Short Story – Vic is not having a good September

Recent seasonal factors reminded me to put this story back up on the blog. Hope you enjoy it.

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Vic Is Not Having A Good September

Vic stops for a Cadbury’s Boost. He had seven lagers earlier so it’s time he thought about food. There’s something about that layer of a Boost just under the chocolate, it’s this sort of caramel and biscuit mash. It’s beyond sweet. It makes your mouth ache. That’s the real stuff. That’s what Vic wants. He’s never really had much of a sweet tooth, but just recently he’s become obsessed. It could be to do with trauma. It could just be because Boosts are nice and Vic never realised. Sometimes he finds that even as he’s started eating, he’s thinking of what he’ll eat next. Vic used to be focused, but these days he’s more flighty. It’s the thoughts that do that. He realises he can’t be doing with the Boost after all, so he moves on.

It’s early afternoon. Got to keep moving, that’s the thing now for Vic. Onwards. Upwards. That way. Through a door. In the atrium of a library. Into a car. Push on. Maybe that’s why the hunger is there. Maybe the hunger is fuelling the movement and the movement creates the hunger. Is that what it is, wonders Vic – but the answer and eventually the question gets lost in lager. The aim with moving is to reach that point where everything peripheral blurs and your brain can only worry about what’s coming directly towards you. It’s a form of focus when that background buzz eventually goes away, it’s probably something motorcyclists understand, thinks Vic.

Vic is in a pub. The late Summer evening sun is weak in the sky and there’s a big smash of pink clouds. Be nice again tomorrow, Vic thinks. He’s at the back of the beer garden. Not hiding, but not advertising his presence. He drinks lager. He drinks lots of lager. He’s spent a lot of time quietly contemplating the meniscus of lager, how you can almost sense from the curvature of the top of the pint that the liquid would return to being droplets if given its freedom. Vic likes to drink a proper lager with the head all frothy and white but somehow his lager always seems flat. Why is the pint nearly always gone too? Cider tastes better, but it comes in those stupid bottles, whereas lager is in those welcoming pint glasses. So it’s lager; lager is the thing. Vic drinks lager. It’s good and it’s strong. Sometimes if you have lager you don’t even have to keep moving to get the thoughts gone.

This is his sixth lager in this pub. He’ll get kicked out soon. Moved on. Don’t want you or your sort around here. Vic gets angry when he hears that. What’s wrong with him? What’s my “sort” anyway? That’s usually when it gets violent. Vic doesn’t think of the violence, never has. It’s just a fact; something that happens. He doesn’t get scared, he couldn’t care if it’s the biggest bloke in the world, some total Jason with tattoos and stubbled head, or some flappy woman screaming at him – he’ll have a dig at any of them. To be fair he doesn’t usually start it and he often loses and is forced to tactically retreat, but he’s seen more than a few off over the years.

Look at that big pink fucking sky, Vic thinks – it’s the lager that’s thinking now – I’m going to get up there and fight that sky. What a stupid drunk thought. What a pointless fighty thought. Vic moves on and finds another pub.

It’s morning and Vic doesn’t know where he is. Don’t think he slept much, but he stopped moving for a bit and the thoughts weren’t at him. That’s perhaps the best Vic can hope for now. He’s wandering round this house wondering who it belongs to. Not many photos on the wall, it’s all art and cobwebs in the corners. Trying to remember how he got in. It was late, or early. Maybe it was days ago. He’s not going to wait around now he’s up anyway. All the doors are shut up, so eventually he tries the bathroom and finds he can get out of the big window. Then he’s off and away and suddenly starving. Vic used to be one of those who would have protein for breakfast – sensible meals, sensible portions, plenty of exercise – there didn’t use to be a scrap of fat on him. He’s not fat now, he just feels like he’s losing definition. He wonders sometimes if this will be what kills him. Not violence or illness, but a gradual Gaussian blurring until he stops being recognisably him. Keep going for now.

Vic is in a pub. He’s in the back room of some dim and bad jukebox pub that smells of bleach. There was this blue-purple light in one of the other rooms that gave him a banging headache, so he’s come back here. He’s got lager and the thoughts are going now. He watches them recede as the lager does what it should. He risks a look at her, she’s still bright in his memory. She was everything to Vic. He knew that she was bigger and more than him. Everyone knew she was out of his league, but it worked. Vic didn’t even mind the others. Well, not much. Vic didn’t have much education, a number of schools made it clear that they didn’t want him there, but in her he found his purpose. His family had always been on at him about getting a trade, but it was only when he was with her that he knew what he was meant to do. Yeah, well, it didn’t last. The home, the family, the everything – it didn’t last. Bigger and more. Bigger and more lager.

Wooooh, Vic is seriously flying now. It’s lunchtime and he’s twelve lagers in. Shit. Time and place are fractured. Maybe his leg as well. It certainly hurts. There was a lorry that nearly hit him and a central reservation. Something then a roundabout. He was on a big field and a blue slushy ice drink. There was an awful smell and coughing. This family wouldn’t let him share their picnic, what are they getting so fussy about? Did you lose your home? Who do you know that died recently? Stupid fucking picnic! Stupid fucking tablecloth! It’s a fucking council park, if you want tablecloths then fuck off to a field of wheat with your tablecloths and your crying kids. Did he fight the children? Yes. Both of them. Ha! Their little faces all red and puffy and shouting. He left. He noticed the family packing up their picnic stuff as he left the park. We’ll call that one a draw, thinks Vic. Lager!

It’s night and Vic is inside again. He doesn’t care where he is. It’s a room, like other rooms. Vic can’t sleep and there’s no lager here, so he has to sit with the thoughts. Some of the deaths come back to him. Friends. Family. Vic has known murder. He’s never murdered, but he’s known it. One time he saw the insides of – he pushes that thought away and hopes it won’t complete itself. Down and away. He can’t have lager and the terror of 4 a.m. sobriety is reaching out for him, so he has to have movement. Vic bumbles around the rooms. It feels so repetitive, like he’s banging his head against a wall, maybe that would help him sleep? He tries banging his forehead into the wall, but it doesn’t help. Sleep can’t find him, so the thoughts do.

