99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& why you should ignore them all). #4 Don’t Use Criticism As A Razor

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.

99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& why you should ignore them all). #3Support Derby County Football Club and as a result befriend a talented Film Director who will one day make a trailer for your book.

I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one

– Brian Clough

 

Stay with me on this one. I’m not being entirely flippant. One of my formative writing experiences was the editing, and collaborative writing, of a football fanzine. At the time, I’d moved to London with no clear idea of what I was going to do other than becoming an award-winning screenwriter (more on that in an upcoming post), make piles of cash and marry Uma Thurman. Okay, a clear delusion rather than a clear idea.

Instead I found myself experiencing a wide range of – often weird – temporary jobs and editing the short lived and much missed (by me) fanzine The Mutton Mutineer  with home city collaborators Stuart Horn and Phil Evans.  This was back in the days when Robert Maxwell owned the club and our outspoken criticism of his cack-handed regime led to us being banned from selling the Mutineer anywhere near the ground and precipitated the eventual collapse of the Maxwell empire (well, the first part is true).

I was introduced to the joys of fanzine writing, and more importantly the possibility of fanzine writing, by a young Mancunian by the name of Stan Griffin one of the collaborators on a Manchester United fanzine called The Shankill Skinhead (named for Norman Whiteside), which was a much more professional and long lived creation than the Mutineer.

While the Mutineer indulged in anarchic Maxwell baiting and cartoons made with chopped up newspaper photos of Nottingham Forest players, the Shankell Skinhead did journalism: with quotes and everything.

In retrospect, the quality of the Mutineer didn’t really matter, it was fun, well received by other fans, and most importantly opened my eyes to possibility of just creating something that other people might read and enjoy.

It was also the start of a great friendship and endless hours in pubs discussing books, films, screenplays and, of course, football.

When I launched my kids horror novel, ALL THE DEAD THINGS, Stan pulled together a crack team of collaborators (actors, cameraman, editor, composer, costume etc …)
and made an outstanding trailer. You can watch it here.

Of course, the flip side of following any football/cricket/rugby (delete as appropriate) club is that if you are an addictive personality type you can find your creativity crimped (or overwhelmed) by the ups and downs (predominantly downs in my case) of following your club. Supporting a  team is like popping pills that act directly on the ‘hope’ receptors in your brain.

You keep hoping, this time it’ll be different, this time they won’t screw it up! What?! They’ve screwed it up! Blame the owners! Let’s start a fanzine!

And why you should ignore this golden rule: supporting Derby County is not good for your emotional equilibrium.

NEXT TIME: #4 Don’t use criticism as a razor

Graffiti Stories #3: Rethymno, Crete

Graffiti Stories #3: Rethymno, Crete

I stumbled across this street art on the side of a school in the labyrinthine back streets of Rethymno, Crete; streets mixing Greek, Venetian and Ottoman architectural influences alongside artisan’s boutiques, tourist tat and restaurant touts: “You from England? My cousin lives in Co-ven-tary! Very nice town!”

I’ve always loved comics and graphic novels and wished I was talented enough to make pages come alive with lines and ink. However, as we say in Derby – I can’t draw for toffee.

I once wrote a surreal, single page comic strip for a football fanzine but left the art to somebody else (imagine the FA hierarchy hanging from the ceiling like vampire bats, players grafting on extra legs all the better to win win win ….. it didn’t catch on).

I’ve come to terms with my inability to draw, but seeing what street artists create often leaves me feeling awestruck (and just a bit jealous). I suppose it’s artistry combined with the necessary guerrilla execution which fascinates me. You can’t get quite the same buzz as a writer, tapping away at your laptop.

99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& why you should ignore them all): #2 Don’t be too English

 

An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one”.

George Mikes

 

 

Now, I’m almost preaching to myself. I’m English and I’ve been unable to avoid absorbing many of the traits that Americans, Southern Europeans, Australians, Germans … well, pretty much everybody else … finds amusing and bemusing about about us.

