Ghostly Green Screen: Hitting The Reader Where They Live

It's good to make the most of the medium in which you write.

Sometimes this means doing things which only your medium can do.

The unfilmable book.

The unbookable film.

I've always loved how prose fiction is a collaborative medium, between writer and reader.  An intimate kind of contract.  The writer divulges a handful of details – or a whole cartload, if they’ve had too much coffee and can’t stop themselves – then the reader almost becomes the production designer and creates the finished result in their own cerebral screening room.  As a result, infinite, subtly different versions of your story exist in an infinite number of heads.  That sleazy Baton Rouge bar on the page, for instance, will be imagined in a billion different ways by a billion different readers.

With that in mind, I decided to write a ghost story set in the home of whoever happened to read it.  The story, A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home, would take the form of a letter from the previous tenant of the reader’s home, warning the reader that the place is haunted.  I would lay down the prose equivalent of green screen, onto which the reader would overlay rooms in their own home.  That way, each version of the story would be entirely unique.  Everyone would picture their own living space, in which terrible things would happen. 

All prose uses this mental green screen, to some degree or another.  This story, I decided, would just happen to wallpaper an entire home with the stuff.

I fell in love with the idea, even though there were consequences when I came to write.  I soon realised that it would be all too easy to break the story's 'spell', if I wasn't too careful. There had to be the following…

I couldn't assume anything about the layout of the reader's home: they might, for instance, be in a studio flat.  So I had to boil down all mentions of areas in the abode to the basics, which ended up being Bed, Sofa, Living Area, Kitchen Area, Bathroom.  I felt I could rely on everyone having those things.  No stairs.  No garden.  No wood-panelled study reeking of cigarillo smoke.

Because the reader's home could obviously be anywhere in the world, I could make no mention of the neighbourhood whatsoever.  I could only refer to it in the vaguest possible terms.

One slightly aggrieved Amazon reviewer would later grumble that the narrator doesn't use the Internet to track down the previous tenant.  But here's the reason for that: I had no way of knowing how long the reader has been in their home. Could be 40 years! Because the narrator lived there directly before the reader, this dictated that the narrator's placement in time needed to be completely flexible.  So no internet.  No mobile phones.  I didn't actually state that the narrator doesn't use these new-fangled resources either.  Vagueness was the key.

As you can imagine, these three key elements were quite the straitjacket when it came to writing the story.  But what the story loses in detail, hopefully it gains by not breaking the spell.  In ensuring that the reader goes on imagining their own home throughout, rather than going, “Hold on, I don’t have a vodka luge by the TV!”  And very conveniently for me, the narrator's vagueness is motivated by their insistence on giving as little information about themselves as possible.  They don't want to give the reader their name - not even their gender - so them playing fast and loose with facts hardly seems out of place.  Besides, they're describing a home which the reader already knows.  Why would they need to describe the kitchen to them again?

Once the story was ready for publication, another thought struck me.  Imagine being able to create a separate, unique, ‘deluxe’ version of this story, tailored to the reader.  Ditching all that vagueness, it would feature their name, their hometown, their address, mention of whether they're in a flat or a house.  It would namecheck a local hotel, a bar.  Then imagine this bespoke story being printed as a letter and snail-mailed to the reader's home.  So that's what I did, and ever since, the popularity of the Paper Edition of A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home - aka the Scary Letter - has really surprised me.  It's the evil gift which keeps on giving, whether people buy it for themselves or for others.  Celebrity customers for the Paper Edition have included Ghost Stories co-creator Andy Nyman, stand-up comedy supremo Tiernan Douieb and The Shining Girls’ author Lauren Beukes.  And whereas the prose story inevitably falls rather flat if the reader's home is a new-build, somewhere along the way I created a special New Build version of the story for the Paper Edition, if it became necessary!

Whether people read A Sincere Warning... for the first time on a screen or on paper, they tend to respond very well to the story’s ‘ghostly greenscreen’ approach, with many berating me for ruining their lives and sleep patterns!  Which has to be a tremendous result in anyone’s language.

Here are the places you can buy A Sincere Warning… if you dare...  

