Sunday, 1 May 2011

Heaven Can Wait, and the fate of John Collins (includes Sample Sunday)

The spanner, she is in the works. Quite apart from the fact that my elbow is still recovering (I've got full mobility back, but it's still a bit swollen and it still tires easily), I've had a couple of writerly developments which are going to disrupt my plans a bit.

The first is that I finally got it through my thick skull that there are serious problems with 'The Death of John Collins'. Rather, there's one serious underlying problem with a wide range of negative effects. The whole thing is bloated, because I've stretched what should only ever have been a novella into a full-blown (if short) novel. The current draft is just over 60,000 words long, and looking at the outline, I think it probably wants to be more like 40,000. There are at least two whole chapters which are totally redundant, and there's far too much dialogue dragging the pace down. I'll be taking the hatchet to it sometime in the next month, then soliciting a new round of beta reads - anyone currently betaing for me, please feel free to stop (though guidance on what to cut is welcome).

The other major development is that I was assaulted on Tuesday morning by a new story idea. It knocked me out, tied me up, and is currently keeping me in a cabin in the woods while it uses my neurons to assemble itself. I've never had such an easy time putting together an outline. I'm sort of hoping to write it in the course of the next week, while the iron's still hot. This is madness, but it's no more work than was NaNoWriMo, and I loved that.

A new novel by itself isn't so much a spanner in the works as an unexpected bonus. The problem comes because the new idea is quite a different kind of novel to the 'thinky' stuff I've been writing thus far. It's much more naturally a Young Adult-oriented work (though everyone seems to think I've been writing YA all along, based on beta feedback I've received), and I'm not sure that anyone who found me through this book would like my main oeuvre.

The thing is, the changes that need to be made to 'The Death of John Collins' are probably going to push it in a young-adult sort of direction, and I'm wondering if I shouldn't split my work and embrace this. I guess it depends how well the new novel idea works out. Here's the pitch;

"I met a man who wasn't there...
The Non-Agency ushers ghosts into the next life. Tom presents them with something of a problem; he refuses to believe he's dead, and the Men Who Aren't There are having a hard time proving it to him. When Tom falls for a living girl, it starts to look like he might never move on, and that means the Non-Agency are free to play dirty..."

And here's a sample chapter (let me stress, this is a very rough first draft job, just to air the idea):

Heaven Can Wait
Chapter 1 – The Man Who Wasn’t There

In the small hours of the morning after my death, I woke up on a sandbar out in the Cohl delta with a Man Who Wasn’t There waiting for me. It’s hard to describe Men Who Aren’t There. After all, they’re not there. He wore a smart pin-striped suit, his silver smiley-face cuff-links glowing in the moonlight. Everything about him was polished to a shine, from his shoes to his briefcase. I couldn’t tell you whether he himself was smiling, but looking at his face gave me a sense of comfort. It’s not so much that Men Who Aren’t There don’t have faces, but the light never seems to fall on them right, you never get a clear look – and so you never remember what they look like.

Of course, while I was taking all this in, another part of my mind, in a voice of rising, uncomfortable urgency, was telling me that I was face-down on a sandbar, soaking wet, cold and very confused. Still another part of my mind was wondering why the shiny shoes in front of me weren’t sinking – as my face was – into the sticky silt of the sandbar.

I spat sand and started to push myself up. The Man Who Wasn’t There leaned down and offered me a hand up. I took it, gratefully, and was surprised by the strength in the wiry fingers. Standing, I did my best to brush the mud off, which mostly ended up spreading it onto my hands.

“Well, aren’t we a live one?” said the Man Who Wasn’t There.

“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked, then remembered my priorities, “Where am I?”

“That’s an interesting question. If you’re asking about this place, we’re about half a mile down-stream from the Seaward Gate, in the delta. Where you are? Well, that’s more complicated.”

“What do you mean? Who are you?”

“Me? Oh, I’m Not Here. But you’ve got more important things to worry about. I’m sorry to be so blunt about this, but you’re dead.”


“Quite so. I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”

“I’m not dead!” I waved my hand at him, “Look! Moving around!”

“Well, that’s rather the problem. You may be moving around, but your body...” He looked towards my feet, and I got a distinct feeling of surprise emanating from his faceless face. Quietly, he said, “Oh, damn, we don’t even have a body? This is going to be tough.”