Sunrise comes. Vic feels that it’s his last day. Can’t say why. Perhaps dying is a choice. Perhaps it’s simply an awareness that has come to him – a gift from the universe to allow him some perspective at the last. Vic decides to take the universe’s gift back and exchange it for lager. Vic finds lager. Three pubs in quick succession. Thrown out of the first two for violent behaviour. He leaves the third one because he wants to find a fourth. What sort of reason is that for leaving a pub? Stupid. Vic’s thoughts are all lager and death. He thinks of her. She was my Queen, is his thought. It was an honour to serve you. He drinks lager in her memory.

Vic looks out of the window and realises with a slow surprise that he’s not far from what was his home. It will be empty now, but he could stop by if he wanted after the pub. From the window he can see the trees he used to play in. The trees bulge outwards and suck inwards as his back is crushed. The air whooshes out of his trachea and sacs. Four of his legs snap as he is pressed against the window with a magazine. Vic hears a too loud splitting noise in his head. His thoughts goo out. His vision blurs and the last thing he sees is the magazine’s pressure pushing the pattern of his wing against the window. Vic is not having a good September.

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This is a story I wrote because I’m trying to see the good in wasps. I’ve been stung twice this summer and I realised that it’s really no worse than a nettle sting, so all of the flapping and hysterical flicking I’ve been doing for years was rather silly. I hope that wasps will acknowledge this magnanimous artistic gesture and leave me alone the next time I’m eating a Calippo on the beach.

I trust that all good-hearted entomologists will forgive the poetic licence I’ve used in the story around the true nature of wasps. Perhaps most egregious is that adult wasps don’t actually eat solid foods – they use their mandibles to tear up prey which they then feed to the wasp larvae. The larvae then emit a sweet secretion which the adults eat.

That’s revolting isn’t it? Wasps really don’t help their PR cause with such grotesque behaviour.

I danced around that fact in the first paragraph by having Vic alight on a Boost but not actually eat it. I did however manage to edit the story in time to change my mistake that male wasps don’t have stingers, who knew? Certainly not me.

My thanks to Kate Feld, John Ossoway, Yolander Yeo and Emma Shanahan for early draft feedback and suggestions.

If you liked this story then I’d love it if you would share it but please no spoilers about the sting in the tale (unlol).

Starter for Ten w/c 9-3-2020

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs. I have no idea what Friday’s is all about, please don’t phone the authorities.

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MONDAY

It’s like being dragged unconscious from the sea. As you’re jostled around strange pressures and pains radiate out. Then as your awareness returns you realise that it’s a localised pain and that you just need to empty your bladder. There is a minimum period of at least three minutes, during which you wonder, nay hope, that you can ignore it and just return to the depths of the dream from which you were pulled. Of course, you can’t, but it doesn’t mean you can’t contemplate how wonderful it would be.

Your legs shift out of the bed and into the cold, away from the amniotic warmth of your nest. If it were done, then it were as well it were done quickly. So you stand, rather quickly and feel your balance struggle to adapt to the sudden change in position. The black bees of consciousness flit, but the room is dark and you stand and breathe and soon they disappear. You stalk your way across the bedroom, a dropped pullover would gladly ensnare your leg and make you trip but you are awake now and swiftly guide your feet around it. Your recalculated route accidentally takes in the foot of the bed which produces a crunch of a toe and sees you stifle a cry as you consider how broken the bone must be – fractured into dust probably.

Your bladder pain saves you and you hobble onwards to the toilet. Once again you marvel at the brilliance of the low wattage, movement sensor light which is triggered by your arrival in the bathroom. It emits a dull, fudgy light, enough to see by, but not enough to scar the retinas. You lift the seat and urinate. Approximately an hour passes. You lower the seat and waft your hands under the tap, arguing internally that it’s too early for germs and Bear Grylls once said that all urine was sterile. Not that you’d take an affinity for urine as far as him.

You plot your way back to the bed, moving with the exaggerated motion of a pantomime villain sneaking up on the hero. The bed creaks as you lower yourself back in and chase after the ghost of the warmth – cursing your stupidity at not replacing the duvet and letting those precious molecules of warmth out into the bedroom.

You check the time. It’s 2.03AM. The house is quiet. You have plenty of time left for sleep. You snuggle and wiggle into the bed, stretching limbs and cuddling pillows into comforting shapes. You breathe calmly, your bladder is calm and the throbbing in your toe has subsided into a distant warmth. Your mind drifts into the ether, but you find it is anchored to consciousness by the thought of Bear Grylls talking about urine. Your mind turns this over. Pointlessly. To no good purpose. You look at the clock and it is 4.55AM.

TUESDAY

The weird thing about it was that it looked a little bit like a purse. Not that it’s unusual to see a man carrying a purse, but it was the combination of that and the way that he looked as he got out of the car that drew my attention. He was a tall man and he looked willowy and tired. He looked exhausted. His face was a pale grey but his metal-rimmed glasses couldn’t obscure that his eyes were red. Not like he’d been crying – more like he was working through the final reserves of energy before total collapse. I think I felt sorry for him.

Anyway, he sort of unfolded himself from the car and as he did so his purse swung out and tapped the car next to him. This car park is a nightmare – it’d be fine if everyone drove clown cars, but everyone’s got these four by fours and everyone is always just on the line or a little bit over, so in the end if you get the last spot you’re often better getting out of the sunroof. I noticed because I was still waiting for himself to get back from the shop and I was watching in the rear view for anyone coming out of the shop.

At first I thought he was just feeling bad about tapping the car – although as I say I don’t think there was anything he could have done about it. But his eyes didn’t look sorry, and he didn’t make a sort of guilty face like I would have done, but his eyes just went wide. Bigger than the rims of his glasses almost and he held this purse with both hands to steady it. It was black leather with a white clip on the front and it seemed expensive. Don’t know why, maybe it was the way he was treating it. And then he slowly pulls this purse next to his ear and just listened for about ten seconds. Well, that was weird. So I turned around in my seat so I could get a better look and that’s when he noticed me.

He was still listening to his purse but he noticed me turning around and looking at him. Then he seemed to make his mind up and he squeezed between the car and what was weird is that he never shut the door. He just carefully placed the purse down at the back of the car and then he ran. Straight into the shop, didn’t look back, just head down and sprinted.

So, what do you think’s in it?

WEDNESDAY

“So you know what Tantric Sex is right?”

“It’s that weird shagging that Sting does isn’t it?”

