Sunday, 11 May 2014

Complete Revision of Special Treatment

New Edition – The Benefits Of e-book Publishing

I published Special Treatment & Other Stories – my first book of short stories – two years ago and was pleased with the result. Since then I have published The Truth In The Lie – a further book of short stories – and I know my writing has improved. When I read back over the earlier stories I could see plenty of faults there. Not mistakes exactly, just that I knew then the stories could have been told better. I related this sentiment to my eldest daughter who had just done an excellent job of editing The Truth In The Lie. "I wish I could change those stories now," I said.
"Why can't you?" she asked, "if the book has only been published as an e-book, how hard is it to publish a second edition?"
The next question from me was obvious – would she edit it for me?
"I'd love to," she said.
Fortunately Alex had a few weeks before returning to work at the top of a mountain in the Pyrenees. Once she was there, cut off from what we misguidedly call civilisation, there would be no chance of her doing it. "Start today," I said.

Two or three weeks after that I received her edits. There was a surprising amount of red to deal with in track changes. "Was it that bad?" I sighed.
"Not really," she replied, "just that you could do a lot better."

All through her edited document the phrase "you can do better," appeared in comment boxes. I squirmed with discomfort for the first few days. Later, however, I came to gain pleasure from it. I had responded to this challenge she repetitively laid down for me numerous times by now and each time I could see just how much better I could do. Why on Earth had I been so stupid as not to have asked for her help when I had the first draft complete, I asked myself? Because she had been up her mountain then, that's why. I won't make the mistake again though. She's a hard taskmaster but the benefits are very clear to me now.

In some of the stories only a few details have been changed. In many though, the entire plot has been adjusted. Often the outcome of a story had been revealed too early. In others, while the outcome had been perfectly clear to me, it had not been to others it would seem. Phrases that I felt were entirely of my own invention were singled out as being cliches. None of us knows where our ideas come from. We may think we do but often we are wrong. This is the reason people are sometimes accused of plagiarism. They have read, seen or heard something and filed it away in their subconscious then retrieved it at some later stage believing it to be our own original thought. Agonising when it's pointed out to you of course. This is why we need good editors. Proofreading for typos and errors is not enough. The best of independent authors still need a fresh set of critical eyes over their work before hitting the publish button.  I know that now.

Where my editor runs away to when I get too much for her

I am assuming that by simply replacing my old document with the new one on Amazon KDP and on Smashwords, that anyone having bought and downloaded the original version of Special Treatment & Other Stories will be able to download the new version for free. I'm sure I read that somewhere. So please do me a favour. If you read on-line that I am about to launch a new book, please ask me, "has Alex edited it yet?"

Download: Special Treatment & Other Stories - 2nd Edition
On Smashwords

Monday, 28 April 2014

The Truth In The Lie

Further Excursions Into The Lives Of Others

The Truth In The Lie finally launched in the last week of March. After such a long time in the editing stage, it seems a long time ago now. I am still so pleased with the cover but even more pleased with readers' responses to the stories. I have promised that I will tell the story behind the cover photo at some point. It is in Hokkaido up in the north of Japan and my friend Fumiko Jin, the photographer, has promised to reveal it to me in full at some point. Instinct tells me I should know better than to apply too much pressure so I am holding off for a while, which makes it all the more intriguing.

The book has been out a month and I have received some very flattering feedback. As always with my fiction, people seem rather preoccupied with what lies behind the stories and how much of what I have written is based upon truth. This at least tells me I chose the right title!

"Come on Mark, is that guy in Red Card based on the footballer you used to know in Ireland?"
"Be honest, the woman named Dottie in Dottie's Diary – she's based on my friend Jo, isn't it?"
"I hope the cafe in All In Good Time is not my cafe, Mark. I could lose a lot of customers!"
"Mark, I read your book. Tell me, The story Traffic... how the hell did you know that about me?"

and most worrying of the comments so far:

"How the hell did Lorna let you get away with publishing In The Line Of Fire?

A further source of concern to me is that it has also been pointed out that there seem to be several characters distinctly similar to myself, who are preoccupied with their own mortality. My response to all such comments is to remind them that the book is filed under fiction.

Story Outlines
My Only Friend – An elderly widow in Lisbon is estranged from her son who prefers to live in squalor and idleness since the death of the father he idolised.

