Posts Tagged ‘Musings upon writing’


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 Now I once broke this rule in a (currently unpublished) novel by having a Gerald and a Gabriel, which in hindsight I really shouldn’t have done.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.

top names

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?


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…


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.


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.

The Seven Rs

Posted: February 18, 2017 in Regarding writing

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!


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.



I think one thing you don’t realise until you start writing, is just how many stories a single person can produce. Of course this always assumes you don’t give up after your first few rejections. I’ve talked about rejection before however, so for the purposes of this article I’m going to assume that you’re the stubborn as a mule who’s particularly stubborn kind of writer who won’t let a few (hundred) NO THANK YOUs slow them down. I’m also going to assume you’re the kind of writer, like me, who writes in both long and short form (and everything in between.)

I probably could tell you roughly how many stories I’ve written if I could be bothered to do a check on my story folder, but frankly I’m too lazy, and besides that kind of thing (like totalling up how many rejections you’ve received) can be counterproductive. Suffice to say that I’ve written a lot. Five full novels, three novellas and several dozen short stories at least.

Many of these stories have yet to find a home outside of the digital one squirreled away on my hard drive (and backed up several times over, don’t EVER make that mistake!) and, like the crazy old relative in the attic, quite a few of them I’ve chosen to forget ever existed. If you’re not aware of the term ‘Trunk Stories’ then I’d recommend Googling it. Suffice to say that every writer is probably going to have stories he or she could never find a home for, because not matter who you are and how successful you are you’re going to get rejections. Just the other day on Twitter a writer I follow, who’s had multiple novels formally published, was bemoaning the fact that an American sci-fi mag had rejected a story submission, so don’t imagine that even if you become a bestselling novelist everything you write will turn to gold. Everyone, at every level, will have stories they haven’t found a home for.

And it’s possible that they imagine they never will. Now I’m not quite so defeatist. I firmly believe that every story has a home, even the terrible ones, because every story has merit, even if the only virtue was as part of your development as a writer. In today’s world anyone has the ability to publish their words, whether as a print on demand kind of way, or as an eBook, or simply by posting them on their blog—and I’ve done all three of those things. As I’ve always said, it’s better that 3 people read your story than nobody does. Hidden away in the attic or hard drive nobody is going to read it. And, you know, even though you think it’s terrible, someone else might not, and sometimes writers are their own worst critics (and, in fairness, their own most blinkered champion).

None of which is my way of admitting that if I’ve self-published or posted a story on my blog that I think it’s terrible. Far from it. That’s just the right home as far as I could see, especially for the novels because it is so very hard to get interest from an agent or publisher these days, the opportunities are infinitely fewer for a 130,000 word novel than a 5,000 word short story, and given how much time and effort it takes to write a novel the thought of no one ever reading it is so much more depressing. Especially when I think my novels are, for the most part, good. To date, as I’ve said, I’ve written 5 novels. The first, third and fourth ones are now available to buy as print on demand, pdf, or via Amazon. The fifth book may end up in the same place, but at the moment I haven’t exhausted all the options for attracting a publisher or agent to it. So it will be published, either because someone wants to publish it, or because I want to publish it. That leaves my second novel, a twisty turny time travel story worthy of Steven Moffat. That one may never see the light of day. In part because I’m not sure how good it is, in part because my characterising of certain characters is quite heavy handed, but also because the nature of the story necessitates a very specific time period within which it can be set so it would have to be published, if at all, as a kind of weird period piece.

Maybe one day…

Going back to short stories, I think there’s a lot more scope for finding a home for these, but persistence is the order of the day, persistence, a touch of luck and, just perhaps, the lowering of your sights.

The first thing to state is that just because you’ve been rejected by a mid-range publisher, it doesn’t necessarily follow that you can only ever pitch that story at the independent end of the market, far from it. I once had a story rejected by the sadly now defunct Pill Hill Press, very much an indie concern in the States, that story ended up being published by the British Fantasy Society. Remember, a rejection of a story is just that A rejection. Every editor has their own tastes, every editor has their own idea what they’re looking for, and maybe that story about spider cowboys you wrote happened to be the third spider cowboy story they’ve seen that week—they can’t take them all. Abaddon Books’ commissioning editor David Moore makes the point very eloquently here about the process of cutting through a submission pile. But just because your story didn’t fit one editor for one publication, it doesn’t follow that it won’t grab hold of the next person you send it too (remember there are editors out there who turned Harry Potter down).