“What do you mean? What are you talking about?”

“Well, normally when we get a- No, wait, let me start again,” He took a deep breath – no mistaking that sound – and straightened his tie. “You’re a ghost. A particularly lively one, it has to be said, but a ghost. Your belief that you didn’t die last night is what’s keeping you going right now. It’s my job to look after you until you’re ready to let go of that belief and move on to the next world. That’s why I’m Not Here – to remind you that you aren’t, either. Normally, the first thing I’d do, horrible as it sounds, would be show you your body. Unfortunately, yours seems to have washed out to sea, so that’s out.”

“I’m a ghost?” I pressed a hand to my chest, and was immensely relieved when it didn’t go through.

“Thinking ghosts don’t have bodies?” he paused, and once again I got the sense he might be smiling, “If only it were that simple. If you believe hard enough that you didn’t die, you can be completely indistinguishable from a living person.”

“Why should I believe you?”

“That I can’t help you with right now. Can I at least persuade you to come with me? If nothing else, I can get you back to the city without you having to swim.”

I looked around. With the moon so near full, I could see just how much of the broad delta lay between me and the river gate. I nodded. He opened his briefcase and rummaged inside. After a moment, he pulled out something that looked like a small fountain pen.

“Right, before we go, I’m supposed to give you a list of warnings about how walking around the city might feel a bit different now that you’re a ghost, but in your state I doubt you’ll notice. People might be a bit surprised by how damp and muddy you are, but in this light you’ll be lucky if they notice that.”

“I still don’t think I believe you,” I said, frowning.

“Look, just come with me, there are some things I can try that might convince you,” He stopped fiddling with the pen for a moment, “Oh, by the way, your name’s now Pondin.”

“My name is Tom.”

“Sorry, I’m not allowed to let you use your life-name, either with me or with anyone else you run into. My boss is very strict about that. Your name is part of what’s holding you to this world, you need to let it go. Pondin it is.”

“That’s a stupid name!”

“Uh-huh. You’ll be less likely to get attached to it this way. Ghosts who hate their names never hang around as long as those who get attached. Forget about Tom. Move on.”

“But I don’t want to move on! Why should I?”

“You aren’t supposed to be wanting anything right now. You should be in Heaven, receiving all that’s your due.”

I looked at him, confused. At this point I still hadn’t lost the habit of trying to get a good look at his face. He gave the pen a decisive twist and, with a sharp pop, we were in the hostel.

The thing that struck me first was how stale the air seemed; dusty, dry and tasteless. The lack of smell meant we had to be in uptown Cohlin. The walls were wood-panelled, but the panelling was cracked and battered. There was no carpet, just unvarnished floorboards and a lot of cobwebs.

“Where are we?”

“You kids these days. You couldn’t even manage to be surprised by the jump?” The Man Who Wasn’t There, who wasn’t stood behind me, sounded petulant.

“Everyone knows you rich folk carry all sorts of tricks these days. What’s that one called?”

“A teleporter. And as it happens, nobody has one unless they work for us. You have to have special permission from On High before the magic will work for you. Which is a tremendous hassle, but worth it.”

“On High?”

“You know, Him Upstairs. The Temples. God.”

“Oh.” I hadn’t ever spent much of my life thinking about God. I’d been too busy trying to scrounge enough to live on. The Temples were places you went to throw money away, not find it – even God wouldn’t help you if you stole from a priest.

“Come on,” said the Man Who Wasn’t There, not stepping past me, “Follow me.”

“Where are we?” I asked again.

I followed him out through the door, into a hallway where cold air sucked at my still-wet clothes. A staircase ascended into darkness on one side; the other way, an open doorframe led into some sort of cafe. The Man Who Wasn’t There led me into it.

“One of our hostels. It looks like you’ll be with us for a while, so you’d better have somewhere to stay. Being around other ghosts can help you let go.”

I nodded.

“What, no protest about how you have perfectly good lodgings of your own?”

“I don’t have any lodgings at all.”

“Oh. Um, sorry.”

We sat at a table near the counter. The chairs were bare, hard wood, but well-polished.

“Now, Pondin,” he said, “Whether or not you believe me, you’re dead, and it’s my job to get you to believe it. Can you remember anything about last night?”