A Minor Distraction – A rich American man on a train in Africa tries to tempt a poor young girl into his carriage while stopped at a wilderness station. The tragedy that ensues hardly seems to touch him.

Greta – A pair of travellers arrive in a rural Hungarian hotel where all is not what it should be. They are shown to their room by a young woman who seems something of an automaton. 

All In Good Time – A woman who runs a cafe is told she is being watched by the security forces. It seems unlikely until one of her staff disappears under strange circumstances.

Masaji – A father and son attempt to escape from China on foot after their visa runs out. 

In The Line Of Fire – A man in a war zone is attacked and hounded by those he once regarded as friends. They seem unwilling to allow him to leave the area, however.

The Crossing – Exhausted after several days at work, a man begins to experience strange occurrences while driving home through a long road tunnel.

Traffic – An art dealer makes his first trip to Africa and almost immediately becomes the victim of not one but two carefully engineered scams – or so it seems. 

River Witch – A young man camps by a river and is shocked to see a naked young woman float past as he lies in bed enjoying the early morning sun. How could he not go after her?

Red Card – Once a promising professional footballer, Pat Carmichael becomes an alcoholic loser after he suffers a crippling injury. Finally after two years of depression he picks himself up.

The Commuter – Travelling home on his daily commuter train, David is drawn to something strange he sees in the dark while the train is stopped. What he sees transfixes him.

Dottie’s Diary – Two women hill-climbing in Wales take shelter in a stone barn. Soon they are joined by a wealthy local woman who invites them home where they meet her husband. He is familiar to one of them. 

Burned On Him – A rather reserved family meet for a weekend at the parents' house where a revelation by one sister causes an argument and unexpected consequences.

The ‘F’ Word – A conversation overheard on a train with three children, their mother and her friend. 

The Bottle Lady of Luang Prabang – Surreal happenings when a group of friends meet at their regular breakfast cafe by a busy main road.

To find the book and to discover the characters for yourself you should click the link to Amazon or Smashwords below or in the right-hand margin of this blog.

Cover photo by Fumiko Jin - Taken in Hokkaido, Northern Japan. 
Story of the photo to follow in a future blog

The Truth In The Lie - Smashwords (all e-book formats)
The Truth In The Lie - Amazon UK (Kindle)
The Truth In The Lie - (Kindle)

PLEASE NOTE, you can read an e-book without a Kindle or e-book reader. You can download the Kindle Reader App from Amazon for free, to your Computer, Laptop, Smartphone, tablet or i-Pad. Just google it.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

Passion Begets Art

Tuscany in Italy has created and still houses some of the greatest works of art mankind has ever produced. Spending time in this region I find myself wondering why.  Examining the culture it is noticeable how much people are driven by passion. Passion for love, for beauty, for good food and wine, for music, poetry and prose, design, the thrill of speed, the love of battling to win and of overcoming one's enemies. Passion is predominately credited in Italy for driving success. The works of great composers, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and designers. The subliminal and inexplicable elements that are the spirit of a Ferrari, a great film or the best Italian cooking. So what is it about passion that seems to produce such impressive results? 

I would like to think that all of us possess the capacity to feel passion. I believe we do, but that it is more easily sparked in some of us than others. Advertisers work hard to unlock it. But is it something that comes from within us or is it injected? Some would have it that passion is something primeval, coming from nature – not something logical, predictable or controllable. I like to come down on that side. Yet I know that it is possible to unlock passion in others if we understand them well enough. This must be the ultimate power. 

In the beautiful city of Siena I encounter a society with so much of its sophisticated historical past intact in its current culture. I am here for the annual Palio. An ancient and somewhat strange horse race run through the streets of the main square. The passion for the Palio is palpable everywhere. It is not a tourist event. In fact outsiders are barely tolerated. Intrigued, I look up the history. 

