Making A Cake Out Of Manure

“There’s no reason you shouldn’t, as a writer, not be aware of the necessity to revise yourself constantly. More than a half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.” — John Irving

You’ve written a masterpiece. Sure you have. Take it out of the drawer (or click into the folder on your desktop) and check it again.

Does it seem a little flat? That doesn’t matter. It’s a classic, a future great, kids will read about it and learn this novel for years to come. I’m sure of it.

All you need to do is cross everything out and start from scratch.


“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov


It’s not always the case that you should trash your work and start from the beginning.

Sometimes you only need to kill a few scenes or shift them around — and sometimes you only have to tighten the dialogue in certain areas, or cut obtrusive phrases, or slice out a paragraph or two in order to speed up a lagging section. In any case, it’s always wise to take a step back from your novel and view the bigger picture.

Can it be massively improved? Many times the answer is yes.

But a lot of authors — especially those desperate to break into the publishing world — don’t want to put in that kind of effort. Or they’re scared to. They know something’s wrong with their novel, but they’re not ready to fix it because they like it too much and they’ve grown attached. It’s similar to being in a relationship that you know isn’t right for you. The girl (or guy) might have plenty of great traits that you’ll miss, but overall you just don’t feel it, and you know, deep down, you’d be happier with someone else. Well, the same can be applied to your fiction. It might be good, it’s just not good enough. And in cases such as those, it’s worth pulling it apart and fixing it back together.

Realign the spine, structure the bones, then begin slopping on the flesh.


“If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” — Elmore Leonard


How do you know when you should scrap it? That’s a hard question to answer.

Firstly, if your most reliable readers keep telling you something is wrong it may be time to listen to them. If one out of ten, or two out of eight, point out an issue but no one else has a problem with it, you can disregard it. People have different tastes and needs and some folks are just extra finicky and needlessly pedantic. However, if the issue(s) is recognised by the majority, it’s best to address it.

Author Neil Gaiman once said: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — And all that means is, listen to their complaint but ignore their advice. You know what’s best for your story, not them. Once they highlight an issue, analyse it and pick apart why it’s wrong. Then change it.

Some comments might be vague: I didn’t quite connect with the main character. Others might be straightforward: You have a big ugly glaring plot hole in chapter 12.

Whatever the complaint, don’t argue its case. Your first instinct will probably be to fight the complaint and justify your decisions after the fact. You might try to explain that you meant for your main character to be dull, as some kind of reflection of the mundanity of society. Or you want people to hate your main love interest because that mirrors the hatred she feels for herself — or some other self-indulgent bullshit to give meaning to your mistakes.

Don’t do that. Take the comments on board with a simple sentence: thank you, I’ll take that into consideration. Arguing your case won’t make them change their minds. You can’t convince people to like your book, and you can’t hang out with everyone who reads it, leaning over their shoulders saying You just don’t get it. If enough people are confused by your meaning, that just shows you weren’t clear enough. It’s not their fault if they don’t connect with your work. The onus is on you to grab them by the throat and not let go until the final page.

So sit back, look at your work, and improve it.


“Throw up into your typewriter every morning. Clean up every noon.” — Raymond Chandler


When I was younger I used to think rewriting just meant tinkering.

I’d read so many quotes about rewriting but it never occurred to me these people actually rewrote large sections of their book. I assumed they fixed a sentence here or there and chopped out a line of dialogue or two. In reality, some writers will excise characters, fuse scenes, and rip out whole chunks of the book — deleting chapters and rearranging the plot — until it’s right.

That’s the difference between writers who make it, and writers who don’t. There are thousands of competent novelists out there, authors who write well but aren’t quite able to grip their audience, and they don’t know why. A lot of the time, if they had the patience to work through their novel from top to bottom — analysing the pacing of each scene, the relevance of every moment, the inner and outer tension of the characters and the plot — they’d be able to give their work more weight.

But the job can be daunting. Rewriting 700 pages? Killing so many beautiful scenes? No way, some of them think. I’ll keep it as it is. 

But if you want to succeed, you need to stop being precious.


