Book of the year 2018

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Yes, folks, it’s that time again: the year is drawing to a close and so I must select my favourite books of the year.

But I fear I must begin with an apology. I have simply not read enough. All was going swimmingly until I moved house, leaving the comforting bosom of the job in and around of which I did most of my reading. Thus we have been operating in dribs and drabs ever since.

We will have to treat the future on its own merits. For now, though, let us look back at the books I have enjoyed over the last twelvemonth and see if we can’t scrape some sort of purpose out of the whole hideous morass.

Blimey, I’ve encountered some superb books this year. So many, in fact, that I’m not going to choose a simple ‘best’. Instead I’m going to give a few of my favourites.
So, in no particular order:

Fiction:

The Honours – Tim Clare

The Honours

Tim does occasional novel-opening-critiques on his excellent podcast so I decided to turn the tables and do the same right back to him (in my mind only) when reading this. That attempt lasted less than a page before I was lost in his beautiful world. I originally wrote about this in this blog-post. It’s simply a wonderful book that I dare not tell too much about for fear of dispelling the mystery of what the hell this is actually about.

The Vanishing Box – Elly Griffiths

Vanishing Box

If you want to write a crime novel, read Elly Griffiths. I mean, seriously. The plotting is just so good; the way she gives her characters depth – just enough so you think you can see a way through to the murderer; just enough in each scene to make you think ‘no, hang on, maybe I was wrong’. In every scene.

Elly’s novels aren’t always perfectly realised. Smoke and Mirrors didn’t work as well for me, for example, and I wasn’t too sold on The Dark Angel (though this again contained magnificent character development; in fact, if I was writing a how-to book I’d probably start right here). But part of the fun of Griffiths’ books lies in the relationships between the main characters. And The Vanishing Box is perfect.

Queen of All Crows – Rod Duncan

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Rod Duncan: lovely man, drinker of black tea and dreamer of dark waters. Here he takes his story of the Gas-Lit Empire out across the ocean and shows us that the world we thought we’d got to grips with is not only full of stories but full of stories we’d never even imagined possible. Like the star-cruiser* at the beginning of Star Wars you suddenly realise that what we thought was the big picture was merely docking bay.

Britain is only a small island trapped between sea and continent. And the seas themselves can harbour as many monsters as ever walked on land. Elizabeth Barnabus is on the hunt for her best friend, last seen on a zeppelin that was shot down somewhere in the Atlantic. Might she have survived? Who fired the shot?

The next in the series is out in January. I can’t wait.

*I have no doubt this craft has a proper name that you’ll no doubt be eager to share with me. You all know the one I mean though, right? If not, insert mental image of the opening credits of Red Dwarf.

By Light Alone – Adam Roberts

By Light Alone

If I have a criticism of Adam Roberts – and I do – it’s that he’s more interested in ideas than stories. Thus we have we literal people-with-no-heads in Land of the Headless; we have the ‘what-does-animal-rights-truly-mean?’ of Bête. And the oh-God-it’s-the-very-nature-of-reality of The Thing Itself.

By Light Alone has a similarly high concept. Genetic modification has enabled people to ‘eat’ sunlight directly through their hair. So only the rich eat ‘real’ food and flaunt baldness whilst the poor are a tidal mass threatening to bring the whole edifice to the ground. This novel scores by having a very human story at its heart: a rich man’s world comes tumbling down when his daughter is abducted. And then, a year later, comes back into his life.

But is she all that she seems? And does it really matter when their world seems doomed anyway?

Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe

Shadow

The first volume in the Book of the New Sun quadrilogy, this is… weird. On the face of it, we’re dealing with a traditional high fantasy epic. But the further we progress, accompanying Severian on his journey to a distant city, the more we come to realise that we’re part of a different story altogether.

This series has been hugely influential; Neil Gaiman, for one, has written of its power, and it regularly features is lists of the best SFF novels ever. It’s not the easiest read – not because of any flaws but because it requires the reader to work; we are so deeply embedded in Severian’s mind that he doesn’t see the need to explain the many sudden ‘wait, what?’ moments.

It is, in short, something that rewards reading and rereading. And possibly doctoral theses.

