Category Archives: The Writing Process

The Best Writing Competition in Town

Terry Pratchett’s Anywhere But Here, Anywhen But Now prize has returned for a second year. If you’re writing a novel this is big news! That said, if you want to know more, the official competition page is damnably vague and confusing. But I think I’ve managed to glean the important parts and, to save you the headache it gave me, I’ve decided to share my thoughts here. I’m good like that.

The prize: pretty easy one this: a £20,000 advance against royalties and a publishing contract with Transworld Publishers. Definitely worth entering for.

The deadline: 31st December 2012. That one’s pretty easy too.

The requirements: an entry needs to be:

• a novel between 80,000 and 150,000 words;
• fantasy or science fiction. They aren’t looking for contemporary fiction;
• written by a resident of the UK, Republic of Ireland or British Commonwealth; sorry to anyone who isn’t!

The content: More difficult to determine. There’s a lot of guff in there about alternate Earths (I think that’s thrown in there to confuse people!) but it all seems to boil down to this: the story “must be theoretically possible on some version of the past, present or future of a planet Earth.” This is the muddiest part of the competition. After all, aren’t Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Star Wars all theoretically possible? The winners of last year’s competition are described as “A dazzling, tragi-comic tale of childhood wonder, time-travelling poets and theoretical physics” and ” a comedic tale of zombie animals overrunning the UK”. This one’s a judgement call, I’m afraid. Your guess is as good as mine.

The wrinkles: The conditions state that entrants “have not previously had a full length novel written or co authored by them (under any name) published under a valid ISBN”. This means:

• traditionally published authors aren’t allowed to play;
• indie authors who have published in print aren’t allowed to play either;
• indie authors who have published on the Kindle only are eligible as long as they didn’t purchase an ISBN for their work (as Amazon only don’t require one for Kindle publishing).

Anything I’ve missed or got wrong, please let me know. As soon as I’ve finished the first draft of my novel I’ll get started on a Pratchett Prize novel. Let me know if you are too!

5 More Tips For Writers

As the nation returns to work after all the bank holidays and such, this morning I too attempted to return to my morning habit of writing for an hour. Whilst I didn’t completely neglect my writing over the holidays, it has been stalling a lot. I’ve missed a lot of days, written little on the days I didn’t miss, and I seem to have been stuck in the 80,000s forever! So I hit the ground limping today, but I have learnt a few more lessons I’d like to share with anyone thinking of embarking on a life in writing:

1. You can’t write on an iPhone.

I’m sorry, you just can’t. The on-screen keyboard is a masterpiece, but it wasn’t designed for extended periods of typing. The only exception to writing on the phone is using a Bluetooth keyboard; that works fine. Which brings me to:

2. Documents To Go is not a Word replacement.

If you’re going to write on an iOS device, don’t use Documents To Go. It’s handy, oh yes, especially in conjunction with DropBox (which I recommend to all and sundry), but it has an annoying habit of “suggesting” words. Not in a predictive text kind of way. In a “I’m going to combine two separate words into one” kind of way. Which is very annoying. Or, according to Documents To Go, velveteen.

3. DropBox is brilliant.

If you’re writing on more than one machine, be it computer, tablet or smartphone, DropBox is indispensable. Drop a copy of your novel into your DropBox folder and it will upload to a secure online server which you can access from anywhere.

4. You can’t write in bed.

At least, not very well. Especially if it’s 6:00am and it’s cold outside and warm under the sheets and you’re sleepy and comfy and warm and what was I writing about again?

5. You need to write every day.

The observant amongst you will notice that I “learnt” this already. But I’ve relearnt it and it’s so true it’s worth repeating. Creativity is like a muscle; if you want it to be buff, you have to lift weights every day.

Now it’s time for my first January blues induced nap.

5 Ways To Tell When A Writer Is Working

We all know what a writer looks like when they’re working. We’ve seen the movies. They’re in a darkened room, hunched over a desk and illuminated only by their laptop. They type furiously into the night, fueled by caffeine and more, before falling asleep into a pile of books, glasses askew and hair carefully tousled.

But for those of us living in the real world, here’s a few ways to identify the writer at work.

