Tippy, tappy, typing - 9 July 2022
I’ve just copy typed 1,000 words from Stephen King’s “It” to use in a writing workshop I’m running next week (16-17 July 2022, Other Worlds, Nottingham)
Yes, I know. I could just have photocopied the relevant pages. I might even have wandered into some dodgy place on the web to find a pirate copy of the book which I could then download, wipe free of all the viruses which came with it, and then copy and paste into my document. I did even consider narrating it.
But I went for good, old-fashioned, prop-the-book-open-in-front-of-you-and-get-on-with-it copy typing. It’s not something I’d done before, I figured it was the most legal way to prepare the material, and it was genuinely the simplest way to get the text I needed for the session. (And before you howl about piracy and copying, I have one phrase: Fair Dealing)
I used to write longhand so spent a fair amount of time typing up my own illegible scrawl. I can’t say it was an exercise I ever enjoyed, or from which I felt I derived any benefit; to the extent that a number of years ago I trained myself to write first drafts directly onto the computer and I’ve never regretted that self—bullying for a moment. Copy typing is tedious, wasteful, and unimaginative.
Except, and here’s the surprise for me, I was typing a scene I must have read ten or twenty times before (I do like “It”!) but because I had to read each sentence slowly, type it, check it, and then move onto the next line, I approached the text in a completely new way. How often can you say that about your favourite book? I had to include every punctuation mark, every capital letter, every italicised word. Within just 1,000 words I could appreciate how Stephen King created the scene, how he used different techniques to direct the reader’s emotions and build tension. In the short time it took to type up that passage I had a new relationship Stephen King’s writing. A more measured, intimate relationship.
Now, I’m not advocating you go out and type up “It” or “The Stand” to absorb Stephen King’s oeuvre in the same way serial killers have a tendency to cannibalise their victims (and I think at that point you would be breaching copyright law) although I am reminded that when Joe Hill was struggling to write what eventually became “Horns” he would type up a couple of pages from Elmore Leonard’s “The Big Bounce”, so maybe copy typing can have a place in the creative process. But as a purely unexpected bonus to preparing for the writing workshop, and as a trick to get you thinking about the mechanics of scene writing and how to dissect a scene you appreciate, it’s definitely a tool to keep in the box.
Cover reveal: Twenty Years Dead - 31 March 2022
I was going to start by claiming I can’t draw, but that’s not strictly true: I can draw, but what I produce is not recognisable to most people. My artistic efforts tend not to stray far beyond a stick man, after that it’s just …. well, embarrassing.
As a result, I am always a little overawed when I see illustrations for my books. I know it’s subjective, and maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but some of my book covers I love, and others… well, they do a job, but they don’t create the same emotional resonance. Maybe the connection comes when I get a real sense the illustrator holds a similar vision of the world I’ve created to my own. Some of that might be down to my ability to communicate the style and the tone of the story, and maybe I’ve got better at that over the years, but I think most of it is down to the skill of the artist.
In the past I’ve been burned. One particular book had a really arresting cover, but it didn’t reflect the story inside, and that was obvious from the feedback of readers who felt they’d bought the book until false pretences (“There are no zombies!” Well, no, I never promised zombies. But maybe the cover suggested them). Hopefully now I’m more confident as an author to look beyond the quality of the image to whether they image matches the story.
It’s always a relief when a publisher sends you the first draft of cover art and you feel an emotional connection, and that’s exactly the case with the cover of my forthcoming novella “Twenty Years Dead.”
The cover was published yesterday, and I have replicated it here. But what I absolutely love about the image is the tone. It’s a beautiful piece of art that sets the reader’s expectation for the story inside.
The main point of this blog post, then, is to wallow in the gorgeous art created by Matt Seff Barnes. Please visit his website for more stunning images:
John Illsley: My life in Dire Straits - 15 February 2022
Keep your distance - 1 February 2022
I wrote a Science Fiction thriller novel a while back and sent it out to agents. The response was a resounding silence. So last year I paid to have an agent review my submission pack and provide feedback. It was a fascinating experience and I learned a lot from the discussion, and vowed to approach the novel with the new insight I’d gained. And that is what I’ve just done; starting off by reading the novel in one go.
It’s a reasonably complex story, but that doesn’t excuse the number of plot holes I found. Some are benign and easy to resolve, but others are more substantial. My “favourite” has to be the two tough guys who chase the protagonist through the first third of the book and then… disappear. They simply aren’t mentioned again. In second place is the character who was sending messages 10 hours after we later discover they’re dead. It’s not that kinda book!
Remember, this was a book I believed was ready to go out to agents and publishers. At that stage I’m usually removing the commas I added in the previous draft.
How the hell did that happen? I have 52 separate editing notes for the next draft. How did I miss so many problems?
So here’s my excuse, for what it’s worth. Writing a novel is hard. You are working on so many levels at the same time that you effectively have to hold 95,000 words in your head at once. And this coming from someone who writes down the pizza order before he leaves the house.
You’re dealing with the macro and the micro, following big plot strands while checking for typos and clunky sentences. Checking logic, following characters’ arcs. There’s a lot going on. Normally I work through a number of different drafts which look at different elements of the novel, and I guess given the complexity of this story I probably needed another two or three runs at this novel before it was truly ready to go out into the big, bad world.
Maybe I was too close to the text by the end of my last draft. I thought I knew the book well enough, but I needed a little distance to really spot the flaws. The challenge is that by the time I finish this round of edits I’ll be back in that same place: confident that I have spotted each issue, that the world logic fits together, that characters act consistently and realistically. But the first thing on my list, sort out those two guys sitting in the van.
How difficult is it? - 18 January 2022
Two words: Short story
A description, but also a succinct instruction manual. So why is it so difficult for me to stick to the plan?
Short: In my head a short story is somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 words. That’s not a hard rule, more of a guide.
Story: A narrative telling of an event or a series of inter-related events.
I struggled with my writing in 2021: I started a novella, and put it aside after 8,000 words. I started a novel, the second in a planned series, and set that aside after 70,000 words because there was something fundamentally flawed with the structure.
That wasn’t a fun moment.
I tried splitting the novel into two separate novels and then started work on the first of those. I got 36,000 words into that work before setting it aside. Are you starting to see a pattern here?
I needed to try something different. I chose a subject which fascinated me and a genre I adore. A ghost story set in an abandoned London Underground station, surely that couldn’t possibly go wrong? And yet I paused that novella shortly after I passed 7,000 words. I was beginning to fear I’d forgotten how to write, or perhaps more accurately, I’d forgotten how to keep writing. I’d lost the skill necessary to write a story through to the finish.
Which was where my short story came in. In December trawled through the notes of story ideas and fragments of sentences and paragraphs which I keep, looking for inspiration. I found an idea for a short story so I set started writing.
And reader, I finished. Except the short story I had birthed came in at 8,392 words. Still, it was the only piece of original writing I managed to complete. Flushed with success, I dipped back into my notes. 4,863 words later I finished a second short story. Still a little on the long side, and I wasn’t sure how well the story stood up on its own, but at least I’d finished. This was starting to look positive.
I returned to the font of my story ideas and went fishing again. This time it was not something I’d jotted down in the past, but a new idea based on an image of a parochial library with a couple of glass cases displaying locally discovered artefacts.
Off I went, scribbling away. At times it was like trying to drag a tractor tyre through a field of mud. Backwards. In bare feet. I pulled words like they had thorns, and laid them on the screen. A number of times I knew I needed to abandon it: I had an image but no story, characters but no life. Still I persevered. I stared at the screen. I stared through the screen.
Finally, 9,837 words later, it is finished.
It is definitely not short. I’m not convinced even charitably it could be described as a story. Really it’s a hot mess, but by the time I neared the end I finally realised what the story was supposed to be.
Maybe someday I will go back and edit it. For now, I’m just relieved I’ve been able to complete a piece of fiction, however terrible it might be. Maybe that was all I ever needed from this story: A chance to finish something.
The Screaming Dead - 12 February 2021
The Screaming Dead was published on Tuesday 7th February 2021 and is something of a departure for me; in terms of genre (I don’t actually know how to describe it: cosmic horror? Gothic western?) , but also the mechanics of writing.
I wrote The Screaming Dead with Peter Mark May; writer, publisher, West Ham fan, and all-round good guy.
The Screaming Dead is not the first piece of fiction I’ve co-written. Previously I have co-written short stories and novelettes, but this was the first novel I had collaborated on and that was an unusual experience. It’s the difference between remaining in complete control of a journey, and bickering over which way around the map should be held. Firstly; Pete came up with the idea and writing from someone else’s inspiration does feel a little like putting on their underwear and parading around in public. It feels odd and you keep expecting someone to point out that what you’re doing is wrong.
I’m not sure I ever got completely comfortable in Pete’s longjohns, and that’s probably for the best. Off-centre is a good place to be as a writer. It forces you into spaces you might not otherwise enter, and places you would rather not visit.
But more than anything else, writing with Pete was good fun. We have a similar attitude to first drafts which probably leans more towards the “let’s crank this sucker up and see where it goes,” and less on “so in Chapter seventeen we find out that…” I like to think of it as organic, rather than unplanned.
Basically, the pair of us were winging it. Looking back on some of our exchanges during the writing I am struck by how often we took delight in deliberately setting up the end of a section to leave a problem for the next person to pick up. One message from Pete which accompanied the latest version of the story simply read: “I think I’ve broken it.” He hadn’t, but more than once I sent the file over to Pete with a clear idea of what would happen next, only to find Pete had made it impossible to continue my plans when I saw what he’d done to our characters.
It forced me to write my way out of awkward scenarios, but it also pushed me to think harder. Of all the pieces I’ve written, I think The Screaming Dead is probably the one that bends the imagination the most, and that’s one of the things I love about it; from the surreal image of a steam locomotive complete with cow catcher battering a path across the sky , to flaming bodies nailed to trees in a very unusual forest, The Screaming Dead was just a gallop of a story to write.
Shiny, Pretty, New - 13 July 2020
Just like the origin of most of my stories, this blog is a result of the clashing of a couple of different idea.
I keep a writing schedule. I rarely keep to the schedule, but I do maintain one. It's a bit like a conveyor belt: write this novella, first edit of novel A, second edit of novel B. It's not unlike the line of planes you see waiting to land at Heathrow, stretching off into the distance.
At the moment on my particular conveyor belt I have just put down the second edit of a novel and picked up a novella for its second edit. So that's where my head is at.
At the same time, I've been aware I haven't written a short story for a long time (three years! when I checked back to my records) and haven't had a new short story published for about the same time.
And then I have an idea for a short story. I love it. It's exciting and interesting and just about slams into me that it needs to be written now! Now! Now!
This is not unusual. There's something incredible about a new story idea. It's a rush. It’s exciting; a lot more exciting than looking up whether I need a fake telephone number for this novella (I do, and Ofcom provides!) or checking out whether the name on the grave three chapters earlier is the same as the one I’ve used in the current paragraph.
For me, this is a constant tension; the attraction of the new compared to the tedium of the old. In fact, it’s probably the reason I wrote novel after novel after novel when I started out writing. Write a novel, put it away, start on the next one. It’s great fun, but is it productive? How many novels have you read where the characters’ names change from one chapter to the next? Or where the sentence construction is so mangled you want to hurl the book across the room?
Because those books don’t get published. Because it isn’t enough to write a story. You have to cut it and sculpt the words, the sentences, the paragraphs, the chapters. You have to work it like a lump of clay until it’s right. Or as right as you can make it.
Which means when something shiny and new comes along, occasionally you have to take a note of the idea and then drop into into the drawer alongside all the other ideas. It can join the end of the conveyor belt. Maybe one day I’ll pick it up again. It probably won’t feel quite as thrilling and urgent when I look at it in six months time. I won’t feel the same rush of creativity I did when the idea first came to me, But I will have finished editing this novella, and that’s the trade-off you have to make.
Four seasons in one day - 30 November 2019
Well, a week.
And maybe not four seasons. More like two extremes, but somehow “two extremes in one week” doesn’t sound as catchy.
As in every aspect of life, there are parts of this writing gig that I love, and parts that are mundane to the ninetieth degree. This week nicely brings both of these together. This is mostly because, like all the writers I know, I’m usually spinning a few plates at the same time; writing, editing, submitting, promoting… it all has to happen.
Which means that I’m currently plodding through a novel acting as continuity editor; checking that the character is not wearing jeans one minute and then a suit a few lines later. For the current WIP I’ve had to take a register of every car the characters use so they don’t step into a Mercedes and out of a Lexus. (Yes, that happened, more than once…). It is probably my least enjoyable part of writing. It’s just plodding and reading and making notes and then searching through 95,000 words to double check what I said earlier. Not fun, but important.
At the other end of the scale. I have a book published! ”The Coffin Walk” is out today from Demain and available on Amazon. This is one of those stories that just fell from the heavens; a group who are not really friends, not quite strangers, who go on a ghost hunting trip, not expecting to find anything.
If you’re interested, the coffin walk is a real trail in Derbyshire. Originally the village of Breaston had a church, but funerals had to be held in a nearby village so the congregation walked miles to bury their dead. There’s even a stone halfway along the route for pall bearers to rest the coffin down and take a break.
It’s a story I loved writing, and I’m really excited to see it in print.
Not again! - 13 November 2018
I read a book recently. That is not in itself much of a statement, at any point in time I have read/am reading a book, but in this case the basic premise of the story was familiar.
I carry around ideas for short stories, novellas and novels. It’s like a production line, or maybe a queue, of tales patiently (and sometimes impatiently) waiting for their chance. It isn’t a fair system – a story idea might come to me and jump to the front of the queue, while others may languish in my ideas list for months or years or decades.
Some of them never reach the page because, well, because... It could be that the story just hasn’t quite come together in my head. In some cases it’s because the story seems like it will take an absolute tonne of research to pull together, and in other cases the scale of the story is frightening, and I don’t think I’m ready for it. Maybe I never will be.
Why do I mention this list now? That book I read... the concept was not a million miles away from the idea for a novel I’m been picking up and putting down on and off for the last twenty or so years. I’m not saying this is a Secret Window moment. It’s just one of those things. You read enough stories in the genre and occasionally you’re going to find an overlap.
My immediate response when this happens is to throw away the idea. I can’t use it. It’s already been done. If I were to write my novel now people would point to this other book and accuse me of copying.
Then I go and pick the metaphorical scrunched up notes out of the wastepaper bin. I’m not going to do anything with them now. I can’t. But the idea had sat on the shelf for the last few years and there’s no harm if it sits there a while longer. Anyway, within the world of fiction we’re all playing with similar tools and storylines; one haunted house can be very different to another, not every serial killer is Hannibal Lecter, there are different zombie stories, different vampire tales.
So I pack up my story once more. Place it carefully back on the shelf where I can check back on it every couple of months. And maybe in the next couple of decades I’ll take it down, brush off the dust, and see where the idea leads me.
It is done - 5 November 2018
The first edit on my new novel – Fodder – is complete. This should be a cause for celebration, but in many ways there’s not a lot to celebrate; the original draft of the novel came in at 100,000 words, it now stands at 78,000. Before I started the edit my memory of Fodder was that it was a finished novel (albeit only the first, rough draft) but coming back to it I discovered there are huge gaps in the narrative.
But, still.. it is done.
What happens next?
Now it sits in a drawer. I’ve just checked my planning spreadsheet (I know this is sad....) and it sits in that drawer for over a year. There are other projects ahead of it in the queue, but that will mean when I next take Fodder out I’ll have forgotten most of the story and so I can look at the structure afresh.
I have to confess, I have a love/hate relationship with the first edit. At least now I’ve come to understand what I want to achieve with the time I spend elbows deep in the work – I want a story I can bear to read. Nothing more than that. I’m not looking to be swept away. I’m not looking to pat myself on the back and say what a fine piece of work I’ve created. No, all I want is a story I can pick up at a later date and read from beginning to end without stopping two or three times on every line to correct my typos and my ugly sentences and my bizarre word choices. Once I have that I can roll up my sleeves and start the job properly.
But for now it sits in a drawer and I move onto the next project. A new novella!
I have to say, I’ve been looking forward to writing this next story. It’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a few years now, waiting for the chance to get started. That time is now. So excuse me if I seem off in a world of my own for the next six weeks. I have a story to discover.
Don't wanna beg - 5 March 2018
There are many aspects to writing and being published, some of which I feel more competent at than others. Some of which I get more enjoyment from than others.
I love the rush of creativity that comes with a first draft. I hate the toe-curling and painful experience of my first edit when I try to make the text at least readable.
The second edit - when I look at the structure, is great fun. Pulling the story apart, working out why it doesn’t work, and putting it back together again. After that, there is probably a diminishing return of joy with each extra edit I undertake, to the point that I get to a stage where I simply hate what I’ve written and think it’s the worst thing I have ever created. Normally I get beyond that stage, sometimes I don’t.
Publishing is also a mixed bag. I love the validation of having a short story or a novella accepted by a publisher. I won’t pretend I don’t get a thrill when I receive a royalty payment. I read reviews through my fingers like a kid watching Doctor Who.
With the publication of my novella “Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence” I had to step up and undertake that aspect of the publication process which I find most challenging: Self-promotion.
I could play the stereotype and say it’s because it’s British and we don’t like to shout about our own achievements, and maybe there is something about that, but I don’t think that’s the whole picture. For me there’s a fear that the self in self-promotion tips over into arrogance. I’m happy to share the (good) reviews the novella received from sites such as the British Fantasy Society, Horror Novel Reviews, Dark Musings and The Ginger Nuts of Horror.
I change my Facebook profile picture, I blog about it, update my website, shout about it on Twitter. Basically I do everything I can think of to to let people know my book exists. And then I sit back and think “I’ve done it all, what more can I do?”
At some point, after I’ve ran through the steps I still feel like I’ve not done enough, but I can’t think of anything else to do. Maybe I could create a sandwich board and walk up and down the street hawking my book. Maybe I could take out ads. Or hand out copies on the train to anyone who looks like they might be a fan of the horror genre. (Yes, I have considered this) but in the end I rely on Facebook and Twitter and writing blog posts, and hope I haven’t annoyed everyone.
Just because I want to say... please buy my book, I think you’ll like it.
Origin Myths #2 - Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence - 3 October 2017
Sometimes the inspiration for a story can come from a single source; like Odette. On other occasions the genesis of a story is more convoluted, and Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence is one of those.
The basic premise of the story is familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the horror genre: a virus sweeps through the population and kills most of the people. A small group of survivors are collected together into a small community in the North-West of England (The Lake District, just don’t go looking for the specific place on any map) and begin to work together to restart civilisation. Hannah is in charge of the clean-up crew which has the responsibility for destroying the bodies of all those in the area who were killed by the plague. As the community becomes established, the fear grows that anyone new who joins them might be a carrier for the plague.
So, the sources for this are many: the images of a post-apocalyptic clean-up crew is something that came to me from a line in a book by Tim Lebbon. That triggered the opening scene of a novella I started writing which was originally going to be a sequel to The Sleeping Dead. After just a few pages I put that story away – it didn’t feel like it was working. I’m not going to go into details about the scene as it could well be used in the future, but suffice to say it involved a lot of dead bodies lying around. That imagery of a post-apocalyptic world provided the basis for the job Hannah finds herself sadled with.
Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence also tips a nod to Stephen King’s The Stand, and in particular Harold Lauder’s time in Boulder.
Those are the literary triggers for Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence, but in honesty the novella owes its life more to what was happening around me. I started thinking in earnest about the novella in May 2016, when I had the opportunity to pitch a story idea to Pete Mark May at Hersham Horror. I wanted to try and do something a little different, so to start with I picked 5 story ideas, of which Perfect was one, and for each story I wrote a synopsis and the first chapter. For someone who’s more usual approach is “start at Page one and see where it goes” this was an interesting challenge.
In the end, Pete selected Perfect. At that time it existed under the title “Clean Up Crew” which Pete wasn’t keen on and he asked me to consider changing the title.