The Doomed City – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

Doomed City

Well now, just about everything I said about Shadow of the Torturer applies here. Weird? Check. Doctoral theses? Check. Challenging? Check. Hidden from the Communists? Che- no, wait. That only belongs to this novel, the origins of which are almost as interesting as the story itself. Long story short: originally writing in the early seventies with writer-brothers who knew it would never pass Soviet censors. Only two copies existed, hidden carefully in friends’ apartments, until 1989 when publishing restrictions were lifted.

The city of the title is the key figure in the story. It is an impossible place, complete with moving buildings and a sun that switches on and off. It’s populated by people taken from different periods in history (or at least the 20th century). We follow Andrei, an astronomer from 1950s Leningrad. At the start of the story he is idealistic and naïve. Then, after a fascist coup, he becomes careless, almost cold. It is significant that one of the most important characters is Jewish.

The climax shows an exhibition to cross the no-man’s land beyond the city’s edge – to find out, in essence, where they are and why they’re there. It’s a complex novel, difficult and full of ideas. Anyone who’s seen the (very good) film Dark City will see The Doomed City’s influence.

It’s begging for a sequel, and for that reason should never be given one.

Caveat emptor. There are very few women in the novel and those that are there (Andrei’s wife, notably) are treated horribly. Also antisemitism, though this is part of the plot.

Godblind – Anna Stephens

Godblind

This is another wonderful, powerful novel that can only really be described as grimdark fantasy – Lord of the Rings with feeling – but dares also give us love.

A spoonful of love helps the horror really hit home.

Warring gods and their pawns on earth; corruption and unbelievable cruelty. The ingredients are nothing new, but Stephens gives them urgency and passion and serves up probably the most convincing battlefield I’ve ever read.

The most sickening thing is that this is her debut. Makes you spit, really.

The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks

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Don’t read this. I mean please, just don’t do it to yourself.

It’s brilliant. It’s wonderfully written. This horribly damaged narrator in his horribly damaged life is so utterly, utterly convincing. The banality with which he talk of the things he’s done – brilliant.

Also horrible. Caveat. There aren’t enough caveats in the world.

Thornhill – P Smy

Thornhill

Another I wrote about previously, this is a YA book that mixes a story told through diary entries intercut with a wordless graphic novel. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

Revenant Gun – Yoon Ha Lee

Revenant Gun

Aha! The one that’s going to win all the awards. Revenant Gun is the last in Yoon Ha Lee’s ‘Machineries of Empire’ series that began with Ninefox Gambit. The whole series takes our ideas of space opera and blows them up with malice aforethought.

Some people will find the detail of exotic physics* and mathematical arcana dull. Some also won’t like the genderqueerness of – well, just about everything. That’s fine. I loved it and felt it really underpinned the structure of the previous novels.

These are game-changing books and worthy of your time whether, ultimately, you like them or not.

*Magic, but interesting

Rogues – GRR Martin & Gardner Dozois (eds)

Rogues

I’m not a big short-story reader and this is the first time an anthology has appeared in my ‘best of’ lists. But I feel I have to include this here because not only did it take FOREVER to get through but because it was a consistent delight. The 21 stories are all based around the morally dubious. Most are great fun.

As is the nature of these things, some (Gaiman’s ‘How the Marquis got his Coat Back’ for one) I’d read before. Some are better than others.

Personal favourites:

‘Bad Brass’; Bradley Denton (though one Amazon reviewer rates this as one of the worst in the collection, which just goes to show)

‘Tough Times All Over’; Joe Abercrombie

‘Now Showing’; Connie Willis (another story the other reviewer disliked)
‘A Year and a Day in Old Theradane’; Scott Lynch.

Worst story:

‘The Rogue Prince, or, A King’s Brother’; GRR Martin. This isn’t a story. It’s a list of things that happened. As far as I can see, no reviewer liked this one.

Embers of War – Gareth L Powell

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Space opera done well. I could go on at length about the ethical questions that Powell raises, at the universe he’s created, and at the depths he gives his characters – all of whom have carefully drawn backstories that never get in the way of the here-and-now. I could say all this, but all you really need to know is that he’s created a sentient warship called Trouble Dog. And that she’s one of the best AIs ever created.

