downloadQuestion Everything

“Behind every answer is an important question.” 

Nikola Tesla

The greatest lesson my dad ever taught me was: QUESTION EVERYTHING.

And he didn’t mean it hyperbolically.

Question everything, he said. And then when you get the answer, question that too. Which probably isn’t the best piece of advice to tell a curious child. He basically gave me a free rein to pepper him with endless annoying questions. Why’s the sky blue? Why do some buses have one floor and others have two? Did cavemen exist in Australia? How do palaeontologists know they’ve put the dinosaur bones back in the correct order? Do we see colour the same? — question after question. I’m surprised he didn’t blow his brains out. His suicide note would have read: He wouldn’t quit questioning everything.

But it was amazing advice, and I’ve never forgotten it. We are constantly deluged with information — in papers, magazines, on the internet, from friends and family. Everywhere we turn someone is trying to convince us that their truth is the universal one. In this new-age of social networks, it’s even easier to distribute lies and spread propaganda. There are far more idiots out there willing to perpetuate half-truths and false statements, than those who are smart enough to engage their brain and do a little independent research on whatever meme or article they’ve just read. Nowadays someone only needs to post up a picture with a paragraph of lies printed across it and millions of people will share these lies on the internet, fuelling the fire. This is why my dad’s lesson — question everything — should be ingrained into every child from the beginning.

In any case, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to show you how questioning everything, aside from being practical, can help you find new story ideas.


“Don’t just teach your children to read,

teach them to question what they read.

Teach them to question everything.”

George Carlin


Stephen King once asked himself a simple question: “What would happen if a psychotic fan captured her favourite author?” — and from that, Misery was born, a modern-day horror classic (at least in my eyes). And for the most part, that’s how he writes his novels. He starts with an interesting What if scenario and carries on from there.

When you look at so-called high-concept thrillers, these almost always hinge on a question: What would happen if — ? and then you end up with a film like Speed or Panic Room or even Home Alone. It works for other genres, too. Take Pretty Woman for example. The question there is clear. What happens if a hooker with a heart of gold falls in love with one of her clients? And in that nutshell, you have the beginnings of a story.

Many authors do this, but beyond that, let’s go in to the novels themselves.

Pick up one of your favourite books and try to guess what question, if any, sparks off the action — and by action, I don’t mean explosions; I just mean the inciting incident, the thing that grips you and pulls you deeper into the story. For instance, detective novels usually begin with a murder, which instantly poses a question: Who killed the victim? Almost immediately, the reader is invested in finding out; she reads on to see if the detectives will piece everything together and catch the murderer — and sometimes this involves a ticking clock, too: will they catch the murderer before he kills someone else?

Novels, short stories, screenplays — they can all be shrunk down to a question that needs answering. Even a family drama can be as simple as What happens to a family when their father dies? What happens to a relationship when one is caught cheating? What happens if a woman murders her boss for sexually harassing her? All of these are seeds: you plant these questions, then you add more, and you keep asking questions until your plot grows.

You write a scene, then you ask yourself what happens next. You build a character, then you question what is so interesting about him. Why should people care? What is his role in the plot? Is he necessary? The more questions you ask of your story, both to begin it and during the process of writing it, the more clarity of vision it will have. Question every scene, every construction, every twist, every word, every sentence.

But before all that, you need to answer your first question.

What is your novel or short story about?


“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question

than a fool can learn from a wise answer.” — Bruce Lee


With every question comes the potential of a story idea. If you see a tree that’s collapsed on the road, question it. How did it get there? Did it fall? And if so, why? Was it old? Did the wind blow it down? Did somebody chop it down? If somebody did chop it down, why? And don’t pick the obvious answer. Go abstract with it. Maybe somebody chopped it down in order to prevent traffic from moving or going down this lane. That brings you another question: Why would someone do that? Then you can think up more reasons. Maybe he’s planning to kill someone. Maybe he wants to get to a job interview before someone else. It doesn’t matter if the idea is stupid or inconceivable, at least in the early stages. For now you’re merely asking questions, building possible narratives to use. Later on, once you’ve asked and answered all your questions, you can pick and choose.

And don’t just ask questions from one angle, either. If the tree’s collapsed, don’t simply ask who chopped it down. Ask how it affects the people backed up in traffic. Maybe a man is on the way to see his son’s play. Maybe a woman is in labour and on the way to hospital. That would bring you more questions. Does she give birth in the car? Okay, maybe she does. Now ask some questions about delivering a baby by the roadside. Maybe the baby is a devil, or a dog, or whatever. Again, you’re merely asking questions and throwing out scenarios and answers, no matter how unrealistic they may seem.

Within an hour or so you’ll have multiple plot layers to play with. Not only are you finding answers out of thin air, you’re opening up your creative centre. You’re not forcing an idea, you’re allowing your mind to find a suitable option; giving it freedom to invent something interesting. In effect, you’re giving your creativity an outlet to breathe.


“In mathematics the art of proposing a question must be held of higher value than solving it.” — Georg Cantor


My short story London Eye Baby (available in issue #17 of The Literary Hatchet) was born from a similar process. My initial question was What would happen if a woman gave birth at the top of the London Eye? And then it became: What if her dickhead of a husband forced her to do it in order to get some cheap fame and notoriety? And I continued that process, asking myself how he could manipulate events to make it happen.

This not only gave me more questions to answer, but as the story went along it raised questions in the audience’s mind as well, which is what you want to do. They should always be questioning what will happen next. Don’t give them their answers right away. Make them work for it. Trickle information in small amounts, giving them just enough to keep up but not enough to solve whatever mystery exists in your story.

And that mystery can be something as simple as Will John ask Amy to the dance? Whatever it is, tease us with it. People like to learn things as they go along; that way, they feel like they’re part of the journey, following in the footsteps of your protagonist.

You want them to invest in your story, not put the book down.


“It is better to debate a question without settling it

than to settle a question without debating it.” — Joseph Joubert


Questions can work for character building too. If you don’t have a criminal record for being a peeping tom, I’d suggest people-watching. I don’t mean for you to hang around someone’s house and stare through their window — that’s not only weird but it’ll probably get you arrested or beaten up. The safest way to people-watch is to do it every day, as a default. You can do it anywhere and everywhere: when you’re walking down the street, or you’re sitting on the bus, or the tube, or driving to work. Look at the people around you and question their motives. Why did they buy that coffee? Was it out of habit or are they stressed out? Night out on the town, perhaps? Once you have that answer, question it deeper. Why are they stressed out? Or what did they do on their night out? Did they get too drunk? Did they accidentally kill someone? That night could be the genesis of your story. Or not. For now you’re just playing with ideas.

The point is, these connections can happen in snap moments. Look at a row of people and they usually all have a different style of dress, different books, different shoes, different bags. But what makes the people themselves different? Why does one prefer trainers and another prefer heels? Why does one laugh when another would cry?

These kinds of exercises work on two levels: one is to give you a greater insight on people in general — all the seemingly inconsequential differences and idiosyncrasies that each of us possess. The other is an ability to build characters and stories based on real-life people around you. You don’t want to write caricatures. You want your characters to be authentic, and analysing those around us can help with how you do that.

Look, learn, listen, absorb, and then later on filter it into your work.

You’ll be surprised about how much you can pick up from the world.


“A good question is never answered. It is not a bolt to be tightened into place but a seed to be planted and to bear more seed toward the hope of greening the landscape of idea.” John Ciardi 


Don’t simply stop at characters and story ideas, either. Question everything around you. Why is that building there? Why did they create a skyscraper? Why do all newspapers use bold font for their headlines? Etc. Some of the answers will be obvious, others won’t. As children we’re curious: we ask thousands of questions about anything and everything around us. But once we hit adulthood we tend to lose that childlike wonder. We just accept things as they are. We close our eyes to our environment and stop asking ourselves questions. The more you pick apart the world around you, the more observant you’ll become. You’ll start to notice patterns, flaws, issues, other things you’d previously overlooked. This, again, will help you when you get around to write your novel.

