Monday 28 November 2022

What on Earth Gives a Straight (ish) White Male the Right to Write about LGBTQ+ Pride?

I know what you’re thinking as you look at the deliberately twat-baited cover of my new book, Straight (Ish) White Male Pride (available for preorder now).

You're thinking, what gives you the right to write about the LGBTQ+ experience, Dave?

Well, the clue is in the title. I am a straight (ish) white male, and I regularly go to Pride parades. It started because I have a lot of LGBTQ+ friends and family; and became a habit when I realised how much fun they were – and the extent to which a not-very-blokey-bloke like myself actually needs them. Youdon’t have to be gay to have suffered at the hands of gay-bashers.

I came up with the idea for the book sitting outside the Fortune Of War on Brighton seafront at Pride 2018. I could see the very very straight men – terrified at the mere idea somebody might think they were gay – clinging to their girlfriends (who had dragged them along because it’s an epic party) like they might be gang-raped behind the bins if they were to let go. None of them were even that good looking. However, in a different world, that could easily have been me: it might well have been at my first Pride event. I can't remember that far back though – post-covid brain fog has got me.

I wondered what would happen if their girlfriends were separated from them, abandoning the poor fellas in the midst of the LGBTQ+ fabulousness and forcing them to make new, diverse friends. (Interestingly, LGBTQ+ events seem to be one of few instances where women sometimes feel safer than (a certain type of) men when on their own.) And what if they were the absolute epitome of the misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic right-wing nutjobs that seem to have been having such a successful resurgence of late?

So when I got home, I plotted it. And then I moved the whole thing to Devon, because there are already too many books set in Brighton. Then I put it in my Weekend Rockstars universe, added some recurring characters from other books and an unconventional narrative device stolen from Taylor Jenkins Reid, and wrote a first draft (two years later).

Then I planned my year of researching the finer details: going to Pride parades, numerous trips to discos, karaoke bars and night clubs; and a lot of time around the pubs of Exeter to get the route right and narrow down the finer details of the interiors, etc. The Spring and Summer of 2020 would contain the best research ever. And I think we all know what happened to that plan.

When Exeter Pride finally returned this year, I pretended to be from Taunton to join the march

So, two years after starting to write it, nearly five years since I came up with the idea, I finally have it all edited, checked, and ready to go and suddenly I feel I need to explain myself, to bare a little of my soul, perhaps. Because, you know, I am a straight (ish) white male, and why on earth would one of those want to write LGBTQ+ books? (Btw, I've always tried to represent the community in every book I've written; to the extent that an unnamed critic felt the need to point out that not everybody is LGBTQ+ and could I please put in more straight people. The answer is no. My art imitates my life, not yours and sexuality is a spectrum.)

That first draft – universally pulled to shreds by my helpful beta readers including the inimitable Drew Hubbard, who felt so strongly about it he set up Pride Reads shortly afterwards to prevent the hetero-community ever doing it again – featured my own Frankenstein’s (alright, Holwill’s) monster. My main character, Lloyd, is a public-school-educated, affluent straight white chap who has never really had to worry about anything in his life, and thus sees equality as an attack on his own personal freedoms. He is, to put it bluntly, a cunt – though he does not know it. He is also somebody I very easily could have been, given a few different decisions over the last 45 years, which is why I made him so utterly loathsome in the first draft: to draw a clear line between me and him in case anybody thought I shared his views. I had become the Bizarro-world version of those chaps glued to their girlfriends on Brighton beach.

It was a ridiculous fear, since, if that really was me, I wouldn’t have been writing this book. So I had to go deeper into Lloyd: explain why he is how he is, try to get to the root of the problem of why this particular type of person is so angry about so many tiny things that do not really affect them at all: the upbringing, the toxic masculinity, the vicious cycle of childhood bullying perpetuated despite the best efforts of the majority of educational professionals, the fear of being different (right down to the playground taunts of ‘haircut, haircut’). But I had to make it funny, so, you know, maybe not that deep.

