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?


sgsg


The other night I attended a Guardian Masterclass called How to Find a Literary Agent. It was fronted by Juliet Mushens, and 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.


afag


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. 


afsg


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.


dhdh


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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Be Your Own Worst Enemy
(Reading With A Critical Eye)

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

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

— Stephen King

In my article Everything You Write Is Terrible I told you about my horribly-conceived short story A Moment of Crisis, one of my first pieces of work. At the time I thought it was the best thing in the history of the world. It didn’t help that my English teacher, Mr Judelson (a nervous, soft-hearted man on the cusp of retirement), gave me a B and praised my work to the class. He specifically picked it out as a highlight and called it “terrifying” and “inventive”. I practically did a backflip. Later that day, everyone wanted to read my story; a copy of it found its way around school through word of mouth. In my mind, I was officially the world’s greatest writer: I’d written a smash-hit.

Thankfully, I was soon brought back down to earth.

With a giant skull-crushing thud.


“To avoid criticism: say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” ― Aristotle 


The next year, following Mr. Judelson’s retirement, we were assigned a new teacher. A young, shapely blonde, who half the class wanted to be punished by (although, in spite of her good looks, I always found her nails to be long, unkempt and dirty — but that’s another story). In any case, in reviewing our GCSE coursework, she read my story and slaughtered it. I’d expected her to return it to me with equal praise, so I could then brag about how the hot English teacher loved my work.

Instead she picked apart every inconsistency, every awkward sentence or bad phrasing, and tore me open for my needless use of the word “pusillanimous” — which I’d clearly learned from an episode of Dawson’s Creek, or stumbled across when reading a WORD OF THE DAY calendar and thought it would make me seem smart. Ironically, it did the opposite. Or maybe not ironically; predictably, in fact. Using long words for the sake of it is the antithesis (too long?) of intelligence. Those with brains use words that are best suited, not attention-seeking quintuple-syllable words like pusillanimous which are merely searching for external validation. Hey guys, look at me, I know long words, do you like me yet?

At first I was disappointed by her negative feedback, and a little resentful. My story had been praised by the previous teacher and disseminated around school, receiving almost universal praise (one kid said it was boring, but I discounted his opinion because I didn’t like him anyway). So why was this hateful bitch calling my work bad? Maybe she didn’t like me, I thought.

Then, the more I read over her comments, the more I agreed with everything she pointed out. Not only did she mention my poor use of English, she also highlighted plot implausibilities and gave practical advice about my setting and characters. Finally, with my self-esteem bruised, I decided she’d been right and thanked her for the valuable input.

That was my first lesson in both rejection (which hurt) and objectivity (which opened up my naïve eyes to the truth: I’m not a writing king).

From that moment on I began trying to develop a more critical eye*.

(*Which sounds like I wanted an eye that’s been stabbed and taken to Intensive Care, but that’s not what I mean).


“Critics are our friends, they show us our faults.” ― Benjamin Franklin


In order to develop your critical faculties, you need to read a lot of books over a wide spectrum of genres and pick them apart. Analyse their structure, the use of dialogue to convey action, the way they introduce and build characters. Look at both the good and the bad. If the book isn’t enjoyable, why not? What don’t you like about it? If you do like it, note the sections when you stop reading or put it aside. Why did you stop reading? Did the story slow down? Did the tension slack? Or was there a break in the narrative? If something bugs you — whether it’s plot or character based, or concerning dialogue or scene construction — mark it down. If a character scratches your nerves with jagged fingernails, try to work out what made you disengage with that character? Or why didn’t you feel an affinity with that character in the first place? A lack of sympathetic traits? Too arrogant? Too meek? All of these questions are important, but there’s no wrong answer.

Some writers/readers love certain types of characters, dialogue, settings, etc. What one person thinks is insightful, another person finds trite. That’s okay. What you’re trying to find out is what you like in a book. Then you can infuse your own novels with more of what you enjoy reading. Because first and foremost, your writing should impress yourself — you should be able to read your work and feel proud of it. 

