All The Dead Things Count Down Deal starts today
I wanted to be a writer from the age of 11. I have proof of this. At school, we were asked to draw, in crayon, what we wanted to be when we grew up. I didn’t know how to draw a writer, so I drew an actor. And I put ‘and writer’ in quite clear letters in the top left-hand corner.
– Iain Banks (aka Iain M Banks)
Stephen King-style writing every day just doesn’t work for everybody. Some writers work best by blasting out a novel over the course of a few months and then resting, letting the fine grains of the next novel start to percolate.
The late, great Iain Banks was an example of this. He’d write to a well-honed schedule. One book a year, alternating between science-fiction (writing as Iain M Banks) and literary (Iain Banks). A book, typically, took him three months to complete. The rest of the time he’d spend dreaming up the next one.
Others are less disciplined or find their muse works in a different way. You might be surprised just how long it took authors to finish certain famous books:
Gone with the Wind… 10 years
The Catcher in the Rye… 10 years
Les Miserables… 12 Years
The Lord of the Rings…… a whopping 16 years
Many moons ago I lent my copy of Iain Banks’ novel Walking on Glass to a friend. I didn’t expect to see it back. Said friend – let’s call him ‘A’ – was bohemian, erratic and infuriatingly forgetful. He was generous but was always broke. A contrarian by nature – he’d try and blag his way into a gig even if he had a ticket. He once he stayed at my flat and when left to return to Manchester, left the front door wide open all day, my floor carpeted with albums. It wasn’t malicious – he just forgot… Oh did I mention the time he dragged me backstage at an Ice-T gig in an attempt to interview him about whether his mock bullet-riddled promotion t-shirts were an incitement to violence? His chosen recording instrument was a ghetto blaster style tape player… he managed to get the interview. True story.
As you can imagine, I was surprised to have the book returned about a year later with what he claimed was an autograph from Iain Banks on the fly leaf.
To Simon ye bas!!
In one of Iain M Banks’ sci if books – the challenging Feersum Endjinn – some chapters are written in a text-speak first-person narrative lightly seasoned with hints of Glasgow …
“Woak up. Got dresd. Had brekfast. Spoke wif Ergates thi ant who sed itz juss been wurk wurk wurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u ½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ov thi gargoyle Rosbrith.” (Feersum Endjinn – Iain M Banks)
Alex claimed the endorsement was inspired by the book. I just couldn’t tell whether he was winding me up or whether the autograph was genuine. many years later, I attended an Iain Banks book signing and asked him to recreate the endorsement in a copy of Complicity so I could check the original’s veracity. Mr. Banks looked non-plussed by my request, but true professional that he was, obliged.
And what do you know – it was real.
And why you should ignore this golden rule: see previous post.
Next up: Don’t edit heavily as your write.
People think that I must be a very strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It is in a glass jar on my desk.
– Stephen King
I love Stephen King’s novels. I grew up reading horror and Salem’s Lot, The Shining and The Stand were touchstone texts for me and my friends. One summer we spent several days trying to figure out how we could trigger a global pandemic capable of killing most of the population leaving a plucky bunch of heroes (modest cough… us) to have adventures in a post-apocalypse world peppered with lonely teenage girls desperate to be rescued by teenage boys with big hair, flying boots and second-hand overcoats (… you had to be there). Luckily for you, our chemistry set was basic, and we didn’t have the internet as a guide.
But I’m not here to talk teenage fantasies (or hair). I’m here to talk writing; something Mr King does every single day; not stopping for birthdays, Christmas Day, hospitalisation or any other puny excuse.
Obviously, Mr King isn’t an average writer. He’s a story-machine powered by a deep love of his craft, his characters and an addictive personality; so addictive that for a period it threatened his health, family, and career, and led to him writing books under the influence of alcohol, drugs, mouthwash and those little squirts of gas you get from a can just before the whipped cream oozes out. He admits that he can barely remember writing The Tommyknockers.
In his brilliant part-autobiography/part musing on the craft of writing, On Writing: a Memoir of the Craft, he outlines his simple, blue-collar methodology, well… simply. I would recommend that every writer should read this. It’s by turns amusing, brutally honest, supportive and exceptionally useful as a guide for bursting pretensions and demystifying the craft for new writers.
A key discipline for him is to write every day. No excuses. It doesn’t matter what you did the night before, where you are today and what you have lined up for the evening. You need to make it into a habit, with fixed hours, like a regular job. This isn’t just to keep you honest; it’s a discipline that enables you to stay within the flow of your novel and to maintain momentum as you see words mount up. (But he does acknowledge this may not be practical for everybody.)
What also stuck with me was the image of him whacking his growing manuscript against desk each morning before he wrote. Feeling its increasing weight, the heftier thunk the pile of paper made as it connected with wood – Thud! -this is his way of saying … “yep, it’s coming along“.
