The worst book I ever read


Photo by Infrogmation

I don’t read that many bad books, I take no pleasure in them. People sometimes talk about how they are going to gorge on book-junk as though a bad novel is a messy burger and there is a special joy to be gained from swallowing it. Not me.

I like many kinds of fiction and there are great writers in any genre, but I would rather seek out the glittering best of any given type rather than read that which is merely mediocre or indeed plain awful. So I do some research, take advice from people whose taste I trust. Hence I read very few bad books.

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Might bookshops soon be a thing of the past?

10421449_674248686040606_4388219743124469781_nBookshops might actually disappear, imagine that. When you think about it there’s no real practical need for them to be there.

Even if we want physical books rather than electronic downloads, and I really do want a physical book I can hold in my hands, then these are readily available online through the mighty A (other online booksellers are available).

So why the need for a shop in the high street? It makes little economic sense to have it there – commercial property rental is expensive, staff wages could be saved. And aside from an extra place to buy coffee your average book shop is not offering the buyer anything that’s not just a click away.

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Six more things I’ve learned as a published author

Ok – here’s a second blog post about things I’ve learned since my book was published. I thought these posts worth doing because quite a lot of things have come as a big surprise to me! I didn’t really know what to expect, except the unexpected, and I haven’t been disappointed. You can read five things I’ve learned since my book was published here. Now here’s a few more.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe community of writers, and readers, is remarkably strong.

I’ve been delighted by this – I really didn’t expect the warmth and sense of community I’ve found since my book came out from people online and on social media. People are only happy to offer a kind word, advice or simply support when you are negotiating the sometimes baffling world of letting people know about your book. This is something which runs through Twitter, Facebook and through the comments you get on your blog. The community of writers and readers has become truly international too – I’m as likely to be chatting to book lovers in any part of the USA, in Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia – anywhere in the world in fact. And isn’t that an amazing thing?

Being published once doesn’t make finding a home for your next book any easier.

I suppose this is an extension to the indifferent world point I made in my last round-up. I’ve found that having a little bit of a track record doesn’t count for very much. Just because you have a book out, doesn’t mean publishers suddenly see you as a great prospect – you are still just another manuscript on their massive pile – and another rejection slip to send out. I suspect, and hope, this might change a few more books further down the line – success usually breeds success after all.

There really is no money in it.

US_Dollar_banknotesNo really – none at all. Especially if, like me, you write literary fiction which is hardly a mass market proposition. If you want to chase money as an author I think you would probably have to make that your main and central aim – write purely what you thought would be most commercial and work hard on the selling side. Even then I suspect all but a few authors make very little compared to what they would if they put the same amount of time and effort into a regular job. So it’s a good job we don’t do it for the money then isn’t it?

There are people out there who really get it!

It’s a fantastic thing to hear about people who have read your book and really enjoy it. That’s the payoff for an author I think – reaching readers in that way. It’s a huge pleasure for me to read a review of my book from someone who has really engaged with it, or a discussion on a blog or website about the themes in the book. A big surprise for me was to find that there are people out in the big wide world talking about my work, often quite unbeknown to me. I’ve quoted Dr Johnson before on this blog saying: ‘A writer only begins a book, a reader finishes it.’ And that quote has been brought to life for me by the articles that have appeared on my book like the ones:
And here
And here

You will have to market your book

Chris Hill, Waterstones signingI suspect a lot of soon to be authors will think what I thought – once you have a publisher they will handle the marketing of your book and you can get on with the writing. Unfortunately that’s not true. Publishers, large and small, have a lot of books coming out and not much time to promote them.

A publisher will only accept your book if they love it, and of course they will do everything they can to promote it but the truth is, unless you want your baby to disappear without trace you have to take responsibility for letting the world know about it. This means putting a lot of time, work and effort doing things like building up your presence on social media (in my case I had to build it up from absolute zero). It might also mean writing a blog like this one, taking part in interviews both on and offline, writing guest articles for other people’s websites, appearing pretty much anywhere they will have you. And so on. Which brings me to my final point.

You will be really busy!

You have all the writing to do that you had before of course, and all the querying of agents and publishers. But now you also have a blog to write, Facebook and Twitter accounts to update, readers to interact with and so on. Of course – that’s what you signed up for – so let’s not grumble about it! After all, the alternative is that you didn’t get published – and then you’d still be trying to make it happen.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Write your book in just a week!

One trend in what I suppose you could call the ‘creative writing industry’ at the moment is encouraging people to write books really quickly.

473px-Usain_Bolt_Olympics_CelebrationI’ve come across writing ‘experts’ who run courses and so on claiming they can teach you to crash out a whole novel in a month or even less. It’s the Usain Bolt approach to novel writing.