If you can micro-analyse the world and view its plethora of faults, constantly questioning and targeting motives, you’ll soon do the same with your characters and plot. On top of that you’ll be gathering more material for your work without realising it.

Imagine you’re a child and pretend you know nothing.

In the case of writing, ignorance really can be bliss.


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JUST A BRIEF UPDATE:

Someone asked me the other day if I’ve given up on my blog. I haven’t posted anything on here in almost four months so I can see where he got that impression. But that’s not the case.

I still have at least a year’s worth of finished articles (mostly writing advice) sitting in a folder on my desktop. On top of that I have numerous book reviews and plenty of ideas and half-sketched outlines for future blogs. All the material is there, waiting to be unleashed upon my subscribers and anyone else unlucky enough to get caught in the crossfire.

However, I’m going through a busy writing period, with a stack of editing jobs on the side, so I’ve put the blog on temporary hiatus until I can dedicate a little more time to it. If it was as simple as copying and pasting from my computer, then I’d do it. But usually it takes at least a couple hours (minimum) to put up a blog, mainly due to the malfunctioning-format-fuckery of WordPress, but also in part due to my need to scan every article at least fifty times in case an error or typo gets through unchallenged (and even then, I’m sure it probably still does).

Anyway, so this is just a quick update to let you guys know what I’ve been up to, and what’s in the works. Just keep in mind the blog will be back, and more active, later in the year.

Firstly, before anything: In April I got signed by a literary agent. I was signed to one years ago and in the end nothing came of it (I’ll explain why in a future blog), but I feel quietly confident about this one. My agent seems to get my style and he’s already filled my head with compliments and enough smoke to kill a giraffe, including the line: “You have the ability to take the reader to places that they only drive through at best.” It’s the kind of quote I’d like to see in a paper one day, next to a picture of my bestselling book.

Or on my gravestone . . .

But anyway, we’re now in the process of restructuring my crime novel One Knife Stand, which means I have some extensive rewriting to do, and then, hopefully, my agent will sell it and make me some money. In the meantime, we’re in talks with a celebrity who wants me to ghostwrite his autobiography. I can’t say much about it (I’m meant to be a ghost after all), but if all goes well I should be able to take up writing full-time and jack in all the editing work. 

Secondly (or should this be thirdly?), I’m currently working on a collection of short horror stories, which should be out later in the year. I recently received the artwork from the highly talented Theo Cane.

Check it out below and let me know what you think:

18192481_1668344493180820_2491835963073453666_o
And finally, my short story The London Eye Baby was just published in April’s edition of The Literary Hatchet. You can buy a hard copy of the book or download the free version here (issue #17). And if you do read the story, let me know if you liked it (or hated it) and why. All constructive feedback, positive or otherwise, is welcome. I’m always learning and always open to grow from my mistakes (as you should too, whether you’re an aspiring writer or a serial killer). 18556597_1696248350390434_267256459119504194_oAnd that’s about it for now. Thank you for your patience, and I hope to post some more motivating material soon.

Until then: go and do some writing. Your pad is waiting for you to show up and get to work.


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imgresStepping Out Of Your Comfort Zone
(In order to learn a few lessons)

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all.”

— Oscar Wilde

After my agent lost interest in my crime novel City of Blades following a year of back and forth rewrites, it was time to try something else. Starting a new project can be daunting; my writing folder is overloaded with half-sketched ideas and uncooked outlines, just begging for my attention. And there’s no real order to it: I have crime novels, a detective series, a comedy script, novellas, horror stories, sweeping romance epics, and many more. I dabble in everything, and I’m a master of nothing. But amongst all the detritus, rather than going with my safe choice — another adult crime novel — I chose instead to step out of my comfort zone.

Earlier in our talks my agent had shown an interest in Young Adult novels (she had a number of ties to YA publishing houses) and felt I’d be good at writing one — possibly because my first crime novel was stocked with teenagers.

Anyway, once an idea began to blossom I decided to try it out, thinking it wouldn’t be too different than anything else I’d written. All I’d have to do was drop the word fuck and cut out all the violence, drug-taking and murder scenes and I’d be okay.

I figured I had nothing to lose — why not see how it went?


“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” — Neale Donald Walsch


My first task was to instil routine and discipline to my writing. In my early years I used to finish a novel every twelve months or so, which is considered prolific in some quarters and lazy in others. Either way, if I intended to impress the agent who’d lost faith in me I needed to wow her, and the book had to be delivered within the year.

That was my thinking anyway. 

At no point did I worry about passion, or about whether the book or the plot needed time to breathe, I merely jumped in head first and hoped to swim. My plan was simple: I had to write every day, no matter what. It didn’t make a difference if I wrote a sentence or twenty pages. My only stipulation was that I couldn’t go to sleep unless I’d written something in the novel. And I didn’t once break that rule: I wrote every day.

In the end, I completed the novel (Crimson Sky) in the space of three months.

And it was a steaming pile of dog shit.


“Move out of your comfort zone. You can only grow if you are willing to feel awkward and uncomfortable when you try something new.” — Brian Tracy


In all these years I’ve probably read about three Young Adult books.

To my small mind, a YA book was no different than an adult one, just slightly watered-down. I didn’t realise they had certain conventions and rules. Not once did I consider researching the field or reading the current top authors to understand the subject matter and how they put the message across. Instead I arrogantly blundered my way into their world, wearing a blindfold and hacking away at everything with a rusty machete — dogs, children, families. 

My story centred around schoolboy Oliver Crown, a nerdy Tin-Tin like wannabe journalist who vows to uncover the truth behind a murder committed on school grounds. The premise wasn’t groundbreaking but it had enough legs to stretch into a decent 70,000-word novel, as long as I properly cultivated the idea. Instead, desperate to produce a new novel and send it off to my agent, I rushed into it without thought, penning an essentially linear murder plot with not much in the way of depth or intelligence. In my ignorance I assumed Young Adult books didn’t require brains to their novels. I treated it like a conversation with a child: I spoke down to my audience. The main character was likeable, but everyone else was a cardboard cutout with no personality. The dialogue was okay but mawkish. The novel, in essence, lacked bite.

And I know why: I’d written the novel for the sake of it. Not because I connected with the plot or the characters; not because it was bursting inside of my head and I needed to let it free for fear it would eat my brain. I wrote it merely as a means to an end. And it reads that way — like a lifeless shitty project. I might as well have ghostwritten it.

Not only that, but I wrote the final showdown of the book when drunk, slamming away at the keys as fast as possible while downing shots with my friends. I couldn’t wait to finish it so we could go out and have fun and I could forget it ever existed. My mind wasn’t on the task at hand, but on the final line ahead. And in my drunkenness, I lost any kind of discipline with the story. The book ended with me killing the majority of the cast in a gruesome way, while at the same time uncovering a shocking paedophile subplot which for some reason I’d weaved into the narrative early on, once again forgetting it was a Young Adult novel.

Then, after finishing it, I sent it off to my agent without so much as a rewrite or a second draft. Predictably, she turned the book down and practically turned me away too.

But what did I expect? No one likes having flaming shit sent to their door.

Especially not literary agents. They read enough of it day-to-day.


“The comfort zone is the great enemy to creativity; moving beyond it necessitates intuition, which in turn configures new perspectives and conquers fears.” — Dan Stevens


However, the ordeal wasn’t a total loss. I look back on the whole fiasco as a learning process. Next time, if I try to step out of what I know I’ll be more aware of the pitfalls. For a start, I’ll read heavily within the genre I’m choosing — not to copy what’s already there, but to get an idea of the current conventions and trends, even if I plan to buck them. It’s important to know the rules, especially if you’re planning to break them.