This photo of my and my wife's feet was probably taken just after I thought of the idea

The thing is, as writers (and this is probably true for most creative types), we all wish for an ideal world where the only people who will ever read our work are people who have never met us, and god-willing, we will never have to explain ourselves to. Unfortunately this isn't possible, and most of us at one time or another will have to deal with a well-meaning aunt asking whether the things we have written about actually happened to us. The anxiety of having our nearest and dearest know we have created all these characters, and trying to work out what it means for their relationship with us, is very real and has driven me to dodge the book conversation as often as I am physically able. Because truthfully we all – without exception – think awful things. The difference between normal people and writers is that normal people can shrug it off, pretend they never thought it and hope everybody believes they're okay. Writers will think, hey, that's a really interesting idea, I should write a book around that, and have to extrapolate it into a plot, create a character capable of doing the awful thing and thus inhabit the awful thought they should never have had in the first place for far longer than is comfortable. Then laugh while explaining to the people who mean the most to them that they're not like that. They made it all up. They never even had the awful thought in the first place. Someone else told them about it; they've forgotten who it was.

So, because Lloyd could be me, and I could be him, and anybody who knows my upbringing, education and background knows it, I needed to validate him. To prove that I made different decisions, have lived a very different life and that I am – hopefully – a better person. The entire point of the book is that everybody has the potential to change their programming, to be a better person. Whether or not they decide to use it is up to them, and I won’t spoil the ending by telling you whether Lloyd does or not, just that I believe he could, if he so chose. I have to.

I gave him depth. I gave him a backstory. I scoured my very soul for the answers and that's why there's a couple of scenes that might sound like I'm writing as some kind of therapy. They're not my issues; they're Lloyd's. It's just that I had to exaggerate some of my own experiences to shape them. I'm fine, honest.

So, despite having been entangled in the scene for decades now, I have approached writing about the LGBTQ+ experience as an outsider (and as somebody who’s been in a happily comitted heterosexual marriage for the last 16 years). And that’s what gives me the right to write about it. It’s not a spotters guide (although bits of it might come off that way; I'm hoping to accidentally snag some gammony readers with my title and change their minds) and it’s not as partisan as you may expect from such a rainbow-spangled hot pink cover. But I’ve tried to help the phobic understand why Pride is still needed, and the LGBTQ+ understand a little of what makes (some of) the phobic genuinely fearful in some cases. I’d like to think both sides can take a little from this book and maybe bring a little more light to their lives.

At the very least we can have a few laughs; it’s got some very good jokes in there, if I do say so myself.

Lloyd didn’t want to come to Exeter Pride.

His girlfriend Leanne tricked him into it with the promise of her favourite band, Fat Labrador, headlining.

And now, because she can’t take a joke, she’s had a hissy fit, run off and left him on his own – AND she’s got his car keys so he can’t even go home to London.

In order to get back to her, he’s going to have to team up with her two best friends, and they’re really not his kind of people.

For one thing, they’re at Pride by choice.

For another, they’ve got a lot of history of their own to deal with and haven’t spoken in a very long time.

Can the three of them put aside their differences and find a way to reunite Lloyd and Leanne, before it’s too late?

Over the course of a very hot weekend in Devon, the three of them are forced to swallow their pride and beg for help from each other and a diverse cast of unlikely allies in a breath-taking chase through the stifling streets of Midsummer Exeter.

Set in the
Weekend Rockstars Universe, die-hard fans will be rewarded by cameos from favourite characters, and the return of Sean and Rhiannon from Straight (Ish) White Male (Previously known as Gap Years).

Straight (Ish) White Male Pride is available for preorder now

Friday 16 September 2022

Yea Lord We Greet Thee - Born This Happy Morning (originally published 01/01/2022 on the other site)

This is a bit late, since I started writing it during that strange gap in time that we now call Twixtmas: a special period of having little to do, of loafing and binging and pondering what we might do when we are forced to become productive again.

Not for me, I was back at the dayjob after having the bank holidays off and nothing more. Thanks boss. But I’m not dwelling on that.

