Flint” surname, the “Stef” first name, and an “Alex”, though this one’s a girl. Pure chance, but odd nonetheless.

Further random factoid #2: there’s a reference to the ‘Newport’ novels in the name of the ultimate owner of the villainous corporation. This one’s deliberate.

One last credit/comment: the base cover image is this one by Mihai Bojin (cc-by licensed). The amount of work done on it was considerable.

Weekend Writing: The Frankenovel

I know I promised a write-up on the experience of mercilessly hacking apart and rebuilding your own old novel because it had been an interesting thing to go through, and now, over a week later, I’m not quite as sure of that as I was; I suspect this’ll just be general editing advice. But anyway, it’s the goddamn internet and you can’t stop me.

(Mostly I’ve been busy and/or ill. And while I’m talking about editing I should probably remind you I’m available for hire as an editor very cheaply and very professionally. Anyway, moving on…)

I’d have loved, in an ideal world, to have done the writer’s cut of The Touch Of Ghosts for an actual publisher, Apocalypse Now Redux/Blade Runner style. But then it’s only because it had lapsed out of print that I got the rights back to do it; if it had lumbered along as a middling seller all these years this would never have happened, and if it had been wildly successful Penguin would never have allowed it (because people obviously liked the original).

On the upside, this means I’ve had total creative control over the new edition. On the downside, this means I’ve had total creative control over the new edition. Still, I dug the thing up, hauled it out into the light, and got to work on resurrecting it, and I don’t think I did a bad job. Let’s have a look at the rough stages, shall we?

I must... experiment

1. Preparing Your Creation

Before you get your physical specimen on the slab, or on a first preliminary look at worst, you should have an end result in mind. You have to bear in mind that this isn’t like a redraft of a novel that’s yet to see the light of day. You can’t just rip the whole thing up and start afresh, because you are - and might as well be - writing something else instead.

I have a freakishly good memory within certain mostly-useless fields. I can remember, looking at the book for the first time since the final galley proofs came through nine and a half years ago, which bits were first draft, which were second or third. I can also remember what I’d originally wanted from the story. You might not have this; but a cursory read-through should show you what the core of it is, which sections ignore this entirely, and what you need to expand upon to add to it. What should be the headline act? What are the cool support bands? Which bit’s Coldplay?

Basically, you need to know before you start cutting what you want the end result to look like. I knew the story should be, at heart, about loss and not about solving a mystery.

Let's have a look at this fellow

2. Examining The Specimen

Once you have the physical body on the slab in front of you, you can start going through it, piece by piece, deciding which bits to keep and which aren’t needed. What you need more of, what you need less of. Some of this will be general editing, some will be altering the beast into the form you want.

I ended up with four pages of notes on TTOG. I knew what I wanted to do with the story, so now I was looking to see what worked and what didn’t, both in general and specific to the change in focus away from the whodunnit and on to the emotional, psychological heart. Let’s see some examples taken from the top:

  • "Change prologue!" (With some notes on what style to change it to.) The one in the original version is perfectly serviceable, but was added in at draft 2 to put more action at the start of the story (it shows what happened to one of the earlier victims of events). I wanted something else there, something that would hold a thread through the whole book.

  • "First chapter line/intro much better." The opening does a lot of the character establishment heavy lifting, but it’s a bit dry. I mostly fixed this, in the end, by substantial cuts to shorten the opening section. I toyed with the idea of using a flashforward/back structure wrapped around Alex (spoiler-free description follows) examining the place where a car has left the road, covering the events leading him there in flashback scenes bracketed by his increasingly focused investigation of the ground. Stylistically it would have worked, but there wasn’t actually enough material in that scene - and it comes late enough that it would have been hellishly confusing for the reader when the two time threads joined - to make it worthwhile. So, trimmed and neatened, and with a new first sentence, I left this alone.

  • "TRIM! Esp. descriptions of Al’s stuff." One of the changes in my writing style down the years has been to move away from the "First I got up, then I had a piece of toast. It was good toast, not too brown, and it had butter from a little craft dairy on it." school of description. There was too much faff, too much needless physical description (it’s not so bad for the rest of the cast, but do you really need to know the main character’s jacket colour?).

