Billy Does It Again

Back in 2010 I entered a story in a “cliffhanger” competition organised by the Swindon Festival of Literature in conjunction with the Swindon Speakers’ Club. The idea was that you got four minutes to read your story to an audience, leaving it “cliffhanging”. The author of the one the audience liked the best would then read out its last minute. (You had to keep within the time.) So I wrote and read out Billy’s New Hill, which tells of how Billy Mac takes two other children on an adventure, and I was lucky enough to win the competition. (Admission: okay, there was a field of exactly three. It’s still not bad though.)

Billy’s New Hill was about 750 words long, giving a reading-aloud rate of about 150 words a minute – which seems reasonable.

Now, I’ve been subscribing to and entering competitions in Writing Magazine for a while, so when the latest 750-word-limit competiton was announced in the February 2019 issue, I remembered Billy and his 750 words. The sequel, Billy’s Big Dance, takes place when Billy and his friends are teenagers; and once again, Billy’s story has come up trumps. He didn’t actually win, but the story was shortlisted (you can read the winning entry in the September 2019 issue of WM), and with a much bigger field, I’d call that pretty good.

Both are now on the Short Stories page.

(I should mention that the version of Billy’s Big Dance that I submitted had “I remember the first time I held you” instead of the “second time”, for the simple reason that it’d look silly without the first story to refer to. But you, O lucky reader, get to see it in context.)

Time Running Out?

It’s now about a year since the lovely Impress Books published Truth Sister. It’s been great to get have a novel “out there”,  especially with a beautiful cover like this one. The design is based on the “hourglass-in-a-circle symbol of the Republic” that’s mentioned in Chapter 2. In the plot the hourglass signifies that time is running out: firstly time to fight climate change, and secondly, in the context of the Women’s Republic of Anglia, time to find a way of sustaining cloning technology.


When we came up with the design in 2017, I hadn’t ever head of Extinction Rebellion, who are currently in the news as they take action to push governments to do something about the climate crisis. You may not like it when they cause traffic jams, but you’ll like it even less when your children and your grandchildren have to deal with extreme weather, rising sea levels and disrupted food supplies.

Anyway, look at the Extinction Rebellion logo. Well, it’s hardly a coincidence. Time is already running out on the climate crisis, never mind in the fictional future of the Republic of Anglia.

We need to ACT NOW. Check the ER website, write to your local MP, get involved.

(If you want to know more, have a look at the IPCC and UK CCC web sites. There’s stuff on my Links page too.)

The Death of Grass: Civilisation’s Sudden Collapse

In Truth Sister I’ve tried to depict a world where civilisation is being eroded slowly, and where there is still a chance of holding on to some of its structures. I don’t presume to compare TS with any of the following, but it does share this vision of gradual and adaptive change with The Declaration (Gemma Malley), The Children of Men (P D James) and The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Attwood).

Of course, there is plenty of dystopian fiction that jumps straight into the future, however blighted that future is: the classics include 1984 (George Orwell), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) and The Chrysalids (John Wyndham). There are plenty of modern examples, such as The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins), Divergent (Veronica Roth) and – a personal favourite – Flawed (Cecilia Ahern).

But there’s another dystopian strand, in which disaster strikes quickly, and the world is changed overnight: Wells’ War of the Worlds is an obvious example. The Death of Grass, by John Christopher (Sam Youd), is one of these: all the world’s grass crops, including cereals, rice and pasture grasses, are succumbing to a blight that, within one growing season, leaves most of the world without food. The story follows a group of individuals who journey from London to the Lake District (where the protagonist, John Custance, knows his brother has been carefully preparing), with an underlying theme of the breakdown and change of customs and government. The change is rapid, and in a few days civilised people turn to tribalism and to murder.

The Death of Grass (called No Blade of Grass in the US) was published in the 1950s, and like Wyndham’s then-recent The Day of The Triffids, the influence of wartime structures and habits is apparent. There is an ease with which people slip into quasi-military roles that we would not see today. The story is told briefly and concisely, but it provides an salutary reminder of how thin the veneer of civilisation can be. Recommended read.

This Changes Everything

Capitalism v. Climate Change

Just finished Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. It was a hard read, a difficult read. I had to take it, like medicine, a little at a time: read a bit, go and do something else, read a bit more. The reason for that was that Klein’s message, supported by her meticulous research, is horribly true: that the capitalism, the obsession with economic growth that has dominated our society – and much of the world – for hundreds of years, is what’s stopping us from doing anything meaningful about climate change. We need to find sustainable answers. We need to change the way we live, the way we think.

(Klein points out how the dominant economic players, those who are funding the climate change denialists, are precisely the people who know best what the solution is. And it’s a solution in which their power and their wealth evaporate instantly. If fossil fuels stay in the ground, as they have to, then for them it’s the end.)

