Crafting words in a cupboard

From coffee shops to trains and sun loungers, my favourite places to write are possibly not quite what you’d expect.

My first novel was written in a cupboard. No seriously. At least, part of it was, anyway.

I’d already written some of the book. Maybe a quarter of the first draft. It had been my ambition to write a novel for some years. I’d tinkered with short stories. I’d started first drafts of several different books, never really getting beyond the first chapter. And then I had the idea for my first novel.

Finding a place to write

At the same time, my girlfriend (now my wife) and I, decided to move in together. We couldn’t afford to rent more than a one-bedroom flat. Certainly no budget for a big house with a purpose-built study. However, we found a flat with a strangely large cupboard. On seeing it, I remember remarking, “I reckon I could get a desk in there.” The Lettings Agent laughed. Little did she know.

So, we moved in. I managed to (just about) wedge a desk and chair in the cupboard. And with me in there too, the door only just closed.

It was dark. Airless. No windows and slightly damp. Very hot in the summer and freezing in the winter. But it was my tiny cupboard office and I spent many happy hours in there, typing away and crafting several drafts of my first book, The Unexpected Vacation of George Thring. And when I got my first publishing deal, the story of my cupboard even made the local paper. We stayed in that flat for 5 years, and during that time, I wrote much of my second book, Killing Dylan, in the cupboard, too.

More space to work

Eventually we moved out of that flat and bought a house with more rooms. So, now I have the luxury of writing in my own office (well, half of the spare bedroom). I have a new writing desk. I have a board up on the wall to pin ideas to. And I usually cover the walls, doors and any clear space with post-it notes, containing character details, plot points and a rough story structure.

The office has a lot more space. It even has a window and a radiator. It’s considerably more comfortable to work in and it’s where I wrote my third book, 46% Better Than Dave. But sometimes I still miss that cupboard.

Working on the go

While I like to have a dedicated place to work, you never quite know when the muse will strike, or a good idea will pop into your head. That’s why I tend to carry a notebook with me, so I can jot down ideas and write on the go. I’ve been known to write on the train, in the pub while waiting for people, in the hospital or doctor’s surgery, during my lunch break at work, on a sun lounger on holiday, on planes, and in many, many coffee shops.

Having a notebook in my pocket is also particularly handy when the wife insists on dragging me into town to do some shopping. I can usually leave her to it, sneak off to a coffee shop and do a bit of writing while I wait. Which leads me to…

You can’t beat a coffee shop

As I say, I’ve spent a lot of time writing in coffee shops. Either scribbling away in my notebook, or tapping away on my laptop. It’s a bit of a cliché I know (nicely observed by Family Guy). And you can barely walk into a Starbucks or Costa without seeing at least one person with a laptop. But I find it a very productive place to work. It’s good to get away from the quiet, still atmosphere of the house (and the wife who can’t help but interrupt me).

I like the buzz and energy of coffee shops. And they’re great places to people watch. I don’t go there looking for people to inspire characters, or listening in on people’s conversations. But you never know what you might see or hear that sparks a little nugget of thought that could lead to something in a book. And like Freddie Winters (the main character in Killing Dylan, who also writes in coffee shops), I like the coffee and the free WiFi.

So, when do I write?

I think any time is the right time to write. I find it’s good to have something of a routine. Setting aside a specific time each day to get my head down and craft some words, or just bash something out to increase the wordcount (both are equally as useful). For me, that time is the morning. I also have a day job, as a copywriter for a big Marketing/Advertising company. I spend all day writing something or other (from ebooks to blog posts, concepts, adverts… you name it), so I find that I’m a bit done with writing when I get home in the evening. Instead, I get up early in the morning, head into the office at home, and try to get at least an hour done before I get ready for work. Some mornings are more productive than others… depending how tired I am.

So, that’s where and when I write. If you’re a writer too, what’s your favourite place to work? Get in touch and let me know.

Bright sparks: Where I get my ideas for books

As an author, people often ask me where I get my ideas for books. Well, they come from all over. It could be a conversation with a friend, a TV show, another book or… just something that pops into my head. Some things inspire the main plot of the story. Other things give me ideas for character traits, dialogue, settings or subplots. And the ideas come from all over.