1. They’re scribbling notes

Be warned. A writer always has a pad and pen. He’s barraged by ideas and needs to get them down before they disappear. So don’t be insulted if he starts writing in the middle of a conversation. And try not to think that he might be writing about you.

2. They’re staring into space

For most people this activity is the human equivalent of a screensaver. But for the mighty writer, this is work. They may have their feet up on the table whilst attempting to balance a pencil on their nose, or simply be staring out of the window, but this is the writer at work. Trust me. When their brain slips out of this world, it enters their fictional ones.

3. They’re reading

This applies to anything. Yes, including that box of cereal. Everything a writer reads is research. Learning the craft. Just as a painter examines different hues, so a writer examines different words. She’s looking to see how someone has combined them and to what effect, and thinking how she might do it differently. So please don’t interrupt her, even if it is only the adventures of Professor Weeto.

4. They’re writing

Obvious one, this. But it applies to anything, not just Writing with a big W. If they’re writing a letter or an email or a text, the writer is still practicing his art. That’s why we take so long to reply to your texts; we’re writing and rewriting it to make it perfect. It’s definitely not because we forgot about you…

5. They’re on social networking sites

It is so work! The Internet is awash with advice for authors and the word “platform” can probably be found in every single instance of it. So if they’re tweeting about traffic or reading a blog or commenting on a Facebook photo, they’re not wasting time like a mere mortal. They’re building their platform.

There are more signs by which to spot the wild writer, but I’m afraid I must go; it’s time to stare at a blank screen, write five words, stare some more before deleting them and swearing vociferously. That’s be sign number six, by the way.

Cryo’s Dune: Unlikely Inspirations

I think nearly every writer can point to a single book, film, comic or somesuch and say “that’s why I’m a writer”. It might not be the only cause, but it’s a primary cause. The blame falls mostly at its feet. Most writers seem to point to classics in their genre, be it Lord of the Rings for fantasy writers, Star Wars for science fiction writers, or anything by Stephen King for horror writers. I must come clean, though; my major inspiration is rather unusual.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is a masterpiece of science fiction, a piece of work that you can return to again and again and find something new each time. Dune packs in the power and danger of religion, the role of the figurehead, the influence we have on our environment and vice versa, undermines the hero’s journey as he takes it, and much more. It’s an epic book and it’s been hugely influential; without it we probably wouldn’t have Star Wars. It’s been a huge literary influence on me and I think everything I write, no matter how unrelated, probably contains in it a nod to Dune.

The truth is, though, that my inspiration lies not with the book, but with a lacklustre spin-off: Cryo’s Dune. An adventure/real-time-strategy video game that would make a PS3 owner gag (check out this short video to see the early 90s cutting edge graphics!), it’s based loosely on the novel but fails to encompass the themes, the drama, even the distinctive authorial voice. The gameplay is linear and the player simply clicks what the game tells him to click when it tells him to click it. It is, in short, not a good game. But it managed to incorporate the magic of Dune and I encountered it before the novel, so the faces and voices are what I see and hear when I read it.

Cryo’s Dune is my guilty pleasure and I replay it on a regular basis. I’m also a little embarrassed to say that I own the game soundtrack and listen to it even more regularly.

But as much as you may judge me for that, the truth is it led me directly to the book, which in turn led me to the greater world of science fiction and genre fiction as a whole. And so I owe it a debt for every SF book I’ve read, every fantasy film I’ve seen and pretty much every story I’ve ever written. Cryo’s Dune is the cause for it all.

Do you have an unlikely inspiration for your writing? Let me know in the comments. Don’t be shy; I’m sure it’s not as odd as mine!

What’s So Great About Rewrites?

NaNoWriMo came to an end yesterday and millions of writers have a 50,000 word manuscript in hand. Time to publish, right? Wrong. Everyone is currently screaming at NaNoWriMoers to rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. But why bother writing those 50,000 words if you just have to rewrite them all?

I’m currently reading a fascinating book called Heresies and How to Avoid Them. The book goes to great lengths to point out that ancient heresies still matter to modern Christianity because they define the faith. It’s much easier to see what Christianity is by looking at what it is not.

