Postcard from Afghanistan…

So, the second draft of HEROIC has been delivered ahead of publication in April, and one of the main challenges was to lose some bulk from the first pass.

This meant shedding about 15,000 words and some chapters that I liked, but weren’t essential to the plot. Rather than confining them to the recycle bin, I thought I’d post one one here, as I still kind of like it, despite being rough around the edges. It’s a snapshot of what the older brother Jammy goes through during his tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Hope it gives you a taste of what HEROIC will be like…

 

“The blast shakes us clean out of our cots and straight back into the middle of war.

Someone screams. One of us. I don’t think it’s me, but can’t be sure.

There are arms and legs everywhere, reaching for kit in the dark. The boot I’m pulling onto my foot isn’t mine. I throw it into the black and tell someone, anyone, to turn on the  light.

It flashes to attention and makes the panic worse. So bad I can smell it. I’m sure the walls are still shaking and I’m counting the seconds for the second boom, which will bring them down on top of us. There’s no glory in being buried in our beds.

The boss appears at the door, kit on, fully loaded. He’s pumped up, needs us the same way.

“Get yourselves together. Move.”

We shift quickly through the gears, all thought of sleep abandoned as we pile into the yard, a thousand shooting stars ripping the sky to pieces. We know they’re bullets, just don’t know yet which side they’re from.

The boss gives us the scenario.

IED’s. A cluster of them between base and 5th platoon who are out on night patrol. Medics are already out the gate. There are men down who might not get up. More will follow unless we move quickly to support.

I check my kit as we hit the gate, hoping to god Tommo’s done the same. I can’t see his face but he’s moving quickly, with purpose.

I remember the night drills on the hills at home. Thirty degrees colder and far fewer snipers. This is it. We’re amongst it, all of us.

We cover the first hundred metres in seconds before the ground betrays us, leaping above our heads, forcing us down.

Comms crackle. I wait for pain but it doesn’t come.

“Call in.” barks the boss. I reply but don’t breathe again until every name comes back. I want to laugh, it’s like some sick school register.

It’s another IED. A rubbish one that went off on it’s own. I can’t help but hope it caught whoever was laying it. Then I feel guilty. I don’t know what to think anymore. Just do it. Find the 5th. And bring them back. Everything else is for later.

There’s a farm to our left, a ramshackle building in the middle of a field. There’s a light on. Then it’s gone. A dozen rifles swing in its direction. It can’t be a coincidence.

The house lights up again, as bullets crack from its windows. We swallow dirt, rolling towards a ditch. It could be full of IED’s but it’s a choice between that and a bodybag. We fall in before we fall down.

The boss arranges us down the trench. Tells us to waste the building. Unload so we can move on.

We don’t need telling twice. They fired first. For once we know where the enemy is.

The noise is deafening, the sky splits at the sound of our rifles.

We listen for impact, then look to Guido, he has the night goggles.

“Anything?”

“Shut up and wait.”

We peer over the trench, wait for bullets that don’t return. All we can smell is cordite and smoke. There’s fire from the building, but not the chimney. If there’s anyone left in there alive, they’ll soon be on the move.

The boss dispatches Guido, JC and Tommo to flush them out while we keep to the track, all eyes looking for the 5th.

We hear them before we see them. More bullets. A proper firefight. The boss wheels us left, back into the field, trying to get behind the rebels. Soon as we have visuals we can unload again.

Caffeine’s ahead of me on point, wired. This is what he’s waited for for weeks. This is his moment. But he’s going too fast, leaving us trailing. The boss barks at him but he either doesn’t hear or doesn’t want to.

We hear him shout, a sentence we can’t make out, before his rifle barks repeatedly.

The boss shouts again, but he’s drowned out. All we hear now is them firing back. We’re exposed, but further away than Caffeine, who suddenly slumps to the floor.

I hear myself shout. A noise, not a word: then I squeeze and squeeze and squeeze until my finger is numb. I feel the mud churn under my feet and bullets kick around me but I’m not stopping until I reach him. Every second could be too long, too much time to bleed out. I’ve no idea what I’ll do when I get there. One thing at a time. Reach him, then worry.

It’s not the Caff I know. He’s quiet. Awake but silent. His mouth forms a scream but nothing comes out. Except for the blood from his thigh. It’s pumping so fast I’m scared I’m too late.

