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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.