Also, I learned a few tricks about disciplining myself with my writing schedule. Up until that point I’d been inconsistent for almost ten years. Some weeks I’d write thousands of words, other times I’d write ten words, or a page, or nothing. Some days I’d sit down at the computer, tell myself to write, and if I found enough excuses not to do it, then I wouldn’t. That was naïve. Anyone who’s ever had an office job knows that sitting in front of the screen isn’t enough to make you productive. You need to force yourself to work — whether it’s because your boss is breathing down your neck or because you have a deadline you need to fulfil. Either way, during the writing of this terrible YA novel I managed to sit down at my computer and write every day without fail.

And although my execution of the book was slipshod, I still wrote a novel in three months — which at the time was a record (I’ve since written an equally long novel in three weeks, and a much better one too). Regardless of anything else, I’d completed the project and was free to move on to something new. And in the future I’d know to plan ahead with my writing. Maybe jot down notes the day before, or outline the next chapter in advance, or just going into it with a clearer idea of what I’m doing. 

For so long I’d been convinced that I didn’t need a plot as long as I had the barebones outline. I figured in the end everything would fall into place, which sometimes it does; but sometimes it doesn’t. We can’t all be Stephen King, and it’s the reason why some of his books are amazing and some are just big colourful doorstoppers.

Anyway, my point is this: no finished project is a total failure.

It’s all a lesson for the future. And sometimes it’s good to step out of your comfort zone and try something new, even if it’s just so you know not to do that again.

So go back to your novel and finish it off. Even if you know it’s terrible.

I promise, if you keep hacking away at the weeds, eventually you’ll discover the house you’re looking for. The haunted one with all the dead bodies in the basement.

You just gotta keep working at it.


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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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imgresYou’re Allowed To Be Selfish 
(In fact, it’s necessary.)

“Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects.”

Stephen King

The above quote by Stephen King is one I abide by, and one I constantly mention to people if they accuse me of being rude or disrespectful (for instance, when I’m disappearing on Christmas day to do some writing).

If one of the bestselling authors of all time tells me it’s okay to be rude in aid of my craft, then goddammit, it’s okay. Get off my back. Uncle Stevie understands my plight. And I advise you to go along with it too. Writing is a discipline that takes years to build up. Don’t let pressure from your loved ones get in the way of your career. 

Friends can be the worst. You tell them you’re working on a novel and they think you’re doing nothing: sitting at a computer and tapping away, as if you’re just on Facebook. They’ll pressure you to come out to parties, get drunk (even though alcohol will kill your next few days of productivity — more about that another time), or ask to come around, or take up time on the phone talking about their issues. If you don’t answer your calls they may bitch that you’re always busy, or you don’t make time for them, or any number of things. Friends, for the most part, are selfish: they don’t want you to be busy working. They want you to be available 24/7. If you’re not, they’ll feel neglected. And because of that, they may invalidate your work or not take it seriously. That’s normal.

But you shouldn’t give in. Be clear that this is something you take seriously and make them understand that it’s no different than if you’re at a job — you won’t accept calls or visits during that time. You wouldn’t go and get drunk if you had a big meeting the next morning, so that means you won’t do it when you have a self-imposed deadline either. The more seriously you take it, the more seriously they will take it too. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll find a friend who understands straight off the bat: they’ll be supportive, caring, and even offer to read your work. Appreciate these people. They’re a rare breed of friend and should be acknowledged as such. Thank them for their patience and understanding. However, you should always find time for friends in your busy schedule or you won’t have any left. They’ll finally leave you alone — for good.

And a life without friends or family is like a book with no characters.

Boring.


“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” — Ernest Hemingway


One time, when out with an ex-girlfriend, she told me off for writing in a notebook too much. Apparently I’d “ruined” our night out. She’d dressed up specially and spritzed herself with perfume, just to be “ignored” by me. Well, that was an exaggeration. I did, from time to time, flip open my notebook and scrawl down an idea (during our journeys to and from our destinations, never at the table or during dinner), but I didn’t spend the majority of the night inside the book, unlike many couples nowadays who go out with their other half just to waste most of the night on Twitter or Instagram.

Either way, the amount of time I dedicated to my ideas was irrelevant. She’d decided I was being neglectful. She felt unloved or unwanted or whatever. And maybe she had a point, but she approached it from a negative viewpoint. She saw my notebook writing as a waste of time, as if I was merely playing a Game Boy on our date, just toying around with a hobby. That’s not the kind of person you want in your world.

Firstly, you should always make time for the people you love. That’s a given. But that doesn’t mean they can monopolise your life. If, for instance, you’re at dinner and suddenly a great idea clicks in your mind and you feel you must write it down, she (or he) should be understanding. However, if your head is in the notebook all night, your partner will naturally feel aggrieved. It’s about finding the right balance between rudeness and romance. You should be able to gauge when an idea can wait, or is okay to simmer in the back of your mind, or isn’t worth capturing at that moment. Only the thunderbolts direct from a higher-being need to be documented right away for fear you’ll lose their powerful edge later on as your memory of the inspiration-flash diminishes.

If you’re unsure about how much is too much, talk to your partner.


“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” — Confucius


Communication is key in any relationship, so confer with your partner in advance to clear up any possible future issues. Agree on something you can both accept. Maybe your partner would prefer if you go to the bathroom to write down your ideas, or wait until he or she goes. Or maybe they want you to go outside, as if taking a cigarette break. Just like with smokers who date non-smokers, you’ll need to find a common ground and a compromise. But that doesn’t mean they can bully you into dropping your lifestyle.

Don’t ever let a partner stifle your creativity or your work ethic. If you’re an inattentive workaholic who never takes time to spend with your significant other, they have a legitimate reason to be angry; in any other case, however, they’ll need to understand you won’t be available to their every whim all the time. They may be pissed off occasionally, but what are you meant to do — let all your ideas escape into the ether?

Be careful not to go from one extreme to another: if you constantly ignore your partner in search of your muse, he or she may end up sleeping with the gardener. But for the most part, keep those ideas. Let them simmer. Jot down notes for future reference. Meanwhile, tell your spouse how much they keep inspiring you, so they don’t feel left out of your process.

My fiancée gives me plenty of ideas merely by asking questions. Find something your partner does to help, and praise them for it.

Make them feel wanted, loved, and most importantly: involved in your work.


“We need to make books cool again. If you go home with somebody and they don’t have books, don’t fuck them. Don’t sleep with people who don’t read.” John Waters


If you were a bestselling multimillionaire novelist, do you think your friends or family would complain? No. They’d encourage, support, ask about your work, and show nothing but enthusiasm and positivity. Most family and friends complain because they don’t share your confidence. While you know this latest idea you’re jotting down could be the kingfish that sparks your career, they only see you as a time-waster, someone just doodling and messing about with a hobby. Before long, these people will discount, discredit and silently invalidate almost everything you do.

Eminem reportedly used to zone out when people were talking to him (for all I know, he still does that) because they’d say a word he hadn’t heard before and he’d be rhyming it with other stuff in his head, adding it to his repertoire of rhyming syllables. He worked as a short order cook and used to rap orders and scrawl down rhymes on the kitchen slips, or on receipts, or on any scrap of paper he could find. During my time as a retail assistant, I found myself doing the same: scrawling down ideas on the backs of unclaimed receipts. People probably thought I was neurotic, but do you think anyone questions Eminem about his idiosyncrasies anymore? If he zones out during a conversation, they’ll understand — he’s a world-renowned artist, he needs his headspace.

Your most powerful tool is shaping the psychology of your friends and family. Once they view you as a superstar, you’ll be given a lot more leeway to pursue your art.

But it takes time, effort, and determination.