Examples:

  • If there’s a requirement to queue, I’ll do so in an orderly manner for as long as required and then thank you for the privilege.
  • I once had a fight at school and apologised for getting the other boys uniform dirty.
  • If you come barging past me at a gig, I’ll step aside and apologise for callously assaulting your elbow with my rib cage.
  • If I arrive at a revolving door at the same time as somebody else, I’ll invite them to proceed before me.

The last example does conjure up the image of two Englishman arriving at a revolving door at the same time and becoming locked into a politeness-feedback-loop, both endlessly inviting the other to proceed, mirror images, neither able to break protocol, slowly growing old, frail and succumbing to the reaper as an endless procession of people swirl past the sad piles of bones and moth-eaten clothes.

Which brings me (politely) onto the subject of being pushy. As we discovered in the previous post, with 2.4 million Facebook posts per minute, the web is no place for shrinking violets (or the shy of any other hue).

If you want author alter ego to have any visibility, you must be prepared to talk about your book and, more importantly, you have to market it. If you’re proud of what you’ve written, it’s been well edited and has a compelling cover, then why should you be shy about inviting people to read it? That’s why you spent all those hours bent over a laptop.

This doesn’t mean you need to create social media presence that is the digital equivalent of the market trader standing on a bucket yelling out ‘Pound for the lot!!’ while holding up a huge bowl of tomatoes. It means you have to be targeted and work to find readers who will enjoy your work and with whom you can build up a long term relationship. It means you have to build relationships where you are offering real value, extra content, worthwhile freebies and recommendations for other authors’ books.

It means you have to find a way to avoid being the skeleton in the revolving door.

 

And you should ignore this golden rule: all rules in moderation. If you try to move too far away from your personality you’ll come across as fake. Readers will see through the mask and that’s alienating

NEXT: Support Derby County Football Club and as a result befriend a Talented Film Director who’ll make a wonderful promo for your book.

 

Added bonus: I recommend you read this article by the late, great Douglas Adams (creator of the uber English Arthur Dent) for an insight into the peculiarity of Englishness.

Graffiti Stories #2: San Jose, Costa Rica

When I was planning my trip to Costa Rica, a friend advised me to avoid staying in San Jose. I love sprawling cities, so I pushed him on his reasoning. “Because it’s Central America’s answer to Wolverhampton!” he said.

For those not familiar with English geography, Wolverhampton is a city in the West Midlands, notorious for traffic gridlock and an excessive zeal for concrete. Or so some people say. Is the city’s reputation deserved? I don’t know – I’ve only visited briefly to watch a couple of football games at the city’s Molineux stadium.

According to Wikipedia: “The demonym for people from the city is ‘Wulfrunian‘”. Wulfrunian?! To me, this sounds more like an incidental character from Game of Thrones, one of those introduced early in an episode and slaughtered before its end. A name implying a love of wattle and daub as construction materials, not concrete.

I’m digressing I know, but stay with me. I have a friend from Wolverhampton. At university he fell out of love with his course and spent his evenings learning to play the guitar rather than studying. In fact, he learnt to play one song: Cat Steven’s Moon Shadow – I listened to it on repeat, in sections, a hundred times … I can’t listen to that song ever again. When he sat his first exam, he did no more than scrawl Each Failure Is a Stepping Stone To Success on the exam paper and then headed for the pub. This particular failure wasn’t a stepping stone to success in this exam, but you get the idea – don’t mess with Wulfrunians. He came back and smashed it the following year.

If Wolverhampton can produce such self confidence, I should give its Central American cousin a chance to prove its worth.

So I stayed 2 nights in San Jose, giving me a full day to explore. It was the weekend and my expectations of traffic-clogged streets, exhaust fumes and hollering horns, proved inaccurate. On Sunday morning, a weirdly quiet and almost deserted city greeted me. But slowly, it revealed its charms: the Teatro Nacional, like a building plucked from Madrid and plonked down in the heart of the city; the Pre-Columbia Gold Museum (which also housed a fascinating contemporary art exhibit); and the pretty Barrio Escalante where I ate a wonderful lunch of chorizo salad and drank enough refreshing craft beer to make the rest of my explorations slower paced.