Volume two coming in 2019. Can’t wait.

Also Recommended:

Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik
The Consuming Fire – John Scalzi
Lies Sleeping – Ben Aaronovitch
The Zealot’s Bones, DM Mark

Non-Fiction:

Daemon Voices – Philip Pullman

Daemon

A collection of essays mostly on writing and occasionally on Pullman’s personal philosophy. There’s a huge amount to glean from this, especially if you’re a fan of His Dark Materials. It delves into the role of story in life; in education, in religion and science. Very interesting, though, in truth, I can’t actually remember much about it now.

The Man Who Couldn’t Stop – D Adam

Man who couldn't stop

Well this is just fascinating. On the face of it it’s simply the memoir of a man’s struggle to understand and overcome his own obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what it really serves to do is to make us look at our own behaviours and reevaluate our drives and urges.

Wonderfully written; lyrical and elegant, this is one of the best examinations of mental illness that I’ve ever read. Really, really not just for sufferers and really, really not a misery memoir; humour and sly wit underpin even the darkest episodes.

Liable to Floods – JR Ravensdale

Liable to Floods

This isn’t so much a recommendation – not unless you’re interested in the history of three villages on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fen.

Or maybe that’s not true. There is a great deal for the novelist here – if you’re interested in the way mediaeval (or fantastic) settlement and survival, floods and fires, you could do a lot worse than this.

Either way, it’s elegantly written and, even if it’s now out of date, deserves its place here.

How to Read Literature – Terry Eagleton

Read Literature

I have been flattered that Eagleton’s writing style is not a million miles from this blog. Well, maybe. Still this is a lovely book, clearly written and full of wit. It is a book about literature and I suspect its main audience will be university students; it’s slightly highfalutin’ for the likes of me.

Still, anything that makes you reevaluate all you thought you knew about popular texts is worth reading. Eagleton makes it easy. And his reinterpretation of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ as a socialist manifesto will live long in the memory.

Graphic Novel:

Saga – Brian Vaughan & Fiona Staples

Saga 6

Second year in a row. Read the last ‘Best of’ for more; but, simply put, this remains unique; a wonderful jewel buried under a mountain of superheroes. The sheer imaginative power that can create Prince Robot and Lying Cat, and have a ghost as a major character, is incredible. And that’s just the surface.

Wonderful stuff

* * *

And that’s it, apart from all the books I’ve forgotten. Please share your own personal favourites; I’m always looking for new authors, or even new opinions.

Have a wonderful holiday, all you lucky folk who get such a thing. I’ll be back in 2019 with more dubious knowledge and half-baked theories.

If you’re interested, check out my previous years’ Best of lists here:

2017
2016
2015

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Not-quite-a-launch-party #2

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Another day, another book-signing! This one was on a Friday night in the world’s smallest bookshop* and it went much better than I could have imagined. Not only did my daughter arrive too late to heckle me but the place was packed**. Huge thanks to the staff at Between the Lines, and the people of Great Bardfield, who gave me this wonderful book as a thank-you gift.

Whether they were there for me or for the free prosecco is a moot point***. Applause was polite. Books were sold. There was only one left in the shop when I rolled out at the end of the evening, all the customers (not, for the most part, my target market) having remembered cousins, sons and friends for whom it might make a good present.

In completely unrelated news, Night Shift is available now and makes a great Christmas present for all those cousins, sons and daughters (not just for boys!) and spouses and rabbits (tasty pages!) the world over.

And that’s it. That’s all the promo I’ve got lined up. Hopefully I’ll get something lined up for the new year, but, as we stand, it’s back to the real world for me.

It’s been a busy week. Maybe now I can get on with some real writing****.

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*It’s not actually the smallest bookshop in the world. That honour goes to this place. But it is pretty small

**It would feel packed with six people in. That’s how small it is

***Prosecco. No doubt

****Just been told that BBC Radio Guernsey want an interview. Reality is postponed. Here’s your surreality-replacement service. Please don’t wee on the seats

Not-quite-a-launch party

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For those of you who don’t know, I did my first ever book-signing cum reading on Monday night. Huge thanks to Sarah at Mostly Books for hosting an event that, to my mind at least, went really well.