As I started to write the novella, it became increasingly obvious it was a reaction to Brexit and the rabid dog-whistle politics which were dividing people into “us v them” – whoever the “us” happened to be. I had a feeling that at the moment there seemed to be a lot of effort going into trying to define groups for people to fit into, simply so there could be some people outside the group.
When those two things came together Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence was born. It came into the world very quickly – The first draft of 41,000 was written in 12 days.
For me, as I say in the afterword, it’s definitely a political rant, but hopefully if someone is not interested in politics there’s still enough of a story for readers to engage with.
Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence is published by Hersham Horror and was launched at Fantasycon on 30/09/2017
The Search item was not found - 18 June 2017
This is the image I’m waiting for:
Because it signals the end of editing. Or at least, the end of a draft, although today it does also mean the end of editing my novella so it’s now ready to be submitted.
When I’m in the throes of editing I mark up the document with square brackets filled with insight comments such as [this doesn’t work] and [what were you thinking of, Barber!]. Occasionally I will actually capture something slightly more useful.
The brackets are intended to maintain the flow, so that I don’t spend an hour staring at the screen looking at a single line of text. They’re particularly useful when I need to look at a change on a bigger scale. I’ll capture any typos and word changes as I go along and mark them, and in between I’ll pick up anything about the plot or the structure that I need to change and drop them into my lovely square brackets.
They’re handy little things, but I also find that towards the end of an edit, they’re the issues that remain outstanding for the longest. Sometimes a little bracketed comment can take half an hour to resolve as it means tracking back and forth over the text to make sure I’ve been consistent. (So an example in this most recent novella was the comment [Frances’ or Frances’s – check!])
When I’m struggling to stay on track I will often keep an internal countdown going. 50 square brackets to eradicate… 40… so… until I get into the single figures.
And today, I’ve reached the magical milestone: The search item was not found. When I know I’ve dealt with all the points I’d picked up during my last read through.
So now I get to wrap up this novella and send it out, and move onto something else.
Except… I’m just going to read through those final few chapters again. Just to be sure I haven’t missed anything. And hopefully this time, there will be no need for square brackets in my notes.
But is it art? - 12 June 2017
I’m editing a novella. I know, I know… at the moment it seems like the only thing I’m doing it editing novellas, but this is a little different.
This novella was written in 2014 and I’ve been picking it up and putting it down every year since. As we speak I’m on draft five and I think one more read through and we could be there. I suppose it would be worth reflecting on my process for editing; which involves paper and pencil and then Kindle. I start with a hard-copy version that gets line-edited with a pencil to make the draft readable (Seriously, my first drafts are rough!). Once I can bear to read it from beginning to end I start work on the structure of the work, taking out passages and chapters, moving scenes around. Then comes another line edit and potentially another structural edit. By now things are starting to come together.
That was the stage I thought I was at with this novella in May 2017. My previous edit had been in September 2016 (After which I had then written Perfect Darkness, Perfect Silence) and so my recollection was that this novella just needed one final polish and it would be ready to send out.
I had a Kindle version already created so I started to edit. The text was rougher than I recalled, but maybe the intervening nine months had affected my memory. When I got to the end I realised that the novella wasn’t finished. Far from it. The ending was going to need a lot more work.
It wasn’t simply a matter of changing a couple of sentences or even paragraphs. This was a roll up the sleeves and let’s get this sorted time. So I opened up my laptop, sat there with the Kindle on the desk beside me, and started to type up the amendments I had noted.
It took me less than a page to realise something was wrong. The version on my Kindle, the novella I had spent the last 10 hours editing, was not the same as the one on my laptop. My laptop had a more recent version.
Now this blog post could be the opportunity to act as a salutary tale about making sure you keep track of your versions, but as I started to compare the novella on the laptop and the Kindle I noticed something interesting: the changes I had identified on the Kindle were virtually identical to the changes I had already made on the laptop.
Some of that is not surprising: I picked up a few typos in the document. But most of the changes weren’t correcting errors, they were making changes to the text because I wasn’t happy with the word choice, or the flow of the language, or the pace of the story.
I didn’t do a precise comparison, (I’d already wasted ten hours on this old copy!) but I would say about 80% of the changes I identified were identical.
For me, this is interesting because it isn’t simply that there is a right way and a wrong way to create a sentence. There are many different choices; and yet unerringly I seem to have made the same decision.
I wonder. If I set the novella aside for another year and then went back to the earlier version, would I make the same choices again in 2018? And if I did the same exercise in 2019? 2020?
In amongst the changes I had identified on the Kindle there were a few changes I hadn’t previously made, which I chose to keep. The latest version of the novella is now saved, and earlier versions cast to the furthest shores of my flash drive.
One last edit should hopefully be enough. A final read through to make sure everything is in the right place, the new ending works, all the typos have been picked up.
And then out it goes.
But seriously – keep track of your versions!
Don't look back - 19 May 2017
It’s usually good advice in a horror film. In some ways, it’s good advice for writing. In particular; don’t obsess on what you’ve submitted. Don’t sit watching your email box for the acceptance (or rejections, depending on the way you deal with these things) to drop in. You have absolutely no control over these things once you’ve clicked submit, and clicking refresh isn’t going to make those responses roll in any quicker.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? Sound advice.
This week I have mostly been ignoring my sound advice. I sent my novel out to agents over the weekend so now comes the period of telling myself “I’m not waiting for a response” while I wait for a response. In my defence I’ve managed to restrict myself to checking email just a couple of times a day, which feels reasonable enough. Except for the little fact that these things are measured in weeks and months, not minutes and hours.
So I’m writing. A short story (more of that in my next blog…) and then a queue of upcoming projects including editing one novella and writing a second (and more of that in an upcoming blog, too!).
It’s about moving forward. It’s about working on something new, so that if the responses come back – gulp – negative, it doesn’t feel like the end.
Because there is no end. That’s one of the things about writing. There’s a start but there’s never an end. There’s always the next short story, novella, novel. And if this one doesn’t catch there is always the next one and the one after that. And as you write, you learn. So the next is always improved. In some ways this can feel like a war of attrition, and I’m here for the duration.
Origin Myths #2: Odette - 13 April 2017
I was asked to write a short story for an anthology, and because this doesn’t happen to me very often, and because I liked the theme of the anthology and I had respect for the editor, I said yes and started to think about what I might write.
And then I was asked if I could make that a novella rather than a short story, and I said sure. So I dumped what I’d been working on and came back with Odette.
The brief for the novel was a story set in a conflict. Initially I was going to write something set in the trenches of the first world war. I even had the outline of a story. And then while I was still mulling over exactly what I was going to write I visited the Lakeside Art Gallery which is part of the University of Nottingham.
The gallery had an exhibition of photography by Lee Miller. I’d never heard of Lee Miller (I never claimed to be well educated!) but my wife had and we went in. Now, I have a strange relationship with photography which borders on awe: because obviously it isn’t art as it’s just a matter of pressing a button, and yet when you see photography done well it is stunning and transcendent. And that was my experience of viewing the Lee Miller collection.
In particular I was struck by one image: a group of women who had been accused of being Nazi collaborators. For me the image held a strange tension – the anger of the crowd against the collaborators and the shaven head which was, presumably, supposed to mark the women out and also disgrace them. But that image of a shaven head also woke for me memories of the 1970s/80s punk movement when a shaven head was consider an anti-establishment mark of self expression.
So Odette is a story set in a war, about people beaten and traumatised by the war and each other.
Odette is published in Darker Battlefields by TheEXAGERRATEDPress
The Accidental Novel - 10 September 2016
Back in May I was putting together a pitch to a publisher for a novella. I had a few different ideas I wanted to try out, and to do things a little differently I wrote the synopsis and the first chapter for all five and then sent them off for consideration.
And then, because I felt like I’d spent the whole of 2016 editing, I thought that while I was waiting for a reply I’d actually start writing one of the five stories I’d pitched. If the publisher picked that one - great! - if not I’d be finished by the middle of June and I could move onto whichever synopsis the publisher liked (assuming they liked any!)
And then something went wrong. Firstly the publisher came back within a week and they liked one of the ideas (Hurrah! cue much jubilation) but not the one I had started writing. No problem.
Except by then I had added another 8,000 words to the original story and it had got under my skin and i didn’t want to lose this momentum. So i carried on writing - it was just a novella, I’d be done in a few more weeks and then I could turn my attention to the novella I was supposed to be working on. Only, as the weeks progressed, the 30,000 word novella became 40,000, became 50,000...
Someone around the 60,000 word mark I realised that this wasn’t going to plan.
I considered putting the novel/la aside and getting on with the story I was supposed to be writing, even though *that* novella wasn’t due for a while. I also considered dropping it because this was not the story I had planned to write: somewhere in those 60,000 words it had taken a different turning. I also considered dropping it because, well, to be honest, it had irritated me! How dare the story not do what I had expected! How dare it mess up my writing plans for the year!
But because I’m stubborn and don’t often give up on things, I continued, and 60k, became70k, became 80k, became 90k.
And today I finished.
For now the novel gets dropped to the bottom of the trunk as punishment. But it’s there... a finished first draft of a novel.
Now... to get on with that novella I’m support to be writing, and hope this one follows the plan!
Word Counting - 20 May 2016
Writing a longer piece of work, be that a novella or a novel, can be a tough slog at times. I’ve never found a way to write any way other than one word after the other - there’s no short cut. When you’re writing one word after another after another 90,000 times it can be difficult to remain focused and the sense of progress can be missing, especially on the days when the words come slowly. On those days it’s a war of attrition, but I have a secret weapon.
I count my words.
Not just on the slow days, but every writing session. One of the first things I do when I start a new long piece is to set up my word counting spreadsheet because I know that although the initial idea will take me so far, at some point that rush is going to fade and I need to have something else to keep me going.
It also helps me to estimate how long I need to set aside for a project, and gives me a better understanding of what is actually realistic, instead of what I think I can achieve.
So here’s how my chart looks for my current project, a novella tentatively called “No heroes” which I’m expecting to come in around 40,000 words
I have a couple of rules: the first is to be realistic with what I can achieve. Realistic but just a little bit pushy. The second might seem slightly masochistic: if I hit my target for the week I can’t carry any surplus over to “bank” for the next week, but if I fall behind I have to make up the difference.
There is an interesting side effect to word counting and target setting. At the end of each writing session I note my word count for the session and my spreadsheet calculates ow that’s contributed to the overall target. Now maybe this is just me, or it might be something more common, but if I get to the end of a writing session and I’m 10 or 20 words away from the session tipping over to the next hundred or thousand, I’m likely to steal a few more minutes to reach that milestone. Sometimes It’s not possible, but it’s those extra few words that add up.
I finished my writing on Thursday 89 words short of my target for the week. Not a lot in the grand scheme of things, but those missing 89 words bugged me. If I wasn’t recording my word count I wouldn’t know how close I was. I’d pick up the novella on my next session and think no more of it. But those missing 89 words burn a hole in me. So I’ll make sure before the week is out I’ll find some way to steal the time it’s going to take to hit my target.
And like that, I’m 89 words closer to finishing the novella.
Origin Myths #1 - 22 February 2016: Bempton
Bempton came about after a visit to Bempton Cliffs - a bird sanctuary in Yorkshire. The birds themselves don’t play much of a part in the story, and anyone familiar with the area will probably not recognise it from the story. What the reserve did provide was an expanse of grass, almost as high as my head, with a path carved through the middle for people to walk along. The tall grass prompted one of those strange thoughts I occasionally get: “I wonder what it would be like if a huge monster reared up from the grass” and, lo, a story was born.
The location of the story may owe a debt of gratitude to Bempton Cliffs, and the tall grass there provides half of the scene, but the other half of the location is a rock and a small bay, and this is a highly edited version of a beach in Brittany where I stayed on a school trip to France. I couldn’t find it now, but the memory of clambering over the rocks as a teenager is the other inspiration for Bempton.
Bempton is published in “Not Your Average Monster II” by Bloodshot Books
Origin Myths #0 - 22 February 2016
One of the things I find fascinating about reading is the little titbits that you pick up about stories. How the idea came to the author (Fornits!), how the settings merge fiction and fact, where history is massaged to serve the purpose of the plot. For this reason, one of the things I love about Stephen King’s short story collections are the afterwords where he explains a little about the origin of his tales.
I was recently asked by a publisher to provide some background for a story they were publishing, and it occurred to me that I could share the nuggets of some of my stories. So, if they interest you, feel free to dive in, if these sort of things bore you to tears, you’re best off skipping past.
When to give up - 16 November 2015
A couple of weeks ago I finished the third draft of my novella “One of the Dead” and gave up. Dropped it into the fabled trunk.
The first draft of the novella came in at 45,000 words and it just didn’t work. The first edit cut 10,000 words out, mostly removing a sub plot that didn’t add anything to the story and actually detracted from the narrative. By the third edit I recognised that there are some deep, deep flaws in the story – problems with the logic of the world in which the story is based and a real issue with the timeline over which the events happened. Basically there was a beginning, a soft, squidgy middle, and then a damp squib of an ending. I don’t remember this being the vision when I started writing “One of the Dead” back in November 2013.
So, two years of work. Dropped into the drawer, never to be seen again. It’s definitely not in any fit state to send out to a publisher, and even if there was a publisher who wanted to take it, I wouldn’t want it out there because it doesn’t work and I wouldn’t want someone reading it and associating it with me.
There are times you have to cut your losses. Times you have to step away from the story and accept that for all the cutting and moulding and the hours invested into the writing it just isn’t working.
I’ll be honest, that isn’t something I find easy to do. I’m more of a “surge on and find your way to the end” kind of person. I’m bullish and positive and convinced that given enough time and energy anything can be fixed. When I wrote “The Power of Nothing” I had a not-so-different experience in that the story wasn’t working and it took a lightning bolt moment when I realised I was telling the second half of the story first before I could fix it. I haven’t had that moment yet, maybe the Fornits have fallen asleep on the job.
So, for now, the story is packed up and put to sleep. I’ve got a lot of other things to be working on: a gaggle of short stories, a novella, a short novel and a full novel that all need editing. I’ve got an idea (or two) for my next novella. But still, there’s an ache.
At least “One of the Dead” won’t be alone in that drawer. There’s a small bunch of short stories that I keep coming back to over the years. There’s one I really like about a sacrifice on a mountain top that feels like the next edit might just be the one, and a story about a poison book in a library and a marriage that’s not quite as stable as it might appear.
And there’s another drawer, and we don’t look in that drawer. That’s the drawer with the stories that are never going to get out.
Which tells you something… Maybe I haven’t given up on “One of the Dead.” I need a break for it, that’s certain, but maybe six months from now I’ll dare to open the drawer and have a peek inside.
Maybe I’m not as good at giving up as I thought.
Skribante en alia lingvo - 2 September 2015
I’m not very good at French (Grade 2 CSE if you’re interested, and my French teacher was unable to conceal her surprise at that result.) I’m worse at German. Much, much worse. In fact, I’m not very good at languages in general, so it probably seems like a mad idea to try writing a story in a different language. It probably is because I’m really struggling with it. To the extent that I have considered writing the story in British-English and then translating it into American-English.
Yes, that’s right… American-English, my “other” language.
I’m not being funny here, and I’m not talking about spelling colour as color and honour as honor. Because language isn’t just the word on the page, in fact the more I think about this story I’m not-writing the more it occurs to me that language isn’t really about words. Words are just a window into a way of thinking.
You see it most readily when you listen to someone who doesn’t speak English as their first language. It’s apparent in the way they occasionally need to drop into their native language to express the thoughts that they have, even when they know that you can’t understand the words. Because it’s the thoughts that matter.
My story is set in the US (it’s written for a specific anthology where the location has to be in the US) and although I’ve written a few stories set in the US before, and even had a story which was based in the UK re-set into a US location when it was broadcast, whenever I’ve written a US based story the main character has been alien, a foreigner, and they’ve brought with them that foreign sensibility. For this latest story to work the main character has to be US born and bred.
What I’ve realised is that it isn’t just the words that are different, it’s the culture. Now, I’m someone who has read an awful lot of US fiction so I know that cling film is Saran Wrap and what Hostess Twinkies are… but actually being aware of the differences is really hard work. I need to know that it’s the sidewalk instead of the pavement, and the pavement instead of the road. But that’s relatively easy, that’s just translation. I really need to know when someone would use Saran Wrap instead of Tupperware, or would eat a Twinkie instead of a Babe Ruth. I also need to know whether an arcade in a US amusement park would have penny falls and if they’d use quarters. I need to know what it’s like to think in American.
I write fast. And by fast I mean between 800-1,200 words an hour. Now imagine taking 1,200 steps and each time you place your foot on the ground you have to consciously think “is this the right place?” That’s what I’m doing at the moment. It’s tough. It’s slow work. I think the flow of the story is seriously impaired as a result. But it’s actually fascinating to force myself to have to think differently.
And yes, I’m writing this blog as a rest from slogging through my American-English story, but it’s back to the grindstone, or whatever they might say in Boston, Massachusetts.
Are you still writing? - 22 June 2015
You know, I’ve been quiet on here for a while and occasionally get asked “Are you still writing?” so I thought I’d explain, although it does have a whiff of “Please Sir, the dog ate my homework!”
Am I still writing? Yes. Hell yes. It’s inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t write. It’s like asking “Are you still breathing?” What I’m not doing is updating my website and blog as often as I should. I wish I could give a well thought out explanation of why this has happened and how it is part of a strategic plan to advance my writing career, but the truth is more like:
Looks up from his desk. ‘June? It’s June? How did that happen?’
So that’s definitely part of it. The other factor is that I’ve been in the midst of something of a ‘writer on steroids’ few months with a variety of projects. I wouldn’t say that’s coming to an end, but definitely the first produce-produce-produce phase has now tipped into more of a balanced produce-edit-publish stage. So, since September the credits roll looks something like this:
Write a novella (Closer Still)
Edit a novella (21 – (working title, it’ll change)
Edit a novella (One of the Dead)
Write a novella collaboratively (Because it sounds like a fun idea) and end up writing a short (60k) novel.
Edit a novella (Closer Still)
Accept a commission to write a short story (Because it sounds like a fun idea) and then, when asked if it could be a novella instead blithely say ‘Yeah, sure’
Write the novella (Odette)
Accept a commission to write a short story, and write two (just in case)
Finishing editing the novella (Closer Still)
Edit the short novel (now called “The Screaming Dead”)
Edit the novella (Odette)
And edit the novella again (Odette)
And edit the novella again (Odette)
So if you’re keeping track, this is what my production cycle currently looks like:
Novellas: Closer Still, Odette, 21, One of the Dead
Short novel: The Screaming Dead
At my rate of one novella published a year, I think I’m sorted until 2019.
Next up… finishing editing them thar novellas, edit a novel, and then… I think I have an idea (or two) for another novella… and I’m looking at a small short story collection.
Does that get me out of detention?
Layin' Chilly - 13 February 2015
You know that thing where you think you’ve written your best story ever, and then you pick it up again and you spot the typo in the first paragraph and then you realise that one of the main characters changes their name in the third chapter and then you can see how the story stutters around the middle and that scene is too long and that piece of dialogue doesn’t quite sound natural and on reflection you don’t think you’ve quite nailed the transition for a character’s emotional development? Yeah, that.
It’s easy to get too close to a story, especially when you’re working on it for a long period of time. It’s easy to lose the objectivity and instead of seeing what’s on the page you see what’s in your head.
That’s why I am a huge advocate of what I have now decided to call Layin’ Chilly. (After Stephen King’s short story “Gramma”) Layin’ Chilly is where I try and forget my story and come back to it as a reader rather than the writer. To varying degrees I do it with everything I write. If I am writing something to schedule (Such as a commissioned story or when I’m working to submit something to a themed anthology) I will build in chilly time (Like Hammer time, but without the inflated trousers) So I will plan to finish the story early enough to allow me to put it aside and come back to it for at least two separate edits.
