99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& why you should ignore them all) #7. Really love and trust your partner.

 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!

99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& why you should ignore them all) #6 You Absolutely Have to Make It On Your Own

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.

I’ve real experience of this. In my early days as a writer, I met a TV commercials director who was interested in making the move into feature films. He planned to start out with a short film and was interested in adapting one of my short stories (The Mutual Pleasures of Brothers In Arms). I was flattered, and a bit overwhelmed by the process. We attended a prestigious short film competition at the National Film Theatre (a young Shane Meadows won with Where’s The Money, Ronnie? – the film was a hundred times better than any of the other competitors and you could see that he was going to be a success) and moved forward with our project.
I understand that film is a much more collaborative process than print fiction. Most directors will have a vision for what they want. You sometimes have to shape a film to suit the acting talent, or lack of. But we were working on a project based on an existing piece of work, not a fresh script, and at the start I had expectations of the script retaining some resemblance of the short story.
Slowly, scene by scene, it started to change and with those scenes went the story and more importantly, my understanding of what I was writing. I should have stuck up for what I thought worked, but I was young and overawed by a very confident and brash ad man.  I stuck with it. Rewrote more scenes. Added characters. Killed of some characters. Then he wanted to change the films name. I hated his suggestion and for the first time stood my ground. I told him his new title – Prism – sounded like a make of toilet cleaner. Our relationship suddenly went the way of most toilet cleaner – down the pan.
Lesson learned: I had stopped making decisions for myself and tried to fulfil a brief in a vacuum of true creativity. That was only ever going to lead to me creating a broken and crippled story. To the best of my knowledge,  I don’t think Prism was ever released.

& why you should ignore this golden rule: see the previous golden rule.

Next time: Really love your partner.

99.5 Golden Rules for Writers (& why you should ignore them all). #5 Don’t think you can make it on your own.

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.

There were new writers like Tim Lebbon and Simon Bestwick who are now well established and admired authors writing award-winning genre fiction.

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.

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

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.

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