Bill Allerton, Cybermouse Books, 2015
You need a few things when writing your first novel. First, you need a story, preferably a good one (and one that hasn’t been written too often before). Next, you need the free time and motivation to actually start typing those words that have been dancing around in your head. A computer is also handy, of course.
But those only gets you so far. You also need a bit of luck. And mine was meeting Bill.
I contacted him while fishing around for publishers in the north. Despite not knowing me, and having his own books to work on (plus undoubtedly a hundred other things he could be doing), he offered to take a look at my draft. A day later, it came back with guidance suggestions and criticisms. He managed to see instantly what needed doing, and edited sections to show me how. Switch to the present tense; cut out the redundancy; add a little nuance; slow it down a touch. All excellent advice, delivered frankly and free of charge. All things I would never have spotted myself, too, no matter how many read-throughs I gave it.
More useful still was the encouragement, which came amid a wave of rejection emails. Keep going; stick with it; try this publisher; get it finished, one way or another. I did. Maybe I would have done anyway, but a firm-yet-friendly kick along the way was very welcome.
Bill’s input, already above what I could reasonably expect from a stranger, didn’t stop there. For reasons unknown (other than he’s a thoroughly decent chap), he showed me how to typeset for publication and offered to design a cover for me. He patiently talked me through each step, and once the text was with the printer, he quietly went away and made a podcast of the first chapter. Just as a favour. Like I said, a thoroughly decent chap.
I would probably have bought one of Bill’s own books anyway at that point, as a way to show my gratitude. But I was also keen to explore his writing in more detail, to see what else could be gleaned. I started with his collection of short stories, Firelight On Dark Water; there are several more to choose from.
At this point, it would be easy for this post to become a sycophantic letter of appreciation. Experienced author helps debut author, who writes gushing review in return, etc etc… log rolling, I think it’s called. So I’ll start my review by stating that I didn’t like all of the stories. One or two passed me by: I either missed or misunderstood what it was trying to say. Yet these were few and far between; overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable collection.
It’s an unusual one, too, at least when compared with the books I usually read. It’s mostly set in and around Bill’s northern home, and the themes covered – motorbike parts, ageing – are not typical literary staples. The thread that binds them all together, though, is the dialogue. Each character, however briefly they appear, is distinctive instantly in the way the author writes their words and thoughts. It’s a talent, and one he has spent years mastering to the point of excellence. It stands out especially in ‘The Big Idea’, in which he pulls off the tricky feat of a dialogue between two versions of the same people.
The mastery of dialogue is most clearly expressed in my favourite story in the collection, ‘Vayu Manush’, which tells of the travails of a collection of Indian villagers. The shift away in style is done so well that the reader is instantly transported from Sheffield suburbs and northern nooks without any jolt or even any turbulence.
One perk of knowing an author, even if only virtually, is that you can quiz them about details. I took advantage of this and asked Bill where in India he had set this charming little tale, which place during his travels there had inspired the story.
‘I’ve never been to India. That’s what your imagination is for.’
Yet more valuable advice from my northern mentor.
Image by JAHuddleston / Pixabay