Respectable Horror: Matthew Pegg

MR James Ghost StoriesHaunted Objects.

Sometimes it can be quite hard to put your finger on exactly where a story came from or what inspired it, because so much of writing happens in the subconscious. I usually start out with a snippet of a plot, or a character or an idea, but once I start writing other things accrue and attach themselves to it; events occur that I wasn’t expecting, characters pop up and demand to take part, the story takes on a life of its own.

But I can put my finger on some of the influences on The Well Wisher.

I’ve always liked classic horror and ghost stories, ever since reading my grandparent’s copy of A Century of Thrillers: From Poe to Arlen, which sat on their small and only bookshelf, along with The Passionate Witch by Thorne Smith. (I’ve still got the book and the bookshelf.) A Century of Thrillers is a chunky volume, published by The Daily Express newspaper in the 1930s. Its a great collection of classic tales and well worth tracking down.

I wanted to write a story in that vein and thought it would be interesting to write about a haunted object. M.R. James’s The Mezzotint, A Candle in Her Room, (a terrifying children’s book by Ruth M. Arthur,) and Stephen King’s Christine all tackle this concept in quite different ways.

James’s haunted engraving replays a horrific incident from the past but doesn’t offer any real threat to its observers. You could argue that the true horror of the tale lies in the fact that the protagonist is powerless to influence the events he sees slowly unfolding in the picture.

In A Candle in Her Room the wooden doll Dido exerts a malign influence over three generations of the same family. It is the way that possession of the doll changes its owner that is frightening.

The Witch DollChristine, the 1950s Plymouth Fury, is the most concrete haunted object of the three, quite capable of killing you on its own. But like Dido, possession of Christine changes its owner. I like the way King turns the classic 1950s car, a symbol of the American Dream, into something evil. I also like the detail, missing from the film, that Christine’s milometer runs backwards: the more you drive it the newer the car gets. When thugs trash the car, owner Arnie pushes it round the block all night, putting his back out in the process, until the car repairs itself. There’s something satisfying about the physicality of that action.

I had a feeling that if you’re going to write about a haunted object then it should be a functional object, and if its normal function can become threatening in some way then that seemed to me to be satisfyingly neat. Of the three examples of haunted objects above, I think only in Christine do you get a sense of what has caused an inanimate object to turn nasty: Christine has been created by the human hatred of its previous owner, rather than any supernatural force. So its progenitors are Frankenstein and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde rather than Dracula: we create the monster and we become the monster, rather than the monster being a threat from elsewhere.

I like structure in stories. I find it satisfying when things have some kind of internal logic. So I wanted to know why my haunted object behaved the way it did. And that ‘why’ had to also be something to do with it’s function. That was what I was trying to achieve and I hope it works.

I’m being a bit coy about revealing too much about The Well Wisher because I hope you’ll read it and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

Miss Andrews, the central character, evolved all on her own to become a troubled, clever, kind, brave, flawed person. And I can’t claim to have planned any of that, it just happened. I do know that one influence on her was Jane Eyre. I’d recently seen a theatre version of the story and it was rattling round in my brain, especially Jane’s orphan status and poverty, which define the choices she can make in life.

For an unmarried Victorian woman, educated but not wealthy, being a governess was one of the few options available. Charlotte and Anne Bronte did this in real life and that experience is reflected in both Jane Eyre and Anne’s first novel Agnes Grey.

I felt that the Victorian governess was in a rather uneasy position, not quite one of the servants, but not truly a member of the family either. I liked that sense of isolation, unease and insecurity.

So Miss Andrews became a governess, sometimes too forthright for her own good but worried about her future, and much braver than me. I would like to know what happens to her next.

But as I said at the start, a lot of any story emerges from the subconscious. So when I was reading the proof copy of Respectable Horror, I was struck by how much of The Well Wisher seemed quite unfamiliar. “Where did that come from,” I wondered, “And that?”

I can’t even claim credit for the double meaning in the title….
Matthew Pegg is a writer based in Leicestershire in the UK. Most of his writing has been for theatre and includes work for puppet companies, youth theatres, community plays and a script designed to be performed during a medieval banquet. His most recent theatre work was Escaping Alice, a love story with chains and handcuffs, for York Theatre Royal. He’s also completed a community radio play based on the life of Wordsworth and has been commissioned to create a puppet play to tour to care homes for people suffering from dementia. In 2012 he completed an MA in Creative Writing, and since then he has been working on a novel, and placing short fiction with a variety of publishers. Website: 


Waxing Lyrical : The Trump Effect by @ferdinandpage


The expression of – bemusement – on these women’s faces is understandable, given they’re listening to a US Presidential candidate explain how grabbing any woman’s crotch is a perk of the powerful, celebrity male. Somehow, they assumed that a contender for presidency, despite being an “oleaginous pre-ejaculate that somehow gained sentience” in the carefully-crafted assessment of @ChuckWendig, wouldn’t come out with this load of Cro-Magnon bollocks.

