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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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 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.


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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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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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Kill Their Family
(But Only If You Have To)

“On the night of the murder I was at home, asleep.

The characters in my dream can vouch for me.” 

Jarod Kintz 

In my early days as a writer I couldn’t work out how to give my characters depth. On the surface they’d seem funny or interesting, but they generally lacked anything intriguing other than their witty dialogue. At the time I was so influenced by Elmore Leonard’s writing style that I tried to mimic him with these ultra-cool criminal types. What I ended up with was cardboard characters spouting one-liners with nothing else under the hood — just a row of unrealistic too-cool generic cutouts. 

Then one day I sketched out a protagonist with a dead dad and this piece of information seemed to give him a real emotional weight. It changed my dialogue, too. Not every line was a witty trying-too-hard punchline. My hero interacted like a human. I thought I’d finally unlocked the secret to writing believable characters. 

So I did the same thing with my next character: I gave him a dead mother. And I gave the next one after that a dead sister, and it got to a point where every character I created had a dead family member, or two dead family members, or a dead wife. In many instances their death was incidental to the plot; it had no relevance to anything. I just automatically killed fictional parents for the sake of giving my characters emotional depth.

And it was stupid. Not only did my protagonists soon become stale and repetitive, but it rarely added anything fresh to the story.


“I care more about the people in books than the people I see every day.”

― Jo Walton


What gave them depth wasn’t the death of their loved ones — it was the fact I’d given them a back story. I knew where they’d come from; I could talk about their childhood, why they’d become the person they’d grown into. By killing someone close to them and delving into their emotions, I was able to paint a broader picture about their needs and likes; their desires and motivations. I accidentally filled in their history when I should have been doing it anyway. And underneath all of this was something my previous characters lacked: truth.

I’m not saying you need a five-page dossier on your protagonist. But you should know them like you’d know a friend. They should seem real to you. They should be more than just The-Girl-With-The-Dead-Fish

Or else why bother writing about them in the first place?


“The only characters I ever don’t like are ones that leave no impression on me. And I don’t write characters that leave no impression on me.”

― Lauren DeStefano 


If you must kill someone’s family member — if it has some relevance to the story and isn’t merely a fix-on — then do it. In those days my killings were senseless. At least give the death a motive. If it’s to infuse your main character with a deadly desire to hunt down the killers, that’s okay. If it’s to portray the character’s torturous background and showcase his brutal upbringing, or even the sadness at the loss of his parents, then sure, go with it.

But don’t think a death in the family automatically makes someone interesting. And that goes for other things, too: giving him or her tattoos, or a drug problem, or a fetish for shark porn, or a nervous tic, or anything else you tack on for the sake of it. Gimmicks and tics and verbal repetitions don’t make a character. Telling your audience that Bob only ever drinks chocolate milk is not a way to portray a fully formed human being — it’s just showcasing a personality trait. Go below the surface.

People aren’t interesting simply because they have tortured pasts, or because they know a few party tricks, or because they walk with a limp due to a bullet fragment caught in their knee. All of that is dressing. Many character add-ons are dragged straight from the cliché factory. Sometimes they work (clichés exist for a reason), but look around you: there are millions of fascinating people on this planet. Learn about them.

Talk to people in bars, in queues at the supermarket. Do you find them funny? Arrogant? Smart? What do you like about them? What do you dislike about them? If you look hard enough, you’ll see that the most interesting people aren’t just those who’ve suffered personal loss or pain. 

Ultimately we’re drawn to those who reflect our own beliefs and morals. Which can be dangerous for your creativity. 


“I’d like my readers to feel they want to follow my characters off the page at the end of the book.” ― Vanessa Couchman


In order to grow as writers we must seek out those whose principles clash with our own. Those who believe in the opposite to us ― politically, emotionally, mentally. Seek them out and study them. Why do they think so differently? What makes them stand out? Why would other people find them interesting? The more answers you have for these questions the more you’ll be able to write likeable three-dimensional characters, and they won’t all be manifestations of yourself. They may, to an extent, have a piece of you in them — but they’ll also have a piece of Fred, Sally, Dave, and anyone else you’ve been in contact with. 

And that’s important if you want to build a diverse range of characters.

Even if you hate people, make it your goal to engage with them. Don’t talk about yourself. Your story isn’t important. You’re not trying to impress anyone. Talk about them. Ask about who they are, what job they have; find out what their passion is, what drives them in life. You might meet a raging racist or homophobe who’s also an animal activist/charity worker and a loving father. Those kinds of dichotomies are compelling to learn about, and they’ll give your work an extra layer if you portray them in a relatable way. Good and bad is never black and white. It’s important to seek out the grey area in people’s twisted thought processes and transfer that to your work. 

