Author Spotlight: Mark Cantrell

markToday’s author is another Inspired Quill author, Mark Cantrell, who works as a journalist during the day and writes his novels by night. He’s here to discuss his career as a writer and his newest novel, Silas Morlock.

Please give Mark a warm welcome.

1.Can you tell us a bit about your novel, Silas Morlock?

Silas Morlock is a dark urban fantasy with shades of the macabre horror thrown in. It’s a story about good and evil, the darkness that resides inside all of us, and what happens when that darkness escapes to smother the world in shadow.

The book deals with a last-ditch struggle to save the human soul from extinction. By that, I don’t mean some intangible and metaphysical entity, but something with a real physical existence – books, art, music, the products of humanity’s creative spirit.

I often think of Silas Morlock as a cross between Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and FW Murnau’s Nosferatu, but with a horrifying presence all of its own.

Beyond that, it’s a story about guilt and redemption, betrayal and revenge, purpose and belonging, and the unlikely hero’s rather more down-to-earth motivation – the desire to impress his way back into his former girlfriend’s affections. Well, that takes him into a very dark place indeed.

2. When did you know you wanted to pursue writing as more than a hobby?

To be honest, I’d have to say it was right from day one. From the start I always wanted to make a go of it, though I never had any illusions that success was a long shot, and would only come (if at all) after a long haul ‘apprenticeship’.

To my mind, writing is something of a calling. It’s not just a job, or a hobby, but a way of life. Yeah, I know, I’m a dreamer and an idealist, but that’s no bad thing for a writer. In fact, I’d say it kind of goes with the territory.

Okay, so I have to pursue my calling around the gritty realities of the day job, and I’m a long way from being able to embrace my writing as a full time activity, but that doesn’t make it any less of a serious endeavour.

A lot of people will dismiss my writing as a frivolous pursuit – and being published doesn’t necessarily alter that reaction – but it’s par the course for writers, really. Among the reactions you get, positive as well as indifferent, there’s a strand that takes the view you should grow up, give up, and conform to an everyday life. To Hell with that.

As it happens, I have an everyday life – don’t we all? – and I suspect few people are truly ordinary; we all have our little quirks and idiosyncrasies, the seeds of the extraordinary about us. Mine just happen to have embedded me in the world of writing, and why would I give up on being me?

3. If you could attribute your writing success to one turning point in your life, what would it be and why?

I’ve had a creative urge for as long as I can remember. I suppose most of us do and somehow we lose it along the way, or else it’s absorbed into aspects of adult living that aren’t immediately associated with being creative.

As a kid, I made things out of Lego, plasticine or Meccano, or else I was scribbling drawings (I’m no loss to the art world). I even ‘wrote’ my own books about dinosaurs and things like that, writing up my own summaries of what I’d read and illustrating them with my own drawings. I think I’ve still got one or two of them somewhere. My handwriting was certainly more legible back then.

This creative compulsion could all so easily have been lost to childhood as it receded into personal history, just like it does for most people I guess, if it hadn’t been for the chance gift of a ZX Spectrum computer when I was 16. My Dad turned up with one out of the blue, and I’d have to say this was the turning point that got me going into a creative future.

My writing today – Silas Morlock, my other novels, the short stories I’ve written, even my career as a journalist – owes its origins to that 30-year-old black box with its tiny 48K memory and its squidgy rubber keyboard.

To cut a long story short, I wasn’t content just to play games on the old Speccy – it wasn’t long before I was writing my own. These were text and graphic adventure games, so they demanded a lot of writing – descriptions, response messages and so on.

Since I was selling these things mail order, before they were eventually picked up by an Indie outfit called Zenobi Software, I had to write the accompanying instruction documents and storylines associated with each game, so that was essentially my first foray into creative writing.

It wasn’t until a few years later, though, that I made the conscious shift into becoming a writer. I’d thought about writing on and off over the years, but never quite connected the reality of it with me; that is until I did some voluntary work at a cassette magazine for the visually impaired.

One of the other volunteers was a writer. I can’t quite explain the how and why of it, but after we’d chatted about his writing something just clicked into place. I felt inspired to have a go at writing a short story, so I picked up a vague idea for a storyline to an adventure game and turned it into a story, bashing it out on an old typewriter.

Sore fingers later, I ended up with something long enough to be a bad novella, but I had caught the bug and discovered what I wanted to do with my life. Poor fool, he says too many years later.

4. Can you give us a brief rundown of your writing process?

If there’s a process to my writing then I’ve yet to work out what it is. I’m a ‘pantster’, I work it out as I go along, but I guess a certain method has emerged out of the madness over the years.

I learned the hard way that novels, or indeed short stories, aren’t written – they’re-written.

Back when I first started writing, I produced my manuscripts on a typewriter, but then I moved onto writing on an Atari ST computer. Fast forward through university and into the world of work, and a couple of incompatible writing machines before I finally joined the PC-owning, Word-using fraternity, and I was obviously forced to type drafts in from scratch from one machine to the next.

Inevitably, this brought about changes and gave me an insight into the drafts, so I was effectively re-writing them rather than just keying them in. By then I was working on my first published novel, Citizen Zero, and the process taught me a valuable lesson about the importance of re-writes for improving the quality of a piece of work.

