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Idle blogs of an idle fellow

Journeys from the fax

How Long does it take to write a novel?

The short answer is bloody ages. I should know. The Life Assistance Agency loitered in my life with the entitlement of sullen teenagers at a bus stop. It was long enough to be transferred from at least two computer hard drives. For many writers, looking too closely at how long it took to complete a book is inadvisable without emergency services on speed dial.

As already blogged about on here, one of the more popular questions people have for writers is ‘are you writing another one?’ which makes you wonder why you started all this nonsense in the first place. Despite your wildest fantasies, there’s no sea of adoring fans at Red Rocks under a blood red sky or name drops from major interviewees clamouring for another book, there’s simply people idly wondering if you’re going to write another, as though it’s on par with eating a few more crisps at a party.

I recently read a fascinating interview with Will Menmuir – a Booker Prize long list nominee –  who wrote a diary about his writing The Many. It is an honest account of how a first draft barely makes sense even to the writer and that the daily 500 words goal was lucky to met in a fortnight.  In light of the time spent writing a novel it’s almost unseemly how quickly you forget the arduous process . Balancing prose, characters and plot is akin to swinging across a room using nothing but cotton threads. It’s basically sticking with an idea that you keep wondering might be shit with no one yet to tell you otherwise.

I always intended my Life Assistance Agency to be a series of books from the instant that the Commissioning Editor at Random House asked me if it had sequels. I made up the sequel’s title Blind Fury on the spot, which led to the idea of having a retired wrestler Billy ‘Blind’ Fury as a character. See what I mean about having potentially shit idea and sticking with it.  Since this working title, I’ve been toying with the idea of the Life Assistance Agency and the Loneliness of a Pop Star. It echoes Tintin books – the life Assistance Agency in Tibet, etc, which basically looks like a thinly disguised excuse to go travelling for ‘research’.  I’ve been long obsessed with what successful pop stars do once their moment in the sun inevitably fades and they’re left with the mansion and a swimming pool in the shape of their own ego.

Since the first novel got published I was aware of needing to write a follow up. I had already completed 40,000 words of Blind Fury, but decided I needed to start again from scratch. I’d like a word with the version of myself making that particular decision.

The hardest thing to find in writing is your voice. It eventually arrives, but only after more false starts than the Millennium Falcon. I always wanted to write novels as thin as the cigarettes I was smoking. Some kind of treatise on the human condition that hit home truths like the LA Lakers hit home runs* Instead, I now aim to be writing wry adventure yarns of the old mould involving angels. The most annoying thing about this is that I don’t read novels about angels, although I do think Stigmata is an amazing film. To be honest the angels are coincidental. It’s really about a pair of chancers setting up an agency in the same spirit that pioneers set up record companies, publishing houses and dentists. Put a sign up and pray people will come. Like Douglas Adams wrote Hitch Hikers Guide to Galaxy in the Sci Fi genre, angels are really simply a vehicle for some jokes and absurd predicaments.

So, this is a declaration. Of sporadic blog posts that captures the blood, sweat and tea stains of writing a novel that is currently called the Loneliness of a Pop Star: a Life Assistance Agency novel. with a word goal of 1000 per week. There I’ve said it. I even wrote a line I loved the other day: ‘Scott might find wisdom from Springsteen, but sometimes it’s found in the echo of disco cowbells from early 80s NYC dance-floors.’

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – – 

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 *I know nothing about baseball so if the LA Lakers are currently discovering poor home form then this analogy may not work.  I basically had one of their caps once.

 

Cumbersome or Cumberbatch? A review of Marvel’s Dr. Strange.

The Marvel Universe is possibly expanding quicker than anyone without a mutated super power enabling comprehension of multiple storylines can keep up with. Recently it’s been the turn of Dr Strange to make his appearance, with Benedict Cumberpatch playing the slightly odd surgeon Dr Steve Strange, who’s idiotic driving ends in a crash that he fully deserves.

Beyond Cumberbatch frowning it is hard to know what to expect, but starring an actor better know for ‘serious drama’ signifies a maturer approach to the Marvel cannon, that and psychedelic swirls better suited to explosions in an ice cream parlour. It also features Mads Mikkelsen, who stars in so many things these days that I half expect to wake up and find him in my bedroom. I know several women for whom this would not be a problem, although their husbands might take issue.

