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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imagesTo Collaborate Or Not To Collaborate
(That’s The Question)

“I used to write with a partner. But then I realised I love the sound of my voice too much to share it with someone else.” — Unknown

Plenty of authors collaborate successfully on joint projects. First they outline their idea, then they work out a schedule in which they bang out a chapter each — or they write half a chapter, or five chapters, whatever — and after that, they edit the other’s segments. For some writers, this can work. If they respect their fellow author, if they have similar ideas about what makes a story work, about where the story should head, about character construction, etc., it can be a powerful combination. Stephen King and Peter Straub are a notable twosome. In The Talisman their styles merged — you can’t tell who wrote what — and the whole effort comes across as seamless. Not every pairing works as well as those two, though.

There are also plenty of possible pitfalls to consider.


“There is no such thing as a self-made man.

You will reach your goals only with the help of others.”George Shinn


When I was younger I wrote comedy skits with a friend. On that occasion it worked. My friend thought I was hilarious (and I tend to agree), so if I suggested a different approach to a joke, nine times out of ten he’d laugh at it and we’d make the change. On the occasion he didn’t agree, I knew he was right. It just didn’t tickle his funny bone. Our personalities and sense of humour were so in sync that collaborating came naturally. We had no problems with it. He’s still my best friend.

However, I’ve found that case to be a rarity, both from my own experiences and from other writers I know. Finding someone you truly mesh with is one in a million.

For a start, unless you’re fully in sync, you’re going to clash. If you enjoy the person’s writing, that doesn’t mean you’ll get along when writing together. You need to have a close friendship with your collaborator and be aware of their likes and dislikes and make sure they’re similar to your own. Working with someone of a different culture, with a different background, intelligence level, and humour, etc., can be a mistake. You both tug and pull in different directions. You want to murder someone halfway through — he wants that person in the sequel. It can cause endless arguments.

On the flip-side, if you work with someone whose ideas are too similar to your own, you won’t challenge each other and your ideas may be flat and too comfortable.

The reason for a collaboration should be to step out of your comfort zone. Push the boundaries and break through into new, unchartered territory.

If not, what’s the point? You might as well just write it by yourself.


“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much” ― Helen Keller


My next experience of collaboration didn’t work for me. I connected with a film director (now a friend and mentor of mine) and we cooked up a few ideas together for scripts and began working on them. For the most part I dealt with the writing side and he took on the role of editor — sending back first drafts with notes and further ideas for development. And although, in the long run, he helped my progress as a writer with some insightful comments, I also felt like our ideas were way too opposite. If I  wanted a blue bus, he wanted a red pony. If I wanted planes, he wanted trains. That wasn’t him being difficult, or even him producing bad ideas, we just had two different but valid approaches to the same problem, and that didn’t work for me.

I guess I could have argued my side until he accepted my way of thinking, but there’s no point collaborating if I’m going to do my own thing anyway. You have to compromise, and with every compromise you can lose a little of your art. The more you accept ideas that aren’t yours, the more the story is shaped away from your vision, and that always grated on me. 

When you think about it, a collaboration is double the work, not half. At first it seems like the easier option: you have someone to share the workload, someone to add input to the story and construction, and someone who’ll be at your side to champion your corner and spur you on. But it’s actually harder to maintain control. What starts out as a joint project, may morph into something that is either completely removed from your starting point, or something you don’t recognise as your own. That can be devastating, especially if you’ve worked hard on it. You want to feel like you’ve given birth to something great — not that you’ve compromised your integrity to please someone else.

Otherwise you’re left with an empty feeling at the end of the project.


“Individually, we are one drop.

Together, we are an ocean.” – Ryunosuke Satoro


My problem is that I want to control things; this, I suppose, is why I’m a novelist. I became an author in order to create worlds and manipulate them how I see fit, like a kind of storytelling sociopath. And if someone else is part of that process, I’m relinquishing the control I’d originally sought out.

My collaborator was a director so he was used to compromising. It didn’t bother him. He understood that scripts can go through hundreds of changes before filming. That’s not how I work, though — I have my vision and I like to follow it right to the end, although that doesn’t mean I’m ignorant to suggestions. If, afterwards, I can find a way to strengthen my work through rewrites or restructuring, that’s cool. I’ll pick it apart and make it stronger. But giving a scene more depth is very different from replacing one character with someone else’s invention. 

But maybe you can handle that. Maybe I’m overly precious and difficult. However, if you do decide to follow this route, make sure you find someone you click with — not just on a personal level, but with film and story ideas. Ask him what films or books he likes. If he enjoys everything you hate, you have a problem. You’re not on the same page, and you need to know that up front. You don’t want to butt heads three hundred pages in and realise your minds are turned in different directions.

Two creative minds can be a dangerous thing when you clash on an idea. You both believe your one is superior and there’s no way to settle it unless someone folds.

And the guy who folds will usually regret it in the long run.

So if you decide to collaborate, pick your partner carefully.

It’s the most important decision you’ll make in the whole process.


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downloadQuestion Everything

“Behind every answer is an important question.” 

Nikola Tesla

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

And he didn’t mean it hyperbolically.

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

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

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


“Don’t just teach your children to read,

teach them to question what they read.

Teach them to question everything.”

George Carlin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is your novel or short story about?


“A wise man can learn more from a foolish question

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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


“It is better to debate a question without settling it

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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

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

Melissa Marr

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

And the list goes on and on and on.

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Which you will eventually transfer to your own work.


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

“Love what you do and do what you love.

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

You do what you want, what you love.

Imagination should be the center of your life.”

Ray Bradbury

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

Thankfully I found my own way through all the bullshit. 

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

― C.M.


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

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

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

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

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


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