The reviews that make you sad

One does not talk about bad reviews, seems to be the rule. If you’ve written a book or three and you want people to read them, the default position has to be resourceful cheeriness. In these days of mass-publishing, when anyone with something to say can find somewhere to say it, you need a thick skin if you’re going to put something creative out into the wild on which people will, inevitably, pass comment.

It’s the price you pay for being a writer, people say, and of course they are right. A great many people want to see their writing published, see it made available, see it being bought and read and (we hope, oh my we hope) generally enjoyed.

Take the rough with the smooth. Don’t read the reviews if they upset you. The positive ones outweigh the negative ones.

Every now and again, somebody does lose it, spectacularly, as somebody did just recently. And everyone circles around, says tsk tsk and playground-laughs because really, writers should know better than to get upset at reviews.

And yet. And yet. Sometimes it is different. Sometimes, someone hits you with a one-star review on Goodreads, and it makes you question everything you do. Which is mad, it’s insane and it’s silly. But it’s also human.

Take this, for instance:

Seriously boring – why would anyone stick with this one to the bitter end? I’m one of the 15% of reviewers who didn’t like this one – and proud of it!

A slow, dull, ponderous and overstuffed read littered with minor and pointless details and descriptions that weren’t relevant to the story and got in the way of progressing through the book. By page 75 I had enough and gladly abandoned it.

An additional irritation was that Shepherd’s style of writing seems dumbed down, too simplistic for adult reading.

So, OK. She didn’t like it (she’s talking about my first book, The English Monster). But did she have to be so gleeful about not liking it? Does that help anyone, that enthusiasm to pour ice-cold water on the poor writer’s head? Why would you be proud of not liking something?

A one star rating is fine – I mean, I don’t like it, but it’s fine, I write books that put some people off (and, secretly, I’m a bit pleased with myself about that). But language like this seems to reflect something else going on, something I am frankly mystified by. Is this the kind of thing you would say to a writer’s face? Is it the kind of thing you would say to any professional when critiquing their work?

How was the meal?

It was seriously terrible.

People just don’t speak like this to each other. Put a screen, a keyboard and the whole of the Internet in front of them, and somehow they lose sight of something – that there is a person at the other end of this.

And that’s the thing that disturbs me most. That another person, someone out there in the world, wrote those gleefully angry words – about me. About what I do. I have literally never – not ever – described another person’s work in terms like this.

But, no, that isn’t true – I have, of course. In private conversation with another person, I will go to town on any piece of creative work you care to mention. But then I imagine the creator sidling up behind me and listening to what I’m saying. And I cringe. Because that’s the human thing to do. Because unless the other person is vicious, or evil, why would you want to upset them?

A small plea for kindness, then. Pour cold water if you have to. Express your dislike if you want. I get it, I understand it.

But, please, try and be nice about it. Try and imagine going into work tomorrow, and someone standing in front of you and telling you your work is poor, is in fact lacking in any merit whatsoever, and what is more this someone is mystified that any colleague could hold any different view, your contribution being so pathetic and devoid of value.

I’ll be back at the desk working tomorrow. Other people will say nice things about my work, and other people will say nasty things, the world will go on turning. But as of right now, my world is just that little bit less pleasant than it was before I read that review.

Is that, really, what the reviewer intended?


My new paperback, and my upcoming book (NEWS!)

An exciting day tomorrow: my third book, Savage Magic, is out in paperback, and very gorgeous it looks, too.

But that’s not all.

If you buy the paperback and skip to the back, you’ll find an extract from my next book, which I’ve not mentioned anywhere before now.

It’s called The Veins of the Earth, and it’s the fourth book featuring Charles Horton, his wife Abigail and the irascible magistrate John Harriott.

The story begins in the Elizabethan era, with a bunch of villains rowing up the Thames to break into the house of an infamous man. They are led by a Dutchman with a secret mission: get into the infamous man’s library, and come out with a certain manuscript. A very important manuscript.

The name of this infamous man is John Dee.

Go forward 200 years, and Charles Horton is in the Drury Lane Theatre with his wife Abigail. They are watching The Tempest. It is Horton’s first Shakespeare, and he is mesmerised. But his evening is interrupted by the appearance of a small boy with a message, which he whispers in Horton’s ear as Prospero brings his play to a close.

‘You’re wanted in Wapping,’ says the boy. ‘The Monster’s returned.’

Out next year, from Simon and Schuster.

Do more with less, already

I’ve just been reading a really interesting post about CGI effects in current movies, and why they have become so screamingly underwhelming. It’s a long piece, but worth your time, particularly if you’re in the business of telling stories, and what it comes down to is this: pacing, style and creativity will trump raw power, every single time. Here’s what he has to say about this scene, from the upcoming (and obnoxiously crap-sounding) Jurassic World.