It starts with a thought…

My books always start with a simple spark of a thought. Something quirky or outlandish. A funny idea that I feel compelled to explore further. For my first novel, The Unexpected Vacation of George Thring, I had the idea of a man running away from home by accident. I wondered how that would be possible; where you’d run to and how you’d get there; and what would prevent you from simply going straight back home. I had a similar quirky thought at the centre of my second novel, Killing Dylan, but I won’t tell you what it is, or I’ll give the ending away.

For my new book, 46% Better Than Dave, I started with the idea of a man forced to live next door to himself – but a far better version of him. I wondered how that would make you feel, how you’d react to it, and how it would affect your life. It’s kind of an extreme version of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, and I had a lot of fun with it.

Things people tell me…

Often the stories people tell me will spark an idea, or give me a bit of extra detail to pepper into a story. In 46% Better Than Dave, the main character takes part in an extreme, Tough Mudder-style obstacle run. I’ve never done one of these myself. I’ve done a few 10k runs, so I had a little personal experience to base it on. But friends of mine have done these races, and their stories inspired parts of that chapter. Using their stories helped to strengthen mine and got me thinking about things that might not have occurred to me otherwise.

Things I read…

I’m often inspired by other authors and how they write. I also get ideas from other books I read. I’m not talking about plagiarism or ripping people off. It could be something a character does or says that sparks a thought. Or maybe I’ll read a book and wonder what if the author had gone in a different direction.

Things I watch…

Similarly, TV and movies are a great source of inspiration. With Killing Dylan, I knew I had a good idea at the centre, but I needed a character that could exist in a number of worlds to tie things together. I was inspired by one of my favourite shows, Castle, in which a successful crime novelist loves to solve crimes in real life. It’s basically an updated version of Murder She Wrote (so, reasonably well-worn territory). I thought it would be fun to spin this around and have a really unsuccessful novelist begrudgingly solving crimes and constantly whinging about it. And that’s how Freddie Winters came into existence.

Things that happen…

Just as crime writers are invariably inspired by gruesome real-life murders and crimes, I often get ideas from the news, or real things that I read about. I remember reading about a strange Elvis Presley Impersonators Convention that happens every year in a small town in Wales. It was so bizarre, and I loved the idea of it so much, I knew I had to use it somehow. It all fell into place in George Thring, when I thought about what sort of place the main character would accidentally run away to. And it gave me so much rich material for the story. So, the news is always full of inspiration.

Similarly, the idea for 46% Better Than Dave was partly based on a real thing that happened to a friend. He had an unusual surname, but bizarrely another customer at his opticians had the exact same name. And on a few occasions, they’d be given each other’s new glasses by mistake. The idea intrigued me enough that it sparked the inspiration for a whole book.

Things people suggest…

When people find out I’m a novelist, they often want to give me ideas for new books. I guess it’s like stand-up comedians, who have people offering them jokes after gigs. It’s always a lovely thought, but these ideas rarely make it into my stories. I did once receive a challenge from a friend, however, to feature a firewalk in a book. It took me a while to figure out how, but eventually I used it in 46% Better Than Dave. And it works well in the story.

Ideas that just appear…

Ideas just pop into my head, completely unexpectedly. And it happens at the strangest and most inconvenient of times. Quite often it’s in that short period when I go bed, before I fall asleep, and I jump up and write them down before I forget them. So, it’s always worth keeping a notebook by the bed. I also, bizarrely, get lots of ideas when I’m in the shower – but it’s not so easy to write them down.

So, where do I get my ideas from?

All over the place. The vast majority never make it any further than a single spark in my brain. But sometimes there’s enough there to make it into a whole book. Are you a writer too? If so, where do your ideas come from? Get in touch and let me know.

5 Books That Inspired Me

From literary fiction to quirky humour, crime novels and a few great anti-heroes, I’ve been inspired by so many different books over the years.

