fakeI’ve Always Wanted To Write A Novel
(Says The Pretender) 

“Lips and tongues lie. But actions never do. No matter what words are spoken, actions betray the truth of everyone’s heart.”

Sherrilyn Kenyon

Writing is one of the few professions that is both revered and underestimated by the general public. For every person who calls an author a genius, there are twenty others who say they can do the same, or better, with next to no effort. And this isn’t just bravado or posturing — these arrogant detractors genuinely believe they can pick up a pen (or open their laptop) and write a novel as good as anything currently on the shelves. Which, invariably, they can’t.

The issue arises from ignorance, but it’s easy to see why this belief is so prevalent amongst non-writers. Because even the nons indulge in writing from time to time. It’s not like athletics or skydiving; people write every day: emails, Facebook statuses, letters, text messages, tweets, etc. — a novel probably just seems the same but longer. They don’t consider how much skill and talent and craft and hard work is required in constructing a serious piece of work. They merely assume, based on their ability to write a coherent letter to their local council, that they’ve already mastered the craft. If they only had the “time”, they’d do it; they’d buckle down and tap out a bestseller in the space of a few months. No revision, no edits, just blim, blam, here it is, give me my money.

In contrast, no one watches a gymnast execute a perfect triple backflip and says, “I’ve always wanted to do that. I’ll probably do it next month when I get some free time.” But where writing is concerned, these people suddenly they think they have what it takes to pen a masterpiece, which I suppose is why some people look down on the writing profession — they don’t respect us because it seems like all we do is sit at a laptop and type words for fun.

In some ways, that is all we do. But they discount the hours of pain and stress and pressure and headaches. They don’t realise we sometimes agonise over the same sentence fifty times. They don’t think about how we have to tear our plot to pieces and reconstruct it from the ground up, trying desperately to weave the broken parts together into something that still makes sense. They rarely see our hard work. Instead they see laziness.

And that’s why so many PRETENDERS exist. Watch out for these people.

They’re the worst, and they’ll only depress you in the long run.


“Life is too short to be around someone

that says they love you but doesn’t show it.”

Elizabeth Bourgeret


One of my closest friends (let’s call him Dennis) typifies this type of person. He’s The Pretender — or, his other names: the talker, the dreamer, the delusional fantasist. I’ve known him for over fifteen years now, and since the beginning he’s told me of his plans to be a writer (he’s also mentioned being a director, an actor, a rapper, and any other number of artistic endeavours which he’s never bothered to pursue past his initial spoken dream).

In the last decade or so he’s written a few short stories and completed a short movie script. At the moment he’s about thirty pages through a feature-length screenplay (he’s been lazing his way through it for the past year or so), and he won’t stop talking about the novel he’s going to write, or the new scripts he’s planning to jot down, although he never actually does any of it. He’s a never-ending fountain of film and book ideas. Every time I see him he has another twenty or thirty or fifty ideas to run by me. Some of them are terrible, and some are actually pretty good. He has an eye for a story, and if he were to empty all the ideas in his mind on to a page, after a while, once he’d learned his craft, he could be an accomplished novelist. But if is just a pipe dream. I know he’ll never do it. I’ve heard years worth of his talking and his dreaming without ever seeing the work. One short script does not make a writer. It might be the foundation on which to grow, but without any follow-up work, it’s merely a fluke.

Writing, in Dennis’s world, is something luxurious and fun and cool; it’s something he wants to do, but the reality doesn’t match up to his dream. It’s hard work, it’s stressful, and he doesn’t love doing it. When he writes anything, it’s with an eye to sell it and become rich so he can pursue his other dreams (director, actor, porn star, whatever). His heart and soul isn’t in his work; he doesn’t bleed on the page.

It’s nothing in his life. If I offer him a book to read on characterisation or plotting or anything that could be useful to his dream, he finds an excuse not to read it. He’s busy, or he’s tired, or his leg has fallen off. If I invite him to writing seminars, he won’t come. If I tell him he needs to read more novels, he claims he doesn’t have the time. And yet he’ll watch season 5 of 24 for the seventh time. He believes he doesn’t need that stuff, he can wing the whole process. 

And that’s why a lot of these PRETENDERS churn out buckets of shit.


“I never listen to what a person says. I look at what a person does because what they do tells me who they really are.”

Everything Dennis writes is trash, but he won’t accept criticism or advice because it all looks great to his untrained, unlearned eyes.

Partly this is a defence mechanism: if he doesn’t try too hard, he can’t fail. Later on he can tell himself he didn’t have the time, or the education, to make a real go of it. He’s living in a world of plastic dreams, surrounded by a bubble of ignorance, and no one can pop that bubble, not even him. He feeds into his own lies.

He has no portfolio of writing, doesn’t read, doesn’t want to learn, doesn’t take criticism, doesn’t try to improve, and rarely actually writes, but he calls himself a writer.

These people need to be put in their place. They’re no more than leaches. They want to receive the praise and adulation without putting in the effort.

People like this clog up writing pages and short story websites with their inferior efforts and their uninformed opinions. They may talk a lot about writing — some of them even read all the literature involved and speak a good game — but they have no idea what they’re on about. They’re not speaking from experience. They’re reciting from a book.

These types of PRETENDERS are the worst. They’re so enamoured by the thought of being a writer, they’ve learned to cultivate an author’s outlook. They say all the right things, they seem to know the struggle you’re going through, and yet they rarely ever do anything productive.

Avoid these people at all costs. Avoid all PRETENDERS no matter what.

They’re a tumour and will distract you from your goals.


“I pay ZERO attention to what you say.

But your actions have my undivided attention.”

Sotero M Lopez II


With Dennis, I don’t have much of a choice — he’s my best friend of almost two decades. I can’t kick him out of my life for being a plastic writer. However, if you meet people like this, you have the choice not to invite them into your world. It’s not worth it. They’ll suck away your energy. You’ll take time out of your day trying to guide them and encourage them. You’ll listen to their story ideas and their million-and-one excuses of why they haven’t found time to write recently. You’ll attempt to teach them about the craft. You’ll offer to read their stories and give them feedback. On the rare occasions they actually write something, your feedback will be discarded like an old cup of coffee.

Not only will you pump endless energy and time into a black hole, their attitude may rub off on you too. Because they don’t care about their own writing, they won’t care about yours either. If you say you need to stay home and finish up a chapter, they’ll pressure you to leave it until another time. They don’t understand the hard work it takes. They’ll discredit what you’re doing and make you feel guilty. They’ll do all of this under the guise of understanding your writerly pain.

After all, they’re just like you — they’re writers too. Right?

No. Push these people out of a window and get back to work.

Surround yourself by people who want to achieve, who are writing and fighting every day. Join writers groups if you have to. Seek out like-minded people on Facebook or Twitter. The more you surround yourself by winners, by people trudging up the same mountain, the more you’ll be inspired. Every time you see them post about their 10,000 words before breakfast, that will spur you on to up your own game and write even more.

People don’t improve by practicing with the dregs. They improve by aiming for those above them: by pushing themselves to be better, smarter, funnier, more efficient.

Rise above the PRETENDERS and mingle only with the real McCoy.

Anything less is bad for your career. And bad for your health.

But mostly . . . it’s bad for your writing.


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The Blackboard Jungle

imgres“He had never stopped a rape before, except by changing his mind, and he found his role of ‘protector of the virgin’ a difficult one to assume.”