  • "[CHARACTER] = [SPOILER]". I can’t give away this one without spoilers, but this was something I’d wanted to do with one of the minor supporting characters that my editor at Penguin nixed. It would have shown just how fragile/broken Alex’s psychological state had become in a cool little way, I thought. She said readers would never buy it. This change I reverted, but it was hard to do given that they’re only a minor character and the reveal couldn’t be too overt without distracting from other events when it happens.

  • "Conflict with Vermont State Police." Turning it into a whodunnit had made the police, by necessity, very chummy with Alex. In reality, they shouldn’t want him around because, hey, you’re screwing with an investigation here. This was a major missed opportunity for a bit of drama, a bit of friction. It needed to be in the story. It wasn’t in my first draft, though; I hadn’t twigged to the idea back then.


3. Excisions

Now you can go through and cut like a maniac. Take out everything that needs to go, pickle and preserve any information that needs to be in the story to keep the plot rolling along but which can’t stay where it is or in the form it needs to be. Lose everything that needs to be lost. Where you need more of something, or you need a whole scene written from scratch, do so. Prepare it for insertion. Check against what you’ve planned. Mop the sweat from your brow. Demand forceps, swabs, fresh gauze.

TTOG started off at about 85,000 words. The writer’s cut version is about 60,000 words, a few thousand of which are new. The amount I had to take out was therefore pretty huge, most of it because it was junk, some of it because without the bits either side of it, while OK in itself, a section didn’t need to be there any more. But I didn’t have to meet the demands of hardcopy display on bookshelves, where a certain width is considered vital. It also meant that reducing the plot’s complexity didn’t slow the pace. The new version is, if anything, nippier, because there’s not so much talking-in-rooms going on.

All in one piece

4. Stitching

Once the various bloody lumps are in roughly the right shape and the right place, you can sew them together. You want to make it so the joins are perfect, not loose, weeping, strung together with massive twists of catgut. Make sure all the scenes, new bits and surviving old bits, all flow seamlessly into one another. If your writing style has changed down the years, you need to be either doing a good impression of your old self or else have polished the old stuff to look like your new. It’s like reworking a film using updated CGI - it’ll look silly if it’s clean and perfect and everything else is falling to bits. Mr Lucas.

I had to monkey repeatedly with one chapter, which could’ve slotted in at just about any point in the midsection. Finding the place which fit best, suited the pacing and the timing, and then smoothing over the joins took some doing. The rest was relatively easy, in part because I was line-by-lining it anyway to change the tense the book’s in.

He's beautiful

5. Evaluation

Now have a look at your creation. Does it match what you wanted in the beginning? Is it as good as you can make it? Bearing in mind, of course, you’ve only got the one body to work with and there’s only so much you can do with the original material. Is it better than the original? Because if it’s not, you need to look again.

The new cut of TTOG is better for sure than the old. The stuff that’s gone… well, I’m amazed a lot of it got the green light from my editor. Amazed that I was paid money for it. For instance, the original version of the ending few chapters included several muddled “I heard about X from Y” joining-the-dots remarks where X and Y had changed between drafts 2 (Alex is told about the escaped monkey by the man at the zoo) and 3 (Alex finds out that there’s a monkey on the loose when it steals his banana sandwich) and so the text contradicted itself (“The guy at the zoo told me about Coco,” I said. / “No he didn’t,” the other person replied. “Coco nicked your sandwich. You’re suffering draft-related amnesia.”), but no one ever noticed.

There’s none of that in the new edition. At least, there’d better not be.

Oh, yeah, and the actual writing is better, characterisation’s more focused, events are less shoddy, the drama’s more contained, and all that.


6. Life! Life!! GIVE MY CREATION LIFE!!!

If it’s what you wanted, if it’s as good as it can be, all you need to do is pump 20,000 volts into it and set it loose upon the poor, unsuspecting, pitchfork-armed locals while you raise a steaming flask of green SCIENCE down in your lab and congratulate yourself on a job well done.


We are the

Addendum: Future Abominations

The other two old books represent two different challenges. The Darkness Inside never strayed from its original template and the core concept and the thread that carries it is good. It just needs a bit of a tidy and a change to past tense. (My notes on that one amount to one page, most of which are one-liner suggestions.)