For the record – Song of the Sea God took me two years to write, from which I’m sure you can glean that I’m in no great rush to type ‘The End.’ To me that doesn’t seem an extraordinary amount of time. The other two books I have completed have taken a similar period. It takes roughly a year to complete a first draft then another to rewrite and polish it until I believe I have something I wish to inflict on an indifferent world. After I have finished, I submit it to agents and publishers who will often reject it with barely a second glance. My story is not unusual, I suspect it is the story of pretty much any published author.

One ‘writing expert’ I came across on Facebook recently suggested that anyone following her sage advice would be in a position to churn out their magnum opus and stick it up on Kindle to tempt punters in just four short weeks. She strongly suggested I come along to one of her courses where she would teach me how to write more quickly. I suggested that perhaps I could teach her how to write more slowly. She didn’t seem any more impressed by my offer than I had been by hers. We were coming at it from two entirely different perspectives – she simply couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t want to hammer something out as swiftly as possible and get it on Amazon.

600px-UK_traffic_sign_670V30_svgHere’s where I stand. What’s the point of encouraging people to rush their writing? What’s the value of turning out a novel in a month when you could spend more time on it and make it better? Why not treat yourself to a whole two months of writing – and make it a masterpiece!

I don’t wish to sound too grumpy about this. I’m on the side of the writer. But I’m also on the side of the reader and I don’t know that encouraging people to slam out words onto their laptop as quick as they humanly can, then rush to self-publish them as a download in the hope people will hand over money for them is really serving the reader at all well. In fact I think there is a serious likelihood that the reader will pay for something rushed, shoddily put together, ill-considered and just plain rubbish.

The most famous ‘write a novel quickly’ movement is the very popular NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month, which encourages entrants to complete the first draft of a novel in a month.  Its website says that so far 226,756 writers have signed up to write a novel in just one month.

The strapline this group uses is ‘The world needs your novel’ which makes me think: does it? Does it really? The world has lots of novels already, many of them took a long time and a lot of hard work to write. Does it need hundreds of thousands more written in just one month?

Look, I don’t want to seem down on the organisation – they are very popular, they are encouraging people to write, which is great. They are also not necessarily encouraging people to rush what they have written to publication – for many writers what they produce during NaNoWriMo can be the start of a book, not the finished product.

My problem is with the notion that quicker is better. What is the value of rushing your work? My fear is that the ‘experts’ who tell you they can help you get your book in front of buyers in just a few weeks are appealing to some of the less savoury aspects of human nature.

The subtext of the ‘write a novel in a month’ message is – it doesn’t have to be difficult. You don’t have to work very hard for a very long time, pore over your manuscript, carry out rewrite after painstaking rewrite. You can get everything you want without putting yourself to very much trouble at all – just like winning the lottery. Four weeks of writing, upload your work to Amazon and you will be a published author – just like Charles Dickens, just like Jane Austen!

For me writing a novel and getting it published was a long hard road and, you know what, I’m glad it was, because it makes the achievement worthwhile.

Novel in a month? Not for me thanks!

What do you think? Tell me in the comments.

Song of the Sea God visualDon’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

Song of the Sea God – the conversation

SongoftheSeaGodMy novel, Song of the Sea God, has been in print for almost 12 months now and in that time I’m delighted that it has built up quite a few reviews from readers on Amazon sites in the UK here and USA here. It’s fascinating to get reviews of your book as it feels as though a conversation, which began as one-sided, with me sitting in front of a keyboard tapping away, is now becoming a two-way dialogue, as readers across the world respond to what I have written.

I just thought I’d like to pick up on a handful of the themes people have raised about the book in recent reviews and talk about them a little.

I’ve been lucky so far that reviews of the book have been positive, and obviously I’m thrilled about that. But, if anything, I’m even more delighted by the way people have clearly thought about and responded to the ideas and issues, the characters and situations – that for me is what has made having the book published such a joy. A big thanks to all whose comments I have borrowed from their reviews to discuss here. Thanks to my publisher Skylight Press for believing in the book and getting behind it  – and thanks also to all who have read or are reading Song of the Sea God, because it’s you readers who have transformed it from a pile of papers in my bottom drawer to a proper novel!

“The islanders all seem pathetically on the brink of something intangible. They are like so much driftwood aimlessly going about their mediocre lives until John Love shows up. All of a sudden, it is as if they all want to believe that they are capable of more. Their needs become the energy that fuels this stranger who captivates them with his promises.”