“The best advice I can give on this is, once it’s done, to put it away until you can read it with new eyes. Finish the short story, print it out, then put it in a drawer and write other things. When you’re ready, pick it up and read it, as if you’ve never read it before. If there are things you aren’t satisfied with as a reader, go in and fix them as a writer: that’s revision.” — Neil Gaiman


Back in 2003, Eminem won an Oscar for his song Lose Yourself, taken from the soundtrack of his semi-autobiographical film 8 Mile. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it became the longest running single at Number One for a rap song, lasting almost six months at the top of the charts.

Can you imagine how powerfully a song has to connect with its audience for it to stay atop its competitors for half a year? It’s unheard of. Also, in a time of mass piracy, the song shifted over six million copies in the United States. Six million. Whether you like his music or not is irrelevant — those sales are monumental. It was even in featured in the 2004 list of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

And the reason I’m mentioning the phenomenon of Lose Yourself?

It wasn’t his first version.


“Revision means throwing out the boring crap and making what’s left sound natural.” ― Laurie Halse Anderson


Go on YouTube and type in Lose Yourself (Original Version) and you’ll hear how this worldwide smash hit originally sounded. The lyrics were different, the central theme of the song was different, and although the beat and parts of the chorus are similar, they lack the spark and creativity of the final released version. Eminem, for whatever reason, decided to redo the song from scratch.

In an interview published a few years ago, he claimed he no longer remembers writing or recording the first song, and it’s probably true. With his past, he was quite possibly high on drugs at the time and his memories of those days have been eroded. Either way, during that period of his life, he realised something wasn’t quite right with the track. He trashed his unmemorable first attempt, kept the foundations and skeleton, and rebuilt it from the ground up, taking an average song and turning it into one of the most successful songs ever created. That’s why he’s Eminem and why other rappers are failing.

The point is: his original song isn’t bad. If we’d never heard the newer improved version, the original would still have been considered a decent, albeit forgettable, song.

Your novel might be passable. It might be readable.

But is it amazing?


“Reread, rewrite, reread, rewrite. If it still doesn’t work, throw it away. It’s a nice feeling, and you don’t want to be cluttered with the corpses of poems and stories which have everything in them except the life they need.” — Helen Dunmore


My friend Rob Boffard, author of the successful Outer Earth trilogy, is the perfect example of a professional who rewrote a decent book to make it into something special.

Around the time we first started talking, Rob told me he’d been shopping his Sci-Fi novel (titled Tracers at the time) around to agents and receiving positive feedback. But nobody wanted to take him on as a client. I told him to email the book and let me take a look.

And the truth is, when I began reading the first draft, it kind of bored me. But out of respect to him, I kept reading through the slow parts, forcing myself to carry on; and then, around 100 pages in, the novel suddenly hooked me and I couldn’t stop reading. I zipped through the rest in a few days. From trash to amazing in the space of some plot shifts. I’m so glad I stuck with it.

Once I put it down I called Rob up and I said, “You have a problem with your first hundred pages,” and then I babbled on about plot constructions and character motivations and rambled endlessly, thinking this might be the end of our friendship before it properly started.

I figured he’d reply with: “You’re wrong, go fuck yourself,” and hang up.

Instead, he took my advice graciously, said he’d take a look at it, and he rewrote the beginning, trimming and cutting and morphing it to give the novel pace from the outset. He’d taken my advice on board, then used his own wise judgement and reshaped the novel to fit his own ideas — taking what I said as a marker, but writing in his own fresh direction. And the book was infinitely better for it, and after a few more edits he sent it off to agents again.

This time, he was offered representation by three different agents. He could pick and choose who he wanted. He went from being rejected to being sought after. And this is why he signed a three-book deal with Orbit. Rather than pout and argue his story’s merits like an amateur might do, he sucked it up, acknowledged the faults in his novel, and persevered.

He rewrote that motherfucker until it worked on every single level.

Again, his book wasn’t bad to begin with. The writing was solid and the characterisation was great — the book just lacked a little momentum in the plotting department. It needed a sharper edge and he wielded his editing sword to give it one.