If you believe in a story you have to keep sending it out, I’ve eventually sold many stories that had been rejected many times because they finally found the home they were made for. So maybe that is luck, but really I think it’s more down to persistence. I also talked about lowering your sights, though as I say sometimes it can be as simple as heightening your sights as well, don’t be afraid to target the indie market. That isn’t to say they’ll automatically take your tale, they have standards just like anyone else, but the truism is, well, true! The wider you cast your net the more chance you have of landing a fish.

Don’t be afraid if it takes some time, often a story will fit a particular niche (Horror western, superheroes, erotic sci-fi etc.) and anthologies that are looking for that kind of story might be few and far between (and then three might come along at once like Number 6 buses!) but there’s no greater feeling than scrolling through somewhere like The Horror Tree and suddenly spotting an anthology you have the perfect story for.

Time to dust it off, maybe give it a polish and another proof, and send it off.

Every decent story can find a home; if you’re patient, persistent, and pig headed enough. Good luck!

Writer Beware

Posted: August 21, 2015 in Regarding writing


Kitty’s Proofing Service wasn’t all it appeared…

It’s been a while since I blogged about writing so I thought I’d correct that error with a little commentary on those who make money from writing.

No I don’t mean writers, silly. And no I don’t mean publishers or book shop owners or anyone like that.

No I mean those who make money on the back of selling the writing dream. The internet is awash with people who will teach you how to write that bestselling novel, or who promise to critique your work or edit and proofread it before you send it off to a publisher. Some will even publish you themselves.

None of these services come free of course.

Now I’m sure there are decent people out there who really can help you to become a better writer, I just suspect there are an awful lot of people who’ve just seen a niche in the market and are after a quick buck, and don’t even feel the need to provide a decent product in return.

Now me, well I’ve always been of the opinion that the best way to learn how to write a novel is by reading a lot of novels, dissecting them to see how the narrative structure works, how characters evolve and plot is developed. This process doesn’t even need to cost you a penny if you have a library card.

Now I’ve bought the odd book on writing it’s true, but a decent book on writing might cost you £10 (or it might even be free from the library) which is a lot different to paying £100 or more for an online course, and usually these books are written by people who are actually quite successful writers in their own right (or should that be write?). Two of my favourites are by Lawrence Block and Stephen King. This is a lot different than signing up for a course run by Betty Rubenstein whose main claim to fame is that she once had a poem published in the St Jude’s parish magazine…

Similarly there are those who’ll offer to critique your work, sometimes this is a standalone service but sometimes it’s linked to a submission call and I’ve seen examples of that. If it’s free to submit a story but you can request a critique for a nominal amount and you feel this would be useful, then by all means go for it, but realistically if you want your work critiqued you might be just as well joining a writers group, likeminded people who’ll happily take a look at your work and offer constructive criticism for the cost of you returning the favour.

This brings me on to those submission calls which charge a fee. I remember when I started out writing stories and, pitifully naïve as I was, I did pay a couple of £5 fees to submit stories to competitions, but with hindsight I think it’s a lousy thing to do. I appreciate that an indie publisher needs to afford to publish a book, but frankly in this age of print on demand firms and eBooks there can’t be nearly as many overheads as their once were. Don’t get me wrong here; I’m not (and never would) having a go at indie publishers who pay a token amount and/or a contributors copy, or even those in the ‘For the Love’ category, most of these provide a great outlet for writers, especially those just starting out, which doesn’t mean they take any old guff—far from it they still have standards—and there’s something to be said for holding a book you’ve contributed to in your hands, it’s a wonderful motivation, and as I’ve often said, it’s better for a story to be out there being read than languishing on my hard drive.

But paying for the privilege of just being considered? Nah, steer clear.

Next up are the companies (or I suspect more likely individuals) offering to edit/proof your work. Now I have friends who are professional editors, some of whom are employed by publishers some of whom work for themselves, and they do a great job, its hard work and such work does not come cheap, and usually they work for big clients (as in actual companies I’m not suggesting there are giants who pen novellas in between collecting golden eggs or anything). I’m not talking about the likes of these editors, but I’ve seen people advertise their services to proof or edit your fiction, to help you smooth the rough edges off a story and get it in a good position to send off to a publisher.

