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

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

~ Flannery O’Connor

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

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

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

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

And teachers can help you with that . . .

Or they can destroy your talent.


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

~ William Arthur Ward


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

~ Aristotle


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

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

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

So pick your teacher or course carefully.


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

~ Phil Collins


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

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

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

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

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


“You cannot teach a man anything,

you can only help him find it within himself.”

~ Galileo Galilei


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

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

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

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

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

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

“Imagination is intelligence with an erection.”

~ Victor Hugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

~ Oscar Wilde


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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


“There are some ideas so wrong

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

~ George Orwell


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

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

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


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tumblr_nkuq3yW4QQ1t2tnzvo1_500Writing With A Hangover
(Alcohol As A Creative Aid)

“Long before I became ‘rich and famous’

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

~ Charles Bukowski

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

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

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

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

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

Then isolate the doubt and eradicate it.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

I was drunk and didn’t care.

I was serving my ego, not my story.

And this is where drinking to write can be dangerous.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

Crack out the bubbly and drown yourself in fizzy needles.

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


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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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print__don__t_take_offence_by_game_over_custom-d489vfsWhat If I Offend Someone? 
(Good. Fuck ‘Em Anyway.)

“I say what I want to say and do what I want to do. There’s no in between.

People will either love you for it or hate you for it.”

~ Eminem

Recently I went to visit my mum in France. I told her about a show I’d been watching and she said, “Really? Zey put zis kind of sing on TV? How do zey manage to write so it doesn’t offend anyone?” which is the type of comment she always makes. We’ll be watching something and she’ll say: This is offensive. This is obscene. This is too graphic. Why do they swear so much? Why is there so much sex? What sick person wrote this? and it goes on like that. If she had her own way, all the shows she enjoys would be watered down and stripped of the swearing, sex and depravity.

And yet she still continues to watch them week after week.

Just like everyone else.


“I believe in absolute freedom of expression. Everyone has a right to offend and be offended.” ~ Taslima Nasrin


There are people who’ve suffered through terrible incidents in their life: rape, back-alley abortions, drug and alcohol addiction, murder, amputation, war, etc., and if a show or film portrays those hard times they’ve been through, whether done mockingly or with compassion, some of those people can’t watch those scenes (or read them in a book). It brings back horrible memories they’ve been trying to suppress or deal with. Some of these victims get angry at the show for approaching the subject. They write diatribes on social networks and the IMDb forums to express their outrage at such explicitness. They get angry that the writers have deviated from the course they’d chosen for the character in their own mind. They’ll micro-analyse every character, and claim sexism or racism or homophobia by the show’s writers or directors. They’ll write ten-page negative reviews after every episode they dislike. The amount of people on the internet who find offence in something is endless; they’re everywhere. They write letters, post YouTube videos, they tweet, they type out Facebook statuses. They’re offended by so many things. For a show to please them, or for a book to be up to their high moral standards, the creators would need to tiptoe through a minefield.

And they’d still get blown up. 

To an extent, I understand the backlash occasionally. Sometimes a show I enjoy will piss me off with their decision-making — a character I like will die or act like a massive prick. In Scrubs I hated that JD kissed his best friend’s wife, even when drunk. I didn’t like Jesse Pinkman’s heroin addiction storyline in Breaking Bad, or the out-of-nowhere tone-shift in season 7 of Entourage which I felt ruined the mood of the show. In House, the main character frustrated me with his inability to get his shit together — eventually his self-destruction lost its appeal and just became repetitive and predictable. The ending of Lost felt cheap and didn’t answer any of the five millions questions I had. But so what? I kept watching.

Because no matter what I hated, a thousand other people probably loved it.


“Offendedness is just about the last shared moral currency in our country. And, I’m sorry, but it’s really annoying. We don’t discuss ideas or debate arguments, we try to figure out who is most offended.”

~ Kevin DeYoung


If you stick to your own personal vision, without allowing everyone’s perceptions and prejudices to veer you off course, eventually you’ll piss some people off. Along the way you’ll lose some audience members, but you’ll gain others to fill in their spots. For every 100 people who hate seeing or hearing the word Fuck, there are another 1000 like me who hate not seeing it. Some will say “Swearing is unnecessary” or “Swearing is proof of a stunted vocabulary” and then others will say “I can’t believe it without the swearing — it’s watered down.” Some will tell you there’s not enough Christian characters, or there isn’t enough diversity in your cast, or your female protagonist isn’t slutty enough, or she’s too slutty, or your script will offend feminists or humanists or activists with your depiction of women or men or animals or whatever.

