The Nameless Horror

Halfway Done

I turned 35 today, marking the 50% completion mark on my allotted three score and ten. (Yes, yes, raised life expectancy, last many years yet, etc. etc., though I don’t know I’d actually want to spend an extra couple of decades watching my appendages/organs/brain losing bit of themselves, but that’s just me.)

I don’t do birthdays. When I was a kid they were OK because I’d get given money, it being less than two weeks since Christmas. So I’d have a bunch of new stuff, and then a pile of cash to buy other stuff I felt I was lacking, and that would be it for the year. One year I had enough to blow the lot on Space Hulk and both its expansions all in one shake. Good times.

As an adult, and especially one with kids now, though, while I don’t give a rat’s glorious arse for marking my age (or worrying re: 30/40/50/60 and the loss of youth), the cycle of Christmas and New Year takes such a lot of energy that I’m glad to get to the end of it and see life return to normal. Having a sodding birthday coming up really isn’t what you want, then.

Some people seem to find it a little odd when you answer “nothing” to the question “what are you doing for your birthday?” (or, more pointedly, “what do you want to do for your birthday?”), but I like doing nothing, thanks. Sometimes I get a takeaway rather than cook. Woo! On my 30th my then-girlfriend tried (with the best of intentions but the least understanding of me re:birthdays) to organise a surprise party rather than the beer and a game of Settlers with her and an old mate that I’d had in mind and was looking forward to. In the end it was an excruciatingly damp squib, but if more than half a dozen people had shown up I’d have gone out instead because I don’t do anything for my birthday. (That probably wouldn’t have been taken well, but there we go.)

But having a birthday so close to the year’s start does give me an excuse to do one of those looking-back posts a week after everyone else, so screw it, let’s type.

Last year I…

  • Got married.
  • Completed 3-ish books (though two were part-done or in-the-doing already) and redid two more.
  • Abandoned one.
  • Started two more, and am redoing one more.
  • Got back rights to three of my old ones.
  • Shifted a large part of my work focus into the wide world of DIY publishing in part because I…
  • Failed, disappointingly, to land a deal for DAY ZERO.
  • Got to do more photoshoppery than normal; hopefully the practice will stick after a while.
  • Reached #3 on Google’s rankings for “[name of well-known thriller author] penis” for this post that ended up rather widely disseminated after the great book scandal of the year. (Heh. “Seminated.”)
  • Got quoted with the word “fart” from this by the LA Times (and sadly without it by the Telegraph months later) after it ended up doing the rounds, rather to my surprise.
  • Discovered that I can still mix it in the technical world of trade journalism, and that a steady source of income might keep things afloat if I hadn’t also…
  • Discovered that the guys selling ads on the mag I wrote were numpties and failed to shift a thing for ages, meaning no second issue last year, no income from it, and the thing will only surface at the start of spring this year. All being well it’ll then continue on and all will be well, but still.
  • Started editing for cash. As much as most writers have a lingering dread of going back through their own work time after time, I like editing. More so other people’s stuff.
  • Read very little. That I can recall, anyway. The only books I definitely read and finished (as opposed to started reading and haven’t finished - which happens quite a lot - or started reading and gave up on) were A Game Of Thrones, rather late to the party, and Cryptonomicon, which I’ve read a bucket of times before. Since both are a squillion pages in length, that may be why I haven’t read much else. I’d like to get to Reamde when I have a century to spare.
  • Watched very little. The Dark Knight Rises was badly flawed story-wise, but pretty enough. Skyfall was also flawed, also pretty. I don’t remember if there was anything else.
  • Probably did more. I forget. I’m old and my brain doesn’t work.

And in the past 35 years I’ve…

  • Done some things.
  • Not done others.

You know how it goes. Thank you for the birthday wishes, all of you. Onwards. We march on a road of bones. Increasingly tired, age-encrusted bones. Let’s see if we can make it through the other 50% intact.

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…