If you want to succeed, you need to do the same. If your book keeps coming back with rejection slips, it might be time to step back, view your work, and admit to yourself something isn’t working.

And then try to fix it.


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Creating Ideas From Nothing

“There’s no one way to be creative.

Any old way will work.” — Ray Bradbury

Trying to find an idea for a short story, or a novel, can be difficult. Each writer captures and cultivates ideas in different ways.

Ray Bradbury used to do word associations: he’d pick a word such as ROCK, or BRICK, and then he’d think of the things he feared the most — whether that be ghouls, goblins, or ending up alone — and then he’d fuse the two together, and build a story from there. Maybe this would lead to a goblin having his brains bashed in with a brick, or maybe the story would be about a ghoul who has a rock for a pet. Either way, he’d use a simple word as his start-off point. His book Fahrenheit 451 came from his fear of people burning books, something he saw as akin to murder. Nothing more, just a small flash of an idea which he then fleshed out.

You can use the technique separately, too. You can use a single word as your starting point, or you can mine your brain for a deep-rooted fear, and go from there. But using them together, both the word and the fear, gives you a strong foundation for your story. Why don’t you try it out? What scares you? What upsets you? What’s your worse nightmare? If the thought of being trapped in a cell full of spiders sends shivers down your spine, then write it, make it happen. Put your protagonist in that situation and show us how terrified she is, just as you would be, drawing from your own emotions.

Remember: your fears are entertainment to your audience.


“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” ― Pablo Picasso


A few years ago my mum (who had moved to France) sent me a set of keys and asked me to stay at her flat in London for a week and babysit the place. She was in the process of transferring the property back to the council, but first wanted me to make sure it was okay.

But when I stepped in the living room I recoiled. The far side of the room was filled with half-dead wasps — hundreds of them: some were on the windowsill, others on the floor, a couple floated up by the curtain and buzzed angrily against the window, bouncing against the glass. I’ve had a fear of wasps ever since being stung as a child, so to see a colony of them made me want to claw my eyes out. But I couldn’t leave; I’d promised my mum I’d stay. And I didn’t know who to call in order to clean them up. In the end I kept my distance from that room, but every time I went to bed I imagined them crawling down the hall, converging outside the room as an army, then creeping under the door to sting me to death in my bed.

Anyway, to keep my sanity in check, I took that fear and spun a story out of it. By using the truth as my starting point (hundreds of dead and half-dead wasps invading the flat), I was able to write a believable and disgusting horror story about an army of murderous wasps and spiders. It’s one of my best and realest stories yet — and it was triggered by fear.

Incidents happen everyday: someone cuts in front of you in a queue, or steps on your trainers, or doesn’t say thank you when you hold the door open for them. At the time you might feel a flash of rage — I wish I could punch you in the face — but most of us are civilised people so we internalise it and then obsess about it, or let the feeling go.

Either way, that’s your fuel.

You need to take that pain, or hurt, or anger, and spin a web. Rewrite that same incident with a new ending. Just because you won’t hit that person, that doesn’t mean your character won’t. He’s a hyper version of you anyway; he’s stronger, bolder, he’ll say the shit you want to but won’t. Next time something happens that bugs you, write the event out from the perspective of someone else and change the outcome. Write what you’d like to happen. Not only will it feel empowering and cathartic, but you might end up with a good story too.


“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events.

Small minds discuss people.” ― Henry Thomas Buckle


Back in my early days of writing, I had an idea that was similar to Ray Bradbury’s technique of taking a random word and turning it into a story. This was before I’d even heard of him. I wanted to write a short story collection but didn’t think I had enough ideas in the tank. Then one day I discovered a non-fiction book titled Clichés, which was a comprehensive guide to every cliché known to man (or at least known to the writer). I began to flick through the pages: He’s not my cup of tea, any port in a storm, two heads are better than one, reading through the explanations and origins, fascinated by the information. Some of them were older and more obscure, but they’d all been marked off as clichés, and this helped me on two levels: one was to know what not to put in a story — the other was that I now had inspiration for a short-story book.