Ten horses are selected and assigned to the ten participating 'Contrada' by lottery from those offered by local breeders. Owners win little money. It is about the glory of winning - these are riches enough. Riders however can become financially rich, it is said. The horses are named 'The Barbero' and the jockey 'The Barbesco'. As you can see, this is a primitive battle, not a sport.  The Contrada were originally local barracks of soldiers. When not fighting wars, they needed an outlet for their passions and desire for danger. Warlike games were devised. Over time these were banned or died out, leaving only the Palio horse race.  The motivations of the race are hard for outsiders to understand. They are based in historic issues. The ten horses are blessed in the church of the Contrada they run for. Yes, horses in church! Yet it is a secular festival. The race is dangerous both for riders and horses. The track is compacted Tufo earth over the cobbled square. Corners are padded with mattresses and leather. Horses and riders die (less so of late). Crowds go wild for what is merely a 4 minute race. The passion swells from the start of the week, building through the 3 days of practice races and culminates in an explosion of madness (it is said it is as if the walls of Siena are about to fall) when it comes to the final event. 

Pre-race spectacle - the Carabinieri in traditional dress with swords drawn

The Palio is both moral and openly corrupt (bribery goes with the territory). There is no advertising or sponsorship by the likes of Coca Cola or Heineken here.  Yet this is no contradiction to the locals. It is The Palio. It is for me an undeniably beautiful and thrilling spectacle, where over years they have learned the power of the long, painful buildup to an explosive crescendo. To have any hope of a good view, spectators either pay between 250 and 2500 Euro to stand or sit on a balcony or they bag a place in the centre of the square and stand in blazing heat, crammed cheek by jowl for 6hrs.  For the last 2hrs of that wait, the crowd needs to endure a painfully slow procession of traditionally dressed flag tossers then finally a bullock cart of dignitaries. Just when you think boredom will kill you if the heat doesn't, a gun goes off and the horses arrive to tumultuous applause. There is a further agonising wait as they try to get each of the ten horses and Jockeys to line up. Maybe half-an-hour before the shouts of a desperate crowd (many now carried away on stretchers due to heatstroke) result in the starting gun being fired. 

At start line I see jockeys exchanging harsh words (threats? warnings?)

Bang! Complete orgasmic madness ensues. The Colosseum in Rome with its gladiators never saw the like. The writhing mass of thousands of spectators as they stretch and fight to see, while the horses run at literally breakneck speed around the track. A faller at the San Martino bend sees a rider break his leg. The horse runs on. The rules say it can still win without a rider. As the horses pass us at the end of a lap the crowd around me is wild with passion - as  am I. Involuntary tears blur my vision. Fear is there too. The hoofs thunder. Jockeys pull at one another as they dice with death at our turn. Our Contrada's horse is ahead! It's unbelievable. People all around seem as if they might die of their excitement. Women wail and clasp their heads. Men, like crazed beasts, bellow encouragement and foam at  the mouth. The final lap is upon us already. Our horse still ahead followed by the riderless horse. People swoon and collapse beneath the feet of the crowd with emotional exhaustion as the winner thunders past in a blur. And it's our Contrada's horse - the people we shared dinner with in the streets last night! It is as if we have been in the midst an epic battle rather than a race. Everyone is crying and looking like they've lost their minds. People tear at their clothes, their hair. None of us will ever be the same again. Celebrations begin before the shock has even begun to subside. Scenes of absolute mania. They climb the barriers en-mass and mob the jockey, pulling him from his horse. The jockey looks afraid, as well he might. The foaming horse rears up and has to be restrained. I have never seen or experienced anything like it. This is true passion – three and a half minutes of explosively devastating passion. This is The Palio di Siena. Now I know why someone at dinner last night told me with a flash of manic fire in his eyes, that once you've seen one, you are hooked.

The horse that fell (Lupo Contrada) on lap 1

Winning horse of the Onda Contrada crosses the line

Winning Contrada men climbing for the banner (Palio)

I am calm now. My heartbeat is almost normal again - but not quite. The very thought of it makes my heart-rate begin to climb.
In same way that Zen Archery is said to be the key to understanding Zen, for me The Palio is the key to understanding the notion of passion - in the Italians at least, but probably in the human race. It's primitive. Lust. The quest for fire. The climb of the men of the winning Contrada, up a wooden tower to retrieve the flag with the Madonna, that they will cherish until next year. They climb and fall several times in their mania. Finally they reach it and parade it around the circuit. Again the crowd goes wild. I feel like I died and was reborn that day. I kid you not!

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Revenge - Can It Ever Be Justified?