On the other hand, bemusement was my first response to my last experience of overt sexual entitlement. Bizarrely, it happened ten years’ ago; I wasn’t young then or in any way naive, although I was new to the high end of commercial media. I sat in the first meeting with a top creative and his partner to discuss a multi-media project at which I was passed as physically attractive enough – for writing and brainstorming concepts. What?. Then the top creative escorted me back into Piccadilly Circus underground where, in the spirit of getting to know me, he snogged me chastely. This was in public and he was/is not Donald Trump. I decided to ask him if he snogged his male business partner and if not, why me; apart from that, it was the end of getting to know each other. However, he continued to offer advice on my appearance and public persona.

Age doesn’t get rid of issues about our self-worth or our bodies; I’d got rid of most of mine but if I had been younger, it’s worth putting the warning out there that you don’t have to do anything you’d rather not do in order to get recognition or publication. And your body is OK. I know I haven’t seen it but trust me, it is. The first time someone makes a comment on your hair, eyes, placement of nostrils, can you pull your hair over more … a bit more, for the promotional piccies, just say:

This is the body the words live in. Sorry.

You won’t find billionaire narcissist bigots who grab at your crotch in publishing because because there’s not enough money in our industry. But there will be people with the power to make things happen for you who are less emotionally intelligent, more thin-skinned, less resilient to criticism, who have trouble with their gender balance. Elena Ferrante knows what happens when you are dependent on someone for whom a woman is a threat just by virtue of being a woman.

Most of the bullying is mental and emotional. Take a leaf from Hillary Clinton in the 2nd Debate, when Trump circled her, a looming, sniffing, newly-sentient pigbucket, apologies to pigs everywhere, stand your ground, ignore them, keep cool, remember your tactics, say what you need to say, share what you wanted to say with trusted confidants afterwards.

Sisyphus and The Long Tail

Another small press closes its doors. One that has been run sensibly, with a good business head and great books. One that hasn’t madly over reached or got itself into trouble in anyway. So why has it closed?

Well I guess it’s time to speak frankly about the realities of running a small press.

We have over 50 titles out. One has made a profit. A non fiction one. Two others have come close to covering their costs. Then Nun & Dragon counts as profitable because it was done on pure profit share right at the start. It has probably paid for the first couple of years of the URL.

Creating and producing books costs money. In the case of FS, we’re working with people who are willing to take mates’ rates and token payments, but that’s still money. More if it’s an anthology, or has extra artwork. Add to that the costs of author copies and postage, my gods the postage The books are print on demand for us, so that’s printing and shipping in the US to the UK, around £60+ to get the books here, then I post them all on.

So a paperback, of which we sell more, takes roughly £1.00 per copy sold. 70p to the author in most cases. 30p to us. So, to cover costs of the average anthology we need to sell around 1,350 copies. Of each book. And again, these are at the greatly reduced rates for work that we’ve negotiated with friends and people who want us to do well!

This is before we look at the costs of going to events, web hosting, marketing materials, launch events – even an accountant because we are a Ltd company now so we need to do formal business accounts. The annual return to Companies house. It all adds up. We don’t offer many hard copies for review because of the cost. We don’t submit to many awards because, even if you only have to send copies, it’s a cost. Every time we try an advert somewhere new… it’s a cost and a massive risk.

all of the books indie table at Nine Worlds
all of the books indie table at Nine Worlds

The funds come mostly from what the accountant charmingly calls ‘director loans’. Those come out of our day job wages. If we can’t afford to go a friend’s birthday it’s because the money is sunk into getting a book out.

And none of the accounting includes the time myself and my business partner and Mr Fox put in. There is neither the time nor the money for holidays, and much of my time is spent on the verge of burnout. If I seem to nap a lot it’s because I haven’t slept well since Nun & Dragon came out.

Running a small press occupies most of my free time and most of my disposable income. It’s a labour of love and boundless hope and optimism and waking up at 3am worrying about the costs of the latest thing and the lack of sales for my authors and whether the last book went out with typos we’d missed and a million other small things.

If I am saying NO a lot more often it’s because it’s the only way we can survive. I still need to get better at it.