Mikkelsen is underused, and features as some kind of a sushi chef who has watched too many samurai movies. He has stolen some pages from a book in the fiercely guarded library, which clearly wasn’t that well protected. The film is really an expansion upon someone with overdue library book fees to pay.

After The Ancient One (Tilda Swindon) turns London into a huge enveloping Tetris game our first introduction to the Dr is where he’s naming music trivia during a surgical operation like someone rehearsing for Radio 2’s Pop Master. It’s the kind of knowing nod to pop culture that began with Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and is now de rigor of any film that wants to enjoy complicit winks with the section of an audience that knows its Nick Drake from its Nick Cave. It’s a shame Strange never mentions his love of music trivia again, as he lurches off to Tibet after losing use of his hands after the self-inflicted car accident. With Batman, Iron Fist amongst others, it’s hard to know what the Marvel/DC universe would do without the Himalayas – the departures lounge must be packed with superheroes returning to the western world.

Cumberbatch is so good at playing arrogant twats that you have to wonder where the script stops and he starts. He does however do a good job of not laughing at the pompous script, while the multi-verse of different dimensions sounds a little too much like an EDM motto, or the recent Danger Mouse episode involving the Twisty verse. It’s really the story of how he gets his cloak, which isn’t from TK Max and amusingly has a mind of its own. There is of course the customary cameo from Stan Lee.

The end is a little like the Matrix meets the Haribo kaleidoscopic Trolls movie, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless, although it’s hard to see how anything beyond the Dr Strange Origin story can be of much interest.

My debut novel The Life Assistance Agency as chosen for WHSmith Fresh Talent can be bought here:

Book Promotion – the BBC Radio Interview.

I’m unsure what the highlight of being asked onto BBCRadio Kent to talk about the Life Assistance Agency was, but it wasn’t tapping the producer lightly to request water. The aim was to not disturb her in case she was on air, but it resulted in her leaping into the air squawking while clutching her chest, as I hastily explained that I’d been attempting to get her attention without disturbing her. Thankfully she didn’t accidentally slide a fader down and bring Thursday night’s Drive Time with Dominic King prematurely off air.

Writing a novel doesn’t prepare you for LIVE radio interviews. In fact it prepares you for very little; not even writing another novel, which feels like swinging across a room using nothing but cotton threads. I had an ale in the pub next door for medical purposes, and it took admirable restraint to not tell the bartender that I was half an hour away from my radio debut, the radio which I had to describe to my 5 year old as being TV but without pictures.

I’d been given some good advice: no ‘uuummms’, don’t swear, and no alcohol in the studio – it’s the not the 1970s. Don’t swear was the most popular advice, while my own internal voice kept muttering ‘don’t slag off Royal Tunbridge Wells’ like it knew I might, despite never having had a bad word to say about the place for most of my life. I was also careful not to drink the previous night; the best place for a hangover is on the sofa, not on the radio.

Also, despite having seen numerous Teenager Ninja Turtles and Power Rangers on the school run, I restrained from accusing some parents of being too stupid to discern between characters from books and the Nickelodeon channel

Because it was World Book Day I was going to arrive dressed as a writer, but thought pyjamas would be too much even for radio. It was appropriate to be asked in for World Book Day as Dr. Dee, the historical character of my novel, would have been a keen supporter. Even in 1580 he had considerably more books than children, in an age when this was unheard of. Sadly there are homes in which this remains the case today. As I say in my novel, he was a man in desperate need of a Kindle, needing an entire wagon to transport his books around Europe while his family often walked.

The interview took place on the Drive Time show, as if Kent drivers didn’t have enough rush hour hardships to contend with. My father took this so literally that he sat in the car to listen in. It seemed fitting. The interview went surprisingly well, and I was made very welcome by Dominic King, although I’m sure there’s a word in radio for guests’ best anecdotes appearing off air. He kindly took a photo of us afterwards, in which I missed the promotional opportunity of holding my book, while appearing to have been recently heavily sedated.

