This year marks the release of my second short story, a horror piece appearing in Achtung! Cthulhu: Dark Tales from the Secret War in the coming months.
Modiphius arranged a panel to promote the book at Dragonmeet in London just before Christmas. I was unable to attend, unfortunately, but fellow authors David J Rodger, Jonnie Bryant, Paul Cunliffe, Martin Korda, Jake Webb and John Houlihan all read from their stories and answered audience questions. You can, and should, listen to the entire thing below.
We should have some pre-order information for you soon.
00:00 – Introduction: John Houlihan
02.08 – David J Rodger: Shadow of the Black Sun
09:00 – Jonnie Bryant: Der Alptraum
14:32 – Paul Cunliffe: Hess, Mr Buckle and the Book
21:00 – Martin Korda: Terror of Tribec
25:34 – Jake Webb: The Curse of Cthulhu
31:05 – John Houlihan: Servant of the Dark
36:03 – Roundtable discussion and Q&A
If you’re in London this weekend, you should go along to the Achtung! Cthulhu: Dark Tales from the Secret War panel at Dragonmeet on Saturday. It starts at midday. Dark Tales from the Secret War is an anthology of short stories – including one of mine – based on P&P RPG Achtung! Cthulhu.
Everyone in the audience gets a free gift, immediately making attendance mandatory. You won’t get the free stuff if you don’t go.
I’m incredibly pissed off at not being able to attend (living in France is sometimes a barrier), but fellow authors John Houlihan, David J Rodger, Martin Korda, Paul Cunliffe, Jake Webb and Jonnie Bryant will all be on hand for readings, chat and questions.
Dark Tales from the Secret War will release in early 2015. We don’t have pre-order information as yet, but we’ll know more in the New Year. This is only my second piece of published fiction, and I’m excited and proud to be working with such a talented group.
So go along. You’ll enjoy it. Make up the shortfall caused by my ridiculous absence.
I’ve read a lot of writing tips. Many of them are the same, and some of them don’t seem to mean anything at all. I’d like to offer some advice to those thinking of making a career from writing fiction. You’re going to need more than luck.
1 – Writing fiction is a fucking nightmare.
You can wrap it up however you like, but the life of an author, aspiring or otherwise, is a disaster. I’m sure things become more settled should you sell millions of books or win awards, but if you’re starting out, and especially if your goal is to write artistic fiction, you’re going to face some stern challenges. You’ll probably have to write novels in your spare time, as you aren’t rich. You may have children, and only have an hour or two in the evening where all you want to do is fuck your partner and collapse in front of a screen. But you’ll be writing. For years and years and years. You will hate yourself for trying to write. Being a writer is unpleasant.
Maybe you are wealthy and don’t have to work, but money doesn’t equate to skill. The road to publication is excruciating for most, rich or poor, and you’ll need to display Herculean levels of tenacity if you’re to succeed. If you’ve ever thought, “I’d quite like to write a novel,” then you should never write a novel. Just don’t. I promise you, you’re wasting your time. Writing fiction has been described to me both as “the hardest thing you can do” and “a caution”. Both are true. You write novels because you have no choice. It’s a lifelong pursuit, and unless you’re prepared to sit at a computer for decades, all alone, with no friends or help, with no clear indication of whether or not you’re making any progress at all, to invest your entire life in a single aim, then do not attempt it. You are married to writing and there is no divorce. You and your writing will die together. You know if you’re a writer or not. Don’t lie to yourself.
2 – Forget publication. Just write.
Worrying about publication is crippling. It stops you doing the one thing that’s going to get you published, which is writing. Stop caring about it. Write, write, write, book after book after book. Resign yourself to the fact that this is going to take your personal forever. You need to be zen.
The general consensus is that you’ll have to write at least two books before you can expect to get any interest at all, and I’d say that’s laughably conservative. You are not going to write a book and get it published. It’s going to take years. You’re looking at a year a book (give or take), assuming they’re short, and when I say that I’m talking about the period of time from putting down the first words of the first draft to saying “it’s done”. Obviously, this doesn’t include any rewriting if you do actually attract some interest. Writing novels is a glacial process.
All the work you do leading up to publication (which may never come) is just practice. You need to write dead books, books you’ll despair over when everyone rejects them out of hand because they have no more place in the world than the fourth dimension or ammoniacal cheese. You have to be able to write books, finish them, and send them out to die. Whole novels. Loads of them. Hundreds of thousands of words edited over and over again. The phrase “killing your darlings” is famous in the fiction trade as meaning you need to be able to change the elements of your novels you personally like but serve no particular purpose. What no one prepares you for is that the “darlings” can be years of work. You will watch your children die, and it will be hard.
It’s different for everyone (some people waltz into publishing deals in their twenties), but even experienced writers (I’ve been writing as a job for over fifteen years) have no idea what they’re doing when they first approach novels, and to anyone in the book trade that’s blatantly obvious. You’re shit at writing books, and the journey from “shit” to “author” is a long one. Yes, you’ve been published in a national daily, and you’ve been on TV. You’ve got a sideline gig on a mainstream website and your mum thinks you’re awesome.
Congratulations. It means nothing.
Forget publication. Your goal, probably, is to get a book deal, to see the book (any book) on the shelf in a bookshop (any bookshop), but you should forget all that. Go through the motions of querying, of course (“It could happen this time!”), but be aware that many famous published authors wrote more than two books before getting anywhere. Iain Banks, for example, got published on his fifth time out with The Wasp Factory. Iain Banks, one of the most beloved British authors of this generation, had to write five novels before getting published. I saw an author tweet the news she’d landed a two-book deal recently: she’d written seven novels before succeeding.
Publication will only happen when you’ve written enough. “Enough” is different for everyone. Just write.
3 – Your book’s finished. Start another.
Years ago, when we still lived in England, I took a part-time photography course at Brighton University. I was struggling to produce a decent print from an under-exposed negative, and my tutor told me to can it, to try another frame. I was reluctant: surely there was something we could do? She paused and said, “You have to learn to see when it’s as good as it’s going to be. You’ll waste a lot of time if you can’t.”
The same applies to books, but “seeing” the point at which you have to move on is a skill you’ll only learn through practice. There’s a character in Camus’s The Plague who’s writing a book and can’t get past the first line (I think; it’s a long time since I read it). He plays with the words and structure of the single sentence infinitely, unable to write more until it’s perfect. He never gets anywhere.
Write the book, edit it, finish it, wrap it up and send it out to agents. Be safe in the knowledge that your next one will be better, and don’t just endlessly edit in an effort to produce something that probably isn’t there. A full manuscript edit can take months. Not so bright if it’s unnecessary.
Learn when to move on.
4 – Keep it simple.
There’s a clear trend in starter books: they’re overly ambitious, and they often don’t get finished. I’ve seen this repeatedly over years of conversing with aspiring novelists, and I personally made exactly this mistake with The Ooning (the first novel I ever managed to push past the first draft). I was eventually forced to can it.
The thinking here is simple. You want to be an author. You’ve wanted to be an author since you were a child, probably, and now you’re ready to take it seriously you want your book to be double-spreaded across the Sunday Papers and your beaming face to adorn awards podiums. You want to blow people away. You need to face reality: writing novels, like any other difficult skill, requires years of dedication and training. Many writers start their journey by planning a hellishly complex novel, the writing equivalent of sailing solo across the Pacific. Predictably, by the time they stagger ashore in Hawaii they’ve got sunstroke, their hands are bleeding and even if they wanted to continue the only thing facing them is a featureless horizon of sea. The paradise of stopping doesn’t negate the horribleness of this place, and most fledgling novelists will be well acquainted with this particular beach.
Put it this way. Have you read The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke? It’s about a family waiting for a father to come home. Or The (Booker-nominated) Lighthouse by Alison Moore? It’s about a guy on holiday. I’m oversimplifying, obviously, but you get the idea. If you want my advice, keep it as simple as possible in the early stages (and especially with your first novel), and aim to keep the word-count closer to 50,000 than anything involving six digits. Your first books will almost certainly never be published, so accept this and use these projects to train yourself. Focus on copy, on correcting grammar and buffing sentences. Remember: you can’t sail anywhere singlehandedly until you can sail at all. Which brings me on to my next point.
5 – Write short stories.
This is the best way to get into the fiction world. It’s far easier to get a short story published than a novel. That’s a fact. Most aspiring novelists start by writing a book when they should be writing short stories. Writing and completing pieces of fiction is significantly easier if the word-count is lower, and writing shorter pieces allows you to stretch out creatively in ways only experienced novelists are able to over lengthier works.
There are any number of literary magazines constantly searching for short stories, and there’s an endless stream of competitions, both free and paid, begging for briefer work. Write short stories and submit them. Getting a result in this way, especially when you’re slogging away at novels no one will read, is both real reward and a clear indication you’re getting somewhere. Remember that thing about running and walking? Walk first.
6 – Write what you want.
What should you write? If you follow Twitter’s legions of agents, you’ll soon see you should be writing historical LGBT YA with strong characters and a cracking plot. And off you go, scanning all the wishlists, staring at the ceiling night after night as you gnash your mental teeth over how you can best please Agent X with your next manuscript, how you can finally make it. You may even start writing your dystopian werewolf thriller, a book designed to sit, no-brainerly, on the dystopian werewolf thriller shelf. What is your book? It’s crime. It’s romance. It’s MG with a twist. It’s whatever you want it to be, m’lady.
Look, I’m not saying sticking to a genre isn’t a good idea. It probably is, in all honesty, but only if you’re being true to yourself. If you have a burning passion to write YA, then you’re in luck. If you haven’t, then don’t. It won’t be any good. Don’t chase rainbows. They have a habit of disappearing.
Trends come and go in books, as in all media. Corporations can follow them, but you probably shouldn’t. You’ve already stopped worrying about publication (see point two), so just focus on your life’s work, whatever it may be. Want to write weird stories about growing up in Yorkshire? Good for you. Can’t stop writing streams of consciousness about racists on Mars? More power to you. Do what you want. Do what you truly want to do. You’ll regret it if you don’t. Be the writer you want to be.
7 – Don’t be scared.
Writing novels involves investment and disclosure. You reveal yourself through your fiction, and you may well shock yourself if you truly try to thin the barriers between the page and your psychological cogs. Don’t be scared. No one cares about you (who?), and you mustn’t hold back. You’ll probably worry about what your peer group will think when you start writing out “your protagonist’s” revolting sexual fantasies, but you shouldn’t. It’s your art. Don’t stem it.
At its best, fiction is frightening and personal. You need to be fine with baring your soul. Get used to it as soon as you’re able.
8 – Read.
There’s a famous quote from Stephen King’s On Writing about reading being absolutely essential for any writer. It goes as far as saying that you’ll be unable to write unless you read. This is true. If reading isn’t a primary form of entertainment for you, then make it so. If you don’t like reading certain books, read others. And if you really don’t like reading, just forget any aspirations you have of being a long-term fiction writer. Again, be honest with yourself. Can you imagine a young athlete or musician bemoaning practicing and training because it’s a bind, or because they “don’t have time”? Read for pleasure, read for work, read for practice. Read every day. Read because you love it.
9 – Ignore all of this.
What the fuck do I know? Well, a little bit. I’m unpublished, yes, but I’m in the final stages of my third novel. I know published authors and I’ve had contact with editors and agents. I’ve been lucky enough to have a short story published, with a second coming next year and a third accepted for a Kickstarter project (there’s more detail on my work here). I have achieved something with my fiction, however babyish the steps. I’m at the very start of my career, but I do believe I’ll attain my goals by doing the things I’m doing.
My approach may be (slowly) working for me, but every writer’s path is different. As I said earlier, if you want to laser-in on a genre like YA or chick lit, do what you must. It may take you a year to get a deal, and it make take twenty. It may never happen. Just because the odds are against success, that doesn’t mean you should stop.
Hopefully you’ve found some value in this post, but you may, quite rightly, think it’s utter bullshit. Follow your instincts, that being the case. And good luck. I sincerely mean that.
I haven’t updated this for a while, but things are happening. Should blog more regularly, I guess.
I’m now working on the second draft of my next book. The novel I completed in January is currently at agents. I’m sending it to the “everyone” list as my first choices all came back with rejections. I’ve been encouraged by several people to self-publish, but I’m undecided. I know it’s the twenty-first century, but I can’t help feel there’s still a stigma attached to going it alone. An agent would pick it up if it were good (commercial) enough, right?
After several conversations with published authors, the advice seems to be that the book’s probably in my “old voice” (there’s some truth to this) and could therefore be self-published without fear of ruining any future aspirations. That’s logical, but it’s no easy decision. The novel’s content, in my opinion, is going to make it difficult for any agent to say yes, but that doesn’t mean one won’t. Even though it’s about as noncommercial as burning a bin-full of money, it could still get picked up by a rogue agent (amazing) or a (very) small press.
I did get a personal note from one agent with her rejection, saying she didn’t believe she was “brave” enough to take it on. Fairly sure that’s a polite way of saying, “Both you and your book are completely mental,” but that’s certainly better than, “You’re a talentless cretin.” It may well mean it’s terrible, but it could mean anything. It may mean what it says, which is probably what it means. I should just let it go.
I’m going to keep pitching and getting rejected, and that’s fine. It’s supposed to be this way. I’m wary of self-pub. Certainly doesn’t feel like something I should be rushing at.
The new novel’s more lucid than the current pitch, so maybe it’ll be an easier sell. I actually doubt it, but I write what I write. Pointless pretending otherwise.
I’ve only just started working on the new book again after completing the first draft in the spring. I wrote it immediately after editing the previous one, which itself ran to eight drafts, and that came after binning The Ooning following a total rewrite and months of editing. All this is a side project to my VG247 job, and when I came to the end of the latest draft I was quite ill. This book is the longest I’ve written at 72,000 words (the novel I’m currently pitching is 57,000 and The Ooning was just over 50,000). I had to stop awhile. I took the entire summer away from books (I stopped reading, also), but I’ve worked through the opening pages this week and I’m feeling confident about entering the editing process proper.