The one attraction I wasn’t able to see in its full glory, as it’s closed on Sundays, was the usually bustling Central Market. The plus side being all the stores had their shutters down revealing this fabulous selection of graffiti.

Te Amos Wolverhampton.

99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& why you should ignore them all): #1 Don’t read this Post

Golden Rule #1. Don’t Read this Post

People today are in danger of drowning in information; but, because they are taught that information is useful, they are more willing to drown than they need be. If they could handle information, they would not have to drown at all.
– Idries Shah – Reflections

Every single day, the web floods with  2.4 million Facebook posts per minute. With the optimal Post word count being (a disputed) 89 words, that gives us 213,600,000 words per minute, or a number of words per day so large my iPhone calculator has to render it in a formula I struggle to understand until I spin it to landscape and the calculator assumes its more brainy incarnation.

If only 0.5% of these posts relate to the craft of writing, that gives us (me and you, fellow writer) 3,075,840,000 words a day to read.

Even using the speed reading techniques reported by Tim Adams in The Observer last weekend, that’d rule out any chance I have of keeping up to date with Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, The Football League Show and Homeland, my dogs would leave due to a lack of walks and ear rubs (reporting me to the Retired Greyhound Trust) and bang goes any chance of writing my next novel.

It’s impossible for a writer to sift through such an unprecedented landslide of information. Where to start? With the helpful structural tips, the psychological insights and solid practical marketing advice? Or with the spurious opinion, SEO witchcraft and shameless plagiarism?

And if you can’t sift through everything, how do you know you’re getting to the good stuff, the stuff that will allow to write more compelling books and sell more of them?

How indeed?

The answer isn’t simple and evaded me in early days when I was planning to publish ALL THE DEAD THINGS on Amazon. I watched in paralysed horror as my Inbox and social media streams became sclerotic with words and I spent increasing amounts of time thinking about doing things (a new marketing idea! I must act on it! … as soon as I’ve acted on the earlier three hundred, I’ll be all over this like marzipan on a Christmas cake) but not actually doing them.

The answer for me turned out to brutal filtering. When I found a blogger (I use this in the widest sense to include those who use Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter as a ‘blog’) who imparted solid, valuable and actionable information, regularly, I remained subscribed. Those that didn’t meet these criteria I axed. My total number of subscriptions declined rapidly. No more wading through endless e-mails looking for a gem of a marketing idea. I found a group of bloggers who I thought I could learn from and stuck with them.

Reducing the flow meant I started to read more the chosen few properly, to explore their suggested links, to actually experiment with some of their ideas and tactics.

They’ve not made me into a best selling author overnight, but they allowed me to refocus on developing the craft of writing, and the science of indie publishing. Because of their solid ideas I actually feel like I might be able to find a way for my posts to be read among those 3,075,840,000 words.

These are my go to recommendations for indie authors (and thriller fans). They all offer useful free training videos as a sample of their offering:

Nick Stephenson: Author of the Leopold Blake thriller and guru of Your First 10K Readers.

Joanna Penn: Thriller writer (writing as J.F. Penn) and scribe behind The Creative Penn.

Mark Dawson: Author of the John Milton thrillers and high lord of the Facebook ad.

And why you should ignore golden rule #1: if you didn’t read this post, you wouldn’t know you shouldn’t read it.

Next time: Golden Rule #2 Don’t Be Too English.

 

Graffiti Stories #1: Los Angeles

Graffiti Stories #1: Los Angeles

I’ve had a story about teenage graffiti artists who are actually magicians spraying ideas on the inside of my skull for years, but I’ve never found time to write the book

But because of this nagging idea, I took pictures of graffiti and street art whenever I came across them, to incorporate into the book one day. There’s amazing work in the most unexpected locations; witty, intricate, beautiful and disturbing.

The images below are from Downtown Los Angeles. I’d gone running from my hotel early in the morning, picking directions at random. It was cold and very foggy and didn’t feel like LA. More like a ghostly nowheresville.

I spotted the graffiti on the side of several derelict stores fronted by drifts of detritus  and cardboard boxes and started snapping  with my phone. I was still listening to music, so I didn’t hear the boxes move.