Amazon UKAmazon US Amazon Canada
Amazon Germany Amazon France Amazon Italy
Amazon Spain Amazon Japan Amazon Brazil
Amazon India Amazon Mexico Amazon Australia

And here’s the Scary Letter site, dedicated to A Sincere Warning’s Paper Edition.  Goodbye!

Top photo: a still from the film Grave Encounters 2.

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Grab Free Ghost Story - And Win Stuff!

Hey!  Throughout Easter 2015 (April 3-April 6 inclusive), my acclaimed short ghost story A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home is free to download at all Amazon sites worldwide.

Set in the home of whoever reads it, this story has been described as "terrifying" and currently has 33 five-star reviews at Amazon UK.  And yet, this weekend, it's free to grab for your electronic device (which doesn't have to be an actual Kindle, thanks to Amazon's free reading apps.)  And if you're a Twitter user, you can win a prize for helping me spread the word.

(If you'd just like to check out the free book pages at Amazon right away, here are the links: UK USCanadaGermanyFranceItalySpain, NetherlandsJapan, India, Mexico, Australia, Brazil.)

If you help signal-boost this giveaway, you may win your own Paper Edition of A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home.  Snail-mailed to your home, the Paper Edition presents the story as a unique physical letter, made by me for you and tailored for you in key respects (such as including your name, home town, etc.)  It'll get snail-mailed to your home, or a loved one's home if you choose.  These Paper Editions are normally priced between £39.99 and £42,99, depending on where you are in the world.  You can see full details of my A Sincere Warning... Paper Editions here.

I'll also send a bundle of totally random comics to two runners-up, anywhere in the world.  How'd you like them apples?

To be in with a chance of winning, simply post a tweet on April 3, 4, 5 or 6, which achieves three things:

1) It says I'm giving away a free book and/or ghost story.  Doesn't even have to mention me by name or the book's title (especially as that title is very long!), but feel free if you like.

2) It links to this page you're reading, right here.

3) If you want to enter the competition, include the hashtag #TheEntityIsFree.  This will allow me to gather all the helpful folks' tweets, from which I'll randomly select a winner after Easter.  I'll then tweet at the winner and runners-up, post-weekend, to get their details.

Tweeting more than once about the giveaway won't increase your chance of winning, so there's no need to spam those followers!  Neither does your location on the planet matter: I'll send the Paper Edition and runners-up comics anywhere.  Even if you live in a shack on the Serengeti plain.  (Note: due to an impending deadline, you'll receive your Paper Edition by the end of May 2015.)

Now, then.  Why am I making my book free for four whole days?  Isn't that a smack in the face for the people who've already bought it?

The Paper Edition of A Sincere Warning...
You could see it that way and if you do, I apologise.

To all those kind souls who already bought A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home: thank you very much.  I'm sorry you didn't get it for free, but at least you've had the book for longer and have helped keep my home supplied with handy things like electricity and water.  Electricity is especially useful for a writer, as I'm useless with a quill.  It's very much appreciated.

Here's the main reason for launching a free Amazon promotion: making the book, and my work, better known.  Extending my reach to readers who might not otherwise have checked out my stuff.  This seems to be a very important tool for an author.

So, if you're game, let's do this!  Let's storm Amazon's Free Book Chart like some kind of crazed Vikings.

Pick up A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home for free this Easter at these sites!

Amazon UKAmazon US Amazon Canada
Amazon Germany Amazon France Amazon Italy
Amazon Spain Amazon Japan Amazon Brazil
Amazon India Amazon Mexico Amazon Australia

To new visitors, who may have encountered this site for the first time as a result of this promotion: welcome!  I write about all kinds of stuff here: writing tips, my fiction, things I care about, things I love, things I don't love so much.  Have a look around, make yourself at home: take a look at the Top 10 Most Popular Blogposts list on the right-hand column.

If you enjoy A Sincere Warning About The Entity In Your Home then please tell your friends and consider reviewing it on Amazon.  That makes such a difference.  Also consider checking out my Kindle novella Beast In The Basement, which can be rented for free by Kindle Unlimited members.

Thank you all, and good day to you.

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What Can We Learn From The Career Of Therapy?

