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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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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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.


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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.


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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.


Untitledljn.


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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.


Untitledfaf


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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Plagiarism Is A Wonderful Teacher
(And Also Illegal)

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”

— Charles Caleb Colton

Way back when I was but a mere boy (about seven or eight), my Year 3 teacher, Mr. Buzzard — a man equally feared and respected — assigned the class a task: to write a short story that would later be turned into a stop-animation film. Only the top five would be chosen and then we’d work together in groups to create the characters and scenery — cutting out the shapes, colouring them in, sizing them, gluing them in place, etc. Basically, our film would be a regular Blue Peter production. And once we’d completed all the hard work, a couple of directors were to come in and film our stories. The movies would end up looking like crude, cheap versions of a standard South Park episode. At the time, we were all desperate to win. This was before parents’ groups began lobbying schools to be more protective of children and their self-esteem. There was no It’s the taking part that counts. You won, or you didn’t.

And back then, even though I didn’t realise I wanted to be a writer, I did know I wanted to be a winner. Competition was in my bones, ingrained in me from birth. I was adamant I’d win this goddamn story competition, no matter what. Even if I had to cheat and steal to do it.

And that’s exactly what I did . . .

Me

(Me, aged 8)

Mr. Buzzard told us to structure our story in comic form, which would make it easier to transfer to the film format. I sat at my desk, pen in hand, clueless about what to write. Every idea I thought of seemed lame. After all, I was just a kid. What did I know about creating stories? This was too damn hard. In truth, I was talking myself out of it; making excuses out of a fear I’d fail or embarrass myself. It was the same limiting behaviour many writers still continue deep into adulthood. Convincing ourselves we’re worthless or rubbish. Telling ourselves we can’t write anything worth reading.

Then I remembered a film I’d seen recently and enjoyed: an animated short of Wallace and Gromit called The Wrong Trousers. From what I can remember the film is about a penguin orchestrating a robbery — and he plans to use Wallace as some kind of scapegoat/accomplice to the crime by using a mechanical pair of trousers to manipulate Wallace’s actions. And at one point in the movie, the penguin is mistaken for a chicken due to a red glove on his head. I can’t recall whether the robbery involved stealing a diamond, but I suspect it did. Either way, it seemed like the perfect story to plagiarise (not that I knew what plagiarism was at that age), and I began writing my story, hoping nobody would recognise the similarities.

They didn’t.

I named my story The Great Chicken Crime. It was about a chicken (I wasn’t so bold as to choose a penguin) who robs a museum for a diamond, then feels guilty (for whatever reason) and sends the diamond back to the police. He ends up in jail. That’s it. The plot was as simplistic as possible, but every idea was ripped and manipulated from the Wallace and Gromit cartoon. The two were dissimilar enough to consider my story “original”, but it was definitely a derivation of a superior work.

Even so, Mr. Buzzard picked The Great Chicken Crime as one of the top five pieces. I felt amazing. To think, out of thirty students, my story was being adapted for the screen. Albeit, an adaptation of a stolen idea.

But whatever.

It still counts. I was an eight-year-old screenwriter. 

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My point is this: in our earliest stages as writers, before we’ve fully honed our voice, when we’re still trying to discover the kind of author we want to be, copying our favourite writers can be a useful apprenticeship. I’m not suggesting ripping off their work and selling it — but it doesn’t hurt to toy around with plots by using those that you already know. Maybe you could write Stephen King’s Misery from the perspective of a female author. Maybe you could try writing Oliver Twist in a modern setting. Or possibly you could update Romeo and Juliet with contemporary dialogue. Whatever you choose, it doesn’t need to be written as a means to publication. Sometimes it’s good to experiment. Push aside your hopes and aspirations for now — put them on hold. Instead, draw from the writers you admire; copy their style, their dialogue, play around with it, fuse your own voice in with theirs and see what happens. It can only help you grow in the long run.

Too many aspiring authors want to do backflips before they can walk. They’re so precious about everything they write; they analyse every sentence and seek perfection, which, a lot of the time is merely an excuse to procrastinate. Take your critical hat off and just have fun with it. Don’t sit down at the piano for the first time and expect to play Beethoven straight off the bat. Mozart learned by copying the greats, learning the keys, and hearing the music in his head. A lot has been written about his precocious talents — Mozart could reportedly play the piano to a high-standard and structure symphonies at the ridiculously young age of five — but it wasn’t until his teens that he began composing truly original work. Up until that point, he was merely a master of imitation. 

I have plenty of half-finished old novels in various styles; whichever author I was into at the time of writing, I’d be influenced by. Elmore Leonard, Richard Price, Stephen King. I went through stages where I picked the stuff I liked from their writing and merged it with my own, typing out stories in their tone, in their towns, with characters that seemed like copies of their creations — after all, I figured a terrible Stephen King story is better than a good story from a shitbag nobody. In the end, I realised how wrong I’d been, and my natural style came through anyway. I suspect it’s merely a mass amalgamation of my favourite writers and every book I’ve ever read, but that’s okay. It’s still distinctively my voice.

So copy, learn, experiment, and eventually you’ll weed it all out and develop your own style . . . filtered through the thousands who came before you.

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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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I Don’t Know What To Write About
(But I Want To Be A Writer)

“Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”

— William Wordsworth

“I want to be a writer,” someone will say. “But I don’t know what to write about.”

Which is ridiculous. 

