Book Review: Needful Things

Needful Things by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Needful Things is the story of a new shop that opens in a small town in Maine, and the subsequent events that unfold around the customers and the residents of the town as the proprietor of the shop begins to do business.

The setting is Castle Rock, a place many King fans will recognise, and feel at home in. Some of the characters from King’s earlier works make a reappearance, including Ace Merrill (from The Body, a.k.a. Stand by Me), who is one of the main antagonists.

I haven’t read a Stephen King novel for a few years and had forgotten how much I enjoy his work. While I don’t care so much for monsters and spooks, I am a big fan of King’s prose. The way he imbues his characters with amazing depth, giving them wonderful quirks that bring them to life. The short but simple descriptive passages. The suspense.

It’s hard to say what I didn’t like about the book, because it’s down to my own personal taste; as an older man, I admit I now find it more tricky to suspend my disbelief in the supernatural. However, I recognise this, and therefore haven’t let my personal feelings cloud my judgement in this review.

What I loved was the characterisation, especially the main protagonist, Alan Pangborn. The way King shapes him through the course of this novel is truly masterful. I’ll remember that character and his shadow puppets for a long time, if not the rest of my life.

View all my reviews.

Why I Write Fiction

Aberaeron beach, Wales.

Part three of a three-part series on how, what, and why I write.
(Jump to: Part One | Part Two)

So far in this series I’ve considered how I write and what I write. While both posts required a bit of thinking to pull together, this final instalment was the hardest.

When George Mallory was asked why he climbed Mount Everest in the first of three British expeditions in the early 1920s, he responded with the now legendary quote:

Because it’s there.

I prefer the updated quote by Larry Ellison, the billionaire founder of Oracle:

“Why do we do these things? George Mallory said the reason he wanted to climb Everest was because it’s there.’ I don’t think so. I think Mallory was wrong. It’s not because it’s there. It’s because we’re there, and we wonder if we can do it.”

This is the main reason why I write. When I read a great novel, I’m inspired. I see the mountain the author had to climb in order to complete it. I wonder if I could do it.

Some other reasons

I don’t think it’s possible to come up with a complete list of reasons for anything. The deeper you dig, the bigger the hole, the more you’ll uncover. Therefore, what follows is a list of four more reasons that came to me when I asked myself why I write. I’ve tried to put them in order of importance.

Leaving a legacy – I never tried to have a child of my own, and sometimes feel sad that I will not leave anything behind when I die, apart from a house, a little money, and some belongings, most of which will end up on eBay, in a charity shop, or buried in landfill. People who have children are to an extent able to ‘live on’ through their offspring and leave a lasting legacy. That’s something I will never be able to do, so perhaps by writing I am trying to fill that fundamental gap in my life.

Exploring how I feel about something or someone – One of my friends used to accuse me of thinking and analysing too much. He was probably right. However, inside me there is a strong desire to ruminate over how I feel. I enjoy exploring my emotions. As humans, most of us feel them, and most can relate to the emotions of others.

Reliving the past – I recently turned fifty, and have more than half a lifetime of memories stored in my brain. As far as I know, I still have many years to look forward to, but I do like to reflect on the past and remember some of the good (and bad) things that have happened. Some of these may seem insignificant, but they are defining for me, and I try to get that across in my writing by allowing my characters to have the same experiences.

Rewriting my life – Who wouldn’t want to go back and live their life differently? I’m not a bad person, but I’ve certainly made mistakes in my life, even if they are only small ones. Maybe I regret buying something extravagant or saying something stupid when I was in a bad mood. Perhaps I wish I hadn’t written a life-changing letter, or then again, maybe I wish I had. What would have happened if I hadn’t given up with something when I did? How would my life be now if I could rectify just one little mistake? I like to explore these possibilities through my fiction.

Write for whatever reason

Some people write for money, others write to get famous. Everybody is different. I don’t believe there is a right or wrong approach.

Whatever makes a writer tick, that’s the reason they should be writing.

What Type of Fiction I Write

Pylons in a rape field near Croston, West Lancashire.