The Blackboard Jungle is set in a vocational high school in the fifties and shows the journey, over the course of a single school year, of a new idealistic teacher, Richard Dadier. He’s a simple man who just wants to teach, and who believes he can reach a class of undisciplined teenagers: all he needs to do, he thinks, is find a way to engage them.

At first it seems as if there’s not much in the way of plot to hold the reader’s attention, but Evan Hunter (better known as crime writer Ed McBain) utilises every skill in his arsenal to grasp the audience and keep them interested throughout, using a number of emotionally gruelling moments to explore his themes of redemption, faith and hopelessness.

Aside from a collection of gripping classroom scenes, there’s a running subplot with a seductive femme fatale (another teacher in his department) who continuously attempts to lure the main character into bed. Richard Dadier, whose wife is pregnant and rarely “in the mood” has to fight his urges and curb the woman’s advances, and Hunter paints the scenario in such an evocative way that we’re able to feel the character’s internal conflict: lusting and wanting, but not wanting at the same time.

There are many more moments like this in the book: scenes that seem inconsequential on the surface, but effectively tug at the reader’s emotions and fill out the picture of Dadier’s life of frustration.

And to wrap it all up, the author doesn’t cop-out with an inspirational ending where all the students learn the error of their ways and turn into A-grade pupils. It’s more like a portrait of what it was like to be a teacher in that time period — and these days too. The book is no less prevalent today as I’m sure it was then. 

It’s raw and real and will bring most readers back to their school days.

In short: this book is essential reading.

For everyone.


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This week’s guest blog is a guide to useful tech tools for writers. It’s written by American blogger Caroline, whose work you can also find at Culture Coverage. I’ll put her details below the post if you want to check out any of her other articles or follow her on Twitter


[If you’d like to write a guest blog for this website about a subject of your choice, email here for more details.]

tech-tool
Useful Tech Tools For Budding Writers

It’s likely there’s someone you know who aspires to write that Great American Novel. Maybe you’re that person. Your mind swims with ideas for characters and plot, but the second you get in front of your computer to write, it all disappears. Maybe you get distracted by your social media accounts or simply watching videos on YouTube. Maybe you think you need a writing teacher to guide you through the process (George Kelly thinks otherwise). Whether you’re on your desktop or smartphone, there are several useful tools you can use to help increase your productivity.


Evernote

Available for both your PC and smartphone, Evernote is an excellent tool for jotting down random thoughts, storing photos or making note of other interesting tidbits you come across during your day. You never know when inspiration will strike. Whether you upload the images from your smartphone or desktop, you can access whatever you add from any device.

If that’s not enough, your notes are also searchable, encoded with GPS, and easy to organize via tags and folders. You can even share your notes publicly to get feedback or simply share the research that went into your piece.

[Editor’s Note: I personally prefer SimpleNote. Check it out here.


Virtual Private Network (VPN)

If you’re like many writers, you do your best work outside of the home. This can be a library or a coffee shop, but your location will likely have free WiFi. Even with a WiFi password in place, connecting to a public hotspot can still open your computer up to hackers. In order to protect your information, you should use a VPN service. When you go through this service, you encrypt any information sent over the web, making it nearly impossible for hackers to get access to it. You can check out some of these VPN reviews by Secure Thoughts to find one that suits your needs, as there are quite a few on the market.


Dragon

There’s something intimidating about a blank Word document. The cursor blinks at you waiting for words to pour forth from the keyboard, but it’s too much pressure. If you often feel this way, it might make more sense to talk through your story rather than write it down. Dictation tools such as Dragon have come a long way in terms of accuracy. All you need is a mic and the software and you’re ready to get started. It might be a bit strange at first talking through a novel, but it might clear up your writer’s block.

Even if you don’t use it for actually writing your book, it’s still a good option for outlining the story and making notes on plot lines or character background. You can also use it for other tasks. Writing emails or making a post to social media might get a whole lot quicker with dictation.


Place to Write

If you’re a Mac user, you’re in luck. Place to Write offers some excellent creative writing aids like a character builder, plot generator and more to help jumpstart your imagination. You can customize the appearance by choosing a theme if you so choose. For those who work best on a deadline, you can also set writing goals and timers. You can even share what you’ve written easily via email or social media.


Hemingway App

Looking to improve your writing? There’s no better way to learn than from the best. Of course, it’s a bit hard to do if the writer is dead, but you get the next best thing – an app named after a famous writer. All joking aside, the Hemingway app is a great tool for those who want to improve their writing. It immediately identifies potential problems with your text, such as complex words, long sentences or overuse of adverbs, and highlights them with different colors. You can then change it yourself or view the suggestions to get a better understanding of how to fix the issue.


Wappwolf

There’s nothing worse than losing all of your writing because you need to wipe your hard drive. If you’re not doing it already, you should really have multiple backups of your project in various locations such as your hard drive, an external hard drive and a cloud server. The problem with having so many backups is the time it takes to update all of these locations (and then there’s the organizational nightmare). That’s where Wappwolf comes in. Rather than uploading to four different locations, it allows you to save a file to a single folder. The software then automatically uploads the document to your preferred locations. It’s a huge time saver and ensures that all of your backups have the most updated version of your novel.


There are dozens of other useful tools you can add to your arsenal. It’s up to you to choose which one fits your needs the best. Of course, none of these tools will help if you don’t actually start writing(!)

Do you have a handy writing tool that you always use?

Tell us in the comments.


HeadshotCaroline is a freelance tech and entertainment writer. As a freelance writer she often suffers from writer’s block and uses multiple apps on her smartphone and computer for motivation and inspiration. She hopes you’ll be able to use some of these tools to help your own writing.

You can find other articles by Caroline here, or follow her on Twitter here


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hate-everythingThe Bad Is Sometimes Good
(The Reason I Hate Everything) 

“Life is too short to read books that I’m not enjoying.”

Melissa Marr

If I were to give you a rundown of every novel I’ve disliked, hated or tossed aside you’d think I just hated books in general. It doesn’t take much for me to put a book down. It can be a jarring paragraph, a disjointed narrative, an overly linear plot, a convoluted mess of a story, an over-sentimental group of characters, an under-sentimental crew of people, a clanging back and forth of dialogue, an errant phrase, an imbecilic metaphor or simile, or it could be a constant annoying overuse of dialogue add-ons such as: He nodded, he shook his head, he smiled. Sometimes my reasons are less obvious: I’ll be gripped by the writing style but the story will lack drive or character motivation or the whole thing will be thematically bereft. I guess I’m hard to please.

I’m critical of almost everything and anything. And in my barely humble opinion this is how every writer should read.

With an eye to hate everything — and work out how to fix it.


“The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.”Henri Bergson


Reading critically is essential for every aspiring writer (read more about that here). But there’s no point simply quitting books and moving on to the next one without any introspection. You won’t learn anything that way. You need to not only quit but analyse why you came to that decision. What turned you off about the book?

The plot? The wooden dialogue? Did the characters ring false?

Even when I pick a book with all the ingredients I’m searching for — crime, violence, murder, sex, bad language — I still throw eight out of ten to the side out of boredom or frustration. They don’t engage me on a full spectrum. They may pique my interest in small ways, but unless I feel like the novel is something spectacular, I give up. In order to not miss out on a potential classic I’ll give it a few chapters first, especially if I’m impressed by the prose, but after that I throw it to the side with the rest of the trash.