If you’ve lived on this planet for at least fifteen years and haven’t been dwelling in a dark cave that entire time, you have something to write about. You can choose anything: any subject, any angle, from any focus. There are no strict rules about what you must write, as long as it’s interesting, filled with conflict, and the story moves forward to a climax (both figuratively, and in the case of many erotic novels, literally too). Look into your heart at your darkest fears and try to expose them. That’s what Ray Bradbury did.

He considered what scared him the most, then he confronted those fears on the page. If you’re scared of spiders, write a story about a man trapped in a room with hundreds of them. Not only do you get to confront your fear from a place of safety, but your words will be infused with genuine terror. If you put yourself into the mind of your character, you can create his horror by picturing how you’d feel in such a situation.

If you’re scared your child will die, or be kidnapped by a serial killer, or waste her childhood sniffing glue, then write a story in which your protagonist’s daughter is held hostage, or thrown out of a plane by a madman, or captured by an out of control half-human half-lawnmower with a “heart of gold” but a soul of metal and murder — or whatever-the-fuck — and just build your story from there until it’s finished. 

* * * * * * * * * *

Open your eyes to the world. If one day you’re walking home alone and a group of menacing youths are heading toward you, record how you feel. Were you intimidated? Excited for a possible roadside gang-bang? Didn’t care? Whatever you felt, you can transfer that to a character in a similar scenario. What will he or she do in that situation? How will they react? You know what you did — crossed the road possibly, or deliberately looked them in the eye to show you didn’t fear them. Or chucked a banana peel in their path and ran. Whatever.

But maybe your character is different: she’s tired of crossing the road. This is where your fantasy gets to run wild and you can have some fun. Maybe this chick, she has a gun, and she’s not going to be intimidated by thugs anymore. She’s going to blow their heads off. Maybe that’s it, you end it there: she kills them and it finishes with their blood running down the gutters. Or maybe, if you want to run further with it, there are consequences to that action. Again, you can draw on reality for this. Think about what would happen if you were to murder a gang in cold blood. Ask yourself questions and the creative gods will answer.

“The police will investigate so she needs to get rid of the weapon,” you may say. Or “The rest of their crew will seek revenge.” Okay, so how will they do that? By killing someone the main character loves perhaps. And there you have it, you now have a plot evolving. She’s trying to duck the police while at the same time protecting her family who she unwittingly put in danger through her act of insanity. And from there you can plan it out or just write it as you go along, depending on which approach suits you best.

Maybe, also, you want to fill in some backstory for why your character was so intimidated by the youths in the first place — again, you can draw from your well of experience for that. Think of a time when you’ve been intimidated and how that made you feel: small, defenceless. And if you’ve never felt that way, if you’re the intimidator in real life, why don’t you ask friends and family what it feels like? Learn from your own experience but pick and choose from others’ feelings and emotions, too. That will give your story greater depth and truth. You want your audience to believe in your hero, and you do that by grounding him or her in reality.

And the more you do this, asking questions of yourself, the more your brain will train itself to make these connections and link everything together. The fact is authors aren’t aliens; they don’t have story ideas beamed into their heads. Everyone has something to write about: everyone has likes and dislikes and idiosyncrasies. Everyone feels impotent at some point in their life (not in that way, although many suffer from that too), and that’s all writing really is: a character with a desire and a million obstacles in his way. In real life many of us slink away, but your character isn’t you — he’s gonna smash through those barriers, goddammit.

Because writing isn’t about documenting something that’s real.

It’s about showcasing something that’s true.

And that’s not the same thing at all.

* * * * * * * * * *

Have you ever had a moment that you’ve later replayed in your head, wishing you’d said or done something different? That’s what writing is. You get into an argument with a customer in a shop, go home and think: I should have told that prick to go to hell — but you didn’t. Maybe you were raised to hide your emotions, so you keep your anger submerged below the surface. Your characters, however, can say what you didn’t. Or what you were too scared to say. Write that same scenario out but with someone else in your place. Channel your anger and energy into your protagonist. Now, when the character is insulted by the customer in the shop, he doesn’t just take it and leave. He responds how you want him to. You feel the satisfaction, vicariously, of cutting that person down — it’s just on the page instead. You feel a victory in their actions.

If your protagonist wants a raise, or a promotion, he’s going to bang on that door and ask for one. In your own day job, you may be too timid or scared to do that, but you’re writing characters that are larger than life. When they want something, they damn well go for it.

And they don’t let anything, or anyone, stand in their way. No sir. 

Which is what makes writing so powerful: you can create a whole new world for yourself — one in which you’re stronger, smarter; you can outfox those around you.

And it’s risk-free. You can have fun without the possibility of death.

You get to play God and rule the lives of those you create.

* * * * * * * * * *

If you still don’t know what to write, even after questioning yourself and the scenarios around you — even after plumbing the depths of your bookshelves and reading through the countless novels already in existence — if you still can’t summon up a single idea, then writing probably isn’t for you. It’s a pipe dream and you’re merely a PRETENDER (these people are common and I’ll explain more about them in a future article).

On the other hand, if you’re able to start seeing connections now; seeing how everything links, how even the mundane moments from your everyday life can be needled for inspiration, you’re on your way to becoming a writer. That’s all you need to do: train your brain to look at the world through the twisted romantic lens of a disturbed author.

After that, it’s a simple process of blood, sweat, tears and heartache.


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