More presses are looking to Patreon to help keep them going, or Kickstarter so books are effectively no or low risk. Many people running small presses have other jobs which either subsidise the press or subsidise the bill paying or both.  Some small presses are folding, it just doesn’t pay. Brexit and the uncertainty and additional costs it brought with it – another nail in the small press shaped coffin.

Thing is, as a business, few small independent presses really make sense. We don’t. Oh, we believe we can get there but it’s a long way and we tell ourselves that we have to survive that little bit longer to start to see that upswing.


In a time when large publishers are tightening belts and taking fewer chances on those quirky projects and cross genre works, small press is a life line for a lot of writers. Authors who don’t want to do it all alone, who want editing support, professional cover art, and the business aspect managed by a trusted partner. It’s a lifeline for readers who want something a little different, a way of discovering new voices and new stories, of trying something that fills a peculiar niche or appetite.

If you want to help, if you want to keep your favourite presses open, if you want those unusual little projects to be published… the simple truth is they need more sales. You don’t have to buy all the books yourself – there are other ways you can help. Tell people about them! Review the books! 50 is a magic number on amazon, but 10 is the minimum for any kind of impact, or to even be considered for a lot of marketing systems. Share posts and retweet. Help build word of mouth. Come to their events and their tables and enthuse because honestly just seeing people there and hearing that we are loved can help get through the next month of bleak sales. Put them forward for fan awards, many of us are too dignified to sneakily do this ourselves, but those nominations and long lists mean the world, they mean someone is paying attention. Tweet nice things to the authors because when they get their sales figures and meagre royalties your words help them believe it’s still worth it (like Tinkerbell and the clapping thing).

Moments like this, keep us going.
Moments like this, keep us going.

Small presses may not always be as professional and business-like as larger ones. They may not always go into it knowing everything they should. But the hard truth of it is, if it weren’t for our naïve passion, most of us wouldn’t exist at all.

A little publishing joy

Today on twitter I have been sharing some of the things I love about publishing, because let’s face it, this is a tough industry. Every sale feels hard won, and every finished publication has been a labour of love. I wanted to celebrate the joyous things.

Check out #publishingjoys as other people joined in!

Here are some things I love about publishing.

When you read a story that blows you away and you get to be the one to share it with the world!
‘Discovering’ someone who has never been published before.
Working with incredible creative people who are passionate about what they do!
Getting to hold a book that I was part of creating!
Publishing diverse books and #diversewriters and #womeninSFFnow because I want more of these to read!!
Seeing new writers develop and gain confidence.
When writers come together in your table of contents and build friendships and start new projects.
When one of our authors gets picked up for bigger things. We must be doing something right.
When someone else loves a book you believe in!
Being at events and mingling with your writers and their fans.
Being able to encourage people to submit for the first time!
Being part of something that matters! Story telling is important to us as a species.
Giving more established writers somewhere to do something different.
When you get to publish someone you have read and admired.
Discovering the wealth of amazing talent in places you would never find if you just browse shelves!

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Waxing Lyrical : The First Cut is the Deepest

We know it hurts, you’ve put love and time into this manuscript and now people are going to come along and start picking fault, before it even gets to the reading public! We feel your pain and we recommend a tub of ice cream, a weepy movie and that you suck it up cupcake, you need to put your book through this process before it goes into the cruel cruel world!

Ok let’s start by clearing this up. Beta readers, proof readers and editors are not the same things. Which is not to say the same people can’t be all of those at various points, but when you ask someone to review your manuscript you need to know what you are asking for and who you are asking.

'No, go ahead and critique my mss. I'm always ok ... after the initial reaction.'
‘No, go ahead and critique my mss. I’m always ok … after the initial reaction.’

Beta readers. These are often friends, hopefully ones not afraid to criticise you, or other writers doing a beta swap. The job of a beta reader is to come back with ‘so yeah were you going for a mash up of Noddy and Austen? Coz that’s what this feels like. Also Brad is a massive douche bag oooh and this bit makes no sense, did I miss it or is it a gaping plot hole?’ That’s all really. They are there for the every day reader, looking for things that throw them out of the story, or mess it up totally, the plot holes the inconsistent characters, the overall tone. They are not there to edit your writing, correct your grammar (if they have a good eye and pick up tense slips and typos bonus). They are there to feed back to you what your baby looks like to the rest of the world.