But the more I analyse what makes my engine click and my heart tick, the more I spot patterns — both positive and negative. I’ve noticed, for instance, Michael Connelly overuses tags such as He shook his head. I once read a page of his with five or six head shakes. That’s a lot of head shaking. And if they weren’t shaking their heads, they were nodding. It became a game to me: I’d look out for the next nod or head shake, which was usually only a page or so away. Pick up one of his books now, flip to any page and you’re almost certain to find a nod or a head shake. Most people won’t notice, or care, but the constant repetition didn’t fade into the background like He said. Instead it reminded me that I was reading and pulled me from my connection with the book. Which is a shame, because I enjoy his writing other than that.

And that’s just one example of many. Stephen King always seems to have a character that laughs at something innocuous or unfunny until he cries, tears streaming from his face. Elmore Leonard, in many of his novels, has dialogue that’s too cute and so cool it’s actually distracting — every clipped word and dropped syllable comes across as stylised rather than natural. What started out as a great ear turned almost into a parody. Robert Crais has characters call each other by their surnames all the time, even if they’ve just met. “Hi, I’m Dave Seltzer,” one will say. “Nice to meet you, Seltzer,” the other guy will respond. He does it in almost all of his books and it detracts from my reading experience. 

And the list goes on and on and on.

Because the more I’m aware of the things that bug me in other writers, the more I can excise it from my own work. And it goes deeper than that: on top of pattern searching I analyse other aspects too. Why did the book turn me off? At what point did I stop reading? What did I hate about it? What did I like about it? Again, with each question I learn something.

The quickest way to improve is through reading someone else’s mistakes.


“If there was one life skill everyone on the planet needed,

it was the ability to think with critical objectivity.”Josh Lanyon


You’ve got to know what’s bad, to write what’s good. Or at least you should know what you consider to be bad. Others may disagree with your likes and dislikes, but that’s okay. You want to write a novel that you would be proud of; something that you’d place on your shelf with pride, and you do that by picking apart your competitors. If you don’t know why you like some books but hate others, how can you weave the right elements into your manuscript? If you put down a novel because the villain has a weak motive, remember that. In your next draft, go over your own villain’s motives (if you have a villain) and analyse them again. Are the motives strong enough? If you were reading your own work objectively, as a new reader, would you connect with the characters?

I embrace books with strong plots, narrative drive, realistic dialogue, depth of character, and a subtext of deep emotion. I want the full package. Having said that, even the fantasy books with these elements still tend to bore me. I shy away from them. But that’s okay: fantasy just isn’t my thing. Even still, I don’t discard them entirely — it’s always good to read work out of your comfort zone — and yet I have a clear idea of what turns me on. And as a writer you need to know that. If you love everything, your standards probably aren’t that high. And it’s high standards that leads to good writing.

If you enjoy a particular genre, get the top ten writers and read their work one after the other. Note down the aspects you liked and the parts you didn’t. Pay attention to the way each of them constructed their plot, or their subplots, or built characters, etc. Keep focused on what they’re doing in every scene, even the stuff that’s under the surface.

The more you’re aware of these things, the more picky you’ll become. You’ll judge books like a literary agent: you’ll hate almost everything you set eyes on.

And that’s good. It means you’re cultivating a preference and standards. 

Which you will eventually transfer to your own work.


“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. 

When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”Stephen King


As you begin to hate the books you read, you’ll also find that you love the ones that work. The fact they pass your test and hit every (or at least nine out of ten) of your requirements will excite you. You may even feel pangs of jealousy, wishing you could write something so great, and telling yourself (wrongly) that you’ll never be able to.

That’s okay. It can work as your motivation. Just never stop evolving. Don’t turn that critical eye off. Keep reading and judging and nitpicking and chopping books up.

And in the end you’ll either be a bestselling author with strong work —
or a bitter book critic who lives in your mother’s basement.

It’s a thin line: so walk over it very carefully . . .  


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flavI Almost Became A Rapper
(But I Chose Writing Instead) 

“Love what you do and do what you love.

Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it.

You do what you want, what you love.

Imagination should be the center of your life.”

Ray Bradbury

Shortly after I turned fifteen I discovered Eminem — right before he became an international superstar. He’d just released The Marshall Mathers LP, a follow-up to his successful début album The Slim Shady LP, and a classmate recommended it to me. “He’s just like you,” she said. “You’ll love it.” And she was right, I did love it. This guy spoke to me, even though I didn’t take drugs or shoot people or set women on fire. His sense of humour just seemed to match mine, and the music was unlike anything I’d heard before.

Pretty soon I began writing my own raps. Not performing them, just scrawling them down in notebooks and showing them to my friends. My first song was titled My So Called Life — a misogynistic and juvenile (but tongue-in-cheek) diatribe about women staying in the kitchen. For a while I wrote one or two a day, always starting with a title like Twisted or Disturbed or Killing Bitches. I penned anywhere up to one-hundred songs about nothing, constantly jotting down funny or murderous lyrics in the same vein as Eminem. In my mind, I was going to be the next big rapper and take over the world.

Around this time I’d been considering writing, too. The two desires overlapped, but for a brief period my lyrics took precedence. They were easy to come up with and my friends seemed to enjoy reading them. My only issue is that I didn’t have enough confidence to rap them out loud. I kept picturing everyone laughing at me. If I’d had a little more self-belief — and maybe if I didn’t have such ferocious acne problems, too — I probably would have become a rapper. Or, at least, I would have pursued a career in music. But I was scared I’d get belittled and lose my high position in the school hierarchy of popularity. My skin is thick now (and no longer plagued with acne) and I can happily accept criticism of my work, but in those days I was weak and anxious.

Within a few months of writing my raps, I turned my lyrics to specific subjects: people at my school. I’m not sure why, but I began writing diss raps about the teachers and my fellow students. They weren’t even necessarily about people I didn’t like, but I picked targets and zoned in on them. Fat girls, nerdy boys, stupid people, whatever. Looking back, it was a form of bullying and I shouldn’t have done it. But at the time I just felt pleased that everyone was connecting with my stuff. My friends (and their friends) loved it: they photocopied and passed the raps around the school. For a few days, I’d been elevated to king status and my work spread like a disease.

But then a teacher found one of my raps and everything changed.


“Leaving what feels secure behind and following the beckoning of our hearts doesn’t always end as we expect or hope. We may even fail. But here’s the payoff: it can also be amazing and wonderful and immensely satisfying.” — Steve Goodier


“If there’s a rape in the area,” my form tutor said to me one afternoon with a grave expression, “I’ll have to inform the police about your rap lyrics. Do you understand?”

Wait, hold up. Let’s just rewind a moment. What? I was fifteen years old, heavily influenced by the lyrics of Eminem, and I’d written something like I wear a Superman cape when I rape — which, aside from being terrible, was not a declaration of some inner depraved fantasies. I was merely copying what I’d heard and doing my own version. I’m not saying the lyrics weren’t misjudged or misogynistic or disturbing or whatever. I’d taken a serious subject and turned it into a farce, like many comedians have done over the years, and I’m sure if I was a little older I would have been sensitive enough not to write it. In any case, they weren’t explicit rape raps where I darkly described how I’d want to engage in such a perverse act. If anything, it was just a poorly executed pastiche of Eminem’s style written by a dumb kid. I was influenced by the rapper so much I even dyed my hair blonde at one point to mimic him (the memory alone makes me cringe). In essence, I was being punished and judged for creating art. Regardless of my content, I’d been writing song lyrics, pursuing something, and they instantly shut me down.