Therapy? at the Brighton Concorde 2, March 31 2015
"I got my hair cut in Brighton today, don'tcha know," Therapy? frontman Andy Cairns tells his audience at Brighton's Concorde 2.  "So, remember that.  Putting a wee bit back into the local economy."

Just over 25 years after starting out, Therapy? have released their excellent 15th album, Disquiet.  Arriving in the wake of a couple of their more experimental releases, it's a return to the kind of emotionally turbulent, alternative metal which characterised their breakthrough record, 1994's amazing Troublegum.

While watching them play this, the first date of a European tour - and while meeting up with bassist Michael McKeegan beforehand for a beer and some thrash metal related chat - I'm struck by how much can be learned from this band's career.  Their first release was the 1990 single Meat Abstract, on their own label Multifuckinational Records.  Three years later, they were signed to major label A&M Records and hitting Number 9 in the UK charts with the Shortsharpshock EP (with eternal gem Screamager the lead track.)  The band became darlings of the UK music press, causing a whole raft of jackasses from Melody Maker and the NME to pretend to like heavy metal for quite some time.

(Back when I worked for rock mag Kerrang!, I remember being on a train to Liverpool to review Therapy? live, alongside a bunch of indie journos, who made a point of sitting in a different part of the carriage.  The sniffy attitude Kerrang! got from these people was truly hilarious.  Not least because one of them was wearing leather trousers.)

Come 1998, Therapy? parted ways with A&M.

And that, right there, is the key pivotal moment in any band's career.

Sink or swim.

Fight or flight.

Live or die.

Because that's when your true motives rise to the surface.  If major label fame and fortune was always your goal, then the dream is dead and so are you.  Whereas, if you simply can't stop being creative, even if you wanted to, then returning to the world of indie labels is merely a cosmetic change in your environment.

While so many bands dissolved when their dreams died, Therapy? never stopped moving.  They saw in the new millennium with the furious and not especially commercial album Suicide Pact - You First.  And what they may have lost in promotion and indie press interest, they undoubtedly gained in creative control and freedom.

They've been free ever since.  Making the albums they want to make, while making a great living.  Able to command an audience anywhere in the world.

Therapy?'s Michael McKeegan (left), with a gibbon last night.
That's inspiring.  Especially when they can still produce an album as strong as Disquiet and have the confidence, tonight in Brighton, to play no less than nine songs from it.

The gig is a stormer, with that brace of great new tracks like Still Hurts and Vulgar Display Of Powder sitting very nicely alongside the established classics like Teethgrinder, Nowhere and of course Screamager.  My favourite Therapy? song, since you're asking, is still the incredible Knives.  A ludicrously intense and messed-up piece of horror theatre ("I'm gonna crawl up inside you and die!"), which you can hear at Spotify here.  Crank it up.  This rough and ready YouTube video also goes some way towards capturing its live ferocity.

At one point during Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's sitcom Extras, Gervais' character Andy Millman explains his career mission statement.  And even though Millman is a snob who ends up losing himself in his arty ambitions (unlike Therapy?, who genuinely remain some of the nicest and least affected people I've met in rock), the essence of what he says holds true: the importance of building up a body of work, across your lifetime, that you can be proud of.

That's absolutely what Therapy? have done.  That's what we creative types can learn from their career.  The value of forging ahead relentlessly, doing things because we want to, rather than because we think we should.

Playing the long game, rather than lurching desperately towards every quick fix in sight.  (I recently received a royalty cheque for the Slipknot book I wrote in 2001.)

Creating like no-one's watching.

Glancing at your rear-view mirror, seeing nothing to be ashamed of.

Speeding ever onwards, integrity intact.

And you know, maybe I'm imagining this, but back in those A&M days, I swear Therapy? never used to smile this much onstage.

Disquiet on CD at Amazon UK

Troublegum Deluxe Edition CD at Amazon UK

Therapy?: Twitter / website / tour dates

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The World Just Shrunk Again: Periscope Vs Meerkat

There's a new rabbit-hole in town, begging us to dive right down it.

New rival iOS apps Periscope and Meerkat offer the same fundamental experience.  They allow us to watch live streams as they're filmed by individuals' smartphones around the globe, and post our live comments.  As Periscope puts it, it's somewhat like teleporting yourself inside other people's heads and looking out through their eyes.