One of these individuals had a website advertising their wares many years ago, and I found several typos in it. If you’re going to offer that kind of a service failings like that speak volumes. Now my editing isn’t perfect, my grammar’s getting better (but she still isn’t out of the wood yet, boom boom…cough, sorry) and I proof things more times than I ever used to, but mistakes do get made (I once famously had a character throw his shirt on the floor, only I missed the ‘R’ out…) but that said I’m not setting myself up as someone who’ll edit your work for a price.

I think so long as you’ve shown due diligence, and you’ve gone through your work multiple times to iron out any errors, then publishers will be forgiving of the rare typo (especially when it’s the kind that won’t be picked up by Word). Invest in a book on grammar if you’re concerned, or take an evening class. Or if it’s more about polishing the work, well we’re back to a writing group again.

The final people to talk about are the ones who’ve been around for ages, and in many respects the most villainous of all: The Vanity Publisher!

Now once more, before you accuse me of hypocrisy, there’s nothing wrong, per se, with seizing the initiative and getting your own work out there, and obviously I’ve done that myself, but nowadays this can be done at no cost to yourself. Print on demand companies like Lulu, or the ability to self-publish electronically, think Amazon, mean there’s no place for the company who will print you off a few hundred books, for a price.

Over the years I suspect many an aspiring writer sent their manuscript off to what appeared to be a perfectly respectable publisher only to get a letter or an email back explaining that they loved the book, and they’d be honoured to publish it, of course they’d need some capital to authorise the print run, but that’s just a formality…

At best people possibly did get boxes of their books, and maybe over the years they managed to sell them off and break even, but I fear many people didn’t even get the books. At the end of the day there’s little difference between some vanity publishers and the friendly Nigerian who says he wants to offer you £6,000,000, only he needs a few hundred up front to prove you’re serious about the whole endeavour. Both are scams, just different kinds, one preys on people greed, the other preys on people’s ego and desire to see their work in print.

As the old adage goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. But don’t just take my word for it, check out the absolute write forums, they have a whole thread dedicated to the literary ne’er-do-wells.

Writers have to be self-aware enough to take on board criticism, to even seek it out and to learn from it in order to develop as an artist, and as I said I’m sure there are people out there who can help you become a better writer, you just need to be very careful about who you choose to help you, and what their motives are. I’m a capitalist at the end of the day, and there’s nothing wrong with people selling a service, but if you’re going to partake of that service just be damn sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

Me, I want to make money from writing, but I want to make money through selling my stories rather than from my fellow writers, which is why any writing advice in this blog—which is hopefully useful to some people—will always remain free.

Call it literary karma.

The Waiting Game

Posted: October 9, 2014 in Regarding writing

One thing that doesn’t often get mentioned with regards to being a writer is the amount of time you spend sitting around waiting for others to make decisions about your work.

We spend ages writing our tales of terror or romance (or terrible romance) and then send them off to agents or publishers, to editors of anthologies and magazines, and then we expect a quick response. Only it’s rare you’ll get that. Some publishers are very good, I know of quite a few who have a quick turnaround, sometimes as speedy as a few days.

Other publishers take a while longer, weeks, months…I’ve submitted several comic scripts to 2000AD and it can take up to a year to hear back from them.

This delay can seem annoying, but once you factor in just how many submissions a publisher might get sent to them in a single day, and given they have more things to do with their time than just reading through their slush pile it makes a lot of sense.

Besides, a long wait can be good sometimes. Sure it’s nice when someone responds really quickly, but nine times out of ten a quick response is a negative response, and sometimes getting that kick in the teeth so quickly after sending a story in can make the rejection all the harder to take.

Because the curious thing about waiting to hear back from a publisher or agent is that, whilst it can be a frustrating time, it can also be a hopeful one, because much like Schrodinger’s Cat whilst you’re waiting to hear back the story is neither accepted or rejected. Sometimes limbo is a good thing, no news is good news and all that!

Plus, although it would be churlish to suggest this is always true, as a rule of thumb the longer someone holds onto your story before making a decision, the more they probably like it. This is especially true of publishers who have several submission rounds.

The downside to this of course is that the longer you wait the more you might get your hopes up. It’s like a cup run in football. If you’re knocked out in the first round you might be annoyed but you can move on, but if you keep winning the closer and closer you get to Wembley the more you start to think that this might be your year, that you might lift the cup!