Read the comment section of any YouTube video and the hundreds and thousands of bored people shouting into the ether trying to feel like their opinion means something. Sometimes I’ll read a comment that has 2000 likes on it and think “You’re all idiots. I enjoyed that scene” — which just means I might be the idiot, or blind, or it could mean the 50,000 others who liked it couldn’t be bothered to write a comment about it. Other times I’ll agree with their opinion. The fact is, it’s impossible to please everyone at once, and you shouldn’t try to. That’s an error of judgement and ego. You’re not being true to your vision or your art if you’re watering down for someone else. Or if, on the flip-side, you’re making something shocking or offensive for the sake of it.

Above everything, write for yourself.

Because ultimately, your own opinion is the only one that truly matters. 


“Every day we have plenty of opportunities to get angry, stressed or offended. But what you’re doing when you indulge these negative emotions is giving something outside yourself power over your happiness. You can choose to not let little things upset you.”

~ Joel Osteen 


Truth is what you should aim for when you write. Forget everything else, just have that in mind. I must tell the truth. If you’re personally offended by the F word, but your story is set in an inner city neighbourhood and your characters are a gang of drug dealers, you’re going to have to follow the truth of your story and step out of your comfort zone. You’re not just writing for yourself — although that’s important — but you also need to connect with your audience. Which means they need to suspend their disbelief and immerse themselves in your world. If they don’t believe in your story, they won’t believe in your characters and they’ll stop reading. You’re more likely to grip your reader with reality, no matter how gruesome.

And the opposite is true: if your book is from the perspective of a prim and proper lady with an aristocratic background, having her walk around saying Motherfucker and Cocksucker might not go down well. Unless, of course, that’s a point of her character: that she breaks rules and contradicts the nature of her heritage. In any case, the truth is the important thing: follow it, chase it, grab it, and then write it.

If you do that, you’ll be okay. Anything less and you’re cheating yourself.

And you’re offending not just me, but your entire audience too.


“We should be too big to take offence and too noble to give it.”

~ Abraham Lincoln


That’s it for this week. If you liked this post, you can subscribe below and get my newest blogs straight to your inbox. And if you want to share this, or any other blog from my site, that’s great. If not, I’ll, like, totally be offended . . . 


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HardWorkAheadSign_thumbWrite The Second Book
(Right Now) 

“Do you know why Albert Camus was so prolific?

He wrote to keep from screaming.”

Henry Rollins

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I’ll tell you why.


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

~ Alan Schoenfeld


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

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

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

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

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


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

~ Bruce Lee


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

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

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

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

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


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

~ Michelangelo


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

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

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

Which is the smartest and most lucrative place to be.


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

~ Andrew Carnegie


Why are you still here?

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


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UntitledHow I Got A Literary Agent
(The Easy Way)

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

Frank Sinatra

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

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

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

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


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

Winston Churchill


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

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

This is tres important.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

So I moved on to the next step.


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

But even then . . .

Dan Brown, ahem.


Untitled


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


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1235996_24005539_smHow To Write A Query Letter

To get published, the most important thing is to WRITE A GOOD BOOK.

Obviously. That comes before anything.

But what happens once you’ve written something you deem worthy of publication?  Firstly, you need a literary agent. You could go straight to the publishing houses, but your novel will most likely languish in a slush pile somewhere. And even if your magical masterpiece finds its way out of the slush pile, the publishers will probably offer you a shitty deal because they assume you don’t know any better. A literary agent helps to cut through all the bullshit. Not only that, but they’re in this to make money, which means they’ll try their hardest to get you as much as possible — after all, they only get a ten percent cut.

And in order to get an agent, you need to construct a query package.

But how do you do that?


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The other night I attended a Guardian Masterclass, fronted by Juliet Mushens, called How to Find a Literary Agent. During the class, Juliet broached the subject of query letters and explained a few of the DOs and DON’Ts of writing the perfect query (the pictures throughout this post were taken from her list). I’ll go through some of them below, but the most important piece of information to me was: Your query letter should be ninety percent about the story, ten percent about you.

Plenty of writers waffle on in their query letter, saying shit like: “I’m a new writer but my family all think I’m great, and my best friend Bob — who hates most books — thinks my novel is amazing, and you just have to read it. I studied English in college and I have pink hair and one time I cut my toenails and sprinkled the pieces all over my dog and the look he gave me was hilarious, which shows I’ve got a great sense of humour and blah blah blah —” No one gives a shit about your life story. Shut up and tell them about the book. Before anything, they want to know what the novel is about, what genre it slots into, where it might fit in the current market, and if they’re interested in reading it.

They’ll worry about whether or not they like you later on.


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You should start your cover letter with an introduction about your book.

Dear [insert agent name], I would love for you to represent my novel [insert title]. It’s an action-thriller set in Germany during the Second World War . . .