The school, if they’d thought it through, should have channeled that negative energy into something positive. They should have realised I had a propensity for words or music, and tried to steer me in the right direction, like maybe sign me up to a writing class or suggest I take a music course. But instead, they vilified me. They called an assembly and told the students that anybody writing dark raps such as mine could be expelled. They tried to create a link between crime in the area and Hip-Hop, as if people were out there murdering because they’d listened to Eminem.

Thankfully I found my own way through all the bullshit. 

As I was too scared to rap anyway, I focused more heavily on my stories and continued writing those instead. And then I passed them around the same way I had with my raps, and they caught a little traction. I received the love and praise and adulation I’d been seeking. I felt like I was talented at something other than football, and this was something I could pursue successfully. One or two people told me my stories were shit, but I didn’t care because fifty other people said the opposite. I’d finally found my calling.

The point is, my teachers tried to turn me against expression. They wanted to box me up and inhibit me. But my inner rebel continued on the path and I became a writer.

In short: fuck them. Fuck anyone who can’t recognise your potential. 


“You can get what you want or you can just get old.” Billy Joel


If I’d listen to the advice of my teachers and quit writing — whether it was rap or stories — I’d be a completely different person today. I’m sure they had good intentions; they thought I was wasting my time, but so what? There are critics everywhere. People will take offence to things you write; others will just think you’re trash, or they won’t understand your vision. Some will tell you to give up your day job, or to try your hand at something else. But if you know in your heart this is what you want to do, then don’t listen to them.

People are jealous vindictive creatures — even the nice ones can be cutting without realising it. Their attempts to help you may come from a genuine place, but that doesn’t make them right. There are plenty of people out there who hate music you like; or hate books you love; or hate almost anything you feel the opposite about. If you judge your actions based on what other people think, you’ll never make it past the starting line. 

You’ll be crippled by self-doubt and you’ll let their words sink into your mind. Don’t do that. Be sure in what you want and persevere. Eventually you’ll find others on your wavelength. They’ll respond to your work, your vision, and then you’ll realise how important your shit can be for other people. You just have to work hard at it and have the confidence to go for it. I didn’t have the belief to follow my rap career (and I’m thankful for that now; I much prefer writing stories), but you shouldn’t let your fears bully you in that way. 

So ask yourself if you’re a writer. If the answer’s yes, don’t let anyone stop you. Wife, husband, mother, father, whoever — don’t let someone tell you to give up.

Flip your middle finger up at them and carry on with your passion.

Because chasing your dreams is one of the most fulfilling things you can do.


“Stand up for what you believe in even if it means standing alone…”

― C.M.


On a related note: years after I quit rapping, I bumped into an old school friend of mine at a battle rap event. His brother was the co-founder of a battle league called Don’t Flop. He remembered my rap insults from school days and told me I should try it. Older, with a lot more confidence under my belt, I decided to go ahead with it. Months later I had my first battle and people seemed to like it. Which means I’m now a writer and a battle rapper.

I guess my other dream of performing lyrics to an audience never quite went away. And although I’m not musically inclined, or the best lyricist on the planet, I can still pen rap lyrics quite easily.

I wonder what my teachers would think of me now if they heard any of it.

They’d most likely call an assembly and ban battle rap from the school.

But that’s a whole different issue for a different day.


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Enough Rope by Lawrence Block

imgres“I’d rather be carried by 6 than judged by 12.”

Enough Rope is a gargantuan collection of one hundred short stories by Lawrence Block, spanning over 40 years’ worth of material. Many have previously been released in magazines or other compilations or online, but near to the end of the book, there are also some unpublished pieces for those who’ve read all of his older work.

In any case, Enough Rope is currently the most complete gathering of his stories, and a must-have for any Block fan. Out of the 100 stories, about ten percent are duds, which is an amazing ratio, giving you nine classics out of ten. Some stories you’ll guess the twist near the beginning; others you won’t see it coming, even if you’re looking for it. Not all of the stories end with a twist, but many do. Either way, each piece pulls the reader in. Block has such an easy, fluid writing style, making his stories a pleasure to read. And each one offers something new.

However, the collection does slow down about halfway through.

This is because Block sections off the book with the “regulars” — short stories based on regular characters from his novels — and although some of them are interesting, the Martin EhrenGraff stories are especially repetitive and predictable, and you’d be forgiven for skipping them. Five or six stories later, the collection picks up pace again.

The creativity and imagination to produce so many unique works is astounding. Block has managed to keep his writing inventive and gripping for over four decades. The man is a writing machine; a well-oiled, productive, over-functioning member of the writing elite. This book is a testament to his hard work, and a celebration of his talent.

If you enjoy the short-story format, or you’re a fan, you’ll love this collection.

Pick it up, read it, and don’t stop until the final twist spins your mind backwards.


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imagesYou Don't Need A Writing Teacher
(But They CAN Help)

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

~ Flannery O’Connor

For many aspiring writers, the allure of a writing course can be hard to resist. It seems perfect: they not only have someone to constantly validate their work, but they also get a certificate at the end which they can wave around, proclaiming they’re writers now because their teacher told them so. But do these courses actually help?

It depends what your intentions are, and what you hope to gain from the course. If you sign up to a creative writing class or seminar in order to be handed a secret get-rich-quick formula, you’ll be wasting your time. They don’t exist. And if someone tells you they do, they’re lying. There are certainly tricks and tips that you can implement to improve your work and make it more saleable, but that doesn’t mean you can write a bestseller based on a four-point process. That might work with a screenplay, but novels are a different animal. There’s no universally accepted blueprint to writing a bestselling book.

I once read a story about an agent who rejected an author’s work and received a letter back telling the agent he was wrong to disregard it. The writer argued that he’d read and broken down every bestseller on the market and pinpointed the formula — the highs and lows, the fight scenes, the love story, etc. — and constructed his novel to match those moments. His book was practically a carbon copy of those thrillers, so how could his novel possibly fail? But it’s not that simple.

Novels are vast landscapes, and there’s so much that goes on below the surface. Characterisation, theme, prose, subplots, emotion, dialogue, interaction, scene pacing. This can’t be torn down and turned into bullet points. You may build something resembling a bestseller on the surface level, but everything else will be wrong under the hood. That’s where your talent and hard work comes into play.

And teachers can help you with that . . .

Or they can destroy your talent.


“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”

~ William Arthur Ward


There are plenty of amazing writing teachers in the world. But for every great teacher, there are thirteen terrible ones whose advice could derail your ambitions and interrupt your learning process. Not purposely: the majority of people who enter the teaching profession have good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they’re always correct. Depending on who you get as a teacher, he or she may pass their bad habits on to you. They may stamp out your flourishes of talent (marking those sections of prose as excessive or needless) and gear you toward something more mundane.

Each teacher approaches his job with in-built biases: he or she will have certain likes and dislikes that might go against your own preferences. You may love genre fiction, but your teacher thinks genre writing is trash. Or vice versa. She might be a genre fan and find all classics turgid and boring — which is fine, unless you happen to love them and be planning to write a book in a similar vein. In this instance, the teacher will inhibit you by pushing you away from the style you’re naturally inclined to write in.