That’s the situation I’m in at the moment, and what prompted this post. I’ve submitted several stories to an online magazine who are a professional rates paying publisher, so to get a story published by them would be a pretty big deal. They can take several weeks to make a decision, and they make it clear that they have several submission rounds. Currently I’ve had three or four rejections from them, several of which have come with nice feedback.

The current submission has been with them longer than any others, and that means, despite my best efforts to try not to, that I’m starting to get my hopes up. If it is successful there will be a hint of irony involved given the story in question is one of the ones I mention here, namely the one I really had to force myself to write.

By the time you read this I might have already received a rejection for the story, but you never know…

Hope springs eternal for the dedicated writer!

It’s true what they say about footballers, sometimes you have to play yourself back into form, and as a writer sometimes you have to write yourself back into the game.

I’d been suffering a mini crisis of confidence last week. I’d had a rejection and was also feeling a bit under the weather, in addition I was lacking in a project to get my teeth into (novel aside) and these elements were combining to sneak up on me and whisper: “Are you sure you haven’t reached the end of the line? Run out of enthusiasm, run out of ideas?” I’m sure most writers have had those thoughts from time to time.

Since that time I’ve begun working on two projects, one I’ve actually started writing, the other exists only in my head for the moment.

The project I’ve started work on was an idea I had for a submission window that closes in a few days, and actually I’m not convinced I’ll get it done in time. The idea has some merit, but I had to push myself to actually start work on it. Once I did it started to flow but I’m still not convinced it’s going to end up one of my better stories and I still have to force myself to get enthusiastic about it.

By contrast the project that, at the moment, only exists in my head is one that already feels ‘right’. I’m enthusiastic about it, and once I had the basic idea my mind started firing off in different directions, creating/rejecting plot permutations and character ideas until, quite quickly, I ended up with a fully realised story with engaging protagonists, an interesting setting, a beginning a middle and an end. Ok the protagonists still need names, and the middle section needs fleshing out, and of course I still need to actually write the thing, but still, I’m excited and enthused about it in a way I haven’t been about a story for a little while.

I think, for me, stories end up in one of four categories (there may be sub categories and there may be categories I haven’t considered yet, but for now we’ll go with this.)

• The ones that seem like a good idea but aren’t. Now I might decide they’re a bad idea before I type a single word, or they might be the kind of stories I only realise are a dead end after I’ve started. Trust me; walking away from a novel when you’ve already written 25,000 words is frustrating as hell.

• The story idea that’s good but is waiting for the right time. This has happened a few times, in fact the novel I’m currently started working on features four characters and substantial plot elements from an idea I originally conceived in 2006. The original idea was a haunted house story, whilst my novel falls more into the post-apocalyptic genre, so you can see that sometimes it isn’t just a case of timing, sometimes its waiting for the inspiration that takes an idea in a different direction.

• The ok story ideas. These are the ones that I don’t have great enthusiasm for, but which are decent enough ideas, and which, with a push, I’ll finish/submit.

• The ideas that grip me. These are the stories that HAVE to be told. The stories that either arrive fully formed, or quickly evolve into fully formed stories in my head, the ones I can’t wait to start on.

Now of course it doesn’t follow that an idea I’m enthusiastic about turns out to be a great story, sometimes this can blind you to a narrative’s flaws, and similarly a story you have to chisel out of solid rock with a toothpick might turn out to be a real gem and worth all the hard work.

All I know is it’s glad to be back in the game!

As I contemplate another short story rejection (oh woe is me!) I was prompted to put pen to pap…er, fingers to keys, in order to jot down what I think are the qualities a writer needs. Straight away I’d say that I don’t believe a writer needs all of the below, in fact given some of the poor novels I’ve read over the years you might not need very many of them at all, but some mixture is essential.

In no particular order:

• Dedication.
Writing is like work, it requires effort and it requires time, and it requires consistency. Any writing handbook will tell you to write every day, and it isn’t easy, especially not if writing is just a hobby and you have a job/children to juggle, but if you want to be a writer then you have to make time to write, and ideally you need to do this regularly. I try and write every day, sometimes it isn’t possible but, on the whole, unless I’m on holiday, it’s rare for more than two days to pass without me writing.

