Monday, 16 December 2013

The Tyranny Of Editing

New Collection Of Short Stories – 'The Truth In The Lie'

My new collection of short stories, entitled 'The Truth In The Lie', seems long overdue to me. I thought it would be out long before Christmas but it's dragging its feet – or rather, I am. Some of these stories are new and I'm quite excited about them. Others were written a while ago. Before the last collection (Special Treatment & Other Stories) in fact. These are the stories I was not 100% comfortable with when the stories for the last collection was selected. "Better to hold these ones back," I said to myself. They needed more work, and I hoped, as many of us writers do, that the spark that would ignite each of them would come to me if I was patient. Periodically I have re-read them and on occasion ruthlessly edited them – slaying numerous darlings in fact – and around three months ago I felt confident that they were ready. At this point my very literary (despot) eldest daughter came home from working in a retreat in the Spanish pyrenees. She is home for a few months and asked if she could do some paid work for me.

"You could edit my next book of short stories," I suggested. "It's about ready to go but could do with a final check."
My Current Editor

The next day she began. Ten days later she presented me with a document with a mass of yellow 'Track Changes' suggestions. I have read through it. Unfortunately she has not been over-zealous. Although there were only one or two typos, she highlighted many areas where stories could be improved. I should be grateful but I must confess to some sense of frustration. It was not what I had been expecting. The publishing date has had to be pushed back to a major extent and that does not make me feel good.

And there was me thinking I had learned all I needed to know from my first two books! So having one's book edited is painful. Yes I knew that, so how could I have forgotten so easily? With my first book - Long Road, Hard Lessons - A non-fiction book about my 10,000mile cycle journey with my teenage son, I endured about two weeks of very defensive arguments with my content editor, who is an old friend. Him being an old friend probably didn't help in many ways. It certainly didn't make him any less brutal with me. In the end, however, I realised that he was right about 95% of what he said, so why not save myself the pain and just accept it, bar any parts where he had misunderstood my intended meaning.  The whole point of getting someone else to edit, is that however good we get at editing our own work, we will always need a separate pair of eyes and at least one outside point of view in order to make it as good as it should be. So this time I have not argued with my daughter - at least not yet. I am grateful for the fact that she has taken the job so seriously and made such an effort.

Image courtesy of

So whereas this blog should have been telling you that the new book is now available, instead it is telling you that it's not. What I can tell you, I will:

I have no cover yet, but I'm inclined to go for the same traditional (Penguin classic style) cover as with Special Treatment & Other Stories. I'm not a traditionalist by nature but I can't stand those cheesy (as I see them) airport thriller style covers that look like a graphic design student had a month to kill and needed to impress someone. I like the cover to intrigue the reader about what's inside rather than to get them so excited about the cover, that what's inside can only seem like an anticlimax. Or perhaps I just prefer 'classy' to 'loud'.

Story Genre
The stories are, like the last collection, subtitled 'Excursions Into The Lives Of Others'. They are somewhat voyeuristic in style. The reader may feel they are prying. Things are disclosed or hinted at which we feel perhaps we shouldn't know – some readers may even feel a sense of discomfort. Perhaps some of that discomfort is about the fact that most of us recognise something of ourselves and our own lives in these characters. Scary! But I sense that much of what seems to make people uncomfortable, is their own overwhelming desire to know more.
The title, The Truth In The Lie, was chosen because of the number of times I have been asked whether my stories are based upon truth. It seems obvious to me that every fictional story is based upon truth – personal truths from past experiences or those I have heard of, and 'great truths'. Many so called great truths may never actually have happened, yet they are universal truths of life, understood by all.

Story Outlines
My Only FriendAn elderly widow in Lisbon is estranged from her son who prefers to live in squalor and idleness since the death of the father he adored.

A Minor DistractionA rich American man on a train in Africa tries to tempt a poor young girl into his carriage while stopped at a wilderness station. The tragedy that ensues hardly seems to touch him.

Greta A pair of travellers arrive in a rural Hungarian hotel where all is not what it should be. They are shown to their room by a young woman who seems something of an automaton. 

All In Good Time A woman who runs a cafe is told she is being watched by the security forces. It seems unlikely until one of her staff disappears under strange circumstances.

Masaji A father and son attempt to escape from China on foot after their visa runs out. 

In The Line Of Fire A man in a war zone is attacked and hounded by those he once regarded as friends. They seem unwilling to allow him to leave the area, however.

Never Give Up Exhausted after several days at work, a man begins to experience strange occurrences while driving home through a long road tunnel.

Traffic An art dealer makes his first trip to Africa and almost immediately becomes the victim of not one but two carefully engineered scams – or so it seems. 

River Witch A young man camps by a river and is shocked to see a naked young woman float past as he lies in bed enjoying the early morning sun. How could he not go after her?

Red Card Once a promising professional footballer, Pat Carmichael becomes an alcoholic loser after he suffers a crippling injury. Finally after two years of depression he picks himself up.

Drawn To The Light Travelling home on his daily commuter train, David is drawn to something strange he sees in the dark while the train is stopped. What he sees transfixes him.

Dottie’s Diary Two women hill-climbing in Wales take shelter in a stone barn. Soon they are joined by a wealthy local woman who invites them home where they meet her husband. He is familiar to one of them. 