The only problem, in fact, was that I was heckled during the reading. Repeatedly. By my own daughter. It seems that being up two hours after bedtime and being sneakily funnelled chocolate by well-intentioned friends might not lead to perfect behaviour. Who knew?

MB1

I’ve got another signing tomorrow night at Between the Lines in Great Bardfield. If you’re in that particular corner of Essex please do come along; I’ll be pathetically grateful for the attention.

Hopefully in the next few days I’ll get chance to set down a more reflective piece, and maybe even give some advice on how to go about doing a talk/signing/interview. Not that I know the second thing (the first is to get to the right place at the right time) about it, but still.

Oh, and I’ve not mentioned Sledge-Lit at all, which is a sin. I was there. It was great. More on that, too, shortly.

But for now I’m still trying to catch up with all the things I’ve let fall slack over the last week. Happy reading and happy writing, folks. I’ll be back when I’ve caught my breath.

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All photos copyright Sarah at Mostly Books, used with permission.

 

Upon further review

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Book burning at Wartburgfest 1817; illustration of 1883 (artist unknown)

So: reviews are coming in for Night Shift. This is, by and large, a good thing; It shows that copies are getting out to people – well, book-bloggers – and that, through them, the novel is getting a little attention.

Possibly the only thing I’ve remembered from my A-Level General Studies course is that you need to have heard of something (a band, a book, any sort of brand) at least five times before you think of checking it out for yourself. I’ve never been quite sure it’s true but if it’s not it’s still a good-enough lie.

So any mention of my work is welcomed. It doesn’t mean much if the only voice is my own constant nagging monologue; but multiple sources recommending a book makes a real difference.

Of course, not all mentions will be positive. The greater your fame spreads the more likely you are to hear dissenting voices. You’re going to have to learn how to take a negative review.

Last time I looked – I’m not going on too often – Goodreads reviews had been mostly positive. But one person had given me 2-star rating and another a fairly unimpressed 3. So here’s my ‘I’ll probably end up being a hypocrite over this’ guide to dealing with less-than-stellar reviews:

  • Remember that they’re not criticising you as a person. Yes, we all put a lot of ourselves into our work but saying that someone doesn’t like your work is not saying that they think any less of you as a person. Yes, there may be exceptions – if, say, your book is about something very important to you (transgender rights, for example) and someone disagrees fundamentally then it’s hard not to take it personally. Try and keep that distance, though: you are not your work.
  • They are not reviewing your best work. Your best hasn’t been written yet. And on that subject…
  • Publishing takes time. I’m not going to say ‘you should have been writing something else whilst the process was ongoing’ because life isn’t always straightforward. But you’re not the same person you were when you wrote that first draft. What you do now will be better because you’ve grown. (This might be less true of self-publishers, though the idea stands)
  • Try and take lessons. If your critics are consistent about over-simple plots, say, or wooden dialogue, try and take it on the chin. Learn.
  • Allow yourself time to recover. Words hurt. Allow yourself to feel that – cry if you need to, deny it if it helps – and don’t rush to a change until you’re ready…
  • …And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t respond to bad reviews. It’s okay to thank reviewers for a good one (via social media; don’t add to their blogs, it’s terribly gauche. And be careful about emailing as it might look a bit like stalking) but DO NOT complain about their poor taste, their personalities, or anything similar. It never ends well.
  • Write something else. Write better.

I’m sure you can find more ideas. Check this article for starters (and for another classic example of what not to do).

People will disagree with you. People will be unfair – they’ll review it as if you were trying to write a Mills & Book and not the star-killer grimdark space opera you were aiming for.  They’ll miss the point. And, of course, what one person sees as fussy, fiddly, over-perfumed prose will be another’s superlative imagery.

You can’t control this. Just remember that you’re in fine company. Every writer you’ve ever heard of has been shaken down at least once. Here’s the classic on Terry Pratchett:

…a complete amateur – doesn’t even write in chapters – hasn’t a clue.

