From Micklegate to publication: Alex Finlayson’s writing journey

The book cover for Alex's first book - The Book and the Blade. On the cover the title is large and appears to be of smoke, slowly dissipating. An arm holding a brown beer bottle is being knocked against another bottle, but this one held by a skeleton. The action is of a 'cheers' between friends. In the corner of the cover is a Shakespeare quote: It is tale told by an idiot... full of sound and fury...signifying nothing'. Behind the title is a picture of a dark street.

Introducing Alex

Where are you from and where do you live now?

I’m originally from Redcar and now live near Brisbane in Queensland, Australia. But about four years ago we sold everything and moved back to England. Two years later we sold everything again and moved back to Australia (our friends and family think we’re nuts).

That sounds complicated! Do you miss living in the UK?

I miss York. Yorkshire. The British countryside. Castles. Proper pubs. Real ales. Walking through the streets kicking fallen leaves. Football. Kebabs. Like, real kebab-van style greasy kebabs. Oh, and I suppose I should say family and friends 🤣

What do you do in your spare time?

There’s not a whole lot of spare time what with being a teacher, dad, husband and writer but I do like to play guitar when I get the chance (not very well, though). I used to play football but got old so now I walk my dog. I occasionally get distracted by the usual… good music, good TV, good games. Nothing wonderfully exciting I’m afraid.

Alongside writing, do you have a ‘day’ job? If so, what is it?

I’m a high school teacher, which over here is kind of like 6th form as well. A job I got thanks to YSJ.

Alex stands in front of two modern bookcases made of metal. They are blurred, but look to be full. Alex himself is wearing a dark tshirt with a circle of words on it as the only design. He is staring seriously into the camera.

YSJ Questions

Why did you pick York St John?

Honestly, it just felt right. I got accepted into a few good places and visited them all but there was a vibe about YSJ that hooked me in. I can’t explain exactly what it was – the location, the people, the look of the place, the course itself. But I knew it as soon as I visited that it was the right uni for me.

You studied Theology and Religious Studies at undergraduate level. What’s your favourite memory from your course?

The people. The course was full of really great and interesting people – both students and staff.

What’s your favourite memory from studying with us, in general?

Not one, single memory but rather a collection. I met my best friends at St John’s, some on the very first day!

We’ve been close for twenty years and that all started there. But waiting for the Ikon and Diva bus on Lord Mayor’s Walk every week was usually a good laugh.

But those stories should perhaps not be written down!

I did once climb out of the window above the quad arch. It was the one slightly to the right; I can’t remember why. Probably just being an idiot.

Where was your favourite place on campus?

It was the year 2000 so I should probably say the Union as that’s where we spent most our time. But I loved the quad in the summer and our first year was at Limes Court, which was newly built back then. That was great. Like a Brookside Close for a hundred 18-year-olds.

Where did you spend the most time as a student?

Honestly, the union. Don’t judge us, we were coming off the back of the 90s. Our role models were the Gallagher brothers.

How did your degree prepare you for the world of work?

Well, in the end I became an RE teacher so it was directly responsible for my career. And my lasting interest in religion etc. has really helped in the writing of horror stories.

You nearly swapped to a different course – why did you consider it, and do you regret not swapping?

Myself and a friend took an elective course in Creative Writing and absolutely loved it. We had such a great time and both met with the Dean of English (I think… it was 20 years ago) who asked if we would be interested in swapping our degrees over. We were both very tempted and thought about it long and hard. In the end, I think my natural teenage cowardice got the better of me and I thought it would be easier to stay where I was. I don’t regret it, as I loved my course, but perhaps I would have got to where I am now a little sooner if I had swapped… Ah well.

A photo looking out across the quad in summer time. The grass is green and looks inviting. The central flower bed is vibrant and the ivy growing up the walls of the quad buildings looks impressive.

Writing questions

You’ve said you had the idea of for your novel during your first week in York. Where were you, what were you doing?

Somewhere on Micklegate pretending to be adults. We’d heard about a pub that did triples for singles so made the most of it. I’d been reading about the local ghost stories earlier in the day and there was just a perfect serendipitous moment brought about by atmosphere, alcohol and an over-active imagination.