I can be heard here – at 2 hours 25 minutes:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04swbkc#play

And my debut novel as chosen for WHSmith Fresh Talent can be bought here:

 

 

 

 

 

Top Secrets to Better Blogging.

Since the children have learnt to use the TV remote and subsequently made me obsolete, blogging has been a reason to wake up in the morning, If only this were true. It’s still a cup of tea, or beer and sausage rolls (in the evening obviously) , but these events sadly do not justify a blog post.

The key to blogging is something happening to you. Blogging is like declaring intention to write an autobiography before anything has happened. It’s the pressure of writing a weekly newspaper column but not getting paid for it; if anyone still is. You start questioning the blogability of everything you do. Oh, I tripped over a shrew while putting the rubbish out  – ‘Blog about it.’

However, it’s actually been a busy week. On Thursday some charming woman calling me a white piece of shit punched me in the face. The fact I was holding a terrified 3 year old did nothing to deter her. She had been driving past a primary school at a speed high enough to justify a brief word of advice. Her battered car also needed a clean, but there was no time to mention this before she had lumped me in the eye and driven off. I called the police to report it; the racially aggravated assault, not the dirty car. It’s become quite a talking point. It’s like nothing has really happened locally for six months. Ironically, it was during something actually happening to me that for once I was not assessing it for blogability

The trick to blogging is knowing what to write about. And nothing triggers panic like suggesting you know the secrets to blogging. There are none. Although it’s best to avoid politics, particularly these days, when the arguments are so polemic they make north and south appear like buddies that have drunk in the same pub for 30 years.

It might be timely to express indignation about Trump, but so many people already are that you wonder if he’s simply an indignation-conducting rod. It’s hard to know if he created the anger, or if it was there already. Either way, none of it is healthy, and I’m already furious enough about missing the last of ITV’s Ninja Warrior. No matter how much you might be struck by the irony of pacifists accusing Therese May as an appeaser, it’s best to keep quiet.

Trump’s existence creates such outrage that even his sensible comments (he has made one I believe about NATO) are lost in the pursuit of umbrage. Twitter’s #notmypresident was blatantly untrue in the States, yet perfectly accurate anywhere else in the world. Anyway, I wouldn’t have voted of him, but I don’t have the energy for outrage at an elected Head of State doing what he wants to do. It’s probably the human rights of Saudi Arabia or Iran hanging gay men that upsets me more, but let’s leave it there.

My novel, The Life Assistance Agency – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 –  is available here – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance

and here

http://www.foyles.co.uk/witem/fiction-poetry/the-life-assistance-agency,thomas-hocknell-9781911129035

and on ebook here –

 

 

 

 

La La Land or Trainspotting 2..?

Generation X have been faced with a difficult decision. It’s of the sort impossible to shy away from; the sort that might affect families for generations to come. While some friends have voted one way, declaring their decision as irrefutable, others are reaching for the sick bucket, or rather Sick Boy. In such divisive times it’s hard to find middle ground. On one hand you have La la Land, which has the charm of a singing box of milk chocolates, while on the other you have a return to the adrenaline soaked underworld of Trainspotting 2.

As an alternative choice someone suggested Manchester by sea, declaring it as an emotional gut punch of a film, ‘though not many dance routines. He made it sound like latter day Take That.

The sequel to Trainspotting has taken a while, as Danny Boyle wisely waited for his cast to look older enough. In Hollywood this can mean a long time, and Euan Mcgregor’s career-requiring youthfulness is even referred to by the enigmatic Sick Boy.

John Lee Miller inhabits his hair-bleached role like it’s god-given, but from the loafers up he’s a legend in his own mind, even if his bedraggled pub suggests that he might want to take a closer look.

Euan McGregor, while not as bad as his cardboard Obi Wan, is acted off screen by the others. Mostly by Ewen Bremner, who’s Spud was the heart of the first film and the soul of this. Trainspotting 2 somehow succeeds in being a 117 minute trailer for itself, which is quite a feat, but it’s Spud who stops the film only being an extended pop video. He’s the vulnerable anti-hero we’re all chanting for.