I am always sucked into believing that those couple of extra days off work will go on forever and that I will be transported back to my teenage years, when I could spend the Christmas holidays being disappointed by the Queen/Beatles/Jimi Hendrix songbook I bought with my hard-earned Christmas money when all the songs turned out to be scored for horns in Eb and Bb. I would, however, spend all that extra time with my guitar, messing about, making noises on whatever new toy I had got for it, be it a slide, a capo, a flanger or a wah-wah. Or, that rarest of things, a new set of strings. I had hoped to get a minute or two out in the studio playing on my much-neglected instruments over this time, but as yet people haven’t stopped fucking ‘popping by for drinks’. It’s so important to catch up isn’t it?


It’s not.

I want to dick about with my guitar, watch telly, listen to records, read books and maybe, just maybe, eat some biscuits, and that is all.

However, I’m at work and it’s pretty much all over, so that’s not happening.

Don’t worry, I’m okay, just jealous, and I’ll have three days off to welcome in 2022 and do nothing. I’ll be fine.

I did give myself the end of the year off from writing and stuff though. It’s been a busy year, as I detailed in my last blog, and I finished a first draft of something I am pretty sure I’ll never finish on the day before Christmas Eve. I’m not allowing myself to do any more bookish stuff until the 4th, when everyone else comes back to work at the dayjob as well (again, thanks Boss, thanks so much). So I’m spending my early morning writing time polishing up my blurbs and covers, ready for some big marketing next year. I know, I know, I said I wasn’t going to do any work, I really was going to just read other people’s books, but the anxiety said no.

Here’s me at fifteen years old messing about with a guitar - might have been Christmas (that’s still my main guitar, if you’re geeky enough to be interested in such things)

Christmas Eve brought an odd revelation. I found myself wanting to go to Midnight Mass, since when I was a kid I was made to go every year whether I wanted to or not. Perhaps it was because I made the Midnight Mass such an important part of the Christmas-based plot of The Bellever Hagstone (Part 2 of my Wicker Dogs Folk Horror Series) or maybe it was the fond memories of my brother and I sitting there pretending to be sober while wolfing down peanuts we’d brought with us from the pub to soak up the beer. Either way, sneaking in the back twenty minutes late and slightly wobbly felt like old times.

It was a lot emptier than I remember. Though it’s a different church, different decade, different town and different world than it was when I last attended.

It hit me right in the feels from the get go, sitting at the back, in the dim candle-light of the cold breath-fogged church, trying to follow the service from the bit of folded up A4 the nice lady who spotted me coming in late walked over to hand me. Wrapped up in three coats it had the familiar tang of the early ‘90s for little Dave.

But it was the singing I went for, and I was not disappointed. Generally, when I’m in a church these days, it’s for a funeral or a wedding, and so I tend to do the hymns with my much quieter bass register, in order not to make it look like I’m the massive show-off I really am at heart.

But it was Christmas, and the best way to spread Christmas cheer, is singing loud for all to hear.

So I let the big tenor loose, and since everybody else was muttering into their shoes, it was like getting to do a solo in the big wonderful echoey space that is my local church.

Me and the organist, giving it beans and having it large.

Music, so they say, soothes even the savage beast.

I spent a lot of years refusing to sing in church, after I renounced the whole thing and went militant atheist. I could not spout lies in song. Another example of my inner pretentious dickhead ruining my fun, and doing me out of something I genuinely enjoyed. As a cherubic eight year old I sang in the church choir, and as a teenager, I sang at evensong in Exeter Cathedral with the school and if I hadn’t done all of that, I almost certainly wouldn’t have the stones to sing in public as much as I have done these last thirty-five or so years.

And if I can sing about the highway to hell, and shouting at the devil and reigning in blood etc. etc. without believing a word of it, then I can sing the songs of the other side surely? I don’t have to believe in either. Music is music, no matter where it comes from, and like they say, why should the devil get all the good tunes?