Part two of a three part series on how, what, and why I write fiction.
(Jump to: Part One | Part Three)

Before I thought about writing, I was an avid reader. From a young age I devoured books, both fiction and non-fiction. Like many people of my generation, my childhood was spent reading stories by Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and C.S. Lewis. However, unlike many others, I also liked to read Greek mythology. In our house we had an old set of encyclopaedias which contained adaptations of Homer’s Odyssey. I read them word-for-word, fascinated with the tales of adventure.

As I grew up my tastes changed, and in my teenage years I gravitated towards horror and the supernatural, which was fashionable at the time. I used to borrow these books from my local library, much to the concern of one of the librarians, who wasn’t keen on my taste for this genre at such a tender age. I read lots of books that had accompanying films: Poltergeist, The Amityville Horror, The Exorcist. My favourite author of the time was probably Stephen King.

The Horror Years

I started writing in earnest in 1994. I had plenty of free time, and after a run of Stephen King novels (including his epic, The Stand), I felt inspired to try writing myself, just to see if I could do it, and what it felt like to write for pleasure. To my surprise, the words came easily, although whether or not they were any good is another matter.

The first novel I wrote was Augustus O’Kane, a story about a haunted computer. It was around 41,000 words in length, landing in that grey area between full-length novel and novella. I enjoyed the experience of writing and felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I completed the project.

Cult was my second attempt at a novel, a tale about a religious cult that carried out human sacrifices in a forest. This was a full-length novel, and once again I found the process of writing easy and enjoyable. I wrote this in 1994, straight after I had finished Augustus O’Kane.

My third novel was Raise the Dead, a story about a trainee priest who discovers his old friend from school is trying to raise the dead from their graves. I wrote this in 1996, with much less time on my hands because I was newly married. The only way I could get through the first draft was by writing late at night or early in the morning when the house was quiet.

The Thriller

Around this time, I was broadening the scope of my taste in books, and had moved away from horror onto thrillers, reading novels by Jeffrey Archer, Wilbur Smith, Michael Crichton and others. It seemed logical at the time that I should try my hand at writing one.

My fourth novel was Deadly Obsession, a tale about a rich man who would stop at nothing to collect archaeological treasures. I wrote this in 1997 and tried a different approach. Instead of just letting the story develop as I wrote, I plotted out each scene in advance, until I had the full plot. This resulted in me having to go back and complete the daunting task of filling out each scene in detail, a plodding and mechanical process that I didn’t enjoy.

Short Stories

I didn’t write for a long time, mainly because I was focused on setting up a consulting business, commuting up and down the country, trying to find new work, etc.

Eventually, the urge to write returned, and I began penning short stories. My wife also enjoys writing, and the two of us would come up with an idea for a story, which we then wrote over the course of a week. When they were finished, we would do a swap and read each other’s work.

Due to my busy lifestyle and also the advent of the Internet, I didn’t spend as much time reading novels, although I had started to read more classics by authors such as Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, Evelyn Waugh, and Leo Tolstoy. (Anna Karenina nearly killed me, but I finished it.)

The stories I wrote during this time seemed more authentic than anything I’d written before, probably because I wasn’t inspired by a particular author or genre. They are contemporary, full of nostalgia with a strong sense of place.

Fifth Novel

I am currently writing my fifth novel, provisionally titled A Different Path. It’s the story of a man in his twenties, single, lacking in confidence and stuck in a rut, who finds his life changes when he meets a well-dressed stranger.

Once again, it’s contemporary, with elements of nostalgia, love, and that same strong sense of place that I enjoy getting across in my writing. I’m reading more novels now, but I haven’t allowed myself to be influenced by other writers or genres.

What works for me

Over the years I have been writing, I have found I produce my best work when I try to be myself and just let the words happen instead of trying to emulate other authors or write for specific genres because they seem to be going through a boom.

Some authors have found great success in following the market and anticipating its trends, and there’s nothing wrong with that approach if it makes the individual writer happy.

How I Write Fiction

Photo by Sneha on Unsplash.

Part one of a three part series on how, what, and why I write fiction.
(Jump to: Part Two | Part Three)

Before diving into the details of how I write, I thought it would be a good idea to share a bit about my writing background and what I have done to-date.

Writing ‘CV’

My first published story was called The Lion Tamer, hence the photo above. I wrote it when I was at primary school, aged ten or eleven, and it ended up being printed in one of the local newspapers. That was a proud moment for me. I wish I still had a copy.