The implications of these free apps feel huge, and admittedly not just in a good way.  Mostly in a good way, though, I hope.  One thing's for sure: this feels like the biggest game-changer since Twitter came along in 2006.

Meerkat came first, but Periscope, which launched yesterday on March 26, has the advantage of having been bought by Twitter.  So I suppose you'd get short odds on Meerkat becoming Betamax to Periscope's VHS.  Then again, people like underdogs.  Or underkats.

So what's the user experience like?  I've been transfixed by these apps last night and this morning.  Before we stop to consider what it all means, let's take a look at some teleportations I made into random strangers' heads...

A couple broadcasting on Meerkat were driving through Arizona, heading for the Grand Canyon...

Occasionally, like many users, they would flip their phone's camera to reverse, so we could see them driving as they chatted away.  Eventually, though, they warned us they were about to take a break, because this was about to happen...

As more people get into these apps, the infrastructure is clearly going to be tested and broken, time and time again.  I teleported myself over to some kind of lively daytime Grime rave in Miami...

Look at them all there, reaching for the lasers.  Then I zipped over to Atlanta, Georgia, to join the likeable James Andrews (@KeyInfluencer on Twitter)...

... who had just got home from work and was staging a live "dinner party", asking his virtual guests what music they wanted to hear and chatting merrily.  When James greeted me by name, seconds after I joined the stream, the weirdly instant nature of this connection really became apparent.  At one point, he carried us up to his roof to see the view.  Meanwhile, in San Diego...

... we got to see a panel of the future of podcasting.  Which was apt, since watching a live conversation like this probably is the future of podcasting.  All the screengrabs so far have been from Meerkat, by the way.  I think I prefer the interface to Periscope - the streamed video fills the whole screen and there's more information onscreen too.  It also feels more chatty.  Watch out for the way Meerkat auto-tweets on your behalf, though: I found out the hard way.

Periscope has other major advantages, such as (a) more streams available at any given time; and (b) the ability to replay videos once they've been aired (this morning I caught up on a guided tour around Patreon's headquarters, complete with all the live comments which had popped up during the original live broadcast.)  As with most rival products, you inevitably want to squash the best parts of each together.

Somewhere unspecified in America, the people of Arsenic Magazine were seemingly trying out their first Meerkat broadcast.  Except they didn't realise they were filming.  When they ended the broadcast, by hitting a button which they had expected to begin it, this was their reaction...

Some of these grabs speak for themselves...

One of the broadcasts I enjoyed most was @dmgrossblatt's bicycle ride around San Francisco, stopping by the Golden Gate Bridge and looking across to Oakland - even attaching a telescopic lens to his iPhone to aid that process!

At one point, @dmgrossblatt craned his bike-cam up at a building and asked people to screengrab it for him.  I grabbed this one...

... and marvelled at how I could then show him, via Twitter.  Or I could have, if my app or Tweetdeck had allowed it.  (Think the iPad's screengrab file size stood in the way there.)

Switching over to Periscope now, this is what one stream looked like as it was loading...

... and here's the stream.  The map and details fall away, but you can get them back by hitting the little 'people' icon, which also shows the number of people viewing.  Tap the screen anywhere, it seems, and you trigger a little floating 'favourite' heart which contributes to the user's total. (There's a league table, oh yes, trust and believe.)

Some users are already treating those love hearts like a currency.  Take, for instance, this guy outside Walmart at 5.30am, requesting a certain number of hearts before he'll show us inside.  Hmmm...

Some more Periscope grabs.  Paris traffic, a game in Hong Kong, breakfast in Limerick...

Beers in Sydney, a stroll in Malaysia, a view over Seoul...

... and, uh, a donut run in Norwich.

This blind guy in Saudi Arabia tentatively tried out his first broadcast, constantly apologising for his English.  Believe you me, his English was way better than my Arabic.

You'll be glad to hear I won't be showing you the guy in Mumbai with one hand down the front of his pyjamas, purring, "Tell me what you want to seeeeee..."  As with every live video feed, a certain type of guy will decide that everyone's dying to see his junk.  Periscope and Meerkat have Report and Flag buttons respectively, so it will be interesting to see how those work and how hardline each company will be when it comes to policing themselves.