So I have been very at home singing carols for a few years now.

Here’s the ruins of Holy Trinity Church in Buckfastleigh. The inspiration for Dourstone Nymet's St Euphemia’s where the Midnight Mass that kicks off the final confrontation in The Bellever Hagstone takes place. I would love to go to a Midnight Mass there.

However, I haven’t done the last verse to Oh Come All Ye Faithful in a very long time, as you only get to do it one day a year - born this happy morning.

I found myself overwhelmed with nostalgia, joy and that excellent feeling you only get when you’re in a group of people all doing the same thing.

What my old Church Youth Group leader called the Holy Spirit, and which I quickly found out feels the same at a Slayer gig as it does at a mass Christian thingy, so it’s not.

In the back of my mind, I heard my grandmother’s voice doing the descant parts, as she always did in life, and that’s when it hit me. What I loved about Christmas when I was a kid, was seeing my grandmother. Singing the carols with her at midnight mass was every bit as important as the big dinner and the presents.

Maybe my grinchiness for all these years has simply been because I miss her?

Anyway, I felt closer to her than I have since she died eight years ago, just before her 90th birthday (which was at Christmastime, another reason to associate it with her) as a result of going to church.

So I had a profound, emotional, spiritual and yet entirely secular experience in a house of God, on Christmas Eve.

The vicar (who is a friend of mine, and very keen to get me back in the flock) was very pleased to see me there, and said so afterwards after I thanked him for the service. I had to tell him that I was only there because I like to sing, and I miss my gran - which was true, but only really half the story.

Merry Christmas.The wolves are running. Perhaps you would do something to stop their bite? (Originally published 19/12/2021 on the other site)

Four years ago, I began my annual rewatch of the BBC TV series, The Box Of Delights, while reading John Masefield’s original book for the first time. The wolves were running and so was my brain. I wanted to write a story where magic spilled over into the real world, and nobody questioned it or scoffed. Where a daring Kit Harker could take on a merciless opponent like Abner Brown and win against all the odds.

But I wanted it to be in modern Devon - not the non-specific shires of the 1930s, and I didn’t want to have to tone down the language, or the horror, for kids. 

After a walk on the moors with my adopted Alaskan malamute, Sky, I had an idea. I came back and roughly scrawled out the opening chapter. It’s not very different from the one you can read if you buy the first in my folk horror book series, Wicker Dogs. The final version is missing three unnecessary prologues, a lot of pointless scene-setting, and Patrick’s no longer a total shit, but it’s not far off.

It’s been a hell of a time since that heady December of 2017 though right?

It looked a lot like this on the moors behind my house that day - although we took this picture this morning while Dartmoor was hiding in the mist

At the end of 2020, I was doing David Gaughran’s highly-recommended course on Book Marketing, in which he suggests it is near impossible to market fiction unless you’ve written a series. Now, at this point, I already had two Weekend Rockstars books published, and half an idea for a third in the back of my head. So it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to just churn one more of those out and focus my attention on putting them in front of people. After all, Weekend Rockstars was, at that point, still my strongest seller, even after four years of my not really marketing it, or realising it was, in fact, a series.

But, as is so often the case, I decided to make my life a little more difficult. I came up with a new pen-name, D.A. Holwill, and vowed to release the first three Wicker Dogs books over the next twelve months instead. After all, horror sells in much lower numbers than rom-coms, and is near impossible to market. I abandoned the rom-com I’d been writing for half of 2020 (that ties in with the Weekend Rockstars/Gap Years universe really well) and threw my whole head into the new idea.

In my defence, I had been querying Wicker Dogs for a year and a bit at this point, and book two, The Bellever Hagstone, was almost ready to go to my beta readers. All I actually had to do to thrust this series into the world and put Mr Gaughran’s solid advice into action was write one more book. Since the first book is set around the fictional Wisthound Weekend, the first weekend in December, I set that as publication date for book three. My 2021 challenge was set in stone, this thing I would do, no  matter what.