There’s an old adage that if you want to be a better writer, you need to read more. And, of course, it’s absolutely true. You need to read a lot. And you need to read quite widely. The great thing about reading different types of book, from different authors, is that you get to see what other people are doing. It exposes you to lots of different styles, themes and ways of writing. It broadens your horizons. It inspires. And by understanding how stories work, it helps you understand how to tell your own stories.

I try to read as much as possible. And I read quite a varied selection of books. Everything from crime novels to literary fiction, humourous fiction, biographies, and humourous crime fiction. A bit of historical fiction. Even the odd chick-lit, romantic comedy book. It has certainly helped to strengthen my own writing. And here are some of the books that have inspired me the over the years.

1. A Big Boy Did it and Ran Away by Christopher Brookmyre

I was first attracted to this book because of the quirky title. And I loved it. With a clever blend of humour, over-the-top crackpot criminals and an everyman protagonist caught up in the madness, it’s a hilarious read with a brilliantly daft plot. I’d read lots of crime fiction before, but this was the first time I’d read a crime book that was also really, really funny. I loved the way the story was told. And I loved the juxtaposition of mystery and intrigue with genuinely laugh-out-loud jokes.

As soon as I’d read it, I knew I wanted to create something equally daft, quirky, outlandish and funny. This book definitely inspired me to write my first book, The Unexpected Vacation of George Thring. I’ve read many of Brookmyre’s other books, and enjoyed the equally zany, funny plots.

2. Mystery Man by Colin Bateman

Mystery Man features one of Bateman’s best protagonists – The Bookseller with No Name – a strange, bad-tempered, neurotic bookshop owner who also solves crimes in his spare time. He’s a real anti-hero, has a bizarre take on the world and gets himself into lots of trouble. And the book is absolutely hilarious. Bateman has written lots of comedy-crime novels, but for me, this is his sharpest and funniest. I love the fact that his hero is someone who really doesn’t want to be a hero. In part, it inspired me to create my own anti-hero, Freddie Winters – the main character in my second book, Killing Dylan.

3. Care of Wooden Floors by Will Wiles

Calamity ensues for one poor man when tasked with taking care of a friend’s apartment. One small mishap leads to another, and another, until disastrous events are spiralling completely out of control. This is Will Wiles debut novel – beautifully written literary fiction with a dark, comic edge. It’s absolutely hilarious and sad in equal measure. There’s another old adage in writing that you have to torture your characters. This is a brilliant example, and the way Wiles mercilessly piles more and more pain upon his central character definitely inspired some of the anguish that Dave feels in 46% Better Than Dave.

4. The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Another very funny book (I think there might be a pattern here), this novel was an absolute smash success for author Jonas Jonasson. I loved the long title (something a lot of authors were doing at the time, myself included with my first book). I loved the bizarre story and outlandish characters. And I loved the blend of fiction and history, and how Jonasson puts his main character at the heart of some momentous historical events. Most of all, I really like the quirky set-up and the belligerent central character.

5. The Killing Floor by Lee Child

When I read the first of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books, I remember being instantly struck by the impact of his writing style. Short sentences. Perfectly placed and constructed. Machine gun rounds of thoughts. Packing pace and energy. And perfectly matching the brusque, logical, clinical nature of the lead character. Reacher is an incredibly engaging, intriguing and powerful character and Child captures his voice in every sentence. I’ve read all the Jack Reacher books now, and Child’s writing style has certainly made me think more about how I construct my own sentences.

Those are just some of the books that I’ve loved reading and that have really inspired me. Perhaps not quite the legendary literary tomes that others draw inspiration from, but these books have definitely helped me in my writing. There many others, of course, and I couldn’t go without mentioning: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence.

So, what books have you loved reading? And if you’re a writer too, what books have inspired you? Get in touch at and let me know.

10 (Hopefully Interesting) Things About Me

I recently wrote a handful of guest posts as part of a blog tour for my latest book. The posts featured on a number of book blogs and I thought I might as well post them here, too. So, I’ll stick one up every week. Here’s the first.

1. I’ve written about some pretty odd things

I’ve been a professional writer for 20 years. I started out writing for magazines, and I’ve had various other editorial jobs since then. I’ve written about everything from wacky sports to facilities management, industrial flooring, cloud computing, mobile phones, gadgets and even electricity pylons. And I once wrote an agony aunt column from the point of view of Elvis Presley’s ghost.