The same applies to writing. Every author will tell you that sometimes a novel feels like it writes itself, so even the author isn’t sure what they have when they put the pen down. More often than not, the first draft is written because it’s easier to work with a tangible thing than an intangible idea. Once the first draft is down, the author can identify the sections that sing, the sections that stink, and the sections that just don’t fit. In doing so, they identify what the novel is really about; by reading parts that aren’t right, it helps them figure out what is right.

It’s all too easy to dismiss the rewrites and the edits as pedantry, a hunt for spelling errors and brown eyes in chapter four that were blue in chapter one. But while it is those things, it’s also where the novel finds its identity and its voice. It’s where the hard work really begins.

It is, if you will, the Nicene Council of the novel.

5 Books a Writer Must Read

There’s plenty of books about writing out there, but it’s hard to tell which ones are any good. But trust me. If you’re a writer, you’re going to want to read these.

On Writing (Stephen King)

You don’t have to be a fan of King’s novels to enjoy this book. Part autobiography, part writing manual, this combines the art of the craft with the elements that went into forging that particular author. Parts of this book are still with me today; I can’t look at an adverb without wanting to reach for a red pen. Really.

The Creative Writing Coursebook (edited by Julia Bell and Paul Magrs)

The University of East Anglia’s creative writing course is incredibly competitive. For mere mortals, or perhaps those who just don’t want to wear a beret, this is the next best thing. Full of articles written by alumni, there’s a treasure trove of advice here. If you don’t like one article, you’ll probably like the next. Some of them are on the big things like editing. Some of them are on the little things like pockets.

Adventures in the Dream Trade (Neil Gaiman, edited by Tony Lewis and Priscilla Olson)

This one is a little hard to get hold of but is worth it for the reproduction of Gaiman’s blog, written as American Gods went from manuscript to shelf. It’s a fascinating insight into a world of proofs, meetings, proofs, editorial processes, proofs and cover designs. If you can’t find the book, you can read the archived blog on Gaiman’s website.

Elements of Style (William Strunk Jr., E. B. White)

Short and to the point, this book will clarify common grammatical and stylistic mistakes in writing. Is it James’ or James’s? Is there a comma after two in a list of one, two or three items? Very much a reference guide, but worth reading cover to cover at least once.

Characters and Viewpoint (Elements of Fiction Writing) (Orson Scott Card)

Reading this book will encourage you to create your characters in much greater detail and depth. It will also help you properly identify the benefits and disadvantages in the different viewpoints of your characters and help you decide which ones to use and when. Card writes in an easy style with lots of practical examples, making a potentially thick and intimidating book simple to read. Applying the lessons, though, will take practice.

Any you feel I’ve left out?

Self-Publishing Isn’t a Dirty Word Anymore

When I was younger and full of my aspirations to be a published author (and writing a truly epic space opera that turned out to be rubbish) I read a lot of “how to write a novel” books. (Incidentally, you never grow out of this habit; I am forever reading interviews with authors about their writing processes and I am still slightly obsessed with the Guardian’s Writer’s Rooms series.) These used to all say the same thing:

Self-publishing is not an option.

Of course, back then, “self-publishing” and “vanity publishing” were interchangeable terms. Either referred to the idea of paying a company to print your book which you would then sell yourself. This selling could not take place in any bookshops and there was no Internet. It was generally accepted that this was a bad idea.

But the Internet has changed many things and the publishing industry is one of them. Print on demand (POD) companies like Lulu, Lightening Source and Createspace have sprung up which will print your books and ship them to you or to an online distributor such as Amazon. There are some small setup fees, but because they’re print on demand the author doesn’t need to purchase bulk orders of their book and then hope to shift them. The customer orders a book, the company prints it and passes the profit onto the author.

That’s not to forget the ebook revolution. This cuts out even the PODs by allowing you to offer your digital download directly or via Amazon. There’s no printing costs involved so, despite what the traditional publishers may suggest, you can sell an ebook for a lot less than a physical book and therefore entice more readers.

There’s a lot more work involved in the self-publishing option. Remember the traditional route to publication? Self-publishing cuts out the agent, the editor and the publisher. That means you have to edit, format and design the book yourself. And, of course, those guys take on the upfront cost; the self-publishing author has to pay that themselves. But, of course, by cutting these guys out they get more of the profit.