So why am I talking about this now? I’ve just come back to a novella for what I thought was my last edit before sending it on to a publisher, and I was shocked to realise how far away it was from being finished. In my head I had resolved all the structural issues and I’d been through two full edits so I was expecting the text to be relatively clean, and yet when I returned to it after six weeks away I found chapters that petered out, inconsistencies in descriptions and characters, and typos… too many typos!
Which means that I need to do this edit (edit 3) and then put it aside for more chilly time, and hopefully when I return to the story in about six weeks it will be closer to where it needs to be then it is at the moment.
Why I write - 14 January 2015
This morning I was in a forest in France. I was in a clearing with Frank and Teddy and the others and if you have the time I could tell you about the way the dusk light filtered through the trees and created shadows like spiders’ webs between the branches. I could tell you about the German boy, from Hamburg I think, although it may have been Dusseldorf; definitely not Belin. I could describe his eyes flicking from side to side which betrayed his nervousness. I could tell you about the blonde cowlick of hair plastered to his forehead with sweat.
I know all about that forest in France, although I have never stepped inside its boundaries. I spent forty minutes there and then I had to stop writing and go upstairs to get ready for work, but for those forty minutes I was there. Watching Frank and Teddy and the German boy. Waiting to see what would happen.
And that, my friends, is why writing is addictive. Imagine being in a film where it is so immersive you don’t hear the person in the next aisle rattling their sweet packet or slurping from their cup to suck up the last drop of Coke. And then imagine that you are not just watching the film, you are taking part in it; a fifth wall, if you like. Watching and participating and directing.#
So after my forty minutes I saved my work, closed my laptop, and walked upstairs. I felt a loss for the world I had left and even now as I sit on the train to work I still sense vestiges of France within me, like strands from a dream that hasn’t quite dissipated. But I know that later today, or tomorrow morning, I will return to France. Return to Frank and Teddy to see what happens next.
Listen... - 29 December 2014
Are you back?
This is a slightly strange experience on a number of different levels. Murden’s Hollow is a story that holds a special place in my heart as it was my “portfolio piece” when I applied to Writing East Midlands for their mentoring scheme, which I was subsequently accepted onto. So for me it signifies something of a gear change in my writing - it’s the time when I took this a lot more seriously and became structured and disciplined in how I approached writing. That change made a great difference and in my head I draw a very clear divide between pre and post Murden’s Hollow.
But more than that…
I write my stories and edit them, write and edit them, and it’s my time I’m investing. Having Murden’s Hollow picked up by Tales to Terrify and recorded is a very different beast because someone else has had to enjoy the story enough to invest their time in reading it aloud, and doing a great job of it in the process.
I typically write British settings, because that’s where I’m from and that’s what I know. I have written a few US based stories but they’re often with the main character as an outsider. In keeping with Rock Manor’s great narration the editor chose to tweak just a very small number of the details to re-site the story in the US, which I think worked very well.
So listening to Murden’s Hollow for me was a very strange and proud experience. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
It's quiet. Too quiet! - 15 November 2014
And I bet you thought I’d gone away.
It’s been an interesting few months since my last post at the beginning of July and I feel I need to give explain the silence. The first thing to say is that it’s not because I haven’t been doing anything.
Since July I have started my new job, gone on a family holiday to Canada, written a new novella and then edited all three outstanding novellas. And “The Sleeping Dead” was published by DarkFuse.
Adapting to a new job and a new way of commuting has definitely had an impact on my writing. Expect to see trains having a much higher profile in future stories just as the number of “cars trapped on motorways” begins to diminish. Whilst I’m not saying that I write directly from life it’s impossible to ignore the fact that reality does bleed into fiction. I am exposed to different environments, different people, and different behaviours. I notice things that I would not otherwise have the opportunity to see, such as the man in the seat next to me reading this blog over my shoulder.
But… I shall try harder! I shall aim to get my blog back on the rails (see what I did there? Eh? Eh?) and post more frequently than once every four months.
Playing with the big kids - 8 July 2014
I confided in someone recently that whenever I see a review of one of my stories I read it metaphorically from between my fingers. Reviews scare me. There, I’ve said it. I know the advice… don’t read your reviews and definitely don’t believe them. Maybe there are people who actually do that but it seems to me that when I put something out there then it’s natural that I want to know how it’s received. Maybe I need to bulk up my reviewee muscles, and there’s probably a gym somewhere that can show me how to do it.
Because this is the thing… if I get a good review then I’m walking on air for minutes, maybe even an hour, but if I get a bad review then I can turn it over in my mind for days. Advanced Review Copies for “The Sleeping Dead” went out recently and I hunkered down and prepared for the worst. The first reviewed was great… 5 stars from an established and well respected horror website. The next review Idid not keep to the plan. Since then it’s been a mixed bag: some great reviews and some not so great. So obviously for me it’s something of a rollercoaster but, just like a rollercoaster, it’s almost never the climb to the top you remember but rather the sudden drop.
For me I think the issue is that my work is now reaching a wider audience. That’s why I was so thrilled to be picked up by DarkFuse. But with that comes the age-old conundrum that you can’t please everyone all of the time. I suspect “The Sleeping Dead” is something of a Marmite story. Some people get it, some people don’t. Now I’m not going to start comparing myself to Stephen King here, but I do recall that when he published “The Colorado Kid” he expected a similar response, and that has to be one of my favourite Stephen King novels in a long time.
Is “The Sleeping Dead” a good book? I believe so. Is it honestly written? Hell yes! Will it sell millions and appear on the Booker Long List? Let’s keep things in perspective here, folks!
Strangely enough, at the same time as the reviews for “The Sleeping Dead” have started coming in one of my short stories has also been published by DarkFuse: “Nether Goole.” Now I did worry that people wouldn’t get “Nether Goole” but interestingly the reviews so far (I told you I couldn’t stop reading them…) have been not just positive but have showered the story with praise.
Do I have a conclusion to draw from all this? If there’s anything it’s that stories are as individual as their readers and what works for some people doesn’t work for others. With that in mind all I can say about “The Sleeping Dead” is see for yourself. You can pre-order it now for Kindle on Amazon US and Amazon UK, and it’s released on August 12th.
Focus, Barber! Focus! - 13 June 2014
But what to focus on?
So I have a dilemma I want to share with the group.
I've just become aware of a call for submissions by a publisher that I've been interested in working with for a long time. The challenge is that the submission requires a 25,000-30,000 novella to be completed by mid September. Ordinarily that's doable. Tough, but doable.I can write a 25k novella in about 4 weeks and editing is a similar period again. Except there are a couple of wrinkles to this plan:
Firstly, I start a new job on Monday and so my writing schedule will be disrupted and therefore I'm expecting a drop in my output.
Then there's the holiday... in August I go on away for three weeks and I'm not planning on taking a novella with me to edit. (Don't tell Stephen King!)
So when I come back I would probably have a further three weeks to edit the novella before submitting it.
And let's not forget the novella I've been working on. Originally this post was going to be about how I've been struggling with the edit and I was going to leave it for a little while. But at the same time I'm keen to have a new novella to submit when my current novella, "The Sleeping Dead", is published in August.
Oh, and finally. Although I've had two novellas accepted, with both of them I've found the editing process is many times more challenging and time consuming than a short story. For all of the novellas (the two published and the I've got at my editing table at the moment) I've had to make substantial structural changes to the piece before it has worked.
So the nub of the problem. Do I drop everything, throw all my free writing time at this project and hope I can eke out enough capacity to make the deadline, or do I keep my head down and let it pass and hope another opportunity comes again in the future at a more appropriate time.
Answers on the back of a postcard or a sealed down envelope to the usual address.
Too much? - 28 May 2014
There Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it comes from growing up the eldest son in a family of six kids. Yes, I used to be the first one up in the morning and to make sure the others were awake I would play my “recorded from the BBC chart rundown complete with DJ voices at the beginning and end if your finger on the record button wasn’t fast enough” mastermix tape of 1980s hits, starting with Nena’s 99 Red Balloons. And I used to leave a tower of coins for each of my siblings’ bus fare. So maybe I do have an over-developed sense of responsibility, but each time I have a story published I have a sense of duty toward the publisher which usually results in promoting the hell out of whatever is carrying my work this week.
Take my latest publication: “Talk Show” was podcast by “The Wicked Library” last week. To promote this I have publicised it on both Facebook and Twitter, on more than one occasion. But I have also changed my Facebook profile picture to complement the podcast.
I‘m now considering the etiquette around changing my picture back – how long do I leave it? Will the publisher notice what I’ve done? Will they care? Will anyone actually realise what my profile picture is supposed to represent? Except now that I think about it, I just changed my profile from an image that promoted the last publication that printed one of my stories… so what should I change my profile pic to? A picture of me?
You see, it’s all too complicated. Maybe I should look back to the days when promotion meant mentioning it to a couple of friends when you next saw them and printing out a wonky flyer to leave on a desk at a writing convention. Now there are so many tools and ways to engage with potential readers it’s an art to know where to start. When does promoting become pimping? And when is pimping too much?
So I shall stop. With this one. At least for now. Unless…perhaps I could just write a blog post and sneak in a reference to the Podcast. That would be okay, wouldn’t it?
Don't do it! - 13 May 2014
There aren't many cardinal rules in this game, but they still exist: Don't steal someone else's work; don't send your work in handwritten on green sheets of paper using blue crayons; read all the submission guidelines for the publication you're submitting to, and don't sell your story to two places at the same time unless both publishers know what's happening.
Not many rules, and usually I'm scrupulous about following them. But I came unstuck... I had a short story accepted and then, because after a year it looked like it wasn't going to be published, I sent it to someone else who subsequently accepted it (Thank you very much...) only for the first publisher to contact me and confirm the original anthology was now going ahead.
Don't do it, my friends. It isn't a good place to be. I'm getting paid for the publication, but it still doesn't make it worth the grovelling email I've just sent to editor the first in which I bared my soul and threw myself at their mercy. Thankfully they've agreed to accept a second story in place of the first one.
Now in my defence, I have to quickly add that I don't do this sort of thing - I'm usually careful to the point of pedantry to formally withdraw a story from consideration before I send it elsewhere. In this case I didn't because the original anthology was by my writing group, Derby Scribes. Still, any excuse is no excuse.
So don't do it.
Really, don't do it.
Now I better sign off as I need to write a new short story to fill a hole in an upcoming anthology.
Is this the end? - 4 May 2014
I made a decision this week that might spell the end of my writing career.
I hope not, truly, and I'll do everything I can to make sure it doesn't, but you never know...
So, enough of the melodrama; what's going on?
Well, I handed in my notice this week and accepted a job elsewhere. It occurs to me that quite often in this writing gig you read a writer's biography and they come out with lines such as "I gave up my job to write," I think it's what is commonly called "living the dream." Now before you get too carried away... I have not given up my job to write full time. I have a mortgage, a family, I have a ridiculous affection for eating and electricity and gas and all those things that have taken us a couple of steps up from cave dwelling.
So I will not be sitting at home writing full time. My new job is probably going to be great but it's also going to be a real challenge and at the best of times trying to juggle being a writer and a husband and a father and an employee and... (insert any number of other roles we have in our day to day lives) is tough.
It probably says something that before I accepted the job I had to think about the impact it could have on my writing. If you've read through all 88 posts here over the last few years you'll have been part of a journey of success (on my scale). From short story publications through to my book last year and the next one that comes out in August. Now I really hope I haven't done something that puts all of that in jeopardy, and I hope that by thinking this through, and being aware of the danger, I stand a better chance of mitigating the risk.
But look me up in two years and ask me "May 2014 - what does that mean to you now?" and I'll probably be able to give you an answer with just a modicum of hindsight.
Introducing the Muse as Gymbunny beefcake - 16 April 2014
Earlier in the week I knew I was going to have a three hour 'writing window' outside of my usual routine. This was free time. Unscripted. Unallocated. I found myself dwelling on what I would do during my extra three hours and mulling over which project would best benefit from the extra time ( yes, I do mull)
When the time came I still wasn't sure what I was going to do - I had a bundle of short stories that needed editing, and a novella, and a novel. But I hadn't finished my first read through of the novella so I wasn’t ready to plunge into an edit yet, and picking up the novel would be the start of a much, much bigger piece of work. Still, I set off with a bag full of everything I needed to progress any of the different projects.
My plan, my great plan, came unstuck immediately. Who would have guessed that in a city like Derby the library would be closed all day. Shame on you Derby! Instead I eventually found a cafe and set up shop with my laptop.
I still had no idea what I wanted to work on, and to be honest I was feeling irritated at myself and also the locked doors of what is a beautiful but very closed-on-Wednesdays library building.
I pushed aside the edits on the short stories and the novella and the novel and I started to write something new. It was going to be a short story for a horror- Christmas anthology I planned to submit to.
Something happened. When I sat down I had no idea what I was going to write about. I have a list of short story ideas that I keep on my phone but none of them felt right. Instead I started to write about the cafe in which I was sitting. I introduced a character, and then a second character. I had character A hand a gun to character B wrapped up in a brown paper bag, and that was it. An hour and a half later I had about half of a new story. I quite like it. It's going to take some work on the rewrite because some parts of the start no longer make sense, but I think when I finish it will work well.
So why did I think this was worth spouting on about? Mainly because a lot of questions are about where do story ideas come from, and Fornits aside, the answer is anywhere and everywhere. Just sitting in a cafe can produce the inspiration for a story and the most important thing is to write and keep writing. Inspiration won't come to you, you have to work hard to find it.
Not maths class - 16 April 2014
You know that thing you do at the back of the class when you’re bored? When the Maths teacher has been droning on and the sun is shining through the windows and even the bluebottles seem too drowsy to put much effort into it? When you have your exercise book open on the back page where you’re supposed to record your homework for next week but instead you’ve spent the last five minutes practising your autograph?
Slightly weird this. Last week I received signing sheets for my next novella. (“The Sleeping Dead” – published first August 2014 by DarkFuse. Available at all good bookstores and leading retail outlets. Here ends this commercial break) I have been asked to sign books before. I’ve sat on panels at conferences where we pass the book down from one author to the next and all scribble our name somewhere inside. But I’ve often joked about the fact that I don’t have a signature and that if anyone compared my name in any two of the books I’d signed it would probably be different. And now here I was with a hundred sheets to sign.
So I needed to come up with a signature, and PDQ. Which brings me back to sitting in Maths class on a spring day when the last thing you want to hear about is ??. Last Saturday morning I set myself up on the kitchen room table, spent fifteen minutes practising my signature, and then set up my production line of signing sheets. It’s a very surreal experience to be signing your name over and over again. I found myself chanting the spelling of my name over and over in my head as if I was afraid I would forget how to write my name.
And now I think I have a signature. Interestingly, it’s nothing like my signature for my bank, or when I have to sign off something at work. Not least because my writing name is different to my “proper” name. And who knows, maybe one day if I see my writing on one of those sheets again I’ll be able to recognise it as mine.
Quiet! - 9 April 2014
To use an overused quote: “It’s quiet, too quiet.” Or at least it has been of late. I can explain! It’s not like I haven’t been doing anything. I’ve been doing lots, and there’s been other... stuff, but that’s for a later blog post. (Maybe even the next one...)
So my focus for the first few months of 2014 has been on writing.
I know... that sounds obvious. But I mean writing. As opposed to editing, or submitting stories to publishers, or writing blog posts. Just writing.
So far I’ve probably written closed to 100,000 words: I’ve done two novellas and a stack of short stories. All of this is in the interests of keeping the plates spinning. One of the challenges with writing a novel is that you immerse yourself in that world and when you look up six months have gone by and all the short stories you submitted have either been rejected or accepted. I was conscious that with “The Power of Nothing” published last September and “The Sleeping Dead” due for publication in August, and a whole slew of short stories published or due to be published shortly, there was little on the horizon after September this year. There’s still a lot of stories out there with magazines and anthologies, but I like to have about twenty stories active and at the moment that’s down to about ten.
It brings to mind a discussion thread on Facebook recently, in which someone asked whether authors write to market or market what we’ve written. For me the answer is a balancing act between the two. If I have a story idea I’ll write it, eventually... when it gets to the top of my “too be written” pile or when it feels like it’s developed enough that I can do it justice. But I also seek out calls for submissions with a theme and write to order. What I like about the second approach is that it will typically produce a short story I would otherwise not have written. It causes me to flex my creative muscle in a different way, and I think that has to be a good thing. After all, sitting at a desk for an hour or two isn’t stretching many other muscles apart from the ones in my fingers!
So last week I set myself a challenge: 5 in 5. I aimed to write five pieces of flash fiction over five days. The first couple of days were relatively straight forward because I had the kernel of story ideas already in my head. By day four it was a struggle. It felt like the pressure to produce another bite-sized story was just too much for me. I did it. Somehow I did it. One day in the not too distant future I’ll go back and see if what I wrote is actually any good, but for now the achievement of forcing myself to write those five stories is a small victory.
How to write a Novella: Week 4 - 30 January 2014
This can only mean one thing, surely?
He’s doing a blog post in the middle (ish) of the week. Can he already have completed his 7,500 words? How incredible is that?
Or. No… that couldn’t happen. Could it? Surely not! But…
Well let me put you out of your misery: Yes, it’s done. The first draft of the novella is complete. It didn’t all go quite to plan. It’s close to 39,000 and it’s definitely the case that some words are better than others and when it comes to the re-write there will be a lot of work to sort out the structure of the story and make it… well, coherent. But it’s done.
The ending is not the same as I had originally envisaged, and I do still have a soft spot for my original ending (the general idea is the same but the location was different). Most of the middle has changed (there’s a lot more of it than I expected and it took some unplanned turns during the route). But it’s not a million miles away from the initial plan I carried in my head.
Strangely, after the full-on task of aiming to get the novella finished in 4 weeks I feel a little deflated now. It’s done! What next?
Well my original plan had me starting a second novella next week (don’t worry, this isn’t one of those “12 novellas in a year” madcap schemes… just two or maybe three at most) and I will. Probably. If not next week then definitely the week after. I’ve just got a couple of things I need to sort out - a pair of stories I’m working on with another author and then I probably need to “bulk out” my short story bank for submissions as it’s been getting a little depleted of late. I also want to put a little distance between the two novellas, not much, just a fire break so that I don’t leave one world and plunge right into the next one.
But it is done.
Thanks for joining me on the ride.
How to write a Novella: Week 3 - 24 January 2014
I know… two blog posts in one week, this must either be very good or very bad.
In truth it’s something of both. This week I’ve written last week’s blog post, finished a short story I was working on with a friend, I’m writing this blog post, and I’ve added over 8,000 words to the novella.
Yes, stand back in awe at my productivity. 8,000 words - that’s more than 1,000 above my weekly target. There’s even a chance that some of them will make it through the first edit, although I doubt it. Because here’s the problem. My original plan was to write a novella of about 25,000 words in four weeks, and I’d banked 10,000 words before I started so really I figured I could cruise through at 7,000 words a week and by week three I’d be on 31,000 words and I’d probably have finished with a really smug look on my face as I said “See, I told you it was easy.”
That was the idea. The reality hasn’t quite panned out like that. Last week was tough, this week was even worse. I don’t outline my stories before I write them. Instead I usually keep a rough plan in my head and adapt it as the story unfolds. This time I’ve gone completely off the rails and there are large chunks of the story I don’t even recognise and I seem to have been getting further and further away from the plan I was holding in my head. At times over the last two weeks I’ve considered putting it aside and starting on something else, but my worry was that if I did that I may never return to it. So instead I ploughed on. The plot became more convoluted and there’s a stretch of about 5,000 words where I seriously have no idea what’s happening or how it’s going to turn out.
Just in case you’re mistaken - this is not a good thing!
But… and I don’t want to jinx this… in the last couple of days it does feel like I’m out of the worst of it. I’m 34,000 words in and I know I may have another 6,000-10,000 words until I get to the end, but I actually think there may be an end for this story. At times over the last two weeks that seemed highly unlikely.