A Moral Discussion With A Reader

His Perilous Throne - A story from the book 'Special Treatment & Other Stories'

The story is one of bullying, control and revenge. A young man is sent to prison for a crime he claims to be innocent of - pushing his wealthy employer off a roof while they are trying to reach a toy aeroplane. The young man is considered to have learning difficulties and was brought up in a children's home. He is put into a cell with an older man who has been convicted of killing a traffic warden in a violent outburst. The older man manipulates the young man in a sinister way. He interprets the young man's previous job as having been a kind of butler to the man he killed and suggests he be his butler in prison. He humiliates the young man and abuses him in the most degrading way. The young man seems to accept this as his lot in life until one day he takes his revenge.

Me: What effect did the story have upon you?

Reader: A very powerful effect, actually. I liked the way the manipulation of the younger prisoner happened gradually and subtly. Slowly I became more and more uncomfortable with the things the older man was saying, although nothing he said was especially aggressive - not at first. Slowly I began to detest him - the older man. He was malevolent and took pleasure in humiliation. He seemed obsessed with control and using it in the most damaging way, more than gaining anything for himself. I detested his arrogance and his desire to elevate himself to the level of some kind of king, with the young man as his grovelling servant - the way he took pleasure in that and believed it. You so wanted the young man to fight back. You willed him not to give in, but he had to to avoid another horrific beating. It was unbearable. Then just when you thought the young man was doomed to years of calculated abuse, he strikes back. Not instinctively but in a planned and intelligent way. You don't expect it. The plan works perfectly. It is cunning and devastating in its execution. I found myself overjoyed. Then as I put down the book and sat thinking, I began to wonder at my joy over such a horrific and violent act. It was unlike me, I thought.

Me: What troubled you so much?

Reader: That I could take such pleasure in the harm done to this older man. That I should celebrate the termination of his life. Didn't that make me just as bad as the man who had been the sadistic bully?

Me: But you had not killed anyone. You had only celebrated the fact that a boy who'd been abused had struck back and put an end to the possibility of his being beaten or indeed killed for doing so. Cn that be so wrong?

Reader: I know all that. It's easy to justify if you explain it to yourself in simple terms, but it is not simple. It's about the pleasure gained from seeing that man killed. It makes me wonder whether we don't all have that same capacity for killing - for torture. Can revenge ever be justified?

The story 'His Perilous Throne' is available on Amazon and Smashwords as an individual story. It is also one of 12 short stories in the anthology 'Special Treatment & Other Stories', which includes the international prizewinning story Special Treatment. Or just enter the title into your local search engine.
Mark Swain on Amazon
Mark Swain on Smashwords

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Inspiration Behind The Story

Leila's Dowry - The Inspiration Behind The Story

Many people have said how much my story Leila's Dowry seems like a historic tale. It is very different to the other stories in the book. I don't always reveal the inspiration for my stories, but on this occasion I will.

Storytelling was once a daily part of Moroccan life, but times are changing

For many years my wife and I have spent time in Morocco. We go there at least once a year and our three children grew-up knowing it well. When I first started going there I was fascinated by the fact that you still found storytellers in marketplaces with a crowd surrounding them, transfixed by the telling of some tale or other. The storytellers were usually leather-skinned old men. I did not speak much Moroccan arabic back then, (although often what I was listening to was in fact Berber) but I could usually ascertain the content from gestures and expressions. The tales seemed to predominantly be about love, mystery, and hardship leading to good fortune. There was usually humour too - some bawdy. Old women clutched there sides as they roared with laughter. I used to sit for half an hour at a time trying to decipher what was being said. Leila's Dowry is not one of those stories, but I'm sure it draws upon the style and subject matter. Unfortunately, these days in Morocco you don't often see storytellers.

Storyteller in the Djemma el Fna (square of the dead) in Marrakech

When my children were young and we went for holidays in Morocco, we often found ourselves on long, hard car journeys. The roads were little more than dusty cart tracks and it took hours to travel twenty or thirty miles to a market in searing heat. The children got bored, despite the stunning countryside and scenes of village life that fascinated my wife and I.
"Could you tell us one of your stories, Dad?" was a common cry from the back seat.
This usually meant they expected me to make something up on the spot, or at least continue a story I'd made up for them on a previous day. One day, driving back to our house by the coast, we got stuck behind a line of overloaded carts on a winding road. There was little chance of overtaking them. The children moaned. It was hot and bumpy and they were hungry, so I began to tell a story.

