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Writer vs. Writer: C.M. Saunders

Christian Saunders, AKA C.M. Saunders, is a fiction author who began writing in 1997. His early fiction appearing in several small-press titles and anthologies. His first book, Into the Dragon's Lair - A Supernatural History of Wales was published in 2003. After graduating with a degree in journalism, he worked extensively in the freelance market, contributing to numerous international publications including Fortean Times, Chat, Its Fate! Bizarre, Urban Ink, Enigma, Record Collector, Nuts and Maxim, and a regular column to the Western Mail newspaper. Since returning to dark fiction he has had stories published in Screams of Terror, Shallow Graves, Dark Valentine, Fantastic Horror, Unbroken Waters, Gore magazine, The Literary Hatchet and others, as well as several anthologies. These works have been collected in his X series of short fiction, which currently stands at four volumes. His novellas Apartment 14F, Out of Time, Dead of Night, and many more are available now, as is his acclaimed historical novel Sker House. If I haven't convinced you yet to read Christian's books, here's a friendly chat with him for more inspirations.

Hi Christian. Glad to have you here. Can you share your journey as a writer, from your early experiences to where you are now as an author of "The Wretched Bones"? What inspired you to pursue a career in writing? Can you share any insights into your writing process? Are there specific rituals or techniques that help you find inspiration and stay productive as a writer?

I always wanted to be a writer, but growing up in post-industrial south Wales it wasn't really an option. When I told people I wanted to be a writer, they laughed. That lit a fire in me and after I left school and went to work in a factory, I decided to go all-in because I had nothing to lose. I taught myself how to type and use a computer, and sold my first short story in my early twenties. There's no greater buzz than proving people wrong. The hardest thing when you're young is figuring out what you want to do. I wouldn't say it's easy after that, but it's certainly easier.

I don't have any rituals as such, but I would say that having a good work ethic is essential. Like any other aspect of life, the harder you work at being a writer, the better you get, and the better you get, the more successful you are. There are no short cuts, and it's easy to make excuses and blame everything or everyone else. But you are in control of your own destiny. Remember, we all have the same 24-hours in a day. It's what you do with them that counts.

I'm glad you made it. I bet it felt good proving them wrong. In your bio mentions that you've worked in various roles within the publishing industry. How has your professional experience influenced your writing and your approach to the publishing process for your books?

When I got proficient enough, I started writing for magazines as a sideline and slowly made the transition to doing it full-time. I drifted in and out of fiction in the beginning, because I was trying to find my way. I knew I was going to be a writer, I just didn't know what kind. I have to make a living, and the simple fact is there is more money in writing for newspapers and magazines than there is in writing fiction. We can't all be Stephen King.

I was freelance for many years, and did other jobs to supplement my income. At various points I was a barman and an ESL teacher in China. I also worked hospitality at music festivals and did medical trials before I made the transition to writing full-time. I have been on the staff of a men's lifestyle magazine, a couple of sports magazines, a hunting magazine, and now I work on a trade magazine. It's never boring. I have written hundreds of articles about everything from the NBA to chili pepper farming, and I have learned something every step of the way, not least about people, their motivations, and the finer points of the publishing business. There's a misconception that fewer people read these days, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The only thing that has changed how we consume media. The majority of people are glued to a screen half their waking life.

I agree. Also, it's interesting that many of authors experienced being a teacher including myself. As you mentioned you've been in China and I assume this added up into your diverse range of writing experiences, from contributing to magazines and ezines to having books published both traditionally and independently. Could you discuss the differences between these various writing formats and how each has contributed to your growth as an author?

I think generally speaking, writing non-fiction articles is much easier than writing fiction. No matter what you are writing about, you follow the same formula. You do the research, carry out interviews if required, collate information, find an angle, plan the feature, and write it to deadline in the house style. When writing fiction, you start from scratch with a blank page, and that can be intimidating. It's also usually a solo pursuit. When you work for a magazine you are part of a team that provides support if you need it. There's always someone there to ask advice from or bounce ideas off, and you're all working toward a common goal. With fiction, you are largely on your own. Motivation can be an issue because you start thinking if you don't write 2000 words in your new book, or finish that short story you were working on, who's going to care? The only responsibility you have is to yourself and unfortunately, most of us don't mind letting ourselves down.