The reason I couldn’t take much of the book at once was that I couldn’t see a way out, and it distressed me. I was in denial: not, of course, about climate change itself, but about the preposterous idea that there’s anything we can do about it. How can we change a world system, and how can we do it in the space of a few years?

This shows us one of the major obstacles: even those of us who readily acknowledge climate change, who know that if we don’t act there will be another global mass extinction, haven’t a clue what we can do about it.

Luckily, the closing chapters of This Changes Everything point to a possible future, based on activism, which just might save us. Have we the courage? Have you?

Hot, Isn’t It?

A few weeks ago I mused on whether the climate change scenario I’d used in Truth Sister was actually pretty tame compared with what was actually going to happen. Now of course, weather isn’t the same as climate: essentially, climate is the average weather, year on year. But one of the predictions of all credible climate change models is that as the average temperature increases, the weather will also get more variable. As it is now.

There’s a lot of distressing news at the moment, with wildfires and heatwaves killing people from Canada to Greece and Japan, widespread droughts and threatened crops. And yes, this could be just down to a natural seasonal variation. But this kind of thing is happening more often – which is a definite indicator of climate change. At times like this it becomes even more reprehensible that powerful people continue to obstruct the reduction of greenhouse emissions. I wish there were a word for the sheer recklessness of blighting the lives of everyone on the planet, both today and for generations to come.  “Irresponsible” isn’t really strong enough.

Still, I haven’t heard any presidents saying that what we need right now is a “big fat dose of global warming” recently. So that’s progress. Ha ha.

Incidentally, I’ve based the scenario in Truth Sister on a 4 m sea level rise by the middle of the next century, with temperatures up by 3° and all of the associated wildness of the weather. What makes me think this may be optimistic is not the stuff that’s happening right now; it’s that collectively, we’re not doing enough to stop climate change. The US has a climate change denier for a president, and Europe (especially the UK) is preoccupied with Brexit – at a time when we should all be pulling together.

For more, see the authoritative IPCC, the UK Committee on Climate Change , and the Met Office. And, as I think I’ve mentioned before, watch Before the Flood.

What can we do? At least write to your MP and ask why the government isn’t putting more effort into reducing greenhouse emissions. Change has to be at the international level, but we’ve got to start somewhere.

We Need Each Other Now . . .

@LoveBooksGroup @ImpressBooks1 #TruthSister #AuthorTalk @MerryHell_band

In case you missed it,  Love Books Group have published an interview with me about Truth Sister, published by Impress Books  earlier this month. It was great fun to talk about Treasure Island, Sherlock Holmes, and whether your characters stand at your shoulder while you write.

Another question was, If your book came with a theme song what would it be? That was tricky, but in the end I thought of what Clara says in the last chapter: “We’ve all got to fight to stay alive, every one of us – so we’re going to have to stop fighting each other.” And she’s right. Truth Sister is fiction, but the dangers facing us from climate change, from diseases and from dwindling resources are real and present. We need to stop bickering and work together if we’re going to stand a chance of dealing with these challenges. Truly, We Need Each Other Now.

Please Rate It!

So, Truth Sister is just over a week old. Thanks again to #SundayYA for featuring it in a Twitter chat on Sunday night – it’s a good slot for finding out about the latest in YA, so do join in if that’s your thing. Follow the hashtag at 6 pm on Sundays.

Truth Sister is currently showing on Amazon Best Sellers as around “318,000 in Books”, but that may not be either as good or as bad as it sounds. The figure is based on sales rates that are updated by the hour. Still, there are worse figures! TS is showing with an average of 4 stars on Amazon, based on just one review, and 3.33 on Goodreads, based on four reviews.

So if you’ve read TS, or are going to read it, PLEASE can you rate it. No need to write a full-blown review, although those are useful too – but if you can give it the stars you think it deserves, that would be great.

In fact this is a cry often heard from authors everywhere – it helps us to know how we’re doing, and to know what readers like, if we get some feedback. Whatever book you’re reading – please rate it.

Truth Sister: Publication Day

Well it’s bloody brilliant to have arrived here at last. TS has been through a couple of writing courses, several edits and more version numbers than I care to remember. It’s been sent to agents then revised; sent to more agents and revised again. So I’m very grateful to the team at Impress Books for taking me on and helping me jump the final editing-and-shaping hurdles. Thanks also to the various people who’ve helped me along the way – see the Acknowledgements at the end of the text!

Now to market . . .


News on the BBC Environment page yesterday ( Antarctic ice is melting at an increasing rate. The overall rate of rise is 3 mm a year, of which Antarctica is contributing a fifth at the moment. 3 mm might not sound much, but at that rate the Wash and the Somerset Levels will be back under water by the middle of the next century . . . What will life be like?