Sure, that looks pretty awesome, but destruction on that scale should blow our fucking minds. The response to dinosaurs wrecking a helicopter should be nothing short of paralysis, but this scene has no sense of gravity or consequence. Theres no scale to it. Theres even going to be a scene where (minor spoilers) a Pteranodon picks up a woman and literally drops her into the mouth of the Mosasaurus. It doesnt matter how real the CGI looks, because that scene belongs in a fucking Sharknado movie. Its an absurd cartoon orgy.

via 6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy |

As I’m writing a thing at the moment which could, unless I’m very careful, degrade into an ‘absurd cartoon orgy’, I found this very relevant.

Stick or twist? The art of stretching yourself

I’ve just been reading a fascinating piece from the Guardian about Amorphous Androgynous and their experiences working with Noel Gallagher on new material. Gallagher brought AA in to stretch his sound, and it’s fair to say it didn’t end well.

We tried to force him to write new material. But he dragged his heels and failed to stretch himself. Eventually, we came up with two new backing tracks for The Right Stuff and The Mexican to justify it being “like Pink Floyd”, the two songs that ended up on Chasing Yesterday. We spent six months on them. Now people are citing The Right Stuff as one of the best things he has done, and proof of how good he can be when he explores.

via Amorphous Androgynous on Noel Gallagher: ‘He was too afraid to be weird’ | Music | The Guardian.

I’m listening to The Right Stuff as I type these words. It’s excellent – essentially Gallagher, but with a new and fascinating twist. It’s a shame he didn’t put more of this stuff out, but there’s a lesson in here. If you’re not stretching yourself, you’re turning in on yourself. And that can’t end well.

Amorphous Androgynous on Noel Gallagher: ‘He was too afraid to be weird’ | Music | The Guardian

The Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club


It’s been a while – for which, apologies. But my absence is at least partly explained by the project I’d like to tell you about now (I’ve also been working on a new book, which is finished and set for spring 2016, but I’ll tell you about that another time).

I’ve teamed up with my old friend Tim Wright to conduct an experiment in reading. We’re planning to have an adventure by means of a book. The book in question is The Riddle of the Sands, the first spy novel. It was written in 1903, and it takes place between the dates of September 23 and October 26 in an unspecified year.

It starts in London, it finishes in Amsterdam, and in between our two heroes, Carruthers and Davies, sail their way from the Baltic to the North Sea, via the Kiel Ship Canal, and uncover an extraordinary plot among the windswept and tide-drenched East Frisian Islands.

That’s their adventure. Our adventure is to follow in their footsteps: to visit the same places, in the same timeframe as they did, to try and experience the world through their eyes, to try and make this vivid, extraordinary, riveting book come alive again. We call it taking a book for a walk, and we’d like you to join us.

How? Well, to start with, you can visit our website, the Riddle of the Sands Adventure Club. There’ll you’ll discover the text of the book, and a whole range of stuff we’ve dug up about its background – the history, the literature, the methods of travel. You can read about Danish princesses, German champagne, Flushing steamers and northern anchorages. Each week, we move forward in the book by another day, and try and dig deeply into what’s going on.

Also on the Adventure Club website is our weekly podcast, in which we try smoking pipe tobacco, sample naval grog and interview people who know things we don’t – from spy novelists, to transatlantic sailors. Our sixth podcast went online this week (it’s available on SoundCloud and on iTunes), and includes a tasting of German Sekt (not from the bilge), everything you ever wanted to know about Danish princesses, and a possibility of us all heading off to re-enact the Battle of Als.

All this is leading up to September 23 this year, when we plan to start reliving the action of the book, in exactly the same timeframe. Yesterday, we announced that we’re working with Unbound, the innovative publisher of crowd-funded books, to raise the money to set out on the adventure for real in September, and ultimately publish the Handbook Edition of ‘The Riddle of the Sands’.

For full details of how you can support us on Unbound, please go to

£10-£25 ENTRY LEVEL: The Adventure Club will be free right up to the point we leave for Flensburg. But from September 23 2015, you’ll need to be a supporter of the Unbound project to get onto the site. For £10, we’ll give you access, so you can follow us live, day by day, as we take on the Adventure for real. For £25 you get the Handbook proper (including the text of the original novel). Other reward levels include a Field Audiobook and a deluxe ‘Navigator’ edition of the book.

SPREAD THE WORD: Please pledge what you can at, but even more importantly do spread the word about the Unbound offer, and about all the good stuff we’re doing on

Tell your sailing chums, tell the lovers of this classic novel, tell history buffs, tell Childers fans, tell people interested in exploring northern Germany, tell people who are interested in new forms of digital storytelling. Please, spread the word.

And please sign up to be an active member of the Adventure Club online at We are so enjoying sharing this adventure with the people on there. I really hope you’ll join us.


Oliver Sacks will be leaving us soon

For all sorts of reasons that I won’t go into here, I wanted to record this beautiful piece by Oliver Sacks, who has been diagnosed with secondary liver cancer:

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

via Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer –