Archive for the ‘Regarding writing’ Category

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Been a while since I did a craft based blog post so I thought I’d address an area that doesn’t seem to get lots of attention given it’s something that affects most writers.

That issue is the naming of characters. Now sure, you might write the odd story from the POV of a nameless character surviving on a deserted planet, but most of the time your protagonist will have a name, and even when she doesn’t, it’s likely the people she encounters will have names and you’ll have to come up with those names.

I don’t have kids but I know plenty of people who do, so I know the thought that goes into naming children, and you only have to look at the proliferation of baby name books and baby name websites to see that this is a huge area of interest.

Well what are we doing if not naming the children? The only difference is that, rather than having to name one or two children, we might have to name ten or twelve, or more! Now we probably don’t have nine months to think about it, and we probably won’t put the same level of deliberation into the decision process as an actual parent will, but that doesn’t mean we should just randomly pick names out of a telephone directory either.

So here’s a short list of handy hints when it comes to naming characters…

Only use a name once.

Now in the real world you meet people with the same name all the time, and the likelihood is that you work in a big office you’ll know multiple Johns and Sarahs and the like, but in the case of fiction realism goes out of the window. If you give multiple characters the same first name then you’re just going to confuse your readers, even if they’re never in the same scene.

Avoid names that sound similar.

So you’ve avoided using the same name, now you’ve got to avoid using names that’ll sound the same, or worse, look the same on the page. Think Jane and Joan and John. When most of us read books we’ll likely skim at times to some extent, and once again you’re at risk of confusing your reader. There’s a school of thought that suggests you should even avoid using names that share the same initial letter, think George and Gary. Now I once broke this rule in a (currently unpublished) novel by having a Gerald and a Gabriel, which in hindsight I really shouldn’t have done. And it isn’t just about the initial letter of a name, think about the length of the name as well. If you have names like Ben, Ian and Jim you’re again risking people getting confused.

Mix things up, vary name lengths, try to avoid names that sound or look similar, and try to use most of the letters in the alphabet if you can, and if you do have end up using certain initials more than others, at least make sure you only have one main character in the mix. If James meets Jonathan once that’s fine, if he’s having regular meetings with his boss Jim that’s going to get annoying and confusing.

Keep a note.

It’s fairly common sense I know, but try and keep a running tab in a notebook or a Word document of the names you’ve used. Not only will this avoid the possibility of you having six different Alices in your work, it will also provide a handy guide to spot if you are veering towards names that look the same. And if you are, well, it isn’t the end of the world to find and replace every instance of Ben with Reginald.

Be fashionable.

You may think naming characters is easy peasy, you’ll just buy a baby book name and randomly start choosing…except names, like clothes, are slaves to fashion, and names that are trendy today won’t necessarily have been in vogue 20 years ago.  Take me as an example, in the 1970s Paul was quite a popular name, but in the last ten years, not so much.

Take a look at this comparison of the top 10 American baby names in the 70s compared with the top 10 names during the current decade. There’s just one name that appears in both.

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Luckily there’s a ton of useful information out there on the internet to help you. That comparison above came courtesy of the US Social Security website which has a handy list of baby names going way back, and can even tell you the most popular names for a particular year in a particular state going back to 1960, and has more general lists of popular names per decade going back to the 1890s! Yes it’s US centric but you can find similar information for the UK (it’s just a little more piecemeal and less detailed).

Now this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give your character an atypical name, but at least bear in mind the impact this may have had on them growing up. Like this: “Of course these days loads of kids get called Noah, but in my day it just gave people another excuse to bully me.” See, it adds to the character.

So maybe just do it once rather than giving every character in your story an atypical moniker. And linked in with this of course is…

Historical context.

If you’re writing a medieval epic it’s unlikely that your lead characters are going to be Lady Tiffany and Lord Kanye. Again, do your research, the internet is full of lists of medieval names, Tudor names, renaissance names, civil war era names etc.

Naming round the world  

naming.jpgOf course, in this modern diverse world it’s likely some of your characters will herald from other cultures, and as with everything else, research is your friend. It’s no good giving a Muslim character a Sikh name, it’s embarrassing, offensive, and, on a more pragmatic note, suggests a certain lackadaisical attitude that’s likely to put publishers off.

Again there are loads of resources out there, and you’ll likely learn interesting things into the bargain, as an example I’m currently plotting a story that’ll have a Hungarian character in it, and I hadn’t realised that the Hungarian language is one of the few national languages in Europe to use the Eastern name order rather than the Western convention; so they go surname then given name, rather than given name, surname!

Things get complicated in some cultures, and you might still make mistakes—I know I have—but for the love of God at least give some indication you’ve tried!

Max Power, secret agent!

Having finished off her Harry Potter novels, JK Rowling now writes detective novels featuring a guy named Comoran Strike, which has to rate highly on the made up name stakes, and is something that always raises my hackles. Now of course some people do get saddled with ludicrous monikers, and yes I’m being something of a hypocrite here as I did call a character in my spy thriller/haunted house mash up Safe House Chalice Knight (in my defence it was designed to sound like a puntastic Bond girl name) but 9 times out of 10 calling your tough, no nonsense hero Jack Bastard will annoy me (and don’t get me started on the preponderance of the name Jack for tough hero types; Jack Bauer, Jack Reacher, Jack Ryan etc etc.)

Take James Bond, famous (and maybe apocryphally) the author of a book on bird watching, yes it sounds cool now with 60 odd years’ worth of hindsight, but realistically it’s a normal sounding name that’s taken on an iconic status. Compare that with Napoleon Solo from The Man From UNCLE (a name also originated by Fleming) and be honest, who are you more likely to bump into down the pub?

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Again rules are meant to be broken/there are no rules, so if you want to call your heroine Wonderland Slumber, go right ahead, but it’d better be a pulpy kinda novel, that’s all I’m saying.

Names as character traits.

Of course, sometimes you want a character’s name to evoke their actual character, or make it seem like it does before subverting our expectations. In City of Caves I named a secondary character Gareth Lamb, and he ended up being eaten by zombie vampires, almost like a lamb to the slaughter… (I’m sorry/not sorry).

And in Darker Times I had Jude who was a betrayer, Martyn who was something of a martyr, and Grace who was a serene, away with the fairies kind of person. To some degree I subverted each one of those characters (especially Grace) and the fourth character was Holly, and there was no special meaning about her name.

Names from beyond the stars.

CapturelnhAt the end of the day you can call your characters whatever you like, and this is never more true than if you’re writing fantasy of science fiction. After all, given you’re the one who created the planet Vexpar Minor, who knows better than you whether Slaar Grimlix is the Vexparian equivalent of John Smith or not, eh? Even here though, you should at the very least aim for some internal consistency where possible. If you’ve given all your Vexpaxian characters triple barrelled names that all end with an X, calling one Nigel might stand out a bit.

Of course, maybe you want Nigel to stand out?

* * *

I hope at least some of this blog’s been useful, if not, well, feel free to name your characters whatever the hell you like, they are, after all, your characters.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start work on a series of novels featuring former exotic dancer turned nuclear physicist turned secret agent Wonderland Slumber…

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The Long and the Short of it.

Posted: January 16, 2018 in Regarding writing
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Ok so this is actually Margaret Hamilton standing next to the computer code she helped write for NASA’s Apollo program, but you get the idea!

So, my 2018 writing resolution was to step back from writing short fiction and to focus on a novel and, hopefully, a screenplay. It’s now the middle of January and I currently have four short works in progress and have done very little towards novel prep, and nothing towards a screenplay!

So, to further procrastinate, I thought it might be a good time to discuss the difference between short and long form, the positives and negatives inherent with each.

Each format has its appeal, each format has its limitations.

The first thing to discuss is perhaps financial reward. Most writers dream of becoming best-selling authors, of million pound, multiple book deals, of Hollywood throwing millions of dollars at you to buy the film rights etc. Now let’s be honest, the chances of this happening are thin, for every Stephen King or JK Rowling there are thousands of writers who never make it, but of those who do it will probably be the novel that makes their fortune.

There are exceptions of course, back in the 1980s Clive Barker became a household name on the back of his Books of Blood anthologies, and writers like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman can still shift anthologies, but these are the exceptions, and even the three writers mentioned above found their greatest success with novels, screenplays, comic scripts etc.

Of course, it’s worth remembering that even most authors who write novels will never make the big time, and it’s eminently possible that having some short fiction published could lead to greater things.

So, lets look at some plus points to short stories over novels. There’s a sense of immediacy for one. One of the problems I’ve had recently is a surfeit of ideas, and some of them have demanded to be written there and then. Depending on its length a short story doesn’t take too long to write, a few days, a few weeks, hell on some occasions I’ve written a complete first draft in a few hours. By contrast novel writing is akin to marathon running, with the best will in the worst you’re probably not going to churn out a novel in a few days or weeks without calling in sick from work and snorting a lot of cocaine to enable you to write 24/7. No, writing a novel takes time, and whilst writing is a lonely job/hobby at the best of times, it’s even more isolating if you’ve got to keep your motivation going for months, sometimes years without validation. That’s like running a marathon alone, with no competitors to chase and no crowd cheering you on, and all the while you brain will keep generating other ideas to distract you. Evil, evil brain…

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Few short stories will take so long to write that you have to abandon them for a new idea, and the other good thing about short stories is that after you complete them you can release them into the wild whilst you start work on something else, because that’s perhaps the other advantage of the short form, there’s potentially a much bigger market for short stories than there is for novels; anthologies and indie publishers aplenty, and in the end isn’t it better to be a writer with publishing credits than the person who wrote a novel that went nowhere? Of course, there’s always the self-publishing route, and I’ve gone down that myself, but it’s not the same as someone choosing to publish you.

How about short stories versus novels from a craft perspective? I remember Lawrence Block saying that you could get away with a lot more flaws in a novel. When you’ve written 90,000 words an editor will likely be more forgiving of some creaky dialogue or some clunky exposition because it’s the whole that matters. When it comes to a 2,000 word short story on the other hand, every word matters, and the whole thing should be as meticulously crafted as a swiss watch. Or, to go back to the running analogy, if you’re sprinting you need to run as fast as you can for as long as you can, but running the marathon? You’re more likely to be able to get away with slowing down for the odd mile, just so long as you make your time up later.

Which isn’t to say you can afford to be sloppy with a novel, just that the long form can be more forgiving.

So, in conclusion I’m not sure you can argue either is really better. Sure, you’re probably more likely to accrue fame and fortune with a novel, but the odds are still stacked against you (sorry, if its any consolation they’re stacked against me too). At the end of the day the form you choose may be out of your hands. Perhaps you have a short attention span, or perhaps you only come up with ideas that require 120,000 words to do them justice, or maybe all your ideas only require flash fiction to get them across.

Ideally you’ll find a way to do both, working long term on a novel, whilst allowing your imagination free reign to drum up the odd short story while you’re slaving away on your epic fantasy trilogy, this will allow you to hopefully get the odd publishing credit to keep your motivation up, and hopefully writing those finely crafted short stories will make you a better novel writer into the bargain…maybe…

That’s my plan, but first there’s a short story I need to finish!

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The Write Pace

Posted: November 6, 2017 in Regarding writing
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I love being on Twitter, but as a writer there’s good and bad to this. On the up side I’m now part of a bigger community of fellow writers, and people share a lot of good practice/good ideas. On the downside, not only do I have an appreciation of just how many other writers are out there (which is a sobering thought whenever I submit anything) but you also have to deal with people proclaiming they’ve “just written 1500 words”, or worse, the somewhat dispirited tweets that go along the lines of “Damn, I only wrote 2000 words today.”

If, like me, you might have only written 500 words today, it’s easy to be a little disheartened by these kinds of tweet sometimes. But I shouldn’t, and neither should you. Writing is like many other things, there’s no single right way to do it, there are in fact multiple right ways, and multiple wrong ways, and each of us needs to choose our own path.

There’s a school of thought that says you should write every day—and in fairness I always feel more relaxed if I write every day—and that the only way to succeed as a writer is to make it a habit, which is fine when you can write 1000 words every single day, but if you can’t keep to this kind of schedule for any reason, it’s easy to feel like a fraud or a failure.

It’s worth remembering that most people who write several thousand words a day will be people who have the time to write several thousand words a day. Now, maybe that’s because they’re a professional writer and it’s effectively their day job, maybe it’s because they have a lot of free time, or maybe it’s because they’re exceptionally well organised and are able to break their whole day down into regimented chunks, even though they have a thousand and one things to do.

But just because they can, it doesn’t mean you’re rubbish if you can’t. We all lead busy lives, and if you have a stressful job with long hours, or you have small children, or older relatives to care for, or even if you’re just not the most organised of people, it’s easy to think “I don’t have time to write”, easy to use lack of time as an excuse not to write. “Oh I couldn’t give it the time and attention it deserves, not like those people who write for hours at a time.”

Things writers are good at; procrastinating, feeling like imposters, and using any old excuse not to write.

So here’s the rub. Maybe you can’t write every day, maybe you can’t even write every other day, maybe you can only write for an hour on a Thursday evening because that’s when your husband/wife takes you three year old sextuplets swimming and you finally get some alone time. Let’s say during that hour you can write 1000 words. So there you go, 1000 words a week when some people are writing that (and more) in a single day.

Screw some people.

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Write 1000 words a week and you might have an award winning short story in a month.

Write 1000 words a week and in six months you might have written a novella.

Write 1000 words a week and in fourteen months you might have written a novel.

Sure, if your plan is to create something like Game of Thrones then at that rate it’s going to take you a long time to complete (but hey, you might still finish before George RR Martin does) but with dedication you can still finish it. You can run a marathon in three hours, or take nine hours, or a day, but at the end of the day you’ve still run a marathon. And actually writing is better than marathon running, because if you take a day to run a marathon you’ll never win a gold medal, but you can spend 10 years writing a novel and it can still end up a best seller/Booker prize winner!

Which doesn’t mean you don’t want to make writing a habit, you absolutely do, it just means that your particular habit doesn’t have to be the norm (whatever the norm is). If you can happily write for an hour a day, do so, if you can only spare 15 minutes during your lunch hour, that’s fine too, if you can only write at weekends so what? Whatever works for you is the right choice for you so long as you do one thing, and that’s actually write.

Set yourself targets by all mean, but make them realistic ones. If you can only write while you’re on your annual caravanning holiday to Skegness then don’t expect to finish your epic fantasy trilogy this side of 2050, although you never know, some crazy fools have been known to write an entire novel in just a few days; Stephen King wrote The Running Man during a rather frenzied week! That’s probably not recommended though.

The specifics of your writing pattern are not important, and certainly there’s nothing to be gained by comparing it to anyone else’s writing pattern, what’s important is that you have a pattern and as far as possible you stick to it.

Remember, whether you write 5000 words a day or 500 you’re still a writer. You only cease to be a writer when you write nothing.

Earlier in the year I entered a sci-fi short story competition hosted by the National Space Centre in collaboration with Literary Leicester Festival, and I found out a few weeks ago that I’d been chosen as the runner up in the 16+ category!

I’ll be presented with my prize, and read a short excerpt from my story, on the 18th November (and hopefully will be able to post some pics) but until then if you’d like to read my story it’s free to read on the National Space Centre website so just follow the link HERE and enjoy!

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I’ve talked about rejection before, and I think anyone who talks about writing (however infrequently) has to address rejection, because for the majority of writers it is just one of those immutable facts of life. As always there are exceptions, but they are rare, and whilst one may feel an annoyance with the lucky buggers, I do wonder if not getting rejections— if having your first story/book picked up, then the next one and the next one, without ever getting that hit of disappointment— is a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong. Rejection is horrible, I’ve talked before about how being a writer is a bit like being a boxer getting pummelled by punch after punch, but can you imagine a boxer who never takes a hit? Some kind of inhuman pugilist who’d make Muhammad Ali seem flat footed, a preternaturally fleet-footed ninja who no one could lay a glove on. Know what, eventually even such an individual will take a hit, and I’d be willing to bet that one punch, however light, will drop them like a stone.

Nietzsche’s assertion that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger is naïve in the extreme, but on occasion there is some truth behind the notion, in particular when it comes to rejection. Just as eschewing shoes (eschoeing?) will eventually lead to the skin on the soles of your feet hardening, then hopefully rejections, assuming you don’t buckle and quit after the first few (and I would never begrudge anyone who does that because rejection is like a knife to the heart) will harden your heart and mean future rejections maybe won’t hurt quite so much.

Don’t get me wrong though, they’ll still hurt, and maybe they always should, but as counterintuitive as it sounds rejection can be a positive, I know I’ve channelled the despair I’ve felt over having been rejected in many ways. There’s the visceral “well, I’ll show you!” response to rejection, and often one of the best ways to handle a rejection is to take that story and fire it off towards someone else, and I think that’s a perfectly acceptable way to respond. The only note of caution I’d sound is that before you do you should always give a moment’s consideration to whether you can make it better first. Have you proof read it enough, could you polish some more? At the end of the day with any work of art, be it a sculpture, a musical composition, a painting or a story, there’s always a danger of it never feeling finished, but by the same token it would be annoying if a great story kept being rejected because publishers felt your grammar and spelling weren’t up to scratch.

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J.Kitten. Rowling suddenly had a new idea…

Rejection can prove a positive in other ways. In the last week I’ve been hit with a double whammy of rejection. Both were stories I felt were good, and both were stories that had been with publishers long enough that I’d started to feel overly hopeful (never a good idea, but there is some truth in the notion that the longer someone holds onto your story the more they like it) so in both cases it was a hard pill to swallow when the “Thanks, but no thanks,” came back. What’s curious is that in both cases, within an hour or so of getting the rejections my mind came up with new story ideas, one for each rejection, almost as if subconsciously I was saying; “Ok, you didn’t like that story but how about this one?”

As a wordsmith it’s quite obvious that the word rejection and the word injection are the same if you remove the first two letters, so next time you get a rejection take away the RE and add an IN, make it an injection of something; whether it’s a desire to polish your story further, whether it’s a sheer bloody minded belief that someone else will like your story so you send it somewhere else, or whether you channel your disappointment into firing your imagination to come up with a brand new story.

Oft times I find rejection prompts all three of those reactions in me, and I’m not sure this was always the case, but being a writer is often about evolution, not only in what we write and how we write, but also in how we react to what people feel about our work, whether that’s a positive or a negative.

In conclusion I’ll circle back to the use of my boxing metaphor once more. In Rocky 3, Rocky was beaten by Clubber Lang, and in order to come back and reclaim his title he had to learn to fight a different way, knowing he couldn’t beat Clubber in a lengthy fight, he had to change his approach and beat him quickly. He took his defeat, his rejection, and turned it around, used it to inject something new into his technique.

Keep punching folks, and if they do knock you down, just make sure you get back up again before the count hits ten!

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I pity the fool that rejects my stories!

The Seven Rs

Posted: February 18, 2017 in Regarding writing
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4-computer-catAt one time in the UK education was boiled down to the pithy catchphrase of “The Three Rs” which were Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmatic. Now the first thing you’ll notice is that only one of those words actually starts with an R, but it does highlight the areas you’d want a child to do well in; Reading, Writing and Mathematics. Of course, “The R the W and the M” doesn’t sound anywhere near as catchy.

I haven’t done a blog post about writing in a while and thought I should correct that omission, and so I’d like to talk about the seven Rs. These are seven things all writers will need to do or get used to experiencing. Actually in fairness I’d better state off right off the bat that only six of these are certain, the seventh is something beyond your control I’m afraid. On the plus side you’ll be pleased to know that six of my seven Rs are actually words that begin with an R at least!

Anyway let’s begin.

1. Reading

animals___cats_cat_reading_a_book_088072_It goes without saying that it’s impossible to be a writer unless you are a reader. I’m sure there are some perfectly successful writers who aren’t voracious readers, but I imagine they must be in the minority. Reading helps expand your vocabulary, it helps you understand what works and more importantly what doesn’t; never underestimate the benefit of reading a badly written book.

Reading the kind of book you want to write will give you an appreciation of the genre, identifying what sells and what doesn’t, and also highlighting which tropes and clichés are overused (and sometimes which ones are de rigueur for the genre). Reading books outside of your comfort zone expands your worldview and can only improve your writing. Factual texts are useful for research and generating story ideas, the same with reading newspapers (how often have you read a book or watched a TV drama that was “ripped from the headlines.”?) Of course you should never let reading get in the way of the second R…

2. ‘Riting

It stands to reason that if you want to be a writer, then you have to write. Plenty of people watch a film and think they could do better, lots of people believe they have a novel in them, plenty of people have vivid imaginations and can come up with plots and characters. What separates these people from actual writers is that writers write. It really is that simple. If you’re a frustrated novelist then the only way to turn yourself into a writer is to write. You can fill notebooks full of ideas, you can read books on writing, take writing courses, but until you put pen to paper or finger to keyboard, any potential you have is untapped.

Now once you start writing you’ll have need of the third R…

3. Routine.

Writing is like exercise, the more often you do it the easier it becomes and the better you become at it (usually). But like exercise writing is something you must make yourself undertake. A large proportion of writers can procrastinate to an Olympic standard, and in the modern world there are a whole heap of potential distractions; friends, family, chores, work, TV, Facebook, Twitter…the list goes on and on, and some people won’t write because they don’t have the time.

So, with that in mind having a routine, making time on a regular basis to write, is an essential. Some people will claim to write for several hours a day, some people aren’t happy unless they produce 1000+ words a day, but there is no right or wrong here. If all you can spare is 15 minutes a day, then that’s all you can spare. Just do it every day. Produce a few hundred words a day and within a year you should have produced over 70,000 words. That’s technically novel length. Of course, what you have to factor into your routine is not just writing, but also the fourth R…

4. Reviewing.

It may be that there are a select few writers who pour pure gold down on paper with their very first pen stroke, but somehow I doubt it. Writing is hard work, but harder still is reviewing and editing what you’ve written, polishing the lump of coal you’ve created until it’s a sparkling diamond, or at the very least a highly-polished lump of coal.
You’re not just correcting spelling mistakes and other typos (I once had a character take his shit off and throw in on the floor) you’re also rewriting, changing the emphasis and removing extraneous detail—and you’ll be amazed just how much you can excise from a story whilst not altering its structure one jot. I’ve trimmed down multiple stories to fit a word count; try doing flash fiction to really hone this skill.

The difficulty with reviewing is knowing when you’ve finished. Like a sculptor who keeps chipping away at a stature, or an artist who keeps adding a brushstroke to a portrait, your story might never feel finished. At the end of a day you’ll always find something to refine, even after your tenth draft, the trick is knowing when enough is enough. More than once I’ve realised that I ended up changing words back to what they’d been multiple drafts before!

Again there’s no right or wrong number of revisions here. There comes a point where you really don’t feel you can polish a story any more, but be warned; I know I’ve submitted stories before now that, in hindsight, maybe still needed another going over, but by the same token don’t do 25 drafts if all you’re doing is changing ‘It’s’ to ‘It is’ and back again.

Once your review is complete, or as complete as it can be, it’s time to send your story out into the big wide world, which leads us on to the fifth, and lousiest, R…

5. Rejection.

As with several of the preceding points, rejection is not an absolute given. Some writers get lucky (famously James Herbert had The Rats picked up by the first publisher he sent it to) however 99.99% of writers don’t. That’s as true for me as it is for Stephen King or JK Rowling, and it will probably be true for you as well.

Rejection comes with the territory. It’s the same for actors, singers; in fact anyone in any creative field (and in fact anyone who ever went for a job interview, see this blog post has real world applications.)

Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your writing is shit; it might be that a publisher needed 20 stories to fill an anthology and out of the 300 they were submitted there were 20 that were better than yours. It might be that your story was too similar to another, or not the kind of thing they were looking for. Or it could just be it was because it was shit. Sadly you rarely find out unless the publisher is kind enough to provide some feedback.
Rejection is horrible, it’s shitty and dispiriting and depressing, but it’s also par for the course I’m afraid. This is where the sixth R comes in…

6. Resilience.

I once equated writing with boxing, and I still think it’s a good analogy. Rejections are like punches and you have to learn to take them, or throw in the towel. Just as there are many talented people who never start writing, similarly there are many talented writers who give up. I won’t ever denigrate anyone who quits the fight. Until you’ve received rejection after rejection for stories you’ve poured hours of work into, put your blood sweat and tears into, you can’t understand how much of a punch to the gut a rejection is, and plenty of times—especially when I’ve had a little run of rejections—I’ve thought “Sod this for a game of soldiers” and seriously considered knocking the whole thing on the head. Of course for me such feelings thankfully don’t last, and usually within a few days I’ve either sent a story off to another market, or started writing something else (or sometimes both!)

closeyouareThis is where resilience comes in. It’s hard and its painful, but often what separates the published author from the talented amateur is that one keeps going where the other decides enough is enough, and the sad irony is that this means talent and hard work are not enough, and often the people who make it are simply the ones who can take one more punch, or maybe even a dozen more punches. Frankly the only thing that keeps me going sometimes is the fear of quitting just before I make it.

If you keep going this is where the seventh R might come into play…

7. Reward.

Or maybe it doesn’t, because this is the one you have the least control over. You can be talented, you can work hard, you can be resilient, but the sad truth is that this doesn’t mean you’ll be successful, and in fact most published authors earn very little.

But then it maybe depends on your definition of reward. Reward can mean money, it can mean a three-book deal with Headline or a million dollar Hollywood film adaptation, or it can mean something less tangible. Seeing your name in print can be rewarding, holding a book with your name on the cover can be rewarding, having a nice review, or the respect of your peers can be rewarding.

None of which means I’d turn down Hollywood if they wanted to option anything I’ve written of course!

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Party Time!

So there it is, the seven Rs. Or is it? When I told my girlfriend about this blog she suggested that after Reward there should come Rejoicing, and maybe she’s right, and, after giving it more thought, it strikes me that there’s yet another R after that, because even if you read, write, review, handle rejection and get your reward, then after you finished rejoicing you need to think about what you’re going to do next. Which is where one final R comes into play.

Repeat!

clipboard01My new novel Darker Times arose out of an idea I had a decade ago, an idea which eventually merged with another idea to become something very different, yet something that, in essence, was still the same idea I came up with ten years ago.

Bemoaning all the ideas we come up with but never get around to using is something a lot of writers, myself included, talk about, I’ve even seen some consider getting rid of old notebooks of ideas as they imagine they’re never going to use them, but I think Darker Times shows why this is never a good idea. Even fragments of ideas ‘you’re never going to use’ might find a home within a totally new story, a character you’d envisaged for a space opera set in the 25th Century might, with a bit of tinkering, make for an interesting 18th Century pirate (or vice versa).

Darker Times went from being a haunted house story to a post-apocalyptic melodrama, and yet in so many ways it’s still the damn same story!

Let’s start at the very beginning. The year was 2006 and I was on holiday with friends in Egypt. Along with two others I’d plumped for a hike up Mount Sinai, where Moses supposedly collected his stone tablets from God, to witness the sunrise. It was an amazing, if exceptionally tiring, experience, but before I climbed down the mountain, before I saw the sunrise, before I even climbed up the mountain, I came up with an idea.

We were picked up by a coach late at night and advised to try and get some sleep on the drive out to the mountains (because there sure as heck wouldn’t be time for sleep later). I can’t recall if I actually slept or not, I probably dozed at least in the darkened coach, but what I did do was daydream, and that daydream quickly evolved into a story idea that, by the time we reached our destination, had become fully formed, complete with initial sketches of the main characters.

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me atop the mountain with a head full of ideas!