Having said that, there are teachers out there who are able to shove their likes to the side and not encroach on a writer’s unique style — these are the great teachers, the ones who nurture and suggest but never enforce their opinion on an author. They steer and guide, but also acknowledge they don’t know everything.

A bad teacher, however, will try to mould your work in their own vision and insist on changes they believe will improve your story. But what’s good and interesting to your teacher might not be so interesting to you. Teachers are fallible; they’re human; they’re learning, just like us. Soak in their advice, but don’t take it as gospel. If it feels right, and sounds right, and you can realise or understand its benefit, then take it on board.

But if you’re skeptical, hold back for a while. Remember it, write it down, then check with other authors. Look online. Read some books. If you keep seeing the same advice crop up, it’s probably useful. If not, that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful, but it could simply be an idiosyncrasy of the teacher: an odd like or dislike he’s picked up over the years.

Open your ears and pay attention, but don’t conform for the sake of it. 


“Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach.”

~ Aristotle


Do your research before joining a class. If possible, find out who the teacher is and ask a few questions. Does he or she have anything published? If the answer’s yes, ask if you can read it. Then you can make a judgement on their writing. Is it any good? Or do you think the teacher writes with the skill of a fish? Pass it to a few friends to make sure. If everyone thinks he can’t write, maybe he isn’t the best person to teach you. Look beyond the words: does the teacher understand structure? Characterisation? Dialogue? Again, if you’re not sure, ask around and see what the general consensus is.

What if he doesn’t have anything published? That doesn’t automatically make him a hack. Ask him about his favourite books and authors. If they’re writers you hate, you might not get along together. Ask him or her what type of prose they’re inclined to read: lyrical or pared down or fancy or whatever. Again, if their likes don’t jibe with yours, maybe this is the wrong class for you. Express those concerns and see what the teacher says; maybe she’ll allay your fears and explain a little about how she likes to teach. If she’s laid back and prefers to guide you on your own path, to let you make your own mistakes and learn through experience, that’s good. If she’s able to critique your work from a structural point of view without allowing her biases to affect her judgement, that’s good too.

You want a teacher who will say, This scene didn’t have enough tension. Or This scene had no relevance to your plot or This character’s actions contradict his earlier statements. What you don’t want is a teacher who writes This character is unlikable just because he or she doesn’t like the character. Or This dialogue is terrible without explaining why, because he or she isn’t a fan of that type of dialogue. That will only inhibit you.

So pick your teacher or course carefully.


“In learning you will teach, and in teaching you will learn.”

~ Phil Collins


In my early twenties I joined an amateur writing class. The teacher, an unpublished pensioner, thought he knew everything about writing — he didn’t acknowledge that he was still learning, or that, ultimately, no one can fully know the ins and outs because there are infinite variables. In his world, everything he said or did was right. Admittedly, at the time, I was less likely to listen to advice anyway. I was arrogant and young; a self-proclaimed prodigy who came for the validation, not to be told I was doing it wrong.

Even still, this teacher tried to stamp his own way of doing things onto the students. He tried to shoehorn us all into the same box, so that we’d end up as clones of himself. I suppose that was down to his insecurities: if we wrote like him, and he enjoyed the writing, that would validate his own craft. I don’t know. Either way, I saw a lot of the class taking his ideas to heart — shredding work that I thought was great, just because he’d said otherwise. He clearly had certain preferences. And although he liked my work, I didn’t feel comfortable in his class. I felt like I was being forced to write in a particular style, and I didn’t want to conform to his expectations just to please him.

The one positive aspect, above all else, was that I wrote a lot.

A writing class gives you assignments, and that forces you to get off your lazy rump, stop making excuses, sit down at your computer and actually write some stuff.

And that can only be a good thing. No matter what you’re writing.


“You cannot teach a man anything,

you can only help him find it within himself.”

~ Galileo Galilei


In short, it’s a bit of a crapshoot: you may get a great teacher who transforms your writing from gold to diamond; a lifelong mentor who will steer you down the path of success. Either that, or you’ll be stuck with a bitter, unpublished old hack who hates everything and everyone and just wants to mould an army of clones. It’s a hard choice.

If it gets you writing, though, maybe that’s what you need. Maybe you find it hard to be disciplined without a deadline hanging over your head. In that case, go for it, sign up. Just be aware of what they’re telling you: listen, learn, and adapt — only when necessary. Don’t get defensive or argue, just take it all in. You can always ignore it later.

And most likely, at the beginning, you won’t ignore much.

But as the weeks tick on and your confidence grows, you’ll start to realise what you like and dislike, and what you disagree with. And later still, you’ll begin to master your craft. And that’s great.

But whatever you do: never stop learning. It’s essential.

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ca597c827972533ef024671902fd2f6ae4b8f33b8db3003c4ed541c407dd970aYou’re Too Dumb To Be A Writer
(Or So You’ve Been Told)

“Imagination is intelligence with an erection.”

~ Victor Hugo

My mother once said to me: “You’re not smart enough to be a writer.”

When she saw the look on my face, she clarified. “I didn’t mean it like that. You’re a very intelligent boy. But there are plenty of people out there smarter than you.”

She believed, like many other people, that intelligence equates to good writing. She was wrong. Clearly, you need a modicum of brains: someone with an IQ of 50 will barely be able to tie up their shoelaces let alone construct a 500-page novel. But in a wider sense, you don’t need to be Einstein to write a classic — so if you can’t work out X or Y in an algebraic equation and don’t know about bio-nuclear science or marine biology, it’s okay.

Unless you’re a particularly ambitious novelist, the majority of you won’t be writing anything overly complex — smart and intricate, maybe, but not mind-boggling. If your work is to be accessible to the average person, you can’t write your book like it’s some kind of paradigm-shifting brain-twisting puzzle that no one will understand. Your book will need to connect to an audience. Your plot can be intelligent without being pretentious. 

Either way, if you can write, you can write. Brains don’t mean anything.

It’s a common fallacy: people assume published authors are geniuses. And I guess some of them are. But there are many idiots, too. So if you’re using your lack of education or your mediocre brain power as an excuse not to write, then stop it. Slap yourself.

If you can read these words and understand them? You’re smart enough.


“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


Stephen Fry is considered to be a genius. He’s written a number of published novels, but his intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate into an enjoyable reading experience. I suspect that his fame lead to his book deal rather than his writing skills. I’ve attempted a couple of his books and never been gripped by his work. Others might love his style — entertainment is pretty subjective after all — but I don’t see it.

The point is that he’s not internationally recognised as a novelist. His name isn’t synonymous with books. His career has a wide-range of functions, and he’s a man of many talents. However, in my opinion he’s a mid-level writer at best. His intellect amounts to nothing in the reading world. It’s certainly not a handicap, but it isn’t much of a boost either.

If a graph were to be taken of all the bestselling authors in the world, I suppose most of them would have above-average IQs. Most writers are readers and deep thinkers, which naturally adds to intellectual capabilities and aids in the processing functions of our brains. The more we tinker with novels, changing structures and sentence fragments, learning our craft to a sub-molecular level, the more our brains are working and growing. In that case, most writers may have a certain level of innate or developed intelligence.