This dedication doesn’t just extend to sitting down every day and writing a new chapter of your novel for six months either, it’s the dedication to go back over what you’ve written, again and again, proof reading, correcting errors, rewriting huge chunks (something I freely admit I’ve never been very good at.)

For a long time this was the quality I lacked, the sheer gumption to actually make myself sit down and write. I’m glad I have that dedication now; I just wish it’d shown up sooner!

• Stubbornness.
You might get lucky. You might be one of those people like James Herbert who’s first novel, The Rats, was picked up by a publisher at the first time of asking, but the chances are you’re going to get rejections, a LOT of rejections and you’re going to have to cowboy up and take those on the chin. More than that you’re going to have to take those blows to the chin, and then stick your chin out for another go, and you’re going to have to keep doing this like the very epitome of a cantankerous old mule.

This very much links in with dedication, because it isn’t just about rejections, it’s about the other roadblocks you’ll find in your way, things in your work or personal life that make writing a struggle.

• Self-belief.
It’s easier to be stubborn if you believe you have a right to be, and to some extent you’ve got to believe in your own ability, because if you don’t think you’re a good writer, why should anyone else?

Without belief in your own ability those rejections will eventually knock you down, whittle away at your confidence until, one day, you put down your pen and never pick it up again except when you’re signing a birthday card.

• Self-awareness.
It’s somewhat counterintuitive when I’ve just told you to believe in yourself, but you’ve also got to be self-aware enough to criticise yourself as well. A lot of rejection will be generic, but some will come with criticism, hopefully constructive criticism, but nonetheless it will be negative, or at least will appear to be so. What you have to do is take it on board.

That doesn’t mean you have to accept every critique you get, try to please everyone and you’ll end up pleasing no one after all, but at least consider what you’ve been told. If its comments about your grammar, or the number of typos in your work, then you need to consider that maybe, just maybe, you need to proofread your manuscript a few more times before you send it off. If it’s that your dialogue seems rusty or your descriptions are overly flowery then see if you can’t improve those areas.

Don’t believe everything people say about your work (experienced publishers turned down Stephen King, JK Rowling and a host of others after all) but don’t discount the feedback you get either.

• Talent
It would be easy to say you either have this or you don’t, but I don’t think that’s quite the case. Work hard enough and practice enough and I firmly believe that most people could be at least workmanlike writers, and plenty of workmanlike writers sell stories.

Talent alone won’t get you published, but if your prose flows like a mountain stream and you can describe a filthy slum and still make it seem magical, then no doubt editors and agents are going to be predisposed to like you.

• Luck
This isn’t me being cynical, or blaming my lack of blockbuster success on nothing more than bad luck, but it has to be said that sometimes selling a story or getting published comes down to being in the right place at the right time…probably with the right idea.

The sad truth is, no matter how good a writer you are, chances are there are plenty of other people just as good or better, and sometimes the thing that makes one submission stand out amongst a slush pile full of them is probably something you couldn’t have envisaged in a million years.

How many conspiracy thrillers with religious overtones came out in the wake of The Da Vinci Code for instance? How many Dark Romance books in the wake of Twilight? I’ve seen plenty of books advertised as; ‘The next Hunger Games’, or ‘In the spirit of Harry Potter’, and I wonder just how many erotic books publishers had looked down their noses at suddenly became bankable once Fifty Shades of Grey took off?

Luck, don’t bank on it but don’t discount it. Sadly it isn’t something you can affect, well not unless you’re smart enough to realise that the next big thing is going to be books about talking cats from another planet two years in advance. I’ve copyrighted Moggies from Mars so don’t even think about it!

• Empathy
Can you imagine what it would be like to be a member of the opposite sex? To be someone of a different culture or ethnicity? To be a dog or a cat or, a cop, or a serial killer, or an alien warlord from the Gryxiantiply nebula?

Being able to write from the perspective of different people will help your writing stand out. Try and put yourself in their place. Sometimes this won’t be easy, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be a killer or a bigot, but if you can do it your characters will benefit and your story will benefit. Your heroes will be more than chisel jawed cardboard cut-outs and your villains will be more than Dick Dastardly clones. And the same is true whether you’re writing about a group of gay artists in Madrid or a group of mercenaries in the jungles of Burma.

• Imagination
Another quality that almost goes without saying, it’s hard to create a story without some degree of an active imagination, because you’ve got to imagine a scenario, create characters out of thin air, and then decide what will happen to them.