I called the collection Twisted Clichés. The idea behind it was to take a common saying, such as Have your cake and eat it too and create a story from it. With some of the titles, I’d twist them to make it sound cuter. For example Have your cake and eat it too would become Have your cake and beat up Stu or something dumb like that. I wouldn’t even know the story at that point: I’d simply twist the cliché around, then write the story from the title.

For others I left the original title but twisted the story instead. In others still, my story veered so far from the initial idea or cliché, that I had to change the title altogether. The cliché would be something like Actions speak louder than words, and then after a paragraph or so, I’d be writing something that didn’t link in with that idea at all. Sometimes having that first line, or that title, was merely a jump off point to get my imagination cooking; a way to fight past the excuses and lies my mind threw up. I could no longer say I didn’t know what to write about. I had a subject and a title. That’s how powerful it is to have a starting point for your stories.

For instance, you take something simple like Two Heads Are Better Than One, and you brainstorm. That could bring up multiple options. Somebody with two heads perhaps? One head is smart, the other is dumb, and the two heads constantly argue? A two-headed monster maybe? A man who likes to collect heads? A two-headed coin that somebody uses to rip off the mafia in a gambling game? The options are endless, and once you’ve picked one to focus on, you’re good to go. You’ve jumped through that initial painful I-don’t-know-what-to-write hurdle. You can no longer lie to yourself. Pick a title and fight with the consequences.

You don’t have to limit yourself either: you can choose anything as your starting word or phrase. It can be a metaphor, a line from a movie, a famous quote, an existing title, the name of a movie, the name of your first pet — whatever you want: just pick something and run with it, see how far it’ll take you. In some cases you’ll only get a few paragraphs in and realise there’s nothing in the idea. But other times the words will flow quicker than you can type them. Writing crap is just as important as writing great stuff — it teaches you what doesn’t work and why. And because building a story out of thin air on the basis of a word is bound to throw up a few disasters, you’re helping yourself learn and grow as a writer.

Try it out. Even if you’re skeptical, just do it once.

What do you have to lose? A bad story is still better than writing nothing.


“Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.” ― Albert Einstein


This technique might not work as well for novels as it does for short stories, and yet in the long run it helps both: not only can you adapt it to suit your needs, but by writing loads of short stories and experimenting with style and plotting, you’ll grow so quickly as a writer that you can filter all of these lessons into your novel and scene-building. The more stories you write, the more you’re able to get the blood flowing and practice different styles and experiment scenes from multiple angles, without losing much. If you spend a day writing a scene from a frog’s point of view, it doesn’t matter if it’s terrible or nonsensical — you’ve learned a new lesson. You haven’t wasted a day, you’ve spent a day learning. But you don’t have that luxury with a novel. The time it takes to write 400 pages kind of kills the propensity for experimentation; most people don’t have the patience to experiment on a six-month project just for it to be thrown away, or deleted from your laptop. But shorts are different.

Force yourself to write something from nothing.

As a writer you should always be growing and learning, otherwise you’re stagnating and repeating patterns from previous work. If you don’t challenge yourself; if you don’t put yourself in a position to create from an unknown viewpoint, you will always be the same writer. You might as well be a monkey at a typewriter, churning out the same shit over and over, until your audience disconnects from you. At some point, loyal or not, they’ll stop halfway through your book and think: I know how this ends. Same as it always does, and they’ll move on to another writer, someone willing to take risks. You need to surprise your fans as well as yourself, and free-association creation is a way to break into different parts of your mind.

If you can’t write love stories, try to write a list of ten romance words and create a story from them. If you’re bad at horror, do a list of horrible words instead.

The more you do this, and the more you challenge your comfort zone, the more you’ll grow. And even if you throw all those stories away, their lessons will be valuable to you.

It’ll show in your other work and you’ll improve as a writer.

So pick a word and just write whatever comes to mind.

In fact, I’ll pick a word for you: rabbits.

And from that, I’ll give you a title: The Rabbit with the Fur Coat.


“Creativity takes courage. ” ― Henri Matisse


Now go and write and don’t return until you’ve finished your story.

It might turn out to be a classic. You’ll never know until you write it.

Post it in the comments if you want, or post a link to the story on your website. Or email it to me. I’m curious to see what you ended up with. 