“I cannot live without books.” — Thomas Jefferson


The most efficient and beneficial way to bring your friends and family on board with your writing lifestyle is to show them how seriously you take it. That doesn’t simply mean sitting down at the table to write every day, although that should be number one on your list as a writer. It also means adjusting your attitude. If every time your friends pressure you into going out for a few drinks, you let them persuade you, they have no reason not to keep calling and applying pressure. Be stern and explain to them you’re on a deadline. Let them know you take this seriously and they should as well.

You need to act as if you’re a professional full-time author (or journalist or screenwriter) already. By doing that, people will soon fall in line. Firstly, picture what your life would be like if that were the case. How would you change? Would you write more? Waste less time on games and TV shows? Eat healthier? Go to the gym? Whatever you think you’d do in that position, start doing it now. Create your website, build a blog, interact with fans, grow a following on social networks, print business cards, call yourself a writer. Show the world you’re a somebody and they’ll believe you.

But acting like you’re in a position of power and have authority in your field means nothing if you don’t back it up with real work. When they see proof of how hard you’re working, their belief will grow. Your own belief will fortify, too. The more you believe in yourself and keep affirming this through positive actions, the more your brain will feed you. Eventually it’ll become a cyclical self-sustaining process, which not only boosts your self-esteem but helps your productivity levels, too. You are the master of your destiny.

As corny and clichéd as it sounds, it’s true — you control your reality.

So make it one you want to live in: you, as a writer, against the world.

From there, you just gotta keep climbing higher and higher until you reach the top. Then you plant a flag in that motherfucker and declare to the world you made it.

You’re finally a professional.


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HardWorkAheadSign_thumbWrite The Second Book
(Right Now) 

“Do you know why Albert Camus was so prolific?

He wrote to keep from screaming.”

Henry Rollins

You’ve finished your first novel. Now what do you do?

Breathe, relax, have sex, take a day off if you really must. But then get straight back on it. You might feel spent from the weeks, months or years of work — if it’s been a particularly long and draining experience, one that has sapped your energy and will, and you’ve been working on the thing for long enough that your baby is now a toddler, then maybe take a week or two off, but no longer than that. Go on holiday, perhaps. Turn off your brain for a fortnight and chill out with drinks and good company.

But then start on it again. You probably won’t want to go directly to your next novel. Not so soon after finishing the last one. That doesn’t mean you can’t keep your writer mind sharp and able. Jot down an article, write some short stories, review a book or movie — the important thing is to keep writing. 

On the side, begin to scribble down ideas for your next book. If you already have an idea of what it’s going to be about, that’s great: write down brief outlines, ways you plan to construct it, character profiles, whatever you can think of to build this novel in the background while you’re on a mini-break period. You’re merely keeping the engine lubed. After a month or so, or once you feel like you’re fully recharged (you might not ever feel like this, so don’t rely on some magical feeling to perk you up), you can then write your second book. Don’t even go back to look at the first until the second is over.

Then during the aftermath of that book (your second effort), take off another week or two (again, depending on the size of the task: a novel written in a month usually requires less recharge time), and then instead of writing articles or short stories like you did before, you can take these few weeks to edit your first novel. Work hard on it, pick it apart, but take time to jot down notes for your third book. Begin the same process as before: gradually building layers and outlines. Once you’ve finished editing the first, you can now write the third, knowing that after you complete that book, you can edit the second. If it’s too daunting to get into just yet, lay it aside and go back to writing short stories or articles. Alternate between the two, but never spend more than 8 weeks on the small stuff. If you devote too much time to casual writing, you might end up as a casual writer — producing short pieces of work and nothing else.

Essentially you want your writing world to be an endless revolving door.

And I’ll tell you why.


“Success is a function of persistence and doggedness, and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after thirty seconds.”

~ Alan Schoenfeld


Too many aspiring writers fixate on getting published. Their first thought, before anything, is about their novel being bought, sold and put on the shelf. This is a typical example of running before you can walk. Instead of taking the time to write a decent novel, you’re rushing ahead to the end zone, cutting corners on the way — sometimes without even knowing it. You need to practice your craft and you also need space from your last project. You’re too close to it, and you’ll find it hard to be objective about what parts are bad or unnecessary. You’ll tell yourself certain scenes are good enough even if you know they need rewriting. Or sometimes it’s the opposite: you hate every scene and want to tear the whole thing to shreds and start all over again. Both ways are wrong.

You shouldn’t be sprinting through the creative process just so you can see results. It’s like the Tortoise and Hare race — you’ll become complacent, sending out half-finished manuscripts, rough edits, etc., and the guy who took those extra few months to distance himself from his work and then thoroughly edit it, will surpass you at the finish line. Ironically, those who don’t move on to another writing project often spend longer on editing overall: they’ll work on the same novel repeatedly, constantly reading and re-reading; sometimes liking their work, other times hating it. The more they think about publication, the more they try to perfect their story and undo everything they’ve done up until that point. Or, on the flip side, they’ll think it’s great as it is, send it off too early, and then wonder why they’ve been rejected by every agent and publishing house.

That’s why you should move on to another book. Or short stories, or articles, or whatever will help to maintain your sharpness. Keep your mind occupied on something new. That will wipe your memory of its connection with your old work and free up your critical faculties for when you go back to edit it later on.

If you’re always looking ahead to the next book, rather than to finishing this book, there won’t be so much pressure on you. You won’t overthink every edit, every scene. You’ll know you can rewrite it, send it off, and that you have more to follow after. In a way, having more completed novels is freeing: it takes the pressure off your back. The more books in your arsenal, the more possible chances of success. And if it does sell, you’ll have another couple to sell straight after it.

Also, there’s another reason for steaming ahead with something new.


“If you always put limit on everything you do, physical or anything else. It will spread into your work and into your life.
There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”

~ Bruce Lee


Objectivity is something that you cultivate. You can’t do this by repeatedly reading over your own inferior work and praising yourself for it (or worse: beating yourself up about it, which will only put you off writing anything else in the future). The fact is, most first novels are terrible — yours probably is too. Unless you’ve been writing short stories all these years, if this is your first major writing project, it’ll no doubt be a waste of paper. 

I wrote about four or five novels (some finished; some half-completed) before I wrote anything decent. Even now I’m on my eighth “good” novel and I still think most of what I’ve written is trash. My goal is to keep learning, to strive to be a better writer, and that doesn’t come easily. But what helps is my forward momentum. I file one project and start on the next. I let the first one breathe for a while with the plaster off; later on I go in with the gauze and scissors and bandage up the cracks. 

On top of that, with every new book, story or article I write, I learn more about the writing process. I notice mistakes in my construction or a lack of characterisation or an overabundance of swearing or repetitive angles or scenarios that crop up in my work. This means that when I return to edit my earlier stuff months down the line, not only do I have a clearer vision of what’s wrong (having been away from it for so long), I’m also able to see the story with a stronger eye toward revision. That way my old work has the powerful attributes of my newer stuff. 

With the influx of self-published novels these days, I’m sure there are many amateur or over-eager authors who look back on their early published work and regret having sent it off to print without setting it aside for a while. In hindsight, they spot all the mistakes and issues they’d been too close to see before. And now they can’t take it back. Their book is forever in the world, unedited, uncut, in all its horrible nakedness.

Don’t be that guy. Don’t look at your baby and wish you’d aborted it.


“If people knew how hard I had to work to gain my mastery, it would not seem so wonderful at all.”

~ Michelangelo


There’s another issue with just sticking on one project: once you get past the insecurities and procrastination aspect of it all, the problem is that you’re thinking about fame and money above all else. You’re not thinking about writing beautifully, or doing anything productive. You’re beating a dead horse and expecting it to get up and dance for you. A writer writes. Don’t hone your first book a thousand times hoping to catch a million-pound book deal. Just write and write some more. Then move on, go back, go sideways — always be working. Writing, editing, sending off, alternating between the three until you have a body of work.

