The first Cornish Writing Challenge ran from April-June, and drew in a variety of excellent short stories. Read on to find out more about runner-up Terry Newman, and read his submission, Time.
Terry (aka Dr Tel) Newman is a former research scientist who came into his second career via comedy writing for the BBC and C4, working with some of the UK’s top comedy talent. This soon developed into a fully-fledged occupation and he’s now hung up his microscope for good. Since waving goodbye to the lab he’s written and edited extensively, drama and comedy, for film, stage, television, radio and New Media throughout the world, as well as lecturing in scriptwriting at the university of Brighton. He is much in demand as a script doctor, specialising in structure and dialogue. ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf’, his first novel, a comedy detective fantasy, is published by Harper Collins.
What inspired you to start writing?
Are you sure you really want to know? You really, really want to know? It’s a long story! OK, on your head be it.
I have always made up stories, even before I could write them down, I ran them through in my head. Short ‘imagination films’ featuring many of my favourite TV, film, and comic book characters. With this start I consequently did well at ‘English’ at school (despite a cavalier approach to spelling), and when careers talk time came around the career’s master pointed me towards drama college or film school, where I could indulge this passion and possibly become a dissolute waster along the way.
‘No’, I said. ‘I’m going to be a scientist and save the world.’ I mean, I could always write great stories in my spare time, couldn’t I?
I began writing my first full story, a comedy detective fantasy: ‘A DEAD ELF’, featuring dwarf detective Nicely Strongoak, while still a biologist, as some light relief from the chore of PhD writing. It was seeing a sign for an ‘Elf Service Station’ that got the imagination firing on all cylinders.
The first incarnation was as a radio series. The BBC producer who read the script was very nice about it, but pointed out that the BBC had something similar in the mix and why didn’t I turn it into a novel? Unfortunately I had that PhD to finish and then papers to write and a chap called Terry Pratchett came along and basically did pretty much exactly what I wanted to do with fantasy. So, I put ‘A DEAD ELF’ away in the computer’s bottom drawer, but Nicely wouldn’t go away – in fact a second story gradually emerged, but this time there was lot more detective and less satirical fantasy.
When (still an electron microscopist) I began writing comedy for a friend’s stage show I had a vague idea that this might be way to find an agent who could help me with a publisher for ‘A DEAD ELF’, which was now beginning to look much more like a novel. However, a few months later I was surprised to find myself sneaking out of the lab to work at Broadcasting House writing for two of the BBC’s topical radio shows: ‘Week Ending’ and ‘The News Huddlines’.
I ended up with some dozen commissions in total and jokes and sketches on TV’s ‘Rory Bremner’ show. What had begun as a way of finding a publisher was now the main preoccupation. Good job too, as to my surprise the worlds of comedy writing and book publishing have very little in common and so ‘A DEAD ELF’ had yet to see the light of day. Next, I next tried my hand at playwriting, got my first commission and had 3 shows on at the Edinburgh Fringe in the same year. One went on to be performed in New York. One thing I was sure about, this was now a lot more fun than science.
I started writing film scripts as well and began helping other people with their work and even started teaching scriptwriting. I went properly freelance and closed the lab door for good. And then, strangely, I became university lecturer again – this time in ‘writing’, not cell biology!
Still none of it had helped me find a home for ‘A DEAD ELF’! So when, working now full time as a writer and script doctor, I saw a post about Harper Voyager’s Digital First Initiative I emailed them ‘A DEAD ELF’ and basically forgot I had done so. After all, I was writing my first musical now!
Some time later I decided to self-publish ‘A DEAD ELF’. Two weeks after I had accomplished this, Harper Voyager contacted me to say that they wanted to publish my book. I unself-published ‘A DEAD ELF’.
My book was e-published by HV, with minimal publicity, as ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of Dead Elf’. A title I hated. The book didn’t shake the foundations of the publishing world – but some months later (after the paperback was published as a POD) somebody at Harper Collins USA saw something in my book and it was mentioned on a promotional ‘Bookperk’ email to Harper Collins readers. Within 2 weeks ‘Detective Strongoak and the Case of Dead Elf’ was a Kindle #1 Bestseller in the Epic Fantasy genre – it was outselling Tolkien and Martin! I got a banner from Amazon to this effect as well.
However, with no follow-up publicity the sales couldn’t keep going at that rate, but I was now inspired to finish Nicely’s next adventure confident that this would sell even better. My editor was looking forward to reading the book so I dropped everything else and got the manuscript off to her.
I waited, and I waited. I sent off emails. I started book 3 still waiting. Eventually I heard my editor was off sick. I carried on waiting. I contacted senior people and was told that it would be read. About a year after submission, pretty much out of the blue, I received an email from a p.a. to say that ‘because of lack of capacity’ Harper Voyager would not be able to do book 2 justice and so were not going to publish it.
