Chatting about The Exercise with Mark West

Having seen Mark West’s new novella The Exercise whipping round social media and reading the synopsis, I grabbed my copy and thought it would be a good idea to sit down for a virtual, socially distanced and government regulation meeting chat with Mark about the book.

For those of you that don’t know Mark, he’s one of the most positive voices in the UK horror scene, using his own site to promote and share the work of others, helping to get writers the eyes on their work that they deserve.

With that in mind, this is the first of a number of posts and interviews I have lined up to try to do the same – boost the signal of writers in the genre and help them get the word out about their books.

Can you tell us about your new novella – The Exercise?

The Exercise is about a small group of squaddies in 1943, taking part in a training exercise in The Fens, on the east coast of England. Along the way, one of the group is badly injured and they take refuge in an isolated country house which has been converted into a military hospital. It’s a curious place, with people locked in Nissen Huts in the orchards and armed guards everywhere. Corporal Ray Ward, the squad leader, decides to investigate.

How did the idea present itself?

Back in 2015, I was invited to contribute to an anthology of war stories and – having never written one before – agreed readily. I had no idea of the story but on one of my nightly walks (since my heart attack, I try and do at least 2 miles a night), I got the basic plot and over the next few evenings, events and set pieces came to me. I then sat down with my Mum & Dad, to run through the plot, as Dad’s a real WW2 buff and they were full of ideas. In fact, as helpful as Dad was, it was Mum who came up with the reason why they found the house in the first place! 

Once I’d got the basic pieces in place and knew the ending (I almost always need to know the ending), I took off and it was a very enjoyable writing process.  Once I’d finished, Dad read through the first few chapters (which are most time-period-specific) and my regular pre-readers came up with other thoughts and I welded them all together.

Did you have to do much research on the 1940s to keep the story authentic?

More than I normally would, certainly. I watched a few old films, read a couple of memoirs (including my own Grampy’s one, which my Dad had transcribed from old diaries) to get the voices and then relied on Dad’s expertise. As other people say – any mistakes were mine, because the input he had was terrific. Outside of military/speech specific stuff though, it’s basically an adventure horror novella and I just ran with it after a while.

What made you want to give The Exercise a new lease of life?

A couple of reasons, to be honest.  Over the past few years, I’ve been focusing on writing mainstream thriller novels, with the idea of getting agency interest and they take up a lot of my free time, so I’ve had less chance to write horror shorts and novellas. The novel I’m currently in the middle of was written during the pandemic (and proved a real boon, a safe place I could immerse myself into away from everything swirling around me) and took up all my time, so I was looking to put something out to try and “keep my name out there”, if that makes sense. I did similar last year, with my short story Mr Stix.  As I was looking through my files, for something to work on, I came across this and quite liked the idea of putting out a longer piece of work.

The Exercise was written for and published in an anthology edited by Adrian Chamberlin and published by the wonderful Terry Grimwood’s theEXAGGERATEDpress. I was proud to be included and the anthology looked great – four other fantastic writers, a great Ben Baldwin cover, a launch at Edge-Lit in 2016 and an all-round wonderful production – but for some reason, it never got any traction. In fact, I spoke with Terry about it (I asked him permission to use the story) and he couldn’t explain it either. 

So that kind of decided it, I had a story I liked a lot, that I’d worked hard on but I didn’t feel had achieved its full potential so I decided to give it another chance.

You’ve put the book out under your own PenMan Press label. What’s the history behind that?

When I was a kid (I started writing fiction when I was about 8 or so), my dad got me an old sit-up-and-beg typewriter that was being chucked out from his work. I taught myself to type (which is why, even today – and as the proud possessor of RSA1 Typing – I use three fingers on each hand and a thumb, but thankfully I’m a very quick typist) and fairly quickly figured out that with some Letraset, a photograph and a hole-punch, I could make my own books (this was in the early 80s). PenMan Press came out of that, a word I’d found to describe a writer – and shoving in the word “press” – and it stuck. When I got my first computer, I designed the logo using clipart (which I still use, 30+ years later) and so it was always my default label.

