Your short story Dead of the Night is in Australian Literature: A Snapshot in 10 Short Stories. What can readers look forward to in Dead of the Night?
Dead of the Night is actually my first toe-dipping into the world of supernatural horror. Previously my stories have featured psychopaths with misfiring synapses. Dead Of The Night is about a horror writer who hasn’t been able to write a decent page since his first highly successful debut novel years before. After falling asleep on his lounge one night, dreams come to him, dark dreams, and when he wakes up he can only remember tiny flashes. An image here, an image there. But suddenly he can write. The words are flowing again. But soon the dreams become all too real. Dead Of The Night is a story of a man who begins to question his own sanity as his previously uneventful life spirals into darkness.
You recently had your story The Surgeon published in the April edition of Suspense Magazine. How are finding the string of writing achievements you have been accumulating with your short stories and to what extent do you find they’re opening up opportunities for bigger projects in the future?
I haven’t yet had a publisher drop a huge bag of money on my front door (though I do keep checking every day…just in case), but I’m in contact with a lot more people in the writing industry – everyone from fellow writers, to readers, to magazine publishers, to editors of literary review websites (who may or may not be named Steve). At these early stages, networking seems to be very important, whilst at the same time I’m getting some great additions to my writing resume. Consistency seems to be a big thing in this industry: “Sure, he can write one story, but can he write two? What about five?” By showing I can write more than one decent story, opportunities such as direct invitations to join in anthologies have opened up. And by building a resume that isn’t just a rectangular piece of blank paper, I hope that it will help attract an agent when the time comes, and will also hopefully give them some bargaining power when negotiating my first book deal.
On a slightly related note: Is it a sign you’ve made it when you Google Sam Stephens and there are enough results about you to almost wipe Sam(antha) Stephens from TV show Bewitched from the first page of Sam Stephens results (there’s currently one image result at the bottom of the first page remaining), or will there always be a hole in your life until she’s gone completely?
It’s been a long, hard road; Samantha has witchcraft on her side, and I’m just a mere mortal. But the battle continues, and I’ll not rest until I drive the splintered end of her broomstick through her cold, satanic heart. Google is today’s Salem, and search engine rankings are our war.
You recently received feedback from novelist Katherine Howell as runner-up in the March short story comp, and you have received feedback from other authors JJ Cooper and Sophie King in previous AusLit comps. Do you have a piece of writerly wisdom you’ve picked up and would like to share?
Pacing, plot holes, and believability are the three big things readers can pick up often a lot easier than the actual writer. Because the story is floating around in our head, we’re not looking at it from a total stranger’s point of view, and so we can miss issues like this from time to time. When you have a professional writer reading your story, they’re either consciously or sub-consciously looking for issues like this. Katherine Howell picked up a number of issues, one of them being quite a large plot hole that I left during one of my editing sweeps. JJ Cooper had some excellent pacing tips. And Sophie King; this was an especially interesting one: she actually made me see my story in a totally different light. It was one of those “Wow, is that what my story means to other people?” moments. If a reader can find meaning in my work that I perhaps didn’t consciously intend, then I believe that’s the mark of a deep story. And it’s really quite humbling!
You will be part of the AusLit Central Coast Writing Team between May and September. At the time of writing, there is still time for people to apply to write on that team with you. What would you like to say to people considering applying to be part of the project?
Join up! I’ve had a sneak peak of the ideas swirling around for the Central Coast writing team, and it’s going to rock. And stories aside, it’ll also be a lot of fun meeting local writers, throwing ideas around, and generally wreaking havoc in a fictional world.
Since you have a 3 year old son and are exposed to storytelling of the likes of Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, have you managed to take anything useful about storytelling away from your encounters with these sorts of children’s storytelling?
Strangely enough, yes – they’re actually a prime example of character growth, and are usually quite tight narratives. When you think about it, when your audience is three years old, holding their attention is a pretty big ask. Take Thomas, as case in point (spoiler alert): in one of his crazy adventures on Sordor Island, he meets his arch nemesis, Spencer. Spencer is a huge shiny engine with a jaw-line that’d make Bruce Campbell jealous. He’s big, strong, and fast. During a drag race, which Thomas loses, Thomas blows the Fat Controller’s hat off and then follows it around the countryside until he’s able to find it again. (Luckily the hat seemed to follow the rail line.) After returning the hat, Thomas realises that being the fastest isn’t important. Even going slower he can still be a Very Useful Engine. Examining it closely, we’ve got a pretty solid story structure. The flawed main character battles his arch nemesis. He loses and finds himself plunged into deeper trouble. As the main character realises where his true strengths lie, he uses them to overcome an almost unsurmountable problem. It also uses the three main types of conflict: Internal conflict as Thomas battles his own demons, external conflict between Spencer and The Fat Controller, and environmental conflict as Thomas battles the wind that keeps pushing his goal further and further away. Not only are they really quite well written, but they also have a catchy theme song.
What is a story you have read recently which stood out for you, and what made it stand out?
This Green Hell by Greig Beck. It’s the third in the series based around Alex Hunter, the leader of a kick-arse black-ops team (the perfect balance between horror and action). I read a question on a blog recently that talked about book series that go on for over ten novels. The question was, what more can we learn about a character that can’t be told in ten books? I think Greig answered that in This Green Hell. Without spoiling it, something happens at the end of the book that sends the story in a whole new direction. And that’s a secret worth remembering for anyone who is writing a series based around the same character: it’s not about how much more can we learn about a person. Because life isn’t static, even if it’s a fictional life. People change, people evolve. And to keep your readers’ interest up, your main character also needs to evolve. So why did it stand out to me? Because I love the fact that Grieg Beck had the balls to shake things up.
You are also writing the manuscript for a thriller novel. How is that coming along, and what can readers look forward to when it’s done?
It’s coming along quite well. It’s had a bit of rest time recently as I’ve been working on some short stories, but all the time the storyline has been ticking over in my head. This novel isn’t a horror, which is a bit of a change if you’ve read any of my short stories (except maybe ‘Bobby West’). It’s about something close to my heart – the turmoil a father would feel if his son was kidnapped. That bond of trust a three year old has with his parents to keep him safe is broken, torn away. What do you do next? For Jimmy Cain the answer is simple – take him back, by any means necessary. There is quite a lot of plotting to do on this one. Good action can be deceptively hard to do, because around that action you need to have quite a deep and twisted storyline, otherwise the end product is bland and disinteresting. So this novel for me is a huge exercise in plotting and the creation of conspiracies that will hopefully lead to an intriguing, glue-my-eyelids-open-and-read-all-night storyline.
The Australian Literature Review