It’s actually better than the first film, with a new found pathos that was lacking from the youthful original. These characters have grown up. Well, perhaps not grown up, but grown older. Sadly they are not the same thing, which is what interests us. It’s not just the characters that have changed (or have they?) but Edinburgh. It’s a different time, where the brutality of the past has been replaced by Starbucks and trams. Of course Begbie remains psychopathic, although his taste in well-cut Pringle jumpers has to be admired, even if he’s likely to glass you for mentioning it.

We’re on side from the moment Mark Renton flips the vinyl record in his hands with an ease that is second nature to a now aging generation; a demographic that like all others never believed it would. There are elegant shadows of the original throughout, as an ambient version Born Slippy provokes mass soul searching throughout the cinema. What have we been doing for twenty years? Fallen in love. Given up drugs. Bought not rented. Bearded or notVinyl or download.

The film has been accused of lacking female characters, which is right-on bollocks, if you’ll excuse the pun. It’s a film about men struggling with the loss of youth, so why would it not focus on male characters? Anyway, there are enough females, who spend their time raising their eyebrows at men’s inability to grow up. Either that, or shafting them with strap-ons obviously.

Last time we watched this film was while coming up for air after bongs, so it’s lucky the perfectly edited flashbacks to the 1992 original negated the need for homework in re-watching it. There are even 80s songs, which the surge of Brit pop and house music had hoped to replace. The unmistakable pound of Frankie goes to Hollywood’s Relax has the surge of intent lacking from most national anthems. Meanwhile the kick of Run DMC’s It’s like that and Queen’s Radio Gaga provokes grins like supporters of La la Land also claim to have found on their faces.

That Mark Renton and Sick Boy are still having a beer at the close of  Trainspotting 2 is telling. Have they grown up? Who knows, but it’s Spud who is the one who needs saving, and perhaps he is. I for one look forward to finding out, as the UK finds it’s own version of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise. See you in twenty years time.

My novel – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 – the Life Assistance Agency is available now here – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance  – read the book before it’s made into a film.

WHSmith Fresh talent 2017. In-store Promotion

In light of having once blogged about someone eating yoghurt in the street it would be false modesty not to write about the inclusion of The Life Assistance Agency in WHSmith’s 2017 Fresh Talent selection.

The last time I was in WHSmith’s for an hour was in 1988, when the music department couldn’t find the LP to match the sleeve of Roachford’s debut album. I eventually walked out with Talking Heads’ (best) forgotten Naked album, which was my first exposure to reputation outstripping reality.

Anyway, with a hangover best left undescribed I don’t feel particularly talented, far less fresh. I keep finding myself near bacon sandwiches, which I am not at Euston station to promote. I’m here as one of 12 new writers to watch out for. I am utterly chuffed and in shock. However, there’s a thin line between looking chuffed and appearing smug and I keep crossing it. So, I hope people are not watching too closely. I also keep closing my eyes. It was not my intention to bring my best Bukowski impression to a book signing. Mind you, Hunter S Thompson would have flown in on mescaline, so an ale & crisps induced headache barely registers on the reckless writer scale. I’m pleased my supportive publisher is there to keep me standing.

I’ve done my best to look like the photo used in the promotional poster, but I’m not in back and white, which I’d prefer to be, as colours are making my head spin.

I’m joined by seven of the other writers lucky enough to have been chosen by WHSmith Fresh Talent. It’s good to put a face to the prose. Even if they also look so little like their photos that I wonder if I’m surrounded by imposters. That is until I see the horror in their eyes as first drafts of next novels are mentioned; of the kind that cannot be faked.

Thankfully the staff have been told why seven writerly-looking types are loitering and scrawling all over front pages of novels in their shop. Then Matt Bates, WHSmith travel Fiction buyer, arrives with the sort of barely-contained enthusiasm that encouraged 27m books being purchased last year to read while travelling. He’s so passionate about my novel that part of me thinks I’ve made him up.

Promoting your book in store is not the sort of thing that writing a novel prepares you for. It’s very flattering, and of course a fantastic opportunity to flog a few copies. I was delighted to see WHSmith celebrating new authors, even before I was included. Now I’m evangelical about it. There was also a cake with all the book covers on, which seemed a shame to cut. For about 10 seconds.