As someone who has published with small presses and under your own label, how did you take the decision to bring The Exercise out yourself and what are the benefits of self-publishing?

The Exercise, as I mentioned above, was something I wanted to do for myself – I knew it worked, it had already been through the editorial process and I wanted to give it some exposure. I suppose I could have gone to another publisher but it’s not original and I didn’t want to hamstring anyone and potentially risk their sales. 

In general, whenever I do anything, it’s always with someone else – I know enough to be able to get by, but certainly the presses I’ve been involved with have strong editorial standards, the books look great and the whole process is well-oiled.  PenMan Press – or me, in my study – is none of those things but it does give me some leeway to do things how I think they should be done.  Which could be good or it could be bad…

How long did it take you to get The Exercise ready for publication?

Difficult to say, really, but after I’d decided to re-publish it I first read through the piece and revised the text – not to correct Adrian’s editing, but just to tighten things up a bit (after all, as should be the case, I’d learned new things since originally writing it). I then sent it out to a few trusted readings, to make sure everything held up and then collated their comments. 

It was then a process of using Kindle Create to put it all together, which was a steep learning process but fairly interesting. So for the eBook body itself and the cover, I’d say it took me the best part of a weekend to work through.

You’ve made the cover for The Exercise yourself and I have to say, I’m jealous as I have absolutely no graphic design skills myself. Can you talk us through how you did it and what the inspiration was?

Thanks, glad you liked it.  I don’t have any formal skills but I’m an enthusiastic amateur and I’ve designed covers and book trailers in the past and really enjoyed it.  With this, I knew I wanted to see the house and it was just a matter of finding the right picture (and making sure I could use it). 

That takes a lot longer than you’d expect, but is basically sitting staring at the screen, flicking through Google Images and Flickr. Once I’d got the basic building, I found a sky I liked, cut one into the other, played with the effects and got something I liked. Overall, it took me a couple of days pretty much full-on to put it all together.

The Exercise shot up the horror new releases chart when you announced it, has it given you the appetite for releasing more books yourself?

It certainly pleased me to see it happen and I was very lucky – I did my blog post and then friends were good enough to share my social media posts and generate some interest.  As for doing it again, we’ll have to see!

Do you have any advice for someone looking to start publishing their own work?

Do it properly.  Don’t  just bash out a story, stick some cover art on it and chuck it onto Amazon – yes, you’ll have a piece of work out there and yes, you might even get someone to buy it, but people can be quite sniffy about self-published stuff and if it’s bad (either the story, the writing or the production), they’re unlikely to give you a second chance. 

Approach it as you would a first interview, be well-prepared and present the best you possible.

Don’t assume you’ll pick up every typo, get a trusted reader (or several) to read through it for you and listen to what they say. Get a decent edit, either from someone you trust or someone who knows what they’re doing. If you can’t afford to get a cover artist, by all means give it a go yourself but just because your mum says you’re a great painter, that sadly doesn’t make it so.

In short, make a product that you’d be proud to put your name to. Then use a proper resource (like the free Kindle Create tool) and figure out how to use it.

What’s next on your writing agenda?

I’m currently midway through the third draft of my third mainstream thriller.  Once I’ve finished, that’ll go out to my pre(Beta)-readers and while it’s off on its travels, I’m going to revise another older novella of mine – “The Lost Film” – which’ll be re-published later this year in a collection.

Thanks for inviting me, Dan, great questions!

You can get your copy of The Exercise at Amazon (UK|US) now.

Mark West lives in Northamptonshire with his wife Alison and their son Matthew.  Since discovering the small press in 1998 he has published over eighty short stories, two novels, a novelette, a chapbook, two collections and six novellas  (one of which, Drive, was nominated for a British Fantasy Award).  He has more short stories forthcoming and is currently working on a crime/thriller novel. 

Away from writing, he enjoys reading, walking, watching films and playing Dudeball with his son.

He can be contacted through his website and is also on Twitter as @MarkEWest