Have I Lost My Love of Writing (part 2)

I don’t recall which year it was. I guess it would have been sometime in the early 1980s, but I may be wrong – it might have been later. I applied, and was accepted, into a Bachelor of Science degree course. While it was something I wanted to do at the time, I wasn’t confident of completing it.

I could only do it part time, trying to fit its requirements into family and working life, and it would have taken six or eight years (I don’t recall which) to complete. That seemed a VERY long time to maintain a commitment to something I wasn’t sure I was capable of handling.

The opportunity soon passed by.

It was several years later that I considered University again, but the second time the focus was on something completely different: Creative Writing. The local University had a Bachelor of Creative Arts program, with one of the offered majors centred on the written word.

I applied, was accepted, and left my job of 10 years to study fulltime, hoping to never again be condemned to making a living from office administrative work.

Only one week of study passed before I had second thoughts. There were compulsory aspects of the BCA course that I found irrelevant to my goals. I think the defining issue was having to be involved in a group performance of some kind. Memorising lines and acting has never been one of my strong points, so I applied to change over to a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Literature, that still allowed me to take all of the creative writing subjects I’d intended to take.

And so the academic journey to establishing a writing career began.

I started the course mid-year. Most of my classmates had already been there for the first part of that year and were familiar with the system and each other. I had a lot of introductory learning to do before I could confidently tackle the academic learning.

Somehow I got through that period and managed to work out how to write essays and stories in the required formats. Surprisingly I achieved very good grades and along the way even managed to include a science subject – introductory astronomy to the writing subjects I was studying.

My first creative writing assignments were stories loosely based on exaggerated, reworkings of personal experience. While they worked as gradable writing assignments, I was never personally happy with them as short stories. Later, confidence in my ability to write stories grew and came from a variety of  unexpected inspirational sources.

One time I was reading a short story by a best selling author, and was sure I knew how the story was going to end. But the ending was different to my expectation. So I took my expected ending and worked backwards to create a suitable beginning.

Another time, a classmate told me how he’d overome “writer’s block” by taking a story from the bible and working the themes, plot and characters into a different setting.

I tried that approach myself using the account of David and Bathsheba as the springboard to a story of obsession, in which I was able to include knowledge I’d gained from an interest in film animation. That added element moved the whole direction far away from the biblical inspiration to an original story I felt proud to write.

After only a few weeks I was getting into the social side of university life, but not too far away from the course I was doing. There were frequent readings of student’s work in the university bar. Despite my earlier reluctance to do subjects with a public performance requirement,  I found a liking for the opportunity to read my stories to the significant audience that attended these events.

While my first efforts were given a polite but restrained applause, I started to learn how to tailor a story for that particular audience and the response grew more enthusiastic and my enjoyment of the events increased.

For some reason my writing started to lean closer to the fringes of “horror” fiction – although restrained in many ways, possibly using “horror” tropes as a starting point, but holding back on the frequent excesses of much of the horror fiction of that time.

In one assignment that led to a satisfying story idea, we were told to take the elements of a ghost story and incorporate them into a non-ghost story. It was an interesting challenge, in which often cliched elements could be turned whichever way would best serve the story.

nightmareI used a similar approach in a later story of a man in his sickbed, whose perception of reality was clouded by his illness (or was it by whatever drugs his wife was feeding him?). This was very loosely based on the experience of my grandfather, who was bedridden on many occasions, and had a tendency to hallucinate  faces in wallpaper patterns.

I wrote that story to a background soundtrack of Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare, and included allusions to Stephen King’s Misery, a film version of which I’d recently seen at that time.

From memory, the lead female character was named Alice, but at one stage her husband jokingly refered to her as Annie (as per the antagonist of the King story).




Have I lost my love of writing? (part 1)

The earliest ambition I recall having was to become a Beatle.

I must have been five or younger, and for some reason was obsessed with the Beatles. I don’t know why I wanted to be one of them, but the ambition was short-lived.

the_lookerA few years later my interests had moved on and I loved writing plays. They were mostly re-writings of stories I’d seen on the TV (a Jesse James film, Land of the Giants, The Champions). I also tried to adapt a story from an Archie comic book.

For a short time I had a teacher who allowed my little plays to be acted out in front of the class, using some classmates as actors.

Around that time I had decided I wanted to be a scriptwriter when I grew up, even though I didn’t know where or how such a career could be achieved. At that age those kind of details weren’t even thought of.

Moving on to High School, my favourite school assignments were related to written story telling: short stories, “radio” plays, poetry and even short video pieces – using pre-cassette video technology. Again my output was often derivative, influenced by The Goons, Morecambe and Wise, James Bond books…  But by then reality had amended my employment expectations, and making a living from writing wasn’t seen as a possibility.