We pose with our novels, as the line between smug and chuffed is not only crossed but nuked from recognisable existence. I’m unsure how near I should hover to my book. It might put people off, although nothing repels customers quite like a shop full of smug writers and their publishers, but as we leave I notice customers (clearly with excellent taste) approaching the wall of the 12 Fresh Talent novels. .. I leave before announcing  to them ‘I wrote that’ in the kind of louche manner now banned in the 21st century. I need to eat my own body weight in cheese burgers and go to bed.

How to use Music in Writing your novel

There are clearly more important things in life than musical taste. Just ask Gavin Rossdale, who has recently joined the Voice; presumably at the cost of being able to sleep ever again. Yet playlists remain central to our lives. When I say ‘our’ I mean people that consider gifting song compilations as integral to the wooing process, and even in moments of crisis will be thinking ‘I wonder what song would best soundtrack this?’. For some people Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell says more about them than their CV ever will. Even at 54. (Not that I’m 54, it was just an example).

Of course a novel is no different. It needs songs. Of course most writers, or car salesmen are failed musicians. I should know, I’ve been both. Not that I was in a band for long. Gothic Poodle was a mistake from the name down.  None of us could play instruments, but that didn’t stop if from amassing a back catalogue to rival no one’s. We split up over creative similarities. Mind you, Runaway Girl remains an unrecorded classic, at least in my head.

Anyway, it has taken a long time for me to accept that my influences are not Bergman or Camus, Paris’ left bank or Bob Dylan, but 2000AD comics, Smash Hits and Highlander. This 1986 film is best known for being the only watchable film Christopher Lambert ever starred in. It features a sleek soundtrack from Queen including  It’s a kind of Magic and th majestic Who wants to live forever? Similar themes and practical issues of eternal life underpin the premise of my debut novel, the Life Assistance Agency, and Who wants to live forever? is a question anyone pursuing immortality is unlikely to have fully explored.

The challenge of asking Queen and Freddie Mercury to write music for the Life Assistance Agency, was mitigated by the fact they had already done so in the shape of Highlander. It made a great starting point. My protagonists are keen music lovers, so Bruce Springsteen rubs shoulders with the apt Oasis’ Live Forever and Robbie Williams schmaltzy Angels, which not only healed a Britpop rift, but anchored the story in real life by playing Radio 2 in the background.

The novel found itself with a soundtrack that could have written the story itself, that’s if playlists were able to write novels, which sadly they are not. But they do help. They provide the story with rhythm, even if it’s with songs you don’t like .

My new novel even features a retired pop star. After all, who hasn’t wondered what happens after your huge hit single, and all you have on your hands is time and money with which to fill it. After all, there’s only so many Rolls Royces you can crash into a swimming pool before it starts to affect your fitness regime.

It was on completion of the novel that someone suggested I compile the soundtrack. Annoyed I had not thought of this myself, I noted every song as it appeared and did so, while adding a few extras. I wish I could claim this did not take up an entire day, but like writing a novel, it needed to find its own poise. So, here you go….

The Spotify soundtrack to the Life Assistance Agency can be found here:

And the novel – selected by WHSmith Fresh Talent 2017 – the Life Assistance Agency is available now here – http://myBook.to/lifeassistance

 

 

How to write while Staying at Relatives.

 

Nothing says visiting relatives at Christmas quite like wheel-spinning out of a cul-de-sac at the crack of dawn heading for home. Most writers hate Christmas, as their alluringly private work finds itself exposed and appears to look more like sitting around doing nothing at a time when you should be acting busy.

It’s hard to know what the worst thing about going away at Christmas is, at least it is until someone books an 9am ice skating slot. I mean who wants to go ice skating at 9am. What’s an ice rink even doing open at 9am? It’s a first world problem and the staff are having an even worse time, but still, this is volunteered fun. And everyone knows that fun is hard to spell before lunchtime, particularly when it involves clutching to hoardings to stay upright. This is the sort of entertainment I left behind at university, and even that involved thin ice.

