It all started with a nightmare. It was still there, raw and vivid, when I opened my eyes in the morning, and I knew it was too good to let fade. I knew that there was a story in it. And so I dragged my weary frame out of bed, staggered into the spare room (which doubles as my office) and started making notes.
I have always suffered from nightmares and anxiety dreams, and I get them far more often than most people, judging from conversations I’ve had on the subject. Some I experience as ‘movies’ and some as a ‘participant’.
The nightmare that eventually became DEEP LEVEL came in two parts.
The first part was a ‘movie’. I was removed from the action, watching it unfold from without. I saw a few people, all terrified, huddled together in a tunnel. Beyond the tunnel was an underground railway platform. But this platform was quite unlike the ones you see in modern-day London. This one was old, dark, abandoned.
The people in the dream were explorers. I knew this because they all had torches. They were also lost. As they crept towards the platform, an engine appeared. It was a Victorian engine, with a rusted, swollen boiler, a long stovepipe chimney on top and huge wheels. It rolled silently and steamlessly into the station and stopped at the platform. It had no driver. The people in the dream screamed and fled in all directions.
In the second part of the dream I was in the middle of the action. I was running in terror from this silent engine. If I let it get too close to me I would feel my lifeforce ebbing away. Clouds of dusty cobwebs would cover my eyes. My body would turn to lead.
It was a ferocious dream, but I awoke excited. I knew that it would make a great short story, and so I began writing. The short version was told in the first person and centred around a lone protagonist, a bookseller named Rich. He discovers this secret network of Victorian tunnels and faces the horror therein alone.
As happy as I was with the completed short version, I knew there was more exploring to be done, and so I set about expanding it into a novella. This time it would be told in the third-person, and Rich would be accompanied by his friends, Roz, Ffion and Syd.
As the story grew, Roz (short for Rosalind) evolved to become the heart and soul of it. If this tale has a hero, it is her. She’s a fifty-something archivist who came to the UK from Sierra Leone as a young girl. Lost and overwhelmed in 70s London, she finds her tribe amongst the rude boys and the rude girls on the ska scene.
Ffion is a cinema usher who moved from Carmarthen to London to live with her boyfriend. She is the proverbial life and soul of the party; loud, boisterous and just a little bit crass. But she is also warm, loving and loads of fun.
The final member of our intrepid foursome is Syd. Syd (or Syeeda to her mum and dad) is an aspiring writer. She composes and illustrates short stories before putting them away in a box and forgetting about them. She is a civil servant by profession, but a supermodel in the eyes of her friends.
As it became clear to me that DEEP LEVEL was going to be closer to novella length than novel, I began to worry about the likelihood of it being published. Were publishers still marketing novellas? Were readers still buying them? I wrote into Writing Magazine asking these very questions (letter printed April 2019) and they assured me that yes, the novella is very much alive and well and encouraged me to go for it.
Turns out they were right.
Fast forward a year to April 2020 and I get furloughed from my job, which I love. I work for a radio station as a commercial scriptwriter, and at first I am disappointed about my furloughing, but I then decide that it’s actually an opportunity to take my dream of being a novelist forward. And so I get to work.
In the four months I was away from my job, I finished one novel that I’d been working on (a Victorian vampire tale), started another one (a sci-fi horror story) and set about marketing a previous one (that would DEEP LEVEL, folks). It didn’t take me long to find someone interested.
Darkstroke Books were actually the third publisher I sent it to. I initially submitted three chapters and a synopsis. They came back to me within a couple of days with a request to see the full manuscript. A few days after that they made their offer of publication. It all happened so fast it made my head spin.
Laurence at Darkstroke was keen to launch DEEP LEVEL into the world that same year. Luckily, the process was expediated by it not needing a great deal of editing. In this field, I had a head start as self-editing accounts for nine-tenths of my job as a commercial scriptwriter. When I come up with a campaign idea and a subsequent script, most of my time will be spent chipping that script down to a nice cosy 30 seconds.
It’s something you hear repeated ad infinitum in the arena of writing: make every word count. In my day job, I have no choice. It’s what I do.
The cover illustration is my own. I have a degree in art, so I’m glad I was able to (finally) put that to good use. I was very clear about how I wanted the cover to look. I like striking minimalist designs, simple colour schemes and silhouettes. Laurence was happy to run with my design and passed it on to Darkstroke’s resident graphics bod to provide the titles etc. I couldn’t be happier with the end result. I think it looks terrific.
A word or two about research. It would be no exaggeration to say that I’ve been researching this novel for my entire adult life. Rich works in a bookshop. I’ve done that. Ffion is a cinema usher. I’ve done that. Syeeda (our aspiring writer) is a civil servant. I’ve done that. Rosalind is an archivist. My mother does that!
In addition, I read up on Victorian London, on what lies beneath London and on the Victorian tube network (because yes, there really was one!). In addition, I watched documentaries about the London underground and the ghosts that haunt it. I really enjoyed the research process for this book and I now know a great deal more on this subject than I used to.
Darkstroke have been great. I’ve learned a lot from Laurence, Stephanie and my fellow authors about the minutia of publishing and being published. I’ve had to create the online profile of Richard E. Rock from scratch as it is a pseudonym (or immortal name, as I prefer to call it), my given name being fundamentally unspellable and hence un-Google-able. Also, I’ve had to start thinking seriously about how I raise the profile of myself and my work in order to create a momentum that can be carried over into future publications.
The only disappointment in this whole journey was that my novel was launched into the world during a lockdown, so I couldn’t go out with my family to celebrate. Also, because of the present situation, I can’t get myself in front of any writing groups to sell it, or get a spot at any book fairs. But that’s beyond anyone’s control, so there’s no point fretting about it. It is what it is.
However, the day I received my preview paperback copy in the mail was amazing. What an incredible sensation, holding my very own book in my very own hands and thinking, I wrote this. There isn’t a feeling in the world like it.
DEEP LEVEL is only a few days old, as I write this, but it’s already picked up a few (very positive) reviews, for which I am extremely grateful. My number one priority now is to generate interest in it, get people reading it and create that momentum. Because I really do believe that my novel is good enough to create a buzz, to create good word-of-mouth, to excite people enough that they want to talk about it and tell others.
And that’s what writing’s all about, right? Creating something that excites you as much as it excites readers, so you keep on writing and the readers keep on reading. Because, no matter what anyone may tell you, books make the world go round, and that’s quite simply a fact of life.