Of course, it’s going to take a lot of editing, and I’m minded that after writing the first draft of “The Power of Nothing" I had to deconstruct it and basically rebuild it (I’d written the second half of that story first and it took me a while to work that out), so maybe there is something about writing novellas that means I have to be more structured in my approach than with either short stories or novels. But, fingers crossed, I think we’re nearly there!
How to write a Novella: Week 2 - 20 January 2014
The more observant will notice that I didn’t manage to publish a blog post last week, and there’s a very good reason for that – I had my hands full trying to get through my 7,000 word target for the week. As you may remember from my last post, one of the tricks to hitting your targets is to remain focussed, so the blog post had to give.
Why, you may ask, did I struggle to hit my 7,000 word target when I’d been explaining how reasonable it was the previous week?
Well, I’m not going to lie to you – last week was tough. I’m 25,000 words into the novella, which I was expecting to be 25,000 words long, and it is obvious that:
a) I’m gonna need a bigger book
b) I actually don’t know how the story ends
c) I probably don’t know too much about the middle part either
d) I’ve lost control of the story
Now that is not, in itself, a catastrophe. In fact it’s a common occurrence for me when it comes to writing. You see, I tend to be somewhat loose when it comes to writing my first draft and I will often hit a wall – especially when I’m working on a long piece. So with that in mind I don’t panic when it happens. My approach in the past has been to muddle through, maybe take a little time out and try and plot ahead, and if none of that works I have my “nuclear” option – which is basically to stop what I’m writing, mid-chapter, and pick the story back up a little further on. And at some point I’ll come back and sort out the fact that I’ve lost my way.
It may not work for everyone, and it may not work each time, but that’s the approach I’ve taken with my current novella. I’ve now restarted the novella on the next chapter and it’s moved forward another 5,000 words. However, I do think that when it comes to the rewrite I’m going to have to sharpen the scythe. Hopefully by the time I get to that point I’ll have a much better idea of the story and the plot, and it will all make sense after all.
Tune in next week (or the end of this week…) to find out whether that’s the case.
How to write a novella in 4 weeks - 9 January 2014
My plan for 2014, which is still fairly loose (write a few novellas, edit the novel, write a bunch of stories) has me writing a novella in January, a second in February, taking an edit of the novel in March before writing a third novella in April. To keep to my plan I will need to be disciplined and aggressive and get through each novella in about four weeks.
The first thing to answer is why would I want to do that? Well, I had a novella published last September (The Power of Nothing, available in all good Amazon stores or via the publisher’s website) and I have a second scheduled for publication in August (The Sleeping Dead). I want to line up a few more novellas for future publication as I don’t want to gamble on writing just one that might not find a publisher… so three seems like a reasonable number.
Secondly, I know I can do this. Or at least I’m fairly confident I can do it. If we say a novella comes in at about 30,000 words, that means 7,500 words a week. That’s doable. By which I mean it’s doable in the “whilst holding down a full time job and still eating and sleeping and doing all the normal things people do”. It’s sustainable… it doesn’t require me to kill myself in order to achieve it. Killing myself does not seem like a good strategy.
The next phase of the plan… is to focus. With my writing schedule I reckon I can hit 7,500 words a week, so as long as those 7,500 words are contributing to the novella then I should be fine. If I’m really productive I can probably throw in the occasional blog post too… but only after I’ve met my quota.
And the last aspect of the plan… cheat.
I’m coming to the end of the first week and the current word count for the novella is…
drum roll please…
15,000 words in one week? That’s impressive! Well it would be if I had written it all in a week. Actually I’ve been salting away bits in preparation for the novella, and actually started a little before my official start date. For me this gives me a boost of knowing that I’m ahead of schedule, and with writing I think you need every trick available to you to keep you motivated and on track. Because at some point the wall is going to come - that point when you know what you’ve written is rubbish and you probably don’t even know enough to finish the thing. That extra bit of word count is designed to help me through the dark days!
Success - what is it? - 2 January 2014
The excitement of the launch of “The Power of Nothing” in September has now faded to a warm glow of “been there, done that, got the T Shirt” so now is probably a good time to reflect back on what I’ve learned as a result of the publication.
Well the first thing I’m aware of is that three months on, I don’t know whether “The Power of Nothing” has been a success - mainly because I don’t know what success is. Surely success for me is different to success for anyone else, and probably success should not be measured in terms of “units sold”. Although, let’s be honest, that has to feature somewhere in the discussion.
So let’s tackle that one first - how many copies of “The Power of Nothing” have been sold? The truth is that I don’t know yet as sales figures follow a three month cycle, so I’ll probably find out in the next few weeks. I know, from looking at the UK book charts, that to sell about 15,000 copies would get me to the #1 spot - in the heady days following release “The Power of Nothing” was registering on the Amazon all-books chart in the 24,000 region, which I thought sounded low until I realised that the Amazon chart went down as low as 5,000,000. So that seemed like a result, not quite “quit your job and live off the interest” sales but respectable nonetheless.
I’m going to take a wild punt here… I think I’ve probably sold somewhere between 80-100 copies. Is that success? I think so. For me, success is having people read what I’ve written. At first I knew everyone who had bought a copy of the novella - they were friends, family, anyone I could persuade into parting with a little cash. But now I know there are people who have rated it on Goodreads and I have absolutely no idea who they are! That’s success… where people have got hold of the book for themselves rather than because I told them about it.
As an aside… there’s probably and interesting scientific experiment to trace back everyone who bought a copy of “The Power of Nothing” and determine why they bought it, but that’s probably for someone else to do.
But back to the subject in hand - how do I know if I’ve been successful? I think the other thing to say is that my success is different to your success. When I determine how well I’ve done I’m thinking about me: what is successful for me. I’m not comparing my sales against those of Stephen King or Ramsey Campbell, I’m comparing them against earlier versions of Richard Farren Barber. The Power of Nothing was a success as soon as it was published, now the next novella that gets published… The Sleeping Dead… that one has more to live up to.
It's a strange life - 18 December 2013
when you find yourself suggesting to your other half that what you want for Christmas is “writing socks”. No, they don’t exist, except they sort of do. I suspect it’s also somewhat sad and self-indulgent when you realise you’re writing a blog post about socks that you own specifically for the purpose of writing. But if the hat fits… or maybe in this case, if the socks fit…
So why writing socks? Well first it’s worth knowing that I have a whole bag of writing clothes. This isn’t some weird footballer-superstition like always putting my left arm through my T Shirt before my right so that I don’t lose the match, it’s purely for practical reasons. I get up, I get dressed, I go downstairs, I turn on the laptop, I feed the cat, I make a cup of tea as the laptop is waking up.
That first cup of tea is essential , let’s make that clear from the start.
It’s a routine rather than a habit and it has the dual purpose of saving time and allowing me to function before I’ve really woken up. Not having to think what I’m wearing is part of the deal: six am is not the time to be choosing between Gucci and Armani.
So within that context, maybe writing socks make a bit more sense? They’re just very thick walking socks, but the ones I have at the moment have a hole as big as my fist from padding around in the early morning with no shoes on, so when I hit the cold floor on a December morning it isn’t that cup of tea that’s taking the lion’s share of the “waking up” duties.
Writing socks - gotta love ‘em!
Next blog post: why I need Santa to bring me writing tea bags.
How not to not write a novella - 26 November 2013
Isn’t it strange how things happen? I finished my novel “Fodder” just before World Fantasycon and according to my cunning plan I was going to take a week off (to read Dr Sleep) and then start on the first of two novellas – one each side of the year end. As a plan it seemed easy and unbeatable. I have a list of about six plotlines for different novellas so it seemed the toughest thing was going to be deciding which ones to write. Except it didn’t work out quite like that, did it?
So I started working through my list of novella plotlines and I discounted one because I think it may actually be a novel, and then another because I think it may actually be a novel and then another because... well, you probably get the theme here. There are a few plotlines that are probably novellas rather than novels, but I didn’t feel I knew enough about them to start writing them.
Instead of sitting around twiddling my thumbs I thought I would write a few short stories and look at editing the opening chapters of a novel in waiting. And what happened? I wrote a short story, and then a second short story, and then I started on the third short story which was really just a couple of very vague ideas that I had kicking around inside my head and about 3,000 words into it I realised this isn’t a short story, it isn’t even a novelette, this story is desperate to be something longer, something around 30,000 words. Perhaps something that some publishers might call a novella.
So it looks like, despite my best attempts not to write a novella when I wanted to, that’s where I’ve ended up after all. Strange thing, life.
Two Ways to Hell - 26 September 2013
Guest Blog for "The Ginger Nuts of Horror"
My lawyers have advised me to say that “I came across a pirated version of a novel by a well respected writer in the horror genre” the other day. Actually... It was Stephen King’s “The Shining” and a friend sent it to me as I wanted to re-read it before starting on “Dr Sleep”. For practical reasons I wanted to read it on my Kindle, but didn’t want to pay for it again as I already have two copies sitting on my bookcase.
Maybe I’m naive, but I’ve never actually read a pirated book before, but as I started reading about Danny Torrance and Grady and the rest of the cast over in the Overlook it occurred to me that there are two ways in which pirated books are evil incarnate.
The first is obvious. If you’re reading a pirated book you can be damned sure that the author is not going to see a penny for his/her work. It’s difficult to frame the argument in terms of theft and I’ve never had much connection with those “adverts” at the beginning of films where they have all the “piracy is theft” because, and let’s get pedantic about it, it isn’t theft. Theft is to take someone else’s property without the intention of returning it. But in piracy you’re copying, not taking. My dodgy copy of “The Shining” hasn’t deprived one other person of their copy. But that doesn’t mean it’s okay, it just means we don’t have the language to explain why it’s wrong. But piracy is evil because if we don’t have a system where people can be paid for their creative works then we will regress to a society where art is for amateurs and the idle-rich. Is that what we want?
The first evil is well known and discussed and either considered or ignored, but it’s out there. But re-reading “The Shining” I discovered a second evil, one that everyone who reads should be afraid of.
Pirate books – they’re crap.
I hadn’t appreciated this. I made the assumption that because they’re digital, and we live in an age where technology means a digital copy is a perfect replica of the original, that pirate books were basically “published” books. But they’re not. At least not the copy that I have. It is full of typos and formatting errors. I assume this means that someone has taken the original copy and scanned it to create a digital version, and then not bothered to proof it.
And here’s why that is a sin. You only get once chance to read a book for the first time. I know “The Shining” is a great book – but on the basis of what I’m reading at the moment that would have been ruined for me. For me, reading is a magic trick: you’re awake but you are convincing your mind to take you out of your reality. When it works, when you have a great book, it’s incredible. But typos and poorly formatted text pull you out of the world as you try and figure out what should be on the page, and that makes for a terrible reading experience. One typo in a book is hard to accept. One every two or three pages makes the novel almost unreadable.
My friend also sent me a copy of George RR Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” which is another book I have sitting in physical form on my bookcase, but which I thought would be more accessible through an ebook. I haven’t read “A Game of Thrones” before, and I know now that my first experience isn’t going to be through a dodgy pirate ebook. have it
Another First - 11 September 2013
I have it have a new release date for “The Power of Nothing” of Sunday 15th September, and I now have the final proof to read through again. I’d heard authors say about the number of times they had to read their work prior to publication, but had never really made an impact until now.
The final proof has a second and more interesting purpose - it becomes my ARC. Advanced Reading Copy, to give it its full title.
Now I have a strange relationship with reviews. I find them terrifying. It’s probably a deep seated fear of failure but whenever I read a review of one of my stories I do so while peering out between my fingers. What makes this particularly strange is that so far the reviews I’ve had have been good or great.
Well, there was that one review…, but I try not to dwell on it.
So my latest first has been sending out review copies. I’ve never had to do this before and it seems a bit “paperback writer” (excuse me sir, will you read my book…) but I’ve sent the first three requests out.
Here’s my plan, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this; if the review is good I will plaster it everywhere. I will tweet it and Facebook it, I will put it on my website and I may even consider having selected phrases tattooed strategically across my body.
And if it’s bad I will turn away and never mention it.
That seems fair to me.
Which brings me to another aspect of reviews and critiques - the fabled Amazon/Goodreads 5 stars.
But that’s for another day!
Grinning like a Madman - 9 September 2013
If you were in London on Saturday and you happened to be in the basement of Forbidden Planet you might have noticed a man standing in the corner, holding open a book, with a massive grin on his face. The sort of grin that causes cheek muscles to ache. The sort of grin that would not seem out of place on a Cheshire cat. Yes, that was me.
To properly explain what was going on I need to take you back to the late eighties and early nineties. While I was at university I probably visited Forbidden Planet at some point most weekends. I’ll be honest, it was cheap because I didn’t buy any books (In my defence, I was a student) but I browsed the covers off them. I attended numerous book signings; Ramsey Campbell, Mark Morris, etc. I still have an impromptu drawing Clive Barker did for me on the back of a flyer. For me Forbidden Planet was something special, really special.
Fast forward a (gulp) mere 25 years to last Saturday and now Forbidden Planet is in a different location but it still retains a magical hold over me. I went down the stairs and past the array of “coming soon” US book covers plastered on the walls. As I walked around the floor I found Ellen Datlow’s Best New Horror vol5. There, in proper black ink on proper white paper, was printed my name. Twice. Those honourable mentions I may have talked about before.
Does that explain the grin?
Some days writing is tough. Some days it doesn’t so much feel that I’m writing words as pushing them out one at a time. Sometimes the rejections can be difficult to take. And then some days you stand amongst the bookshelves of the best bookshop in the country, with a silly grin on your face as you look at your name, and nothing else matters.
The Cover - 28 August 2013
I have to confess, it had never occurred to me that I would have any input into the cover art for the book, but when I saw the questionnaire I understood. The questions distilled my story into pertinent sections: who are the main characters and what do they look like, what is their relationship? What is the location and what is the season.
It makes perfect sense when you think that the artists are unlikely to be in a position where they can set aside the hours needed to read through the entire story before starting to work. Instead they’re using the fact that I already know the story to steer them to what the art should look like.
At this point it occurred to me that although I don’t have a pen portrait of my characters (I know I probably should…) I did have a strong image in my head of what they looked like. It was an interesting moment when I then had to go through my text to check that what I had imagined was borne out in what I had written.
When I received the cover art for “The Power of Nothing” it was an eerie feeling to see something that before had lived only inside my head. It’s real… or as real as fiction can be.
I had a few conversations back and forth with the artist to discuss particular aspects of the image and how I thought it might be altered, and I was taken by how receptive they were to changes. This was not the horror story I was expecting.
So now it exists, and can be revealed… which is a good job as it’s launched on Sunday. So here it is, the artwork for “The Power of Nothing”.
Ronan Keating was right - 23 August 2013
Writing, it’s an odd business! So in one day I learned that one of my short stories was listed on Ellen Datlow’s “Honourable mentions” for “Best Horror short stories of 2012” and I was on an absolute high, and then I got a rejection for my collection of short stories which I thought was, if not a sure thing, then at least stood a good chance of being published (and to be fair… it made it into the shortlist of the final three).
As Ronan Keating would say, life is indeed a rollercoaster.
And then…. then I learned that I didn’t have a story in Ellen’s honourable mentions lists. I had three!
So they are (for the record):
Where the Stones Lie – first published in Spectral Press’s “13 Ghosts of Christmas”
Skin Deep – first published in Siblings by Hersham Horror
Bridge People – first published in the British Fantasy Society’s Journal
I’ve never had even one story picked by Ellen before, so three is something special.
I know not to get carried away. This is a long list. I have not rang Coutts and demanded they have a personal banker on standby for the moment the money starts rolling in. I have not called my agent and told them that they need to get me on that Lear jet to Hollywood so we can start discussing how Ron Howard can do a “rags to riches” biopic of my life. I have not even called all the literary agencies in London and demanded that they become my agent! It is a small thing, but it is my small thing, and I shall wallow and bask and glow for a few days in the reflected warmth of a moment’s recognition from one of greats in the field of horror anthologies. Whisper it now, but whisper it loud: Ellen Datlow knows my name.
On editing - 21 August 2013
Being edited is strange, and not something I would claim to be particularly experienced at. I’ve been “edited” to various degrees in the past: from the publications where they print my stories exactly as they were submitted (including any typos that might have slipped through) through line edits where the editors have made a few changes to the text, up to occasions when the editor has told me to change elements of the story (such as the ending).
Now I’m not saying any of these approaches is “best” – for example, the editor who asked me to change the ending to my story “Murden’s Hollow” was absolutely right to do so, and it was a much stronger work as a result. I’m just recognising that they’re different.
For my upcoming novella “The Power of Nothing” I’ve probably gone through a more robust process of editing than usual, and that’s brought with it a few experiences I wanted to dwell upon.
So firstly, US publisher, US spelling! And not just spelling but US words. When I first had the novella accepted I knew there was an expectation that I would edit the work for the US market, and I thought about this, I actually considered whether or not it was appropriate to do so. In hindsight it was not dissimilar to a French publisher asking for the work to be translated. The words are a means into the story, and I graft over the choice of words so long that it would be a lie if I said they didn’t matter. But if my anglicism gets between the reader and the story I’m trying to tell then surely that’s wrong.
So centre became center, realise became realize, and grey became gray (this last one was particular relevant as one of the principal characters is a “grey man”). That wasn’t much of a surprise. Even having to change some words wasn’t really a shock, although I was bemused at the differences between the two languages; words that I hadn’t realised (or realized?) were used differently. So cupboard was out in favour (favour… I can do this all day!) of closet. Nightstick – which one of my beta-readers had already identified as an Americanisation of truncheon, was itself replaced by baton. In particular I thought it was interesting that I read a lot of US sited fiction and yet I was still surprised when some of the differences were pointed out to me.
The story has been through two edits where the editor has raised questions and I’ve answered them and posed my own. As a process it’s been fascinating and as I’ve been going through it I’ve been wondering what I can learn and take into the next piece I write.
Coming in to land - 8 August 2013
I’ll be honest with you; I was beginning to think it might not happen. The more memory-gifted of you might recall that way back in April I announced, to great fanfare, that my novella “The Power of Nothing” had been picked up by a publisher and was due to be released in September. And the more observant of you may then have noted that since then I have been strangely quiet on the subject.
I was beginning to worry that I’d imagined it, or the company had gone bust, or had second thoughts, or… or… (believe me, my imagination was more than able to think up a flood of different scenarios - maybe that’s why I tend toward horror stories in my writing.)
And then yesterday it arrived from the editor. My story, edited, and with instructions to review, revise and return within 10 days. After all, the clock is ticking now.
So it’s with equal measures of fear and excitement that I approach the next stage in the process. I haven’t opened the attachment yet so I don’t know how much work I have in front of me.
So hang on to your hats, secure all loose items, because the next four weeks are going to go fast.
It never rains around here - 23 July 2013
Well to be honest, today it did. Whacking great sheets of the stuff, followed with a nice helping of thunder and lightning.
But you didn’t come here for a weather forecast, did you?
Onto the novel. Just when it seemed that it couldn’t possibly get any worse (yes, it’s true… I added exactly zero words to my novel again last week) I find that I’ve been hit with another obstacle. On Facebook I noticed a link to a newspaper article that basically described the finale of the novel. For obvious reasons I’m not going to mention it here, but let’s just say that if you were to open a book on the likelihood of this happening I don’t think you’d get many takers. Remember - this is a horror novel. This is speculative fiction. This is not something that should be happening in the “real” world.
I could change the end. and as I haven’t actually written it yet, it may be that the end is not what I currently think it will be (although I have a sneaking suspicion that element of the plot is locked in), but I don’t think I will.
I have had to deal with this before. Not quite the same, but similar. I have had to cope with reading blurbs for books that, on the face of it, seem to outline the story I’m working on or have just finished (Secret Window, Secret Garden, anyone?)