“Yeah, sort of, it’s about achieving a sexual union with a partner through all of the available energy channels of the body and mind, rather than it just being about hiding the sausage.”

“How do you know so much about it?”

“I watched a YouTube thing on it.”

“YouPorn more like.”

“Shut up, that’s not the point. This isn’t about sex. I think this could be a big idea.”

“How big?”

“Massive.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Shut up Mark, this isn’t about shagging!”

“So what is it about?”

“Goalkeeping.”

“Come again.”

“Goalkeeping. Or more to the point Tantric Goalkeeping.”

“Riiiiiight. You know the FA are thinking of banning heading – I think it’s too late for you.”

“No, listen. This season do you know what our goal difference is?”

“I think mathematics has lost the ability to express just how poor our goal difference is.”

“Exactly. For accuracy it’s scored – 48 and against – 339. To give us a goal difference of minus 291.”

“Shit the bed that’s awful.”

“It’s a useful metric though because it tells us what our problem is – we’re scoring all right but we’re shipping way too many goals.”

“Aye, 339 of them.”

“Now, it’s not all Olly’s fault. He’s had that thing with his contact lenses and the defence aren’t really helping him out, but that’s where I think tantric goalkeeping could help out.”

“Ok, it sounds like bollocks, but I’ve got nothing else to listen to, so I’ll indulge you. What the fuck is tantric goalkeeping?”

“It’s a holistic system of goalkeeping that involves a physical and spiritual union between Olly, the back four, the ball and the opponent’s attackers.”

“I was with you right up until the bit where you started talking. What is tantric goalkeeping?”

“Olly needs to try and unify with the universe and see that it’s not about him stopping the ball. It’s about him forgiving the ball. It’s about him being the ball.”

“Right, right. And in practice how does that work?”

“He needs to start hugging the ball.”

THURSDAY

We had the bear for 48 hours. Two days, two nights. It was enough.

I personally blame Beverly Instagram, that’s not her real name, but everything she does gets filtered through that bloody site and consumed by a ridiculous number of followers who all fawn over the lifestyle she presents. They had the bear for the same length of time and naturally turned his stay into an outrageous lifestyle brag. The bear went shopping for diamonds and got a small diamond stud bracelet which it came back to school with in his little blue backpack. The bear had a Michelin star meal. The bear watched a football match from a padded, leather seat, safely enclosed from the standard fans in the rain.

In every image she’d dressed the setting perfectly so that the bear looked smart and desirable. Say what you like about the woman, but anyone who can make you jealous of a bear has some kind of genius. The school mums’ WhatsApp group cooed appreciatively and said, “Lucky bear!” and “Wish I was him!”, but on all the sub-groups that existed under the main school group minus the insufferables we shared our real feelings. Kim said: “Fuck me ragged, can’t she get enough of showing off what she’s doing. I’d love to know what really went on.” And I couldn’t help but think, yeah – me too.

Sam told me we had the bear a week before he arrived. That gave me just five days to plan. I bought the equipment from a part of the internet that you’d need a decent VPN even just to think about. I paid double for speedy delivery and was relieved when an anonymous brown box turned up in our parcel storage box within two days. I felt nervous as I unboxed it. Was this insane? Was it illegal? I thought back through how it could be traced back to me. It would broadcast the signals to a fixed IP which you could only access if you had the password, and I wasn’t linked to any of the technology or the website. It was untraceable.

When the bear came to stay at ours he did normal stuff. We went for a walk and there was a photo of him riding on my Sam’s shoulders, she was laughing as he covered her eyes. We went for a swim and he sat on the side wearing goggles, wrapped in a towel. He had a curry. I posted the photos to the WhatsApp group and laughed about how it was a bit of a step down from the time he’d spent with Beverly Instagram. The group laughed and said it looked like a fun time.

It was fun. Especially unstitching him and fastening the tiny microphone behind one eye and the camera behind the other. After I carefully re-stitched him you couldn’t feel any unusual bumps or lumps. And on his last day with us I checked the signal. He was broadcasting perfectly. I wonder what this bear will really see and hear when his hosts aren’t aware he’s watching. Let’s see.  

FRIDAY

The smell of onions frying rises from the pan and slowly atomises its way through the floorboards, plasterwork and paint and reaches the nostrils of Karen as she lies on the floor. There is just enough brain activity that she drools and it moistens the corner of her mouth and runs up her cheek. It builds into a pool and the weight of saliva reaches critical mass and a string forms between her cheek and the floor.

The spider scuttles around the droplet and follows the outline of this shape on the floor. It traces the profile of Karen’s nose, forehead and browline and across the spill of brown hair on the floor. It also creeps around the pool of sticky red blood that rises from her head like a thought bubble. It changes tack and walks into the gap under the dishwasher.

The sound of the onions fritzing in the pan is faintly audible. The louder noise is the singing. It’s from The Muppets. Manah Manah. Doo doo dee doo doo. Manah Manah doo doo doo doo. Karen’s eyes are blank but even so they register the frog sitting on the kitchen bin. Manah manah doo doo dee doo doo. Manah Man-

Book Club Discussion Topics for Before and After

WARNING: As you might expect this post contains a number of spoilers for Before and After.

You’d be well-advised to go and read the book first. Or, form a book club, inveigle your way into the presidential position and then insist on all the members reading and enjoying Before and After.

If you don’t belong to a book club and you’d like to drink wine and talk too loudly about Before and After then jump into the comments and say your piece, just remember ALL CAPS IS SHOUTING.

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What songs did the book make you think of? As a bonus, why not add your own tracks to this collaborative Spotify playlist or just have a listen. Some of the tracks were what I was listening to when I wrote the book (especially Alexandra Streliski, John Moreland and The Gloaming) and others have been suggested by readers and book clubs! Add your own!

What do you think the wraths signify in the book? Do you feel any sense of sympathy for them? What do you think caused the change in the world?

How did the style of the book going back and forth in time change your opinion of what was happening?

What genre category should Before and After be in?

Why did Ben have such a problem with his weight and what would have helped him to change?

What do you think happens next?

Some readers have suggested that Brown was a continuation of Anne (Ben’s mum)’s love for Ben – do you agree? If not what was Brown’s role in the book?

Could you imagine staying inside your house for nine years? How would you pass the time?

What was your favourite quote or passage from the book? Did you highlight any passages as you read?

Would you read other books in this genre?