2. I wrote my first book in a cupboard

The first flat my wife and I rented together had a cupboard just big enough to fit a small desk. So, I quickly transformed it into the smallest office ever. I spent many hours in there, writing the majority of my first book, The Unexpected Vacation of George Thring and much of my second book, Killing Dylan. There were no windows, so it got very hot in the summer.

3. I do lots of reading with my ears

By which, of course, I mean that I listen to lots of audiobooks. I think there’s still a bit of a stigma about audiobooks (as if it’s not really reading), but I love them. They’re a great way to pass the time, especially during a long car journey or commute. And with a great narrator, the book really comes to life. One thing I don’t get, though – abridged versions. Why would you want a cut down version of the book? I want the whole thing!

4. I’ve been to Germany twice (and both times were weird)

A company once invited me to Frankfurt for a job interview – which I didn’t get. They flew me out there, the interview went pretty badly and then I flew home. I was literally only in the country for about four hours. The other time was when I was editor of the imaginatively title The Flooring Magazine (no prizes for guessing what it was about). I was flown out to Hamburg for a tour of a laminate flooring factory. I suspect I have yet to see the real beauty of the country.

5. I enjoy a bit of running

I’m no extreme athlete, but I’ve done a few 10k runs in the last few years. It has come in handy for inspiration, and I used some of my experiences for the part in my new book, 46% Better Than Dave, where the main character has to do an extreme race. He gets a much rougher time than I did, though.

6. I’ve tickled a penguin

My wife is a bit of a crazy penguin lady. She loves them. So, for her birthday one year, I took her to London Zoo, where you can pay to go in with the penguins and stroke them. It was actually quite good fun. Although, the penguins do seem to enjoy sneaking up behind you and biting your bum – which is quite sore.

7. Elvis came to my wedding

Okay, not the real Elvis. But rather than having a standard DJ or band, we took inspiration from my first book – in which the main character ends up in a town full of Elvis impersonators – and we hired an Elvis impersonator to perform at the wedding. He serenaded us during our first dance and was a real hit with all the guests.

8. I’ve been on TV three times

And none of them were particularly auspicious. First, I was once in the audience on early morning talk show Kilroy (you definitely need to be of a certain age to remember it). I was right at the back and it was a real blink-and-miss-it appearance. Secondly, I was on the BBC news – slightly drunk outside a nightclub in the background of a news feature. And finally, whilst working in a previous job as a magazine editor, I somehow ended up in a BBC documentary called WAGs to Riches.

9. I’ve never read a Stephen King book

Yep, that’s probably a bad thing for a writer to admit, considering he’s arguably the most successful writer of all time. I’ve seen lots of movies based in his books, but I know that’s not the same thing. I guess the horror genre isn’t really my thing. But I should do something about it, and I will read at least one of his books. Promise.

10. I like writing in coffee shops

Yes, I know it’s a bit of a cliché. In fact, I think there must be some kind of law that every Starbucks or Costa has to have at least one person with a laptop working on their novel or screenplay at all times. But I find them productive places to work. If I’m at home, I’m far more likely to put the telly on and slack off. Plus, I like the buzz and energy. And they’re great places to people watch, picking up inspiration for character traits.

New book coming soon

Exciting news. My new book is coming soon.

It’s called 46% Better Than Dave and it will be published by Raven Crest Books on 15 October 2019.

So, what’s it about? Well, here goes:

Dave Brookman’s new next-door neighbour is ruining his life. Because he’s also called Dave Brookman, he’s the same age, and he even grew up in the same town. There is one big difference, though. This new Dave is vastly more successful in every way.

As Dave starts questioning everything about himself, suddenly his perfect life seems a lot less than perfect. And what starts as friendly rivalry soon turns into obsessive jealousy and crazy behaviour that could see Dave lose it all.

Can he get a grip before it’s too late?

46% Better Than Dave will be available to pre-order on Amazon very soon. Check back for further details.

What an Autumn deal!