When did you decide to write your first novel, and how long did it take until you thought it was ‘finished’?

So I had the idea in the year 2000 and I started to write it in 2018 when we moved from Australia back to Yorkshire for a few years. I was in a place I loved with the people I loved but I wasn’t particularly happy (long story, not for here). I had been writing for years and finally decided to attack the story that had been rattling around my head for nearly two decades. The first draft took three months. The editing took another six.

You didn’t start writing your novel immediately – what stopped you?

Life. Being a bit crap. Imposter syndrome. Lack of experience and practice, you name it.

What’s your first novel about, in a nutshell?

A guy gets so drunk in York he sees dead people… but he doesn’t know they’re dead. At least, not at first. It takes place over two nights as Arthur Crazy comes to terms with his bizarre power while meeting the mortally-challenged citizens of the city.

The book cover for Alex's first book - The Book and the Blade. On the cover the title is large and appears to be of smoke, slowly dissipating. An arm holding a brown beer bottle is being knocked against another bottle, but this one held by a skeleton. The action is of a 'cheers' between friends.

In the corner of the cover is a Shakespeare quote: It is  tale told by an idiot... full of sound and fury...signifying nothing'. 

Behind the title is a picture of a dark street.

You’ve also got three sequels coming out, can you give us a flavour of what these are about?

Absolutely! They all follow Arthur in the aftermath of the events that take place in The Book and the Blade (the first novel). As much as they are a blend of comedy, horror and dark fantasy, I’ve also tried to hit a note of realism. So, after the events of book one, Arthur goes home to his mum and dad in Richmond to try and make sense of what happened. Book three is back to York and an attempt to get his life back on track. Book four is… different.

Which one is your favourite?

Hard to pick. Probably book four as it alludes heavily to one of my favourite novels: Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and yes, it is set in Whitby).

Your publishing journey

You’ve gone through quite a journey to publication. How did you go about getting published and what hurdles stood in your way?

I was lucky with The Book and the Blade in the fact it got attention pretty quick. It was picked up by one publisher but they wanted to make quite a number of changes to the story, which I thought were a bit too dramatic. In the end, I said no. That wasn’t easy to do. The book then got accepted by another publisher but they ran out of funds so had to cancel. Third time was a charm though, it got accepted by Parliament House Press in the USA and I’ve been working with them ever since. I really put the time in to research when I submitted to them and just had a vibe they were the right fit. Thankfully, they agreed.

I should say, though, that these three weren’t the only three I submitted to. I sent it all over the place. The Book and the Blade went to eighteen different publishers in total.

You said one of the publishers interested in your work wanted to change elements of it. How much did your work change from when you ‘finished’ it to it being printed?

That particular publisher wanted to remove all the swearing and a number of the jokes, which kind of ruined the point for me. I tried it. I even rewrote it, but it just didn’t sound like my story anymore.

With Parliament, their editing was thorough (and in some cases, brutal) but it was all to the benefit of the story. Little errors that I didn’t pick up and some pretty big errors as well. There was one instance where a character had finished having a pee, but nowhere had he started. A bit of an oversight, that one!

The essence of the story, though, and the voice, that remained intact. I’m really happy with it.

What was the easiest part about getting published?

Honestly, I’m not sure. It didn’t feel easy when I was getting rejections or a wall of silence for such a long time, but when that offer finally came through it all felt pretty great after that.

What surprised you most about the publishing process?

How long it takes! Sure, Covid knocked things back a bit but even so it has been an incredibly long time from start to finish. I wrote the book in 2018. I found my publisher in 2020 and now here we are in 2023 with a release date of 28 February.

You chose an American publisher in the end. What made you look overseas to find publishers?

At first, I wanted a Yorkshire based published but that didn’t work out. When I stopped just throwing the book blindly into the ether and actually did my research, Parliament came out at the top of the list. I didn’t really mind where they were, but their style and author list seemed spot on. It has, however, been a fun ride explaining some aspects of British humour.