So, I suppose that’s become a process for me now: once I’ve finished the first draft I print it out, give it a read through and an edit on paper, then I type it back into the machine from scratch, re-writing it as I go. Once that version has been edited on screen, I’ll print out my second draft and edit that.

At this stage, if the editing process identifies any weak scenes then I’ll re-write them from scratch before slotting them back into the main manuscript. Sometimes, an individual scene might go through two or more re-writes before I’m happy.

All this might sound laborious, but believe me it’s worth it.

5. How much planning do you do before starting a first draft?

Minimal, really. When an idea detonates, I’ll try and capture as many of the initial fragments as I can. Normally, that takes the form of a rough outline usually scribbled on a couple of sides of A4, together with some brief notes about primary characters, settings, themes, and the broad arc of the emergent story.

Often, there’s a few key trigger scene ideas in my head, so I’ll capture as many of those as I can in note form, sometimes with brief snatches of dialogue. Then I tend to launch into the writing, planning and outlining as I go. I certainly don’t create detailed plans of the entire book before I start writing, the way some authors do.

Experience has taught me it’s best to strike when the iron’s hot; at least that’s the way that works best for me. I’ve got a couple of novel ideas lying fallow at the moment. When the ideas first hit, circumstances meant I had to leave them to go cold. They’re strong ideas, with a lot of accompanying notes, and I am still adding to the raw material, which tells me they’re viable, but re-igniting a cold project is a lot harder than diving straight in after that initial burst of inspiration.

6. What’s the hardest part of the writing process for you and how do you make it easier for yourself?

Erm, Jeez… all of it? How do I make it easier? Nicotine, caffeine, beer on a good day. Sometimes I just bleed on the keyboard. I honestly don’t know how to answer this question. If it’s easy then what’s the point?

Then again, is it really all that hard? You get an idea, you thrash it out, you hit the keyboard and get on with the task of turning raw thought into a finished manuscript. Sure, there are hurdles along the way, plot questions that need answering, wrong turns, and re-writes, but that’s all part of the process of pulling something into existence out of raw nothing.

When the inspiration and the words are flowing, it’s beyond easy – you’re barely there, just a vessel channelling it all into existence. When some hard thinking is needed and you can’t see the solution to a problem, I guess that’s when it becomes hard going; getting stuck can be frustrating, but solving a problem is a great feeling. You don’t get the satisfaction of fulfilling a challenge if the hurdles aren’t there to overcome.

7. What’s your favourite part of the writing process?

When that first rush of inspiration gives me the idea for a new story has got to be the best part of it all. It really is a rush when a fresh idea strikes. It’s like a burst of mental lightning that fires up my brain and crackles down my arm; it’s always a frenzied occasion, scribbling down the thoughts and ideas as fast as I can, and yet the mechanics of my arm never seem quite enough to keep pace with that fizzing creative energy. It’s such a buzz.

After that, I guess my next favourite it the culmination of the process, when the story is complete, the manuscript has been polished to the best of my ability, and I can sit back, look at the stack of pages and say: “I made that.” There’s such a tremendous sense of achievement, of completion – and I don’t mean just the project, but more in the sense of self. In a way, I suspect I don’t just write these stories into existence but bring a part of myself into being too.

The moment never lasts, of course. After the sense of completion comes a sense of loss, a void that soon aches to be filled again, especially with lengthy long-haul project like a novel; after all, they dominate your every waking moment for a long time. Nature abhors a vacuum. That’s probably what triggers those creative bursts of inspiration. It’s the need for the next ‘fix’.

8. If you could give an aspiring author just one piece of advice, what would it be?

Keep at it and don’t let the bastards grind you down (easier said than done, I know). Besides that, I’d say read. You’ve got to read. Soak up them words and meanings. No writer worth a damn ever neglects their reading. It shouldn’t be a chore, because you love immersing yourself in the written word, in the stories and the life experiences and the sheer bloody awesome wonder they convey. Oh yes, and write too. We mustn’t forget that.

9. What are you reading right now?

On The Steel Breeze by Alastair Reynolds.

10. Are you working on anything readers can look forward to?

At the moment I’m playing Victor Frankenstein, or maybe Igor, with my writing and trying to spark some life back into it. I think my efforts at practising maniacal laughter and cries of “It’s alive!” are starting to annoy the neighbours.

Later this year, or early in 2016, Inspired Quill will be publishing my dystopian thriller Citizen Zero, so I hope that’s something to look forward to. I originally self-published the novel back in 2010. It wasn’t my original plan, but with the election of the current Tory-led coalition, the recession and the austerity drive the Government implemented, I felt the book needed to be out there. I wrote Citizen Zero in the late 90s, but it’s only in the last few years that I feel the novel has come into its era.

Aside from that, I’m working on a few short stories at the moment. They’re a mix of science fiction and fantasy, with a few more literary efforts in the mix. I haven’t done much in the way of short fiction for a while, articles and blogging has kind of dominated my writing output of late, so I want to generate a body of fresh fiction.

After I’ve got a few more stories under my belt, I intend to pick up one of those two novel ideas I mentioned earlier and get book number five written. If only I can decide which one to do first…

Mark Cantrell AuthorMark Cantrell is a writer and journalist living and working in the UK. He is the author of the novels Silas Morlock (2013) and Citizen Zero (2010) as well as a host of short stories. When he’s not writing he usually has his head buried in a book.

Purchase your copy of Silas Morlock today!