But that doesn’t mean all writers are geniuses with IQs off the chart. Someone with Einstein’s brain has no better chance of writing a great novel as anyone else. A writer’s toolbox is filled with so many disparate elements: experience, insight, wisdom, information, sense of humour, darkness, lightness, morality — there’s a large spectrum to be tapped into. A humourless man with a genius IQ will be missing something. As would a hilarious man with the brain of a fish. It’s all about finding a good balance and a unique style. Why is your writing different? What makes you stand out? What’s so special about you?

That’s the important thing. Not your ability to solve mathematical equations, but the way you use your thoughts to infuse your work with tension, gravitas, and emotion.

You don’t need to be book smart or street smart or emotionally smart.

You need to be writer smart — and that entails observation.


“I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.”

~ Oscar Wilde


novelist doesn’t need to know how to build a rocket. He does, however, need to know how to build (at least on the page) a realistic human being. He needs to know how to manipulate emotion in the readers; how to build tension in his scenes; how to raise the stakes of his plot; how to weave together multiple elements and plot lines towards a satisfying climax. All of this requires observation: of the outside world, of the people around him, and also of the books he reads (learn more about this here). He must keep aware of his surroundings, and remain open-minded to everything around him (or her).

If you can do that — if you can soak in that knowledge — it doesn’t matter whether or not you can add two-plus-two, you’ll be fine. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. 

If you complete a novel, you’re a fucking genius.


“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” ~ Albert Einstein


Sometimes people think they can’t write because they were never good at English in school. They see this as a mountain they can’t climb. But that’s bullshit. It’s another excuse to not put any effort in.

I’ve always had a natural ability in English — my reading level as a child was the highest in the class, years ahead of my friends, and my spelling is impeccable. And yet I scraped by in my English GCSEs with a C, and that’s after my mother wrote all of my coursework. If I’d bothered to do it myself, I probably would have failed. 

Even now, with the millions of words I’ve written over the years, I still don’t know what a split-infinitive is, or a dangling participle. No matter how many times I read up about it, for some reason it never sticks. And yet, when I look at the page, I know where words go and where they shouldn’t. I see it like code: to everyone it might seem like gobbledegook, but I instinctively know where to place a comma or semi-colon or em-dash and it all flows properly. This wasn’t achieved overnight. It took years of practice and refinement. Not only did I pay attention to how everything was set out in the books I read, I also researched grammar in numerous guides, such as Writing With Style by John R. Trimble and The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B White. These helped immensely in the early days.

For a long time I worked on structuring my scenes properly. Then I toyed about with sentence construction. I’d end some sentences with semi-colons, some with colons, others with full stops, and I’d experiment with all the different grammatical techniques, using the books as a guide to help me find my own way. It took a lot of effort at the start — and looking back a lot of my work was grammatically destitute — but eventually, I was able to shape my writing naturally. My grammar skills improved. Like with anything, I learned the right thing to do and the wrong thing by just doing it.

So if you’re currently unable to differentiate between a comma and a colon, don’t worry. You have plenty of time to learn. And that’s from someone who’s been writing for over fifteen years and still barely knows what a noun is. I just know how to use them.

Pick up a guide and start practicing today. In months, you’ll master it.

Learn the rules and then you can break them (read more about this here).


“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” ~ Stephen Hawking


Having said all that, being a grammar expert doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll write well. There are plenty of grammatical kings who can’t pen anything worth reading. They lack something: personality, passion, whatever. This is the same in any field: people who are proficient but don’t have the cutting edge. Freestyle footballers are a perfect example: they can do unimaginable things with a football — it seems attached to their feet. They loop it over their ankles, around their back, on their neck; they balance it when it seems impossible for the ball not to have hit the floor. And yet, you hardly ever see them playing for a big football team. They have the innate skills, but nothing else. There’s no point doing backflips with the ball on a pitch if you can’t do anything substantial.

Ronaldo, one of the greatest footballers on the planet, learned this the hard way. When he first arrived at Manchester United, he was a rough version of what we see now; he was full of trickery and youthful inexperience. Over time he moulded himself: he stepped past the technical stuff and added to his game — power, pace, vision — and now he’s one of the best to ever play. You need to do the same with your writing skills.

Learn grammar, then learn how to adapt it with your unique style. Add more to your writing repertoire. Grammar is the foundation for you to build your novel. You need walls, a roof, windows, a heater, an interior. You need it all.

This is just step one. But it’s the most important: without a foundation, everything else will crumble around it.

And once you have that foundation in place, you’ll be in a position to build whatever you want.


“There are some ideas so wrong

that only a very intelligent person could believe in them.”

~ George Orwell


So remember: don’t let anyone tell you you’re not smart enough to be a writer. You don’t need to be a genius; you don’t need to be super smart. You need to work hard. You need to learn the craft. You need to constantly add to what you know: grow, learn, soak in knowledge of writing, and one day it’ll become second nature and flow from your tap.

And that’s when it feels magical. When the words talk through your fingers.

Just try not to be like me: I’m over here still wondering what a verb is.


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tumblr_nkuq3yW4QQ1t2tnzvo1_500Writing With A Hangover
(Alcohol As A Creative Aid)

“Long before I became ‘rich and famous’

I just sat round drinking wine and staring at the walls.”

~ Charles Bukowski

Many authors believe that alcohol is the mind’s natural lubricant — a creative tool that unlocks worlds. They sip from a flask of Jack Dee whilst penning their novels, thinking the juice is giving them inspiration. If anything, it’s dulling their senses and taking the edge off their creative faculties. Alcohol’s only useful function is to strip fear from the writing process.

By killing the critic in a writer’s mind — drowning out the sound of you’re terrible at this stuff, just give up and stick to your day job — the whiskey enables the writer to open up a pipe and flood the page with words, free of anxiety.

To this extent, it can be helpful. But all the writer is doing is hiding his problems, refusing to confront where this fear emanates from. Crippling self-doubt can stop many aspiring authors in their tracks. Before they’ve even put pen to paper — or electronic words to a computer screen — they’re incapacitated by the seemingly gargantuan task ahead: writing a cohesive four-hundred-page-or-more novel that holds itself together.

Common limiting beliefs may rear their ugly head: I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, I’m not interesting enough, I’m a terrible writer.

Alcohol can keep these voices to a whisper, but that’s like wrapping a bandage around a broken leg — it may help to support you in the present, but it’s not a longterm solution; eventually you need a cast on it. Otherwise the bone will fuse at the wrong angle and you’ll be in for a life of pain. Same goes with your writing: don’t drown dissent with alcohol. Learn why the voices exist in the first place.

Then isolate the doubt and eradicate it.


“One danger is that cocaine gives you the illusion of being creative; you get into this vicious circle of feeling so inspired by this chemical in your system that you do write. Then you come down and the next day you look at what you wrote and get depressed. What you see before you is yesterday’s rush transformed into burbly bullshit, at which point you start to panic because now you’re really behind your deadline or whatever and you better get cracking, but you’re too depleted, physically and mentally, and therefore what you realize is, in order to jump-start yourself, maybe just a wee hair of the dog would be in order, so you go out and score again. And (then) comes another day’s worth of deluded flop-sweat trying to pass for art. I mean, you might be able to squeeze out a dazzling paragraph or two, but it’s the law of diminishing returns. In the end, the coke will overwhelm the work. I got to the point where I had to do a line to write a line. You might do coke in order to write, but by the end you’re writing in order to do coke.”Richard Price.