Now, did anyone get Amazon’s Alexa for a present? Even if you didn’t, you’ll know who she is. She’s a personal assistant, who promises the world, without moving, much like a fortune teller. In dulcet tones she claims to not understand perfectly reasonably requests, while arranging Amazon deliveries with liberal use of your bank details. Humorous interactions throughout Christmas are gong to look less funny when Elton John’s entire back catalogue and sixteen spare chairs arrived in January. She’s basically a parent that when is asked to turn your music down, actually does so.

It’s all gadgets these days, making one feel like having been thrown forward in time without paying attention to what year was pressed into the machine. One young relative spent the day with a virtual reality plastic box over his head. At least it means he couldn’t see enough plastic toys and wrapping destined for landfill to speed up plant’s demise by a decade.

Christmas obliterates the week and the hardest thing is not knowing what day it is. You can ask Alexa, but she’s too busy negotiating musical requests that barely give a song longer than its opening 4 bars, before someone yells for Chris Rea again. When asked ‘Who’s round is it?’ she claims to not understand, so in some ways she’s more human than is comfortable. It might be funny to ask her bra size, but she’s likely to delay answering this until someone rejoins you in the room.

Not only is finding the time to write a struggle, but you’re surrounded by so many cliches that its hard not to even think in them. Of course Christmas is all about the children, even the one who got a new recorder without any previous knowledge in how to play it. Strangled notes of Three blind mice played with the musical prowess of a whistle stuck in a vacuum cleaner prevented any adult from recovering the 5:00am start, and even stopped the elderly relative from dying on the sofa.

Staying with people means you need to be sociable (not a leading characteristic of writing, which mainly involves swearing at yourself for another poor plot turn). And you don’t know where anything is. Even the port. All you want to do is take your bloated cusk to the gym, although your gym is a 100 miles away, which is probably for the best, as they would be invariable refuse entry to anyone smelling that strongly of stilton and surplus crackers., while calling everyone Alexa in the hope they’ll do what demanded.

The Life Assistance Agency is available now and can be purchased with book tokens, hard cash and by asking Alexa to order it. At    and in Foyles.

 

 

 

 

Last Blog of 2016, & Review of Look at me by Anita Brookner – Penguin books.

For my last blog of the year I want to take the opportunity to thank everyone who visits my site, and comment. It means I’m not idly shouting into the ether. Or if I am, at least it’s yelling back occasionally. Since the Life Assistance Agency was published in September support has come from unlikely places, and from new friends. You all know who you are, so I won’t bore you with a list of names. Besides, as already discussed in the politics of the Acknowledgements    – https://tomhocknell.wordpress.com/2016/08/22/how-to-write-acknowledgments/ – it’s a minefield. Here’s all the very best wishes to every reader, writer, editor and designer out there for the next year.

So, to close the year, I review of one of the favourite novels I read this year: Look at me by Anita Brookner – Penguin books. 2016

The joy of a local bookshop is its algorithms. Much like the Internet reminds you of trainers you once browsed but couldn’t afford, a bookshop knows what you read. Hence, I was recommended the 2016 reissue of Anita Brookner’s Look at Me. It’s a slim novel concerning a young woman in West London, and of the sort I would never normally read! It’s a glimpse behind curtains not of street-tough suburban streets, but of the moneyed tenement blocks of Mayfair. It’s populated with old ladies sitting lonely amongst accrued opulence, and bright thing things grasping for life’s meaning beyond having everything.

It’s a world in which charm combats time, and indeed the librarian, Frances Hinton. She is mesmerised by the charismatic Nick, who ‘seemed to be totally ignorant of the sad compromises and makeshifts, the substitutions and the fantasies, that constitute the emotional baggage of the average person.’

As she walks home past Christmas office parties, Frances struggles to equate her quiet life with that of Nick and his equally beguiling wife Alix, yet perhaps things are not as perfect as they seem. Brookner expertly lures Frances behind those historically closed doors. This genuinely timeless book is beguiling, and the perfect back pocket novel.

 

The Life Assistance Agency is available now and features in 2017’s WHSmith Fresh New Talent promotion.   and in all good bookshops, including Foyles.

 

 

 

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