By the time you start novel three, novel one will be in circulation. If that sells, you’ll already have novel two to go out for sale by the time you start on your fourth.

That makes you one step ahead of the game every time.

Which is the smartest and most lucrative place to be.


“The average person puts only 25% of his energy and ability into his work.”

~ Andrew Carnegie


Why are you still here?

File that novel of yours, have a small celebration, and move on to the next piece. It won’t write itself. And if it does — well that’s a freakish story I’d love to hear about.


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UntitledHow I Got A Literary Agent
(The Easy Way)

“Hell hath no fury like a hustler with a literary agent.”

Frank Sinatra

Whenever I talk to aspiring writers about craft or technique or anything related to the nuts and bolts of fiction, they invariably brush it aside and say, “Yeah I know all that, but how did you get your agent?” That’s all they care about. They ask the question as if they expect me to present them with a secret formula, or a cheat code they can tap into an ancient Sega Mega Drive controller or something. If I mention discipline, hard work, writing every day, the fundamentals of success, they wave that away like: “Yeah yeah, I get all that. But how did you get your agent specifically?” Everything else is just noise.

To many aspiring writers, penning the novel is the easy part. Even before they’ve attempted it, they think it’s as simple as putting words down on a page, just like painting The Sistine Chapel was as simple as throwing paint at a ceiling. They think catching the attention of an agent is the difficult part. But the real struggle is writing something marketable. And if you’ve laid the foundation by working hard, perfecting your craft, and producing a quality manuscript, everything that comes after is a lot easier.

So for those who care, this is the very straightforward story of how I managed to capture the eye of an agent*.

(*Not her actual eye; I didn’t kidnap her eyeball and hold it hostage, although kidnapping an agent’s eyeball might get you signed quicker. I don’t know. Try it and get back to me).


“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston Churchill


Around the age of eighteen or nineteen I sent a completed novel off to a literary agency and was brutally rejected (Read More About That Here). After that, I didn’t approach an agent for at least another five or six years. I decided I wouldn’t embarrass myself like that again. I’d only send something off if I could be certain my work was of a high standard. Years of preening and rewriting and restructuring later, convinced I had something worth selling, I once more began to toy with the notion of a literary agent. It was time.

Unlike my first horrible (and unprofessional) attempt, I chose the smart route. With what little money I had in my bank I purchased The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. If you’ve never heard of this book, go and check it on Amazon. It’s essential to any aspiring authors. Aside from being packed with tips on breaking into the business, or how to finance and market self-published novels, and numerous other tidbits from professional authors, it’s also a manifesto of every credible agent in the UK and US. Not only does it list the agencies (and vets them too, so you won’t end up getting scammed), but it also offers additional information such as their address (in case you wish to stalk any of them to work), their phone number (in case you want to cold-call them and sell them insurance), and most importantly it explicitly states the type of work they represent, and the form in which they’d like to receive that work.

This is tres important.

I’m sure a few egoists among you might think it’s cool to send a Science Fiction novel to someone who clearly states they only deal with Romance Fiction, in some blind pig-headed notion that your novel is so good it’ll make the man rethink his entire career. “What have I been doing all my life? By jove! Romance fiction? Poppycock! This Sci-Fi novel is so good I think I’ll become an agent of those instead.” Just don’t do it. Read the market, pick one that represents your work, and send it to them only.

In the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, it usually states whether they want a full manuscript, or a query letter first, or three chapters, or whatever.

I approached my own submission like it was a complex equation: I spent about three hours circling every agent that dealt with crime fiction, then I wrote their names, addresses and relevant information into a Word folder. I don’t know why. If anything, I think I was stalling. Pretending like I was doing all this work by cross-sectioning people.

I then rewrote the first three chapters of my novel for the 20th time.

Once I was finally ready to send my work off, I chose (probably due to laziness more than anything) all the agents who accepted email submissions, and picked out three.

Then, for whatever reason, I narrowed it down to two.


Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other.” Abraham Lincoln


Before sending my work off, I decided to piss my money down the drain by getting Scribendi, a professional author service website, to write me a synopsis, chapter breakdown, character profile, and query letter as part of my package. I’d convinced myself (due to insecurity) that, even though I could manage to write a 500-page novel, I couldn’t quite grasp the complex intricacies of a simple query letter.

It was ridiculous, but I must have spent about four hundred pound on this needless package. There are plenty of templates on the Internet. A five-minute search will yield one worth using. You can also read my blog about writing a query letter for some more advice.

Anyway, an agent might silently judge you on a terrible query letter, but if it’s short and does the job, they’ll give your novel a try, which is all that matters. No one really cares about anything else. The synopsis might be tricky to write, but you have to work on that too. If you can write the novel, you can create an interesting synopsis.

Follow the process and you’ll already be ahead of the majority.


“The starting point of all achievement is desire.”Napoleon Hill


With the package completed, I sent off my two emails. The first to respond was an agent whose name I can’t recall. I remember him being old and pedantic. He replied with a lot of positive comments about my novel (a crime-detective book called Cutthroat City, part of a proposed series of six). He also suggested he’d be open to representing me if I could make some changes to the book. His changes weren’t plot-based and he didn’t ask to see any more of my novel; his suggestions were picky syntax-related ideas. “Change ravaged to savaged”, and small shit like that. Something about his style of communication seemed unprofessional, and after a quick search of his background I came to realise that he wasn’t the right agent for me. I could imagine him micromanaging every line of my work like an overeager failed writer-editor who lives his dream vicariously through his clients by endlessly tinkering with their every paragraph. Editorial input is one thing; manipulating my writing for his own needs is something wholly different.

The second one to reply (yay, a two out of two return rate) was Eve White, who eventually became my agent. Her first email was something generic along the lines of “We liked your initial three chapters, could you send the entire manuscript by post?” along with details for me to follow. As requested I printed off the novel and sent it to Eve. Within a week or so she called me up and we had a brief chat. She told me she loved the novel, although in places it could use some work and she could detect a little naïveté in my writing, which, looking back, was a fair comment. At the time I was only 24 (I’m 30 now), but I figured I knew everything. I’ve since learned I know nothing. Either way, I was ecstatic. An agent had validated my writing. I felt like I officially wasn’t a fraud.

However, she didn’t feel comfortable representing a UK author with an American novel as she couldn’t verify whether my fictional American town came across as authentic or not. She politely asked if I could rewrite the book to set it in England. At the time I was resolute: no way, I could never do that, impossible. Nowadays I might approach it differently. After ripping through and rewriting a couple of my novels, I realise how needlessly precious I used to be over my work. In any case, I said no but told her I’d recently completed a novel set in the UK and would she like to see it? She said she would but there was no rush. She didn’t want me sending in half-finished work.

So I moved on to the next step.


“Always be yourself, express yourself, have faith in yourself, do not go out and look for a successful personality and duplicate it.”Bruce Lee


I rewrote the shit out of my UK novel (a crime drama called City of Blades) and once again wasted £300+ on a submission package. I sent the first three chapters, and off the back of those chapters, Eve called me into her office for an interview.

From the 60 pages she’d read (including the previous novel of mine she’d read), she was certain I had something. We spoke for an hour or two, exchanging life stories, checking my writing background, finding out my influences, the usual shit. We got along great. At the end she offered me a contract with her agency. Without hesitation I said yes, but Eve told me to take the contract, get a lawyer to check it over if I wanted to, sign up to The Society of Authors, and a number of other things just to make sure everything was above board, and then if I still wanted to sign with her, we could go ahead with it. So I went home, pretended to do everything she asked, then told her I was ready to join her agency.