Once you realise what works in the writing of others and what doesn’t, you’ll be able to stamp out those bad habits from your own novels. Your book may be scarred with potholes that your brain has been navigating past all this time, but the moment you put them to the forefront of your mind, they’ll all begin to spring up; these horrible dark holes that need to be paved over. You might read a book and hate how the author repeated a scene in multiple ways. You’re frustrated by this, thinking He’s a bad guy, we get it! and then refer to your own work-in-progress and realise you’ve made a similar error. The more you see their flaws, the more you can pick at your own. Just peel those layers off until you find the darkness within.

In the end, once you can look at your work and know when it’s worthy or unworthy, you’re on the right track. If you’ve never written anything bad, you’re blind.

Or an unimaginable genius.

Because we all write something shit from time to time.

Even the greats occasionally churn out fat lumps of nothing.

But how do we analyse our own work if we think it’s great? 


“The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s

own reason and critical analysis.” — Dalai Lama


It’s easy to think our shit smells of roses. But when someone goes into the bathroom after you and comes out crying, maybe it’s not true. Sometimes we’re too close to our children to see their flaws. 

Have you ever been in the house of someone who has a pack of dogs? Not all, but some dog owners’ houses stink of dog. All you can smell is piss and fur and dead rats hidden in the corners. This is doubly true for those with cats — their litters stink the house to high-heaven. But if you ask the owners about it, most times they’ll say they don’t notice it. Well that’s like your story sometimes: it’s a house full of stinking wet dog fur and you can’t see it or smell it. You’re too close to the material.

The only time these owners recognise how bad their house smells is usually after they go on a prolonged vacation for a month or so, then return from fresh air to a stinking cesspit of dead dogs and piles of festering shit. So in regards to your novel, leave it for a while. Go on holiday, breathe in that fresh air. Then come back to it with critical eyes. You’re no longer the writer — you’re a reader now. And you want to be entertained, goddammit.

Why is your main character doing this? Why is the plot turning this way?

Question it in the same way you would with someone you hate. When we like someone, we tend to justify their idiotic decisions. If our friend wears a green porkpie hat with a purple jacket and pink socks, we say: Oh, that’s just Rob. He’s like that. Kooky guy. But when someone you hate makes a similar fashion faux pas, the context changes. Now it’s merely a guy in a stupid purple jacket. Oh God, look at Rob. He’s so pretentious. I hate him even more now. 

Look at your story with the eye of someone who wants to hate it. Search for faults that don’t exist. You don’t necessarily need to act on them (not right away; not while you’re in hate mode anyway), but it’s useful for you to know where the problem areas are. That way, later on, you can fix them. Objectivity is one of your most powerful tools.

In fact, later on I’ll objectively analyse everything I’ve written above and think: What a pile of rubbish. Overlong, overwritten with no real helpful tips for anyone.

Unfortunately for you, I’ve already decided to post it.

Too late to change it now . . .


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My advice for those considering writing as a career option:

Don’t do it. Pick teaching or be a lawyer or something.

Get out while you still can. It’s cold and dark in here.

And no one knows where to find the light switch.


“Don’t be ‘a writer’. Be writing.” ― William Faulkner


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One Year Of Writing
(The Challenge) 

“A year from now you may wish you had started today.”

—Karen Lamb

Last year on the third of June, two months after breaking things off with my agent, I had an epiphany. It’s an epiphany I’d had many times over the past fifteen years as a writer. Every month or two I’d have this groundbreaking lightning-to-the-head idea, and I’d tell myself This time I’ll follow through with it. But life didn’t quite work out like that.

For a start, so many things kept getting in the way — or, in other words: I allowed things to get in the way. Back in my early twenties I was married with two kids, holding down two part-time jobs on the other side of London (I lived in South; my jobs were in North West), which I soon followed up with a divorce and weekend dad duties — and going out three times a week to get drunk and pick up girls like a brainless teenager. I had so much going on in my life, and I took those excuses and ran with them. If I couldn’t be bothered to write, it’s because I had to buy a new outfit for that evening’s escapades. If I didn’t want to write, I blamed it on my kids — they’re hard work, after all. If the word-wizard didn’t have his hat on that morning, I’d blame tiredness from work or from watching too much porn. Whatever could be an obstacle, I let it be one.