Burned On Him A rather reserved family meet for a weekend at the parents' house where a revelation by one sister causes an argument and unexpected consequences.

The ‘F’ Word A conversation overheard on a train with three children, their mother and her friend. 

The Bottle Lady of Luang Prabang Surreal happenings when a group of friends meet at their regular breakfast cafe by a busy main road. "The chink of glass in the early morning traffic haze."

If you would like to purchase 'The Truth In The Lie' (which is now available in print or as an e-book) please click one of the links to the main sales sites, where you can also find other stories by the same author:

Mark Swain on Amazon
Mark Swain on Smashwords

Monday, 2 December 2013

The Writer's Desire For Immortality

Something To Be Remembered By

Rather like being an actor or a singer, the chances of achieving fame or great wealth as a writer are slim. So allowing for the fact that many of us writers are either idiots, optimists or are blindly happy to delude ourselves, what is the motivation for the remainder?

Most writers remember that warm feeling we got the first time we saw our name on a book cover or our name at the head of an article in a magazine or newspaper. We probably never before in our lives believed that we would see it, and yet there it is. Even better, is the feeling when we pop into a bookshop in some far away town, city or country and see one of our books on a shelf. It still thrills me when people e-mail, Tweet or Facebook me pictures of my book on some far-away shelf. It is also a physical validation of what has been gained after months and years of hard work, excruciating editing and trying to find a publisher. It is satisfaction well deserved and well earned.

As they say, despite the undeniably enormous odds against you, if you don't buy a lottery ticket you can't win the lottery. We know the chances of us striking it big with a bestseller are small, but at least we are in the running. Like the lottery ticket that I never really believe will be a big prize winner, I check my Amazon sales reports just in case there has been a massive jump in sales for some reason. To some extent it makes life more worth living. If we have no hope then life is not worth getting out of bed for.

Self Image
Many of us are not happy with the image others have of us and this relates to more than the clothes we wear or our haircut. What we do for a living plays a major part. Some of us cringe when someone we meet socially asks us "So what do you do?" Few of us, I am guessing, are totally satisfied with giving an honest answer. I used to run a risk management company, specialising in workplace safety. Telling someone that, I felt, gave a poor impression of what I was really like. For myself I didn't care that much - in fact it amused me to make it sound as dull as possible and watch people's reaction. But I know I feel more comfortable now, telling people that I write books. I'd be a fool and a liar to deny it.

Photo courtesy of

This seems obvious really, but some people (like myself) actually enjoy the process of writing – the observation of life, the invention, the weaving of a story, making characters into real people and thrilling readers with a great ending. I won't say it's better than sex. That would be overstating it and would fall into the category of an unforgivable cliche. Not everyone enjoys writing. Many find the process absolute torture and feel no pleasure until they finish. Even then they fear bad reviews or awkward questions. The image of the tortured writer living in a garret is an attractive one for me, yet I seem unable to experience it for myself, however hard I try.

Photo courtesy of

This leaves the writer's desire for immortality. Death features in so many popular books as well as in paintings, music and in poetry. We are drawn to it, yet I dare say we all fear it in some way or another. Most writers have a desire for fame of some kind. At least they write in order to be recognised by others. Their greatest hope is that they might write something that people will still be reading long after they are dead. I don't need tell you why. Death is so final, isn't it. Wouldn't it be great if we could live on, even if only in the minds of others - and the more 'others' the better really. I lost my father as a teenager. He was only 37 and was seemingly very healthy so it was unexpected. It left me with many regrets about things I should have said to him and and done with him before he died. Perhaps if there is life after death us writers might find ourselves cursing ourselves for what we should and could have written, but didn't? People who know about my regrets over the things I failed to say to my father sometimes ask me for advice when their parents are old or ill. How can they avoid the same pitfalls, they ask, and not be left feeling later that they should and could have said this or that? Here is something I wrote as a reply this week. It might be helpful to share it and to draw a parallel with the need to be sure that we write everything we should while we can – and to make sure that what we write is bloody good!

Dear Bill,

How very sad to hear about your father. I have thought hard about your question regarding what you might say to him while you have the chance. I would make these comments:

1. When I can't think of anything to say, I have learned that what is usually needed is to ask questions (or keep quiet). 
Ask him what are his strongest memories about the two of you together, perhaps. This might enable him to say things he wants to say but finds difficult. It may open a door. This could be a huge relief to him, and therefore a great satisfaction to you, especially later.

2. For yourself, remember that many of us hold living friends and family in our hearts and minds. Perhaps they have emigrated or you are both too busy to see each other, yet we know they are there. They are real and we draw strength from them being there, however far away. It might be that you never see each other again, in fact, but you know they are still there. Realise then, that the difference between this situation and that person having died and moved on is only one of cold scientific fact. Scientific fact is not what binds you. Love, memories and emotion is what binds you and that will remain beyond death if you allow it to. It is about how we decide to see things. You may or may not wish to share this with your father. Personally I would, but that is a matter of personal choice.

I wish you well in this Bill, and commend you for your courage and determination to do something valuable, while your father is still here in body. Most shy away from that and regret it later.

Best wishes