A week or so later I received a gold-laminated contract in the post. I still have it and one day I might frame it and put it on the wall — my first professional agency contract; validation from a top literary agent that I had talent. My writing wasn’t dog shit. Or, if it was, at least it was saleable dog shit. Or potentially saleable. Whatever.

I signed that contract one week before my 25th birthday.

It was one of the best presents I’ve ever received.


“Success is nothing more than a few simple disciplines, practiced every day.”Jim Rohn


Anyway, that’s how I got my agent. Nothing special, no tricks, no manipulations, and no cutting corners.

Although, having said all that, it doesn’t work that way for everybody. Some people might go through 100 agents before one picks them up. A good friend of mine, Rob Boffard, went through about 10+ agents and multiple rewrites of his novel before three came to him all at once and he had the choice to pick who he wanted. And now he’s got a three-book deal with Orbit. His novel, Tracer, a riveting Sci-Fi, was released in July of this year. I’ve already read it, and I highly recommend it. You can order it from here.

My point is, if you want an agent: discipline, hard work, but most importantly perseverance is what will get you there. Unless you’re a trash writer.

But even then . . .

Dan Brown, ahem.


Untitled


On a related note: I’m no longer with that agent for reasons I’ll explain in a future article. But the experience is one I’ll never forget and don’t regret going through.


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UntitledSupport Is Essential To Success
(Or So Wonderbra Keeps Telling Me) 

“My success was due to good luck, hard work, and support and advice from friends and mentors. But most importantly, it depended on me to keep trying after I had failed.”

Mark Warner

Support from friends and family is imperative to success; there’s nothing worse than trying to create magic when you have negative people around you poking holes in your dreams. If you find yourself surrounded by doubters, you should re-evaluate your friendships and cut people out. Bad friends and unsupportive family members can be tumorous: their concerns will play on your mind and their disapproval can put a damper on your accomplishments, making you feel small about what you’re doing. Don’t make the mistake of allowing their words to affect you.

In an interview, actress Mena Suvari once said: “A year or so ago I went through all the people in my life and asked myself: does this person inspire me, genuinely love me and support me unconditionally? I wanted nothing but positive influences in my life.”

And that’s how you should live, too. Look at those around you and ask yourself if they care about what you’re doing. Do they believe in you? Or do they try to shut you down? If it’s the latter, that’s not healthy — it’ll chip away at you over time. You want people who encourage you to do more, who push you beyond the limits and bring out the best in your work. You want the kind of friends or parents who ask to read your stuff and then give you detailed feedback on how you can improve it.

That’s not to say they should be your personal editor who you send every scrap and piece of shit writing for them to check — if you stop appreciating their efforts and begin to expect them to analyse and fix your every word, you’ll be undermining your friendship and doing them a disservice. Appreciate the support, but don’t abuse it. Send them your latest story or poem or novel — but only once you’ve worked hard on it and need a valuable second opinion.

Remember: support and encouragement goes both ways.

Don’t just take it selfishly. Give it too. Be their brick.

Either that, or you’ll soon find yourself all alone.


“I got a lot of support from my parents. That’s the one thing I always appreciated. They didn’t tell me I was being stupid; they told me I was being funny.” Jim Carrey


Whatever your stance, whether you’re a strong individual or you’re weak and insecure, having a solid network of friends to support you can be a monumental benefit to your career — not having it can have the opposite effect. It can leave you feeling lost during those deflated moments, like when your prose is flat and you feel like you’re wasting your time. Without anybody to slap those thoughts from your head, you may end up believing the lies your brain feeds you. It’s important to have somebody, or a few people, who will push you back up on the horse when you inevitably fall from it and break both your legs.

There are those who can do without encouragement. They can sit in a shed in the middle of a desert somewhere and chase their dreams without anyone believing in them. In fact, some of those people thrive on the doubt. Striving to prove people wrong can be a powerful aphrodisiac: you smash down those hurdles to show you can fucking do it. However, for the most part, people always feel more secure with a support system.

And there are many famous cases that can back this up . . .


“My upbringing involves individuals who helped me along the way. I don’t think I would be here today without that support.” Dwyane Wade


Dean Koontz, one of the most successful authors on the planet, attributes much of his success to his wife. Although Koontz himself is the one who spent years cultivating his craft and working towards his goals, the support and encouragement of his wife fostered an environment that helped him to progress and follow his dreams.

She could easily have cut him down (as his parents did). She could have told him writing would never pay the bills, and force him to get a proper job. Instead she gave him a deadline: he had five years to make it. She went to work and brought home the bacon, and meanwhile Koontz was at his desk tapping away at the computer.

Imagine that: she believed in him so much she gave him five years — not a couple months, or a year, but five, in which she promised to support him no matter what. And if he failed, he agreed to push it to the side and go back to work. (Although I suspect he probably still would have written in the mornings and evenings; if writing’s in your blood, it doesn’t disappear overnight.) Either way, his wife’s sacrifice was amazing. And she eventually, I assume, enjoyed the fruits of her support. If I was Koontz, I would have showered her with the moon and sun.

But Koontz isn’t the only one with a wife of gold.


“Life is not a solo act. It’s a huge collaboration, and we all need to assemble around us the people who care about us and support us in times of strife.” Tim Gunn


Stephen King — Koontz’s closest rival in the horror field, another monster bestseller and possibly the biggest author in the world — can also credit much of his success to his supportive wife.

The story is one most of you already know: King, unhappy with his attempted short story (Carrie) — about a girl who has her first period in the showers and thinks she’s bleeding to death — crumpled up the paper and threw it in the bin. He didn’t think anything else of it and moved on to another writing project. Later that night, his wife fished the story out of the trash and read it. She liked it and saw potential for something more. She told him to finish it. He went on to turn it into an epistolary horror novel, one of his most famous, and the book that turned him down the path of bestsellerdom. It was his first sale, and the money he received for the paperback rights (reportedly almost half a million dollars) was enough to transform his entire life. And without his wife’s encouragement, he might still be at his typewriter, clanging out words and throwing first drafts in the bin for no reason.

Maybe King would have broken through eventually, but even still, his wife was his rock. She looked after their children while he worked, and she offered an ear when he felt down. She stuck with him through drug and alcohol addiction and pushed him back on track. Her support is at least half of the man he became. Without it, he might have crumbled beyond repair: crawled into a dark hole with no one to illuminate the way out.

And the stories of supportive wives (and husbands, too) goes on.


“You can do anything as long as you have the passion, the drive, the focus, and the support.” Sabrina Bryan 


A writer friend of mine, Emmy Ellis, has a husband who happily took on the burden of the bills while she pursued her writing dreams from home. He supported and encouraged her career, much like Koontz’s wife did, which gave her the opportunity to give it everything. And with that extra time, she forged a successful career in the field of erotica under multiple pen names.

Then there’s the wife of Lolita writer Vladimir Nabokov. According to legend, he set fire to his famous book Lolita and threw it in the trash. Much like the King story, his wife saved it from annihilation and encouraged him to carry on with it. She was also reported to be a direct influence to his work: she not only typed his novels for him, but edited them, too. On top of that they worked multiple jobs to support his writing, and she believed her husband to be “the greatest writer of his generation”. That’s dedication. That’s the kind of support you want.

I could go on all day with similar stories of encouragement. But here’s one final story of spousal support . . .


“I’m thankful to my family, friends, and fans for all of their support.” 

Serena Williams


A few decades ago, David Morrell, author of First Blood (Rambo), returned home one day from university and said to his wife he wanted to pursue his writing dream by studying under Philip Young at Penn State. This was on a whim after reading a book in a library. Pursuing this dream would entail his then pregnant wife to quit her job as a history professor, pack up all their stuff, and leave Canada to head for America — with no guarantee of any success.

He essentially asked her to overhaul her entire existence to aid his dreams, and she did. And now look at his career . . .