Can you understand the relationship that Ben has with Helen? Why couldn’t Ben face the prospect of moving to America with her?

Did the book give you an insight into the sort of issues that people of Ben’s size face? In 2016 nearly two billion adults in the world were overweight or obese – what could they get from reading Before and After?

What did you think of the ending? If you could have changed one thing about the book what would you change?

Ben says that he prayed for God to save him and he did – what role do you think religion and faith played in the story?

Who should read this book?

What’s your Bourbon biscuit?

Starter for Ten – w/c 24-2-20

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up and blank pages are not allowed – if all else fails type out song lyrics. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold!

Suckage often occurs. Wednesday’s is best this week…

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MONDAY

W: What is your problem?

M: I was waiting to pull into that space. You already had a space, so move back.

W: Why should I? There was no one in the space so I pulled into it. I can see now you were looking at moving into that space, but I did first.

M: It was mine.

W: If it was yours then I would have crashed into you, you arsehole.

M: Lovely attitude you’ve got. Do you talk to your husband like that?

W: Did you talk to your ex-wife like that?

M: Jokes on you, I’m not divorced.

W: Good things come to those who wait.

M: Listen, just give me that space back.

W: Why?

M: Because it’s the one that I was waiting to pull into!

W: There’s loads of space.

M: Yeah, but I want to go there.

W: As we’ve already established, you clearly didn’t have the space in the first place, otherwise I’d currently be parked on top of your head – which is an attractive thought right at the moment.

M: Oh so you’re threatening me now? Did you hear that mate?

S: What’s that?

M: Did you hear what she said about driving into my face?

W: I didn’t say that – I pointed out that it wasn’t “your space” because I was in it first.

M: That’s not the point!

B: Mum! Dad! Why can’t you just enjoy the dodgems like any other normal people?

TUESDAY

There’s a bad energy in the room. Jokes that would usually land are falling flat. He’s hoping that it’s something to do with this fucking mouth ulcer. Every time his tongue probes a certain point on his inside lip it stings and his attention is momentarily distracted. He’s changed his delivery ever-so minutely and it’s enough to screw his timing.

But he’s experienced, he’s been doing stand-up a long time and he knows enough to sell the lines with physical movements. His arm movements become bigger and his hands start to push the punchlines; after twenty minutes his face muscles are exhausted because he’s pantomiming the fuck out of the evening.

“I’m not one of those self-hating Jews,” he says and he realises that the word “Jews” is the perfect storm for this ulcer – the pursing of the lips for the J and the little thrust of the tongue for the S antagonise it perfectly and he winces. He notices a lady react to the wince and pushes quickly on. “My mother does that for me.”

A small laugh – maybe a 5. That line is usually a solid 7 out of 10 laugh and it allows him to build from it, this section is going to be tough. Mentally he computes how well this section would deliver if he had to prune the word Jews out of it. Somehow even thinking the word makes his lip wince – he bails.

“But enough about Je-ow the adherents of the Hebrew faith, let’s talk about…”

WEDNESDAY

The mouse crashed through a pile of leaf mould, scattering fragments in the air and skittered on the wet gravel. He turned hard right and ploughed again through the deep piles of oak leaves that sat on the road. The cat sprang and landed on the pile, padding at the various movements with his claws, thrusting into where he hoped the mouse would be. A noise over on the right alerted the cat that he had miscalculated and he tore through the leaves, swiping clusters of them to one side in the hope of revealing the small, damp creature. It would make no more than a mouthful, but this was about more than hunger now – it was about humiliation. The cat felt it and longed to inflict it.

The cat approached the trunk of the tree and swished at the remaining leaves. The mouse scuttled quickly around the edge of the trunk, a fraction too slow to stop the cat from driving the claws of its right paw through the bed of its tail. It peeped with anxiety and pain and the cat reveled in the moment. The chase was beautiful but the kill was art – first a wound to ensure that any subsequent chase would be very one-sided. Then a parody of the morning’s back and forth, to rehearse for the next and to celebrate the kill. Then a small meal – it’s body and innards, leaving the spine and skull for the birds.

He drove his claw in further and the mouse peeped again and shook. It shivered and looked up just in time to see the bulldog tiptoeing up behind the cat, with the largest metal skillet the mouse had ever seen, raised over its head.  

THURSDAY

There’s something really satisfying about pouring sugar into a container. Opening the folds of a large packet of sugar and tipping it into the caddy that will be its home. In part this is because the sugar is, at this stage, pristine white and is yet to accumulate the mysterious brown flecks that characterise the look of latter-stage sugar caddy sugar. You can kid yourself that this time you’ll keep to the rules, it will be dry teaspoons only that will be used. But really, who can be bothered to get a spoon to fish out the tea bag from the cup and another spoon to get the sugar. That’s where the brown flecks come from, crystallised drops of tea.

The other thing that’s nice about tipping the sugar into the caddy is the aesthetic of it. It whooshes out and builds into a peak in the centre which a quick nudge on the caddy will flatten. The grains of sugar behave according to some laws of fluids, in the same way that you get waves in banks of sand. Enough atoms of sugar are pushed into the atmosphere to sweeten the very air. The echoing caddy soon takes on a deeper sound as the weight of material builds. The entire bag fits in and means that you won’t have to fold the bag over and keep yet another scrag end of a bag in the cupboard with the odds and sods of flours and powders.

The lid sits snug on the container, a rubber seal keeping the contents pristine – a new hope that this time it will be better and that the area around the kettle will not attract chaos. This time it will all work out.

FRIDAY

Afternoon tea? A four tier platter of sandwiches, cakes, petits fours, a glass of champagne, a vole and a pot of perfectly-brewed tea. All served by a waiter who is so smart he could be off to a wedding and he’s wearing white gloves.

Yes that sounds lovely. I’m wondering though if you’d accept some feedback?

It’s the vole, isn’t it.

It is the vole, yes.

It’s an outlier, isn’t it.

I’m not sure I’d even describe it as an outlier, I’d simply say it’s an irrelevance. You’ve done really well with the rest of the offer – the good, the drinks, the service. I’m just not sure what a woodland creature adds to the ensemble.

On the first week you said that we needed a USP. I looked it up when I got home and it means Unique. A Unique Selling Point.

That’s right.

None of the other hotels do a vole with their afternoon tea.