It’s possible that by the time I finish the novel, and if it ever gets published, what, at the moment, seems like a disaster will actually be something of a PR coup - after all, how many horror authors get to point to real life and say “See, I told you it could happen?”
Not quite a fiscal cliff, but... - 19 July 2013
As Bjork said, this wasn’t supposed to happen. When I left you the novel (Fodder) was limping slightly but I was close to 70,000 words and the end was, if not actually nigh, then at least on the horizon.. But since then things have definitely worsened:
I’ve come to a complete halt.
Actually the reality is a little more complicated than the word count alone would suggest. At the end of last week I got an email from a publisher inviting me to submit for a line of chapbooks they produce. They were looking for something in the 10,000-15,000 word range and it could either be a novellette or a collection of short stories. I didn’t have a ready-written piece I could pick off the shelf. Oh, and the deadline was in eight days.
What I did have was an idea for a small collection of short stories around the theme of ghosts. I’ve had a couple of stories already published and I had a couple that had not been published, which I thought fitted together well. What I didn’t have was the “anchor piece” - a slightly longer story that would be more substantial. But I had been noodling about with a short story that I tentatively titled “The Coffin Walk”. It was on my phone and I would pick it up and add another 50 or 100 words whenever I had a spare minute. When I pulled it down from my phone I discovered that my “noodling” was now nearly 1,500 words long.
So I put my novel aside and started to work on “The Coffin Walk” in earnest. by the end of the week I’d written a further 5,000 words, bringing it in at a respectable 6,500.
But writing the story wasn’t enough, I couldn’t submit a first draft to a publisher and say “here you go… if you’re interested I’ll polish it later” so I started to edit. Normally I leave a gap between first and second drafts; typically a month or two, just to let the story settle and for me to forget it so I come to it fresh. That wasn’t an option in this case and instead I let the first draft lie for a full 24 hours before I picked it up.
But it is done. The collection was submitted to the publisher on Monday - now I just need to wait and see if they like it.
And that, Your Honour, is why I made absolutely no progress on “Fodder” last week. Now I just need to start thinking about how I’m going to explain away this week as it’s now Friday and I still haven’t added a word to the novel.
You don't want to be here, do you? - 1 July 2013
I originally intended to do a piece talking about the fact that I am now two thirds of the way through my latest novel (woo-hoo!) which would ruminate on how I needed to start bringing the plotlines together and draw the novel to a close.
But instead I bring you an installment of “sometimes this novel writing malarkey is tough".
I started last week more than 60,000 words into the novel and, if truth be told, feeling pretty darned good about things. The storyline was generally going where I expected and the few detours I had taken felt right. And then last week it was like I’d woken up and forgotten how to write.
When it works, when it really works well, writing is like skating. The words fit together to build sentences, and then paragraphs and whole pages and chapters. Keep going like that and before long you look behind you to find out you’re halfway over the frozen lake and need to start focusing on the far shore, which is actually now the closest shore.
I don’t think it was the realisation of how far I’d travelled that hit me, I actually think that all those minor plot diversions have left me somewhere I’d never intended to be.
Basically, as it stands, I’m floundering.
Last week was like slugging through mud rather than skating on ice. After a record breaking week where I added 10,000 words to the story last week I barely scraped 4,000, and many of them are not that great.
But I have a plan!
When you’re writing a novel I think it isn’t uncommon to find yourself in a bad place. It’s a journey, and not every stage of a journey is equally smooth.
A couple of novels ago I came across a similar situation, where the storyline bored me and I knew I needed to do something to shake it up. On that occasion I introduced a pack of wolves into the story and I never looked back. That worked when the storyline was a fantasy set in a wild forest, I don’t think I’m going to get away with it in a city in northern England. Wolves are notoriously thin on the ground in Newcastle.
Another trick I have is called “skipping". It goes something like this - find a bold font (i’m something of a Verdana man myself) blow it up to the largest size available (74 point is best) and then write in bold capital letters: SKIP.
Doesn’t that feel better already? I then pick up the story later, at a point I know will work, and then carry on writing. It works, but it can be high risk - how many published novels have you seen where the storyline is resolved with a chapter that just says “skip"? Yup… the downside is at some point you have to go back and fix what was wrong, and if you can’t, or if the fix impacts on the rest of the novel (eg killing a character) then you could find yourself with a hell of a lot of work to do.
Another trick I’ve used in the past is to write out an outline for the next five chapters. In fact, when I’m writing a novel I usually have the next five chapters outlined anyway, even when I haven’t outlined the whole piece. If I can’t get the novel back on track within chapters then I really am in a serious place.
There is another way. It’s probably the “right" way to fix this (if you don’t include writing a full outline and sticking to it so you don’t find yourself in this position in the first place). It goes something like this: work out where the storyline went off the rails, delete everything you’ve written from that point onwards, and start again.
I’m not a big advocate of this approach, it’s too easy to become disheartened and then the novel loses impetus and vitality and there’s a chance it gets relegated to the bottom drawer, to give it “time" and never gets finished.
So I’ll have to see how this week goes, and what solution I go for.
Two plot, or not two plot - 31 May 2013
This week that really is the question.
The novel is gathering momentum now, I’ve passed the 20,000 word mark and the story is starting to gain muscle and definition. But although I haven’t hit a wall I can see trouble up ahead so I’m starting to think about it early.
The narrative of Fodder as I have defined it has two stands. The major plot involves my principal characters. Jonathan and Bartholomew. However there is also a sub plot with a secondary character. George Lancaster. I’m currently on chapter 16. This is chapter 9:
George does something.
Now in itself I don’t have a problem with blocking out scenes and indeed whole chapters in this way if necessary. When I’m working on a first draft my primary aim is to get the story finished and blocking can be very useful to keep moving and avoiding sticky patches that might slow or even stop my writing. My concern over chapter 9 is that it’s indicative of a bigger issue. At the moment I’m struggling to write about George Lancaster because the character isn’t strong enough in my imagination. And the main reason for this weakness is that I sense the character is tiptoeing through a minefield of cliches.
My early response to this dilemma was to skip the “George” sections and deal with it later, and then I began to challenge whether the sub plot was even warranted: did it add anything to the story?
I was favouring dropping the sub plot, after all the main narrative is working so maybe George is just an unnecessary complication. But a few times now I’ve paused to review my outline and, although I can see a version of the story which doesn’t include George, at the moment that feels like a weaker tale.
As an aside, I did toy with the idea of removing George from this novel and then writing a sequel which told events from George’s perspective. The idea really appealed to me but it’s probably not a plan I’ll pursue.
So back to George, at the moment he’s hanging in there, not quite by his fingertips but if I were him I would be checking over my shoulder every now and then. I know I can carry on with Jonathan and Bartholomew’s story for a while but at some point in the next twenty thousand words I’m going to have to make a decision.
And the winner is... - 20 May 2013
Following on from last week’s discussion on how to decide what novel to write next, I have to confess that I’ve managed to break my own rule. I was filled with good intentions that I would give each of the plotlines a fair run before coming to any decision, but after flying past the 6,000 word mark whilst I was “preparing” for the novel I had to accept that the decision was very much taken from my hands. I tried to write the opening chapters of the final two novels that I had written synopses for, but I realised I was constantly coming back to the novel which had captured my imagination.
So now I’m officially writing my next novel. I’m going to try and walk the tightrope of keeping you updated on what is happening with the development of the novel whilst at the same time keeping the plotline off these pages. For reference, I’ll say that the novel is called “Fodder”. At least, that’s what it says at the top of the document as I type, but I suspect that by the time I finish I’ll come up with a different title.
Over the next couple of months you may sense a somewhat schizophrenic nature to this blog, as I’ll be crossing the creation of the new novel with the publication of “The Power of Nothing”. Hopefully it won’t be too confusing, and to be honest, it’s a fairly truthful representation of how things are. But now, I have my story.
Beauty Parade - 14 May 2013
It’s actually a very simple idea. I’m about to start writing my next novel, (remember the plan? I’m still keeping to it… in my own fashion…) and… well, actually the chances are that I have probably already started writing my next novel but I just don’t know it yet. Let me explain.
According to the grand plan this year I’m going to write a novel between April-ish and July-ish. Four months to write a novel that will probably come in about 100,000 words seems a reasonable target (12 weeks at 8,000 words a week with space for slippage and over-writing). After the novel I’m going to go back and do another edit on “The Lost” – so the idea of writing more than one novel this year is just a non-starter: let’s focus on quality rather than quantity!
The problem is that I have lots of ideas for what my next novel could be. I have about fifteen “one line” synopses for future novels and from them I have my top four. ( I could tell you what they are, but then I’d have to kill you).
My original plan was to take these four novels and write out a synopsis, an outline and the first chapter. I thought that after I’d done that I would have a better idea which story to complete. (This year… the other three wouldn’t be abandoned, they would just be put back into the pile for a future time).
So far I’ve written the synopses for the four choices and then I started on the opening chapters. The first was easy as I’d actually started writing it at the same time as I started “The Lost” and it had missed out in a similar exercise, so I had the opening two chapters and I only needed to edit rather than write.
I started on the second story this week 5,000 words later I’m still writing it and I’m now on chapter four.
This is good, I’m sure that this is good.
But in the back of my mind I’m thinking about those other two novels – the ones for which I wrote synopses but which I haven’t even given a chance at an opening chapter. Do I abandon my initial plan for a beauty parade of four novels and instead continue with the novel that seems to have such a strong opening? Or do I at least write those last two opening chapters to give the others a chance?
The short answer is I don’t know. But I will do soon.
Starting Out - 2 May 2013
As Maria Von Trapp might say, let’s start at the very beginning. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to have a novella published later in the year and I thought it would be interesting to record the process as I suspect it will be different to anything I’ve experienced when having short stories published in magazines and anthologies.
I’ll skip the initial stage – the Submit! Submit! Submit! – except to say that when I was looking at where to submit to I made sure that I followed the guidelines of the different publishing houses, and at the same time I made sure that none of them wanted exclusive consideration of the manuscript.
So when I got the email to say the novella was accepted my initial thought was that there had to be a catch – that maybe I’d accidently stumbled across a vanity publisher. I know this doesn’t show my self-esteem in a great light (You want to publish my novella? Surely some mistake?) but I know that I’m not alone in constantly querying the quality of what I write – after all, this is an art rather than a science: after I’ve worked on the grammar and spelling, everything else is subjective: who decides that a story is well written? Who decides that it is good? And how do they make that decision? Surely if that question could be answered the publishing houses would only ever put out bestsellers/critically acclaimed works.
So I checked out the publisher’s website and reached out to one of the authors that was listed there who I happened to know, and I was relieved to learn that the publishers were respectable. I also read through the contract before I signed it. I’m not a lawyer, but any sentences along the lines of “the author will pay for the print run… illustration… must buy 20,000 copies…” would have set alarm bells ringing.
Once I was satisfied that this was the genuine deal I received a request from the publishers for information to support marketing the novel. And the release date: 1st September 2013.
Change of plan - 24 April 2013
Well, by now you know the deal: a couple of months at the beginning of the year editing my novel and then this month I was due to start the next novel. And I have. I promise. But then something came up.
My novella "The Power of Nothing" has been accepted by a publisher and will be coming out later in the year. Now you may read that line with a nonchalance clam, when actually as I'm writing it the words are screaming in bold, capitals (probably italics too) about font size 3,000 and if I could make the letters stand up and dance across the page I would do that too, and still it wouldn't quite capture the emotion.
Last October I wrote about my progression from one of the "...and many more!" on the front of an anthology in which I had a story, to being one of the authors named on the cover. With this latest development I have taken another step in my writing career. You remember baby steps? Well some baby steps are bigger than others, this is one of the big ones. (One small step for publishing, one giant leap for Richard Farren Barber)
What happens next? Well luckily you get to find out as I'm planning to cover the process of seeing this novella move from a Word document on my PC to a finished book, right here on this blog.
This is probably going to have an impact on the novel, but at this stage I can't really determine how much work getting "The Power of Nothing" published (and marketed) is going to take, surely it can't take that much time? So I'll be slipping between the two projects over the coming months.
But for now - put it in your diary: The Power of Nothing, by Richard Farren Barber. Published 01/09/2013
Motivation - 18 April 2013
It ain’t easy being a writer. Look at it this way: I send a story out, it gets rejected. I send it out again, it gets rejected again. I send it out and... well, you get the idea. I was tempted to labour the point just to drive it home because for me, at the moment, for every five submissions I make I get one acceptance and four rejections. Now I have no idea what the rate is for other writers, and I suspect it varies wildly (something makes me think that maybe a story by Stephen King may receive less rejections than one by Richard Farren Barber) but from where I’m sitting at the moment one in five feels like a good return.
At the beginning of the year I mentioned that I was putting together my plan for the year and looking at what I plan to do, rather than what I want to achieve.
That’s true, honest guv, but I wouldn’t be completely honest if I didn’t have half an eye on the fact that last year was a great year for my short stories and I want to keep up the momentum. As I said at the start, there are a lot of rejections out there – and a fair share of them have my name on them. So part of being a writer is not giving up. Not after the first rejection, not after the fiftieth. That can be very tough as it’s easy to take each of those rejections to heart (death by a thousand cuts, anybody?) so I find I need a coping strategy. I’ve already mentioned some of this before – basically milking each success for every ounce of joy. I’m also a great believer in delayed gratification.
With this in mind I thought I’d share a secret – I’m a great fan of Stephen King (I know… anyone reading this will realise that isn’t the secret) and I’ve just got a Kindle (again, not really a secret) so I downloaded Stephen King’s UR. But I’m not going to allow myself to read it until I get my first short story acceptance of 2013.
Almost as soon as I decided that I panicked as I wondered how long it would be before I could start reading! With that in mind I did a quick analysis of last year’s submissions and acceptances and this is what I learned:
Month Stories accepted
So given that, I know that I probably won’t be reading UR for the next couple of months, and by the time this month is over I’ll try not to panic if I don’t have six story acceptances in the bag.
Dead Stories - 15 April 2013
Ssh. Come closer, I need to whisper this. We need to keep this between you and me – I can’t let everyone know. Are you ready for this? Do you promise not to tell?
Sometimes, stories don’t work.
I don’t mean that they don’t get written, or that they don’t get selected for publication. I mean that sometimes I finish a story and it isn’t quite right. No... ignore that, whenever I finish a story it isn’t quite right – and some stories are significantly more wrong than others... but with a little distance and work I can usually identify the issue... it’s called editing.
But sometimes editing isn’t enough. Sometimes I can edit a story again and again and yet at the end of all that reworking it’s still broken. There’s still something wrong that I can’t identify. The plot itself seems solid, the characters seem rounded, the description, the tone...everything seems to fit and yet somehow despite everything I try I cannot get the stars to align for this particular story.
Thankfully this doesn’t happen too often, I might abandon a story before I finish writing it because it doesn’t work, but it’s rare I’ll get to the end of the story and start editing it before I recognise it is fatally damaged.
So what do I do with these stories? Do I patch them up and send them out anyway? Do I leave them languishing at the bottom of the heap? No, I pick away at them... I may leave them alone for six months or a year or even longer, but I find myself coming back to them, trying another approach to see if this time I can fix it.
And very occasionally the patience is rewarded.
This week was one of those occasions, when a story I’ve been wrestling with for a year and a half finally clicked. I have to say, the overwhelming emotion I feel isn’t joy or triumph, but rather relief – because I know that if I hadn’t cracked it this time I’d be back in another few months, or a few years. It isn’t finished, there’s still a few edits to do on the story before it can go out, but at least I know the end is close for this story... and then there’s the other “broken” stories I need to revisit.
Back up! Back up! - 21 March 2013
A writer friend of mine recently lost his laptop to a virus and was told the machine was so badly infected that the hard drive needed to be removed and effectively dumped in a bucket of bleach. My first question was, “Have you got a back up of your work?” He didn’t, and that was the start of a tense few days until he heard back from the workshop with the great news that they had been able to remove the virus and his writing files were intact.
A few days later I was discussing backing up with another friend of mine who is a photographer and it occurred to me that this was a recurrent theme.
For the last three years I have written directly to screen. Before that I wrote out everything long hand and so “backing up” was a different issue because first I had to transcribe everything into a computer. If I lost my computer then, as a worst case scenario I still had the originally hand-written manuscript, so it was unlikely I would truly lose anything.
Now my writing is held on an 8GB flash drive. So far (fingers crossed, touched wood...) I have not lost the drive and it hasn’t failed, but clearly both of those are possibilities. (I have left the drive at work more times than I care to remember, but that’s a different issue) To address this I consider a couple of things in my decision on where and when to back up:
How often does the data change?
How easy is it to back up?
How much will I lose if it’s irretrievably gone? (aka, how much will I cry?)
From this I have a simple but strong back up plan. I have my writing split into two folders: Live work and archive. Live is whatever I’m working on at the moment: short stories I’m writing and all those I’ve written but not had published, novels, outlines for future novels, market information etc... Archive is everything else: short stories I’ve had published, novels I’ve finished, contracts, copies of ebooks I’ve been published in etc. To give you an idea, my live folder is 45MB and my archive is 247MB.
My live folder gets backed up every time I write, without fail. I back it up from the flash drive to the machine I’m working on (usually the laptop I’m on now) and it takes about 15 seconds to back up. I keep three back ups at any one time on this machine. All of the back ups are dated so there’s no chance of getting confused as to which is the most recent.
Then once a week I back up my live folder to another machine. That also has the last three iterations.
Once a month I backup my live and my archive folder to a third machine. Again, I keep three versions.
And lastly, very occasionally I’ll burn the entire collection to a disk and send it to a friend for safe keeping.
I know this comes across as extreme, but it takes me about a minute a week to follow this pattern. Fifty two minutes a year, let’s say an hour to round it off. For me, that hour is a great investment. It means when I next realise I can’t remember where I’ve left my flash drive, or if something did happen to this laptop, losing my work wouldn’t be one of the issues I would have to deal with.
The first cut... - 15 March 2013
…is the deepest. And that is most definitely true when it comes to editing.
I have now finished the first edit of my novel “The Lost” (and within the timeframe I set myself, eagle-eyed blog-readers will note!) and the word count has been reduced from 115,000 to 90,000. That was a very bloody editing pen!
After reviewing the structure and removing one major plot point and whole chapters the novel is now much better than it was when I started. There’s still a lot to be done but now I can bear to read through it without thinking that the prose was written by a band of crazy chimpanzees with unrestricted access to a word processor.
My next step with the novel is… nothing. Well, I’ll make a few notes on sections that need more thought, but in the main the next step in the editing process for me is to do nothing. Once I’ve done nothing for long enough I’ll pick up the novel and read through it all again and start on the second edit, and then the third.
Giving the novel an opportunity to lie fallow allows me to approach it with fresh eyes. One of the problems with trying to edit something I’ve written is that I know what it says – I know the story, I know the characters and the locations, I can see them as I’m reading/writing. The challenge is to try and forget all of that knowledge and come to the text as a reader, and work out what is on the page instead of what is in my mind.
There is another reason for letting “The Lost” rest for a while – it gives me time to write my next novel. I think writing and editing are two fundamentally different activities. I have to confess to enjoying the writing more than the editing, although perversely by the time a piece is “finished” I’ve probably spent much longer editing it than it originally took to write it. So now, my treat to myself for having the discipline to edit the first draft of “The Lost” is to write a couple of short stories and then start to work on the next novel at the beginning of April.
Winning the first edit - 27 February 2013
I've just started editing the first draft of my novel "The Lost" so I thought I'd share the process. After all, a pain shared is a pain halved, right?
Here's how my editing process usually starts: I take a copy of the piece of work and read through it and for my first edit I'm only concerned with structure. Is the story right? Are the scenes right? Does the narrative flow and is it logical? Are there any of those nasty plot holes you always spot in other people's work but never your own?
The rest of the editing process, considering tone and language and characterisation and deciding whether that punctuation should be a comma or a semi-colon and then changing my mind and then changing it again so I can no longer remember which I started with...all that happens in later edits, what's important at the start is getting the structure right.