And that’s after a relatively successful first book!
So here I am (A Kindle #1 Best-selling Author) still trying to find a permanent home for Nicely – and I still don’t have an agent to help. Apparently they don’t like unspecialised writers who write in different media.
I said it was a long story.
What do you wish you’d known about the publishing process?
Publishing is a badly run business with no rhyme or reason and to try to sort out any logic will only give you a headache and an irritable bowel.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Advice from me you want? How about stay in science?
Seriously, aspiring ones – don’t write unless you have to! Unless it’s such a part of your being that you have an uncontrollable need to tell stories. If so then nothing I say will dissuade you, but at least make sure you enjoy the trip!
If you want to write something, do it! Don’t listen to anybody who says differently. I’ve had award-winning plays, worked with comedy heroes, been involved in an award-winning feature film, had my own comedy series on TV, written animated cartoons, seen a director ruin my (co-created) musical, appeared in a major documentary, and had a #1 Kindle Epic Fantasy Bestseller. They can’t take that away from me.
Tell us more about Time. Where did the inspiration come from?
The inspiration for ‘Time’ was of course the photograph of the Cornish cliff-top walk. I was immediately taken back to an incident that happened to me while walking along a similar cliff. I wanted to relate the story, but even more than that I wanted to create an atmosphere – the atmosphere of ‘unreality’ that now hangs over this episode from my past – dreamlike and unforgettable. Also, after writing so much that might be described as genre I wanted to try something a little more mainstream and serious. I think I am getting there.
What is your connection to Cornwall?
Cornwall was first and foremost all about childhood holidays! Getting in the car in the dark at some unearthly hour to try to make it past the bottlenecks that always existed on the West Country roads in those days. We never did of course, because everybody started that early! But then we would be through the last queue and get our first glimpse of a sea that was so much better than the North Sea that provided another holiday dip (if we were lucky) in my Uncle’s caravan. After that Cornwall was the ideal place for a teenager’s first solo holiday and certain coming of age events that were the basis for ‘Time’.
What’s next for you?
Next for me: Two more Detective Strongoak books that need a home and a very different children’s fantasy, with animation potential, that requires a publisher as well. Then there is a co-written book connected to a SF musical written with a talented composer in Canada to get staged and published and another great musical, very much UK-based, that I am just tweaking the lyrics. I have started a new series of fantasy books and completed a major film that I must get around to pitching as well. Hopefully the film that I wrote with a lovely Jamaican client will be in production soon and the animated feature for a chap in Australia should be well along. So, busy, busy – but it should be easier! And look out for me in the MATTHEWS documentary feature film if it comes your way; 15 seconds of fame.
What are you currently reading?
I am just back from holiday in Corfu where I read the very enjoyable VE Schwab ‘Shades of Magic’ trilogy and have now just started ‘Research’ by Phillip Kerr. I am a huge fan of his Bernie Gunther books, which feature a German detective in and around the time of WWII. So fantasy and detectives – oh dear, I do read and write other things you know.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I am very lucky to live in a village in the High Weald in East Sussex so we have some great countryside (and beer) around here, so the walking is marvellous. Sadly we are Dalmatian-less at the moment (love those spotty dogs), but I borrow a friend’s dog. As a writing fiend I tend to find if I am not writing books, then it’s scripts, or lyrics for songs that may or may not get written, or might perhaps one day come out as poetry. I sometimes still do dream of science though.
Lastly, and most importantly, jam or cream first?
Oh Lord, I’m in trouble here – but sorry, it is cream first for me. Actually who cares, as long as I get a warm scone. Very important, the warm scone.
You can buy Detective Strongoak and the Case of the Dead Elf from Amazon UK, Amazon US, and Barnes & Noble. For more information on this series, visit the website here. You can find Terry on Twitter: @adeadelf
Read on for Terry’s excellent submission, Time.
I walked along the cliff top looking down at the surfers, sunbathers and swimmers. The afternoon sun was dipping too and the sea beginning to turn that sparkling mixture of colours that an aunt of mine had once described as ‘opalescent’. A good word that, I put it away for later when I might need it.
It was all unbelievably lovely. It felt as if I had entered somebody else’s dream – not one of my own dreams – I didn’t have dreams this good. Not then.
They were sitting on the rough grass by the side of the path, taking in the view. I had seen her around the town earlier in the week. You couldn’t miss her. With her flowing skirts, silk scarves and straight blonde hair, she looked like a British version of the Fleetwood Mac singer, Stevie Nicks. I didn’t like Fleetwood Mac much. Stevie Nicks was another matter. Women like her were still relatively uncommon in Cornwall then. You didn’t miss women like that.