Right.

It’s unique.

Right.

I googled it, there is no other hotel anywhere in the world that offers voles. The niche is entirely empty.

Right. Let’s for the moment establish that the vole provides the U in this situation.

It’s Unique.

Right. What I think you might want to ponder on is whether this same element brings the S.

The Selling.

Yes.

Oh.

That’s right. If I compared offerings between your hotel and the one next door would the vole raise an eyebrow? Certainly. Would it get me through the doors? No.

Oh.

How far have you gone with the marketing?

Not far. Barely anywhere.

That’s good.

Just a banner.

OK, well that can be removed.

And a thing in the paper.

Which paper?

All of them.

Anythi-

A skywriter. I’ve renamed the business to The Voletel.

Anyt-

And I’ve ordered fifteen thousand voles. And employed a vole handler.

Why?

I thought people might want to choose their vole from a bucket of live ones. Like lobsters.

Book Readings Over The Phone: The Verdict

As you might remember, I recently posted an offer that I was going to invite readers to register for a free book reading over the phone. Don’t worry, it’s not finished – you can still book in for me to read to you here. I posted that on the 17th January and it’s been something of a surprise success, with about 60 readings taking place since then. On one day I did six readings and read to people from New Jersey and Australia.

Valuable lesson: always check that your mobile phone contract covers overseas calls. Mine didn’t…

In part the popularity of the experiment has been because I got some coverage from The Telegraph and from Popbitch, who featured it in their newsletter, which goes out to about 250,000 people every week. Frustrating to see that once again I get second billing to Donald Trump’s badger obssession.

The aim of this post is really just to outline what I’ve learned about the process, so that if other writers were thinking of doing it they might learn from some of the pot-holes I hit and, hopefully, avoid them. I’m also keen if anyone has any suggestions and feedback on the idea, then fire your thoughts at me in the comments or on Facebook or Twitter – this whole thing is very much a work-in-progress.

First thing I would say to anyone considering doing this is absolutely go for it. Do it. Don’t think about it. Don’t worry about getting it wrong. Just put yourself out there. You might get NO ONE taking you up on the offer, but so what – it’s just a fun project. Do it. Do it now. Set it up and do it. Stop thinking.

Absolutely, I’ve been nervous about how a reading would go sometimes, but I can honestly say that I’ve got something positive out of every single experience. I also estimate that about 90% of the listeners went on to buy the book. This isn’t primarily a marketing exercise, but it’s nice to know that it does work on that level. The best thing for me about the process is that there’s something so exciting about connecting directly with a reader through your story. It’s fascinating to hear them listening and then ask about what happens next – it validates a very real need to ensure that readers are actually excited by the book.

On a practical basis it’s really important to prepare for every reading. That sounds obvious, but it’s not just a case of getting organised. There’s a couple of angles that need thought and effort.

Technology: does your phone have enough battery? Are you in a space where you will get good signal and have a quiet background (and not sitting in the car like I was for one reading). Do you have a copy of the book?! I found it helped to have a reading copy which I could mark up with any notes or exclamations, to ensure I hit the right emphasis. I usually put my phone on speaker and sit it on a pint glass, which means that when I’m sitting at my desk, I can lean in really close and maximise the volume. It also frees up both hands, so I can hold the book and make any notes as I go.

Research: I ask people when they book in to tell me three things about themselves and I’ve been really surprised by how revealing people have been in these answers. It’s perhaps a sign that they recognise that I’m exposing something of myself to them (don’t worry, it’s not a video call) and they feel comfortable doing that too. Maybe it’s just a truth that when you ask people directly about themselves they often answer without much artifice. Those bits of information are useful for us to establish a rapport when we chat. I have to remind myself as I do more of these readings, that although this is becoming more normal to me, it’s potentially a pretty weird thing for them to be on the receiving end of. Therefore I like to make sure they’re relaxed and happy.

As part of this research, there are various questions that I ask before I begin a reading, such as “what do you know about the book?” More than I thought have actually read it and some have a specific section they want me to read, in which case I do that – this is their experience and they should get what they want out of it. Or if they’ve never heard of it before I give a very simple explanation of the book in a few sentences and then read them the first chapter. I want the book to stand on its own, rather than me issuing lengthy explanations and disclaimers. In theory, that should pull them into the book and hopefully make them want to know more.

I also ask if they’re ok with profanity – I learned the importance of that the hard way after I received the telephonic equivalent of a Hard Stare from one listener, after I casually started effing and jeffing. I also like to ask what sort of things they usually read, just because it’s interesting and I’ve got some good tips about books that I might like to read from the discussions! Finally, I ask them if they’re sitting comfortably, and tell them that if they want to interrupt me at any point then just shout and don’t feel bad about it. There have been a few guest appearances from Amazon delivery drivers and I wouldn’t want listeners thinking they can’t interrupt or tell me to shut up if they need a wee.

Finally, and perhaps the most unexpected part of the experience for me, there’s an emotional aspect to reading to people. As mentioned above – reading my book to people does put me out there and it takes some mental preparation to be ok with that. They might laugh in odd places, or they might be effected emotionally by what I’ve read them. They might hate it, or worse still, feel ambivalent towards it. I feel like it’s important to take a few minutes to make sure both reader and listener have got something out of the experience and offer them the opportunity to ask questions, or talk about what they heard. They might not want to, or I might have a question for them.

I will say that overall reading to people leaves me with a sense of calm and happiness. The love of telling people a story is what authors get involved in this business for, and reading it straight into a willing earhole is about as direct a hit of that experience as you can get. Often I’m left wanting to read them more, but I appreciate that people have their own lives and the world can’t just stop because I’ve written a book. Sadly.

From a practical point of view I’ve used YouCanBookMe to organise bookings and readings, which is about as straight-forward a platform as you could hope to get. I just use their free plan which does everything I need it to. Vitally, it cross-checks with your Google Calendar and ensures that you aren’t double-booking yourself. I was going to walk through the settings, but mostly it’s just a case of following the set-up wizard and deciding how many appointments you want to set per day and what duration they should be. You can then set up notifications before it starts. I’ve also set it so that it sends them an SMS after the reading to give them a link to the book (a small charge applies to each SMS sent) and where they can sign up for more info about me.