That said, imagination comes in varying forms. I’m what I once saw referred to as a space cadet, someone whose mind churns out ideas on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. Writer’s block is something I’ve rarely had to deal with for long. The downside of course is that many of those ideas are plain shite (be self-aware, see!), but luckily some are good (Believe in yourself too!).

Your mind doesn’t need to work like this for you to be a success, in fact for a lot of years one of the things that stymied me when it came to writing was that every time I started on a story I thought of another one and all my enthusiasm for the original tale melted like snow in spring. There are plenty of hugely successful writers out there who go months or years between ideas that they deem worthy of writing, and plenty of successful books have been written that were derivative. As the saying goes, there are only so many basic stories in the world (The romance, the quest etc.). Look at Star Wars, the only really original element is that it’s in space. Take the X-Wing’s away and what you’re left with is a farm boy, a good wizard, an evil warlock, a princess and a pirate, and that’s a very old story.

So don’t worry if you don’t wake up every morning thinking “Werewolves on the Moon, of course!” but by the same token if you never, ever come up with ideas you might want to reconsider a career/hobby change—although there’s plenty of stream of consciousness work out there, poetry, surrealist writing etc. Plus of course there’s non-fiction. Maybe you’re not meant to write romantic epics, maybe you’re meant to write car repair manuals. Writing is writing…

• To be a reader.
One final thing. I think in order to be a writer you probably have to be a voracious reader. The fictional horror writer Garth Marenghi might claim to have written more books than he’s read, but I think on the whole those who write, must first read, especially in your chosen genre(s) but try and stretch yourself from time to time. You never know you might find something new to enjoy.


I hope this post has been of some help. Now I’m going to stop writing about being a writer, and get back to my novel…you see I haven’t written any of that yet today!


To be a writer you need a thick skin. This is not only because you probably are going to get rejected, A LOT, but also because, even when you are published, your work won’t appeal to everyone, so you’ll need to get used to negative reviews as well.

I’ve developed a pretty thick skin over the years. It’s not perfect, like a force field in Star Trek there are places where it’s a lot thinner, and if you fire a photon torpedo of rejection at just the right angle you will probably piss me off, but on the whole I’ve learned to be fairly relaxed about the process. I know I’m a good writer, it’s just that sometimes other writers are better, or my story isn’t quite right for a particular publication, and over the years I’ve found homes for plenty of stories that were initially rejected. Sadly the truth is that yours might be the 13th best story out of 150 that were submitted, but if the anthology only has space for 12 there’s nothing you can do about that.

Sometimes though, however powerful my shields are, something happens that really rubs me up the right way, and such a thing happened today. I won’t name the publisher, but I submitted a story back in October 2013 for an anthology that was supposed to be published this month. Finally today the table of contents has been published. My story was clearly rejected yet I received no rejection email, there wasn’t even a quick message on the website along the lines of “If you haven’t heard from us we’re afraid your story has been rejected. We wish you the best of luck in placing it elsewhere.” No, instead I (and ones presumes the other rejected) have been left hanging for weeks, possibly months.

Rejection is annoying, and a form rejection that gives no indication of whether your story had any merit, or how it could be improved, is more annoying, but they’re both an acceptable part of the biz. Not even having the decency to send a form rejection email on the other hand, well I think that’s a bit crappy. At the end of the day I have what I think is a decent story, and whilst it may not be right for this particular editor/publication, that doesn’t mean it won’t find a home elsewhere, but unless I know it’s been rejected I can’t send it elsewhere (because publishers frown on simultaneous submissions don’t ya know!) .

For all I know the perfect home for my story has been and gone. A publisher who would have paid pro-rates and a publication that would have been seen by a big shot Hollywood producer who’d buy the rights to my story for a million bucks and…well ,you get the point.

So in this instance a bit of phaser fire has penetrated my shields and caused some minor hull damage. Nothing too serious thankfully. The majority of publishers and editors are great, but in this instance someone else will have their name added to a very small list of persons I won’t submit to again.

That’ll show em!

Though it would be great to review every film and TV show I ever watch, the truth is I don’t have time for this, hence why I primarily stick to films I see at the cinema( and books). However I saw Now You See Me, last week, and it prompted me to want to write something about it, in particular with regard to its reveal at the end and the nature of cinematic, and more importantly written, mysteries, and so please take this as a combined film review/ writing article.