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I’ve just heard that my second book, Killing Dylan, is on sale as part of Kindle’s Autumn Deal. At just 99p, that’s got be worth checking out.

Here’s the synopsis:

Someone is trying to kill celebrated author Dylan St James. But who would want him dead? And why? And who the hell shoots someone with a harpoon, anyway?

Disgruntled, failed crime writer, Freddie Winters, spends his days conning old ladies, setting up fake book signings, sneaking into literary festivals uninvited and lamenting his lack of success. When his old Friend, Dylan, turns to him for help, Freddie agrees to use his own limited detective skills to find out who’s behind the murder attempt.

With a group of suspicious ex-wives, a jealous rival, a crazed stalker fan and an exploding postman to deal with, Freddie soon stumbles upon a catalogue of crazy behaviour and a truly bizarre motive for murder. But can he stop the killer before it’s too late?

Still can’t decide? Why not read the first chapter for FREE. And if you like it, head on over and grab a copy of the full book.

Deep Fried Genius

It’s been a while since my last post. But now I’m back. And I’m talking about fried food. Obviously…

There’s an unwritten rule that, if you’re an author, you need to have a blog. So, like many authors before me, I started a blog. And I thought I should probably try and be very literary, or talk about what a brilliant author I am.

So, I wrote a few blog posts. Some people read them, and that was nice. I picked up a few followers, which was even nicer. Some kind souls even took time out of their busy days to comment on the things that I’d written – which was great.

But the trouble with blogs is that you have to keep writing them. And there’s really only so many posts you can write about how many books you’ve sold; or that your books are on special offer; or what great progress you’re making on your current masterpiece. People are quickly going to get bored with you.

So, like many other authors with blogs, bereft of ideas I let mine fall somewhat into disrepair and I haven’t posted anything in a while. Something I am remedying with this post. And I intend to post much more regularly from now on. On many fantastically interesting issues. Things that interest me (so, mostly TV shows). Maybe the odd bit of authorly advice. A few opinions, per chance. Things that just pop into my head. And, of course, the inevitable ‘book’ post.

So, what am I writing about today?

I think it was Oscar Wilde who said, “When you can’t think what to write about, write about Fried Food Competition TV shows.” And that’s great advice for me. Because I’ve just discovered the best, weirdest, funniest, most fried food-obsessed TV show ever. It’s called Deep Fried Masters and it’s on Netflix now.

The premise is fairly simple. A host of cooking professionals pit themselves against each other in competition to see who can create the best culinary creations. The twist? These are all fried-food stall owners, who ply their trade at State Fairs up and down the USA. It’s Deep-fried MasterChef. It’s Bake Off with a grease slick. And it’s brilliant.

Helmed by king of the corndogs, Jim Stacy, contestants go head-to-head to cook up their best fried treats. Stacy is joined by fellow fried food aficionados, Abel Gonazales (a man who is apparently so successful in the business, he only has to work 24 days a year) and Butch Benavides, to decide who gets to take home the coveted Golden Corndog (I’m not making this up). They deliver their verdict not only on how good the food tastes, but how much it will sell for, and how easy it is for people to eat on ‘the midway’, lumbering from one fast food truck to another.

As you can imagine, the contestants take things incredibly seriously, with all the staged back-biting and barbed comments you want from a TV cooking contest. And the red-neck, ‘crazy yank’ quota is through the roof – southern-fried accents galore, super-sized contestants with giant waistlines, and one plucky chap even frying up chunks of alligator.

But, of course, the real star of the show is the food – a masterful array of greasy, oily deliciousness. There’s deep-fried pizza. Deep-fried hamburgers. Deep-fried cakes. Deep-fried lemonade (no, seriously). Deep-fried just about anything. And corn dogs – so many corndogs.

Not since Man vs Food  has a show revelled so gloriously in celebrating the kind of junk food we all love. It’s real food for real people. The sort of thing you can see yourself actually eating. This is a show where contestants are routinely criticized for NOT putting their food on a stick, for God’s sake.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the fancier cooking shows, like MasterChef and Great British Menu. Watching a classically-trained chef cook braised duck with a cherry jus and truffle shavings is interesting. And seeing a Michelin-starred judge ripping it to shreds can make for 30 minutes of good telly.