If you want to give this a go for yourself then give me a shout if you get stuck and I’ll gladly help set it up for you. And of course – if you’d like to book in a reading then give it a go, it’s not nearly as weird as you might think – unless you want me to make it weird?

Before and After: The Cover Story

Hello, I’m Yo, one half of design consultancy VS+YO. I created the cover for Before and After and Shan asked me to tell you the story of how we made it.

Before we get started, a warning, this blog post contains spoilers! If you don’t want to know what happens in the book, go get it from the kindle store before you read this, go!

Shan and I have worked together for over 18 years and I think we have only met in real life four times. I love working with him for multiple reasons [Chief among these being that we only meet in person once every 4.5 years – Shan].

Firstly, he gives me compliments like this:

But more importantly we share the same values when it comes to design and creating.

We also understand that we are both focused on making things better, which is why when we share ideas we are completely honest with each other. And why, when Shan told me that the cover was the most important thing to the success of any book and if his failed to sell it would be all my fault, I laughed. No pressure then!

The process I followed for creating the book cover was the same as I would follow for any design project. At each stage Shan had the opportunity to input and feedback which meant that the project is collaborative and that he thinks that all of the design was his idea.

Step 1 – The brief

We kicked off project with a call where I asked lots of questions to get a clear understanding of what Shan was looking for. Here are my notes of what he told me:

I then asked for a draft of the blurb that would feature with the book so that I could get an idea of what Shan was going to reveal up front and what he wanted to be a surprise. You can read the blurb here.

I had an idea I wanted to put something on the cover that represented one thing when you first saw it and then had another meaning after you have read the book.

Shan had lots of ideas for the cover, including making a hybrid illustration, creating an optical illusion where some people might see a fat man other would see a dog and a design with a fat superhero wearing a cape.

Emma, Shan’s wife, also had an idea which Shan send in a video. This made my day:

I had lots to go on, but before started any design I wanted to experience the book and understand the key themes. I also wanted to see the competition to learn who we were competing with and how they approached standing out in a crowded market place.


Step 2 – Research

I read the book, every word.

Shan asked if I would send feedback, I sent him notes after I had read each chapter. Reading the book really helped me to understand the key themes and get ideas for visuals that would work on the cover. It also gave me an understanding of the experience of the book. I loved it! It made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions and cry once too.

Next, I researched the marketplace and the competition. Looking at the sci fi and post apocalyptic section of the amazon kindle store was overwhelming. There are so many titles! Our cover would definitely need to stand out and the design would have to work at multiple sizes and in greyscale as well as in full colour.

I had a call with Shan to discuss what I had learned. We looked at examples and discussed typography, colours and tone, what he liked and what he didn’t. This helped us to realise that a traditional cover design was not what we were going to create. A lone figure in front of burning buildings was out. Simple illustration was a possibility. We agreed the goal of the design would be to make it stand out and to get a reader curious enough to read the blurb.


Step 3 – Concept

Now I had all of the information I needed to get started, it was time to focus on ideas.

My ideas always start as words. They allow me to get ideas out quickly and not get caught up in how it will look.

To get started, I do a brain dump of everything I can think of in five minutes. From this quick, simple exercise I get a feeling for what excites me and what sparks visual ideas. I pay attention to words that can be connected and try combinations of words for ideas, with the aim of creating something unique and unexpected.

Then I move on to moodboards with photography and type. As a book cover is quite a straightforward design, I also mocked up some covers so that Shan could see the cover name in action and get a feel for how it could work. I showed the covers both large and as small versions in both colour greyscale to replicate how they could be viewed in the kindle store. Check out of the concepts we explored in this gif:

This stage is quick and the moodboards are designed to explore ideas, not necessarily a finished style. That comes after a direction has been agreed.

All concepts were presented to Shan on a video call where I explained the thinking behind each. We discussed each one taking into account how we could create a design that he could completely own without having to pay royalties on images. The presentation was then emailed so that he could think over the options.

The design that we were both really excited about and agreed represented the key themes was the biscuit concept. It nailed it on many levels. It was simple. It stood out. It would appeal to a mass audience. It made you curious, what was this biscuit book about? We both felt this was the right direction, it just needed more development.

We also agreed the book needed a shorter name, something more memorable, and that the biscuit should have a message on it.

Boom! The design became instantly more memorable. And it satisfied my need to create a design that was timeless and that would stand out in the kindle store.
Shan and I were very excited, this was the one to develop to design.


Step 4 – Design

We wanted an original photo to work with so that we owned the rights and wouldn’t have to pay for a licence or royalties to use it. I’m not a photographer but as the book was digital and we were working to a budget I took the photos myself with my smartphone. I went on a search for the perfect bourbon (Waitrose essentials turned out to look the most like a bourbon and work the best. Fox’s bourbons in comparison looked like dog biscuits which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for this book).

My hubby, Tom, helped with the photography (and eating the bisuits). He noticed that one was broken and said it could be cool even though he had no idea why we were taking photos of biscuits.

I loved it! The idea of the biscuit being imperfect was like the main character Ben with his flaws, as if he had nibbled a little bit off hoping no-one would notice. The piece missing could also represent the part of his leg he has to remove. This was the one!
[I never mentioned this before but one of the things I got from that is that there’s an old joke about the fact that broken biscuits have no calories, so it’s even smarter than you thought! – Shan]

As the cover image was going to appear as if it was out of context in the kindle store I felt it needed a line to explain what the book was about. I wrote one and added to the top. Then I experimented with the layout, see some of the versions in this gif:

Shan loved the big biscuit with the book title on it and the additional line. He is feeling confident and decided to ask a small trusted group to feedback on the cover.

Usually when working on a project, I ask that all decision makers are present for the first stages. It helps to get everyone on the same page.

When new people are brought into the process cold and haven’t seen the work behind a design there can be a tendency for things to get off track and this can add time and cost to the project.

We shared the design process to date and we had a winner! The feedback was to tweak to the type and I needed to have the title properly photoshopped on to the biscuit and we would be good to go.

Until Shan posted the cover in a facebook group and asked over 9.1k people for their feedback. [Sorry. – Shan]

There was a lot feedback!
A lot of positives and some negatives too.

  • It didn’t look like fiction.
  • American’s didn’t recognise the biscuit.
  • It didn’t look like it fitted in the post-apocalyptic genre.