This morning, I made my first Periscope broadcast, nipping to a friend's flat to film Brighton Pier and keeping the whole thing strictly non-erotic. Technically, it was simplicity itself, except for the fact that when you switch to landscape the chat stays the same way up.  Mentally, it felt decidedly weird to film something that other people could see and comment on straight away.  I then tried a similar broadcast with the Meerkat app, which crashed whenever I hit 'Start Stream'.  So, a big one-up to Periscope there.

So, anyway: what does all of this mean?

I'm still processing it all, but it certainly means that the world just got even smaller, even more connected.  Whether that's good or bad, depends on your attitude to this.  Here are some thoughts, starting with the plus side...

Periscope and Meerkat will undoubtedly be a shot in the arm for writers' research.  As a writer, this was my first thought, oh dear God yes.  The idea that I could go on Twitter and ask if anyone lives in, say, South Dakota, and ask them to film their street, or hop on a bus to film their city centre.  Maybe answer a few questions via chat.  That feels very instant and insanely useful.  Way better than the already-awesome Google Streetview and second only to Actually Being There.  Of course, what we gain in research value we may lose in added reasons to procrastinate.

On a simple entertainment level, they're just downright fun.  Zipping and zapping from one country to another, with a few strokes of a screen?  That's amazing.  An addictively vicarious and curiosity-sating thrill.  And digging a little deeper than that, there's a chance these apps may fuel a much-needed increase of empathy in the world.  Being able to look through someone else's eyes on the other side of the planet can only be an exercise in good on most levels.  Encouragingly, I didn't see any abuse in comments anywhere, although this may change when these things really explode.

Authors can schedule live Q&As off their own backs.  Artists can set the camera running over their art tables and get to work.  Theatre companies can stage live mini-plays.  Singers can sing.  A whole bunch of good fan/artist interaction potential there.

These apps will surely also aid truth and transparency.  Now that anyone with a sturdy data-plan can live-broadcast from their phones, it'll be difficult for The Authorities and The News to convincingly spin anything...

... and of course, there are downsides to that.  Here's one, off the top of my head: there's a real danger that police operations may be compromised even further by this newly mushrooming media.  Back in January, during the Charlie Hebdo aftermath, it really felt like news companies were crossing the line with their Paris coverage, breathing down police necks.  If any of those holed-up terrorists had a TV signal, they'd have had access to far more information than they should.  Do we really need to know police/military strategy and positioning, at the expense of their mission goals, which may well be matters of life and death?  Now throw a horde of loveheart-hungry iPhone-wielders into the mix and see how much more of a liability the whole thing becomes.

You could argue that no-one would watch the majority of Periscope and Meerkat videos if they were sitting there on YouTube, three months old.  This is probably true.  But the real frisson comes from these things being live.  Anything can happen.  Especially if the jackass is holding his phone while driving.  Keeping track of his lovehearts and comments from the other side of the world, while glancing at the road ahead of him every once in a while...  Looking at it with my worst-case-scenario writer's head, each and every broadcast is a found footage horror film waiting to happen.  If you'll permit me a moment to consider the very darkest side of this new medium, we're bound to witness some deeply unfortunate and traumatic streaming.  And I don't just mean that Mumbai guy.  Let's hope the worst never happens on our screens, but you know, what with humans being humans and everything...

There are potentially major privacy and safety issues, if broadcasters inadvertently give away their exact location or their home address.  Especially young and/or vulnerable broadcasters.  I'm sure we'll see all kinds of guidelines put into place over that whole issue.  Not to mention the issue of people finding themselves the subject of live feeds in public places when they really don't want that to happen.

Today, my friend Michael Moran tweeted one early example of the medium's potential misuse:

And here's one final, less obvious downside: these apps deliver a new kick in the teeth to mindfulness.