The Djemma El Fna in Marrakech has had storytellers for over a thousand years 
Image courtesy of

The story was about a donkey named Hobs. Hobs actually means 'bread' in arabic. I told a story about this poor bony donkey carrying bread to market for his master, the village baker. The donkey longed for a mate and finally he met a beautiful female donkey on the way to market. Later the master discovered that the donkey's owner was a princess. As a result he, a poor baker, married the princess and lived happily ever after.

Clearly the original was a story designed for small children. They really loved that tale and for years afterwards used to pressure me to tell them more stories about Hobs. Over time and as they grew older the tales became more sophisticated and refined. My three children have all but left home now but they still remember those stories. After I formally took on the discipline of being a writer, I found myself seeking inspiration for a story one afternoon and I remembered the stories of Hobs. Since I had never written those stories down, I decided I should do so. Maybe one day I'd have grandchildren and would wish I could remember them, I thought. Very quickly I found myself writing something aimed more at my normal adult readership. The result of that exercise is Leila's Dowry. I still need to get around to writing down the original children's stories. Never enough hours in a day.

If you would like to read Leila's Dowry or any of the author's other stories, follow the links below or enter the title into any internet search engine. Remember you can view an e-book on any computer, tablet or phone, for example by downloading the FREE Kindle Reader App from Amazon or by downloading in RTF format etc from Smashwords.

Buy on amazon
Find 'Leila's Dowry' for all formats on Smashwords

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this and his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc.

Friday, 19 April 2013

His Perilous Throne - my favourite story in the book

We asked readers of Special Treatment & Other Stories which was their favourite story in the book. This is what three of them said:

TOPOLINO: "The whole thing takes place with one guy on the phone. It would make a superb radio or TV play actually. Well it starts with him talking to his post lady at the front door. You don't realise he's in a wheelchair at first. It's a tragic story but there's lots of humour. His phone rings and it's one of those people from an Indian call-centre asking if he's had an accident at work in the last 5yrs – you know the kind of thing. He's lonely and likes the sound of her voice so he says he has and he explains his tragic story of how he ended up in a wheelchair. On one level you're feeling sorry for him but the conversation (and the story actually) is absolutely hilarious. I thought it was so clever, and so authentic. Brilliant!"

LEILA'S DOWRY: "It kind of stands out because it's like a traditional fable really, and a love story. A Moroccan man in a village who's friends turn against him after his wife dies because he lives under a constant dark cloud. You discover how it's about envy. He has a bakery business. They feel they work so much harder. At the same time the baker's donkey is shunned by the other donkeys because carrying bread is so much nicer than carrying butcher's meat, hot charocal or builders rubble. You see how he comes alive on his stall at the market in the town. So he meets an ugly old woman there...ah it's clever...There's a meeting of donkeys, as strange as that may sound. It all seems coincidental but there's a higher purpose. I love it. Shows you what's important in life, you know? Beautiful."

HIS PERILOUS THRONE: "Well it's about this young guy gets put in a prison cell with this nightmare older guy who's in for killing a traffic warden. The older guy bullies the young guy into being his butler. It's chilling the way he behaves. I mean really menacing, but quite subtle. Mental as well as physical abuse really. Over time the bullying guy develops delusions of himself as some kind of lord. But there's an amazing twist at the end. I won't spoil it for you."


Monday, 18 March 2013

Lives of Others


Many people have asked me, since the launch of Special Treatment & Other Stories, "Who is that woman on the cover?"
I will now put them out of their misery. The woman's name is Kirstin. I did a 3D Design (architecture) degree with her way back in 1993. We were both mature students and have remained friends. In looking for a cover related to a hairdressers (the prizewinning title story), I came upon a photo of my daughter in curlers for a school fancy-dress day. I asked her if I could use it. Scarlett, now aged 18, said she'd sue me if I did. She's a very determined kid and I knew she meant it. Who else did I know who had the same kind of serious look, with the right kind of hair and lots of character in her face. Kirstin! I Facebooked her and asked her to take some photos of herself in curlers. They came back okay but not perfect. I asked her to do more, but she was in hospital having a serious operation. I pestered her the day she was released.
"But I look so ill," she said.
"Kirstin, I'm not looking for beauty," I replied, "I'm looking for character. If you don't mind doing it I think it will be better while you're just out of hospital."
She obliged. The photo on the cover is the result.
What a heroin that woman is.
Thank you Kirstin!