When dealing with feedback from with multiple individuals I aim to focus on the problem we are solving and keep bringing it back to what is important. Shan is very good at filtering out the noise and focusing on what is important.

Shan and I discussed the feedback in detail. Did these things matter? What was most important to us and to the viewer? What emotional reaction were we looking for?

We decided to give the cover design one final push to see if adding a post apocalyptic element to our biscuit cover would work.

I created some quick mock-ups, I tried adding biscuit crumbs coloured red so that at a glance it looked like blood splatter.
I added a target to communicate weight loss but that would also look like a scope, which also features in the book. At the request of Shan, I experimented with adding a mad sci-fi colour even though we knew the cover would often appear in greyscale.
I even tried adding a background of burning buildings, the cliche we originally agreed to avoid.

Sometimes, you have to try things to see them to confirm they don’t work.

These quick mock-ups proved that combining an extra element with the biscuit concept would require a lot more time and budget to get it right. And we would likely need to pay for photography or involve an illustrator.

We had two options, either to stick to our gut and go for the biscuit or continue to develop.

We realised something important.
We didn’t care that it didn’t look like traditional fiction.
We didn’t want it to look like it fitted in the post-apocalyptic genre.

We both loved the cover as it was.

We went back to the original with some final typographic tweaks to make the cover line and author name bigger as per the facebook feedback.

The cover now ticked all of the boxes we set out to:

  • It stands out
  • It is memorable
  • It makes you feel something
    • curious, what’s a book like that doing here?
    • hungry, mmm… biscuits
    • nostalgic, I haven’t had a bourbon in ages
  • And it motivates you to click to find out more.

Whether you love or hate the cover, the book is awesome. It’s not just for those who love end of the world, sci-fi. It’s for people who love an adventure, root for the underdog and like biscuits.


Go to the kindle store and download the book to discover why the bourbon biscuit is on the cover.

OK, Sminsel – a story about a story that I wrote for you as a Christmas gift

You know when they say that it’s the thought that counts? Yeah, well, I had a thought about writing y’all a short story to wish you Happy Christmas. I discussed it with one of my story advisors (Frank, aged 9) and he liked it well enough, so yesterday I powered through it and churned that sucker out. 2,400 words.

OH. HOLY. NIGHT. IT. SUCKED.

In nearly the first paragraph the concept fell apart. The characters were loathsome. It became ideologically perilous. The sentences themselves were fraught with rusty jagged edges that caught your jumper as you walked past them.

It stank.

I’m currently in the phase of processing this that therapists call “dangerously raw”. I splurged out the details on Twitter, so I’m going to link the tweets in here. This is solely so I don’t have to write the suckiness out again. Anyway, Happy Christmas readers.

https://twitter.com/nervouscrying/status/1206811316612206593

A footnote because these things gnaw at me. I thought reticulated meant when a creature is segmented like a worm or snake and it can move through a wave like process of shuffling each segment. I was wrong, I’m not sure that has a name – please let me know if I’m wrong here too. Reticulated is the name of a pattern where a network is created by lines. Think of a python or squinting at the motorway network map. As you were.

Three Weeks To Publication. Emphasis on eeks.

In my journey towards publishing Before and After, I’ve been learning a lot about the self-publishing process, with the help of the rather impressive guys over at a company called Socciones. They support Indie Authors to get their books onto Amazon. Indie Authors is the sexy, preferred term rather than self-published authors, because that has too much baggage and suggests a Chartered Accountant wondering why no one will publish his memoirs about spreadsheets.

I’m sure they wouldn’t object to my saying that it’s not actually impossible to do the work yourself, but there was quite a lot to do in a short space of time so I thought I’d recruit some help. They were friendly and helpful to me on Twitter and so I thought I’d go with them. So far, so excellent.

The stuff that they’re doing is mostly around the admin of the book. There’s typesetting the manuscript. This is where you take the Word document and change it into a file that Kindle readers know how it should be displayed. There are some basic formatting choices but this is more for the print-on-demand paperback than for the Kindle version, as readers can obviously change font size and line spacing themselves. I tend to have my Kindle on settings so large that you could read over my shoulder from a different county, so as ever with design stuff I will defer to the opinions of others.

They are also setting up an Amazon ads page so that I can play with that and see if I can get a reasonable return on putting out little ads on Amazon.

The idea is that if I can figure out what sort of keywords my readers would be typing in then I can pay X pence per click and have my book appear at the top of their search results. I’ve been researching and it seems to me that possible keywords are:

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Morbid obesity
  • Dog ownership
  • Living like a hermit
  • Rage
  • Drones
  • Violent post-apocalyptic hellscape

Best-seller charts here we come!

I’m also working with my good friend Iven Gilmore to make a short book trailer for Before and After. I made the cardinal sin of briefing quite a complex and involved trailer, which Iven then dutifully went and started to make only for me to realise that it wouldn’t work, thus undoing all of his good work. Bad Shanahan, sorry Iven.

Other than that the book has now gone out to the ARC team. This handy little initialism stands for Advanced Reader Copy. This is where you hone, buff and polish your manuscript and send it out to very kind people who agree to read it and give you feedback on it. Their role isn’t to spot typos and spelling errors, although depressingly it seems they often do that too. Ideally, when the book comes out they’ll be in a position to review it, so that people wondering if they should buy the book will have an idea of what people think.

It’s three weeks today that the book is launched. That seems surreal. I’m in a weird space with it now. I feel sickened by it, but also there’s a deep connection of love to it. It’s like those awful marriages that end up with husband and wife stepping pointedly around each other in the kitchen, one waiting to get to the cutlery drawer, while the other waits for their toast to pop up. No, carry on. No, I’ll move. It’s fine. For clarity, our toaster is next to the cutlery drawer but Em would just push me out of the way in the above scenario.

I’m not saying I hate the book – I really don’t. I think it’s just part of this weird relationship you have with an idea, where it first blows your socks off and unrolls the turn-ups from your trousers. Over time, that novelty necessarily wears off because you spend so long shaping the idea and working with the characters. By the end you’re not best-placed to have any sense of the thing’s innate value because it seems old and all you spot are the scratches. Man, that’s depressing, no wonder arty types drink so much. Does make you wonder if Donatello spent a few hours after knocking David out thinking, “I reckon I could have done his knob better. Oh well, fuck it.”