“I was trying to rustle up some silver running errands for gents in the pubs down by the docks...” I thought back. The evening was a bit fuzzy, “I... uh, I think I ran into Mick and Percy at one point. Oh, yeah, they were going to try to sneak into Mr. Everay’s place. I can’t really remember... I might have gone with them.”

“Oh, fantastic,” there was no mistaking the sarcasm in the Man Who Wasn’t There’s voice, “you can’t even remember how you died. I’m guessing you got a bang on the head, fell in the river and drowned before you could regain consciousness. Now, if we could find your body, I could show you the bruise and we’d be sorted, but no, you had to go and lose that too.”

“Hey, I didn’t choose this!”

“I might give that some credit if you could remember what you did choose. Look, Pondin, is it at least possible you got killed sneaking into this house?”

“Sure. Mr. Everay has armed guards.”

“And are you likely to have gotten caught?”

“If I went with them, I’d give us a three-to-one chance of getting away with it.”

“So there’s a twenty-five percent chance you died last night?”


“Never mind. A one in four chance.”

“I guess. If I went with Mick and Percy.”

“Can you think of any other reason why you might have ended up in the river?”

“Bad luck. People fall in the river all the time.”

“Do they usually live?”

“I don’t know. Some do.”

“You don’t have the slightest bit of doubt that you’re alive, do you?”

“I don’t feel dead.”

“Well, of course not,” he snapped, “If you were dead you wouldn’t feel at all. That’s the problem. No, I’m afraid we’ll have to do this the hard way.”

“The hard way?”

“Yes. Well, to start with, we’ll put you on a vengeance-on-your-killer geas. Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

“What’s a geas?”

“Sort of like a goal, a purpose. We give all our ghosts something to work towards that focuses them – you – on the moment of your death, help you come to terms with it. Often it’s just things like saying good-bye to a loved one or visiting your funeral – which is always a pain, by the way – but in really serious cases, it can be vengeance. Of course, you’re almost too lively even for that. The first thing you’ll have to do is figure out who killed you.”

“If anyone did.”

“Well, yes,” he said. A moment’s pause, then, “Fancy a drink?”


The Man Who Wasn’t There waved at someone behind the counter. A pale, skinny waiter brought a tray across to the table. There was a single tall glass of green liquid on it. The Man Who Wasn’t There handed it to me.

“You’re not drinking?”

“Me? I’m on duty, of course. But please, drink up.”

It was such a natural offer that for a moment I left my guard down; I drank. The liquid was rich with all sorts of exotic flavours, and delicious. When I put the glass down, it was half-empty. The Man Who Wasn’t There made another gesture towards the waiter.

The waiter produced a saucer from a trouser pocket and tipped a little of my drink into it. He placed it on the table and went back to the counter.

He returned a moment later carrying a rat. A live rat, and a large one, over eight inches long. It wriggled and chittered in his hands until he put it on the table, right in front of me, right next to the saucer. With the energy of a cat finding catnip, the rat pounced on the saucer, tongue extended.

Barely had the rat’s mouth closed when it screamed and slumped prone. It gave one brief shudder, then lay still. A cold lump developed in the pit of my stomach.

“You’ll observe the rat drank only a tiny fraction of the quantity you did, Pondin,” said the Man Who Wasn’t There quietly. “The glass contains a pure venom, a single drop of which would be sufficient to kill you were you still alive. There is neither antidote nor immunity, and death is close to instantaneous. The only way it could not have killed you is if you are already dead.”


As I say, it's pretty rough. I'm more interested in your responses to the idea than precise line-edit stuff right now. I'm a bit nervous because I'm sure I've read a book very like this by someone else already, but I can't place it. If anything comes to mind, please let me know - I'd also like to know whether you think the book is worth continuing with.

Thanks for reading.


  1. I haven't read anything like it, but I can assure you I'd definitely be interested in reading more! I couldn't stop once I started. =P Poor rat, though!

  2. Thanks. I'll probably post up more bits from this one while I'm writing it - stay tooned! (The rat had it coming, I promise)

  3. I wouldn't post up more as you write it - apparently agents and so on don't like that. But I LOVE this story!! If you ever want a beta reader (I write YA fantasy) please let me know, I'd love to see more of this - please keep going!!

  4. Oh, I'll be wanting betas alright - consider yourself signed up! Glad you liked it.

  5. I found it very engaging and I like your style. I think you have a great premise here!