Editors are there to make you look better. A good editor will not only pick up on mistakes in spelling and grammar, plot holes and inconsistencies but they will guide you. You can expect notes telling you that your whole first chapter is exposition, you don’t need it, bin the lot. An editor will tell you that you’ve used the same phrase 638 times in 400 pages and that’s at least 600 times too many, you’ll get notes to move this paragraph and cut that one, rewrite a section entirely, drop Brad not only is he a douche but he serves no actual purpose, cut him out entirely. A good editor will tell you that the book will be even better if it’s 100 pages shorter and that if you are setting it in medieval England you can’t have people saying ‘whassup brominator’. A good editor won’t rewrite you, put things into their words or make any changes for you, but they will steer and discuss and help you make the book tighter and better before it goes into the world. Beta readers are the mirror held up to your baby, Editors will show you how to photoshop it before you submit it for the local cutest baby contest.


Proof readers on the other hand will just give your baby a thorough scrub and iron its best onesie. The job of a proofer is simple, but requires a sharp eye and patience. They find mistakes. Spelling mistakes, typos, they tell you when your two should be too or your their belongs there.  Proofers are the last line of defence against the fact that spellcheck doesn’t know you meant knackered not naked (seriously my brother wrote he was always nakerd and I was worried till someone pointed out the ‘r’)or that toad is a perfectly acceptable word, although toad works in the highway seem unlikely (I sent a lot of documents out with toad works in my time).

Be clear when you send your MS off. You can expect to pay a decent rate for a good line edit, likewise a decent proofer, it’s normal enough for beta reading to be trading favours or begged from friends. That does mean though that if they don’t work to your timetable or get back to you at all, or they take it upon themselves to rename your characters, I’m afraid that is what comes of trading favours sometimes. Shrug it off and use someone else next time.  If you are paying then you can expect the service you are paying for so be clear on what you want, find out the rates and see if this is someone you feel good about working with, if it’s up to you who edits your book (which it won’t be if you are with a publisher) then it’s a relationship, work out if this is someone you can work well with.

If you are issued with an editor, you may get lucky, you may not, but however frustrating you find them, be respectful, it’s a small industry. If it really isn’t workable talk to whoever is handling your book and see if they can switch you out to someone else, but be a grown up about it, you may hate the process but you need editing, you need proofing and it’s smart to get a beta if you can.

As an aside on beta readers. Don’t have too many, it’s tempting to get everyone you know who reads to go over the book but you’ll get so many opinions it can be overload. Ideally find two or three people who like the sort of fiction you are trying to write to read it and see if it hits the target audience.

So to summarise, you need beta readers when you finish your MS if you can get them. Then for heaven’s sake get it edited and proofed before you send it anywhere, to self pub or to query and agent. Give your baby its best chance. Give it a detached look over, clean it up, then wipe the snot off before you send it into the world. (Wow I’ve really squeezed everything I can from that analogy).

And check out #tentweetsabouteditors for some neat notes by @joannechocolat on the subject.

Waxing Lyrical : A little help from my friends

I didn’t expect to do another of these quite so soon however, I have engaged in a few conversations on Twitter this week that demonstrated a couple of things. The first one is that when everyone is polite and behaves like adults its perfectly possible to discuss emotive subjects without descending into trolling madness. Most importantly though, it highlighted that writers who do not fit the mainstream in their genre in terms of race, colour, geography for example, still feel and almost certainly are disenfranchised. I knew this, of course I don’t technically live under a rock, but sometimes you see several things in a single day and it really drives it home.

You all probably know by now my belief that since the only truly unique thing about a book is the person writing it, the more diversity we have in writers the more richness and variety we have in the writing. Still the market is what it is and many writers are unable to get traction or find suitable markets.

I said on twitter yesterday that as a small indie press in the UK it’s hard to gain traction, we are battling massive amounts of white noise on the internet. There is no shortage of good genre fiction so getting noticed is really hard. Part of how we are tackling that here is through the british league of independent presses. BLIP is an informal facebook group. In our case we chose to focus on small press rather than self pub, because there are certain elements of being a press specifically we wanted to be able to discuss with others in the same boat. It’s a private group so we can speak freely and plan to share launches and tables and information etc. A lot of us go to the same sorts of events and we all have limited budgets, working together just makes sense.


Here is the description of BLIP
‘BLIP is a group for small presses in the UK to share information, knowledge, resources and generally help each other out.
We are counting podcasts and ‘zines too. You all get stories out there.’

We don’t allow using it for direct selling or bypassing submissions.

(If you want to join please message with your click so we know the group is the right place for you).

As I said on twitter I would always encourage anyone to start something similar in their area or country or applicable to something specific to them, because while there are loads of writers out there, it’s by its nature an isolating thing and working together can benefit everyone. A group of non UK/US writers might between them actually have a good list of friendly US/UK markets for stories for instance. You can’t do everything alone, it’s too hard and too much and for most people doesn’t work. Find support, as the Prof always says a rising tide floats all boats. Together you can help change the tides in your favour.