I’ll be waiting.


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Don’t Judge Me Yet

(It Gets Better)

“The first draft of anything is shit.” — Ernest Hemingway

Sometimes potentially great novels are rejected by agents because the writer takes too long to start their story. They begin their novel before the action — they waste time meandering around aimlessly, filling in pointless background information and building characters with no conflict or forward momentum, letting the plot slowly simmer under the surface. Then, by the time the plot does kick off, the agent has already tossed their manuscript to the side. Or deleted it from their email.

Either way: your time is up.


“Most of my work consisted of crossing out. Crossing out [is] the secret of all good writing.” — Mark Haddon


To many beginning writers, this slow approach to a novel makes sense: you gradually build the backdrop and the characters, then once that’s done, once your audience has connected with your people, you plunge them into chaos somehow. You set a bomb in the middle of the lives you’ve perfectly detailed, and watch as it all falls apart. Some writers assume — incorrectly — that they need to make the audience care about their characters first before introducing conflict and/or an inciting incident. But the opposite is true.

If you merely paint a picture of a few characters, most readers, whether they engage with the characters or not, will be asking one question: Why do I care?

It’s definitely important to build characters and also illustrate the relationships between them, but all of that can be filtered into the plot as you go along. You can fit plenty of information during slower moments in your book (usually after something big has happened; the aftermath of an explosion is rarely another explosion), or even in the midst of the action. Tie together character with plot. Let your characters’ actions change the plot but also reveal their personality at the same time.

Imagine telling your friend a story about someone you know. This person jumped in front of a train. That’s the story you want to tell. Do you first spend an hour telling them about your friend’s love of Shakespeare, or his collection of Russian Dolls, or his pet goldfish? No. You get to the point. And then AFTER you tell them he jumped in front of a train, your friend is interested. Why did he do that? Was he depressed? Is he crazy? What kind of person does something like that? Now they’re hooked. They’re curious. Now you can tell them the boring shit. Well, he never seemed depressed, but he did spend a lot of time with his collection of Russian Dolls. It’s all about context and timing. Give them the reason to care first, and THEN fill in the rest.

But don’t mistake me. I’m not saying everything needs to be as dramatic as a gunshot, or a suicide, or a murder. It can be subtle, but it needs to be important. Instead of writing four pages with your main character sat in a chair thinking about his life, have him in an active scene where he’s doing something. It could be anything, but it needs to be purposeful and should be connected, at least tenuously, to the plot or to his character. Preferably, it will link in to both.

If your character has a fear of dogs, perhaps, and that plays into the story later on, show us in a meaningful and interesting way. Don’t just tell us John doesn’t like dogs and then explain an incident from his childhood. Have him in a scene where he flinches from a little girl’s puppy, or a harmless golden retriever, and then fill in the background information, weaving it into the scene as it happens. Maybe he walks a longer route to work because there’s a dog on his road. And because of this he’s always late to work. Maybe his wife brings home a dog and he freaks out. Whatever. Just make the scene active. But again, don’t get caught up in having a scene there for the sake of it. Is there a reason we need to know he’s scared of dogs?

If it’s interesting and you can weave it in with your main storyline, then keep it. If it’s short and adds a little spice to his character, then keep it. If it’s funny and builds upon your character or plot, then again, keep it. But if it’s there just for the sake of it, cut it out.


“Give me good writing, and I’ll play it all day.” — Jeff Daniels


Now, look at the beginning section of your novel — how much of it is necessary? If you have a bunch of inactive scenes there just to show the different sides of your main cast, then you should take the relevant information and scatter it throughout the book. Mix it with the plot. Get to the point where you know the novel is gaining momentum and weave it in there. Start your story with the bang that kills everyone and step back again. Reverse, rewind, sidestep it.