She smiled at me as I approached. I smiled back.
I didn’t recognise him. I guessed he was a couple of years older than I was though, but I was vaguely pleased to see his hair wasn’t as long. He had some cool beads around his neck that I rather envied. We nodded to each other as young men used to do when they recognised somebody from the same tribe – the tribe that was still then called without baggage, ‘hippy’.
‘You look stoned,’ she said.
‘No’, I had to admit. ‘I’m just … taking it all in. It’s really something here.’
‘High on life,’ she said. ‘That’s cool.’
‘Join us, man,’ said Beads.
‘Yes, I think I will.’
I sat down on the grass and the three of us continued to look across the water. They had some cider. Everybody had some cider then. We passed it around. After a while Beads rolled a joint. I had 20 Benson and Hedges and he pulled a couple of cigarettes apart to make the joint. Beads had papers that had been soaked in cannabis tincture – a trick I’d not come across before, though I didn’t mention it. The effect was mellow.
‘This is mellow,’ said Stevie.
‘Really mellow,’ said Beads.
‘Yes,’ I agreed, ‘really mellow.’
We passed the joint backwards and forwards. I tasted her lipstick on the roach.
‘You have really nice hair,’ Stevie said to me. ‘I wish my hair was that thick.’
‘Hey!’ I replied. ‘Your hair is really cool. It’s rock star hair.’ This seemed to please her and Beads rolled another joint.
The holidaymakers were going home now; buckets and spades all packed up, children collected and dinners to be made or bought from the chip shops. I passed the B&H around and we finished the cider, just taking it all in and feeling mellow. The afternoon stretched on and on. The sun didn’t want to go home either.
We talked about music and the relative merits of our favourite bands. Beads and Stevie liked some American bands, ‘The Grateful Dead’ and ‘Poco’ that I didn’t know that well. They were well impressed by my knowledge of prog rock bands on the Charisma label and liked the sound of Island’s ‘Dr Strangely Strange’. We all agreed that David Bowie was a genius, although Stevie admitted to a weakness for Marc Bolan as well.
She asked if I was wearing make-up. Only mascara I replied, that and a little eye shadow.
‘Far out,’ said Beads.
Stevie’s favourite book was ‘Fear of Flying’, which she had just finished. Beads liked ‘Naked Lunch’. I said I preferred ‘Tropic of Capricorn’, although I hadn’t read it. I answered truthfully, when it was my turn, and said I loved the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and fully intended to write books like that one day.
Later we walked down to the river estuary, avoiding the town and walking through the campsite. The tide was out now and small pools of water had been left behind, deep enough to swim in. The waves could still be heard breaking on the nearby beach, but they were just part of the backdrop. In one of the pools a group of eight women were swimming naked, their clothes piled neatly on the nearby grass. They called out, in strong, slightly drunken, Northern accents, for us to join them.
The full moon had risen by then and was reflected in the tidal pools. The swimming girls looked like something from one of those painters whose names I could never remember. I half expected to see mermaid tails.
Beads and I looked at each, shrugged, and took off our flared loons and tie-dyed T-shirts, before dropping our department store pants and walking in. It was as warm as a bath.
Stevie sat for a minute or two and then said it ‘wasn’t her scene’ and walked on down towards the sea. Beads jumped out and ran after her while trying to get into his pants and jeans.
Two girls, one blond with a feather cut and one brunette with a bun, were singing David Bowie songs. Water droplets ran off their tanned arms and shoulders, falling like opalescent tears into the pool. I swam over and joined them and we sung ‘Time’ together, under the full moon, in the warm salty water, with the smell of the dunes and some residual ‘Coppertone’ suntan lotion.
Time was ‘waiting in the wings’, but he wasn’t centre stage then. Time had stopped. In moments like that time has to stop, because moments like that are eternal. Time knows better than to interrupt when moments like that are being created. Time has better timing.
The blonde with the feather cut, whose name was Sally, said: ‘Your mascara is running.’
‘That’ll teach me for not getting a water-proof one!’ I replied, laughing.
Sally was from Lincoln, sharing a caravan with her friends. She was an apprentice hairdresser and her friends mostly worked in High Street shops. She hadn’t read ‘Naked Lunch’ or ‘Fear of Flying’ and her favourite music, apart from David Bowie, was ska.
Sally and I went out for about a year, but long distance relationships don’t work well at that age. She cut my hair once – not very well. However, every summer Sally will be swimming in that pool, under the moonlight, singing David Bowie songs – as will I.
Time, his script may be ‘you and me, boys’, but he’s only the director. He doesn’t write the words. We do that.