So that's how the first edit goes, in my mind.
Now let me confess how the first edit usually turns out. I start with all the best intentions to ignore the typos and the clunky language and focus on the story, but by the time I get to the second paragraph I'm usually casting around for a pencil to score out some of my worst literary flaws on the basis that it's just too damn painful reading it when it's so bad.
The problem with this approach is that by the time I get to considering the structure of the piece properly I often cut out swathes of text. Text that I've just wasted time honing and tidying to make it readable. To give an idea of the scale of this: The first draft of The Lost came in around 115,000 words. By the time I finish the structure draft I'm expecting I'll have cut out maybe 25,000 words from that but added in extra scenes, which will bring the word count in somewhere around the 100,000 mark. Now consider those 25,000 words. How many hours of writing and then polishing do they represent?
No, don't think about it... thinking about it makes it harder to discard, and they've gotta go! But wasting time tidying text that doesn't have a future is criminal.
There are tricks to stop myself from tinkering on my structural edit. Sitting on my hands works for a while (but turning the pages with my nose gets tiresome). Banishing all writing implements from reach/sight/the house is a potential, but perhaps overly radical, solution.
But now I do think I have found the answer! I read the first draft of The Lost start to finish, At times it was painful, and there are sections I've skipped because in their unpolished form they're just too hard to read, but I've got to the end. My trick: I loaded the document onto my Kindle. I confess that I did drop a few notes onto the text, but not many. Honest. And when I got to the end of 115,000 words I removed six chapters and a sub plot in the click of a mouse! That's 15,000 words I would have "tidied up" only to discard later.
The first edit isn't finished. But I think I'm winning.
Writing is truth - 28 January 2013
Not, “writing is the truth”, but “writing is a truth”. Or at least, good writing is a truth.
Let me explain. I have just finished a short piece of non-fiction by Stephen King called “Guns” which is basically an argument in favour of gun control. What struck me about the piece was that it was very well written (of course…) and it was very emotional, but it was also very honest.
My first thought was that King was taking a risk publishing something that was political – after all, how many of his constant readers might decide to show their difference of opinion by boycotting future books, but then I realised that wasn’t really the point. Maybe Stephen King’s agent was in the background looking at the projected future royalty checks and begging him not to publish, but King himself probably didn’t need to look too closely at his bank statements to decide he could afford to take a hit on future sales. it was brave not because it was political, it was brave because it was honest. It spoke about aspects of media coverage that we all recognise but would probably refrain from highlighting because to speak about them seems cynical and uncaring. It explained King’s decision to remove a novella from circulation because he believed it had acted as a catalyst to a small number of individuals who had gone on to killing sprees. It also opened King up to criticism of being hypocritical as the owner of three handguns himself.
In some ways, whether you agree with Stephen King or not isn’t the point. The point is that what he said is the truth, his truth. When I finished reading the article it made me wish that we had more discussions about politics that were like this – inspired, reasoned, passionate but, most of all, honest. I would love to see an equally well-argued case put forward by someone on behalf of the pro-gun argument. Not because I want everyone to be convinced they should go out and buy a gun, but because we need good writing and one side of a debate shouldn’t have the monopoly on it.
So what does all this have to do with writing fiction (he says, trying to stay “on topic” with this blog). Well it says it all at the start: Good writing is a truth. I’ve heard it said that writing is lying, and I can understand that, but more importantly, I think writing is about the truth. A truth Whatever truth you believe. It’s about being true to the characters you create and the narrative you tell rather the one you feel you ought to tell – either because your politics or your ethics or the market suggests you should.
More than once, when I’ve struggled on a story, it’s because I’ve had to accept that what I needed to say, and what I was prepared to say, were not the same. For me that’s the death knell to any narrative – fiction or non-fiction. And at those points I’ve had to make a decision: either to be honest or to give up and move to something where I can be true.
Delay ebooks for two years - 17 January 2013
In the good ole days when publishing houses were in charge there was a well accepted recipe for publishing: First came the hardback, then came the “airport edition” or softback, and last came the trade paperback – and the paperback usually came out about a year after the hard back edition. For popular writers who were usually on a “book a year” cycle this would mean that each year they would release a hardback and a paperback at the same time (different titles, obviously...). Readers understood this, and accepted it.
Now fastforward to the end of the first decade of the twenty first century and look at how it’s done with the arrival of the ebook: First comes the hardback and the ebook, then the softback (occasionally) and then the paperback.
When you think it through it doesn’t seem to make sense. I assume the point of issuing the hardback and paperback a year apart was a marketing concept. I’m going to assume that the profit margin on a hardback book is higher than a paperback book and so the publisher wanted to protect their hardback sales before the paperback was released. There’s also an assumption that people bought the hardback book over the paperback book in part because they didn’t want to wait a year to read the latest John Grisham or Stephen King, and that to do so they were prepared to buy the premium price of the hardback.
Seems to make sense, doesn’t it? You would have thought that publishers would prefer to release hardback then paperback and then ebook, having three separate attempts at the market to capture readers. So why isn’t that happening?
There isn’t a clear reason for this. A couple of articles I’ve read suggest that the increased prevalence of piracy when a book is not published digitally at the same time as the hardback is a factor. Other articles suggest that the link between timing and sales isn’t as clear cut and that delaying ebooks does not increase hardback sales (This just out!) and another argument is that it’s in the publisher’s interest to sell ebooks over hardbacks as the absolute profit is greater.
For me, we’re not yet measuring the right sales: If we believed hardback sales were in part supported by delaying paperback sales then it seems to follow that we should assume that paperback sales (not hardback) would be the beneficiary from delaying ebook editions. But to do this you’d either need to move to a model where the ebook was produced two years after the hardback ( eg hardback year one, paperback year two, ebook year three). Interestingly, isn’t that exactly what happened with the Harry Potter books? And that doesn’t seem to have been a disaster!
This is probably one of those things that will never be resolved – because it would take a very brave publisher to delay an ebook for two years in today’s economic climate, and to get any sort of usable data you would need to adopt it for a large number of books rather than just one or two.
But it’s a thought, isn’t it?
Jedi Mind Tricks - 9 January 2013
At the moment I’m planning out my writing year for 2013 and it looks something like this:
January: Type up the novel I wrote a few years ago
February: Edit “Grey” (novella from last year) and edit “The Lost” (Novel I wrote after Bloodie Bones)
March: Edit “The Lost” Edit “The weight of water” (second novella from last year)
April / May / June / July / August: Write new novel
September / October: Edit “The Lost”
Now I can tell you now that when I look back in December 2013 at what happened this year it will not look like this. That may be a flaw in my planning but it’s also just an acceptance that that’s how life is. My plan exists to give me an idea of what I want to achieve, it isn’t a rigid programme. Already January is different as I have to write a short story for an anthology that’s coming up, and going forward there are a few projects which, if they come off, could change the look of 2013 considerably. But for what it’s worth, as of today, I have a plan.
The other benefit to this is that it helps me get clear in my head what “a good year” will be. Last year I made a conscious decision not to write a novel. Instead I focussed on short stories and novellas and as a result I had a bumper crop of short stories and a couple of novellas to show for it.
You may notice that none of my plans for the year include having a short story or novella (or novel) accepted or published. Awhile back I read a great piece of advice which was that you plan for what you have the ability to achieve. I don’t have any Jedi mind tricks that can force an editor to accept a story. I can’t make an agent pick my manuscript from the slushpile. I can’t hypnotise the Bram Stoker Awards Committee to select “Skin Deep” as one of their nominations. (Look into my eyes….you are getting sleepy…)
What I can do it write, and submit, and do everything possible to become a better writer. That’s what I need to focus on – activities that improve my chances of being published. By looking at what I put into the process, and how I can make that better, instead of measuring what I take out, I stand a better chance of achieving success.
Practising the Happy Dance - 22 November 2012
You know the one: where you’ve just heard you’ve won the lottery or got that job you were after or you finally had a story accepted by the editor/magazine you’ve been
stalking following for the past year.
Here’s my writing tip for this month - take every opportunity you see to practise your happy dance. When you write a story you’re proud of - rejoice! When you have a story accepted - rejoice! When you have a story published - rejoice!
Over the last month I’ve had a few opportunities to work on my happy dance (I bet you never saw that coming…) I had a short story accepted from a publisher I have most definitely been stalking for a long time (my short story “Where the Stones lie” will be appearing in Spectral Press’s “The 13 Ghosts of Christmas” next month). My short story “The Watching Post” has been shortlisted for the Writing East Midlands/Lincolnshire Echo competition and… (drum roll please)
My short story “Skin Deep” which was published in the Hersham Horror anthology Siblings in September, has been …. well to be honest I’m not quite sure how I can explain this as the Horror Writers Association give a lot of advice on what you can’t say, but they don’t say what you can…. but it’s listed here! (I think that’s a safe way to explain it…)
Now I have to confess there was a lot of happy dancing when the editor contacted me to tell me. I may even have resorted to manic clapping. I accept this does not portray me in a great “serious writer” light and I have previously mentioned about winning a literary award but this was so unexpected I think my childish glee is a reasonable reaction. When I finally calmed down a little I realised I was taken aback because someone I have never met before, someone that I don’t know, read Skin Deep and thought “that’s a mighty fine story…. I want other people to read it.” and this was someone who was a member of the HWA - someone who knows about the genre, someone who is serious about the genre.
I had to take something of a reality check - this is not a nomination, much less is it the time to start writing an acceptance speech. At this stage one person out of 781 has put their hand up to say “Skin Deep” is worthy of further consideration. The next stage is that the recommendations will be whittled down to a list of nominations, that’s the time to start getting really excited and if that happens they may need to put me in restraints, but for now I’m enjoying the dance - because you have to grab any opportunity you get to celebrate.
5 tips for writing a novel - 19 October 2012
There is something about writers and the writing community that generates a need to pour out advice on the heads of aspiring writers. I am not immune to this urge and recently a friend of mine told me he was starting on his novel and I felt that particular muscle begin to flex.
My friend has started a novel a couple of times before but has not yet managed to finish. I don’t consider myself an expert, but when has anyone allowed that get in the way of dishing out some free and unsolicited advice? So once I’d finished counselling my friend I thought I would share my “writing a novel” tips:
1 Don’t look back!
Once I’ve started writing a novel I just keep writing. I don’t edit as I go. All of my attention is about getting the story out. It’s too easy to get caught up in editing a piece and making it perfect before moving on and I think there’s a danger of losing the impetus and passion you need to get to the end.
2 But do look ahead
If you plot your novels out in detail then skip to point 3. But if you don’t then hang around. When I write a novel I have a vague outline in my head of what’s going to happen. It usually doesn’t end exactly as I thought but it’s often close. As I’m writing I outline the next 5-6 chapters ahead. It’s a bit like that Wallace and Gromit sketch where Gromit is laying down the track in front of the train he’s riding on. Being able to look up and know what’s just ahead of you is helpful in making sure you don’t run out of track.
3 Set a weekly target
When I’m writing a novel I have a word count for each week (usually 8,000 words). If I make the target I reset it the following week but if I don’t make the target I add the shortfall to the following week’s target. In this way I keep pushing forward. Note - this doesn’t work if your target is unrealistic - if you fall short each week then it’s like trying to push snow as your weekly targets keep increasing, it’s much better to start with a modest target and over-achieve (and you’ll feel so proud of yourself!)
4 Be ready for the wall
Writing a novel is a hard slog. You start full of enthusiasm and brimming with ideas and characters and plot points, and at some point that initial burning joy will diminish and you’ll hit the wall. For me I usually hit two - one about 30,000 words and another about 60,000. Knowing that’s going to happen might sound depressing and cause you to question whether to even bother starting to write - but it helps knowing when you do hit the wall that this is normal. For me, knowing that 30,000 is a sticking point is useful because I can think ahead on ways to get around it - maybe shake up what I’m planning to write (ie skip to an exciting chapter)
5 Making writing part of your routine
You will never write a novel if you wait for the time to write to come to you. Depending on how fast you write you’re probably going to need about 60 hours for a first draft. Now that doesn’t sound too bad does it? But expecting those 60 hours to knock on the door and introduce themselves to you is not going to happen. Decide when you’re going to write. Decide where you’re going to write. 30 minutes a day adds up and is easier to achieve than trying to find a 3 hour hole in your life each week.
6. Enjoy it (I know… buy 5, get one free!)
If you’re writing your first novel then the chances are that you don’t already have an agent and a publisher to take the pages from your hands the second they come off the printer. Unless you’re a celebrity in which case you’re probably not reading this anyway!
So when you’re writing your novel make sure you have fun. Tell the story you want to tell, and make the most of your journey.
Sneaking above the fold - 3 October 2012
There’s a concept in newspaper publishing of showing stories “above the fold”. It refers to a broadsheet newspaper and the items you can see when it’s unopen (ie on the top half of the front page). Now there is an equivalent in fiction writing that I want to introduce you to.
Take an anthology down from the shelves. Look at it carefully and tell me what strikes you about it?
That’s true too, but they can’t arrest you for it in the UK anyway. Anything else?
I’ll put you out of your misery. On most anthologies you see a list of the great and good (Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Neil Gaiman etc) and then under these names you get: AND MANY MORE!!!!
I’ll be honest, the number of exclamation marks tends to vary. But you get the picture – having your name on the front of an anthology counts as “above the fold”. I’ve long joked with writing friends that you know when you’ve made it because you’re promoted from AND MANY MORE!!!!!!!!!!!! To being an actually name on the front of the anthology.
Now I’m not going to pretend that I’ve made that fantastic leap and my next blog post will have me lounging on a sun-kissed beach in Mexico (baby steps, remember?) but this month I have had a little break through.
Firstly I noticed my name appearing in the publicity for a couple of anthologies I was in during September. Nothing major, but a promising step forward.
Then there was my name on the front cover of the Hersham Horror title “Siblings”. Now with only five authors it may be not be quite the achievement it sounds like, but it’s still a great result for me.
In other news, an anthology I was in was recently reviewed and the reviewer said: “Richard Farren Barber…gets better with every story.” Now the cruel and cynical might say “that’s because he’s starting from such a low base” but to them I say “bah!” For me what was striking about this review was that here was someone who didn’t know me but was starting to piece together a profile of me from different stories in different publications. In other words, even in a very small way, my name is starting to appear in the consciousness of some readers.
At this stage I can take comfort in that. Nothing more than that… but as you’re building a profile as a writer, discovering that your name is out there, is another one of those big baby steps forward.
In praise of routine - 14 June 2012
Earlier this week I posted an observation on Facebook that I had already finished more short stories this year (17) than I had in the whole of 2011 or any of the ten years before that.
That’s perhaps not as impressive as it sounds because in 2011 I was writing one novel and editing a second, and in 2010 I was writing a novel, and in 2009 I was… But it did occur to me that my output has risen notably over the last few years. Even if I exclude the impact of writing/editing novels (which is slightly misleading as it is significant) you can see a promising trend:
2012: 17 (and counting…)
(I’m not sure what happened in 2003!)
One of the responses to the Facebook post asked me how I’d managed to write so much. I can think of two reasons for this. The first is changing from writing longhand to typing stories directly onto a laptop, the second is routine.
For me, having a set time to write (6.00-7.15 each morning Monday-Thursday) means that I can almost guarantee to write 8,000 words a week. Some days are better than others, some weeks are better than others – but that 8,000 target is achievable and sustainable. It means I could write two 4,000 word short stories each week (I know… as we’re on week 25 I should have 50 stories done by now so I’m slacking… give me a break!). It means I could write a novel in about four months.
The Facebook thread then went off into a discussion about writing when you’re inspired.
No! No! and no again! Write when you can. When you have time. You don’t find time to write, you make it, and when you make it then you use it!
(Okay, breathe deep and calm down…)
I write whenever I can and I keep a catalogue of story ideas on the backburner so it’s usually the case that I’m looking for time to write, rather than looking for something to write. But even if I haven’t got anything current planned I still keep my routine. Some writing sessions are hard work when most of what I write gets thrown out in the first edit, but it’s essential that I stay at the desk and keep writing, because maybe the next day it will “work”.
So, if you’re a writer, or thinking about writing, here’s my advice. Find a routine. Find a time to write and a place to write, and keep to it. Do this and you will find your writing output grow.
Herein ends my advice for the month, and now a message from our sponsors:
Here ends shameless advertising.
It just goes to show, you never can tell... - 21 May 2012
One of the aspects of writing (and being published) that has struck me a few times is that as a writer it’s difficult to know which stories will find an audience. When I’m writing a story I may have a feeling that it’s a good story; that there’s something about it which sets it apart from the others. I suppose what I’m saying is that I have my favourites.
But what surprises me is how often my own idea of what is a good story is turned on its head when it comes to taking them to publishers. Quite often my favourite stories go out and come back, go out and come back, and it often seems that they’ll never be published. In comparison, there will be stories I write that I don’t have any strong feelings for (they’re not bad, let’s just get that out there now – the bad stories don’t make it out the door) and it seems that these usually get snapped up by the first editor I send them to.
It might be that I’m overly sensitive to this and actually the “favourite” stories fare no better or worse than the “okay” stories, I just pay more attention to them.
My latest round of musing on this subject was brought about because earlier in the year I wrote a piece of flash fiction at a Derby Scribes writing session. I think it’s great. I love it. The story immediately entered into the chart of “favourites” and maybe that is its damnation. I entered it into a writing competition but, because the competition was free and you could enter as often as you wanted, I wanted to submit a different story as well – one that wasn’t genre and was lighter in tone than my first piece.
So which one got shortlisted? Well you can guess the answer otherwise this blog post would have no point. My favourite story was passed over and the one I wrote “off the cuff” made it onto the shortlist.
I can’t explain this, and I’m not going to try. Maybe I’ll just pass it off as one of those quirky “well that’s how it goes” things.
If you’re interested – the story that was shortlisted for the competition, “Dads’ Race” is available to read on the Writing East Midlands website. And the irony? For a fiction story – most of it is true, I’m just not going to say what part!
Meanwhile, back at the cocktail party... - 28 March 2012
In my last post I mentioned that I was aiming to write a novella. There will be more about that in the future, but one of the members of the Derby Scribes writing group asked me why I wanted to write a novella.
I can’t even remember now how I answered, but afterwards I started to think that I hadn’t properly explained the reason for my current novella-fixation. So here it is - another one of those “someone asked me…” questions and responses.
So why a novella? To be honest, why aim to write a piece of fiction in any specific format? I’ve heard it said that the story dictates the form - that a novel is a novel, it doesn’t matter if you want to write a short story, if the idea is a novel then that’s what you’ll end up with. If that’s the case then it seems futile, and almost artificial, to try and “write a novel” or “write a novella”. I have some sympathy with that idea, but I don’t think I buy into it.
For me the reasoning behind writing a novella relates to where I am with my writing at the moment. So a quick precis: “Bloodie Bones” is currently out with a number of agents courtesy of The Literary Consultancy. I have about eight short stories due to be published during this year. I have a short story to be published as part of a five author collection (really a novellette, as it’s 8,000 words). I have a novel typed and ready for editing (“The Lost”) and another written in long-hand waiting to be typed up (“The Ancestors”) and a children’s horror book (8,000 words so I’m loathe to call it a novel) edited and ready to go to market. And I’ve had enough short stories published (about 30 by the end of this year) to make the idea of a short story collection a reasonable proposition.
So lots of potential there but I don’t want to move forward with some of the projects whilst Bloodie Bones is still going around. At the same time I can’t sit around waiting for something to happen. That’s where the novella comes in - short enough to focus on for 4-6 weeks and not such a commitment that I’m locked into it. Part of me is itching to start a new novel (I can pitch you a couple of ideas right now if you’re interested…) but the pragmatic part of me knows that this isn’t the right thing to do at the moment, so a novella allows me to scratch without getting myself into trouble.