The next piece of fiction I remember writing was the answer paper for my ‘O’ level exam in Modern World History. I was sixteen. I got a ‘U’ for my efforts, which I thought was unfair. It wasn’t historically accurate, but I do think it showed great imagination.

I then took a break of eight years, and read a lot. Nineteen-ninety-four must have been a good year for me creatively. I started writing again and penned a short novel/novella in the first half of that year, then went on to write a full-length novel in the second half.

Over the following four years I wrote two more full length novels, and lots of book reviews for computer industry magazines. Then I took a long break of about ten years where I concentrated on other things.

After that hiatus, I came back and went through a phase of writing short stories for a couple of years, and produced a few that I am still really pleased with. I will occasionally open them and think about that time in my life.

For the next six years, I wrote academically, and focused on completing an Open University degree course, which was something I had always wanted to do. I had no headspace for reading or writing fiction at all during this period.

Three years later, I am writing my fifth novel, and feel more productive and creative than ever. I won’t try to predict the future and prophesy what happens next. That would be foolish. Besides, one of my characters is already doing plenty of that.

My approach

There seem to be two camps of writers: those who research and plot everything out in minute detail before they begin writing, and those who have an idea summed up in one or two sentences which they then drop onto one or more characters.

I’ve tried both approaches over the years, but now sit in the latter camp. If I plot out the whole story, I have little motivation to write it because I know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to end. On the other hand, if I have an idea and throw a couple of characters together, I can watch them and the plot develop. I want to carry on writing because I want to know what happens next.

The mechanics

When I’m working through a first draft, I write every day unless there is an unshakeable excuse not to. I set myself a target of seven hundred words, which usually equates to one scene, and try to write it as well as possible.

After that first cut of a scene, I will read it back straight away and fine tune the prose, simplifying and rephrasing things that feel clumsy or unwieldy. Depending on how much writing time I have left in my day, I might do this again, and will usually end each day with a clean piece of writing.

The next day, I repeat the process, writing then polishing another scene. This daily practice continues until I reach the end of the story.


At some point, I will ask trusted people to give me feedback. My wife is usually the first person to read what I’ve written. I might do this when I’ve finished the very first chapter, or the first three chapters, or the first part. While I wait for feedback I press on with the writing so I still make my daily number of words.

Depending on the feedback itself and who it’s from, I will then make a decision to either continue, or take a step back and make big changes before proceeding.

My experience in the technology business has conditioned me into getting a ‘Minimum Viable Product’ in front of the end-user as soon as possible. Seeking feedback early allows me to either validate I am going in the right direction, or correct my course before I waste a lot of time and effort.

Do what works

There is no right or wrong approach that can be applied to everyone, but I do believe there is a right approach for a given individual, at a given time.

I do what’s right for me, and as long as it seems to work, I’ll keep doing it.

Book Review: My Legendary Girlfriend

My Legendary Girlfriend by Mike Gayle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My Legendary Girlfriend is the story of Will, a hopeless romantic who is still trying to get over being dumped by the love of his life three years before. The book is set over the course of a single weekend, and is a hilarious glimpse into the life of a man who is bitter about pretty much everything.

Most of the book is set in the protagonist’s one-bedroom flat in North London where he has telephone calls with the various people in his life. There is a great mix of happy, sad and funny moments, and Gayle keeps the plot flowing well, even though much of the narrative is internal dialogue.

The only thing I didn’t like about the book is the use of adverbs. I noticed on average one per page, and I found them distracting. There’s something about them that leaps annoyingly off the page, and even when I try to focus intently, they won’t go away, instead continuing to doggedly claw at my attention. This is just my own personal preference though, so don’t be put off.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable book, and Gayle has created an loveable character in Will. I look forward to reading more of Mike’s books.

View all my reviews.

Book Review: On Writing

More than just a memoir.

On Writing: A Memoir by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On Writing is exactly what it says in the sub-title: a memoir. But it’s more than that. While the first third of the book recounts key events in King’s life that perhaps make him the writer he is, the second two thirds attempt to describe how he goes about the craft of writing.