If you’re shy, join up to classes, get into a book club or a dance class or something similar. Make sure the next time you’re invited to a barbecue, you say yes. Get out of your comfort zone. This will not only help with your character writing, but your writing in general.

A good writer lives a varied and plentiful life. Soak in experience.

Then drain all of that into your ink and write your masterpiece.


“It begins with a character, usually, and once he stands up on his feet and begins to move, all I can do is trot along behind him with a paper and pencil trying to keep up long enough to put down what he says and does.” William Faulkner 


A word of warning: don’t get too caught up on the same people, the same areas, the same places. The moment you begin to gravitate to a certain section of people, or of character design, you’ll be destined to repeat patterns. Always make sure you’re challenging what you know and who you know. Let your characters change and grow. And the way to do that is to actively change and grow yourself. 

Even if it means confronting your greatest fears head-on.

Why be a timid sheep when you can be ferocious wolf?


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Learn The Rules
(Then Break Them)

“You have to learn the rules of the game.

And then you have to play better than anyone else.”

— Albert Einstein

Recently a blogger I follow on Twitter (Keith Dube) switched from Writing Like This (capitalising the beginning of every word) to the more traditional and grammatically correct way. He explained why in this Instagram post. Until then, I’d just assumed it was a stylistic choice.

But after reading his explanation, it got me thinking about grammar and formatting rules in general. Especially in the publishing industry. 


“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.”

— Gilbert K. Chesterton


In one of my earliest novels I bucked traditional formatting trends and dropped all the speech marks from my dialogue. Somewhere inside my rat-sized immature brain I thought this idea was groundbreaking. Instead of speech marks I wrote all my dialogue in BOLD, thinking it would make my work stand out. Publishers would view my manuscript like: Boy, this writer sure is unique. Here’s a book deal and ten million pounds.

Rather than let my writing do the talking, I turned to gimmicks to impress.

Conversations in my novel looked something like this:

What’s goin’ on?

Nothing, he said. What about you?  

My work looked amateurish and sloppy. At best I seemed like an experimental author. At worst I came across as unprofessional; someone too lazy to write in the proper format, or someone who just didn’t know what he was doing. Neither was the impression I was hoping to give. 

As an editor, I’ve seen so many aspiring authors make this same mistake. Whether it’s due to insecurity about their writing or sheer pig-headedness, plenty of would-be authors decide to play about with industry formatting standards. They mess with the fonts — switching to obscure calligraphy in the hopes it’ll make their writing pop — or they play about with paragraph breaks or chapter organisation or write the novel in pink letters and doodle pictures in the margins. But the end result is almost always the same: they come across unprofessional and the agent tosses their manuscript in a bonfire.

Why handicap yourself before you’ve even started? There are hundreds of writing and grammar books on Amazon, many specifically catering to novel-writing and the correct way to format your work. You don’t have to be a genius to learn how to set out your novel properly. You wouldn’t show up to a job interview wearing a Batman outfit (unless you’re an idiot), so don’t amputate your work in the same way. 

You have no excuse. 


“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.” 

— Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.


Like with anything, there are exceptions: writers who have successfully rebelled against convention and gone on to gain a huge fan base and a pot of gold at the end of the author rainbow. In the case of Keith Dube, it worked in his favour: the style added to his writing rather than detracting from it. But it’s easier to fuck with fonts and formatting when tweeting or writing online blogs. The rules aren’t as strict. You can experiment and toy with different styles; in fact, I’d encourage it.

With novels, however, the rules are more rigid, and agents are less inclined to entertain your whims. Even still, Child 44 for instance was a massive hit (as were the two sequels), in spite of author Tom Rob’s Smith insistence on discarding speech marks for his dialogue. Instead, each speaker is denoted with an em-dash. Conversations look like this:

— Why do you say that?

— Why do you think?

In some respects, this isn’t so much a deviation; it’s an alternate way to format dialogue. Speech marks are favoured by the majority, but there are a small minority who prefer the em-dash technique. Cormac McCarthy is one of them. He also drops the g’s from his words and leaves out apostrophes. Don’t ask me why, but in spite of his grammatical affectations he still won a Pulitzer Prize. Stephen King is another who drops g’s at the end of some words in dialogue, leaving them like this: This fuckin guy. And he’s a writing superstar. Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting) is another author I’ve seen adopt the em-dash form of penning dialogue.