My family was very traditional working class, not used to pursuing ambition.

Not used to thinking in terms of careers or career paths.

After school you got a job to pay your way in life. A job was a means to a liveable income enabling the purchase of a home and the support of a family.

Nobody in my wider family had been to university. As far as I’m aware no one in my wider family had ever considered university. We weren’t that kind of people. Those options had never been available to us.

The majority of the men in my family were (or had been) miners working in harsh, dangerous conditions. A good job was anything that avoided that path – like working in an office.


The bank where I got my first full time job

I found work in a bank, starting as an office junior, and since then all of my fulltime jobs have been office-bound, administration clerical positions.

A few times I tried to escape from the routine and tedium but somehow always found myself back where I started – back to where I am today, office bound, working for a large company doing mundane work.

Whenever I thought about escaping to pursue other possibilities, that very early writing ambition seemed to offer possibilities.
In the early 1990s I decided to do something about it. I resigned from my job and enrolled at University, studying creative writing and English literature.

In “Defense” of Crime Fiction

A one time friend of mine has taken exception to my reading of crime fiction. He is a professing Christian with some extreme theological views that would be rejected by the majority of Christian believers, including myself.

But added to his “theological” issues he has been particularly insistent about the evils of crime fiction and critical of my reading of “death and murder”.
He also objected to me maintaining a “reading list”, claiming I am:

” de facto recommending appalling books to Christians and shd be stopped. [my] Books Read list is available to the public. It shdn’t be…”

Clearly he has read ever single book on my Books Read list and knows without doubt how appalling all of those books are. But as for the claim that I’m recommending any of those books to Christians… it’s very rarely that I recommend any book to anyone, Christian or otherwise.

Ironically, this man introduced me to a Christian author of crime novels, an author his wife had been reading.
I read one of that author’s books and found aspects of it more disturbing than the majority of those “death and murder” books that he condemns; with its Christian good-guys resorting to shooting their criminal opponents on several occasions (it’s American of course).

But overlooking the 100s of non-crime books on my reading list, as well as the many non-fiction titles about a variety of topics, what about the “death and murder” books he finds disturbing?

While crime books mostly have a murder (or murders) as the ignition point of their story, few of them dwell on death. The stories are about the living, those attempting to resolve the crime, or those left to make sense of the life changing loss of a loved one. They are occasionally about the perpetrator, who in most books I’ve read haven’t been evil blood-thirsty psychopaths (although there have been a couple of exceptions out of the many I’ve read). The guilty parties are often everyday people who have committed an out of character act of violence upon the victim.

Most of the authors I’ve read don’t write explicit descriptions of violence or killing, with murders mostly happening beyond the page. There have been exceptions, sometimes gratuitous exceptions, but those are the minority, and aren’t the kind of books I choose to read – although with an unfamiliar author a book has to be read before its nature is discovered.

The majority of the crime fiction I’ve chosen to read, the way I’ve narrowed the field in a very wide genre, has been because of two main factors: geographical and temporal settings. I suppose both have a relationship to nostalgia. The majority of my chosen authors set their books around Derbyshire or neighbouring counties – where I lived during my pre-teen years. Others relate to the mid-1960s – 1970s, the period of my childhood and adolescence. They often weave landscape and time-scape with vaguely familiar references to news events of their time, or to places, and types of people, I thought I’d forgotten about – stirring memories.

Despite the claims of that one time friend, the average crime novel has nowhere near the amount of death and murder as there was in so many of the accounts of WWI and WWII that I was reading a year or two ago; books he was all too happy for me to read, even encouraging me with links to associated articles.

God, Drugs and Rock & Roll

During my years at university studying creative writing (early 1990s), I often listened to Alice Cooper as I wrote my short stories.

Here is a side of Cooper not often recognised.
His faith. His experiences in the music industry. His celebrity friendships. Golf.

And more…

Steven Dunne: The Reaper, and Writing a Novel

Steven Dunne is another author who locates his work in Derbyshire.

Previously I posted a video of Sarah Ward and Stephen Booth talking about their work. Those two writers set their stories in the rural north of Derbyshire, Dunne uses the city of Derby itself.

During my childhood I lived in the south of the county, about 15 miles from Derby. Trips to the city were rare. My specific memories are vague and they either centre on shopping trips or the area around the Baseball Ground, the former home of the Derby County football team, where I was taken many times on Saturday afternoons.

As for the north of the county, I recall two day trips where we ended up at Matlock Bath. The original destination had been Buxton, but navigation was never my dad’s strong point. Often we set out for one place only to arrive somewhere unexpected.
While we didn’t get to the place we intended, at least I got to see a lot of the countryside.

reaperI’ve just finished Dunne’s first book The Reaper, originally self-published, the book was eventually picked up by a major publisher.