Now I just have to see if I can write one (or two… maybe two…)
The Perils of doing things differently - 28 February 2012
In a previous post I discussed the idea of doing things differently in order to learn new skills, and so that’s what I’ve been doing for February. I have to confess at this point that I’ve had mixed results.
Starting with the positive: earlier in the month I recorded a short story to be broadcast by Erewash Sound. The story I read had to be appropriate for daytime broadcast and no longer than ten minutes - which translates to about 1,500 words. Given the genre in which I write and the length of what I write (4,000 is closer to the norm but 6-8,000 is not unusual) that was a challenge.
Then I had to go to the studio to be recorded. Part of me was delighted by the idea that I could put a message on Facebook and Twitter that I was “going into the studio” although I did manage to resist adding, “…to cut a track”. My boyhood rock star dreams made good after… well, after a few years.
I was actually more nervous about the recording than I had expected. I’ve read a number of times – notably at the World Horror Convention and Fantasycon, so the experience of reading out my work is nothing new or particularly intimidating, but there was something about the piece being captured and so repeatable that I found unnerving. In the end the Technician/Engineer/Producer was great and hopefully when it’s edited and all my fluffed lines are removed it will sound fine.
I started the novella on the 4 February and at the moment I’ve passed my expected completion date and it’s languishing in the bottom of a folder on my flash drive. It isn’t dead, but it is taking a rest. I’m about 14,000 words into the story – so not bad but certainly well short of where I expected to be. I put the story away after some heart-searching on whether I was doing the right thing and with a real fear that if I didn’t continue it might never be picked up again.
I was intrigued as to why I struggled so much with the novella – the word count doesn’t phase me and I think the concept is strong enough to warrant the length. 14,000 words might sound like a fair attempt but to be honest writing much of the work after about the 5,000 word mark was like wading through thick mud.
Almost as soon as I accepted my decision to put aside the novella I understood why writing it was such hard work – I’d written the story the wrong way around! My 14,000 words are actually towards the end of the story, they say what happens to the main character as a result of… well, let’s just hold that thought, but the problem I was facing was that there was nowhere for the character to develop. I resisted the temptation to pick up the laptop and plough in with a new version. Instead I’ve left it aside a little longer and have written a short story I’ve been asked to write for an anthology coming out later in the year. The first draft of that story is now finished (all 9,000 words of it and so much easier than the novella..) and so I’ll probably pick up the novella again in a week or so.
So did it work? February as the month of writing differently? Until I re-write the novella it’s impossible to say. But I can only try.
Insanity - 01 February 2012
Einstein said that a definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.
Now I don’t want to contradict a man with a hairstyle as wild as that but I do have to take issue with that idea. I think many people would counter that statement by suggesting that by doing the same thing over and over again what you are aiming to do is improve, whether that’s about kicking a football, driving a car, or writing. What do they say: Practice makes perfect.
Neatly side stepping the concept of perfection when it comes to writing, I think there is a lot to be said about the fact that you need to write, and write lots, in order to improve.
That said, at the same time I think there is room in writing for the principle of doing different things in order to learn new skills and push oneself.
I’ve just finished writing an 8,000 word ghost story. Now I’ve written 8,000 word stories before, and I’ve written ghost stories before – and I probably have written an 8,000 word ghost story before, but in this case I knew how long the story needed to be (it was for a competition, so the word count was set) and I knew the subject. Trying to write the actual story was more challenging that I had anticipated; because it was no longer a story on my terms, but rather a piece I had to accept came with limitations. I had the idea for the story before I decided to write it, but I think without the restrictions of the concept and the word count I would have written a very different tale.
Equally, I’ve been invited to submit a short story for a five author collection. (by Hersham Horror:) This is a huge opportunity but again it comes with a pre-determined subject. Now in this case I most definitely wouldn’t have written the story I am going to submit – and I can say that with confidence because I still don’t know what the story is going to be. Instead of waiting for an idea to come and find me, I’m out hunting ideas that fit the criteria.
In both cases what I’m getting at is that by accepting limitations, by undertaking my writing in a different way to my “usual” manner (think of a story, consider the most appropriate format, write the story, find someone who wants to publish it), I can push myself a little further and hopefully learn something and develop my writing in the process.
So maybe Einstein was at least partly right when he suggested there was a benefit to be had from doing things differently.
Next blog post: let’s see if I can name-drop Isaac Newton!
10 Novels that have influenced me as a writer: #8 Bad Things, by Michael Marshall
I first learned of Michael Marshall when I heard him read the opening chapter of 'Bad Things' at Alt Fiction. If you have never read anything by him go out now and get a copy of 'Bad Things'. I'll wait.
Ready? Okay, read the first chapter. I'm not going anywhere, just tell me when you're finished.
Are we there now? If you've read the first chapter then I shouldn't need to explain any further. Michael has an incredible ability to make you, as a reader, gasp aloud. I can't think of any other author who can turn a character through so much and take the reader along in such a believable manner.
I'm thinking of getting a car sticker; "when I grow up I want to write like Michael Marshall.
Writing a novel in 124 words - 16 December 2011
When someone asks me how I write my novel, I say "124 words at a time."
Okay, if I'm being truthful that's not quite right as nobody has yet asked me how I write my novels. When someone learns I write their first question is more typically "Have I read anything you've written?" and when I say "It depends how much horror fiction you've read" their response is usually to look around the room for an Accountant or an Estate Agent or a Hedge Fund Manager... anyone, really.
But let's live in the land of make-believe just for a moment. If someone does ask me how I write my novel I will say "124 words at a time" and then they'll look blankly at me and I shall explain:
It's like this. A novel is a lot of words - the first draft of "The Lost" is likely to come in somewhere around 120,000 words. It was written in two "sessions" (separated by the edit of Bloodie Bones) and for each of those sessions I wrote about 8,000 words a week. Some weeks I wrote more (hurrah!) some weeks I wrote less (boo!) but over the piece it averages out somewhere near 8,000.
That isn't a coincidence. When I write a novel I try and plan out my time to enable me to hit that target of 8,000 words a week. And each day I chip away at the 8,000 words so that hopefully by the Sunday night I know I've done my week's work. It might be that without that target in mind I would still write 8,000, but I don't think so. I think I would probably write 7,500, or maybe 6,000, maybe even 5,000. 8,000 words each week is a stretch and sometimes I'm not quite there - which is where my 124 words comes in (you'd thought I'd forgotten, didn't you?).
Because I know what I'm aiming for that number is there in the back of my mind. Last week I was 124 words away from my target for the week. Not a lot, but after all my planned writing sessions I was still short, and I knew I was short. Those 124 words nagged at me until I was able to find a few minutes to write them (and, as it turned out, a few hundred more words as well). As soon as they were written I could relax.
Until the next week, and the next 8,000 words.
So that's how I get to the end of a novel - 124 words at a time.
10 Novels that have influenced me as a writer: #9 The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
You don't have to read much by Neil Gaiman to realise he's good, very good. But The Graveyard Book is something special. Gaiman comes up with ideas and observations that display sparks of true genius (the moment in Coraline when the old man says “The mice have a message for you...” They got your name wrong, you know. They kept saying Coraline, Not Caroline.” is one of the most terrifying in any book I've ever read).
There is a beguiling simplicity to The Graveyard Book which hides what a truly stunning piece of writing it is. At its heart it’s the story of Bod who it brought up in a cemetery by ghosts, ghouls and all manner of interesting characters. What impresses me most about Neil Gaiman is the way he twists language and makes you think about it. For me, as a writer, what I take from The Graveyard Book and Neil’s other works is the love of language and the way you can twist it to great effect.
And once you’ve read “The Graveyard Book” you need to get your hands on “Neverwhere”.
The power of persistence
I had a short story accepted recently and it made me think about what it takes to succeed in writing. I think I can distil it to three requirements:
Imagination – which I believe is as much the ability to *identify* the potential for a story as it is the imagination to create the world, the characters, the situation etc.
Technical skill – the ability to write in an engaging way that communicates what you’re trying to get across.
Persistence – a stubbornness to keep going when everything (the rejection slips, the industry gloom, the fact that getting a publishing deal is only slightly more statistically likely than winning the lottery, and a lot less lucrative) tells you that it just isn’t worth pursuing.
Now me, I’ve got bucket loads of persistence (that sounds much better than stubbornness) as people who know me will happily testify to. I hope I have imagination and technical skill too, otherwise I’m sunk, but today I thought I’d look at persistence.
I recently hit a bad patch with the current novel I’m writing, “The Lost”. 65,000 words in and it felt like I’d lost the thread of what I was writing. There are a couple of tricks of the trade to overcome this – skip to a different section of the book and start writing there, spend a while plotting out some more of the book to try and identify where I was going wrong, or ‘write through’.
By ‘write through’ I basically mean grit your teeth and pull out each word one at a time. Sometimes it feels like trying to cross a muddy field on stilts, but each step forward (word written, if you’re following the analogy) is a step closer to the other side, and at some point during the walk I tend to find the ground gets firmer and you can throw away the stilts and start to run again.
Running! That’s why I write. That sensation when it feels like you’re not writing a story, you’re telling it. When the words flood out.
I'm not quite there with "The Lost" yet, the ground is still a little soggy underfoot, but I feel like I’ve got through the worst patch, and as I nearly have two thirds of the novel complete I suspect there aren’t too many more sticky patches to navigate before the end.
And back to that story acceptance. Sometimes it’s the ability to keep writing when it feels like every word has to be pulled from you, and sometimes it’s the ability to keep submitting and damn the rejections.
There’s a mantra in writing called “Heinlein’s laws” (after Robert Heinlein, the Science Fiction author who wrote ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’) and it goes like this:
You must write!
You must finish what you write!
You must refrain from editing
You must market your story
You must keep it on the market
You must start something else
I think you need to take the “refrain from editing” with a pinch of salt (they were written in 1947 so rewriting was probably more of an effort than it is now) But that, my friends, is the secret to writing success. (Only $2.99, send your cheques and postal orders to…)
The story I just had accepted had been passed over by fourteen other editors before it reached the one that it accepted it. It isn’t that it’s a bad story (I try not to let those ones out of their cage) and in fact a couple of times it got to second and even third readings at publications. It just wasn’t right for them. So as important as that initial idea and the craft needed to imagine and then write the story, is the tenacity to keep it out there until it finds a home.
10 novels that have influenced me as a writer - 2 November 2011
I thought it would be worthwhile examining the novels that have "made me the writer I am" (and you can take from that what you want.) In true style I thought I'd count down from 10.
#10 The Djinn by Graham Masterton
I've probably read somewhere around 1,000 horror novels in my time. Some of them have been great and some of them have been dreadful. But out of that selection there is only one book that's scared me so much I had to sleep with the lights on. My dear friends, I give you The Djinn by Graham Masterton.
I haven't read The Djinn again and while part of me wants to in order to better understand how it had such an effect on me, I'm loathe to revisit it because I think it would be impossible for the book to live up to the often the memory I have of it. After I'd read The Djinn I lay in my bedsit (student days!) , staring at the wall. I was too scared even to turn round because I was certain there was something in the room with me. When I write I try to recall that raw emotion and do my best to evoke it in the story that I am telling.
To market...to market... 27 October 2011
There are no fat pigs in sight but there was a fat envelope when I sent “Bloodie Bones” off to TLC. But this was where I came unstuck as I sent the first three chapters and calculated I had a couple of weeks to type up the last few amendments before anyone would be close to asking for the rest of the novel. How wrong I was! Within a day TLC contacted to ask if I could send the full typescript.
Cue a frenzied couple of days when every spare minute was spent typing up the changes I’d hand-written on the manuscript. Even now that it’s done (and I can sleep again!) I’m not sure in hindsight if it was a good thing or not. At least I’d already done the amendments and the request from TLC required me to get it sorted and out instead of tinkering again and again with the text.
So now it’s done. I understand from TLC that they’ve already been in discussions with agents and have got two lined up to read “Bloodie Bones” which is great news as just getting someone to open a submission labelled horror can is tough.
I’m trying to be realistic about this. The agents are going to look at “Bloodie Bones”, that’s as far as the deal goes. No promises, no commitments, definitely no guarantees. But having the novel put in front of an agent who has already agreed to read it is a big step forward.
At this stage I know I should sit back, rest on my laurels, wait for the bidding war to start.
So instead I’ve moved onto the novel I started writing in April and then put aside when interest in “Bloodie Bones” picked up in July. It’s tentatively called “The Lost” and it’s currently about 45,000 words in length. I read through the opening section at the weekend (mainly to remind myself what the story was….I knew the big picture but the details were lost) and it actually reads very well for a first draft (IMHO).
So here’s my big tip for anyone out there who’s finished a novel and it’s out there in the big wide world looking to hook an agent. Write something else. It would be easy to focus on “Bloodie Bones”, wondering whether anyone has read it, what they think about it. Immersing myself in “The Lost” takes the edge off that.
A little bit… I’d be lying if I said I don’t still have those thoughts and maybe check my email box a little more frequently than usual.
On the other side of the table - 4 October 2011
I haven’t blogged for a while as my work on Bloodie Bones has been low profile (editing, editing and more editing) but now I’m coming to the end of that I thought I’d better explain what I’ve been doing.
I have just returned from a weekend at “Fantasycon” in Brighton where authors of Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror meet. I’d never attended Fantasycon before (I don’t write Fantasycon, so it was a no-brainer, right?). I finally saw the error of my ways when an anthology which had one of my stories was being launched at the conference.
I did a reading of my own work (Last Respects – a short story being published in an anthology by Derby Scribes next month, and the first chapter of Bloodie Bones) and then a reading to support the anthology being launched, called Alt-Dead.
The readings were great and I met lots of authors from all the genres, with a particular bias to horror. On the Saturday I took part in the book launch. I watched as people came, bought the book, and then went along the line of authors having their books signed. It has to be one of the most surreal experiences I have ever had. I’ve attended enough signings as a reader but to be present on the *other* side of the table as a writer was very odd. It was great to meet people who are actually going to read what I’ve written. In the past I’ve had stories accepted in publications, but I haven’t met the people who buy the magazines and read my work. Having that direct connection to readers was a great experience.So now I’m a Fantasycon convert and the date for next year’s event is already in my diary. On a more immediate level, I’ve just finished tidying up Bloodie Bones and TLC has offered to take it out to agents on my behalf. So tomorrow the first three chapters go into the post and then I’ll spend a couple of days typing up the amendments I’ve made to the rest of the typescript. Once that’s completed then I’ll pick up where I left off with my other novel, “The Lost”, and hope to finish that before Christmas.
Push on through to the other side - 1 June 2011
At the moment Bloodie Bones is taking a rest while I wait for the response from the second reading to come in from The Literary Consultancy . So I could kick back and catch up on some TV and books. Nah
I started my new novel and I'm roughly 1/3 of the way through (32,000 words) after a month. Now comes the tricky part. In my experience the opening of a novel is fuelled by the white heat of creativity; the ideas are flowing, the characters are blooming into life and as a result the pages almost write themselves. But somewhere around the 25-30K mark that initial burn fades away, a bit like a shuttle blasting into space. Now is the time for booster rockets and the closest I ever get to plotting.
I have a good idea what the novel (tentative title: The Lost) is about (always a benefit, I find) and I have a rough outline in my head of what's going to happen, but to get through the next 30,000 words I need something a little stronger.
I expect the next 30k to be a harder slog and take longer to write. That said, I'm still looking to finish the new novel by mid-August.
I think what I'm happiest about with the new novel (apart from being back writing a novel again. I mean, I don't do this for the pay-check do I?) is that I've managed to grow it whilst still working on other things. I've edited a couple of short stories, including re-writing one at the request of an editor, wrote and presented a session for Derby Scribes , kept up with submissions and got into the swing of writing critiques for Critters . This feels sustainable. At the same time I've seen a couple of short stories published - one in the Derby Evening Telegraph and another in Morpheus Tales - Urban Horror Special . (My first in an anthology!). This also sees the first of my short stories to be published under the pen name “Richard Farren Barber”. (Remember, you saw it here first!)
The challenge now is to maintain the balance between writing the novel and keeping all those other plates spinning.
Glass jaw and all - 24 May 2011
I spent an afternoon in York with Mark Morris reading through Bloodie Bones. After four hours in a pub poring over 600 pages of manuscript my neck ached, my eyeballs ached, my heart ached, but I had a much better understanding of where Bloodie Bones sat in the great scheme of things.
I would recommend the process to any writer. Having someone else read through my entire novel, someone who understands novels and the genre, was fascinating and immensely helpful. During the four hours I saw the same mistakes appear time and time again in my writing and while I may have identified them (with help) over a shorter piece of work it made a huge impression on me to see the same errors. Most of them were such small things and, now that I know to look out for them, easily spotted and resolved.
At the same time I had to do some soul searching about Bloodie Bones. Was it the novel I had expected it to be? (Well no, they never are!) Was it as good as it can be? Would it find a place in the market? I knew I had some reservations about Bloodie Bones: concerns about the structure of the narrative and whether it would work for a reader.
The short answer is that there are flaws in Bloodie Bones. Some flaws I had already suspected and others that came to me unannounced. With more work Bloodie Bones could be a better book. But could it be a published book? The horror market is in a strange place at the moment; it's still very much below the commercial tidemark (go into Waterstones and look at the horror section… you get extra marks for actually finding it without asking for help…and then discard all those authors who have been publishing since the 1980s. Consider what you have left. There are some new authors there, I grant you, but then do the same trick over in the crime aisle. Get the picture? Now step away from the crime aisle, they don't need your money.) The short answer is I don't know. I have the feedback from Mark on Bloodie Bones's strengths and weaknesses and I have some ideas on how I could improve it and resolve the issues identified. But could it be published? I know that ultimately the only way to find out is to do the amendments and then take it round publishers and agents. For now, I have Mark's feedback and at the end of the month I'll receive the feedback from TLC (which will mark the end of my period on the mentoring scheme with them) and at that point I'll take a hard look at Bloodie Bones and decide where to go with it.
I left York with my head thudding (and not due to any excess of alcohol from the BFS open evening, I hasten to add!) with the dilemma about what to do with Bloodie Bones. I knew my time with Mark had taught me at least one key lesson, the importance of improving my skills at critiquing my own work and also having my work reviewed by others. With that in mind I set myself the task of finding a suitable online critiquing group. I signed up with Critters and I'll give it a few months to see whether this takes me in the right direction.
And in the meantime. When I got home from York I started writing Chapter One of my new novel: The Lost.
Fornits - 27 April 2011
I've been to my fair share of writing classes and writing workshops and writing groups, and one thing that comes up regularly is how to come up with ideas. I have to say, for me this isn't a problem - the problem is how to recognise which story ideas are good enough to use and how to focus on one idea to the exclusion of all others for the duration of the project.
Now that last one is a toughie. There's something seductive about the white-hot realisation of a new idea - the moment when you recognise it, when it's better than anything you've written before, when this could be: the one!
So I thought I'd turn my attention, briefly, to where the ideas come from. For me it's often an image. So for example, the short story I've just finished was prompted by the image of our cat on his haunches stalking a couple of birds in the garden (Don't worry - this is a popular past time of our cat but the birds are safe, and I think they know it!).
Race, which was published in Morpheus Tales IX , came from walking down an old cobbled street and everyone seemed to be pushing and shoving each other to get past. While Murden's Hollow, published in the House of Horror (and you can read it online for free! ) came from sitting in the car on the M1 and seeing the road bend around a small, enclosed field. In fact, motorway driving (or passengering, in the case of Murden's Hollow and SkyDogs which is the story I'm editing at the moment) is an excellent breeding ground for ideas.
So many of the images are mundane, nothing strikingly terrifying about them (at this point I think about Stephen King saying that The Langoliers in “Four Past Midnight” came from the image of a woman holding her hand over a crack in the wall of a plane - now that's a terrific image to start a story with!) but often the image is the speck of dust around which the pearl of a story is formed.