Like most of us, I suspect, I write on a laptop or iPad (other tablets are acceptable) and whacking expensive tech against tables is costly, ineffective and lead to lively budgetary debates with spouses and partners. Instead of the whack, I always scroll through a manuscript from the top to the bottom before starting; taking pleasure from its growth, making sure the visual flow of pages is attractive – that it looks like a book should look – remembering Stephen King and feeling guilty about all the days I didn’t write a goddamn single word
When I can force myself to write every day, I find it much easier to force my way through difficult sections of a book. To access those sections that just won’t flow out of my mind and into my fingers. If I don’t write every day, if I set the manuscript aside waiting for inspiration, momentum drains away. And even if I can’t find what I know is in there, sometimes the only way to get through a tricky section is to write it badly (even really badly) and then revise. It’s better to have a shapeless lump of clay than no clay at all.
And if you are writing… well, then you are a writer.
Books are a uniquely portable magic.
– Stephen King
Why you should ignore this golden rule: see the next golden rule.
Up next: Don’t write every day
A loving heart is the truest wisdom.
– Charles Dickens
Once, when a succession of publishers rejected one of my early, yet-to-be published masterpieces (The King of Cartoons), I slid into a deep slough of despond (maybe even a Slough of despair).
I’d been sure this was the one. I had fabulous endorsements for the book from two fantastic, award-winning writers, Michael Marshall Smith and Graham Joyce – but the publishers, as is their right, disagreed. One American publisher was downright hostile (I think it was because I renamed New York, Old York … ‘that just would not happen‘, they said, even though the book was absurdist sci-fi … you’d have to read the book, believe me there was a good reason).
This hit me hard. I’d spent a lot of time in the states. Travelled through 26 states. Had great times there and met wonderful friends.
This rejection derailed my writing for a long time. Made me doubt myself. Made me second guess publishers. My book of future story ideas suddenly seemed like a book full of nonsense. It was pointless.
It was my partner – now wife – who helped me to find a way out of this spiral of negativity, by pointing out rule #4 – Don’t Use Criticism As a Razor.
“Not everybody will like what you write,” she said. “If it wasn’t by you, I wouldn’t buy it. It’s not the sort of book I enjoy. And even publishers have subjective tastes with a genre.” I’m paraphrasing – her advice was much sharper, but you get the drift.
Sometimes it’s only those closest to you that can tell you the truths you need to hear. Stop feeling sorry for yourself and write! Or as the late, great Ray Bradbury put it: Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off. Build our wings on the way down.
& Why you should ignore this golden rule: Don’t.
Up next: Write like a Stephen King style writing machine!
People on the outside think there’s something magical about writing, that you go up in the attic at midnight and cast the bones and come down in the morning with a story, but it isn’t like that. You sit in back of the typewriter and you work, and that’s all there is to it.
– Harlan Ellison
After all the plotting and dreaming after all the deliberation and procrastination; you have to write your short story, your poem or your novel.
You can solicit advice, gather feedback, you can even hold a focus group and sit around the fountain of inspiration to see if you get wet – but in the end, you need to sit down in front of that blank page and make all the decisions – word by word, sentence by sentence.
Most importantly, you have to know why you’re making those decisions. If you don’t know why your protagonist wants the Seventh Sword of g’Neth, why she needs it, your reader will sense this and lose interest very quickly.
You need this certainty, this bone deep understanding, before you start sharing your manuscript with test readers. If you aren’t at that point, if the story isn’t strong enough to share, how will you be able effectively respond to criticism? It’d be like erecting a tent using only half the poles and guy ropes and then criticising the manufacture of the tent when it blows down in a gale.
Even worse, as you try to erect the tent after the storm has passed, you might be tempted to forget trying to work out how it should go up and just follow somebody else’s advice. You could still end up with a functioning tent, but if somebody asks you why the guy ropes are rigged like this or you’ll be able to say is because they told me too. Effectively it’s no longer your tent.
I think that is enough tent metaphors for a Friday morning. To be honest, my only experience of camping is at festivals when my tent is more at risk of drunken revellers tripping over the guy ropes rather than storms real or metaphorical.
& why you should ignore this golden rule: see the previous golden rule.
Next time: Really love your partner.
Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil—but there is no way around them.
– Isaac Asimov
There can be no greater succor and anchor for a writer than finding a confidant who understands the trials and tribulations, the unadulterated masochism, uncertainty and self-doubt involved in becoming a writer.
In reality, there can be no more comforting confidant than a fellow writer. Somebody that has toiled over character, plot, motivation and all those other things a writer has to agonise over, and then agonise over more.
I remember attending a British Fantasy Society Open Night for the first time. I was a bag of nerves (they all know more than me, they’ve all read more than me, they all know each other). The meeting was held in an upstairs room at the Princess Louise, a traditional Holborn pub, all glass, brass, class and history. I was a neophyte. Raw. Self-conscious. Unsure.
And I was welcomed. What a wonderful thing it was. Here was my tribe. The writers. The readers. The drinkers. They laughed and didn’t take themselves too seriously but knew what was serious. I talked books and football with one of my literary heroes Graham Joyce (who died far far too young last year – if you have read none of his works I strongly recommend you do – try the award-winning Tooth Fairy or his last book, the magnificent Some Kind of Fairy Tale). Jeff Vandameer snapped me holding his little green alien. I got drunk. Blathered on about Cormac McCarthy. Bought some books.