Back in my mid-twenties I spent many nights in a drunken stupor.

Looking back, most of those nights are a blur. My first brush with alcohol was on my wedding day at the age of twenty-one. I downed a glass of champagne — which tasted like fizzy nails — and went on to finish another bottle within the hour, my subconscious clearly aware the marriage was a mistake and wanting to erase all memory of it. Thankfully I never acquired a taste for alcohol like plenty of tortured artists before me.

I saw it as something to do on a night out — a part of the process, a relaxant that stripped me of responsibility. I could act a fool, be as reckless as I want, say dumb shit to everyone, and on some level I didn’t have to feel accountable for my actions. And for partying purposes, that worked fine: I had a great time. For years I created friendships over cocktails and built up a network of acquaintances. The drink heightened my experiences and lowered my inhibitions. Inevitably I felt like crap the morning after and vowed to never drink again, but I always did. Alcohol seemed to be the key to success.

When it comes to writing, however, the thing that made alcohol so alluring to the club scene, is also what makes it toxic to the creative process: a lack of responsibility.  

If you aren’t accountable for your words, who is?

You can’t pass the manuscript to your agent and say: “If it’s bad, don’t blame me. I was drunk the whole time I wrote it.” She won’t excuse your bad writing as a vodka side-effect. She’ll still view it as your work. And if it’s bad, you’re the person to blame.


“I’ve never written anything good on coke. I mean, I’ve written good paragraphs and good pages, but if I were to write a story for one hundred days on coke, I might write one hundred good pages, but they wouldn’t be pages that belonged together—a hundred pages for a hundred different books. Unfortunately, with a novel they’re all supposed to be for the same story. Nobody can write well using cocaine. It’s the worst drug of all for an artist.”Richard Price


When I wrote Crimson Sky (a crime-detective Young Adult novel set in a high school), I was at the height of my drinking-and-clubbing career. I spent endless nights drowning my liver in vodka and chasing women with my friends. A lot of the time I ended up writing when drunk. My friends would be pouring out vodka and I’d slam the shots back and type away at the computer, trying to hit a specific self-imposed word count before we left for the club, knowing I’d be too messed up to write anything later on. I wrote the final few chapters of the novel while under the influence.

This wasn’t me writing when drunk due to fear; it was writing when drunk due to idiocy and unprofessionalism. But the end result was the same: a disjointed and badly written book. The prose didn’t suffer too much — and even drunk my spelling was impeccable; I’d spot only a few typos the next day — but the plot and story itself lost out massively. Without accountability, my mind played tricks on me. One night I killed three of my main characters in gruesome ways in a drunken fit. I remember laughing about it with my friends, like I’m about to kill this motherfucker right now for no reason.

I was drunk and didn’t care.

I was serving my ego, not my story.

And this is where drinking to write can be dangerous.


“Take marijuana: when you’re stoned you know you’re stoned and you stop smoking. When you’re shooting heroin, you don’t keep shooting. You don’t think, Maybe I should shoot some more. You’re nodding. You stop. You put down the needle. When you’re drinking, you can’t drink endlessly. You’re going to vomit or you’re going to pass out. You stop. Cocaine is the only drug that you can take and take, and nothing stops you except running out of the stuff. And when you’re blasted you don’t realize that you’ve got garbage for brains.”Richard Price


There may be plenty of high-functioning alcoholics who can write when stoned or drunk out of their mind. Numerous musicians claim to be aided in their process by smoking marijuana. Many authors have also written some great works whilst drunk or drugged up. But the key is how they wrote when they weren’t on drugs: most times it was no different. Stephen King didn’t lose his edge when he stopped taking coke. He was just as capable of producing moments of genius without using liquid or powder stimulants.

If you find it hard to get started without alcohol, force yourself to sit at the screen and type something. If you’re blocked, ask yourself why. Your first answer might be: I’m blocked because I didn’t drink anything. Challenge that. Question yourself extensively until you reach the root cause of your block. You’ll most likely find that it’s fear; fear you’re not worthy of publication, or you’re not good enough, or that nobody will care about your writing anyway. Ask yourself if the alcohol makes any difference to those beliefs. Do you feel like you’re a better writer with it? Do you feel smarter? Or do you use it as an excuse for inferior work? 

Once you get down to the source of your anxiety, it should be easier to alleviate it without needing drink or drugs. If you’re addicted to them, that’s a whole different issue. Contact your doctor and book an appointment for help with that.

If, however, you’re merely dabbling for creative reasons, it’s a slippery slope that could one day lead to addiction, and worse: death. So be careful what you’re getting into.

If you can write it drunk, you can do it sober. You don’t need the bottle. You don’t need the validation. As long as you like your work, you have a fan. Your biggest and most loyal.

So for your own sake: put down the bottle, push aside the crack pipe, and write.

You’ve got this. The world believes in you.


“One of Elmore Leonard’s characters came across with the awful realization that addiction not only destroys your body and brain, but also dominates your consciousness. Twenty-four hours a day an addict is thinking about where they are in relation to their drug. They are thinking about how high they are. They’re thinking about the fact that they’re not high. They’re thinking about scoring. They’re thinking about cleaning up. They’re thinking about cutting back, about getting better stuff. Endlessly thinking. Twenty-four, seven, three hundred and sixty-five. It simply dominates your thoughts around the clock.”Richard Price


In short: be accountable for everything you put on the page. It will help you to gauge what’s good, what’s average, and what needs to be worked on. Keep writing and learning and growing. In the long run, you’ll improve naturally, without the need for alcohol.

And when you sell your début novel for half a million pounds — then you can drink.

Crack out the bubbly and drown yourself in fizzy needles.

After all of that hard work, you’ll need a damn drink.


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Allison M. Dickson

STRINGS Front CoverAbout a year ago I started adding writers on Facebook. I didn’t discriminate. I sent a friend request to anyone with “author” in their bio, or anyone who posted on writing forums. I figured it would be nice to have some like-minded people on my news feed. I wanted to see less anger and relationship issues and more posts about books and writing.

Allison M. Dickson was one of the writers I added, and she stood out early on. I could tell from her posts she knew how to write. But even though I looked out for her updates, I didn’t think about purchasing any of her work. I’ve been burned too many times in the past. I usually only pay for authors guaranteed to entertain me, such as Stephen King, Ben Elton, Dennis Lehane, etc.

Then one day Allison offered up her novel, Strings, for free. I downloaded it and left it on my Kindle for another three or four months, thinking I probably wouldn’t enjoy it anyway. Otherwise I would have heard about her, right? She’d be on every bookshelf in every shop or library. Well, that was my mistake. When I finally got around to reading Strings, I realised how wrong I’d been. It had everything I liked in a book: mystery, horror, gruesome murder scenes, a twisted sense of humour, plenty of swearing, and most importantly: great writing. If she hadn’t offered it for free, I might never have read it. But now I’ll definitely be parting money in the future for Allison’s books. And I hope some of you will check out her novels too. 

I recently got in touch with her and she was kind enough to take time from her schedule to answer some questions about Strings, her upcoming projects, and her writing process. Check it out.


GK: I got through Strings pretty quickly. It’s a great book, but probably the most gruesome and twisted thing I’ve ever read (I mean this in the most complimentary way). What’s the response been from people who know you? Were they surprised by the content? Did anyone try to section you?