When writing fiction, you start from scratch with a blank page, and that can be intimidating. It's also usually a solo pursuit.

At some point in their career, most writers have to make a choice between going with a traditional publisher or going it alone and self-publishing. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. There's more kudos with a traditional publisher, and they help with the editing, distributing, formatting, cover design, and marketing. If you self-publish, you have to do all that, and more, yourself. It can be a very steep learning curve. And its not like the road is paved with gold because most books simply don't sell thousands or even hundreds of copies.

From a technical perspective, editing other people's writing on a daily basis in my job has really helped my own writing. You see bad habits. One of my personal bugbears is repetition, people using the same words all the time, and it makes you hypersensitive to it.

I absolutely agree in the matter of choosing between self-publishing and traditional. I used to write and publish through traditional publishing back in my country but that was limiting not only because I had to write what they wanted to sell but also, I had to limit myself into the box of censorship. With self publishing you have the freedom on what to write. Not as easy as you have to do everything on your own but more rewarding. I'm curious what draws you to the genres you write in, particularly the paranormal mystery genre? Are there specific elements or themes that continually attract you to these genres?

The Wretched Bones is something of a departure for me as I usually write more hardcore horror, but it is similar in tone to my previous novel , Sker House, which is a historical mystery set in Wales. I have always loved unsolved mysteries. All those unanswered questions. Wouldn't life be boring if we knew everything?

The thing that drew me to the paranormal, and by extension the horror/mystery genre in the first place is my grandfather, who was a huge fan of horror books. He had three daughters, and when they all got married and changed their surnames, it made him the last 'Martin'. That's where the 'M' comes from in C.M. Saunders. I don't actually have a middle name. The M is a tribute to him.

Your latest release, "The Wretched Bones: A Ben Shivers Mystery," is generating quite a buzz. I love its cover design. I had an article last week on the topic of cover design and what makes a god cover. Its connection with the story, the colors and fonts matches well with the concept. Can you tell us about the journey of bringing this book to life, from its initial concept to publication?

Thank you for saying so! I first had the idea for The Wretched Bones when I visited a spa resort in Guangzhou, China, in 2019, and thought wow, this is how the other half live! Eventually I hit upon a plot involving Ben Shivers, a paranormal investigator who lives in a camper van with a rescue cat called Mr Trimble, who is called in to probe a series of tragedies at a resort but isn't prepared for what he finds. The Regal Retreat is plagued by tragedy, controversy, and misfortune, and over the years has witnessed scores of murders, killing sprees, accidents, and suicides. Ben thinks there has to be a connection, and uncovers a history littered with family secrets, witchcraft, murder, retribution, vengeful spirits and an ancient curse.

Not long after I started writing the first draft, Covid happened. I moved back to the UK and, because I had nothing else to do, devoted the next two years to finishing it and bringing it up to a publishable standard. I was very lucky to find a small but superb publisher, Midnight Machinations, a new imprint of legendary horror publisher Grinning Skull Press.

Can you provide insight into the creation of Ben Shivers as a character and how he fits into the story?

I'd had the character of a jaded journalist-turned-paranormal investigator (PI) called Ben Shivers living in my head rent-free for years, he was just looking for the right adventure to get involved in. I wanted to make him flawed and relatable, because we are all imperfect creatures and I wanted him to reflect that. He makes mistakes, and has a checkered past touched by tragedy having lost his daughter in a house fire which also saw the breakdown of his marriage. The Wretched Bones hints that the fire might have been the work of a demonic entity, but it would take a whole other book to explore that idea fully. Though they all feature the same central character and sometimes reference each other, each book can be read separately, which I felt was important. I want to entertain people, not hoodwink them into feeling obligated to buy another two or three books just to find out what happens in the end of the original story. Book two, about a post-World War II serial killer called The Butcher who may or may not have discovered the secret to eternal youth, is already written and should be published in 2024.