But is it worth it? Well, it’s certainly a viable alternative. Amanda Hocking is the breakout success of 21st century self-publishing; so successful she could quit her job and landed a contract with a traditional publisher.

Looks like self-publishing is no longer to be sniffed at.

From Pen to Shelf; How Books Get Published

One of the most difficult questions I’ve been asked about writing is “how do books get published anyway?” It’s difficult because it’s such a loaded question, with warring elements such as quality and luck. But, for the interested, here’s a quick summary of the process.

First you write the book. Sounds obvious, but some people do think is optional. They think they can have a great idea and a publisher will pay someone else to write it but put your name on it. They don’t. Write the damn thing yourself.

Then you find an agent. The author sends out queries to agents who represent the sort of novel they’ve written. A query is a letter and a short sample of the novel, sometimes a blurb (the text you get on the back cover). If they like it, they’ll ask for the whole thing. If they still like it, they’ll take the author on. This is not a fast process. A novel can sit on an agent’s desk for months. This isn’t slovenly on the agents part; literary agents can receive 1200 submissions a month.

The author’s shiny new agent then approaches the publishers. If there are any interested, the agent earns his/her 10% on the author’s earnings by wrangling the best contract they can. These earnings usually consist of a lump sum called an advance and royalties once enough copies have been sold to “pay off” that advance. Michael Cox reportedly bagged a record £500,000 advance for his first novel. The average is more like £5,000.

Once accepted, the novel gets an editor. The editor will begin making suggestions to the author. There are horror stories of editors and/or agents demanding the removal of gay characters, but their interest is to make the most saleable novel possible. There will also be numerous rounds of proofs to check before publication. This process is not short; it can take a year or two.

Then it hits the shelves! Don’t worry, the work isn’t over. Because the author is an unknown, the publisher will not sink a lot of money into promotion, so the author will need to get out there and tell the world about their brand new novel. They’ll also, of course, he working in their second (or perhaps, by that time, third or fourth)!

Of course, this is the traditional route to publishing. As always, there’s other ways to getting a novel out there. But we’ll come to that next time.

But is it Na-No-Rye-Mo or Na-No-Ree-Mo?

Ever wondered what NaNoWriMo is? Wonder no more; it’s National Novel Writing Month. The premise is beautifully simple: between 1st November and 30th November, participants write a 50,000 word novel. The prize is even more simple: you’ve written a 50,000 word novel!

I’m tempted to participate in NaMoWriMo every year. It’s the sort of mad, arduous, sleep-depriving task that sounds torturously fun. It conjures images of the romantic bookish hero falling asleep at a table of books, glasses askew under the light of the laptop. Alas this image is cruelly ruined by reality, Red Bull and the fact that I don’t wear glasses.

The truth, of course, is far less Hollywood. NaNoWriMo would require you to write 1600 words a day. That’s not a small amount. It also requires you to realise that you haven’t got a finished novel at the end of it; you have a first draft. What you’ve written would need a lot of work to become something worth reading. So what’s the point of NaNoWriMo?

It’s an excuse! That seems to be the best use of it in my opinion. It’s an arbitrary deadline set in order to just start the bloody novel. Starting is a Herculean task, and any and all props must be used. There’s also a huge community of others in the same boat as you, egging you on and ready to pick you up when you start to flag.

Having already started writing my first novel (and being about halfway through it), I obviously won’t be participating this year. But perhaps one year I’ll buy myself a pair of glasses, pop them on my face and see if I can’t fall asleep at my desk.

Of course, I’ll have to ask my girlfriend not to wake me. After all, we wouldn’t want to ruin it.

Begun-ings

So I’ve been writing for five days now and it’s going well. And by “well” I mean “words are being typed onto a screen.” I try to avoid looking at and thinking about what I’ve already written. I don’t want to start second-guessing and doubting myself. This is a first draft, and the only measure of success for the first draft is being complete and in existence. Measuring its quality is for the editing process.

To that end, I don’t intend to bore people with word counts or maddeningly vague progress updates. I don’t think that will interest anyone. I more intend to share any pitfalls and successes, the foibles of the process, and the inspirations and things that got left behind.

Or would you prefer to hear that today I wrote a thousand words, didn’t like any of them and that I’ve now introduced three of the main characters? Let me know.