The Writing Life of: Melvyn Small
This week on ‘The Writing Life of:’ I am thrilled to be interviewing author Melvyn Small (aka Michael RN Jones). Melvyn will be sharing with us detail of his writing life, telling us all about his latest book ‘The Accidental Detective’, which was released on 22nd February 2017, and answering a few fun questions too.
So without further ado I’ll hand you over to Melvyn
Melvyn Small (aka Michael RN Jones) was born in Stockton-on-Tees and raised in nearby Billingham. Mel left Northfield Comprehensive School at 16 to train as a civil engineering technician at Cleveland County Council Surveyor and Engineer’s Department. From there his education comprised a BTEC ONC, HNC and a BEng honours degree in Civil and Structural Engineering. After 14 years Mel drew a finally-draughted line under the world of hydraulic modelling and roundabout design and undertook a Master of Science degree in information processing, before commencing a career in information technology.
It is perhaps Mel’s technical upbringing and his drafting of countless technical reports and specifications that give him a succinct and efficient writing style that lends itself to the fast-paced short stories he has had published to date. This layered with the gin-dry humour garnered from a Teesside upbringing provides a thoroughly entertaining read.
His latest book The Accidental Detective delivers a modern-day interpretation of a venerable classic. In this series of short stories our hero, a foul-mouthed anarchist detective, takes his newly acquired associate through the most intriguing of mysteries. Armed only with logic, deduction and copious amounts of alcohol, they soon develop into the most formidable team crime has ever had the displeasure of encountering.
1) As a child what did you want to do when you grew up?
An Astronaut. I remember sitting in the library in junior school leafing through the pages of various books about the Apollo moon landings.
2) Who were your favourite childhood authors?
I wasn’t massively into books as a child. At school, I always favoured the maths and science subjects over literature. I think I read some Enid Blyton books but I don’t remember particularly enjoying them.
I remember one book about some toys getting locked up forgotten about in the back of the toy cupboard that quiet disturbed me. Maybe that put me off literature for a while. The first piece of fiction I remember reading and really enjoying was High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.
3) At what point in your life did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
Writing is something I more stumbled into, rather than had any major aspirations of doing. Over the years, I’d had lots of ideas for stories, however turning them in to 70 or 80,000 words seemed to be a bit daunting in terms of both expanding the ideas into something of that length and finding the time the write them. Actually, having a go was the result of a couple events, the order of which I’ve forgotten.
The books I’ve written are inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. One evening while I was watching the US TV show Elementary, probably with a glass of red wine, I had the thought that although they’ve moved the character on they could have done a lot more. Elementary has some nice updates in that Sherlock Holmes now lives in modern-day New York and Watson is a woman in the shape of Lucy Liu, however, to me, the Sherlock Holmes in Elementary isn’t all that far away from the classic Jeremy Brett interpretation.
My idea was that you could do a lot more, whilst still retaining the character’s core skills and attributes. The idea kind of got parked in my head for a while until I inherited a Kindle. My brother and I had bought my mum it for Christmas but she never took to it. She’s a big reader but much prefers paperbacks. Consequently, I inherited it and the among the first books I downloaded was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. After reading A Scandal in Bohemia in a single sitting, it struck me that rather than try and write an 80,000-word novel, I could write short stories.
4) How did you go about following that dream?
The writing of the stories actually started following a conversation in a pub in Sheffield. I am a Middlesbrough FC fan and got a call from a friend one morning saying he was coming down to Sheffield and he wondered if I fancied going to the game against Sheffield Wednesday. The other bloke on that trip was a chap called Mick Richardson.
As we enjoyed a few pre-match beers, Mick told me about a book he was writing and I mentioned the idea I’d had about Holmes. A couple of days later Mick sent me the first of the chapters of the novel he was writing and it was really good and very funny. I think it was after that point that I decided to put fingers to laptop keys and have a go myself.
From then on Mick would email me the chapters of his novel as he finished them and I would send my Holmes stories in the other direction. Each of us would pass comment on the others work and we proceeded like that. My first volume of Holmes stories was published at the end of 2015 and Mick’s Novel, The Boro Phallacy, followed the year after, as did Holmes Volume 2.
5) What is your writing day like? Do you aim for a certain amount of pages or words before you stop for the day?
I write in fits and starts. I can write as few as a hundred words in a week, which tend to be jokes as I either think of them or have them gifted by the maceration’s of everyday life, or, if I get I have a little time to myself and can get in the zone, as many as 6,000 in a day. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of my weekly word count and to make sure I’m putting a relatively honest level of work in.
6) Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I suppose Melvyn Small is a bit of a of a pseudonym in that I don’t really use it and tend to go by Mel. The only person that really calls me Melvyn is my mum when she’s annoyed at me. I chose to use it on the books because I thought it sounded more literary that Mel Small.