But put that duck on a stick, dip in batter and give me the opinions of a red-neck in dungarees and a ZZ Top beard, and you’ve got yourself a show, my friend.

The Spring sale has sprung

It’s Spring. So that must mean Amazon’s Kindle Spring Sale is here.

Sale 1

Even better than that, my latest novel Killing Dylan has been selected to appear in the limited-time promotion (until 25 April, 2016).

Sale 3

 

So, if you’ve got a kindle and a spare quid, you can pick up a copy now for just 99p. What a flippin’ bargain! In case you don’t already know, here’s what it’s all about:

Someone is trying to kill celebrated author Dylan St James. But who would want him dead? And why? And who the hell shoots someone with a harpoon, anyway?

Disgruntled, failed crime writer, Freddie Winters, spends his days conning old ladies, setting up fake book signings, sneaking into literary festivals uninvited and lamenting his lack of success. When his old Friend, Dylan, turns to him for help, Freddie agrees to use his own limited detective skills to find out who’s behind the murder attempt.

With a group of suspicious ex-wives, a jealous rival, a crazed stalker fan and an exploding postman to deal with, Freddie soon stumbles upon a catalogue of crazy behaviour and a truly bizarre motive for murder. But can he stop the killer before it’s too late?

Killing Dylan has already been described as a “brilliantly over the top, laugh-out-loud comic caper.” Another lovely reader said: “Sharp and very, very funny, this book is a delight!” And it’s guaranteed to be the funniest book featuring a harpoon attack you’ll read this year.

So, what are you waiting for? Grab yourself a bargain and get your copy now.

Goodbye to the cupboard

Today is a sad day. Because it’s time to say goodbye to my writing cupboard.

The wife and I have bought a new house and moved out of our old flat. And so I am also moving out of the cupboard in which I spent so many hours writing.

It was my home for many years. My tiny writing sanctuary. A place to escape from the wife and create books that, hopefully, people would enjoy reading as much as I enjoyed writing them.

Over the last five years, I sat in my little cupboard and wrote one and a half novels (George Thring was already half done when we moved in and the whole of Killing Dylan was penned in there); a few short stories; two episodes of an ill-fated sitcom, which I co-wrote with my friend Matt (and no, it didn’t ever get anywhere near actually being on the telly); and many, many bits of marketing copy (my day job as a copywriter) for numerous corporate clients – and my mate Dave.

My cupboard was a great little place. It was cramped. It was cold. It was a little damp. It had no windows or any trace of natural light. But I could (only just) fit a desk and chair in. I could shut myself away and get some work done. And it helped create the stunning headline for the Crawley Observer: Man writes book in his cupboard!

So farewell little cupboard. You will be missed. But in the new house I get an actual whole room to write in. With a window. And a radiator. Imagine what I’ll be able to come up with in there?

Happy New Book!

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Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all had a great 2015, and here’s to 2016 being even bigger, brighter and better for you all.

And as if a brand new year wasn’t good enough, there’s another reason to celebrate – today is the publication date for my new comedy crime novel, Killing Dylan.

That’s right, head to Amazon now and you can pick up your copy from today.

Here’s what it says on the back cover:

Someone is trying to kill celebrated author Dylan St James. But who would want him dead? And why? And who the hell shoots someone with a harpoon, anyway?

Disgruntled, failed crime writer, Freddie Winters, spends his days conning old ladies, setting up fake book signings, sneaking into literary festivals uninvited and lamenting his lack of success. When his old Friend, Dylan, turns to him for help, Freddie agrees to use his own limited detective skills to find out who’s behind the murder attempt.

With a group of suspicious ex-wives, a jealous rival, a crazed stalker fan and an exploding postman to deal with, Freddie soon stumbles upon a catalogue of crazy behaviour and a truly bizarre motive for murder. But can he stop the killer before it’s too late?

So, what are you waiting for? Get your copy now

I hope you like it. And I hope you have a great New Year!

Cheers

Alastair