AE Wallace

I suppose I wanted to do two things with the islanders in the book before the arrival of their ‘saviour’ John Love. I had to make it clear that there was something to save them from – so I couldn’t have them all deliriously happy – but I also wanted them to have a kind of ‘everyman’ quality – as this was supposed to be a book about more than the fate of a handful of people in a small community – it was supposed to be about all of us. And sadly, I think the notion that we are ‘driftwood’ and unfulfilled in some spiritual or emotional way is all too common these days.

“It is beautiful and dark, funny and chilling, and the only problem I had was that I couldn’t really empathise with the main characters. They are very well drawn and developed, but I didn’t find them really likeable as people. But apart from that, I stand in some awe. The prose is crackling, sharp and evocative (It reminded me at times of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins), the setting and story are compelling in the manner of Lord of the Flies.”


It’s interesting the notion of the characters being likable or not likable because I don’t think I gave it too much regard while I was writing. I was more concerned they be interesting, believable, within the terms of the book, and that they represent people in the wider sense. So I made them both good and bad, lovable and horrible, all rolled into one human package. Another aim of mine was to combine quite a ‘gritty’ environment – cold and uncouth and brutal – with language which, at times, transcended those things.

“What shines through is how much the author loves his characters. Each is so lovingly and cleverly observed. He defies you to pigeon-hole them, to either love or hate them, and in this way the reader is offered hope for themselves. It would be right to describe this book as dark, but it also has plenty of warmth and wry, surprising humour. I loved it.”

Laura Creber

This is a different, yet equally valid, way of seeing the characters in the book I think – the idea that you can care about them, love them even, despite their undoubted faults or even because of them. I do like it when people mention humour in the book too – because laughter is such a big part of life and I would struggle to leave it out of anything I write.

“I didn’t see the end twist coming, anymore than some of the characters did, it left me gasping that I hadn’t foreseen it and yet what I most liked about this book was how Chris portrays all those many tiny mundane thoughts & actions that are so rarely revealed in a character. The minutiae of a person’s life, that can have such huge consequences.”


Not everything I write goes in for twists and turns but I found them particularly suited to this subject matter. I think in a way you could say Song of the Sea God is a book about things not being what they seem. It opens with a person who is convinced they are dead but turns out to be mistaken – and things don’t get any more clear cut after that. It’s also very true that I do use tiny bits and pieces about people to help me draw character.

“This is not a depressing novel, not even a harsh expression of flash-light realism; it is novel full of magic. And even if the magic of the main character, John Love, is questionable, even if the energy of the town is that of the mob, the ultimate message and gift is one of transformation and revelation. The reader comes out of the book better off, more connected and deepened.”

PE Wildoak

A novel full of magic – I do like that. While I was writing the book I sometimes thought of Shakespeare’s The Tempest – his island full of magic, his magician and his Caliban. I tried to make Song of the Sea God a book where bad things happen which, in the way it is told, can still be uplifting.

Song of the Sea God visualSee what you think! Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God.

You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.

A chat with publisher Skylight Press

Skylight_smallsquareThis week I’m delighted to welcome my publishers Skylight Press to my blog. Daniel and Rebsie from Skylight have kindly agreed to answer a few questions about what they look for in manuscripts and give a few words of advice to aspiring writers who are looking to get their work published. I feel I’ve been very lucky to work with Skylight as they clearly really care about the books they publish and are in it for the right reasons. If you want to find out more about them check out their website here. Also – if you want to see what type of book they publish, then why not read my book Song of the Sea God.

What motivates you to be a publisher, and why do you publish the type of books you do?

Quite simply, we do it because we love it. It is our shared dream to make beautiful books, both in design and content. It is a lot of work and it takes a great deal of our time but we are wholly committed. A lot of presses go by the way because they take on too much, try to grow too fast, or have not converted to a more cost-effective mode of publishing.

While we love to publish new and exciting works we also sensible in what we can and can’t do, sometimes having to painfully pass on opportunities for purely practical reasons. But our vision is simple – we are looking for books with a spark – whether literary or esoteric. While the genres we publish are wonderful in their own separate way we love to explore unique overlaps. We have a wonderful line of creative esoteric fiction – many of our esoteric titles are scholarly with literary appeal – our visionary poets and experimental novelists often cross over into the esoteric realm with incantatory language and bardic vision. As Alan Moore often likes to say – Art is Magic and Magic is Art

We love making beautiful print books – but we also provide Ebooks and try to maintain a presence in the computer-based world. Perhaps we are the only press thus far to specialise in both literary and esoteric texts but we’re not really concerned with classifications and pigeonholing – we do what we do for the love of it – and if that represents something bold and new, so be it.