Burial Ground, though, changed almost entirely from its first draft. I’d set out to write a survival horror story (with all that that entails) thinly disguised as a thriller, but my editor was not a fan of that as a genre. While some of the end changes made for a better story (better characterisation, etc.), at the time I was hugely disappointed that the final draft was just another Alex Rourke book and not what I’d hoped for. I was pretty bummed at having to knock out the same sort of thing time after time. Now, it just so happens that I have all three drafts of BG on my computer still. I’ve not gone through them yet, but it’s entirely possible I might be able to get back to what I’d wanted via some kind of hybrid of first and final…

A Writer's Cut

The short, short, short version of this entire post: today sees the launch of THE TOUCH OF GHOSTS: WRITER’S CUT in the UK and the US for pocket change. This is a massively rewritten version of the old Penguin edition and serves as the first book in the revamped Alex Rourke series, with THE DARKNESS INSIDE and BURIAL GROUND to follow very shortly indeed.

TTOG cover

There it is, and isn’t it pretty?

I’ll touch on the actual experience and why/how of doing a complete rebuild of an old novel in a later post (because it’s a vaguely interesting process, to me at least, and because, while I’m sure it has happened, I don’t know of any other backlist books that have had a similar treatment), though I will say once again that no one should ever, ever have to scan in an entire novel using a goddamn phone. But for now, here’s some spoiler-free potted information, fact-fans:

  • The writer’s cut has been very heavily reworked to be more like it was originally conceived. I did three drafts in total with Penguin, and the first change required was to turn it into a whodunnit-type mystery, an investigation with suspects and red herrings and all the rest. Since the main character was (a) rather heavily affected by events and (b) not a bloody cop, this never really worked very well. He had to hang out with the police an awful lot in ways that would get everyone fired/imprisoned in real life. And it was never the point, originally. The story was about the effects of loss and guilt on people, not a puzzle.

  • That’s not to say my first original draft was actually capable of delivering this; I’m a much, much better writer now than I was ten years ago. Now I can do it, then, not so much.

  • The writer’s cut is roughly 30% shorter than the original, taking out all the extraneous waffle and giving the story a much tighter focus and snappier pace.

  • It’s also in a different tense. Which means just about every single line has been changed and polished. Originally they were in first person present, which at the time I liked (blame Chuck Palahniuk), but which turned a surprising number of people off. You also end up tying yourself in knots when you get into flashbacks, which isn’t such an issue in this one (they exist but… well, you’ll see), but which come into TDI in a big way as chunks of the story are set in the past.

  • “First book in the series”, John? Yes. If I were to do a similar job on Winter’s End (I can’t; don’t have the rights), I’d delete pretty much the whole thing. Character introduction and development was always handled in TTOG since I wrote all the books to function as standalones, and there is nothing in WE needed for the later books. On top of which, it’s first-book cheesy, has a very hackneyed ending, and it’s a bit rubbish all round. TTOG was thus reworked from the start to be a Book One.

  • It’s dirt cheap either temporarily, as launch-purchase-bait, or permanently as a low-risk lead in to the other books. It depends somewhat on how popular it is. At the moment it’s Amazon-exclusive, but in the long run I might even take a leaf from James’s book and price-match it into permanent free-ness. The later books will be more reasonably priced.

  • I’m aware that a “cut” is a film-only term. However, “writer’s draft” and “writer’s edit” sounded like an incomplete version and nonsense respectively, so I’m sticking with the technically incorrect but popularly-understood terminology.

  • I’m also aware that there’s a minor typo on the “also by this author” page at the very end, because there’s always a typo you spot after you’ve hit ‘save and publish’. I’m uploading a new version at this very moment, but if you get in early enough you might see a teensy (really, very unimportant) error in this most nothing-y of sections.

  • Credit where it’s due (it’s in the book, but I’ll mention it here as well) - the superb base cover image is by Sylvia McFadden, cc-by licensed. Finding it spared my wife having to strike a very similar pose so I could shoot it myself, and it’s rather nippy to be faffing around in the grass.

So there you have it. And I know, I know, is it worth all this effort for these books? They came out long ago, the series is dead and it’s not like I’m building up to anything ne—

Coming Soon


Why I Hate Why Book Publishers Hate Authors

It seems so… unliterary. But publishing houses despise authors and are doing everything they can to make their lives miserable. Here’s why.

So begins Michael Levin in the HuffPo. Reading on, it seems what he meant was “how” rather than “why”; “why” they apparently despise us is never really touched on, unless it’s because publishers are fed up with whinging, self-obsessed authors failing to do what they’re supposed to.

I don’t want to point-by-point this piece, but it’s so very hard to tackle it any other way because so much of it is tripe.