The point is, deviation from standard does happen and some people make it work. But that doesn’t mean you should try it. I find Irvine Welsh and Cormac McCarthy books irritating to read for that very reason. In the case of Child 44 and its sequels, I didn’t find it an issue, but in most circumstances it bugs the hell out of me. And I’m sure there are other readers who hate to see it too.

Why risk losing readership just to be cute? Nobody will be put off by familiar formatting. I can’t see any valid reason (point it out to me if there is one) why anyone would think to mess with their work like that. Unless it aids or feeds your story idea, stick to the standard way.

Otherwise, all you’re really doing is reminding your audience they’re reading, and in fiction that’s the last thing you want to do. Your job as a writer is to be invisible, to transport your readers into a dream world. To disconnect them from their reality to join in yours.

The best way to do that is to not give them an excuse to stop reading.

So before you think about breaking the rules, make sure you know them first. 

And only break them if you have a damn good reason. 

You are not the exception. You are the rule.


“The golden rule is that there are no golden rules.” — George Bernard Shaw


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Everything You Write Is Terrible
(But It Gets Better)

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.

You need to start somewhere.”

— Anne Lamott

At the hormonal and complicated age of 14, I held no desire, secret or otherwise, to be a writer. My dream was to be a professional footballer. Schoolwork bored me. I found writing essays and book reports tedious, although I had an aptitude for English. Then one day my teacher assigned the class coursework: we had to write a short story based off the title A Moment Of Crisis. He didn’t specify what we had to write about, just as long as it was inspired by the title. 

In those days, before the writing bug bit me, I hated writing of all kinds, but especially creative writing. For whatever reason I’d convinced myself I didn’t have an imagination, and wouldn’t be able to pen anything interesting anyway. Poems, stories, novels, they all seemed like hard work with no possible upside. Hard work for the sake of it, which is the worst kind. My poems were always acrostic because I was too lazy to construct something original from scratch, and my stories, up until that point, were always written by my mum — along with the rest of my English coursework.

But something compelled me to give this one a shot.


kk ,


Mr. Judelson gave us a deadline and the class hunkered down to work. The person next to me began writing a drama about her father — I’m assuming she had skeletons in her closet she needed to dig through. Behind me, a girl chose an even deeper subject: her story revolved around a teenager sitting outside a waiting room, deciding whether to abort a baby or not. I still remember those two stories, because at the time they seemed too bleak to me. Boring and lifeless. Who gives a shit about abortions or absent fathers? I wondered. 

My attention span has always been on the small side. If I’m not entertained fairly quickly, I switch my brain off and move on to a different task. I’ve long suspected I have some type of ADHD. Fortunately I’ve been able to focus that extra energy into my work, which not only keeps my mind occupied but gives me an outlet. If I don’t have a book in my hand, or some work to edit or write, or a TV programme to watch, I feel lost. I hate not doing anything. Maybe I’m just a workaholic or unsatisfied with life. I’ll ask a shrink one day. Either way, I didn’t have the time or the inclination to write a boring incest abortion drama. I wanted to write something that would get the heart pumping: meaning action, blood, gore, and a couple lipstick lesbians to decorate the cake. So instead of taking the route of my nearest classmates — plumbing the depths of their emotions for something deep and literary — I chose to write something closer to a film scene: a bank heist.

Probably in an attempt to rebel against my teacher, or the school system, or whatever constricted me at the time, I filled my story with swear words, sex scenes, and gratuitous violence. I didn’t think it was allowed, but I stuck it all in there anyway. I figured if I was being forced to write, I might as well get some enjoyment out of it.

Which I did. Although the story was terrible in almost every way.


Untitledagagag


Zero thought went into the construction of my story. On top of that, many of the scenes made little to no sense. It was like a Michael Bay movie: I was blowing shit up for the sake of it. Everything lacked context or motive. One scene in the early version was so horrific my mother forced me to cut it out. At the time she’d been typing the story up on her computer at work — we either didn’t have a computer at home yet, or it was broken. I can’t remember. In any case, she stopped typing and refused to add the scene into the final version. (She also changed I’m scared shitless to I’m scared enough to shit myself because she hadn’t heard of the word shitless before. But that’s irrelevant.)

The scene she cut involved one of the main criminals in the bank heist penetrating one of the hostages with his pump-action single-barrel shotgun, using the weapon as some kind of metal dildo, fucking this girl on the bank floor until she orgasmed. Her screams of delight coincided with the criminal pulling the trigger — a double explosion, so to speak. I still remember the scene vividly. I thought it was hilarious, smart, groundbreaking, edgy and it probably derived from too much Eminem and maybe a sublayer of teenage misogyny. Who knows? Thankfully, though, my mother forced me to cut it out.