What’s your publishing dream? For example, to see your books in a shop? Film adaptations?

I have a basic dream and a top tier dream. The basic is simple, I’d like to see my book in the wild. Maybe in a bookshop, maybe someone is reading it on a train or something. I’d love that.

The top tier dream is to make a living and to have a cameo appearance in the TV adaptation – just sitting in the background in a pub or something while the cameras are rolling. That would be fun!

Do you have anything else published? If so, what and where can we find them?

I self-published a novella called Reindeer Games at Christmas and flogged it off for free for a week. It did really well on Amazon. Surprising, really, considering it’s a story about Santa’s reindeer being murdered.

Alex's book cover for his recent novella Reindeer Games. Alongside the title, which is at the bottom of the cover, is a large illustration of Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer, but focused on their face and antlers. Their red nose and blue eyes are prominent in the snow scene they are surrounded by. Written between Rudolph's antlers it reads in  a large font: 'YOU BETTER WATCH OUT'.

It’s still there, drifting way down the post-Christmas charts, but it isn’t free anymore unless you’re on Kindle Unlimited. Otherwise, I think it costs an extortionate 77p.

I also have a novel called Rock Zombie which was supposed to be out in January but has been delayed. That one is fun – a teenager dies and comes back as a ghost, but his body also reanimates as a zombie. He spends the night trying to summon his inner-Patrick Swayze to stop his body from eating people. That’s set in my hometown of Redcar in the 90s and has a pretty cool soundtrack (each chapter is a famous 90s song).

Do you have a writing routine? For example, writing daily or only writing on an evening.

I wish! I tend to work in periods of mad fever where I’ll write every moment I can – sometimes a few thousand words a day. It’s hectic and tiring, and kind of like burning the candle at both ends while holding a flame to the middle as well. I wrote most of my books that way. I wouldn’t recommend it. Especially as these fits are invariably followed by equally long periods of doing absolutely nothing.

Do you plan your stories before you start writing, or write and see where they go?

Half and half. I don’t really have a technique or pattern. The Book and the Blade was planned out to the extent that I knew the direction Arthur would walk home and so I could literally map the progress of the plot using locations. Other than that, it was more of a ‘write and see what happens’ situation. I usually have the end in mind and just try to get there, but even then, that’s not always the case. I had absolutely no idea how Rock Zombie was going to end until I wrote it.


If you could go back in time, what would you say to your newly graduated self?

Tricky one! I panicked when I graduated and quit my PGCE. I didn’t want to just go school-uni-school so I worked in a bar for a long time. So I suppose I might tell myself to just get on with it and earn some real money, but that delay gave me the life I have – I met my wife in that bar. And it was Kel who gave me the push I needed to do my PGCE properly. So I’d probably say, don’t worry, it all works out in the end. But perhaps stop spending all my money on new tech fads like Minidisc Players. They don’t last.

What advice do you have for recent graduates about moving into the world of work?

There are many, many routes to get to where you want to go. If something doesn’t work out, try not to stress too much about it. Take your time, don’t be afraid to reach out, and understand that absolutely no one knows what they’re doing. That’s a freeing thought.

If other alumni want to find publishers for their work, what advice do you have for them?

Do your research. Don’t just throw it out to absolutely everyone and hope something sticks. Really take the time to find ‘your people’ and the best fit for your work. It might not work out straight away but you’ll get there in the end. Oh, and don’t submit immediately. Leave your work for as long as you dare – six months at least – then go back to it. Fresh eyes really help.

Do you have any writing advice for our alumni?

Just write. There are no short cuts. No tricks. No magic formulas. Write every chance you can. Write lots. Understand that a lot of it might well be crap, but you’ll get there in the end. I wrote six full novels before The Book and the Blade. The first four were utter garbage and will never see the light of day. The fifth had moments I really enjoyed. The sixth, I think, was good. Just keep going. Write for the sake of writing. Oh, and read. Read widely and read often.

You can continue to follow Alex’s journey by following him on social media. Alex is active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as well as on his website.

You can buy Alex’s novel, The Book and the Blade, from different outlets including Amazon and Parliament’s website.

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