A dark shape in the corner of my eye alerted me. Shadows emerging from every direction. Rising from the ground. Clambering from  boxes. A bottle rolling across the road. Something banging into metal shutters setting them rattling. Further down the street, I could see more dark shapes;  smudges in the fog, charcoal ghosts.

 
Spooked, your intrepid graffiti journalist took off at speed, retracing his route back towards the hotel, glancing over his shoulder. What he was escaping wasn’t a scene from The Walking Dead, but something much worse. Groups of the desperate homeless, swaddled in layers of clothes, faces covered by balaclavas and scarves, trying to keep warm. They’d been woken from their slender slumber by some bloke from England, now sprinting back to his hotel for a hot shower, central heating and a big breakfast over which he could recount the whole encounter for the entertainment of others.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Pinterest graffiti/street art board

 

99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& why you should ignore them all) – Introduction

“All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.”
– Somerset Maugham

It’s tough being a writer. Whether you’re just starting out, are a successful published author with a deadline arrowing towards you, or a scribe somewhere on the spectrum in between trying to convert rejections into offers.

There’s a landslide of good advice and thousands of writing and marketing gurus of variable quality on the web, all promising to help you overcome the trials and tribulations of this occasional pastime/hobby/profession/addiction/nightmare (delete as appropriate).

This blog – 99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (and why you should ignore them all) – is my unsolicited contribution to this logjam of opinion.

I’m sorry. You really don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. But if you do, I can promise it’ll be part writing guide, part autobiography (some of which may even be true) and self-therapy for my own writing addiction.

I’m not going to show you how to write a novel, or reveal a secret that will make you a sqiillionaire; I’ll leave that to more talented blogganauts. This is my five year mission to boldly stare where no one has stared before … deep into the uncharted space of my navel.

Writers may find the odd useful nugget hidden away amidst my wittering (or at least nod in recognition when they recognise their own trials). Non-writers may learn to pity us poor scribes a little more and count their blessings that they haven’t been afflicted by the need to pen a novel, play, poem or screenplay. They get to enjoy the sunshine and then gorge themselves on box sets without feeling incredibly guilty that they are WATCHING and not WRITING.

This blog will be popping up on my website, Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads each Friday so there really is no escaping it should you choose to engage.

I’ll be back next week with Golden Rule #1: Don’t Read this Post.

“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it is to be God.”
– Sidney Sheldon

99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& Why You Should Ignore Them All) – Introduction

“All the words I use in my stories can be found in the dictionary—it’s just a matter of arranging them into the right sentences.”
– Somerset Maugham

It’s tough being a writer. Whether you’re just starting out, are a successful published author with a deadline arrowing towards you, or a scribe somewhere on the spectrum in between trying to convert rejections into offers.

There’s a landslide of good advice and thousands of writing and marketing gurus of variable quality on the web, all promising to help you overcome the trials and tribulations of this occasional pastime/hobby/profession/addiction/nightmare (delete as appropriate).

This blog – 99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (and why you should ignore them all) – is my unsolicited contribution to this logjam of opinion.

I’m sorry. You really don’t have to read it if you don’t want to. But if you do, I can promise it’ll be part writing guide, part autobiography (some of which may even be true) and self-therapy for my own writing addiction.

I’m not going to show you how to write a novel, or reveal a secret that will make you a sqiillionaire; I’ll leave that to more talented blogganauts. This is my five year mission to boldly stare where no one has stared before … deep into the uncharted space of my navel.

Writers may find the odd useful nugget hidden away amidst my wittering (or at least nod in recognition when they recognise their own trials). Non-writers may learn to pity us poor scribes a little more and count their blessings that they haven’t been afflicted by the need to pen a novel, play, poem or screenplay. They get to enjoy the sunshine and then gorge themselves on box sets without feeling incredibly guilty that they are WATCHING and not WRITING.

This blog will be popping up on my website, Twitter, Facebook and Goodreads each Friday so there really is no escaping it should you choose to engage.

I’ll be back next week with Golden Rule #1: Don’t Read this Post.

“A blank piece of paper is God’s way of telling us how hard it to be God.”
– Sidney Sheldon