The original story, if I’d written it (I started chapter one), would have been called Ten Photos of Coffin House, and would be a contemporary ghost story set in a small cottage near the tiny village of Blodwel Nave. Four people would visit the cottage for a holiday, but by the end of their stay three would be dead or missing and one would be so severally traumatised that they wouldn’t be able to tell what had happened, and so the only evidence of what had occurred would be ten photos taken on a disposable camera that was found at the scene.

The idea of the book was that an academic (or possibly some pulpish writer of mysteries) would contrive to fill in the blanks based on the photos, and myths and legends relating to the cottage.

I’m not sure it was an idea that could ever really work. The photo conceit seemed like a good idea at the time but I can’t see how it could have worked, outside of getting models to pose for ten photos that could be used as chapter headings. Similarly I might not have been a good enough writer at the time to make it work because the whole point was going to be that maybe there was a supernatural element involved, or maybe it was just that one of the groups went doolally. Nuance isn’t one of my strengths.

But what the initial idea did give me was four characters, most of whom had secrets, and in some instances actively loathed one another, trapped in a confined space.

Like I say, I worked on chapter one and then tossed the idea to one side.

51wpt1jhu1l-_sx331_bo1204203200_Flash forward a couple of years and the sadly now defunct American indie publisher Pill Hill Press issued a submission call for post-apocalyptic stories to be published in an anthology inspired by the supposed Mayan prophesy that the world would end in 2012. Given I’ve always had a thing for post-apocalyptic stories (“you don’t say” groaned everyone who knows me) I decided to submit a story. I wanted to come up with something slightly different from the more usual nuclear war/zombie apocalypse/pandemic/asteroid strike/alien invasion kinda thing. In the end I can’t remember quite where the notion originated from, but I decided to go with a future world where, for some unspecified reason, it had got suddenly dark one day and stayed dark.

41hb7ggl6jl-_sx322_bo1204203200_The story that arose was Stranger Times, featuring a mysterious stranger named, er, Stranger, who encounters a community of survivors on the Californian shore. It’s always been a favourite story of mine and I did like the universe, even so it wasn’t something I expected to return to—although as with many stories there was a recurring fantasy that it would be noticed by someone big in publishing who’d commission me to write a whole slew of Stranger novels and pay me millions for the privilege. I’m still dreaming obviously— but then a few years ago another Indie publisher, Fox Spirit, issued a submissions call for their Girl at the End of the World anthologies, and I duly obliged, writing Savage Times, which can be found in Girl at the End of the World volume 2. Savage Times featured a teenage girl surviving in darkened Nottingham.

For another open submission I then wrote Darker Silence (originally titled Silent Times before I decided I’d give all works in this universe the Darker prefix). Darker Silence follows the adventures of a deaf young man in France, and is currently unpublished. This year I’ve also written Darker Sins, a story set in Vegas at the start of the darkness, it’s also unpublished at the moment but…I’m getting ahead of myself.

After writing Savage Times and Darker Silence I decided I really ought to write a Darker novel. I considered several ideas before deciding that maybe it would be good to focus on how a small group of people dealt with the sudden darkness and impending collapse of civilisation.

Now if only I had a cast of characters and a remote location I could use…

Slightly embarrassing to admit that the lightbulb above my head didn’t immediately flare into life, but oh when it did! Suddenly everything slotted together as smoothly as it it’d been planned all along. I had four characters I knew inside out, they had secrets and animosities that would make being stuck in a confined space bad enough, even before you landed an apocalypse on top of this. If anything the darkness worked better as an antagonist than potential ghosts would have.

Of course some other things changed. Coffin House would have been an old property (all the better for ghosties and ghoulies) whereas the cottage in Darker Times became a much newer, prefabricated construction. The eventual fates of each character changed as well, so don’t take the above comment about three of them dying/disappearing and one going nuts as any kind of spoiler, that isn’t how Darker Times ends!

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Inexplicable Dolly pic!

But in so many ways if you strip away the veneer of Darker Times, there’s still a whole lot of Ten Photos of Coffin House underneath. So, the moral is, hoard your ideas, you never can tell when you might end up stitching a few rags of ideas together to make something stylish, just like Dolly Parton and her coat of many colours.