–Tom Paulin on BBC2’s Late Review

And on Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

The book as a whole is disappointing, and not merely because it is a reworking of a theme that one begins to suspect must obsess the author. Holden Caulfield, the main character who tells his own story, is an extraordinary portrait, but there is too much of him. …

In the course of 277 pages, the reader wearies of [his] explicitness, repetition and adolescence, exactly as one would weary of Holden himself. And this reader at least suffered from an irritated feeling that Holden was not quite so sensitive and perceptive as he, and his creator, thought he was.

–Anne L. Goodwin, The New Republic, 1951

Reviews matter, and bad ones hurt. But they’re not the be-all and end-all. You will be okay. And even a bad review is better than no review.

At least one person has read your book.

 

 

The great release

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Today my book is released onto the great unsuspecting world. And today it struck me: there is no-one (save my wife, who doesn’t count, and my daughter, who calls me Momma most of the time so her evidence must be considered suspect) within an hour of me who knows who I am.

It’s out. And nothing has changed.

Hell, I’ve not even got any copies of the novel. I’m going on rumour and hearsay – well, the word of my publisher – that anything’s happened at all. There’s such a colossal disconnect between my daily life and my Twitter-life that, right now, I’m struggling to marry the two.

I’m still a writer trying to get work completed and out in the public domain. I’m still distracted by publicity, by events and by life, the universe, and – as they say – everything.
But now I have a novel out.

They say – those ‘they’ again – that, no matter what else you do, you should mark the occasion. A book release is a big deal, ‘they’ say. It must be celebrated. Frankly, I’ve been too busy with emergency proofreading work and with trying to organise trips to bookshops and conventions. There’s been no chance to even think of organising my own party too.

So: happy release-day to me! A quiet day will be had, unless I spend a little extra time on some promotionary tweets. But there will be no cake. No champagne. Really this is just another day; one spent with a sick child (just a minor snuffle with accompanying nasal oozage) and with no chance of hitting a bookshop or a library or anywhere else where I might see my work.

Maybe this evening I’ll polish this off

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Or maybe work on this

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But there’ll be no visit to the inebriatorium. That’ll have to wait until the much more tangible prospect of the few events I have lined up. They’re the things I’ve been working towards. The actual day of release has arrived as something of an afterthought.

So yes, I’m happy. Hell, I’m delighted. This is the day I’ve been working towards for years. It’s just that… nothing at all has changed. Nappies need changing. The bins need putting out.

Can you smell the glamour?

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“Life. Don’t talk to me about life.”

On tour and punch-drunk

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By the time you read this my blog-tour will be over. I will have travelled across continents to carry the message of my work to the masses. Eight blogs have read ARCs (advance review copies) of Night Shift and published their opinions. You can find the links above; check them out if you’re so motivated. More hits for them reflects better on me so I’m not going to complain.

This is my first experience of being reviewed. It’s been… well, it’s not seemed quite real. It still doesn’t. This is partly because I didn’t organise the tour myself: it was handled my publisher and via PR people – another unreality – so the first I really knew about it was in the messages I was tagged into on Twitter.

I’ve had minimal contact with the bloggers themselves. I got the links, checked out the pieces, and retweeted them. That’s it. Now I’m blinking in disbelief, especially as all of the reviews were positive. Well, all but one – I’ll get to that in a minute.

Will this translate into sales? No idea. It can’t hurt, though.

A note on sales: I’m not actually that bothered about money – it’ll be minimal – and I won’t be checking my Amazon sales rankings obsessively. But weak sales will mean I’m less likely to get my second book deal. Publishing is a business; publishers do care about sales because only a healthy bottom line will enable them to put out more books. Publishers, believe it or not, love books and want to act as midwife to as many as possible.

So how am I feeling now? Bewildered, mostly. Punch-drunk. For, though I do my best to get my name out there and have the arrogance to think that what I say is worth hearing, I am a seething cauldron of insecurities. I wrote Night Shift a long time ago; I’m a better writer now. For people to like what I did five years ago (although revisions have been made right up until a few months ago) far exceeds my sense of what I deserve.

