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

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

Sherrilyn Kenyon

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

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

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

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

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

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


“Life is too short to be around someone

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

Elizabeth Bourgeret


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“I pay ZERO attention to what you say.

But your actions have my undivided attention.”

Sotero M Lopez II


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

tech-tool
Useful Tech Tools For Budding Writers

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


Evernote

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

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

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


Virtual Private Network (VPN)

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


Dragon

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

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


Place to Write

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


Hemingway App

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


Wappwolf

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


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

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

Tell us in the comments.


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

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


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

“Love what you do and do what you love.

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

You do what you want, what you love.

Imagination should be the center of your life.”

Ray Bradbury

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Thankfully I found my own way through all the bullshit. 

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

― C.M.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

~ Flannery O’Connor

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

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

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

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

And teachers can help you with that . . .

Or they can destroy your talent.


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

~ William Arthur Ward


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

~ Aristotle


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

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

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

So pick your teacher or course carefully.


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

~ Phil Collins


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

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

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

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

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


“You cannot teach a man anything,

you can only help him find it within himself.”

~ Galileo Galilei


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Imagination is intelligence with an erection.”

~ Victor Hugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

~ Oscar Wilde


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


“There are some ideas so wrong

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

~ George Orwell


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

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

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


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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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