And, against all odds, I’ve actually done it. (And filled all three books with cryptic references to the Box Of Delights, they're not hard to spot.) Despite the last twelve months taking two cars, three cats and the use of my left ankle away from me (the ankle was only for a couple of months, but it really didn’t help). I did have to completely rethink the way I approach my writing though.

All three books, done and dusted in time for Christmas - with some weird hairy bloke holding them

As 2020 drew to a close, like a lot of people, I was struggling to put words on the page. Spare time got harder to find, and, by evening, my brain really couldn’t think good, let alone write nice. So I woke up in January 2021 and made a decision. I would get up before six every morning, and get at least a whole hour’s writing in before going to the day job. I really didn’t expect it to work, since I am not, and have never been, a morning person. But it did, my half-asleep, semi-unconscious, brain is apparently way better than the supposedly fully-awake version I had been trying to access during lunch-breaks and after work. This year I have regularly knocked out more than my 1.5k wordcount targets every day before I leave for work. Sometimes in less than an hour.

I have a policy that as soon as I hit that 1.5k target, I stop and do something else. Thanks to Graham Greene, who famously did the same thing when he hit 500 words. I don’t have the same luxury of time as Mr Greene, so I still have to work harder, but it’s achievable, and way better than my old method of doing as much as I possibly could in every spare minute I could find. Pro-tip, give yourself permission to stop before you burn out.

Previously, I had spent all day fretting about how I would get that wordcount in, then stare at a blank screen in every spare minute I could find: getting it done - but having to drag word by painstaking word from the depths of my overstimulated, whirling brain. I was giving myself anxiety and not getting any real breaks in the day. Now, even though I hate the sound of the alarm, and still get those anxiety pangs while I’m in the shower, dreading having to throw words at the page, it’s out of the way before I start my real day. And I get to spend my lunchbreaks reading for fun, or watching crap on the telly, while in the evenings, I do marketing plans, write blogs (hello) and try to be funny on social media. I hate the early starts, but I seem to have fixed my writing problem, and this year has been more productive than ever.

I opened the year drafting book three, while I polished up books one and two, ready for human consumption. I put my dayjob-honed Photoshop skills to good use in the evenings and knocked up a solid concept for ongoing cover art (using my dog, Sky’s, hypnotic eyes to maximum effect) and sketched out the way I’d put all the pieces in place by the end of the year.

I even put together a free prequel story - The Stalking Of Lady Sophia - that needed way more research than I expected, and not enough people have told me they like just yet. Do please rectify that by downloading it for free - you just have to sign up for my mailing list, and I really don’t mind if you unsubscribe as soon as you’ve got your free book. It’s cool.

I almost kept to the spreadsheet, though not rigidly. I needed to be flexible, for the sake of my mental health. Summer came and, due to car number two being destroyed by a passing 4x4, I ended up sending out the beta version of Jack Sharpnails late, and fell behind the curve. I took a bit more downtime than planned, spent some quality time with my wife, rehabilitated my ankle properly and still managed to get book three ready in time for Wisthound Weekend. It’s done, it’s out, and I started writing this blog on the very day that Polly and Patrick moved to Dourstone (probably).

If I hadn't become obsessed with the Box Of Delights again, didn’t live in a small town where they hold a very odd, fire-themed carnival every year, and hadn’t adopted such a singular kind of dog, then I doubt very much I’d ever have come up with the book. If I didn’t have such a supportive wife and helpful bookish friends and connections, I’d never have finished the first book, let alone all three.

Merry Christmas to one and all (especially the guy I know in town who wants me to sign his copies of the Wicker Dogs books, but unwittingly revealed he had never read them by asking me if Sky was a husky - with no trace of irony. I genuinely love you, please never change). I hope this next year brings you all the same satisfaction this last year has brought me.

2022 will be a whole different challenge, and those Weekend Rockstars books will be coming your way, as well as Wicker Dogs Four. The problem with achieving your goals, is that you know what you’re capable of, and you have to live up to your own newly-altered expectations.

God damn it.