There are all sorts of tips and techniques on how to generate story ideas if you're stuck for something to write about. Perhaps the one I most vehemently subscribe to is: write it down! I quite often have stray opening story lines roll into my head (Don't ask…it's a strange enough place at the best of times) and so I always try to capture them. Sometimes these lines flourish into whole paragraphs (gasp) sometimes they even make it as the opening of a completed story, but they always start with me making a note. I have these errant opening lines all over the place - I even have a special folder in my writing files just for “opening lines”. Often they're never more than that, but it does mean when the white-hot fire hits me I've got a way to capture it and try and tame it.
Which brings me back to where I came in. For me, the challenge is usually not identifying the idea, it's holding onto it long enough to make it into a story, when there is the lure of all these other, newer and hotter ideas vying for my attention. Having somewhere to store everything that comes in also allows me the freedom to put it out of the way so it doesn't distract me from what I'm supposed to be working on.
And as for “Fornits”… well you're just going to have to work that one out for yourself!
The Art of growing a thick skin - 15 April 2011
I've received my initial feedback from one of the readers who has received Bloodie Bones and I've now agreed with TLC who their reader will be.
To recap: I'm receiving a read from TLC as part of the mentoring scheme (Kindly sponsored byWriting East Midlands … just to give them another plug!) but I had concerns that they wouldn't be able to allocate a reader with experience of the horror genre and so through WEM I approached a horror writer (who I can reveal is Mark Morris ) who agree to provide feedback as well (For a fee…. so don't go drowning Mark in your manuscripts just because he's a good egg).
Mark has come back with his analysis and a suggestion we meet up to discuss his feedback in greater depth, which we'll be doing later this month. But in the interim I have his comments to look at, all seven pages of them.
So let's trot out one of the aphorisms about becoming a writer: that you need to develop a thick skin. It's hard to put your work out there and then read what someone else has to say about it. It's even harder when you read what they say and the little voice inside your head is going “Yup, thought that might crop up. Yup, reckoned you were gonna come unstuck there. Yup, I told you that was a problem.” (In case you're unaware, my internal voice appears to be an elderly gentleman from the deep south) .
Another deep breath.
I received the response from Mark and damned if I didn't recognised many of the points he raised as concerns I'd had but (and get this, because this is learning in action!) I hadn't had the courage or conviction to do face them. I'd buried my internal critic up to his neck in wet cement and then tried to pile another load of debris on top of him. And it worked. Well, it almost worked, there was still some wriggling (which is probably what spurred me on to be so adamant about the need for an opinion from someone within the genre) but I thought I'd done a fairly good job in burying the bodies. Reading Mark's analysis told me I was kidding no-one but myself, the bodies were still lying out on the freeway for everyone to witness.
I have to be honest, Mark's analysis was hard to read. Hard because it demonstrated where I am as a writer and where I need to be. Hard because I recognised it was true. And perhaps hardest because it challenges me to look at Bloodie Bones and consider whether the flaws I have been studiously ignoring are so fundamental that it renders the novel un-readable.
Now you see why that was a tough document to read, and why authors need a thick skin?
So how did I respond? I picked up my pen, edited some of the short stories that have been waiting patiently in the “to do” pile for the last few months, and wrote a new short story. And at some point soon, when I find the courage, I'll pick up Mark's feedback and read it again and again and again.
Literary Prize Winner! - 7 April 2011
With all the furore over the printing and submission of “Bloodie Bones” last week it completely slipped my mind to declare (in big letters, with a smattering of fireworks and a fanfare of trumpets)
I have won a literary award!
I hear you ask, “how could you forget to mention this?” I also hear you cry “but the Booker shortlist is announced in September and your name isn't on the BFS awards.” True. Very true.
My prize ladies and gentleman, was first place in a writing competition at my son's school! It looks a little like this:
(I also received a book voucher.)
Now I hope it doesn't come across that I am in any way belittling my prize - because that isn't the case. I was absolutely thrilled to win and I sat in the hall in one of those tiny seats that you sit on at parents' evening, and when my name was called I proudly went up to collect my award.
Which brings me onto where this post is going; Validation! It's very difficult to develop objectivity when writing - is it good? is it bad? is it brilliant? is it terrible? Quite often the stories that I have thought were my best work have been rejected by many publications, whilst stories I thought were just okay have been snapped up as soon as they reach the editor's hands.
It's for this reason that getting published (or winning an award!) is as much about the validation of what I have written as revelling in the financial rewards (although I will thoroughly enjoy spending the book tokens). Obviously it's also about raising my profile and getting the name “Richard Farren Barber” (Did you see what I did there? notch up another hit on the Google-ometer) more widely known and adding to the list of credits on my writing CV.
And for any of you out there wondering - no, I didn't win at the expense of some six year old who went home weeping and clutching their crumpled sheet of paper to their chest, there was a category for parents.
Baby steps, and more baby steps- 30 March 2011
I've just realised that in previous posts I often talk about these huge leaps I am taking: I started off in February last year with a leap of faith and finished my last blog talking about great leaps into the unknown . Apart from making it sound like I'm some moon-bound superhuman lolloping all over the place, it's not true. Writing isn't about great leaps (at least, not for me…) it's more about small steps. At the time they seem like momentous occasions but in hindsight it's just another couple of feet down the road that will (hopefully) one day lead to publication.
That said, some days those baby steps seem more significant than others. So last week I stood in my local print shop and watched as two copies of Bloodie Bones rolled off the presses (I didn't want to do it at home as I thought it might shake my poor printer to smithereens) and then packaged them up and sent them on their merry way through the postal system. (Now that's an expensive business… someone explain to me how the Royal Mail are losing money hand over fist when they charge that much?)
It would be a lie if I said I didn't feel any emotion - here's two years of my life (well, if you exclude the sleeping, eating, going to work, watching telly, reading etc….) rolling out of a machine. It's tangible proof that I have been sitting in the corner rocking to myself. Well, not all the time.
So they're gone, and I suppose I should feel relieved, and part of me does. But perhaps more than that I realise I now need to worry about what happens when the damned things come back. What if they don't like it? What if they hate it? What if they say perfectly healthy trees were unfairly put to death for this?
I am sure I could put the time before I get the feedback to good use, sitting in a corner rocking perchance? As it is I'm trying not to think about it and instead I'm typing up the novel I wrote just before I started edited Bloodie Bones (from the bad old days when I wrote everything out longhand… boy am I regretting hanging onto that trick for so long!) and finishing off a huge backlog of short stories that are nearly all *almost there*. So as usual there's lots to be going on with.
But those two copies of Bloodie Bones are out there… and one day they'll come back home.
What next? - 4 March 2011
…and now the end is near, and so I face, the final curtain… Or something like that.
Well, I've managed a year under the mentoring scheme (Or should that be that the mentoring scheme has managed a year with me?) and I've had the final session returned to me by Miranda. I thought this was an opportune moment to look at what happens next: Find an agent. Get a multi-million pound publishing deal. See the book published. Tour the United States on a Harley to promote “Bloodie Bones”. Attend The Booker prize awards and look shocked and yet grateful when they announce my name. Sit on the couch with Richard and Judy to discuss what my life was like “back in the day” when I was a struggling writing trying to hold down a job and write a book…
So the last stage of the mentoring scheme is that the whole book will be read by a different reader from TLC who will provide a full editorial assessment of Bloodie Bones. I've started discussions with TLC as I'm looking for a reader who has some familiarity with the genre - I think that's a plus, don't you? That said, I'm not holding my breath on that so at the same time, through Writing East Midlands (and if you've been paying attention you'll remember that they sponsored me on the mentoring scheme) I've been in contact with a published horror author and we've agreed a fee for him (now that narrows it down, eh!) to read through Bloodie Bones and give me feedback.
At the same time I now have half an eye (oh well, let's be honest, I may even be committing a whole eye to this, but just the one, mind you…) on what happens next. I'm hoping to go on a one day course called “ Selling your first novel ” (it seems relevant!) and when I have finished the next (last?) draft of Bloodie Bones I will start to research agents and publishers.
You remember that list of “writing tasks” I set out in my last post? Well I'm going to try to make some inroads into those (I made the mistake of putting them on my phone as a “to do list” so now they haunt me every day as I watch the deadlines roll past). I'm starting to think about the next “large” piece I'm going to write and because it's set at this time of year but I won't be able to put pen to paper on that project for another six+ weeks I've been taken photographs of the place where it's going to be set: all skeletal trees and moody shadows now but the spring buds will have ruined the atmosphere by May.
And lastly. I've been looking at my online profile. From now on all my “adult” oriented horror fiction will be published under the name Richard Farren Barber and I've been redesigning my website to reflect the mean and indeed moody nature of the work.
So that's where I am. On the cusp of another great leap into the unknown
A matter of balance - 15 February 2011
This is what I have on my writing plate at the moment:
Editing Bloodie Bones
Editing the following short stories: Sweets, Inside/out, Tag, The Watching Post, The Heart Stone, Retreat, SkyDogs, The Ballad of Pete Fanshaw
Submitting stories for publication
Finishing the short story I'm currently writing
Writing my section of the short story I'm collaborating on with Stuart
Typing up ‘The Ancestors' [my last novel, until last August I used to write long hand and then had to type everything up afterwards]
Building a new website
Writing blog entries
Writing a review of my experience on the mentoring scheme for Writing East Midlands (well, they did fund it!)
Researching potential agents and publishers
Outlining my next novel [tentative title: The Lost]
So, a fair amount.
One of the hardest things I find is having to keep all these plates spinning. I focus on editing Bloodie Bones and look up to find six months has passed, or I take a week out to edit a few short stories and at the end of the week they're still in my ‘to be edited' pile (although a little better than before)
Some of these are more pressing than others (for example, I don't have to start work on ‘The Lost' or type up ‘The Ancestors', in fact it's more about trying to hold those back)
All of this has to be achieved within the finite time I can grab for writing (although if I wanted to get morose we all have a finite time) and so one of the trickiest challenges is to balance the conflicting demands.
One of the things I've had to force myself to do is be more realistic about what I can achieve, and more disciplined. There's no point sweating over a website if there's nothing to put on it, and no real benefit to start on another short story if I still have all the others to edit.
I can't profess to having the answer, or being anything close to good at prioritising my writing life, but hopefully I'm improving. Some things help: I'm trying to set myself targets and reminders to make sure I submit to publishers, and I now have a phone which allows me to type up story ideas and blog entries on the go (no more scraps of paper littering the house). I think with so many of these things it's about being aware of what I need to work on.
Motivation - 25 January 2011
With session 6 on its way to Miranda I thought I'd take a moment out to consider another favourite topic. It's a tough gig, this writing game. You labour on a novel for years and, at least for me, I'm the back of my mind is the evil little voice saying ‘what's the point? A handful of agents might read the first page, some of them might even read all three chapters, but is anyone ever going to see more than that?' There are days when I think what I've written is fantastic, that it's going to set the horror genre alight. There are as many days when I think it's terrible and I should throw the whole thing in the bin. I suspect an objective truth is somewhere between those two extremes.
So, how do you keep going? How do I keep going? Short stories help, and they come with the added benefit that they usually supply a double high: you get the rush when you receive a positive response to a submission and learn it's been accepted, and then a second bite of the cherry when you actually hold the magazine in your hand. I had a good 2010… partly due to steadfast submissions last year before I started editing Bloodie Bones in earnest, but I've also picked up a few more acceptances later.
That keeps me going to a point, and certainly helps when things look bleak. But even short stories come at a cost: there are always more rejections than acceptances. I suppose the main thing that keeps me writing is that I have to write. If someone told me I would never have my book published and advised me to give up, would I take their advice? (Harlan Ellison take note). I couldn't. I may wind up thoroughly disturbed but I wouldn't be able to stop writing.
So, with that in mind, I suppose all I can do at this stage is pick up my pen and carry on, as Stephen King once said, there are always more stories…
Review of the Year - 3 January 2011
I couldn't get Miranda Hart or Jools Holland, and I know it's a bit late, but I thought it was worth doing a quick spin over 2010.
For me the highlight was probably the World Horror Convention. As well as meeting everyone who's anyone in the world of horror (Well, almost everyone…) I had the opportunity to read the first two chapters of “Bloodie Bones” to a captive audience.
Hot on the heels of that is probably my year's experience on the TLC mentoring scheme. Over the last twelve months I've worked closely with Miranda and as a process it's been educational and rewarding and there are many lessons I will take through to future projects.
Editing “Bloodie Bones” has been much longer and more convoluted than I had anticipated. Perhaps in part because it was such an old novel (I wrote it about ten years ago) and I've grown as a writer in the meantime I have essentially had to rewrite it completely.
I was shortlisted for the Brit Writers Awards, which at the time seemed like a momentus achievement (I'm less sure of that now…). Also, during the year I started my mailing list and two blogs (one for myself and one for Writing East Midlands) and then there have been the publications (drum roll please…)
Race – published in Morpheus Tales IX
Visiting - Published in Midnight Echo
An affair to remember - published in the Derby Evening Telegraph
Murden's Hollow - published in the House of Horror
Christmas Spirits - published in the Derby Evening Telegraph
with another 5 short stories accepted and in the pipeline for 2011. It is the best performance I've managed in a year to date.
So what happens next? My plans for 2011 are straightforward: finish editing “Bloodie Bones” in the first three months of the year and then try to get representation on the back of it. I have the outlines for the next two novels lined up (I just need to settle on which one to write first) and aim to beat my record of 5 short stories published in a year set in 2010.
I'm working on a revamp of the website which should be finished soon, which will also bring about a resolution to the current identity crisis. And that's about it.
Recurring Themes - 8 December 2010
I was going to write this about the selection for my next session (session 5 of 6) and then I realised I've written about that before, in fact it feels like I've written too often about the angst of what to cover. I started thinking instead about why it seems so important.
For me, perhaps the greatest lesson I'll take from the mentoring scheme so far is how to assess my own writing. I'm coming to terms with the idea that the elements of the story I most enjoy at the writing stage aren't necessarily the best. In fact, it's probably the case that these are the most dangerous because if I like a passage I'm less likely to be objective when it comes to editing it, so it's exactly these sections that are most likely to escape my red pen.
There's an adage in writing ( it seems to be full of them! ) that says ‘kill your babies' and I think this is exactly what it's warning about. Your babies are the work you're closest to, which makes it so much harder to see them when they aren't right. Or maybe I can see them, I just hate to lose them.
All of this is probably a long way around identifying that when I'm choosing what to send to Miranda for each session what I'm actually doing is trying to work out which of my babies to send to the slaughter, and that just selecting them is a tacit acknowledgement that I have already recognised their fate.
Research - 21 November 2010
I tend to be “research-lite” but one of the key pieces of feedback I've received from Miranda has been in respect of the need to make the location real. At this point I'm now regretting setting the novel in Yorkshire (where I don't live) and partly in the Medieval ages (where I have never lived!).
The subject of research is an interesting one - I tend to avoid research because of the tendency to feel, once I've spent all that time learning about something I'm going to make sure I get my money's worth in the story I'm writing… in which case the research leads the narrative rather than the characters. Now I think this is an excellent reason but it is not without its risks. One potential downside is that I'm busy writing away and when it comes to the end of the piece I can identify the assumptions I've made and check them and correct what I've got wrong - which is fine unless the assumption I've made is so core to the plot that I find without my assumption I've got a gaping bus-driving-through-the-middle sized hole in it.
The other reason I tend to leave my research until the end of the novel (or short story) is that this allows me to be very strategic. By the end of writing I have a good idea what I need to know… I'm not (for example) learning everything about the middle ages so I can use if if I need to. Instead I know I need to understand how English was spoken in Medieval England in the Yorkshire area; Methods of transport in Medieval times (How long it would take to get from town to town and how people would get large objects between the population centres); and lots more, but a very precise list. I'm sitting here typing this with a pile of Medieval England books at my elbow but I least I don't now feel I'm revising for a test.
So in some ways it's interesting, but not in the least surprising now someone has pointed it out to me, that I need to spend some time making my location breathe, and the way to do that.. plough through those books.
Who am I? - 6 October 2010
This may seem like an odd subject for a blog.. but bear with me!
I've recently been reading (in a Cemetery Dance article) about the need to establish your identity as a writer, in particular the need to have a name which can be recognised by your readers. For example, if I were to write a story under the pen name Stephen King there's a possibility that an editor might assume that they were corresponding with that Stephen King. Likewise a reader seeing the name might reasonably assume it is that Stephen King.
So as an author I have a duty, and a requirement, to be able to differentiate myself from any other Richard Barber who might be out there… At least my name isn't John Smith eh? That said, I'm not out of the woods yet.. because there is a “Richard Barber” who is already at large in the publishing world . He is a historian who specialises in Medieval history. (That does add an extra wrinkle as part of Bloodie Bones is set in Medieval times and another novel I've written concerns itself with the Arthurian Legends)
Given this do I need to adopt a pen name? I could add an initial in the middle (like Iain Banks/Iain M Banks , Tim Lebbon/TJ Lebbon or Michael Marshall Smith/Michael Marshall/MM Smith ) but I don't have a middle name. Maybe I could just pick an initial at random? Z is probably unlikely to come up with many duplicates!
But this raises another issue. I already have a body of work out there in the world and whilst I'm not challenging Stephen King for recognition just yet there is an issue in that they are published under my name. Do I just abandon all those stories? Do I try to create a link between the “old Richard Barber” and the “new Richard Z Barber”?
Maybe this would be the perfect moment to invent the time machine and go back and retrospectively select a “unique” name at the beginning of my publishing career and stick with that. (Things I would do differently if I started my writing career again.. oh, there's a whole blog's worth of stuff on that alone!) Fortunately, this is the opportune moment to consider this because on Saturday I'll be attending the “Industry Day” that is part of the mentoring scheme. Hopefully this will give me the opportunity to determine what I should do going forward and allow me to come back next week and answer the question with a sound claim: This is who I am!
Draft 5: Distance - 25 September 2010
I finished draft 4 of “Bloodie Bones” in August and left it to rest for a while. This allowed me to get on with a few other projects (short stories screaming to be written and a short children's novel) but more importantly it allowed me to put some distance between me and the work.. and that has paid dividends.
It's worth considering that there are some passages in Bloodie Bones that I've probably read 20 times by now (notably the first three chapters as I was preparing to read them at the World Horror Convention) so you would imagine they would be solid. Right? Wrong!
In the second paragraph of the first chapter I had a gate walking down the lane… instead of a person walking through the gate and then down the lane. Easily done and I should have picked it up much earlier than I did… but having the space to “forget” the novel and come to it afresh offered me a chance to read it in a way I haven't been able to do previously. Thankfully, there aren't too many examples of walking gates (they're not part of the plot… in this novel at least!) but it has allowed me to read the novel as a single “piece”, pick up on where I need to fix plot issues or pacing problems, and tighten the text.
Next steps? Session 4 has gone off to Miranda this week. At the moment I'm focusing on the final 20,000 words in the book (they seem kinda important…) and then in October I'm attending an “Industry Day” held by TLC for their mentees.
My action plan is to have another couple of drafts of Bloodie Bones completed in October/Novel so that I'm ready to start casting my net for agents/publishers just in time for those all important Christmas parties.
And… in case you're wondering about the gap between postings on this blog of late following my not-too-recent declaration to post weekly… whilst I was on holiday I managed to fracture my collar bone so my movements have been somewhat curtailed!
Half Term Report - 9 August 2010
I've been accepted onto a writing mentoring scheme by Writing East Midlands . Cue much jumping around and general bonhomie this month. My Mentor will be Miranda Miller and over the course of the year I'll be working on my redrafts of " Bloody Bones ".
As part of my mentoring I'm contributing to a blog about the writing and mentoring process . Please pop over and check it out. And whilst you're there, I've also started a blog on horror fiction to complement the mentoring blog. If I get a chance I'll find a way to pull the blog onto this website.
Also (busy times at Chez Barber) I will be reading at the World Horror Convention in March 2010. At the moment I'm scheduled to read in the reading cafe at 10.00am Sunday morning.