AD: Overall the response to Strings has been incredibly positive, which has surprised me. Even my mother loved it, and I mean in an effusively praising way, and not the pat response of, “Nice job, dear.” Yeah, a lot of people are surprised by the visceral content, but what I’ve found with this book in particular is that people tend to enjoy it despite the gruesomeness. They surprise themselves by their ability to weather it, and it feels like an achievement for them by the end. That was actually one of my goals when setting out to write a book like this. Could I make people put aside their squeamishness and stick with these frankly awful characters all the way until the end? I think I’ve more or less succeeded there.

GK: Strings started off as a short story. What inspired you to expand it into a novel?

AD: The original short story, “The Good Girls,” ended when Nina had her first encounter with the freak in the Ballas house, with Ramon sitting outside listening to it all go down business as usual. It was intended to be a short tale about how people suffer from inertia. They go into something terrible expecting it to be different, only to find they’re not all that special after all. There were readers who wanted to see what happened after the events of that story. Where does Ramon go? What was the Madam’s story? Does Nina actually survive? These turned out to be really easy questions to expand upon.

GK: And in-line with the last question, what was the original inspiration behind the story? A lot of stories start with a WHAT-IF . . . Were you like: WHAT IF I WROTE THE WORLD’S MOST FUCKED UP BOOK?

AD: Actually, that’s not too far off. One of my main drives, thematically, was to see if I could write an entire book where there are no heroes or good guys, but where you root for them anyway. I love stories that challenge our sympathies. Even the worst people have something relatable. But the initial seed for the story was talking about hermits and social isolation with a friend of mine, and what an experience would be like for a working girl to visit someone like this. The visual elements of the “web” in the Ballas house was inspired by scenes from The Aviator, the biopic about Howard Hughes.

GK: I read somewhere (it might have been your Facebook) about a possible sequel. Do you have that planned out yet, or is it still in the idea stage?

AD: The sequel to Strings is called The Moon Gone Dark, and it’s near completion and scheduled for release in April of 2016! I’m excited to show people what these characters have been up to since the first book wrapped. There are a lot of surprises.

GK: If you found yourself trapped in the Hank Ballas residence and he gave you one last request before he (or his spider-son) skewered you, what would you ask for?

AD: Drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.

GK: For some reason, the madam reminded me of Yzma from The Emperor’s New Groove. I kept picturing her in every scene. If Strings was turned into a film one day, do you have any actors or actresses in mind for the characters?

AD: I would love to see the madam being played by Frances Fisher or Tilda Swinton. Those were the two I had most in mind while I was writing. Ramon, I always imagined being played by Jimmy Smits. Krysten Ritter would make a smashing Nina.

GK: I noticed a Stephen King influence throughout the book, especially during the inner monologue stuff. Who are your other influences?

AD: You’re definitely spot on with Stephen King. He’s always been a huge influence on my work. Gillian Flynn is also a really big influence of mine. We both seem drawn toward creating dark and difficult characters.

GK: I’ve seen you post a lot recently about a Ted Bundy novel — it’s an interesting concept. Could you explain it for those who don’t know?

AD: I’m very excited about this one (and so is my agent!). Several months back, when Ann Rule passed away, I decided to finally pick up her most famous book, The Stranger Beside Me, which is the definitive Bundy book. In it, she discussed her time working with Bundy at a crisis hotline at the University of Washington. Particularly, she mentioned how great he was on the phones with people and that he might have very well saved a number of lives during his tenure there. I immediately started to think about one of the lives Bundy might have saved, and how dark legacies and unintended consequences tend to be born from seemingly good acts. It bounces across several decades in time and follows three generations of a family in the aftermath of Bundy’s unwitting influence of saving the life of someone who maybe shouldn’t have gone on living. In many ways, it’s darker than Strings, though the gore level is quite low.

GK: Do you have any other novels on the back-burner? I sometimes find I have five or six ideas and I’ll be flipping between them until I finally decide which one to go ahead with next.

AD: Oh yes, there are several irons in the fire at all times. After I finish the Bundy book in January, I have to put the finishing touches on the Strings sequel. After that, I plan to get some more short stories written. I will then have the next book in the Colt Coltrane series to start working on in the spring of 2016. Hopefully in that period of time, my agent will be able to find a publisher for the books of mine she currently has.

GK: You co-wrote a novel (The Oilman’s Daughter) with Ian Thomas Healy. How did that come about?

AD: Ian and I have been friends for a long time, and we had always wanted to work on a book together. The concept of a steampunk space opera originated in his mind, and we took it from there. We’re really good at bouncing ideas off of one another, so the actual plot and story outline came together really quickly for us.

GK: How did you find the process of co-authoring? And how did you work it between the two of you — a chapter each? A character each?

AD: He took on the role of the dashing young hero, Jonathan Orbital, and I took on the brash and gritty space pirate, Phinneas Greaves. From there, we alternated chapters, following the outline we put together. Once one of us wrote a chapter, the other would edit it and then he would assemble it into a master document. Though we had a number of things come up that forced us to take a hiatus (I moved from Washington to Ohio the year we started it, and so several months went down the tubes), the actual writing time was pretty quick and streamlined.

GK: When you went back to edit it, were there any arguments about what to keep in and what to change, etc.?

AD: That’s one place where I think we had some growing pains. The first finished product went around to some agents and publishers and beta readers, and that’s where we were finally made aware of some flaws in the book. We couldn’t quite agree on what needed to be fixed. Most of it was character development related. In the grander scheme, not that much work, but we agreed to trunk it because we each seemed to be going our own separate paths in our careers. I had Strings coming out and his Just Cause series was finally taking off. But after a couple years we agreed to revisit it and release it ourselves under his Local Hero Press imprint. So the book was a very long time coming, but we’re thrilled with how the book came out and hope people love it.

GK: How long were you writing for and how many books had you written before you had something traditionally published?

AD: Well, I was very lucky in that when I returned to writing fiction in 2008, I had one of my first short stories (“Aria”) accepted into an anthology a few months later. Not long after that, I had a few more short stories published in online magazines. I didn’t actually finish writing my first novel until 2009 or thereabouts. I self-published my first two novels after they’d been rejected by many agents (I don’t recommend doing this, by the way), and eventually took them down from the market. They will likely remain in the trunk for all of eternity. My first traditionally published novel was Strings in 2013, and it was the fifth novel I’d finished. In many ways, it was the right debut for me.

GK: What’s your writing process? Are you a morning person or a night owl?

AD: I’m both, actually. I don’t have a regular day job, so that affords me the ability to get a chunk of writing done in the morning and afternoon. When the kids get home, it’s all about them. I don’t pick things back up until after my husband goes to bed, and I work for a couple hours and call it done. It really depends on the book whether my day sessions or my night sessions are more fruitful. Right now, the Bundy book seems to be a daytime book.

GK: Sometimes I read a book and think — I wish I wrote that. Can you think of any novels you wished you’d written?

AD: Oh so very many. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King. So many.

GK: Finally, what are 5 books you’d recommend?

AD: Some recent favorites of mine have been Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll, Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet, A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay, and Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I am also currently loving a number of the stories in Stephen King’s latest collection, Bazaar of Bad Dreams.

If you enjoyed the interview and would like to find out more about Allison and her upcoming books, you can check out her website here. Also, you can buy her books, including Strings, right here.

She might not be on every bookshelf of every shop and library . . . but she should be.  


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