Why do you feel it important to publish the type of fiction you do? Why do novels matter to you?

As our website states we publish literary novels rather than commercial or genre fiction novels but we appreciate that the definitions of such are often subjective – and distinctions between the three aren’t always clear and concise. Loosely, we value fiction that prioritises voice, language or literary device above plot, setting and lowest common denominator marketability.

We feel that there are hundreds of presses that publish commercial plot-driven fiction, whether big publishing houses or small ‘vanity presses,’ but far fewer that dare to publish challenging literary works, often from lesser known and harder to market authors. Most commercial presses are overly concerned with the quick and viral impact of an author over a wide demographic, whereas we are less concerned with such an explosion of initial sales but rather the staying power of good writing craft and a unique voice.

This aesthetic allows us to explore visionary poetry and interesting hybrids, as well as experimental or avant garde fiction. Although we are an international press with authors around the globe we especially look for British fiction, as there are far fewer opportunities for British authors compared to their American counterparts.

Tell me about the submissions process and the type of  submissions you get – are they from authors directly or through agents?

We do deal with agents – but whether a writer has one or not just doesn’t make any difference to our decision to publish something. The writing is all that matters in our decision making process – agents, credentials, academic standing, beautiful query letters, self demagoguery, etc., are of little to no concern to us. In this aspect we might represent a departure from the norm in the publishing business but we are only concerned with good writing and the qualities of the text in question.

Despite making this clear on our website we still get inundated with all sorts of submissions well outside of our remit. This can be time consuming but we are hip to all the tricks and can separate the chaff quite easily – but always taking the time to offer a personal response to serious submissions. It really is quite a collection: pure spam, mass email pitches, real and fake agents, dubious middle-men merchants, self-publishers, re-issue requesters, translators, real and fake academics, self-help copyists, school children, pseudonyms, prophets, manifesto writers, authors of the not quite written yet – just to name a few.

The texts are all over the place too – sometimes little to no editing, poorly translated, utterly inappropriate, or just too long and sprawling beyond the practicality of publication.

Having said this, we do get wonderful texts and hear from a number of diverse and interesting people, whether we take on their work or not. We also realise that the publishing industry is itself mostly responsible for many of the negative trends noted above. Authors are inundated with poor and outdated advice from a growing number of middle-men resource sites on the internet, some of which mean well and others of which just take advantage of the natural uncertainty that comes with being an author (often with a hefty fee). As authors ourselves we have a great deal of empathy for those seeking to publish and keep that at the forefront of all our dealings with them. Of course, we can’t be all things to all people and there are some authors looking for something beyond what we can offer as a small press. We completely understand this and do not try to sell ourselves to authors that clearly desire a bigger and more commercial press.

However, the internet has been a great equaliser in the publishing world and our distribution is on a par with many larger presses, allowing us to attract writers that we perhaps wouldn’t have been able get in an earlier era. The authors that do publish with us seem to appreciate our publishing model for what it is and the honesty with which we present ourselves.

What advice would you give someone looking to get published – what should they do to improve their chances?

It’s always a precarious business giving advice to writers aspiring to be published – for various reasons. Firstly, there is the danger of adding to the plethora of readily available bad advice being tossed around the internet. Everyone and their dog seems to do advice lists like “10 things you must do in order to get published.” Also, stock advice does not normally speak to the minor differences between presses – or in fact the massive chasm between commercial publishing and small press (or Indie) publishing. We can only advise from the standpoint of our own press aesthetic, which may or may not represent that of other small presses.

The most important thing – and this is something that many advice lists overlook – produce a work of excellence. This seems obvious but as we are hammered with substandard, poorly written, badly edited and technically dubious scripts – anything less than excellent is going to be dispensed with very quickly. Specifically for us, the work must contain a “spark” of some kind – so voice is everything – even more than content, plot, setting, etc. We look for inspired voices – particularly with fiction and poetry – or work that achieves something unique through experimentation and risk. Straight ahead narratives with simplistic language are a penny a dozen – and so many books with wonderful subject matter and plot are undone by dreary and uninspired writing. This is why we specify “literary fiction” – and while we gladly admit that such a characterisation is debatable and largely subjective – “literary” usually alludes to something unique in the voice, in the language itself. For the same reason we generally shy away from conversational or what we sarcastically refer to as “shopping list poetry.” We look for some thing powerful in the poetic voice, something incantatory or shamanic in the language which sparks the imagination and gives poetry a catalytic function. This is not to say that other forms of poetry or fiction are bad – there are thousands of commercial or genre fiction presses that go for straight narrative fiction – and lots of poetry publishing houses that endorse the conversational or confessional style of poetry.