Later, I attended the BFS annual conference and met more of my heroes including the absurdly talented Michael Marshall Smith. His debut Only Forward, an amalgam of sci-fi, fantasy and dream logic remains firmly in my all time top ten books – if you haven’t read it, read it. He writes superbly about friendship and heartbreak and talking fridges. He also writes top notch, NY Times bestselling thrillers and had the darkly fantastic Intruders adapted for TV. See, told you he was talented.
I also met industry luminary Stephen Jones who has edited oh… close to a million anthologies and collections. I was still nervous meeting all these people and fuelled by nerves and beer managed to offend Mr Jones with some ridiculous point I was struggling to frame (I can’t even remember what it was) and was only rescued from making it worse by a tactful Mr MMS.
One of my golden rules was born: attend and be damned.
I wrote a batch of short stories on the wave of confidence that rolled off the back of that meeting. It left me feeling invigorated, intoxicated and invulnerable. Later, I received great encouragement and critical feedback from members of the society – redundancies that needed cutting, sections requiring a polish and it allowed me to get my writing career back on track.
& why you should ignore this golden rule: see the next golden rule.
next time: You absolutely have to make it on your own.
It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.
– Ernest Hemingway
I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.
– Erica Jong
There’s a scene in the film Betty Blue (I can’t remember if it’s in the book), where the eponymous heroine uses a comb to attack a publisher who has rejected her lover’s magnum opus with a brutally critical letter. As a negotiating tactic it failed, but at least it allowed Betty to let off steam – and Betty (as embodied perfectly by Beatrice Dalle) was a lady who needed to let off steam.
Criticism is the cliched, double-edged sword (a cliche I intend to stretch into a messy metallic metaphor) and the wise writer should be wary of both of its edges. Much criticism is entirely subjective and subjective opinions can be heavy and unwieldy.
Would you try to shave (face or legs) with something as unwieldy as a sword? No? Then why would you use a single piece of criticism to determine whether your latest project was the work of a genius or an idiot/dork/Frank Spencer/Homer Simpson/Pike from Dad’s Army (delete as age appropriate).
It’s a hard lesson for new writers, but: NOT EVERYBODY WILL LIKE, OR ENJOY WHAT YOU WRITE. Not when you start out, not when you have initial success, not when you are the writer of a global spanning, theme park spawning phenomenon.
Carrie by Stephen King was rejected 30 times, Frank Herbert’s Dune was rejected 23 times and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected 12 times and Jo Rowling told ‘not to quit the day job’.
Even now the boy wizard isn’t immune to criticism. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone has 47 reviews at a (Ron) measly 1* on Amazon (this is my favourite rant which is nothing to do with the book!). This isn’t holding back JK’s career or stopping her earnings, estimated at US$1 billion (more than the GDP of The Gambia).
When I first moved to London, I enrolled in an evening script writing class in Brixton. This was a pre-gentrification Brixton of families, students and squats. A place where you emerged from the tube amidst clouds of incense, hectored by a Baptist preacher’s barked eschatological threats. A place of underground bars and live music before the Academy was branded with anything other than its location. It was like entering another world and I loved it.
The script writing course was attended by an eclectic group (I remember a Sloane Ranger exclaiming “oh, ya, you’re a real Northern Lad” as if she’d encountered a mythical, hairy creature. (NB: I haven’t invented this – it happened… and I’m not Northern, I’m from the Midlands).
The course was the first time I was directly exposed to criticism. In retrospect, I can see this was a supportive – if somewhat mismatched – group of collaborators, but at the time I wasn’t ready for it.
My pitch was a serial killer screenplay called THE JIGSAW MAN. A peer of the realm had imprisoned his psychopathic child in a room with nothing but jigsaws for distraction. Now he’s escaped and as his culling all those who abetted his father in keeping his incarceration secret. Each murder scene was marked by a piece of a jigsaw puzzle placed on the victim’s body. The case was investigated by a puzzle obsessed cop somewhere on the Asperger’s scale.
Okay, not a script that will win awards, but it was my script, my idea, and it was the first time I’d pitched an idea to a large group of peers and writers much more experienced than me.
There were some supportive comments from the populist faction in the group. But then came a withering assessment that my script was basic, derivative and didn’t tell us anything about the world today or past. The critic explained she would never be interested in collaborating on such a project and instead urged people to support her (very well pitched) story about the oppression suffered by an Indian woman during the Raj.
With a few years hindsight I can see just how poor my reaction to the criticism was. Not in a throwing things around the room in a can’t you see my genius way; in a slinking away from the course and stopping writing for a year sort of way. A whole year when I could have been working on my craft. Writing short stories. Listening to criticism but only reacting to that which could take my writing forward. All my screenwriting critic was doing was expressing a perfectly legitimate subjective preference. She had the courage of her convictions. Back then, I didn’t.
& why you should ignore this golden rule: Taking tough criticism and using it positively is a hard lesson to learn. I exhort all new writers to expose themselves to the glare of criticism as soon as they can. And to listen. Really listen.
Next time: Don’t think you can make it on your own.