Like I said, it doesn’t have to be anything dramatic as a murder or explosion. It can be anything: the spark of a possible love interest, the falling out of a family, whatever. As long as it’s filled with conflict, you’re on the right track. What you shouldn’t do is spend 50 pages showing us how much this family loves each other, and then rip them apart. Most readers, unless you give them a reason to care, won’t stick around to read about your family’s happiness for that long. There needs to be conflict and drama, an issue to solve. If you need to show how much the family loves each other so the bombshell 50 pages in has an impact, then you need to do it in an interesting way. Maybe someone’s trying to destroy the family business. So you show the family working together, as a unit, trying to stop this from happening. That way you have an objective — STOP THESE PEOPLE FROM DESTROYING US — but also can show your loving, bonded family. And then, on page 50, when you rip it all apart, it makes an impact. Most beginning writers tend to just have the characters hanging out, being loving and caring and doing boring shit, hoping that people will connect with their mundane, run of the mill family.

Go over your novel now and read the first three chapters.

They’re your most important if you want to sell your book.


“Suspense arises naturally from good writing — it’s not a spice to be added separately.” — Leigh Michaels


I’ve heard stories of writers sending out a novel to an agent or editor, along with a note that says something like: It starts off pretty slow, but give it a chance. It gets good after that. Or it may say: Stick with it through the first couple chapters. Everything pops off in the third chapter and it’s non-stop from there on out. I promise. Which means one thing: the writer knows there’s a problem with their manuscript, but they can’t be bothered (or don’t know how) to fix the issue. They think they can placate the reader with a pre-warning.

I can’t imagine why someone would send a manuscript to an agent with an apology at the beginning of their cover letter. It belies common sense. No agent will take your warning on board. She’ll probably just delete your work without giving it a chance. Either that, or skim through the first few pages, realise nothing’s happening (as you already knew, hence the warning), and then delete it.

Your job is to entertain the reader. Not bore him for fifty pages, then entertain him. You have a chance, and it’s the first page, followed by the second page, and you’re only as good as the last page. Imagine it like a first date. You’re there to create a good impression. You can’t spit in your date’s face and then expect a second date by telling her you’re actually a nice guy on the inside. And the same goes for your novel. You can’t rely on a masochistic agent wading through your boring pages of swamp water to reach the riveting parts. You also can’t send the middle section of your novel because you think that’s the most interesting section. Make every section interesting.

I understand, though. I used to have the same issue.

I’d tell people that my novel was great —

Once they got past all the parts that weren’t.


“Good writing is good writing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t orchestrate it or tweak it.” — John Travolta


Check the first one hundred pages of your book. Is it solid? Or weak?Does it move forward? Or is it static? Do you build character at the same time as advancing the plot? Or is everything too nice and relaxed and free of any conflict?

Make sure your first third is fast-moving. That’s what hooks people in. Again, that doesn’t mean a murder on every page, or a sex scene, or action. But something needs to be happening. Plot needs to be growing, characters moving (metaphorically or literally), and the audience need to know this is heading somewhere important. Give your character an objective to complete, even if it’s something simple like Get the attention of a girl he likes.

Go over it now. Break your story down page by page if you have to. Label every scene with its purpose (introducing character, plot point, etc.) and see how many you repeat. If you have four scenes that are there simply to let us know someone is a horrible person, choose the most powerful one and cut the others. You don’t need to drum it into our heads.

What’s the objective of your character? Why are these people sat around a table talking? If there’s no relevance — if you’re just trying to show us their personalities, then change it. Give the scene a purpose. Your main guy wants something, and the other two don’t want to give it to him. Now you can show their personalities whilst also having some conflict and reason behind the scene. And the scene ends when your character gets what he wants, or, more likely, doesn’t get it, and has to find another way to acquire the information or item he needs.

Look for the slow parts and infuse them with something: conflict, drama, intensity, intelligence, comedy. Make everything ten times smarter and better than it is.

If you feel that nagging at the back of your mind, that knocking which says something isn’t quite right, don’t brush it aside and downplay it. Whether it’s only one page or a major plot slice, if it’s wrong, it’s wrong. Take it out, redo it, rewrite it, restructure it. Laziness will not get you a career quicker. Only hard work and a good product will get you what you want.

Failing all that, your book may be good — but it’ll be returned with a note that says: Although we enjoyed your writing, we’re sorry to inform you that it wasn’t quite good enough . . .


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