Now You See Me tells the story of four magicians (Jesse Eisenberg, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson and Dave Franco) who are brought together by a mysterious figure to form The Four Horseman, on the surface a big budget Vegas magic act, but in actuality a criminal gang who, in their first Vegas show, convince a man that he’s robbed a bank in Paris. The thing is the Parisian bank really has been robbed, and it soon becomes apparent that the Four Horsemen are effectively being used as Robin Hoods by their mysterious benefactor. They’re hunted by FBI agent Mark Ruffalo, mysterious Interpol agent Mélanie Laurent and magician turned debunker Morgan Freeman, and they cross paths with billionaire Michael Caine.

The film starts well, the leads are all engaging and, initially at least, the tricks make sense. As the film goes along however it becomes increasingly more convoluted, with an age old mystery running in the background that may hold the key to it all. Worse, the leads all become cyphers, but none of this is that annoying. What’s really, REALLY annoying about the film is that it’s final reveal is a complete and utter cheat that makes no sense in context of what you’ve just seen.

And I hate that.

It reminded me of a book of classic Locked Room mysteries I read a year or two back. Now I’d love to write one myself but I never really have— as far as I can recall! So many stories! — because I suspect there aren’t any solutions I could come up with that haven’t already been done to death.

What was interesting about this book were a small number of stories that were, frankly, shit. It seems that within the mystery genre, which I don’t claim to be any kind of expert in unlike many of my friends, there are unfortunate instances where an impossible mystery is set up, which the , usually very smug, detective resolves at the end through the use of information that the reader has not been made privy too.

As a writer and a reader/watcher, this is one of the worst things an author/director can do, a fundamental cheat of the contract between the creator and the consumer.

Now let’s go back to films about magicians featuring Michael Caine, only this time we’ll look at Christopher Nolan’s sublime The Prestige. This is a film full of magic and mystery but, importantly, a film where everything is explained at the end satisfactorily, and the explanations makes perfect sense with what we’ve seen throughout the film; whether it’s the resolution of the mystery surrounding Christian Bale’s character (which is stunningly simple) or the resolution of the mystery around Hugh Jackman’s character (which is pure science fiction) it hardly matters because both make sense within the context of the film, with clues being sewn into the essence of the film from the start. To the point where, in particular with the Bale storyline, you can’t believe you didn’t see it coming, because it’s so obvious.

And that is the essence of a great mystery, at the end of the story, when the effete foreign detective/middle class old lady/drunken gumshoe/curmudgeonly coroner (delete as appropriate) reveals who the murderer was, if they’ve done their job right your first reaction should be “Of course it was Lady Daphne/Reverend Smith/Louis the Sap/Toxik chemical Inc.” (delete as appropriate).

Your first reaction shouldn’t he, “huh?” Because if it is the creator has, in my opinion, failed.

You should be able to look back over the book/film and spot all the little clues that were littered there like breadcrumbs for you to find.

Now don’t get me wrong, this can be a tricky balancing act to undertake, because if you’re scattering clues throughout the story you do run the risk of making it too obvious, of your reader figuring out that it was the Butler what did it before they’ve finished reading chapter 2, but I think that’s a risk worth taking, and you can muddy the waters somewhat. Again part of the trick can be (not always) to have multiple suspects, because even if the reader knows it’s one of four men, he at least doesn’t know which one until the end. For an example of this take Series 6 of the new incarnation of Doctor Who, where the Doctor was ‘killed’ in the opening episode and then had to come up with a way around this. People complain about Steven Moffat’s storylines not making sense, but in this instance the resolution made perfect sense, and had been foreshadowed episodes earlier, the trick was that the series highlighted several possible ways for him to get out of it; the Tesselecta, the living flesh duplicates, the temporal anomaly that created a second Amy etc., the surprise of the resolution wasn’t so much in the nature of the resolution, as it was in which resolution would be used.

Of course a lot of Who fans still complained, but then they’d have complained if Moffat had pulled something out of thin air like that detective in the old story I read, or like the producers of Now You See Me did, which brings us nicely full circle to the end of this post…

Now you See Me is enjoyable, but if you really want to see a magical film you’d be better off watching The Prestige, because the best magic trick is the one you should have seen coming a mile away…