And that’s all they ever were: excuses, lies to pin my laziness on. That way, when I got around to my school reunion, or a big family dinner, or whatever, and people asked me why I never made anything of myself, I could say: Well, where should I start . . .? and throw out a list of bullshit reasons to explain my endless procrastination. I could blame my kids, my hectic lifestyle, the break up of my marriage — or my marriage in general, as many relationships take away valuable alone time. I could invent any number of reasons why I never had time to pursue my dream. But the truth was, if I really wanted it, I could find the time to write. I certainly found the free hours to play football or go to the movies or call up girls or listen to music. When my kids fell asleep, I’d sit in my living room and watch TV all night. And although, especially in their early years, I felt exhausted — I still had enough spare hours in my evenings to write a novel. Even if it was only a single page a night. 

So when the epiphany hit me, I figured I should actually pay attention.

For once.


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This time around will be different. That’s what I kept telling myself. I soaked in as much habit-forming literature as time would permit, noting the many psychological techniques one can use to trick their brain into being productive, and then I chose the ones which seemed to fit my personality best. I needed to build an unbreakable routine. Firstly, I changed my sleeping habits. For so long I’d head off to bed when my brain could no longer hack being awake; I’d slide under the covers at 12, or 1, or 3 in the morning, only to then sleep in, wake up around 11, and feel like shit all day. Most times I probably wrote two or three hundred words. Maybe a thousand on a good day. 

So I began going to bed in the early evenings around ten, or as soon as I felt tired. And then, in the morning, the moment I woke up — whether at 6:30 or 8:00 — before I thought about breakfast, or brushing my teeth, or anything like that, I’d flip open my laptop at the dining room table and I’d get to work. I started with short stories at first, just to build a regular routine and stick with it. Writing a novel can be draining; it’s a lot easier to bang out a short story. You spend three days or so and get instant gratification and satisfaction that you’re working. I kept this up for about eight weeks, writing a ridiculous amount of short stories — somewhere close to sixty, I think. My most important rule, however, was to never look back. Keep moving.

Even the stories I thought were great I dumped into my writing folder without so much as a second glance, then moved on to the next idea. As long as I kept writing, I knew I’d soon ingrain the habit. Neural pathways would form and solidify. I’d become accustomed to the routine of waking early and writing first thing.

And I did. I wrote it all: novels, stories, novellas, hit lists, ransom notes.

It wasn’t easy, though. In some ways, it was a nightmare.


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At first, it seemed simple. The words flowed, and I worked in peace every morning — no emails, no Facebook notifications, no phone calls, no tweets, no one awake to bother me. This was a writer’s dream, and I was living it. Nothing had ever been this easy. But it turned out I was simply stuck in the honeymoon period. You might have noticed a similar attitude in people who try to quit smoking. The first few weeks are a breeze. It’s only later on, maybe a few weeks down the line, when something really stressful happens and they don’t have a cigarette that their true willpower kicks in. A lot fail at this hurdle.

But I didn’t want to fail. For a start, I’d been chronicling my word count day by day, and I hated the thought of leaving a blank space. After every session I wrote the number down and felt a weight off my shoulders. I had the rest of the day to relax, to hang out with my fiancée, to play the computer, watch TV, complete some editing work, whatever. The earlier I finished my writing, the freer my day.

And if my brain wasn’t working too well that morning, it didn’t matter. I’d force out two or three paragraphs and write extra the next day. I didn’t set myself an amount. My only stipulation is that I’d write something.