This is the third time I’ve read this book, and I’ve given it five stars so it’s obvious I like pretty much all of it. The advice King offers is priceless, and I believe it will make most people who follow it much better writers.

The parts I didn’t like were those describing the grisly medical procedures he underwent as a child and as an adult following the road accident that almost killed him. The reason I didn’t like these was not because they were badly written or unnecessary, but because I vicariously experienced them.

A recommended book for anyone interested in Stephen King, or improving their writing.

View all my reviews.

The Importance of a Morning Routine

I’ve been getting up early for as long as I can remember. Sometimes it makes things tricky if my wife wants to go to the theatre or put a film on after 8pm (I’m guaranteed to start falling asleep), but the upside is I get to catch some great sunrises.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve also been one of those creatures of habit. I tend to do the same things when I get up, in the same order. Literally. I can’t imagine tackling my early mornings any other way, but I’m sure there are many people who get up and have no choice other than to react to what’s happening around them. Military personnel for example, or parents with children.

My morning routine is as follows (omitting one or two things we all do):

  • Brush teeth.
  • Go downstairs.
  • Ignore the cats yelling for breakfast.
  • Add milk to oats ready for making porridge.
  • Let the chicken out.
  • Sweep the kitchen floor, brushing up spilled cat litter and other overnight detritus.
  • Put a pot of coffee on the hob.
  • Acknowledge the cats and feed them.
  • Empty the dishwasher.
  • Pour the coffee and sit at the table.
  • Write a morning page.
  • Read while finishing my first cup of coffee.
  • Meditate for ten minutes.
  • Cook the porridge that has been soaking.
  • Feed the chicken a portion of the porridge with some chopped fruit.
  • Eat breakfast while reading or watching a series episode on Netflix or Apple TV.
  • Drink a litre of water that has been chilling overnight in the fridge.
  • Make another coffee.
  • Shower and get dressed.
  • Start work.

One of my favourite parts of the morning is sweeping the kitchen floor. There’s something zen-like about it as a ritual, and even the cats seem to recognise this. They fall silent and watch every stroke of the brush with fascination as it passes over the floor making that gentle ‘fffffing’ sound.

The absolute favourite part of my morning ritual has to be that initial sip from the first cup of coffee.

I realise I’m lucky to be able to have a routine like this. Every morning I’m thankful for the quiet (once the cats have started eating) that gives me the opportunity to gather my thoughts and start booting myself up for the day.

A regular morning routine is a practice I strongly recommend.

Book Review – Who Moved My BlackBerry?

Who Moved My Blackberry? by Lucy Kellaway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who Moved My BlackBerry is the hilarious story of Martin Lukes and his struggle to reach the top of the corporate ladder and become “22.5 percent better than his bestest”.

The book is written entirely as a series of emails from Martin to his coach, his wife, and colleagues at work. The writing is tight, with very little description, apart from what someone would write in an email, which makes the story fast paced, especially if you are used to reading countless emails every day.

What I liked about the book was the amusing but uncomfortable reminder that I myself often slip into using many of the corporate phrases used by Martin, the protagonist. Reading it has made me hyper-aware of the awful business clichés used in our daily lives.

Initially I felt the story would be complex and hard to follow due to the email-based narration. However, the complete opposite is true. I really enjoyed this book, and recommend it to anyone who works in an office and wants to be a better person!

View all my reviews.

Computer Industry Book Reviews

Back in the 1990s, I wrote regular book reviews for computer industry magazines. It was a great little gig and I enjoyed reading the books and seeing my writing in print. I also got to keep the books after reviewing them, and ended up with a large collection. I’m sure I still have some of them.

One of my many book reviews from Computer Weekly, c. 1995.

My review of The Skin of Culture above mentions “the growth of new media such as E-mail and videoconferencing”. We are now living and working in a world where both technologies are so ubiquitous they are taken for granted.

Another of my book reviews from Computer Weekly, c. 1995.

In the review of Rewired above, I mention approaching the next millenium. It feels quite strange to realise we are now two decades into that millenium, and that I wrote those words over twenty years ago.

There were lots of different industry magazines like this, including Computer Weekly, Computing, Microscope, and several others. Some, like Computer Weekly, have now gone digital only.

Many of them no longer exist at all.