The pre-sale page of the book on Amazon should go up hopefully by Wednesday and I’ve got some PR going out this week too. Not sure what will come of it but it’s nice to be working on something concrete. Well, that and starting to wonder what the next book will be…

Three weeks. Cripes.

Please help me pick a tagline for my book

So…I re-read the book while we were away at half-term and it turns out that I’m actually pretty proud of it. I don’t know if it has artistic merit exactly, but it talks about some things that matter to me, I think it’s a fun read and I’d like to share it with people. I’ve also had the early beta reader feedback which has been encouraging and given me lots to work on next. So, full steam ahead!

That means that in the coming weeks I’ll probably be asking you your opinion on various aspects of the book, from the cover to the inevitably horrible author photograph (still think I might go with this one…)

The first thing I’d like to get your thoughts on is the tagline which designer Yo is thinking about adding to the front cover. Now, I know you probably haven’t read the book at the moment (more on that coming in a later post) but which of these taglines would tempt you to read a book by a random author with a publicity headshot like that?

Vote now or forever hold your peace!

Before and After: The Publishing vs Self-Publishing Debate

I’ve been having the conversation around publishing vs self-publishing with a lot of different people recently. To those who aren’t au fait with the publishing world there’s often real surprise, especially around the earnings details, so I thought I’d put together a post about my current thinking in case it helps anyone else and to explain my current quandary.

First a bit of background. In total, so far, I’ve published three books. Two of those – the Not Going to Uni Guide and the MAN v FAT Weight Loss Manual were published in conventional ways i.e. with a publisher (Pearson and then Headline) who paid me an advance to write the book and then I negotiated a percentage of future book royalties for when I’d “earned out” my advance. So in theory when you’ve earned beyond your advance you start receiving a percentage of the retail price per book. Typically, this can be anywhere from 5%-15% depending on the skills of your agent and how much clout you have at the negotiation phase. The publisher receives the rest.

The other book that I did was the Staggered Groom Guide. That was self-published. We paid to have about 5,000 copies printed (which cost around £3k) and then listed them on Amazon, through the I Am Staggered site and via affiliates. We held all the stock and then posted them out whenever an order came through. The finances for that were simpler, we had production costs (design, copy, printing, postage) and anything that was left over from the retail price was revenue. I think typically it ended up being about a fiver per book. In the end I think we had a box or two left, so we more or less sold out. We considered doing a second print run but by that point we’d started to think about selling Staggered so it wasn’t really on the cards.

On the plus side of working with a publisher there is undoubtedly the consideration of ego. Being published, getting an advance, working with an agent all sounds incredible, especially to anyone who has always dreamed of being a writer – it’s the way it’s supposed to happen. Plus, saying “I’ve got a meeting with my publisher on Monday” is never not going to sound cool. Conversely, you mention self-publishing and your mind drifts towards people writing endless fantasy epics that merge the worlds of Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey. There has been some improvement in recent years with the breakout success of self-published efforts like The Martian, but it still has the stigma of vanity project to it.

In theory, publishers also have a PR network going for them that will boost the sales of your book and give you insights into getting the biggest readership for your book. There’s also the simple fact that they’re taking the risk. If your book doesn’t sell then you’re sat on the advance and the publisher is out of pocket.

On the negative side of working with a publisher is pretty much everything else. I was surprised on both occasions just how little the publisher actually did compared to my expectations. Once the book was agreed it pretty much came back to being my responsibility. Because they want as much time as possible to look at marketing the book, they want the finished manuscript as soon as possible. I think I had four weeks for the Not Going To Uni book (around 50k words) and 7 weeks for the MAN v FAT book (60k words). I’m not sure why but I always thought that the actual process of completing the book would be more of a collaborative process where I would bring ideas/chapters/suggestions and the publisher would use their experience to help shape things. As it was, more or less everything was left to me. That’s great in one way, but I’d expected more.

The other real surprise was my misconception that the publishers would take the lead on the marketing of the books. Not so. You’ll notice that the majority of books published these days are connected to authors or organisations who have a significant online following, whether it’s Mrs Hinch, A.N. Other YouTuber or MAN v FAT – publishers essentially bank on you being able to sell your book to your existing readership. They use that as the break-even audience and if your book expands beyond that, then great. If not, then they’ve not risked too much. To be fair, that makes sense. As stated, they’re taking the risk by putting up the advance, so naturally they want to ameliorate that risk by going for someone with an existing readership.

Since I self-published the Staggered Groom Guide by printing it and posting them out to purchasers another player has entered the arena: Kindle Direct Publishing. Essentially, self-publishing onto KDP means that your book can be on Amazon and available as a print-on-demand product (i.e. they don’t print a load of books, they just print a physical copy every time someone orders one) for free. Yep, free.

The real eye-opener with KDP is that depending on what the price of your book is then you would make around 70% of the retail price. A typical Kindle book price would be around £3, which means you’d take just over £2 of that. The book also lists on Amazon and makes it easy for anyone around the world to buy your book. Of course, it does potentially lock out anyone who reads on other e-readers (kobo, etc), but there are options within KDP where you can also sell via your own site and through other e-tailers. I’ll hold my hands up here and say that’s something I need to look into a bit more.

I think the crux of the question is that if the majority of work falls on your shoulders when working with a traditional publisher, and you receive a commensurately smaller slice of the pie – why would you bother? Does my fragile ego really need that much underpinning? I should issue a hearty disclaimer here and say that that your mileage may vary with a publisher. It could be that I should have been better informed of the expectations with previous books. Or it could be that publishers do a lot more work with other authors, I don’t know. However, that’s my experience in a nutshell.

So for now, the quandary I have is whether I should even bother to approach publishers at all for Before and After? After a lot of reflection I think I’m going to ignore them entirely and just focus on self-publishing. Hopefully, I’m going to be writing a lot more books in the future and I think the joy of getting a book out to readers in the way that I want to, marketed in the way I think it should be is just too tempting. I have a real advantage in that I already have a brilliant team to work with who can help me design and create the best possible version of this book that I can. Plus, if I can retain a greater percentage of the retail price then over time it makes more business sense.

The clincher is the fact that if the book’s out there and gets a good reception then there’s nothing to stop me approaching a traditional publisher (shortly after amending this blog post to say how much I love working with publishers) and seeing if I can get a deal on the basis of the success of the self-publishing. So, onwards, to researching how to make self-publishing work!