So our ethos follows Derrida’s famous line – “there is nothing but the text.” Therefore, an author should make the text or manuscript front and central in their initial contact.

While they may be important to other publishers, we are not impressed by degrees, academic standing, formally perfect query letters, promises of monetary success, literary awards or even how many books an author may have churned out. We assess the manuscript and the manuscript tells us all we need to know.

Of course, we appreciate meaningful introductions and some background information – but so many people waste their time with long CVs, references, or letters raving about professional standing. We live in an age where there are thousands of dubious literary prizes, where anyone can obtain and MFA in Creative Writing, and where the term ‘published author’ does not necessarily mean talented writer – so we ignore all the platitudes and assess the text only.

This all can be known if an author takes five minutes to look at the submission guidelines on our website, which points to another important point: Know your press. Almost every press has some sort of website with listed submission guidelines and yet 90% of submitting authors clearly haven’t read those guidelines. This is an immediate turn-off.

Beyond this, it may help to show a reasonable standard of grammatical proficiency, particularly with non-fiction submissions where a command of the subject matter is also necessary. As many genius writers throughout history have come with technical flaws, we may be willing to overlook errors in fiction or poetry manuscripts when the writing is clearly inspired or advanced.

Having said all this, there is also a large element of luck and timing involved. Most small presses can only produce so many books a year and have to make tough decisions over manuscripts of merit. We at Skylight have had to make many a painful decision due to time constraints or other parameters like book-length.

This is especially true of presses that become established, whereas new presses that need titles will tend to take more risks.

So an author seeking to be published needs to become thick-skinned and not take rejections personally, although we know that’s easier said than done. Remember some of the greatest books were rejected many times before someone dared to take them on. In the case of rejection we would advise an author to either improve their manuscript – or keep seeking publishers for whom it might be better suited.

The fingerprints we leave on our manuscripts

800px-Martin_Amis_2012_by_Maximilian_SchoenherrI read an interview with Martin Amis once where he said that when you’re writing a novel you write about the things you didn’t know were on your mind. This certainly rings true for me.

When I’m writing I certainly don’t set out to write about myself and nobody who has read Song of the Sea God has suggested it might be CiderWithRosieautobiographical. My tale of the rise of a would-be god on an island of misfits told by a dwarfish mute is hardly Cider with Rosie.

And yet, I think that the big things and the little things in anything you write hark back to your own personal experience.

By big things I mean themes, and however much you marry these to your plot, your characters and so on, there will be something of your own concerns in there too. For example, in the book I wrote after Sea God, which is called the Pick Up Artist, and isn’t published yet, the main character’s mother died when he was young and this certainly influences his development and actions. I didn’t think much about this when I was writing but it’s certainly true that my own mother died only a couple of years before I wrote the book. And though I was a lot older when my mother died than when the character in my book lost his, well, we all feel too young when our parents die don’t we?

As for little things – here I’m taking about incident, asides, scraps of plot, flashes of character. I mean the jokes, the turns of phrase, the lines of dialogue, the descriptions. They all come from somewhere, and though they are all ‘made up’ in so much as they start life in your head and finish up on the page, many of them will track back to your own life, your own concerns or ideas.

So what of myself have I left on the page in Song of the Sea God?

People who have been kind enough to review the book on Amazon tend to talk about three things. They talk about the language, they talk about humour and finally they talk about the darkness. Where does this darkness come from?

Well firstly I suppose it reflects the confusion I feel about religion. I’m not religious, in so much as I wouldn’t identify with a particular faith and, if pushed, I would describe myself as agnostic. But admitting that I don’t know the mysteries of the universe is definitely not the same as saying I believe there are no mysteries. The feeling that there must be something more than what our senses tell us, the god-shaped hole in our lives, is something we all share I’m guessing, and those feelings are at the heart of the book.

Then there’s a sense of isolation in the text I think. The island the story is set on, which seems divorced from the rest of the world; the mute outsider who tells the tale. There is a loneliness here despite all the jokes and wise-cracks. I’ve always been blessed with a fantastic and close family – both growing up and now as an adult. Still, I think it’s JohnDonnepossible to feel that as a person, you come into this world and go out of it alone, you are essentially isolated – an individual. John Donne said ‘no man is an island’ but I think Song of the Sea God suggests that’s exactly what each of us is.

I didn’t set out to write about these things, and yet that is what I ended up doing. I believe the process of writing goes far deeper than our conscious mind knows.

Don’t forget if you get a moment to take a look at my book Song of the Sea God. You can look inside to read the first few pages free and download a free Kindle sample for UK readers here. And for readers in the USA here.