Aunty Fox and Friends
Aunty Fox and Friends

There are so many incredible writers out there all over the world, but not everywhere has the level of publishing activity that the UK and US have, not everywhere are writing groups common and local, not everywhere has a massive list of events in different genres for industry and fans. Even here such things are often hard to find until you find the first one (we are bad at promoting the literary I find). Grouping together informally via social media can help you discover more connections, more events, more opportunities and it costs you nothing more than a little time.

Foxtips session 2

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  • Read the submission guidelines. Carefully. Then follow them.
  • Treat your submission as a CV and your query like a cover letter, this is a professional interaction.
  • No, you are not an exception to the submission rules, no matter how good your book is.
  • If you submit to multiple publishers/agents it is polite to be upfront about it.
  • Be open to the editing process, they are trying to make you look better!
  • Rejection is a fact of life, not a personal attack. Make peace with it.
  • No one likes those auto DM’s asking us to check out your book. We don’t check out your book.
  • If you want to become a writer for the money you should become an accountant.
  • Spellchecker is your friend.
  • Never send your first draft. Rest it a few days and revisit it with a critical eye.

Foxtips session one

I was recently asked if I could offer any words of wisdom for new writers trying to approach the publishing industry for the first time. Well I don’t know about wisdom, but I do have some words. – Aunty Fox

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  • Keep writing. Whatever else is going on find time for it.
  • The correct response to any review is ‘thank you for your time’. That’s a much discussion as a writer should get into.
  • Go to events when you can, meet other writers, readers and industry people. Do it without trying to give them your manuscript
  • Publishing is a business, consider what you put on social media as it could be seen by someone you later sub to.
  • You will be judged on the quality of your whole product not just the writing. If you put anything out yourself do it well!
  • Apparently it needs saying but don’t be an arse. Online or in person try to be a decent human being. Please.
  • Be present, even a basic website will do but people need to find you when they google you or your book.
  • You can always improve. Don’t be complacent, try to make the next book better. Always.
  • Writing is a tough job, publishing is a tough industry. Work on a thick skin and patience.
  • Don’t be an arse. I know, this was no 6 but it’s important and stands repeating.

Writing is not a Zero Sum Game

AMZfinalWeird NoirI saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the virtual streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of publishing, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating ebooks, who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated by flickering gifs…

All because they could not get a grip on a simple concept:

Writing is not a zero sum game.

JK Rowling’s popularity is not dooming you to obscurity. Nora Roberts does not bathe in the tears of would-be writers. Stephen King does not laugh at you from atop huge piles of money (probably).

But writing for exposure exposes your willingness to write for exposure. Every time you share a HuffPo link, you say, ‘I’m okay with not paying writers for their work’. The choices you make build the world around you. A world that is willing to settle for ‘good enough’ if it’s free. There are a lot of people who write ‘good enough’ and are desperate enough to see their name in print that they will accept not being paid to do so.

There is a revolution happening via ebooks, but ‘the revolution will put you in the driver’s seat’ and you have to take the wheel. It won’t just happen of its own accord. People have to be lured into change. Seduce them.

Writing is not a zero sum game.

It’s a community–that’s why we have the skulk here at Fox Spirit. Do you read as well as write? Do you write reviews? Do you rate the books you read? Do you leave the kind of reviews for books that you long to see for your own? Do you comment or share other people’s books? Do you promote other writers the way you wish people would promote you? Do you share the writers you love?

They’re not your competition.

Apathy is.

The ease of letting hours slip away on Facebook or Twitter is. The quick clicks that take you to Netflix or on-demand television or movies is. All the mindless media that allows you to be barely conscious, to idle the days away without effort — that’s your competition. Reading is more work — yet a joy for those who hunger for it. A great book makes you hungry for another, and another, and another.

Make them hungry.

Write the books you want to read, the books that aren’t out there. Don’t get caught up in how your stories get to readers, just try to get them in front of them and lure them into reading them. Don’t spend your time sneering at the kind of books someone reads. The people you might score points with probably aren’t the ones who’ll be reading your books. Share the stories that hooked you, inspired you and made you want to write. Try to convey that excitement. A hook might get you to buy a book, but it’s the story that keeps you reading even if the writing isn’t all that good.

We’re still sitting around the campfire, waiting for the magic to happen — for characters to come to life, for imaginary adventures to seem more real than the fire (or monitor or phone screen) in front of us, to fall through the hole in the page and into wonderland.

Make some magic. Write.

[with apologies to Allen Ginsberg and Gil Scott Heron]