Escaping Barcelona (Mad Days of Me #1)Escaping Barcelona by Henry Martin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to Henry Martin’s book following a discussion of literary fiction in the modern day. I mentioned the cult novel Trainspotting and pointed out that difficulties with the heavy Scottish dialect did not override the fact that it was totally realistic in its handling of drug addiction. Escaping Barcelona also has a form of gritty realism dealing as it does with uncomfortable and unpleasant issues like statelessness, homelessness, exploitation and homosexual rape. It is however a much more approachable book.

The quality of the writing here is excellent and it is not written in dialect or the vernacular which makes it easier for the general reader to get into. To me, the language of evocation and description is vital. One of my favourite poets, for example, is the war poet Wilfred Owen because he brings a talent for visual description to things we don’t consider poetic subjects. In this way Owen gives the horror of war a striking and vivid reality. Henry Martin, for me, achieves something similar on a smaller scale in Escaping Barcelona from the trilogy Mad Days of Me.

In an era where increasingly readers have little time for description, characterization or exposition, he allows us more than just a glimpse of his protagonist’s world. The author is not just content with what his character does and what happens to him; you feel Rudy’s initial sense of awe and excitement on arriving in Barcelona, you smell, taste and see his surroundings. Later the same skills are applied to his physical deterioration, how the fabric of his unwashed socks becomes embedded in the skin of his feet for instance.

Rudy starts out, as many young people do, by feeling trapped at home. He longs for freedom and adventure and leaves the safety and security of his home to seek that freedom on the road. Ironically his search leads to virtual imprisonment in a world where everything is reduced to the absolute basics of survival and where it is hard to trust anybody. His interactions with young women on holiday draw attention to this irony. They too seek freedom and adventure through travel, but unlike Rudy they have not been victimized; they have not lost the physical means of escape and they are still in control of their own destinies. He envies them and he fears for them too. His eventual escape is almost a very final escape, the significance of which was not lost on me.

The novel Escaping Barcelona deals with issues on the underbelly of society; issues of criminality, exploitation of the weak, powerlessness, hopelessness and the all too convenient invisibility of the poor and the homeless. Its premise that this can happen to anybody young, innocent and trusting is sadly built on truth. Your hopes rise and are dashed along with the young protagonist, you see life at its most fundamental, learning survival skills and dealing with frustration and fear along the way.

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The best-selling album of all time in the United Kingdom is Queen’s Greatest Hits, a compilation album that was first released in 1981. According to authorities in the music business, as of February 2014, this album had sold more than six million copies, of which only approximately 124,000 were from downloads – the rest were vinyl, CD and other media. Now if I wanted to advise a young guitar student of mine  how to succeed in the music business I could look at all the reasons why Queen are still in that coveted number one slot and enumerate them into a prescriptive (or proscriptive) thirty point list. I could say that you have no hope of succeeding in the business unless you do all these thirty things. I would be wrong and I would be laughed at because in music what succeeds and maintains success long after hype and payola have ceased to artificially boost a band’s reputation and sales is PERSONALITY.

Queen, when they first burst in on the music scene in the 1970s, had already been going for some time doing all the important stuff that people told them would help them succeed. They were not brand new and they did their share of emulating former stars too. That is called serving an apprenticeship and it is pretty vital to success in the business; likewise The Beatles played many live shows in Europe, played covers and changed band members before they got their break courtesy of Brian Epstein and “made it”. Eventually there comes a time when the band gets tired of doing the same-old-same-old received wisdom that never works and they say:

“Sod it! We are going to do…”

That is often the point at which A&R men sit up and say:

“Hang on just a bleedin’ minute…”

Then they get the push and they break out big time.

It helps to have an exciting hook line, an amazing voice up front like Freddie Mercury, a fantastic skilled guitar player like Brian May and all the rest of the talented lovelies in Queen but to be radical and not to slavishly copy is the secret to lasting success. This is what Queen did. This is why they are still selling downloads to the grandchildren of the first generation of their fans. This is why, amongst all those money making published bands, they will never be forgotten.

When it comes to writing, is there any need these days of that long, long list of rules the publishing houses put together to account for half a dozen mega successful genre authors? My belief is that the market is now far more new and exciting than it ever was. Many of the classics break many of these “rules” and my belief is that the new “classics” will break them too. If your sole interest as a writer is to get a toe in the door of a genre publisher then follow them however you have no need to do this if you self publish. In self publication there are few rules although there might be a few guidelines:

  • Have a good story
  • Tell it well
  • Be original, sparkling and personal in your writing
  • Don’t apologise for description, scene setting or adverbs, just use them tastefully
  • Strive for balance but allow your words to have a life
  • Write fewer words rather than more but make every single one of those words count
  • Read
  • Edit
  • Re-read
  • Edit
  • Read aloud to a friend
  • Edit
  • Let a friend read the proof
  • Edit
  • If you can’t spell or punctuate get a PROFESSIONAL to do the final edit
  • Publish
  • Promote
  • Eat if you are lucky and sell a book…
  • Write another book

It may be that you will not be all that successful as an author, maybe that is not in your karma for this lifetime, maybe you will have to content yourself with a day job BUT you will be a writer because you love to tell your story in your own words.

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Good luck, be brave, be original!