However, this is an interesting question as I have recently signed a deal with a new publisher to republish the Holmes books in a different form. Earlier this year I sent the first volume of the stories to Chris McVeigh the founder of Fahrenheit Press. Given the stories you hear about authors getting turned down by publisher after literary agent after publisher, I wasn’t expecting much to come from it. The response I got was brilliant. He really liked the stories and said it was clear I could write and my humour was “just the right side of smart-arse”. “Both qualities that are valued at Fahrenheit”.
There was however an issue in that he had reservations about the direct nature of the Sherlock Holmes characterisations and found Sherlock, Watson and Lestrade a distraction. His concern was that the books would be mistaken for fanfic and, from a commercial point of view, they stood the risk of been seen as a derivative of both Elementary and the BBC’s Sherlock, when in his opinion they were better than both. Can you imagine who chuffed I was when he said that? To solve this, he recommended I dial down he Holmes and Watson thing and turn the books into a more “subtle homage”.
Initially, I wasn’t sure. The “homage” in the books is much more than character names in that there are all sorts of nods and winks to Sir Arthur’s original can, however a few days later he called me from Santa Monica (yeah that’s Santa Monica in America) and we discussed it. My thought was that it would be easier for me to write something new as the Holmes thing was too wired in. Chris said he would take a look at some new stuff, but still was still keen to publish what I had. He said that he no longer read for fun, but had rattled through the first four of the stories. He said it was his “guilty secret” and he was reading them whenever he got a spare moment.
Following our transatlantic call and a very short period of deliberation, I agreed. I think the thing turned my reservations around was Chris saying the stories were too good not to be read. They have been read, and the feedback has been really encouraging, however only by the number of people that my one-man marketing machine has managed to reach. Besides, who was I to argue? Chris has been in the industry for twenty-five years.
On a bus ride into Sheffield city centre from my home on the outskirts, I emailed Chris to tell him I was up for it. Fittingly, given the genesis of the stories, the new character names were dreamed up in the pub. Sherlock Holmes became Victor Locke, Doctor John Watson became Doctor Jonathon Doyle… The rest is literature.
I feel I’ve given a politician’s answer to this question in that I’ve not really answered it, however the point is I thought I couldn’t really release the reworked books under the same name as the originals. I foresaw a scenario where people would assume I had published an all new book, only to start reading it and think “hang on a minute… this is the same book as before”. Consequently, it wasn’t only Sherlock Holmes that got a new moniker and I became Michael RN Jones.
In retrospect, I’ve grown to like the idea. The stories are still quite obviously Holmesian and a tribute to ACD, however this only now becomes apparent as the reader gets into them. Previously, people have said that they imagined the characters as Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Odd really because when I was writing them I had Bob Mortimer and Vic Reeves in mind. In the new versions, I’m hoping the characters aren’t skewed by any preconceptions.
Wasn’t that a very long answer to a potentially yes/no question? I must try and be more succinct.
7) Do you have any strange habits before starting, or whilst in the midst of writing?
8) Do you write longhand, typewriter, or on a computer?
I type the original drafts in the cloud. This means I can tap stuff into my phones as an idea strikes and build on it when I get back to my laptop.
9) How many books have you written? Do you have any unpublished work?
Two or three, depending how you look at it. There was the now unpublished Holmes Volume 1 and 2, which are no longer available online but can be ordered from bookshops while stocks last, and the “all new” The Accidental Detective: The Victor Locke Chronicles. I also have a lot of works in progress in various stages of development.
10) Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m a bit of both. I do plot in that I will draft out a structure for the story, but I will also rattle ideas down before the full plot has formed in my head and retrofit a structure around that.
11) Do you read all the reviews left for your book(s)?
I do. I look forward to getting reviews. I’ve not had any bad reviews yet so haven’t had the need for coping mechanism. I have had a few three out of five star reviews, but the comments have still been quite encouraging. The comment that sticks in my mind is one from a Sherlock Holmes fan (at least I assume they were a fan given their handle was Moriarty77) who gave a three star review of Holmes Volume 1 but still remarked I was “added to the tiny list of people I trust with Holmes and Watson. That’s no mean feat.”
At the end of the day I think you’ve got to accept there is every kinda people out there and even if you’ve produced the best book ever written there will be someone who doesn’t like it. I’m yet to find that person… ha!
Concerning your latest book:
Victor Locke Chronicles Book One
Publisher – Fahrenheit Press
Pages – 249
Release Date – 22nd February 2017
Format – ebook
Victor Locke and Jonathan Doyle are perhaps as diverse characters as you could expect to find. Had Locke not strayed outside the law, and been ordered by the judge to attend a series of counselling sessions at Doctor Doyle’s consulting room in Middlesbrough, they may have never met. However, sometimes the stars align.
When Locke and Doyle are thrown together, they are cast on a series of perplexing adventures that soon expose the self-deprecating Locke’s mastery of data, deduction and logic, along with his casual contempt for both the law and life-threatening danger.