In the books, Ben Shivers has a sidekick, a rescue cat called Mr Trimble, whose back story is actually based on something that really happened to me. I found the real-life Mr Trimble next to a main road when I lived in China, more dead than alive. He was malnourished and dehydrated, had pneumonia, fleas, and an eye infection. The vet gave him a 30% chance of survival, but he shocked the world and got better. His story deserves to be told.

That's a very interesting backstory. Agreed that the kitty's story needs to be told! The story is set at an exclusive resort in the English countryside. What led you to choose this location, and how does it contribute to the atmosphere and intrigue of the plot?

I was drawn to the seclusion, isolation, and segregation, both in a metaphorical, and a literal sense. The way social classes divide us and limit us to only moving in very specific circles, never mixing with those outside our groups. But at the end of the day, we all all governed by the same rules, and we all do the same things and face the same problems, regardless of how much money we have in the bank.

Your elevator pitch hints at the idea that dreams coming true may not always be a positive experience. Can you elaborate on this theme and how it unfolds in the book?

That tagline works on several levels. For starters, I believe that to perform at our best we all need to strive for something. It keeps us hungry. After we have achieved all we set out to do, and have everything we want, what else is there? The flame goes out. The constant desire to want more and enrich our lives gives us direction, focus, and meaning.

On a deeper level, that sentence is a reference to a sub-plot in the book. There are people who believe dreams are a gateway into another world. Not a physical world, but a spiritual one. Our dreams can take us anywhere, even places we have never actually been or places that no longer exist. They also provide a way for people we have lost to visit us, and for the deeds of our past to come back and haunt us. Maybe it's the result of guilt on our subconscious, or maybe there is something more to it. Like it or not, the dream world plays a significant role in all our lives, and at the very least have the power to generate potent emotions. That alone makes them powerful.

I believe that to perform at our best we all need to strive for something. It keeps us hungry.

Beautifully said. Speak of the devil, readers may be curious about your writing style. What can they expect from your storytelling in "The Wretched Bones," and how do you approach creating an engaging narrative?

Writing is a continuous learning process. Its one of those things you never truly master, which helps keep it interesting. I think I am a much better writer now than I was ten years ago, or even ten months ago. Reading some of my older work I think I was guilty of skirting around the topic too much, instead of going straight for the heart of it. Now I think my writing is much more punchy and direct, with less waffling. Who has time for that? There were a lot of things I wanted to say in this book, and several themes I wanted to explore. The challenge then became finding a way to weave everything into a cohesive, entertaining plot. I wanted to keep the pace high and never give the reader a chance to breathe to try to convey what it must be like to be caught up in a high-pressure, life-or-death situation.

The Wretched Bones unfolds over two timelines consecutively; present day and during the infamous witch trials in 17th Century England, and skips between the two worlds to move the plot along. It's a slightly unconventional approach and was a challenge to pull off at times, but I think it really helps drive the narrative.

Thanks for sharing this. My final question is, as an author who also engages in blog tours, what has been your experience with connecting with readers and fellow authors through this platform, and how does it contribute to the promotion and success of your books?

It's difficult to write a book. The Wretched Bones took around four years from start to finish. But writing a book is the easy part. Getting people to pay attention to it is far more difficult. And why should anyone pay you any attention? Every day they are deluged with other things to spend their money on. Nobody owes you anything and you're not entitled to any special treatment just because you wrote a book. So did millions of other people. I think the way to make people care, is by touching their lives directly. Stepping into their world and talking to them like a human being, rather than just taking out cold, impersonal ads on social media that basically say BUY MY BOOK. You can only do that in small increments, like book signings and yes, blog tours. I enjoy the personal touch, it makes any connection I have with my readers more real and meaningful. There's nothing more satisfying than when people take time out of their busy lives to send me a message to tell me they enjoyed something I wrote. It makes everything worthwhile.

Thank you Christian. It was an enjoyable interview and hope to collaborate with you soon.

If you're interested to know more about C.M. Saunders you can check the following links:

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