Then came the hard times. The obstacles I didn’t expect.


drunk


I began to exhaust myself — writing and editing throughout the day without taking breaks, eating, or rehydrating properly. And waking up every morning first thing didn’t help much, either. I was working seven days a week (and still am) without so much as a free weekend to let my mind breathe and switch off. In the end I contracted acute tonsillitis (even though I had a tonsillectomy as a child). I don’t know if the two things were connected: a lack of sleep/rest leading to illness, and yet they seemed to be — my immune system is usually strong as an ox. But still, even with the fever and the shivering and the trips to the hospital and the antibiotics and painkillers, I refused to give up my word count. Wiping the sweat from my body, I persevered and worked through the sickness. Later, I toiled through the tiredness and the long days and all of my dirty hangovers.

Over time I occasionally slacked on my morning routine, sometimes waiting until nine in the evening before I began writing. But it didn’t matter much anyway: in the space of a year, I missed only two days and that wasn’t my fault. I was away for the weekend in Leeds and I’d been meaning to write on my phone but I dropped it and the screen smashed.

Even still, that’s only two days out of a year. That means for 363 out of 365 (I wrote on Christmas morning and my birthday, too), I managed to write — sometimes half a page, sometimes twenty pages. And it’s something I’m proud of, in spite of the drain it’s had on me. The thing is, I’m due a break but I can’t do it. I’m scared to stop writing.

What if I take a week off and never get back into the routine?


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Now that the twelve months are up, I plan to edit it all, save the good stuff, and send it off so I can get a new agent. Then start the process all over again. 

Maybe none of it will sell in the end. Maybe all of it will. The point is I set myself a goal — to write for one year straight — and I achieved it. In increments, through many sleepless nights and early mornings and tiring and draining afternoons, but I did it; I wrote piles of pages. Some of it was most likely terrible. It’s bound to be; no one writes perfectly amazing prose and plots every single day of their life. But in this case, quantity lead to an overall quality. By writing so often, and so close together, I realised mistakes in my writing as I went along. I could pinpoint issues from something I’d written and fix it in the next thing I wrote. It was like joining an advanced writing course, except I was the teacher too.

And every month felt like a success, especially when I counted up my words and saw how much I’d written that month. My average was about 55,000, the length of a short novel. Overall I wrote 669,145 words, which adds up to almost 3000 double-spaced A4 pages (according to this website). 

So if anyone out there doesn’t feel like they’ve been writing enough, try the ONE YEAR CHALLENGE (as I’ve just dubbed it). For one whole year dedicate yourself to your craft and see what happens. You’ll be amazed at how much you grow as a writer and how disciplined you become.

And in the long run, you’ll be the professional you need to be. Don’t wait for a contract to assign those extra hours to your craft. Be a pro and people will see you as one.

Now stop reading this and go get started on today’s two thousand words.

Or three hundred. Or one sentence.

Just as long as you’re doing it.


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Rejection Is Good For The Soul
(If You Choose To View It That Way) 

“A rejection is nothing more than a necessary step

in the pursuit of success.” 

— Bo Bennett

Over a decade ago, before two children and a broken marriage, I thought I’d written a future bestselling crime novel that would change the world. I truly believed it would be stocked in every major (or minor) bookstore, and I’d see someone reading it on every tube or train or bus ride I went on. I guess I was a delusional fantasist. Or, in other words: a writer.

And because I’d decided my book was amazing, the next logical step was to grab the attention of an agent. I didn’t care who or what agent I ended up with; whether they represented crime fiction or usually dealt with non-fiction gardening. It didn’t occur to me to research the field. I simply picked a few names online, found one that accepted email submissions, and lumped together an embarrassingly inept query package.

Instead of a brief covering letter and synopsis, I wrote a rambling five-page email  in which I claimed to be The Next Big Thing  and then, to make things worse, I added an attachment of the entire book (rather than the standard three sample chapters), and finally, I signed it off with Yours Sincerely, Your Client-To-Be. I wish I could go back in time and punch myself to death. If that wasn’t bad enough, the novel itself was a pile of dog shit. In fact, it was quite possibly one of the most horrific things ever put to paper. Reading it back these days is on par with looking at a thousand pictures of Nazi death camps.