“There’s a fine line between support and stalking and let’s all stay on the right side of that.” — Joss Whedon


Wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, children, mothers, fathers — the list goes on forever. If you check the acknowledgments pages of most novels, you’ll see the many platitudes about the support systems in their lives. People who pushed them to the edge of their success, but never over the side. Without them, these writers might have taken longer to reach their goal. They might even have given up and never struggled to the top of the mountain.

The point is, even if you feel you don’t need anyone — and you might not — having someone like that in your life can only add to your process and fuel your passion. 

Someone who’ll be there when you’re down; someone who’ll hold your hand through the darkness; someone who’ll push you further.

How do you know if something you’ve written is terrible? Having a go-to network of readers can be one of your most useful writing tools.


“I always knew there wasn’t going to be anybody to help me and emotionally support me, that whatever I did I’d have to do on my own.”

Jack Nicholson


I have a few regular readers.

Firstly, my dad, a man who’s been reading and writing for almost fifty years and can pinpoint a dodgy sentence or a nebulous premise, and always gives me solid and honest feedback.

Secondly, my author friend, Rob Boffard (buy his novel Tracer here), who always offers great insight into plot issues or characterisation or even just sections of flat prose. It’s particularly helpful to get advice from Rob because I know he understands my struggle.

Third on the list is my screenwriter friend who reads my work from a different perspective than anyone else. He doesn’t care about prose issues, but is great with noticing structural faults or repetitive scenes and needless constructions. He reads my work with a scriptwriter’s eye.

And finally, my fiancée, a woman who doesn’t read books and doesn’t care for novels all that much, which makes her opinion even more valuable: she doesn’t notice structural flaws or problems with the prose, but she picks out so much more — she reads the story for the story. If it bores her, she tells me. If she feels no desire to read on, she tells me that too. If it’s unbelievable, or if a character is acting in a way that doesn’t make sense to her, she flags it immediately. Everything is about the reality of the story with her.

All four of my regular readers offer different levels of support and encouragement. Individually, they’re worthwhile, but as a team they’re irreplaceable.

And you can have that too. Search for your own team and get feedback.

Seek it out. Negative feedback is a hundred percent better than positive feedback. You don’t learn anything from smiles and friendly words. You want someone to take a shit all over your manuscript.

And when you find those people who are real with you, you keep hold of them.

And never let go. Not even when they’re screaming . . .  


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Non-Writers Can Be So Annoying
(When They Find Out You Write)

“It took me fifteen years to discover I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.”

— Robert Benchley

Telling people you’re a writer can be a dangerous thing. Not physically dangerous, unless you somehow bump into a serial killer who has a particular grievance against authors (Annie Wilkes, perhaps?), but it can be mentally dangerous. People who aren’t writers have a skewed vision of what it’s like to be one. They think we’re a bunch of lazy wordsmiths who sit around all day punching letters into a laptop — which, in a sense, is what we do. But they don’t understand how difficult our task is; it seems so easy from their side. They’ve written essays before and emails and Facebook statuses, so how hard can it possibly be? And for that reason, they treat our job like it’s merely an overblown hobby.

Which disregards the thousands of hours we spend crafting our words. As if we’re no better than a man who sits at his XBOX for 10,000 days playing Call of Duty.


“There is nothing to writing.

All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway


If only non-writers could understand the torment of an author’s life. But even if I slotted them in my place for a week, it still wouldn’t seem that hard to an amateur. As Thomas Mann said: “A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

An amateur can tap away at the keyboard, worry free. They have no professionalism or pride in their work. A true writer, however, will agonise over every sentence, each paragraph, or the correct construction of a scene. Should he start it from the end and work backwards? Should he begin in the middle of the action, or would this particular scene go well with a brief build-up? Has he waffled on for too long? Not filled in enough background information? Is the motive too spare or unrefined? Endless questions rattle around a writer’s brain during every scene.

It’s hard work. But when writers say this, the amateur looks at him with suspicion. Hard work? You’re tapping away at a keyboard. I do that every day. It’s easy. They think only from a physical point of view. We don’t lift bricks for a living, yet most will feel just as tired as a man who does — not physically but mentally. Our bodies will be fine, but we’ll be drained. We’ll want to sleep even though our legs could still run a marathon. Our mind will be shut down; every centre used and abused and lightless.

That’s probably why so many writers end up as alcoholics and drug addicts. They need something to take the edge off, to bring them back to reality. Just a shot or two.

And then eventually that becomes their crutch; their oil to start the engine.


“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”

Jack Kerouac


Another annoyance is when the non-writer asks you to partake in writerly duties — free of charge — as if you’re some kind of writing Lemming who specialises in any and all forms of the written word and will follow them off the cliff of whatever project they’re starting.

If they need a business plan, you’re the guy to come to; not the guy with the degree in business, or the man who owns a business, but a writer. They think your expertise with words will somehow add gravitas to their proposal. Maybe they think you’re able to turn water into wine, or a bad business into an amazing one.

Or they’ll ask if you can write the words in the birthday card for their mum, or the love letter to their girlfriend, or a sorry note to their sister, or a Facebook status to their clothing line, or a text message to their friend cancelling on dinner. And the list goes on. 

The worst, and most frequent one, is people asking if I can write their CV (“resumé” to you Americans) for them. You’re a writer, they’ll say. It should be easy, which is where the fallacy kicks in — this is why the non-writer attempts to procure our services for free: It should be easy. Not only are they assuming that I have nothing better to do and my time has no value, but they also think writing is nothing more than finger-to-keys and thus their CV will be produced — wonderfully and with vivid prose — in the space of minutes.

What they don’t understand is that they could type up a CV in minutes. But to a writer, a CV will be just as hard as any piece of fiction he writes. He’ll spend a day or more doing the work; overanalysing every line, chopping and changing, plucking sentences out and tossing them back in, making sure the words are the best they can possibly be.

If I write them a cover letter, it’ll be re-read five thousand times, even if it’s only two paragraphs long. I’ll panic it’s not good enough. I’ll be insecure about it. I’ll rewrite it over and over. In the back of my mind I’ll know it’s fine, but as I’ve been specifically asked to write it, there’s an added weight of expectation. They know I’m a writer. They think I can pull a rabbit out of a hat — but this is merely a generic paragraph about his workmanship. I think they’re going to see through it and call me a fraud.

But most times they’ll read it quickly, say, “Cool, seems good,” and that’s it. Something I’ve spent almost twelve hours on is dismissed as if no more than a footnote.

Then I’ll have follow-up questions. Did your employer like it? What did he say about it? Did he notice line three? Oh, he didn’t mention it? Well go fuck yourself then.

And then I crawl back to my cave and tend to my wounds.


“There are three rules for writing a novel.
Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” 

W. Somerset Maugham


The point is: a writer’s time is valuable and not everyone understands or respects that. Everything from this blog post to a novel I’m working on to a simple Facebook post has some meticulous care and thought behind it. I’ve most likely written it three or four times, or at least tweaked it in a hundred different places. I’ve taken time and effort behind it. To the untrained eye, the words seem simplistic and therefore their creation must have been so.

As Nathaniel Hawthorne said: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” And it’s true — if it looks easy to write, it probably wasn’t.

It’s not solely their fault, though. It’s up to you as a writer to demand respect for your craft. If you accept these menial tasks from your friends as if no more than writing out a shopping list, you’re not only diminishing your work, you’re allowing them to as well. In the future you’ll be their go-to guy (or girl) for tedious work: reports, essays, emails. Sometimes they think they’re doing you the favour. They know you write and they want to make you feel important by giving you a job you never asked for. Like Here ya go, buddy. Don’t say I never do anything for ya. Some of them even expect a thank you.

Be up front and honest. Writing is hard and you should be paid for it. Nowadays, when someone asks me to write something for them, I refer them to my fee. Friend or otherwise, I don’t have time to type up a three-page report as a favour. They won’t cut my lawn or pave my driveway to “help me out”, so I won’t put in my hard labour either.