“MAN DOWN. MAN DOWN.” I scream, hearing my own voice echo in my headset.

I reach for Caffeine’s hands, thrusting them on top of the wound, begging him to press.  While he watches his fingers drown in blood I’m in my bag, reaching for the tourniquet. I slide it over his leg, past the wound, then pull with every bit of strength I have. Finally, Caff screams. A noise I’ll never forget. Then he passes out.

I work quickly. Have to. Pack the wound with gauze and tape, then scream again for the medics.

“Where are you?”

But nothing comes, only fizzing bullets. One hits my pack. I think it went straight through cos I’m still breathing. No pain. I’m not even scared. Not yet.

What to do? What to do? They know we’re here, but no-one else does. So I’ve no option. I wait for a lull, then heave Caff onto my back, and leggit back towards the boss and the others. It feels like I’m flying, but I’m not. I wait for the bullets, but somehow they don’t come. Not until I run, full-tilt into Giffer, who pulls me back to the floor, rolling Caffeine off me and into his arms.

“You hit?” He asks, but I can only point at Caff.

“He breathing?”

“Just.”

We lay in the trench until the medics arrive, just in time to see Caffeine wake up.

He hasn’t a clue who I am, but clings onto me for grim death. It takes Giffer and a medic to prize his hands from me. If they move quickly, they think the leg will be ok. Might even stay attached to the rest of him.

The medics move quickly towards base, leaving me and Giff to turn back towards the gunfire.

“Proper bloody soldier you are.”

“That right?”

“Just make sure you’re a breathing one by the end of the night. Dead soldiers are no good to anyone.”

There’s nothing to say to that. Except agree. I’m not taking a bullet tonight. Not after that.

We crouch in the trench, pulling hard from our drinking tubes, flinching as bullets crack above us.

All we can do is sit, and wait for orders.”

 

Hope you enjoyed it. As I say, rough around the edges, but I hope it gets inside Jammy’s head…

 

 

My New Book and Why I Wrote It

This is my first video blog, so no laughing! But I’m trying to get across why I’m trying to write my new book…

Word gets around…

I’ve banged on before about word of mouth and how important it is to the success of any book, so it’s been really lovely these last couple of weeks to start hearing back from people who’ve given the proof copies of ‘Being Billy’ a whirl.

Most of the feedback has come via librarians, people who I guess picked up a copy whilst at the YLG conference in Cardiff, and so far their responses have been incredibly encouraging. I’ve had a couple of invites to go and speak to both book-groups and attendees at a conference. What will make both of these events really interesting is that I’d be speaking directly to children in care, a prospect that both excites and terrifies in equal measure…

Obviously, it’ll be fascinating and humbling to talk to kids in the midst of similar situations to Billy, to hear their stories, to see how much life in homes has changed since I worked in them in the late 1990’s, but at the same time, what if they don’t relate to what I’ve written at all?
I’ve never lived through the things they have. I was a carer (or as Billy calls them ‘scummers’), on the other side of the fence, someone who was lucky enough to have a family to go home to at the end of the shift, so how can I possibly imagine what it must be like to live their lives?

I suppose this is the biggest challenge for anyone writing, to capture a level of authenticity, to enable the reader to say ‘yep, that’s exactly how I feel’.
And that’s why writing for kids or Young Adults is such a fantastic challenge, because they are the harshest critics. Why would they waste time wading through a book that they aren’t enjoying or can’t relate to, when there a hundred other things fighting for their attention…the simple truth is, they won’t, and this thought always keeps me on my toes when I’m writing.

Anyone who knows me will tell you I spend too much time worrying, my old boss even nicknamed me Eeyore for that very reason, so I’m keeping all this in check, trying not to let the worry take over, remind myself that I have got inside Billy’s story after all.

I got a message this week from a lady I’ve never met. She got in touch via Twitter, and her message really made me smile. She liked Billy enough to get in touch and tell me. She even went as far as posting a review on the Puffin website, and I’ve decided that whenever I worry about whether I’ve got inside Billy’s head, I’ll just give it a read.

Her review says…….

‘Borrowed this pre sale book from my daughter who is doing a review for her local library. I didn”t expect to like it but quickly found I couldn”t put it down. Having fostered a child in a similar situation several years ago this story really hit a cord. The whole book is compelling and the characters totally believable full of strength and dignity. If this is the first, I can”t wait for the follow ups. Well done Phil for tackling such a difficult subject.’