Which, if you’ve never done that — is pretty fucking horrible.

* * * * * * * * * * 

I didn’t know any of this at the time, though. I still saw the novel as a masterpiece. And when the agent responded with a generic This isn’t for us email, I decided to rewrite it in a new style and send it off again a month or so later — to the same agent as before.

Within days of this second attempt, I received a personal response this time, a quick line or two that said the writing wasn’t quite “up to par”. Not letting this deter me, I then rewrote the novel a third time, overhauling the style and trying to make it sound smarter — which, ironically, had the opposite effect: I somehow managed to transform a small pile of shit into a twelve-acre field of manure.

Still arrogant in the belief that I had written something amazing — just like one of those tone-deaf singers who audition for X-Factor every year — I persevered and submitted my novel to this long-suffering agent yet again. I can only imagine what he thought when he received the same subpar package in his inbox, with the promise of a new and improved writing style, for the third time. Most likely, he slammed his head into his computer monitor. Maybe he took out a blade and stabbed himself repeatedly in the chest. Not for any reason other than to release his frustration at my relentless idiocy.

I waited for a response and constantly refreshed my email, certain I’d soon be offered a contract with this agency. The agent would call me up, apologise for overlooking my talent, and give me a virtual pat on the back for the immediate improvement in my writing. Alas, that’s not quite how things turned out . . .

* * * * * * * * * * 

He did respond (I wouldn’t blame him if he didn’t), only this time he sent a personal and cutting reply. And almost twelve years later, I have it here for you to read:

George, well, full marks for trying but I’m afraid this really doesn’t grab me at all. I’m afraid I really do think the prose is pretty dire. Sorry! Frankly I think you need to read more, and more widely, as your use of English is slightly inaccurate and ‘stilted’. Eg, ‘rancid sweat’, ‘epileptic images’ and ‘massacred headlice in a battlefield of beauty’.

Kind Regards,

Robin Wade.

Before I carry on with how amazing this email was, let me just address the crack-addicted pink-tutu-wearing elephant in the room. I’m talking about the line: Massacred head lice in a battlefield of beauty, which is quite possibly the worst thing ever written in the history of the world. From what I can remember, it was meant to be a simile about blood in a little girl’s hair. I can’t recall the original line, but it was probably: blood droplets in her hair looked like massacred head lice in a battlefield of beauty. Even typing it out here I feel a little nauseated. Somewhere in my mind I thought referring to blood drops in the hair as massacred head lice was an intelligent idea. Let that just sink in for a second.

What the hell was going on with my life back then?

* * * * * * * * * * 

Anyway, back to the email. I loved it. Not at the time, probably. But as the years went by, I would constantly refer to that email. The rejection (and the brutal way in which Robin put me in my place, and deservedly so) inspired me to work harder, read wider, and write better. I wanted to prove this guy wrong. He’d written me off as a failure, some no-hope shit-bag writer, and I was adamant I wouldn’t live up to that belief. (And I didn’t: six years after that email I was finally signed to a literary agency; that rejection letter was partly responsible for my determination to succeed.) 

Some people might take such an email to heart, call the agent a hack, an idiot, rude, or any number of things. Those are the type of people who will most likely never fulfil their ambitions. This email was quite possibly the greatest response about my writing that I’ve ever received. If it hadn’t been for that, if he’d merely sent me another generic template letter, I might have written in that vein for years. People around me — friends and family — probably would have convinced me I had talent, and I would have continued on that rusty track until I slammed into a brick wall a decade down the line.

* * * * * * * * * * 

The fact is, if you pin your self-worth on your work, you’re bound to be hurt by rejection. For some of you, a rejection as harsh as the one above (or maybe even as gentle as a standard template letter) will be enough to derail you from your career as a bestselling author. You’ll take it as an indication that your work sucks giant donkey dick and you’ll bow out of the race — sometimes when you’re only inches from the finish line. That’s pretty tragic. Right now in a basement somewhere is the next Stephen King, or Dennis Lehane, or Shakespeare, but he no longer sends his work off because he can’t deal with rejection. We might never see the mastery he’s created due to his lack of a backbone. Thankfully my spine is made of titanium.