Detective Inspector Damen Brook is an outcast within his department.  When the on duty Detective is called out to investigate a murder, Brook is the on-call officer called upon when a second murder is reported on the same night.

Brook finds  a murder scene that seems far too similar to those he’s witnessed in the past when he worked in London; the work of a serial killer Brook had named “The Reaper”.

Is this case related? If so why has the Reaper reappeared and why has he seemingly followed Brook to a new city?

The novel switches back and forth between Brook’s current investigations and his memories of the earlier cases, looking for the links between present and past, hoping to find proof of The Reaper’s identity.

The opening of the book was quite unpleasant, starting with a young, highly unlikable teenage boy, with a foul mouth and even fouler mind. A boy well on his way to being formed in his father’s image, living with the belief that women are good for only one thing.

I found this beginning had an unpleasant harshness that thankfully didn’t carry thorough the book, but it plays its part in establishing an important character and setting up the circumstances of approaching crimes.

Skimming through reviews on-line, I found a lot of mixed feelings about the book, but none that were overly unfavourable. Most found the book enjoyable but flawed, recognisable as an author’s first; and I agree. My feelings about it were also mixed. I found it mostly compelling, with a few unexpected twists, but I also found that one or two aspects of it made its main character, Brook, hard to empathise with, and I wonder whether he’s someone I really want to spend more time with. However, as I’ve already bought the follow up story, The Disciple, I’ll have to give him an opportunity to prove me wrong and win me over.


As this “Out of Shadows” blog site was originally intended to encourage me to regain my own writing ambitions (to date an unfruitful intention), I’ll add the following link to Steven Dunne’s blog where access is given to a four part series of article on “Writing a novel” The link also gives access to an interesting radio interview with Dunne.


The question Steven gets asked most often is: how do you write a novel and get it published?

There’s no easy answer and all novelists have their own way of working, but in the series of articles [at the link] below, Steven talks about the challenges and pitfalls he faced as he sought to get his first novel, Reaper, published.


Nadeem Aslam

Nadeem Aslam is among my favourite writers. I recently started reading his new book The Golden Legend.

The first of his novels that I read was The Blind Man’s Garden – and that got me hooked. Below is a video in which Aslam talks about The Blind Man’s Garden and gives some insight into his writing process.


See here for my thoughts about The Blind Man’s Garden written as I read it:






Not Working, by Lisa Owens

not workingThe subject of Lisa Owen’s book appealed to me.
Claire leaves her job of six years, hoping/expecting the newfound time and freedom will create the opportunity to find her “purpose” in life.

I understand.
It’s the kind of thought I’ve often had.
It’s the kind of idea I’ve acted on more than once; firstly when I ceased fulltime work to study, then several years later when I left my job and home in the city to start again in country New South Wales.
In neither case did my desired outcome ultimately lead to anything different, but both times it seemed like it was necessary to at least try to break out from the rut I’d worn for myself, if I wanted to find a better path in life.

Therefore, as soon as I heard about Not Working I wanted to read it.

Apart from the appeal of the story itself, I really like the structure of the book. Each chapter is subdivided under headings identifying locations, events and times. The text within those subdivisions can be  gems of “wisdom”, Claire’s personal observations, or part of the ongoing narrative of her quest for purpose.

Lists Each section adds to our unfolding understanding of Claire and her situation, with varying degrees of subtlety sometimes with pathos other times with humour; sometimes with clarity and other times more cryptically.

It’s the kind of approach I could see myself using – IF in some other reality I’d actually taken the literary path I’d wanted. If I’d disciplined myself to put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, on a regular basis without the pressured incentive of deadlines and university demands.

karmaBut maybe there’s still hope.

I now see a way to use disparate ideas, isolated thoughts that of themselves have promise but aren’t amenable to stretching into a more extensive story.
Maybe they can be used without expansion, a scattering of them throughout a larger narrative, helping to pause the story flow: but not without significance. Each one in some way adding to the story, revealing more about its characters and their relationships,  and not merely serving as padding.

availabilityA larger story created out of shorter, seemingly incomplete, isolated incidents that over time the reader can piece together as common elements start to coalesce.

I may seem to have digressed from the book itself, but in fact the book has helped me return to the main reasons for creating this blog: encouraging me to read (and finish) more books and to reinvigorate my long-time neglected ambition/desire to be a writer.
Not Working is the type of book I genuinely enjoy to read. The kind I can’t wait get back to. It’s a book with an engaging story that re-stirs my desire to write, written in a way that presents some practical and interesting story writing possibilities.

pillow talk