Original blog post appears here.

“Tonight Matthew, I’m going to be…..”

Yesterday, between 11 and 11.30 am, I felt like a rock star.

Well, I say a rock star, maybe not Keef Richards or Mick Jagger, probably more a northern Chesney Hawkes who’s had one curry too many, but I was a rock star all the same….(cue chorus of ‘One and Only’)

I spent Friday and Saturday at the Youth Librarians Group Conference in Cardiff. Now you might think this isn’t the place that rock stars congregate, but you’d be wrong, as a lot of the most important and revered kids writers and illustrators were present to talk about their work, good folk like Cathy Cassidy (the newly crowned Queen of Teen), Chris Riddell and Helen Oxenbury, legends all.

I was there primarily to work, manning the S&S stall, pressing our books into the librarians hands, but as I was already there, the good people of Puffin very kindly organised for me to sign copies of ‘Being Billy’ in one of the coffee breaks.

Now the book isn’t out until January, so we were using the proof copies of the book created for this type of occasion. To get people reading and hopefully loving Billy now, so that when it finally appears on shelves, they’re primed and ready to recommend it.

I was a bit nervous about it, still felt like a bit of a fraud amongst these established writers, and of course there was a very strong chance that I would end up sat for half an hour with a pen in hand, a pile of books in front of me, and no-one interested in having one….

But the brilliant thing was, the books were free, so I needn’t have worried, of course people would take one off my hands.
It was a surreal and fantastic way to spend half an hour, scrawling my name in my cack-handed way in the front of my book, and the really terrific thing was a number of the librarians had already read it, loved it, and so wanted a copy for their colleague, or with one of their customers in mind.
I don’t think I’ve ever grinned as widely, or for as long as I did.
I’ve worked so many signings over the years, so to be sat at the table instead of managing the queue? Well it felt like a bit of a defining moment really, like maybe I am a proper author after all.
Time will tell, but for now, I’m still grinning….

Original post appears here with comments

Word of Mouth……

….there’s nothing like it.

Publishers have spent years in windowless meeting rooms talking about how to get the buzz going on new or established authors (I feel like I’ve sat in on my fair share of them…).

It’s the most discussed subject in books, apart from ‘how do create a crossover sensation?’(grrrr, the hours wasted on that little gem..), but it’s talked about for a reason, because you can’t beat it.
There’s nothing more gratifying than watching a book that you absolutely love fly off the shelves, and when it’s flying because booksellers are hand-selling it to customers, who in turn are raving about it to their mates, well it’s a magnificent feeling. Better than…(fill in your hedonistic pleasure of choice here)

Don’t get me wrong, a well-placed ad campaign can work wonders, but these are few and far between on debut novels, and quite rightly too.

I like the idea of a book going out on the shelves without that sort of fanfare. Love the thought that your proof copy has landed in the right hands, and that the story has been enough to persuade booksellers or librarians that this is the next book that their customers have to read….

It’s a risky and romantic belief this. I remember our staff room at Ottakars being jammed full of unread proofs, each of them raved about by reps as the next big thing. 90% of them would sit there for a few months, until we couldn’t open the door anymore, leaving us no option but to fill the skip with them (even the charity shops didn’t want them…).

But I’m not going to linger on that thought. I’m just going to have faith that the jacket and the copy will be enough to entice booksellers to give ‘Billy’ a whirl.

The other thing that I hope will help are the quotes.

One of the many great things about working in bookselling, or publishing, is that you get to meet people, people whose opinion counts, and so when I got the deal with Puffin I wrote to some of these good folk and asked them if they had time to read my book.

And do you know what, they did.

I fretted like mad whilst waiting to hear. Worried they’d hate it, or even worse, that they’d feel compelled to say nice things out of a weird sense of loyalty, even though they owed me nowt…
…But I needn’t have worried, because these good people came up trumps, and it was the most brilliant confidence boost you could ask for.

What’s even better is that they said I could tell other people what they thought, and so, the good people of Puffin have put some of the quotes together, laid them out snazzily, and will put them on the back cover and inside the book.

I really hope that these kind words do the trick. I hope they entice people, booksellers, librarians, Joe Public, whoever, to give this a whirl, and spread the word. Have a look below and tell me what you think…would you read this book??