This also gives me a sense of immunity from criticism. The one poor review I mentioned earlier: I read it with an awareness of how hard the blogger was trying to be positive – they wanted to enjoy it but couldn’t quite get there. The final judgement was ‘Quite a good story,’ which is somewhat damning.

I read that with a smile and a shrug. Because what else can I do? It’s all illusion anyway; everything is smoke and mirrors. I have no beef with the reviewer and will help promote their site because that’s the sort of person I want to be.

Now if, on the other hand, they’d said this about my most recent writing, then we might have a problem.

I joke but there’s truth in it. The problem would be entirely mine but it would be there. Even faint praise hurts. My whole self-image might shatter if shaken violently.

I’ll write more about reviews next week. For now, please let me finish with a quote and a link from each review:

Crime meets science fiction- I loved it!

https://bookslifeandeverything.blogspot.com/2018/11/night-shift-by-robin-triggs-blog-tour.html

The author did a good job with building the tension and I was kept guessing … Just as I thought I had an idea of who it was, a little doubt would creep in as something else was revealed. The who, why and how was not what I expected at all.

https://jenmedsbookreviews.com/2018/10/31/night-shift-by-robin-triggs-robintriggs-flametreepress-mgriffiths163-blogtour-review-randomthingstours/

Quite an enjoyable story.

https://broadbeansbooks.wordpress.com/2018/11/02/blogtour-night-shift-by-robintriggs-flametreepress-annecater/

I really enjoyed this book … What makes this story work and feel fresh is the writing, the very narrow perspective of only Anders’ view of everything and the ramping up of the tension and peril as the story develops.

https://bookloverwormblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/03/blogtour-review-night-shift-by-robin-triggs-flametreepress-robintriggs-annecater-randomthingstours/

This is a brilliant twist on the ‘who done it’ concept. Multiple murders and multiple motives and suspects kept me guessing throughout the book and just when I thought I had it figured out something would happen that would completely turn my thinking around … I hope to read more from this author in the future.

https://bucksbooksbeyond.wordpress.com/2018/11/05/night-shift-by-robin-triggs-blogtour-bookreview-robintriggs-flametreepress-annecater/

It’s speculative fiction with a whodunnit vibe and an aura of creepy suspense.

This a well-written and superbly plotted crime thriller based in the Antarctica … [h]opefully we won’t have to wait too long to read more by Triggs.

https://mmcheryl.wordpress.com/2018/11/07/blogtour-night-shift-by-robin-triggs/

There was also an extract shared on Over the Rainbow Book Blog

Punch-drunk. Yeah. That sums it up.

See you next time.

 

The final countdown

Today’s blog is brought to you in association with a vague sense of panic.

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It is a month until the Great Day of Publishing. I have so much to do. And I have nothing at all to do.

On my mental list:

  • Write an article for a local magazine
  • Answer questions for another magazine
  • Write many blog posts
  • Be interesting and insightful
  • Arrange bookshop events

Like many people I can make myself work hard and be personable. I can cold-call companies, and bookshops, and ask favours and make demands on strangers’ time. But it’s hard work. I’ve just got off the phone to a bookshop: it took me a whole weekend to work up the courage; I had to rehearse what I wanted to say; I had to be the very best ‘me’ I could possibly be.

It takes time and energy and, until the last decision is made and the final arrangement tidied, there’s always a sense of incompleteness.

Of course, nothing is ever truly finished. Arranged an event with a bookshop? How am I going to get there? Do I need to book accommodation? What do I need to take? Oh God I’m probably going to have to do a reading!

What if no-one turns up?

On my to-not-do list:

  • Harass the publisher
  • Over-commit my time and energies
  • Piss anyone off

I want to tick off the tasks. I want arrangements to be signed, sealed and delivered. But I’ve never done this before – do I do it myself or do my people (ha!) have people to do this sort of thing? I don’t want to duplicate work. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. How many enquiries (per hour) can I send out before my emails get switched straight into the ‘annoying author’ siding?

What I should be doing:

  • Writing something new
  • Editing old works

If all else fails go write. It’s a healthy mantra.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to focus on the things that matter when there’s so much still unresolved.

Still, best be grateful; I can only imagine how the publisher’s feeling right now.

Apart from anything else they’ve got all my emails to read.