Every rejection helps to push me harder and further on my journey. It’s the fuel to my fire. And if you want to be one of the greats, you’ll embrace it too. Even better: you’ll seek out rejection. Because praise means nothing in the long run. It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t improve you as a writer, it’s just a short and meaningless ego boost. You’re an amazing writer from your best friend will not sell any novels in real life. What you need is the truth.

Brutal as it can sometimes be. It’s the only way you’ll progress.

* * * * * * * * * *

Think of all the authors who were rejected and went on to be big stars. If you do a quick search on Google, you’ll find numerous stories about authors who were rejected multiple times and later went on to critical and financial success. Harry Potter, probably the best known book/character on the planet, was turned down by twelve different publishing houses before a Bloomsbury editor was convinced to publish it by his eight-year-old daughter. John Grisham’s A Time To Kill was rejected by sixteen literary agencies and twelve publishers. It sold 250 million copies. Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (co-authors of Chicken Soup For The Soul) received 140 rejections, many of them stating that “Anthologies don’t sell” — they went on to sell 125 million copies.

And it doesn’t stop there. Look at Stephen King, Dean Koontz, even The Beatles: every artist who ever made it to the top has a story about rejection. They all started off being told no, or being told they were rubbish, and they all pushed through regardless.

My friend, author Rob Boffard, sent his debut novel Tracer to ten agents. They all rejected it. So he went back to the book, rewrote it, tightened some scenes, made it better, and sent it off to another ten agents. In the end, he had to choose between three who all wanted to represent him.

He went from being rejected by multiple agents to being sought out by three of them in the space of a few months. He then signed a three-book deal with Orbit Books for his Outer-Earth trilogy. That’s the difference between a whining quitter and a success story. He didn’t give up. Incidentally, his debut novel (the aforementioned Tracer) will be out on July 2nd 2015. I’ve read it and it’s a great Sci-Fi novel. I recommend it highly. Go and pre-order it. (Also check out my interview with him here).

* * * * * * * * * * 

Finally, on a related note, go and check this brilliant fable (here) which appeared in Lawrence Block’s writing guide Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. It encapsulates everything I’ve been saying in the form of a short story. Read it, and then go get rejected.

Okay?

You have my permission.


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The First Five Pages By Noah Lukeman

imgres“This, simply, is the focus of this book: to learn how to identify and avoid bad writing.”

The First Five Pages is a little different than the usual writing guides: it’s written by a successful literary agent and is more about what you shouldn’t do, not what you should do. Noah Lukeman points out the potholes to avoid, the common mistakes that authors make, and the principles of BAD WRITING. He covers everything from dialogue, to characters, to pacing and plotting, to the actual presentation of the manuscript once it’s completed. He also explains the reasons your work may be overlooked by jaded, cynical literary agents such as himself.

It’s a comprehensive, fresh twist on the usual, and the writing is strong enough to hold the reader’s interest. However, it’s not without flaws. The hyperbolic examples of bad writing, for instance, detract from some of the points the author was making. It would have been more beneficial if he deconstructed true-life examples of bad writing, rather than concoct his own ostentatious version of something terribly written. The examples might help amateurs to notice poor writing, but were useless for the more competent writers. If Noah Lukeman picked apart a piece of work that was less obviously badly written — something that, on the surface, seems fine — it would have added more value to his advice. 

Aside from that, there’s still enough insight offered for even the mediocre (or great) writer to gain something from.

And it’s especially helpful to see things from a literary agent’s point of view; to see what common problems an agent looks out for as soon as he or she picks up a manuscript. So if you’re a writer trying to break in the door, or smash through the window of the literary world, check this one out.

On top of that, check out Noah Lukeman’s free downloads:

How To Land (And Keep) A Literary Agent 

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How To Write A Great Query Letter 

th-2Ask A Literary Agent (Year One)

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