Ever since the handheld internet befell us, there has been the danger that anywhere else in the world - anywhere at all - suddenly becomes more fascinating and thrilling and exotic than where you are right now.  That destructive, nagging sense that you're always missing out on something 'better'.  So will we end up sitting across a table from a neglected dinner partner who looks glumly on as we view a live-feed of a complete stranger eating in Istanbul?  Will broadcasters filming their Vegas road-trip suddenly stop enjoying that road-trip when their viewing figures dip to zero or their 4G dies?  Are we nearing that tipping point where our experiences seem to lose meaning if there's no-one around to witness them?

No matter how cool and seductive all this live-stream teleportation might be, we'll do well to remember that our own eyes deliver constant live-streaming, ultra-HD footage of our surroundings, which gets recorded on this incredible, massive, organic hard-drive.  We enjoy unlimited bandwidth until we fall asleep or drink too much.

Our own necks provide us with effortless steadicams.  Our senses, amazingly enough, allow us to go way beyond mere sight and sound.

We can feel cool sea breezes on our skin.

Smell and taste the salt in the air.

As our tireless quest to shrink the world reaches bold new milestones, I really hope we don't forget to stop and take regular, good hard looks around us, at the places, things and people who matter.

So.  What do you make of Perisciope and Meerkat, both in terms of your preference for either so far, and their implications for our lives, good or bad?  Tell me in Shrieks From The Abyss below!

* * *

Doctor Who: The 2005 Press Launch In Pictures

On March 26 2005, Russell T Davies brought Doctor Who back to BBC1 with the episode Rose.  A story which remains a masterclass in (re)establishing a format across the space of 45 minutes while absolutely keeping the narrative rocketing along.

On March 8, a couple of weeks before the big return, there was a Cardiff Bay press launch.  Here are some never-before-seen pictures, taken by me on the night, complete with occasional demonic red eye possession....

This event was relatively low-key compared to the Who launches which followed.  We were shown Rose on a big flatscreen TV in a room, whereas, by the end of Series One, we would watch finale The Parting Of The Ways in a BAFTA cinema.  Still, this first launch did require you to walk in through the TARDIS...

... and it also had a Dalek.  Which was, of course, a thrilling preview of the brand new shiny gold Dalek to come in this series' fifth episode, Dalek.

After we watched Rose, together with a quick preview of the series to come, it was time for a couple of Q&As.  The first being with the mighty duo Russell T Davies and producer Julie Gardner...

... and the second being with the show's star Christopher Eccleston.  As you can see from the man's body language, he felt totally comfortable and happy to be there.

... but that's not the whole story.  There was the odd laugh.

And then everyone waddled off to get hammered, celebrating the fact that Doctor Who was about to come back in grand style.  As the Ninth Doctor and Russell would be equally likely to say: fantastic.

* * *

Interviewing Scott K Andrews In London Tomorrow

I'm a big fan of Scott K Andrews as a writer and a person.  So when he asked if I fancied interviewing him at February's British Science Fiction Association meeting, I didn't hesitate to ask how many hundreds of pounds he would pay me to do so.  Sounding rather hurt, he explained no money was involved at all and so I fired a torrent of expletives his way, then begrudgingly dug up my Journalist Cap, dusted it down and prepared for battle.

It should be a pretty easy job, to be honest, because Scott's a good talker and also a very loud one.  No microphone required there.  So I plan to interrogate him within an inch of his life at this event, which is in London tomorrow.  Or today, if you're reading this on February 25.  Or in the past if you're reading it any time afterwards.  You missed out, suckerrrrrrrr.

So, anyway, yes.  Scott and I, quacking about his TimeBomb trilogy of novels, the School's Out trilogy, being a writer in general and, inevitably, Doctor Who.  Wednesday, February 25, 2015.  The mind-probe action starts at 7pm, upstairs at The Artillery Arms, 102 Bunhill Row, London, EC1Y 8ND, but the room will start to fill up with SF-minded boozers (both BSFA members and non are welcome) from 6pm. Scott will open with a reading from TimeBomb #1, then the interrogation will happen and we'll open up for questions from the floor at about eight.  There'll also be a raffle and everything, in which you can win Scott's actual trousers he'll be wearing on the night.

Actually, no, sorry, that should be, "A selection of SF novels".

Did I mention the event's free?  See you there.

Here's the BSFA page about the event.

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