Authors are admittedly a strange lot. There’s something antisocial about retreating from life for months or years at a time, to perform the solitary act of writing a book.

Not this sodding “tortured lone artist” horseshit again? No, you’re right, any time any of us decide to bang out a new book - sorry, I probably mean, ‘birth a story just fighting to get out’ - we all head off to the nearest monastery. Last time I finished one, I came home, bearded and gaunt, to find my wife had assumed I’d died and was remarried to a wet fish salesman from Plymouth. My children didn’t know me any more, and the culture shock induced by discovering that someone had made a third Transformers movie in my absence nearly killed me.

When we had our windows replaced last year, the fitter was here, on his own, for about six hours. Retreating into the solitary twilight of uPVC trim and crumbling old sash frames. Does no one think of his family, unable to reach him as he cuts and drills for hours at a time?

Honestly, what a load of balls. Yes, working from home does mean enforcing boundaries that don’t exist if you leave the house to do your job, but otherwise…

On top of that, authors are flaky. They promise to deliver a manuscript in April and it doesn’t come in until October. Or the following April. Or the April after that. This leaves publishers with several options, all of them bad: revise publishing schedules at the last minute; demand that authors turn in projects on time, regardless of quality; cancel books altogether; or sue the authors (as Penguin has begun to do) for undelivered or poor quality work.

Authors have a habit of ignoring contract terms? (For deadlines, quality and generally length are defined in the contracts you sign.) And this annoys the people paying them for their output? Well shit me.

While publishers might have a record for the occasional playing of fast and loose with a clause or two, firstly two wrongs don’t make a right, and secondly by and large the greater onus is usually on them to meet the terms in black and white. If - an unsubstantiated if - authors have been doing this so much, to an extent, in fact, that probably wouldn’t be accepted in any other line of work anywhere, is it really so unexpected that they’d be narked?

Authors are also prickly about their work. There are few jobs on the planet in which people are utterly free to ignore the guidance, or even mandates, from their bosses. Yet book authors are notoriously dismissive of their editors’ advice.

And that, as well.

The article then goes on to talk about the much-reduced means of the industry post-financial crash (though I’d argue that the post-Kindle, post-recession period has seen far greater changes), but rather than frame it as “here’s how publishers are hanging on by their fingernails, trying to survive - and keep their authors in business”, it’s “publishers hate authors”. Though they might with justification, because as the opening of the piece points out, authors are apparently all selfish, flighty dicks.

Now, while publishing’s business mechanisms - overblown advances, sale-or-return, etc. - and sluggish approach to change are both deserving to one extent or another of criticism, the fact that the people at the top of these companies work and have continued to work in such a ridiculously impractical industry would suggest that they hardly loathe the material they produce. At the front end, editors, in my experience, are uniformly massive fans.

It is entirely true that previous sales can kill your career as he suggests - I’ve said many times that one of the reasons for the name change when I switched to Headline was to hide sales data on my last few Penguin books (and if anyone should know how a publisher can royally cock-up an author’s career through no fault of their own, it’s me) from interested editors until they’d decided they liked what they were reading.

But then Levin goes totally batshit.

It’s completely unfair, but destroying the options of a writer actually has some benefits for publishers. Which leads me to think that maybe publishers are actually happy when authors fail.

As authors gains traction in the marketplace, their fees go up. They can charge a publisher more money for their next book. The problem is that there’s no guarantee that the next book will sell well enough to justify the higher advance the publisher had to pay the author. So if publishers can turn writing into a fungible commodity, they no longer have to worry about paying more, or potentially over-paying for a book.

If publishers can commoditize writing, they’re no longer at the mercy of unruly, unmanageable and unpredictable writers. They can lower their costs, they can guarantee that their schedules will be adhered to, and they can keep the trains running on time.

In other words:

Publishers would love it if their successful authors (the expensive ones, the ones who’ve sold well and gained market traction) failed, so they could be replaced by cheaper unknowns from the pool waiting to fill the gap. This is the perfect business model for survival. Because out-of-the-blue breakout hits from nowhere happen all the time and it’s not like best-selling authors are the only ones turning an actual, reliable profit for hard-up publishing companies.

Oh, wait.

Edit: Jason Pinter does a fine demolition job too on his blog here, including demolishing several factual assertions with the aid of numbers and information and other strange magics.