And then, once you’ve briefly explained the story (two paragraphs should be enough), you can tell the agent a little about yourself. If you have no writing background or previous experience, that’s okay. They won’t reject you just because you haven’t got your foot in the door yet. But if you do have any relevant experience or magazine sales, it’s helpful to mention it. Or if your story was inspired by something in your life, then add that in. For instance: “I was a general in the Second World War, which I think gives the novel a sense of authenticity.” Or even: “I’ve been teaching for the past twenty years, which has helped to shape my novel about the problems of inner-city children.” Or whatever. If you can link your career or passions with your book, then do it.

If you can’t, then write something simple: “I’m an unpublished author with a passion for words. I’ve been writing for five years and hope to pursue it full-time one day.”

It doesn’t have to be amazing. You’re not auditioning for The X Factor. You don’t need a sob story to win.

And once you’ve done that, you’re almost ready to send it to an agent.

But you need to do some research first. 


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It’s imperative to follow the correct procedures when sending off your material. Make sure you check out what each particular agent requires: this is usually a cover letter, a synopsis, and three chapters — or fifty pages, whichever comes first. Don’t send three chapters if they’re only a page long, but also don’t send three chapters if they’re two-hundred pages each. You want to aim for around the 50 mark.

But all agents are different.

So comb through their website for their submission guidelines and follow them to the letter. If you can’t find the information on their site, or in The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, and you’re sure you’ve looked thoroughly, then email or call to find out what they need from you. If you follow their instructions, you’ll at least have your query letter/submission read (in most cases) and that’s all you can ask for: a chance to impress.

Also, try to tailor your letter to each specific agent. Writing Dear Whomever It May Concern probably won’t get you very far. Throw in a personal touch, something like: My work is similar to some of the authors you already represent, such as [insert author’s name] or I’ve read interviews of yours and you seem like someone I’d get along well with. Just don’t go overboard with compliments. And no matter what you do, DON’T try to subvert the norm to stand out.

It’s not cute, it’s not funny, and it won’t work. 


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For some reason, lots of writers think the way to an agent’s heart is through a variety of abnormal methods: flattery, arrogance, stalking, death threats, love letters, anthrax, dick pics — they don’t work. 

Some will write in their query letter that the agent Better sign me up because I’m hot shit and you’ll be missing out if you don’t. Or they may write If you sell my book, I’ll make you rich. Or they’ll slip in a picture of them at a barbecue with their query letter. Or a poem. Or they’ll send it in a pink envelope which has been spritzed with perfume. Or they’ll send a fluffy soft toy as if they’re trying to impress a potential Valentine’s date. Or they’ll ‘accidentally’ bump into the agent in the street (after hunting down their schedule and cyber stalking them) and try and convince the agent to sign them up. These people all suffer from the same thing: idiocy. But not just that — a lack of faith in their work.

And that’s all the agent cares about. Well, maybe not all: I’m sure they want to work with reasonably sane and gentle people, too. But for the most part, in the initial stages, all they want to know is if you can write, and if your novel will make money.

And your work does all the talking on that front. Anything else is overkill and will irritate them, so if you’re that guy (or girl) who does stuff like this, just stop. Don’t even consider doing it again. Just quit while you’re ahead. You’re only hurting yourself.


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Like with most things, there are exceptions to the rules. Every now and then someone sends their manuscript in a cute pink box slathered in Chanel No. 5 and it delights the agent. Maybe that day, for whatever reason, had been pretty terrible and the manuscript showed up at just the right time to put a smile on her face.

It doesn’t matter: the work still only sold on the basis of its merit, not because of the cute pink box it came in.

And that’s the most important part to remember: your work won’t jump to the top of the pile; the agent won’t give your novel more thought or effort (she might very well do the opposite, assuming it to be the work of an amateur); the agent won’t shove her current reading duties to the side out of eagerness to read the pink box lady’s writing. She’ll either find it funny (rarely), or it’ll give her a negative starting point for reading. Is this risk worth it? There’s hardly any gain, but everything to lose.

If you follow the correct procedure for sending your work in, you’ll immediately be in the top fifteen percent of people anyway — plenty of authors fail to follow simple guidelines, which is ironic considering they’re writers and therefore should be great readers, too. 

Follow the rules and you’ll instantly gain credibility. Deviate and you risk losing that.

Only a braindead idiot would bet their career on being an exception.

Just make sure your novel is the best it can be, and you’ll do fine.


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

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

Mark Warner

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

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

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

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

Remember: support and encouragement goes both ways.

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

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


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


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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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


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

Serena Williams


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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

Jack Nicholson


I have a few regular readers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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How A Mars Bar Gave Me Discipline
(Kind Of)

“We are what we repeatedly do.

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

— Aristotle

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

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

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

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

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

You might be wondering how this is relevant to writing. 

I’ll tell you.


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

So you need discipline to learn discipline.

Some Catch 22 paradox type shit.

I’ll explain how. 


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

But now comes the hard part . . .


“A disciplined mind leads to happiness; 

an undisciplined mind leads to suffering.” — Dalai Lama


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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