Friends will understand. Acquaintances may take offence, but who cares?

If they’re not paying your bills, don’t sweat their opinions.


“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” 

Neil Gaiman


When you consider all the potential hassle you can end up with, sometimes it’s best not to mention it at all. If someone asks what you do, just say: I’m a jobless nobody. People rarely ask any follow-up questions. And they definitely don’t request your help with any simple paperwork they can quite easily do themselves.

And that’s the goal: to be ignored by all . . . and adored by many.

At the same time.

I’ve named it The Author’s Paradox.


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How A Mars Bar Gave Me Discipline
(Kind Of)

“We are what we repeatedly do.

Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

— Aristotle

At one point during my teen years, I became obsessed with self-discipline. I’d stand in a line for hours, with my legs aching, when I could easily sit down. I’d hang around in the freezing rain in spite of nearby shelter. I’d walk home for miles when I could just get on a bus and be back in minutes. I kept testing the limits of what I could withstand, both mentally and physically. I was training myself to be a strong-minded person. Up until then, I’d always been riddled with anxiety.

At the time, Mars was my favourite chocolate. I was addicted to it. Almost every day I’d buy a Mars and devour it in two or three bites. Sometimes I’d melt it in milk or mash it up into some ice cream. I couldn’t get enough of them. Then one day my mum mentioned diabetes, which shook me — at such a young age, diabetes seemed just as horrifying to me as cancer or AIDS or a broken spine. I realised I had to do something about it. So I bought a king-sized Mars, nibbled at the corner, and left it on the side.

The next day I nibbled the corner again, just the tiniest bite, and put it back in its spot. Day after day I repeated this action. This went on for weeks and eventually I nibbled the Mars down to a nub, then to nothing. I can’t remember the exact period, but it was at least a month, no more than two. For a teenager addicted to chocolate, it took a lot of self-discipline to withhold my urges. 

But I was determined to not let that fucking Mars get the best of me.

And weirdly enough, I don’t even like or buy them anymore.

You might be wondering how this is relevant to writing. 

I’ll tell you.


“If a man can control his mind he can find the way to Enlightenment,

and all wisdom and virtue will naturally come to him.” — Buddha


Self-discipline is one of the key components of a professional writer, and a lot of the time it’s the sole difference between the pro and the amateur — not talent (although that’s important too, if somewhat hard to measure), but discipline. Being a genius or naturally gifted with words means little if you rarely hone those skills. Travelling the world and being infused with life experience and different cultures is equally meaningless if you never empty your mind to the page.

Self-discipline is what sits you down and makes you type, even when you feel like shit. Even when the words are coming thick and slow and it seems like everything you write is trash. You need to treat writing like a full-time job. Dedicating only half an hour a week to your future is like building your dream house by laying one brick a year.

Plus writing requires so much more than completing just a single project (although, having said that, any completion of a project is to be celebrated). The true requirement is consistency. You must be consistently learning, growing, and experimenting with words. But most importantly, you must be writing. It doesn’t matter what: novels, blogs, stories, poems, whatever. That creative muscle in your brain should be worked — it should be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of writing brains; if your mind is turned into a human body, people should accuse you of taking steroids because it’s so fucking pumped up.

And all of that requires self-discipline . . . which can be taught.

You just need a little discipline to learn how to adapt to it. 

So you need discipline to learn discipline.

Some Catch 22 paradox type shit.

I’ll explain how. 


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” — Lao Tzu


Take it one day at a time like a recovering drug addict. Every morning sit down at your desk (or stand at it, or lean on it — what do I care?) and load up your computer. That’s the first part. Even before you’ve told yourself you can’t write, or you won’t write, or you don’t want to write, you need to perch up in front of your laptop and flip it open.

Now load up a blank writing document. At first, if you don’t feel like doing anything else, that’s okay. Just sit there in front of it and stare at the blinking cursor. You can take the time to think of ideas, or meditate, or cry, or whistle, but make sure you don’t answer your phone or talk to people during this time. And keep doing that for a while. A week, a month, however long until you’re in the habit of going to your computer first thing, flipping it open and sitting down for a period of time in front of a blank writing document. 

What you’ll be doing is forming a mini-habit. Your brain will train itself to a mode of working. It’ll know that every morning (or every evening, if that’s easier — but try to make the time specific so it can anchor in your brain), you’ll sit down in front of your computer and open a writing document. Your next step after that will be to write something, but at first it doesn’t need to be anything important. 

If it’ll free up your mind, you can write any nonsense on the screen. For instance, if you’re planning to go shopping later that day, talk about it. Today I’m going shopping, after that I’m going home, then I’m going to have a bath, then I’ll eat, I don’t know, I’m just writing words blah blah oranges. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling. All you’re doing for now is creating a habit.

Before long, your brain will be used to you sitting and writing, which is usually the hardest part for most people: actually parking in front of the screen and typing. To anchor that habit even deeper, whenever you sit at the computer and type, put on the same playlist of music. Overtime these songs will become writing triggers. Your brain will know you’re ready to work as soon as it hears the playlist begin its cycle. But don’t listen to the same songs when you’re NOT writing or you’ll corrupt the habit-forming process. 

If you set aside an hour a day to do all of this, you’ll soon cement a writing habit into your daily routine. And the greatest part is that it won’t cause you any strain — you’re under no pressure to produce anything of value.

But now comes the hard part . . .


“A disciplined mind leads to happiness; 

an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.” — Dalai Lama


You’re at the screen and expected to write something valid; not just stream-of-conscious bullshit, but a story or blog post. If that fills you with fear and dread, that’s okay. For some people, even the thought of attempting to write can cripple them. Partly it’s anxiety (fear of failure or low self-esteem), but the other reason is a lack of discipline. You’re not used to sitting down and writing a masterpiece. You haven’t done it before. What makes you think you can do it now?

Fuck that. Throw that all away. Take all that negative thinking, fold it into a box, and set it on fire. 

Then take a moment to think about what you intend to write. Some writers can go in cold and produce blockbusters; others need to have an outline or a plan. It’s up to you which process works better, but for now, take a second to think about what you want to write. Do you already know? Have you already got the idea for your novel? Then break it down. You don’t have to start writing before it’s ready. Break it down until you know what your first chapter is going to be. Now give yourself a small target: write one scene.

What can debilitate a lot of writers is the sheer size and breadth of a novel. Thinking about writing so many pages and keeping it all coherent and interesting is like asking someone to imagine themselves building a pyramid with a spoon. It can seem impossible. But by breaking it into smaller, more digestible pieces, you only have to concentrate on the one scene ahead — just a few pages, no more than ten. You can do that, right? Or not?

Then break it down even further. Set yourself the task of one page.

If that’s still terrifying, tell yourself you just want to write a paragraph today. Anyone can write four or five lines. They don’t need to be good lines — they just need to be.

Then the next day you can write another paragraph, and keep going like that.

Eventually, with the building of your habit, and with some extra self-discipline, you should get into a routine. That paragraph will grow into two, then four, then six, then five pages. Before long, you’ll be tapping away at the keys for hours a day.

And if you’re not, and you’re still slacking and finding ways not to write?

Then pull your head out of the mud and slap yourself awake. 

Writers write — wannabes talk. Are you a writer or a wannabe?

Make that decision now, and then proceed to your corner.


“Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishment.” — Jim Rohn


Writing is hard for everyone. It’s no easier for the professionals than it is for the amateurs. The only difference is the comfort of a cheque at the end of their work. But they’re crying and sweating and swearing at their keyboards just like the rest of us.

They’re also working hard, day after day, to continue their success.

So take note: get your self into gear and work that brain muscle.

You can do it. You just gotta trick your brain into believing it.


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