My point is: I wrote it in the first place. I then read it back and thought it was good. And it wasn’t. It was a ridiculous, utterly unrealistic, and quite possibly offensive and needless scene. At fourteen I had no idea what I was doing.

When I finally handed it in to be graded, I expected the work to be torn up, and I thought I’d be sent to the Head Teacher’s office to be told off. Instead, Mr. Judelson loved it and gave me a B-plus. He called it “terrifying” and “inventive” and praised it to the roof. I recall him reading some of it to the class.

Looking back, however, the story was horrible.

Badly written and amateurishly executed.

But I wrote it. 


Untitled


My second story wasn’t much better. It might even have been worse. HiJack was written without any assignments set by my teacher. It was about — nothing, essentially. It followed a character called Jim Sullivan as he gets a flat tire and pulls to the side of the road. Out of nowhere (and for no discernible reason) some people try to shoot him. He deals with them, and then a drunken tramp wanders along the motorway and attacks him. He deals with him too, but then runs across the road to escape the police and gets hit by a truck, which somehow snags his top and drags him five miles before stopping. The hero then unhooks himself and claws his way toward a nearby gas station, which, inconveniently (and randomly) is being held-up. He crawls across the floor in time for the masked robber to blow the store to pieces. That’s basically the gist of it. I don’t need to tell you how bad it is — you can see just from the outline.

And it didn’t get much better.

My third story was also a letdown. And my fourth and fifth. I have a folder full of my early failed attempts. Half-finished novels, half-finished stories, completed stories which would have been better off half-finished, poems, raps, children’s books — I wrote everything; and in those early exciting days I thought they were all amazing. Every single thing I wrote seemed to be a gift from above wrapped in gold. My ego was moon-sized and even when I detected flaws in my writing, I still believed it was greater than most.

In hindsight, they were so bad it’s almost unbelievable. I look back on that work and try to decipher the mindset that created them, but I don’t remember him.

I don’t remember me — not that version anyway. I was a terrible writer.

You’ve probably heard the phrase It’s darkest before the light.

Well, my writing world was pitch — fucking — black.


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Now, over fifteen years later, I’d like to think I’ve improved somewhat. It took a while: partly my youth was a reason. I had a lot of dumb kid shit to get out of my writing system — immature ideas, juvenile humour, etc. I didn’t particularly care about school either, which meant by the time I grew serious about my craft I had to relearn grammar  and spruce up on my skills. On top of that, I read a lot of books on story construction, character creation, plot formation, etc. — soaking in a library’s worth of writing advice and learning through trial and error. For a long time my stories, in spite of my newly found wealth of knowledge, were still of low quality. It took months (maybe even years) of honing until I at least hit a level of competency. And I’m still in the apprenticeship stage: learning, growing, building toward a bigger future.

So if you’re doubting yourself right now, stop it. Everything you write might well be absolute trash. You can see it, your friends can see it, probably even your family — everyone knows you’re writing piles of dragon shit. But unlike singing, where perhaps you need an in-built aptitude and the right type of lungs or natural ability to hit the high notes, writing can be learned. Maybe not direct from teachers and manuals, but through constant repetition and revision, and also by approaching your work (and that of others) with a critical mind, you’ll naturally improve.

And even though some of your bad traits may linger on regardless, a lot of the time those traits are what define us — it’s the idiosyncrasies of our craft that make us stand out and gives us a unique voice.

Just don’t give up because you’ve written a few bullshit stories. That doesn’t mean you’re terrible. It means you’re learning. Babies don’t come out of the womb knowing how to walk and skate and play football. They pick it up as they go along. They practice. You’re doing the same. The only difference between someone who’s good and someone who’s terrible is that one of them kept on going. It’s imperative you practice, and lots.

It’s not acceptable to write a novel for three months, then take a year break and start again. How does that work? Every time you begin learning the process, you go away and the memories fade and your writing muscle weakens. You’ll take one step forward, two steps back and always fight an uphill battle. A week off here and there is fine, but never longer than a month. Train your writing the same way you would your body. If you do that, I guarantee you’ll stop producing subpar work or awkward prose.

One day, years later, you’ll look back on your early efforts and cringe. But you’ll also look at your current writing and realise how much you’ve progressed. And that’s when you’ll know all the hard work and tears has been worth it.

Just don’t ever give up. Keep fighting, keep writing, and you’ll make it.

Put your heart into your work and don’t stop until it stops.

That’s the only thing that really matters in this game.


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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.


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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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