What keeps Doyle so embroiled? What is it that keeps distracting him from his promising career in psychology? What compels him to while away his nights drinking pint after pint of Engineer’s Thumb in the Twisted Lip?
It can only be the fascinating creature that is Victor Locke.
12) How long did it take you to get from the idea’s stage to your date of publication?
From the idea being formed it may have taken six months before I started writing and then each of the twelve stories to a month each to write. I wanted to get most Volume 2 written before Volume 1 went to press, however the first book was published within a year of me starting.
13) How did you come up with the names for your characters?
In the first incarnation that was easy. I stole them from Sir ACD. The names for the reworked Victor Locke stories were dreamed up in the pub by me and my mate Trev. Rather apt really given how the books came originally about.
14) Can you give us an insight into your main character(s) life?, What makes them tick?
Sherlock Holmes / Victor Locke is a “homage” to the Sherlock Holmes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, however the only bits that really remain are his core skills of logic and deduction. These are still key, in that by far the most important thing to him is solving of the mystery, but much of the rest of the character is taken from the environment he inhabits. Essentially you have a nature versus nature thing going on.
A core premise is that siting the character in Middlesbrough in the North East of England means you take the character a lot further away from other interpretations, i.e. what I thought they could have done with Elementary. Some things that are typically Sherlock Holmes had to go. An example for this is the arrogance you sometime see in Holmes. An upper-class toff in London might get away with his, however in Teesside this would soon be knocked out of you either verbally or physically at a very early age. Consequently, he is very self-deprecating which adds to the enigma and makes you wonder if he’s being a genius or just winding you up.
I think the best thing about the stories being set in the North East of England is the humour that comes with it. I’m really pleased that I managed to get some of this across, as it is something that defines the region. I’m more pleased that it appears to travel and is appreciated is places as far away as Mesquite, Nevada.
15) Which was your hardest scene to write?
I’ve not found anything I’ve written so far particularly hard. I’m told my writing in quite pacey, and that’s probably because I rattle it out. A challenge does however await… at some point I think I’ll have to write a love scene. That should be interesting.
16) How did you come up with the title of your book?
When Fahrenheit Press said they would prefer an actual title rather than the Victor Locke Chronicles Book 1, “The Accidental Detective” seemed the obvious thing to call it. The character never sets out to be a detective, he just falls into it through circumstance. A bit like me being a writer really.
17) Did you get a family member/friend to read your work before sending to the publishers?
About twenty friends and/or colleagues read he original drafts. The majority of these took the role of beta readers and passed me feedback, much of which was really encouraging. Five people actually volunteered to proofread the stories and sent them back marked up with typos and poor grammar.
18) What process did you go through to get your book published?
As mentioned in the previous answer, the first stage was to put the books through a quite rigorous self-edit process involving friends and colleagues. Following that the manuscripts were passed to the publisher for proofreading, typesetting and cover design.
The original books were published under by Sixth Element, and indie publisher from my home town of Billingham. I paid for the work they did, however this meant I owned the rights and took a much larger portion of any money coming from sales.
For the Victor Locke Chronicles regeneration, I passed the reworked manuscript to Fahrenheit and they got on with doing what they do best. The cover treatment was created and the ebook was published in a matter of weeks, and the marketing they have been doing has been immense. As far as I’m aware to rework and republish a book in this manner is unique.
19) What did you do once you had written the final word in your book?
I don’t really remember but I probably made myself a coffee or poured myself a glass of red wine depending on what time of day it was.
20) What’s next for you, writing-wise?
A novel. There’s a bit of irony in my original concerns that I wouldn’t be able to write 80,000 words in that across the two books of short stories I ended up writing 150,000. Although I intended to write standalone stories, that never quite turned out as planned and there is a story that arcs across the piece. Consequently, I now have a level of confidence that a full-length novel is within my grasp.
I’m currently writing three; a murder mystery set in New York with what I think is a reasonably original twist, something I’m calling a romantic black comedy and a full-length Sherlock Holmes / Victor Locke story.
1) What’s your favourite food?
The national dish of the People’s Republic of Teesside, the parmo.
The Chicken Parmesan, colloquially known as the Parmo, is a breaded cutlet dish originating in Middlesbrough and a popular item of take-away food in the North East of England.
2) If you had a box of crayons and you could only choose one, which colour would you choose?
3) What movie could you watch over and over again?
4) What would be the top song on your playlist?
Wonderful by Adam Ant
5) If you won millions, what would be your first purchase?
An Aston Martin
6) A talking duck walks into your room wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, whats the first thing he says to you?
“What’s the quack here then?”
You can find out more about Melvyn Small by visiting the website/social media sites below.
I would like to say a big thank you to Mel for sharing with us details of his writing life, and for a wonderful interview.