More positively, my second short story is to be published later this year by Modiphius. Old games press acquaintance John Houlihan approached me with the opportunity to contribute to an anthology based on the pen-and-paper RPG Achtung! Cthulhu, and it was great to write some straight horror again. It seems as though there’s going to be some “author” activity around the launch, which will be a first for me, and I’m excited for that. Based on the fact my short fiction appears to be gaining more traction than the books, Fiona keeps politely suggesting I should switch from modernism to genre with my novel-writing. Maybe I will in the future, but a diversion seems folly based on a few rejections. I have a vision in which I believe. Someone, somewhere will eventually get it.
I’ve been writing a lot more on VG247 recently, and I’ve also completed a new short story, titled Call Them. I put it together as an application for The Word Factory’s 2014 apprenticeship, only to get a polite return email mail pointing out that only UK residents are applicable. Well done, me. This does, however, mean I have a fresh piece to pitch. I’ll start next week.
I finished editing my novel today after completing a first draft in mid-October. This is the first time I’ve reached this point with a book. It’s final at 58,000 words. Agent queries will start in the next few weeks.
The Ooning is no more. I made the decision to stop working on it in November after some pretty desperate soul-searching. Eventually, I had to be honest: I didn’t believe in it as a piece of work representative of my ambition or ability. I completely rewrote it over two major edits in 2012 and 2013, but it was “no good.” Some of the characterisation needed serious work and, regardless, I felt uncomfortable about trying to push a story for publication. I wrote the first draft ten years ago. I’m not that person. I don’t write narrative anymore. The Ooning wasn’t something I’d ever read. Logic, therefore, dictated that I needed to move on. It was a hard decision, but I just didn’t like it and nor would I ever. I invested many hundreds of hours in that book, but I had some good advice on how to deal with it mentally; none of it was wasted in terms of experience.
While it was tough at the time, I have no regrets about concentrating on the new project. The first draft flowed out in a way I’ve never experienced before with fiction, and I never felt a strong struggle with the editing process. The work reminded me of photo processing, especially on film. Any photographer will tell you how much easier it is to post-produce a properly exposed negative. Editing rough shots can be a nightmare and the end result will nearly always be compromised. I put down 60,000 words in three months late last year and it felt like walking. Editing, similarly, was enjoyable. Working on The Ooning was arduous, and in the end I realised I just didn’t want to do it. A valuable lesson, even if learning it produced some unpleasant head-in-hands moments.
I’m very pleased. The new book, I feel, represents a significant personal milestone. I wrote it, I edited it, I completed it and I’m happy with it, and now I can move directly onto prep for the third novel. I started notes over Christmas. My ideas are continuing to coagulate but the trend’s visible and I should have no problem putting it out this year.
I will not stop.
It just sort of came out. I don’t have a name for it yet, but the first draft’s done. Finished it today. Little of the drama I experienced with The Ooning, which is a traditionally structured story; this latest is modern and abstract. Now to finish The Ooning – edits which will likely involve a name-change – before coming back to the new draft in 2014. So. I wrote another book.
It’s like this. I have two current book projects and I need to make some decisions I’ve already made them. The Ooning has been through its beta got feedback from three people and I have enough to create the final rewrite. I know what’s wrong with it now. Beta was interesting as you’re always looking for correlation there’s a wow moment (two of the testers, the two that finished the entire thing, both said “wow” at the same point), and that’s fine. There’s a part which clearly doesn’t work and there’s some serious character stuff I need to address. And I need to redraft a bunch of shit. It’s going to take months.
The second project is the first draft of the second novel I started it because I was waiting for the beta to come through and it takes a while, you know. People have to read it, think about it, write about it. Books take so long. I’m thirty kay into this and I don’t want to stop the kids have been on holiday for two months and doing anything properly constructive’s been virtually impossible Dave’s gone and got himself an external desk I may do the same the summer holidays in France can last up to nine weeks. That’s a lot of can you play with me, daddy.
I don’t want to stop the draft but I have to finish The Ooning this year. I have four months left. As I said, I’ve already decided what to do but I’m not sure actually I am sure and this is it. I’m going to power through the draft, smack it up to wordcount as quickly as possible reckon I can get it done in three weeks if I beat out fifteen thousand a week. I know what I’m doing with it and I have flow even though I haven’t put any down for about two weeks I won’t have any problem picking up all planned out can get the draft bagged by the end of September. Then back to Ooning while I let that rest read it through again match to notes and push into the final version. I’d have three months to do it, polish it and actually finish the fucking thing over October, November and December. Then return to the second book in the New Year while I query Ooning. This is what I want to do.